"Credo in unam...Ecclesiam"

Well, quite fittingly, after the past few discussions of the Catholic Creed another related topic has been brought to my attention. A few days ago, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (i.e. the Vatican office formerly headed by the current Pope Benedict XVI, which takes upon itself the defense and explanation of Catholic doctrinal proclamations) issued a letter of instruction on the use of the word 'Church.' Unfortunately, like most Vatican statements this one has also been terribly misinterpreted by the popular media, who propose that the Catholic Church intends to discontinue its prayer for Christian unity. Associated Press writer Nicole Winfield's article, "Pope: Other Christians Not True Churches," does nothing to foster a genuine understanding of the Vatican's statement: "The statement brought swift criticism from Protestant leaders," she writes at the beginning of her story. "'It makes us question whether we are indeed praying together for Christian unity,' said the World Alliance of Reformed Churches." Only later -- paragraphs later -- does she go on to explain more objectively the meaning of the document. But, alas, this blog post is not a commentary on journalistic bias. Let's focus on the reality of the Holy Father's teaching.

The document, entitled "Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine on the Church" (talk about a catchy title, eh?), is structured in a Q&A style. The overarching theme is the claim that "the Church of Christ subsists in the Catholic Church." That's about as much as most people need to read to form an opinion. However, a truly fair read of anything -- from Church documents to the ever-popular Harry Potter series -- requires a full read. Here is the given explanation for this claim:

"Christ 'established here on earth' only one Church and instituted it as a 'visible and spiritual community,' that from its beginning and throughout the centuries has always existed and will always exist, and in which alone are found all the elements that Christ himself instituted. 'This one Church of Christ, which we confess in the Creed as one, holy, catholic and apostolic […]. This Church, constituted and organised in this world as a society, subsists in the Catholic Church, governed by the successor of Peter and the Bishops in communion with him."

"It is possible, according to Catholic doctrine, to affirm correctly that the Church of Christ is present and operative in the churches and ecclesial Communities not yet fully in communion with the Catholic Church, on account of the elements of sanctification and truth that are present in them. Nevertheless, the word 'subsists' can only be attributed to the Catholic Church alone precisely because it refers to the mark of unity that we profess in the symbols of the faith (I believe... in the 'one' Church); and this 'one' Church subsists in the Catholic Church."

Although I could hardly state it more precisely (that's why they have their jobs and I don't), I can hopefully provide a little more explanation in common terms. Essentially, the synopsis of all that theological lingo might be this: Jesus Christ established one Church (Mt 16:18), which we as Catholics believe is carried on in the teaching of the popes and bishops. Although Christians currently do not share the same unified belief as the Apostles, nevertheless Jesus Christ is still active in the hearts of all who follow him to some degree. Thus, while we believe that Christ is found most fully in the Catholic Church ('subsists'), he is also found in other Christian denominations and gatherings insofar as he moves them toward the transforming conversion of heart that we all need and ought to desire so strongly. Far from moving away from ecumenical dialogue, this very document reiterates even more strongly the urgent need for Christian unity. Through prayer and enlightened discourse, there is no doubt that some day the Lord's prayer of Christian unity (Jn 17:21) will be actualized, and that some day we might all together share the glory of the beatific vision in heaven.

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    # by Lauren P. - July 12, 2007 at 4:39 PM

    Hi, Andrew--just fell across your link to your blog today.
    Great post. I am thoroughly enjoying a great Church History class and this document fits right in. It is interesting that in all of the heresies/schisms of the early centuries, none of them ever thought they were forming a 'new' church. They knew that was impossible: the Church is One and unified. This "all truths are equal" or "it doesn't matter what church you are in, as long as it feels right to you" stuff would be absolutely crazy until only a few (like, two or three) centuries ago.