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The Goods of the Church at Work, Elsewhere

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jul 11, 2007

In a most interesting series of questions and answers issued yesterday, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith attempted to clarify Vatican II’s teaching on the nature of the Church of Christ, and its identity with the Catholic Church. This was deemed necessary because of continual confusion over what Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium meant by saying that the Church of Christ “subsists in” the Catholic Church.

The Problem of Subsistence

I first read the paragraph in question late in 1967 or early in 1968 (I was sixteen when the document was issued in 1964), and I can still remember consulting several dictionaries, as well as studying the context, to gradually get at the meaning intended by the Council Fathers. But now no one needs to struggle. Before continuing, see Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine on the Church for the complete text of the CDF’s clarification, which is brief and to the point.

The problem, of course, is that many have wondered why Vatican II didn’t just say that the Church of Christ is the Catholic Church. Some of these, no doubt citing the “spirit” of Vatican II, have declared that the phrase “subsists in” was a way of jettisoning traditional teaching about the nature of the Church. The clarification addresses this from several angles and, in doing so, explains the choice of the expression “subsists in” as follows:

The use of this expression, which indicates the full identity of the Church of Christ with the Catholic Church, does not change the doctrine on the Church. Rather, it comes from and brings out more clearly the fact that there are "numerous elements of sanctification and of truth" which are found outside her structure, but which "as gifts properly belonging to the Church of Christ, impel towards Catholic Unity".

A further elaboration may help drive this point home. Essentially, the Church teaches, and has always taught, that the Church of Christ is fully present only in the Catholic Church, and truly identifiable only with the Catholic Church, but that: (1) Some of the various goods characteristic of Christ's Church, while properly belonging only to the Catholic Church, are also found at work elsewhere, scattered among other bodies; and (2) Some persons who are beyond visible, juridical membership in the Catholic Church can, by virtue of these operative goods (including the action of the Holy Spirit), actually be joined to the Catholic Church in a mysterious way.

A Few Examples

To take but one critical example, a moment’s reflection will reveal that the sacrament of baptism is one of these spiritual goods instituted by Christ in His Church, which is now scattered outside the Catholic Church, where it still bears good fruit and impels toward Catholic unity. Many non-Catholic Christians have valid baptisms, and insofar as anyone is validly baptized, he is (as we might say) “baptized Catholic”. There is, after all, but “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Eph 4:5). Another of these “scattered” goods, properly belonging only to the Catholic Church, is Sacred Scripture, which is available worldwide, both within and outside of particular Christian bodies.

In the same way, persons can be joined to the Catholic Church in various partial or imperfect ways without being formal or juridical members. Presumably, anyone who has been baptized but has not rather specifically repudiated the Catholic Church is so joined in some partial and mysterious way. And even before Vatican II, we knew from the teaching of Pius XII that anyone who seriously seeks to know and do the good can be “ordered to the Church by a certain desire and wish of which he is not aware” (inscio quodam desiderio ac voto) and so, though without the fullness of Catholic certainty, he may attain salvation (Mystici Corporis Christi, No. 103). Vatican II clarified and elaborated this teaching.

These concepts are ecclesiologically very important, and have been the subject of rich study and magisterial explication especially over the past sixty years or so. The Church has never taught that one must be a formal, juridical member to be saved, but only that one cannot be saved if one is altogether “outside”, that is, wholly disconnected or unrelated. In addition to the detailed teachings on this point in the modern period, some very old teachings speak of the possibility of being “joined” to the Church in some way, without specifying formal membership. (It is vexing to me, and a weakness in this essay, that many years ago I had a few of these older teachings in a file, which I have since lost. Thus, as we grow older, do we more frequently remember that there are things we once knew!)

Errors on All Sides

In fact, the whole question of the role of the Church in salvation has been often misunderstood through preconceptions about what various expressions “obviously mean”, with too little attention to what the words actually say. On one side, “Extra ecclesiam, nulla salus” (outside the Church there is no salvation) is a case in point. The Feeneyites and some other Traditionalist groups erroneously insist that this means one must be a formal member of the visible Church to be saved. Worse still, many Catholics assume that this is what the Church used to teach, but that she has since changed her mind, and now it simply doesn’t matter. Neither assertion is accurate.

On the other hand, misinterpretations of Vatican II have been just as bad. I have already alluded to those who have wished to see in the phrase “subsists in” a meaning which is not there, namely that the Church of Christ is really present and working equally everywhere, with Catholicism only one of the many forms taken by Our Lord’s salvific work. Or perhaps they have profoundly not wished to see this meaning, but have erroneously believed it was there, and so, for this and other equally specious reasons, have ended by rejecting the Council altogether, or by explaining it away.

Whatever excuse there may have been for misunderstanding in the past, there can be no excuse now. The keys to understanding things properly are in the clarification issued by the CDF.

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