Catholic Culture Dedication
Catholic Culture Dedication

Once again, the 'Church' controversy

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Nov 05, 2009

Bear with me, please, through this first sentence: In today’s news we find the North American Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation (NAOCTC) criticizing the work of the Joint International Commission for the Theological Dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church, as represented by the latter's statement in 2007, usually called the “Ravenna Document” (see story). The controversy centers on a footnote in the Ravenna Document which indicated, essentially, that both the Orthodox and the Catholic churches regard themselves as the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church in an exclusivist sense.

The NAOCTC disagrees, arguing that over the centuries there have been significant currents of Orthodox ecclesiology which “have recognized the presence of the Church’s reality outside the canonical, visible boundaries of the Orthodox Church.” Moreover, the NAOCTC asserts, Catholic ecclesiology posits much the same thing: “Because of apostolic succession and the Eucharist, Vatican II did not hesitate to recognize that the Orthodox constitute ‘Churches’ (Unitatis Redintegratio, 14), that they are ‘sister Churches,’ and to assert that in their celebration of the Eucharist, the Church of God is being built up and growing.”

I can’t speak for “significant currents of Orthodox ecclesiology”, but I can clarify the matter on the Catholic side. The confusion arises from a misunderstanding of the following fundamental ecclesiological insight of the Second Vatican Council:

Moreover, some and even very many of the significant elements and endowments which together go to build up and give life to the Church itself, can exist outside the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church: the written word of God; the life of grace; faith, hope and charity, with the other interior gifts of the Holy Spirit; and visible elements too. All of these, which come from Christ and lead back to Christ, belong by right to the one Church of Christ. (Unitatis Redintegratio, 3)

When we add to this that Catholic teaching accords the name of “church” to the Eastern churches, though it does not accord it to Protestant denominations, it is possible to suppose that Catholic teaching regards the Orthodox (like itself) as the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church of the Nicene Creed, whereas it regards Protestants as simply exhibiting some elements of the Church without constituting a church at all. As I say, this supposition is possible, but it is also erroneous. In fact, errors on this and other points related to the ecclesiology enunciated at Vatican II and in subsequent magisterial documents had grown so widespread by the 21st century that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith felt it necessary to issue some clarifications in July of 2007. (The Ravenna Document was released later the same year, in November.)

In response to the question of why the word “church” was used by Vatican II to describe the Orthodox, the CDF stated that the Council wished to use this term because it is the traditional terminology, and explained it as follows (all quotes in the response are from Unitatis Redintegratio, Vatican II's Decree on Ecumenism, numbers 14-15):

“Because these Churches, although separated, have true sacraments and above all – because of the apostolic succession – the priesthood and the Eucharist, by means of which they remain linked to us by very close bonds”, they merit the title of “particular or local Churches”, and are called sister Churches of the particular Catholic Churches. “It is through the celebration of the Eucharist of the Lord in each of these Churches that the Church of God is built up and grows in stature”. However, since communion with the Catholic Church, the visible head of which is the Bishop of Rome and the Successor of Peter, is not some external complement to a particular Church but rather one of its internal constitutive principles, these venerable Christian communities lack something in their condition as particular churches. On the other hand, because of the division between Christians, the fullness of universality, which is proper to the Church governed by the Successor of Peter and the Bishops in communion with him, is not fully realised in history. (See full text with notes.)

In other words, to put it in layman’s terms, the footnote in the Ravenna Document appears to have the Catholic understanding right (as our Catholic World News story suggests in the last paragraph). The Eastern Churches do indeed meet the definition of what it means to be a church, and they certainly have a great many of the elements of the one, holy, catholic, apostolic church referred to in the Nicene Creed, all of which elements invariably work to build up the one Church wherever they are found. But the Eastern Churches are not in fact the one, holy, catholic, apostolic church, because they are severed from her by schism. Thus they have a very serious defect in both both oneness and catholicity (that is, they lack unity and universality).

But the the Catholic Church is the one, holy, catholic, apostolic church. In contemporary Catholic ecclesiology, we express this by affirming that the Church of Christ actually subsists in the Catholic Church, even though some of the elements or goods of the Church may also be found, through various accidents of history, outside of her visible boundaries (where, again, they work for good, produce grace, and—in themselves—tend toward unity). The Catholic Church is always one, complete, full and universal by virtue of her Petrine office, though of course this fullness remains imperfectly manifested in history as long as divisions exist.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

Sound Off! supporters weigh in.

All comments are moderated. To lighten our editing burden, only current donors are allowed to Sound Off. If you are a current donor, log in to see the comment form; otherwise please support our work, and Sound Off!

Show 2 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: extremeCatholic - Nov. 07, 2009 10:21 PM ET USA

    The current confusion was a seed planted by the council fathers of Vatican II who consciously chose "subsists in" as opposed to the word which had been used since the first century of Christianity -- "is". If and when I get to heaven, the Holy Spirit will explain it all to me.

  • Posted by: jeremiahjj - Nov. 06, 2009 9:26 PM ET USA

    Dr. Mirus' statement that "the Eastern Churches are not ... the one, holy, catholic, apostolic church because they are severed from her by schism ..." applies to all Protestant churches. In the case of Eastern churches, the branch was cut from the vine in 1054, although apostolic succession and the Eucharist remained. Martin Luther, Henry VIII, John Calvin, etc., cut themselves off centuries later, although Anglicans now have a way to come back home again.