Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Church of Christ "subsists in the catholic Church"

Vatican II's Lumen Gentium 8 says:

This is the one Church of Christ which in the Creed is professed as one, holy, catholic and apostolic, which our Saviour, after His Resurrection, commissioned Peter to shepherd, and him and the other Apostles to extend and direct with authority, which He erected for all ages as "the pillar and mainstay of the truth". This Church constituted and organized in the world as a society, subsists in the catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him, although many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside of its visible structure. These elements, as gifts belonging to the Church of Christ, are forces impelling toward catholic unity.
(I changed the capitalization to match the Latin.) Much discussion has been expended on the claim that the Church in the world "subsists in" the Catholic Church. Some interpreters took this as a weakening of the traditional teaching that the Church of Christ is the Catholic Church. On this reading, the Church of Christ is a larger entity, and the Catholic Church is a part of it. A fairly recent Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) statement states that "subsists in" indicates "full identity".

I want to argue that the CDF is right on textual grounds (though the CDF is presumably also drawing on non-textual information about the intentions of the Council Fathers).

What does the mysterious phrase "subsists in" mean? Here we have to remember that at the time of Vatican II, the lingua franca of Catholic thought was Thomism. Even those who did not philosophically or theologically agree with St. Thomas would use thomistic vocabulary to express their views. The phrase "subsists in" is a scholastic phrase that Aquinas uses a number of times. Here are the claims I've found in my search of a lot of Aquinas' works (admittedly in English, but I am trusting the translators):

  • God subsists in his essence
  • The divine understanding subsists in itself
  • The essence of the Father subsists in the Son
  • Human beings subsist in their essences
  • Christ subsists both in a human and a divine nature
  • Things subsist in their being
  • A substance subsists in its species
  • The form of the angel or the separated soul subsists in the being
The first thing to note is that "subsists in" is linguistically compatible with identity; the divine understanding subsists in itself, and it is Aquinas' doctrine that God is identical with his essence. Most of Aquinas' uses of the phrase state the relationship between an entity and its essence or existence. A thing exists in and through its essence and existence, deriving its essential operations from that essence, and, except in the case of God, is wholly dependent on that essence and existence, incapable of existing apart from it. So, it seems, the Council is saying that the Chruch of Christ is either identical with the Catholic Church or exists in and through the Catholic Church, wholly dependent on the Catholic Church, incapable of existing apart, and deriving its essential operations from the Catholic Church, not as one thing from another, but as a human derives intellectuality from being human.

The phrase, thus, is compatible with identity as well with a very intimate relationship that isn't quite identity. We need to turn to context now. First, take the paragraph as a whole. The first sentence says that the "one Church of Christ" is "one, holy, catholic and apostolic". To read the text as saying that the Church of Christ is not identical with the Catholic Church is to attribute to the text the absurdity of saying that the "one, holy, catholic and apostolic" Church is not the catholic Church. One might try to distinguish between "catholic" in the sense of "universal" and "catholic" in a sense that indicates the Roman Catholic Church, but the text makes no such distinction, and it is fair to assume that the same word is used in the same sense in the same paragraph.

Next, take the phrase "although many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside of its visible structure", which elements are described as "gifts belonging to the Church of Christ". This text, I think, does not fit well with the idea that the Church of Christ is the larger entity that includes the Catholic Church as a part of it. For if the Church of Christ were the larger entity, there would be no need to emphasize that the elements of sanctification and truth (I assume these are the many true and good things found in non-Catholic congregations) do in fact belong to the Church of Christ.

Moreover, the preceding paragraph introduced a distinction between the Church as a "society structured with hierarchical organs" and the "mystical Body of Christ", which two natures it says are not separate but form a complex entity, and are like the two natures of the incarnate Christ. The "society structured with hierarchical organs" surely is the Catholic Church. It cannot refer to some alleged larger Church of Christ that includes Protestants, since Protestants do not have hierarchical organs as Lumen Gentium understands them (Lumen Gentium understands the hierarchy as constituted primarily by the Pope and Bishops). But at the same time, this discussion of the Church as a structured society surely is the same entity as the Church of Christ "constituted and organized in the world as a society". Lumen Gentium's overall understanding of organic structure is hierarchical: the Pope is the principle of organic unity, and from him proceeds the unity of the Bishops.

So, the context leads us to accept that in the thought of Lumen Gentium the Church of Christ is the Catholic Church. But why, then, the use of "subsists in"? Here is a suggestion that may be completely wrong: Some of the operations of the Catholic Church (e.g., the sacrament of baptism) extend beyond the Catholic Church. Yet they always are the operations of the Church of Christ, and derive their efficacy from Christ's promises to the Catholic Church. It is not that the Church of Christ extends beyond the Catholic Church, but the operations of the Church of Christ do. And the use of "subsists in" makes possible such a distinction. This fits with the CDF's explanation, I think.


Ap said...

I like your proposal! I think it fits nicely with the scholastic understanding of subsistence. Jacques Maritain noted that subsistence is the ontological foundation of personality. The Church of Christ is a Person. There may be a presence of this person in other churches or ecclesial communities, but those churches and ecclesial communities do not act in the person of the Church.

Alexander R Pruss said...

That is interesting. It would be worthwhile developing the analogy in greater detail. The person subsists in the essence as well as in the existence. What, then, does the Catholic Church correspond to? The essence? The existence?

Anonymous said...

Apolonio, how is the "Church of Christ a person"?

Because she is the Bride of Christ?
Because the Church is Christ Himself?

I can definitely see some signs of personification are part of our best descriptions of the Church, but I feel the statement that "The Church of Christ is a Person" is perhaps excessive or unfounded.

I would like to hear where you base this statement, so I can think about this (interesting) line of thought.



Ap said...


Henri de Lubac's Splendor of the Church, the chapter on Mystical Body of Christ is good.

Jacques Maritain's On the Church of Christ

John Paul the Great also speaks of the Church as a collective subject but I don't remember which encyclical exactly.

Finally, there is Hans Urs von Balthasar's work on this. Explorations in Theology vol. 2 has a chapter called "Who is the Church?" Balthasar is well known for speaking of the Church as a theological person.

It's pretty obvious to me that we can speak of the Church as a person since we speak of her soul and body, the Spirit being the soul of the Church (Leo XII, Augustine, etc) and the Church as the body of Christ. And since Mary is the prototype of the Church and Mary is a person...etc.

Anonymous said...

Maybe the Church describes itself figuratively when it describes itself a person. The Bible teaches that Church, i.e., the One Holy, Catholic, Apostolic Roman Church, is both Christ's bride and his Mystical Body. To say that the Catholic Church is Christ's bride is to say that it is, at least figuratively, female, since each bride female. To say that the Catholic Church is Christ's Mystical Body is to say, at least figuratively, that it is a male body, since Our Lord is male. But I know of no male human being who has a fully female body, and no orthodox Catholic would tell you, literally or figuratively, that the Catholic Church is hermaphroditic.