Central Role of the Catholic Church

Vatican, Jul. 10, 2007 (CWNews.com) – The Vatican has issued a new doctrinal statement confirming the essential role of the Catholic Church in God’s plan for salvation.

The short document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), presented in question-and-answer format, addresses questions about the teaching of the Second Vatican Council that the Church founded by Jesus Christ “subsists” in the Catholic Church.

The CDF affirms that while other Christian bodies can play a role in bringing people to salvation, it is in the Catholic Church that “the Church of Christ is concretely found on this earth.” The Vatican document makes a further distinction between Orthodox churches that have preserved valid sacraments, and should be recognized as “sister churches,” and Protestant groups that have not preserved the Eucharistic presence.

The document, entitled “Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine on the Church,” is approved by Pope Benedict XVI (bio – news) and signed by Cardinal William Levada and Archbishop Angelo Amato, the prefect and secretary, respectively, of the CDF.

The full text of the document is available on the Vatican web site. (Scroll down for the English-language version.)

The document opens with the observation that the teachings of Vatican II “contributed in a decisive way to the renewal of Catholic ecclesiology.” The teachings of the Council encouraged still further reflection on the nature of the Church, the CDF notes. However, in some cases these reflections have been marred by “erroneous interpretation which in turn give rise to confusion and doubt” about the Church’s teaching.

In the first of 5 questions posed and answered, the CDF document asks, “Did the Second Vatican Council change the Catholic doctrine on the Church?” The answer begins with a straightforward statement: “The Second Vatican Council neither changed nor intended to change this doctrine, rather it developed, deepened and more fully explained it.”

Questions #2 and #3 address the teaching of the conciliar document Lumen Gentium (doc) (#8) that the Church of Christ “subsists” in the Catholic Church. The CDF document explains: “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, only the Catholic Church is characterized by identifying marks of Christ’s Church: being one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.

The Christian communities separated from the Catholic Church, the CDF continues, “though we believe they suffer from defects, are deprived neither of significance nor importance in the mystery of salvation.” These communities can act as instruments of salvation, because of their partial participation in “that fullness of grace and of truth which has been entrusted to the Catholic Church.”

In the 4th and 5th questions that complete the document, the CDF draws a clear distinction between the Orthodox and Protestant denominations. The Eastern churches, the document notes, “have true sacraments and above all – because of the apostolic succession – the priesthood and the Eucharist.” They are therefore sister churches, even if they fall short of universality because of their separation from the Holy See.

The Protestant communities, on the other hand, “do not enjoy apostolic succession in the sacrament of Orders.” Because these communities “have not preserved the genuine and integral substance of the Eucharistic Mystery,” the CDF writes, they “cannot, according to Catholic doctrine, be called “churches” in the proper sense.



In this document, the Pope has reiterated what the Church has always taught.

Furthermore, it is not true, as people are suggesting, that Pope Benedict is a “hardliner” while John Paul II was more of a softy. Back in 2000 and with John Paul II’s full ecclesiastical authority as Pope, the then Cardinal Ratzinger issued Dominus Iesus which stated:

17. Therefore, there exists a single Church of Christ, which subsists in the Catholic Church, governed by the Successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him.58 The Churches which, while not existing in perfect communion with the Catholic Church, remain united to her by means of the closest bonds, that is, by apostolic succession and a valid Eucharist, are true particular Churches.59 Therefore, the Church of Christ is present and operative also in these Churches, even though they lack full communion with the Catholic Church, since they do not accept the Catholic doctrine of the Primacy, which, according to the will of God, the Bishop of Rome objectively has and exercises over the entire Church.60

On the other hand, the ecclesial communities which have not preserved the valid Episcopate and the genuine and integral substance of the Eucharistic mystery,61 are not Churches in the proper sense; however, those who are baptized in these communities are, by Baptism, incorporated in Christ and thus are in a certain communion, albeit imperfect, with the Church.62 Baptism in fact tends per se toward the full development of life in Christ, through the integral profession of faith, the Eucharist, and full communion in the Church.63

“The Christian faithful are therefore not permitted to imagine that the Church of Christ is nothing more than a collection — divided, yet in some way one — of Churches and ecclesial communities; nor are they free to hold that today the Church of Christ nowhere really exists, and must be considered only as a goal which all Churches and ecclesial communities must strive to reach”.64 In fact, “the elements of this already-given Church exist, joined together in their fullness in the Catholic Church and, without this fullness, in the other communities”.65

“Therefore, these separated Churches and communities as such, though we believe they suffer from defects, have by no means been deprived of significance and importance in the mystery of salvation. For the spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them as means of salvation which derive their efficacy from the very fullness of grace and truth entrusted to the Catholic Church”.66

The Sovereign Pontiff John Paul II, at the Audience of June 16, 2000, granted to the undersigned Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, with sure knowledge and by his apostolic authority, ratified and confirmed this Declaration, adopted in Plenary Session and ordered its publication.

Rome, from the Offices of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, August 6, 2000, the Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord.

Joseph Card. Ratzinger Prefect
Tarcisio Bertone, S.D.B., Archbishop Emeritus of Vercelli, Secretary

This declaration would have never been an issue with a logical or theologically literate culture. The fact that certain people are upset with the declaration, only exposes their own internal contradictions. No offense should be taken from the declaration itself, unless of course, there is an offense taken at the claims of the Catholic Church – which is another issue entirely.

The Catholic Church defines “church” in a way that is completely unacceptable to protestants, generally speaking. So there should be no surprise that, objectively speaking, the magisterium of the Church sees their position as “defective”. This is equally true of honest protestant leaders and theologians who regard the Catholic Church’s ecclesiology and other doctrinal beliefs as erroneous.

A large part of the confusion is that we are all into hugs and kisses without defining our terms. The Catholic Church has a high esteem for other Christians, as is made evident in many of its documents, even within the text of Dominus Iesus. Protestant Christians, if baptized, are considered our separated brethren and they play “an important and significant role in the mystery of salvation”, but we must still call a spade a spade.

If you are looking for “Cumbaya theology”, then you should talk to some of the more main line protestant churches or liberal pseudo-Catholic scholars who have no authority to speak for the official teaching of the Catholic Church.

Let me give you a concrete example of how ridiculous this whole broohaha is.

The Catholic Church teaches that the Eucharist (that little wafer you some time see the priest holding up on the altar) is (not represents or symbolizes but truly is) the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus Christ. That is, when you behold the Eucharist, you are beholding Jesus Christ in His Flesh. Now, Protestants because they do not believe in the Eucharist (as defined above), do not partake of Jesus in the sacrament.

Therefore, this is a deficiency. They are lacking something in their faith walk. Why, in heaven’s name, from a Catholic perspective, is it an insult to point out the objective reality of this situation? If what we say is true, if indeed the Eucharist is what we say it is, then protestants stand in a deficient position. The same is true for all other particularly Catholic doctrines.

And as if it needs to be said again, the same is true of the honest protestant who says that, since justification by faith alone is the correct doctrine, the Catholic Church is deficient. Would any knowledgeable Catholic be insulted by the logic? Of course not.

We may indeed be insulted by a doctrine. That’s fine. But one cannot assail the logic between holding a belief is true and pointing to the consequences of not holding to that belief.

If anyone has a problem with the Pope’s comments, they don’t need to check themselves into a Catholic theology course, they need to enrol in Logic 101. They’ll get much further.

2 thoughts on “Central Role of the Catholic Church

  1. As an evangelical protestant, I read your post with interest. I agree with your statement that there should be no offense at the logic of a position (e.g., “If [and “if” is rightly emphasized in your blog] what we say is true, if indeed the Eucharist is what we say it is, then protestants stand in a deficient position.”).
    The obvious discussion then centres around that condition – as it does around the second hypothesis you mention. The question then becomes one of authority. Each position claims an infallible authority: for protestants, the scripture, rightly interpreted; for catholics, apostolic succession, ie, the Pope.

    Unfortunately, this divide does not yield to logical solution because the starting assumptions are fundamentally at odds. Neither party is about to jettison those assumptions, each believing they have “good reason” for beginning where they do. Lots of fun ahead…!

  2. Hi Steve,

    Regarding your post, I agree with you whole heartedly. The question is not “if” we are in “deficient positions” but rather “who” is in the deficient position.

    If we truly believe that our respective confessions have the truth (or most of it at any rate) – why would you belong to that confession if that were not the case? – then it logically follows that anyone outside of that confession stands in a deficient position.

    Protestants believe in sola Scriptura. Catholics do not. Both sides consider the other to have deficient understandings of authority.

    The document in question was not meant to be sent to non-Catholics since there would be no point in telling them what the Church has always taught. On the contrary, this document was an internal document to clear up any confusion among very confused Catholics regarding our relations with non-Catholics.

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