One of the great battles of the past 40 years between “conservatives” and “progressives” in the Catholic Church has been over her very nature. In the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council, the progressive wing of the Church wanted to water down the exclusive claims of the Catholic Church as being identified strictly with those churches united with Rome. Other Christian churches or “communities”, they proposed, had as much right and claim to being part of the Church of Christ as the Catholic Communion did by virtue of their membership’s baptism which the Catholic Church recognizes. There was, of course, a real truth in what was being advanced, but of course, as always, the progressives wanted to take that kernel of truth and use it to water down much of the claims of the Catholic Church in order to advance “ecumenism” among non-Catholic Christians. The controversy was ignited with this text from Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium:
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. (Lumen Gentium, 8)
Lumen Gentium reworded the longstanding phrase, which stated that the Church of Christ is (Latin est) the Catholic Church. Lumen Gentium does recognize that other Christian ecclesial communities have elements of sanctification and of truth…. According to some, to say the Church of Christ “subsists in” the Catholic Church introduces a distinction between the Church of Christ and the Catholic Church. Catholic teaching had traditionally, until then, stated unequivocally that “the Mystical Body of Christ and the Roman Catholic Church are one and the same thing”, as Pope Pius XII expressed it in his 1950 encyclical Humani generis, 27)….In another document promulgated on the same day (21 November 1964) as Lumen gentium, the Council did in fact refer to “the Holy Catholic Church, which is the Mystical Body of Christ” (Decree Orientalium ecclesiarum, 2). Here the traditional conventional expression “is” is used, whose clarity can be used to interpret the potential ambiguity of the other phrase…It is also to the Catholic Church, not to some supposed distinct “Church of Christ”, that has been entrusted “the fullness of grace and of truth” that gives value to the other Churches and communities that the Holy Spirit uses as instruments of salvation, though the Church of Christ is not said to subsist in any of them…. In fact, the Council combined the two terms “Church of Christ” and “Catholic Church” into a single term, “Christ’s Catholic Church” in its Decree on Ecumenism, promulgated at the same time as its Constitution on the Church. (Source)
During the relevant Commission’s deliberation on this issue, there were various proposals:
H. Schauf wished to substitute adest (“present in”) with est (“is”), while S. Tromp responded by proposing subsistit in. It was Philips, the chairman of the discussion, who noted the acceptance of the term subsistit in. The change from adest to subsistit came, therefore, not from the Bishops but from members of the Commission, in the same way as the change from est to adest. It is not possible to identify the meaning that those present attributed to the term subsistit in. The tape recording is more informative. It shows that Schauf disagreed with the term adest because in his opinion it was imprecise. Immediately Tromp replies: “Possumus dicere: itaque subsistit in Ecclesia catholica, et hoc est exclusivum (said very forcefully), in quantum dicitur: alibi non sunt nisi elementa. Explicatur in textu“.32 (Rough translation: We are able to say, therefore, “subsists in the Catholic Church”, and this is exclusive (said very forcefully), in so far as it is said, in another place, there are only elements. Explained in the text.) In his opinion, therefore, the term subsistit in expresses a property that is exclusive to the Catholic Church. (Source)
A number of years go, then-Cardinal Ratzinger offered these remarks:
The word subsistit derives from ancient philosophy, as it was later developed among the Scholastics. It corresponds to the Greek word hypostasis, which of course plays a key role in Christology in describing the union of divine and human natures in the one person of Christ. Subsistere is a special case of esse. It refers to existence in the form of an individual subject. . . . With the word subsistit, the Council wanted to express the singularity and non-multipliability of the Church of Christ, the Catholic Church: the Church exists as a single subject in the reality of history. But the difference between subsistit and est also embraces the drama of ecclesial division: for while the Church is only one and really exists, there is being which is from the Church’s being—there is ecclesial reality—outside the Church. (Source)
In order to correct certain erroneous interpretation of subsistit, Domineus Iesus (authored by Cardinal Ratzinger) was issued to clarify what the Catholic Church’s position was:
With the expression subsistit in, the Second Vatican Council sought to harmonize two doctrinal statements: on the one hand, that the Church of Christ, despite the divisions which exist among Christians, continues to exist fully only in the Catholic Church, and on the other hand, that “outside of her structure, many elements can be found of sanctification and truth”,that is, in those Churches and ecclesial communities which are not yet in full communion with the Catholic Church. But with respect to these, it needs to be stated that “they derive their efficacy from the very fullness of grace and truth entrusted to the Catholic Church”.
“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”. 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”. “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”. (Dominus Iesus, 16-17)
Still, despite all of these clarifications, the Progressives have not given up on that word and continue to insist that the Church has changed her understanding of her very nature.
A number of days ago, I received a call from a friend who pointed me to a paper written by a mature student studying in Rome, Kevin McCarthy. Mr. McCarthy, J.D., is a lawyer who has worked in the U.S. Federal and State Governments, in private practice, and is currently a student at The Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas in Rome (The Angelicum) working toward a Licentiate in Sacred Theology in Spirituality. He and his wife, Patrice, have five grown children and 13 grandchildren.
In his paper, Mr. McCarthy uncovers what might actually be the source of subsistit which was used in Lumen Gentium.
Until now, the source of that phrase had been clouded in some mystery. Its relative obscurity helped the Progressive wing of the Church in its argument that the traditional understanding of the Church’s nature was superceded with this “new” word. It’s part of the “hermeneutic of rupture” with the past they’ve been trying to sell these past 40 years.
Now with Kevin’s discovery, the Progressive argument has been completely undercut. Far from being a departure from traditional Catholic thinking, he shows that it indeed has the Catholic pedigree denied to it by the Progressives.
Socon or Bust is honoured to be the first blog or website to publish this article with the permission of the author. Visitors can read the paper here.
The Church of Christ is the Catholic Church, but Christ is not subject to the formal boundaries of our Communion, any more than the Sacraments are the only channels of Grace. This is a great mystery, but it is nonetheless true. While substantially and truly residing within the Catholic Church, Christ’s love and presence extend itself wherever groups of Christians call on Him, although the robustness of that presence will be determined in proportion to their acceptance of the fullness of truth.