Chances are, if you’ve done any reading about the Catholic Church’s vision of “the Church,” you’ve probably come across the claim that everything changed at Vatican II. Prior to Vatican II, as the story goes, the Catholic Church thought that only she was “the Church;” after Vatican II, she recognized that the Orthodox and Protestants (and perhaps even non-Christians!) also form part of the Church. But is it true?
I. The Theory of Rupture
I came across a variation of this claim recently in Fr. Christian Salenson’s Christian de Chergé: A Theology of Hope, a biography of the French-Algerian Abbot Christian de Chergé (whose monastery is the focus of the highly-recommended movie Of Gods and Men). Fr. Salenson’s bio says that he “is a priest of the diocese of Nîmes, France. Former rector of the seminary of Avignon, he is today director of L’institut de science et de théologie des religions at Marseille.” Here’s Fr. Salenson’s argument about the Church’s vision of the Church:
The Church no longer recognizes itself in the definition of Robert Bellarmine, who thought that the Church was like the Republic of Venice, an organized and hierarchical society. Moreover, there was a time when the documents of the magisterium, in particular Mystici Corporis, practically identified the Catholic Church with the Church that is the Body of Christ, but the pure and simple identification of the two would obviously make impossible any ecumenical initiative and all inter-religious dialogue. Therefore, desirous of promoting the cause of ecumenism, the council fathers, in the dogmatic constitution Lumen Gentium, decided to emphasize the notion of the People of God. They did not by any means set aside the image of the Body of Christ, but the notion of the People of God allowed them to disengage from the improper restriction of the term “Church of Christ” to “the Catholic Church,” thus opening up the position of previous magisterial documents.
This movement at Vatican II and beyond, argues Salenson, restored “the adage extra ecclesiam nulla salus, ‘outside the Church there is no salvation,” to “its proper meaning, stepping back from the exclusivist interpretation of the Council of Florence in 1442.” Critical to this theory of a theological change is this passage in Lumen Gentium, the Vatican II Dogmatic Constitution on the Church:
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.
Those arguing for a change in Church teaching argue that prior to Vatican II, the teaching was that the Church Christ founded is (or was) the Catholic Church, but now the Church teaches only that the Church Christ founded subsists in the Catholic Church. For example, the famous Brazilian Liberation theologian Fr. Leonardo Boff argued in Church: Charism and Power, that this phrasing recognized that the Roman Catholic Church is and isn’t the Church of Christ:
For example, the Roman, Catholic, and apostolic Church is the Church of Christ on the one hand, and on the other hand, it is not. It is the Church of Christ inasmuch as through it the Church of Christ is present in the world. But at the same time it cannot claim an exclusive identity with the Church of Christ because the Church may also be present in other Christian churches. The Second Vatican Council, overcoming a theological ambiguity present in previous ecclesiologies that tended to identify the Roman Catholic Church with the Church of Christ in a simple and pure fashion, makes the following distinction: “This Church [of Christ], constituted and organized in the world as a society, subsists in the Catholic Church” (subsistit in: has its concrete form in the Catholic Church). The Council avoids saying, as was said in previous documents, that it is the Church of Christ.
II. The Problems with the Theory of Rupture
Both Boff and Salenson’s theologies ultimately self-destruct, for two major reasons:
- First, because it argues that Vatican II corrects (and therefore contradicts) prior Church teachings, including the teachings of prior Church Councils. If there be a dispute between Vatican II and previous Church Councils, why side with Vatican II against the Councils that came before it? Indeed, you’ll find certain Catholic Traditionalists who agree with Boff and Salenson that Vatican II contradicts prior Church teaching, but use this as a reason to reject Vatican II, rather than as a reason to reject prior Church teaching.
- Second, making this claim involves undermining the authority, and rejecting the reliability, of Church teaching generally and the teachings of Church Councils specifically. If we can’t trust the Councils prior to Vatican II to have gotten something as central as the identity of the Church correct, upon what basis can we trust Vatican II? It does no good to demand every adhere to Vatican II “because it’s a Church Council” or “because it’s Magisterial teaching” if one simultaneously rejects all pre-Vatican II Magisterial and conciliar teachings.
But here’s where the argument gets bizarre. Salenson argues that the Church up until Mystici Corporis (1946) “practically identified the Catholic Church with the Church that is the Body of Christ,” and Boff explicitly claims that Vatican II “avoids saying, as was said in previous documents, that it is the Church of Christ.”
So let’s look at Vatican II directly. Lumen Genitum was published on November 21, 1964. As we’ve seen, it says that the Church founded by Jesus Christ “subsists in the Catholic Church.” The very same day, Orientalium Ecclesiarum, the Second Vatican Council’s decree on the Catholic Churches of the Eastern Rites, was also published. Two documents, each about the nature of the Church, each produced by the Second Vatican Council, and each published on the same day, November 21. What does Orientalium Ecclesiarum say?
The Holy Catholic Church, which is the Mystical Body of Christ, is made up of the faithful who are organically united in the Holy Spirit by the same faith, the same sacraments and the same government and who, combining together into various groups which are held together by a hierarchy, form separate Churches or Rites. [….]
These individual Churches, whether of the East or the West, although they differ somewhat among themselves in rite (to use the current phrase), that is, in liturgy, ecclesiastical discipline, and spiritual heritage, are, nevertheless, each as much as the others, entrusted to the pastoral government of the Roman Pontiff, the divinely appointed successor of St. Peter in primacy over the universal Church. They are consequently of equal dignity, so that none of them is superior to the others as regards rite and they enjoy the same rights and are under the same obligations, also in respect of preaching the Gospel to the whole world (cf. Mark 16, 15) under the guidance of the Roman Pontiff.
This is explicitly saying what Salenson claims that Vatican II moved away from, and what Boff claims was never said at Vatican II: that the Holy Catholic Church, universally governed by the pope, is the Body of Christ.
That’s what makes this ecclesiology of rupture so bizarre: it doesn’t just pit Vatican II against everything that came before it. It pits Vatican II against itself, arguing that the Council simultaneously endorsed and rejected the identification of the Roman Catholic Church with the Mystici Corporis, the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ.
III. The Proper Way to Interpret “Subsists In“
Fortunately, the Church has actually (and repeatedly) explained the meaning of “subsists in,” and explaining why it doesn’t mean what folks like Boff and Salenson suggest. For example, in 1970, under Pope Paul VI (the same pope who promulgated Lumen Gentium in the first place), the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith explained that:
One is the Church, which after His Resurrection our Savior handed over to Peter as Shepherd (cf. Jn 21:17), commissioning him and the other apostles to propagate and govern her (cf. Mt 18:18ff.) (and which) He erected for all ages as “the pillar and mainstay of the truth” (cf. 1 Tm 3:15). And this Church of Christ, “constituted and organized in this world as a society, subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the Successor of Peter and the bishops in union with that Successor.” This declaration of the Second Vatican Council is illustrated by the same Council’s statement that “it is through Christ’s Catholic Church alone, which is the general means of salvation, that the fullness of the means of salvation can be obtained,” and that same Catholic Church “has been endowed with all divinely revealed truth and with all the means of grace” with which Christ wished to enhance His messianic community.
This is no obstacle to the fact that during her earthly pilgrimage the Church, “embracing sinners in her bosom, is at the same time holy and always in need of being purified,” nor to the fact that “outside her visible structure,” namely in Churches and ecclesial communities which are joined to the Catholic Church by an imperfect communion, there are to be found “many elements of sanctification and truth (which), as gifts properly belonging to the Church of Christ, possess an inner dynamism towards Catholic unity.”
As a result,
The followers of Christ are therefore not permitted to imagine that Christ’s Church is nothing more than a collection (divided, but still possessing a certain unity) of Churches and ecclesial communities. Nor are they free to hold that Christ’s Church nowhere really exists today and that it is to be considered only as an end which all Churches and ecclesial communities must strive to reach.
Fifteen years later, during Pope John Paul II’s pontificate, the CDF (now under the leadership of Cardinal Ratzinger) actually responded directly to Fr. Boff’s book, accusing him of deriving “a thesis which is exactly the contrary to the authentic meaning of the Council text” in his misinterpretation of Lumen Gentium 8, and explaining that
the Council had chosen the word subsistit – subsists – exactly in order to make clear that one sole “subsistence” of the true Church exists, whereas outside her visible structure only elementa Ecclesiae – elements of Church – exist; these – being elements of the same Church – tend and conduct toward the Catholic Church (Lumen Gentium, 8). The decree on ecumenism expresses the same doctrine (Unitatis Redintegratio, 3-4), and it was restated precisely in the declaration Mysterium Ecclesiae (No. 1, AAS LXV , pp. 396-398).
Turning upside down the meaning of the Council text on the Church’s subsistence lies at the base of L. Boff’s ecclesiological relativism, which is outlined above; a profound misunderstanding of the Catholic faith on the Church of God in the world is developed and made explicit.
And when the author of those words, Cardinal Ratzinger, became Pope Benedict XVI, the CDF again issued a clarification on this point. It’s in Q&A format, and directly asks (and answers) whether or not “the Second Vatican Council change[d] the Catholic doctrine on the Church” (Answer: “The Second Vatican Council neither changed nor intended to change this doctrine, rather it developed, deepened and more fully explained it.”). In showing that the Council didn’t change Church teaching, the CDF points to statements from Pope John XXIII (who opened the Council), Pope Paul VI (who saw it through to the end, and who promulgated Lumen Gentium and Orientalium Ecclesiarum), and statements from the Acts of the Council itself. In the next question, the CDF turns squarely to this question:
What is the meaning of the affirmation that the Church of Christ subsists in the Catholic Church?
Christ “established here on earth” only one Church and instituted it as a “visible and spiritual community”, that from its beginning and throughout the centuries has always existed and will always exist, and in which alone are found all the elements that Christ himself instituted. “This one Church of Christ, which we confess in the Creed as one, holy, catholic and apostolic […]. This Church, constituted and organised in this world as a society, subsists in the Catholic Church, governed by the successor of Peter and the Bishops in communion with him”.
In number 8 of the Dogmatic Constitution Lumen gentium ‘subsistence’ means this perduring, historical continuity and the permanence of all the elements instituted by Christ in the Catholic Church, in which the Church of Christ is concretely found on this earth.
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, the word “subsists” can only be attributed to the Catholic Church alone precisely because it refers to the mark of unity that we profess in the symbols of the faith (I believe… in the “one” Church); and this “one” Church subsists in the Catholic Church.
IV. Why a Shift in Language, Then?
For some, the mere fact that the Church went from saying Christ’s Church is the Roman Catholic Church to simultaneously saying that Christ’s Church is and subsists in the Roman Catholic Church is proof of a change in teaching. If the teaching hasn’t changed, why has the language?
The CDF, in 2007, asked and answered this question directly:
Why was the expression “subsists in” adopted instead of the simple word “is”?
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”.
“It follows that these separated churches and Communities, though we believe they suffer from defects, are deprived neither of significance nor importance in the mystery of salvation. In fact the Spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them as instruments of salvation, whose value derives from that fullness of grace and of truth which has been entrusted to the Catholic Church”.
Think about the variety of different images used for the Church and the Kingdom in the New Testament: within Matthew 13 alone, Jesus compares the Kingdom to seed sown upon various types of soil (Mt. 13:1-9, 18-23), to weeds amongst weeds (Mt. 13:24-30, 36-43), to a mustard seed that grows into a tree (Mt. 13:31-32), to leaven (Mt. 13:33), to a treasure in a field (Mt. 13:44), to a pearl of great price (Mt. 13:45), and to a net containing good and bad fish (Mt. 13:47-50). Within a single verse, Ephesians 5:23, St. Paul simultaneously describes the relationship of Christ and the Church as one of Bridegroom/Bride and one of Head/Body. Why do Jesus and St. Paul use so many different images? Because each additional image helps capture some aspect of the Church/Kingdom dynamic that might otherwise be lost.
So it is here. Saying that the Church is the Body of Christ recognizes that the Roman Catholic Church is the Church founded by Christ, and where we can find the fullness of the Gospel and the fullness of the means of salvation. But saying that the Church of Christ subsists in the Roman Catholic Church points towards the fact that non-Catholic Christians have partially and imperfectly what the Catholic Church has fully and completely.
The Catholic Church has always believed both of these things. On the one hand, she is the Church that Jesus Christ founded, and thus she is the Mystical Body of Christ. These are historical and theological claims. Either Jesus did or didn’t found a single, visible Church; either St. Paul was right or he was wrong to call it the Body of Christ in Ephesians 5; either that single, visible Church continues to exist or it doesn’t; either it exists as the Roman Catholic Church or it doesn’t. But the truth of these facts can’t be rejected just because they might (as Fr. Salenson laments) “make impossible any ecumenical initiative and all inter-religious dialogue.” Any ecumenism that requires that Catholics pretend not to believe that we’re the one, true Church is a false unity, requiring us to hold a theological position that our Church forbids us to hold.
But there’s another side to this reality: the Church has also always recognized, for example, that Baptism is the doorway to the Church, and that even schismatics still have valid Baptism. St. Augustine, for example, explicitly says that “the grace of baptism can be conferred outside the Catholic communion, just as it can be also there retained,” and he criticizes the Donatists by saying that “it is clear that they are guilty of impiety who endeavor to rebaptize those who are in Catholic unity; and we act rightly who do not dare to repudiate God’s sacraments, even when administered in schism.” So, too, the Fourth Lateran Council (1215 A.D.) rebukes those Eastern Orthodox who have had “the temerity to rebaptize those baptized by the Latins; and some, as we are told, still do not fear to do this.”
That same Council’s profession of faith simultaneously affirms that there’s no salvation outside of the Church and that valid Baptisms may be carried out by anyone. The Council of Vienne (1311-1312 A.D.) likewise proclaimed that there was “one universal church, outside of which there is no salvation, for all of whom there is one Lord, one faith and one baptism,” but specified what this “one baptism” looked like:
All are faithfully to profess that there is one baptism which regenerates all those baptized in Christ, just as there is one God and one faith’. We believe that when baptism is administered in water in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the holy Spirit, it is a perfect means of salvation for both adults and children.
The USCCB has a helpful guide summarizing the history of Catholic recognition of Orthodox Sacraments. Why does that matter? Because you can’t have Sacraments outside of the Catholic Church. Wherever valid Baptism is found, the Church of Christ is found there in some way. This is admittedly confusing, but notice why it’s confusing: because we haven’t faithfully followed Christ’s command that we may all be one. In other words, God isn’t the one who made the situation messy. We are, through out sin.
So, to conclude, we have to avoid two easy-but-wrong conclusions; that only those who are visibly Roman Catholic are saved / in the Church; or that it doesn’t matter which Church or denomination you belong to. By simultaneously affirming that the Church of Christ is the Catholic Church and that the Church of Christ subsists in the Catholic Church, with elements of sanctification found outside of her visible bounds but pointing towards full unity with her, the Second Vatican Council is simply acknowledging the complexity of this reality.