What Is the Church?

The Catholic View

St. Peter's Basilica
Saint Peter's Basilica, Vatican City. Alexander Spatari / Getty Images

One of the most important documents to come out of the papacy of Pope Benedict XVI has also been one of the least noticed. On July 10, 2007, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith released a relatively short document entitled "Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine on the Church." Understated in tone, the document takes the form of five questions and answers, which, taken together, provide a comprehensive view of Catholic ecclesiology—a fancy word that simply means the doctrine on the Church.

The document addresses common misconceptions from recent years about the Catholic understanding of the nature of the Church—and, by extension, the nature of those other Christian communities that are not in full communion with the Roman Catholic Church. These concerns have arisen out of ecumenical discussions, especially with the traditionalist Society of Saint Pius X and the Eastern Orthodox Churches, but also with various Protestant communities. What is the nature of the Church? Is there a Church of Christ that is different from the Catholic Church? What is the relationship between the Catholic Church and other Christian churches and communities?

All of these concerns are addressed through the answers to five questions. Don't worry if the questions initially seem confusing; all will be made clear in this article.

  • First Question: "Did the Second Vatican Council change the Catholic doctrine on the Church?"
  • Second Question: "What is the meaning of the affirmation that the Church of Christ subsists in the Catholic Church?"
  • Third Question: "Why was the expression 'subsists in' adopted instead of the simple word 'is'?"
  • Fourth Question: "Why does the Second Vatican Council use the term 'Church' in reference to the oriental Churches separated from full communion with the Catholic Church?"
  • Fifth Question: "Why do the texts of the Council and those of the Magisterium since the Council not use the title of 'Church' with regard to those Christian Communities born out of the Reformation of the sixteenth century?"

At the time "Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine on the Church" was released, I wrote a series of articles discussing each question and the answer provided by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. This document provides a summary view; for a more in-depth view on a particular question, please click on the appropriate section heading below.

A Restatement of Catholic Tradition

St. Peter's Basilica
Saint Peter's Basilica, Vatican City. Alexander Spatari / Getty Images

Before examining each of the five questions, it is important to note that "Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine on the Church" is, on a certain level, an entirely predictable document, because it breaks no new ground. And yet, as I wrote above, it is also one of the most important documents of Pope Benedict's papacy. But how can both statements be true?

The answer lies in the fact that "Responses" is simply a restatement of Catholic tradition. The most important points that the document makes are all well-established points of Catholic ecclesiology:

  • Christ established one Church, both visible and spiritual.
  • That Church is most fully present in the Catholic Church, "governed by the successor of Peter and the Bishops in communion with him."
  • That Church may be present in other churches and ecclesial communities to a lesser extent, "on account of the elements of sanctification and truth that are present in them."
  • The Eastern Orthodox Churches are true, "particular or local Churches," because they maintain apostolic succession and the sacraments, but they lack the fullness of union with the universal Church.
  • Those "Christian Communities" that stem from the Reformation "cannot, according to Catholic doctrine, be called 'Churches' in the proper sense" because they have not maintained apostolic succession and, thus, have lost the sacraments.

While there is nothing new here, there is also nothing particularly "old." "Responses" goes to great pains to explain that, despite much confusion on these issues in recent years, the Church has always maintained a consistent understanding. It was necessary for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to release the document not because anything had changed in the teaching of the Catholic Church, but because too many people had become convinced, and had tried to convince others, that something had changed.

The Role of Vatican II

Sculpture of the Vatican II Council on the door of St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican, Rome, Lazio, Italy, Europe
Sculpture of the Second Vatican Council on the door of St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City. Godong / Getty Images

That change had supposedly taken place at the Second Vatican Council, commonly known as Vatican II. Traditionalist organizations such as the Society of Saint Pius X were critical of the supposed change; other voices within the Catholic Church, and in Protestant circles, applauded it.

And yet, as "Responses" points out in its answer to the first question ("Did the Second Vatican Council change the Catholic doctrine on the Church?"), "The Second Vatican Council neither changed nor intended to change [the Catholic doctrine on the Church], rather it developed, deepened and more fully explained it." And that should not be surprising, because, by definition, ecumenical councils can define doctrines or explain them more fully, but they cannot change them. What the Catholic Church had taught about the nature of the Church before Vatican II, she continues to teach today; any difference of kind, rather than of quality, is in the eye of the beholder, not in the Church's doctrine.

Or, as Pope Paul VI put it when he promulgated Lumen Gentium, the Council's Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, on November 21, 1964,

In simple terms that which was assumed [regarding Catholic doctrine on the Church], is now explicit; that which was uncertain, is now clarified; that which was meditated upon, discussed and sometimes argued over, is now put together in one clear formulation.

Unfortunately, in the wake of Vatican II, many Catholics, including bishops, priests, and theologians, acted as if the council had played down the claim of the Catholic Church to be the fullest expression of the Church founded by Christ Himself. They often did so out of a sincere desire to advance Christian unity, but their actions may, in fact, have harmed efforts at true reunification of all Christians by making it seem as if fewer obstacles stand in the way of such unity.

From the standpoint of the Catholic Church, union with the Eastern Orthodox Churches requires filial submission by the Orthodox Churches to the spiritual head of the Church established by Christ—namely, the Pope of Rome, who is the successor to Saint Peter, whom Christ established as the head of His Church. Since the Orthodox maintain apostolic succession (and, thus, the sacraments), reunion would require nothing more, and the council fathers of Vatican II expressed their desire for reunion in their "Decree on the Catholic Churches of the Eastern Rite," Orientalium Ecclesiarium.

In the case of Protestant communities, however, union requires reestablishment of apostolic succession—which, of course, can be accomplished through union. The current lack of apostolic succession means that those communities lack a sacramental priesthood, and thus are deprived of the very life of the Church and the Christian believer—the sanctifying grace that comes through the sacraments. While Vatican II encouraged Catholics to reach out to Protestants, the council fathers never intended to minimize this obstacle to Christian unity.

The Church of Christ "Subsists" in the Catholic Church

Yet the eyes of many beholders, both critics and promoters of the idea that the Catholic doctrine on the Church had changed at Vatican II, had fixed upon one word in Lumen Gentium: subsists. As section eight of Lumen Gentium put it:

This Church [the Church of Christ] 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.

Both those who argued that Catholic doctrine had changed and should not have, and those who argued that it had changed and should have, pointed to this passage as proof that the Catholic Church no longer saw herself as the Church of Christ, but as a subset of it. But "Responses," in its answer to its second question ("What is the meaning of the affirmation that the Church of Christ subsists in the Catholic Church?"), makes it clear that both groups have put the cart before the horse. The answer is not surprising to those who understand the Latin meaning of subsist or know that the Church cannot change fundamental doctrine: Only the Catholic Church has "all the elements that Christ himself instituted" in His Church; thus "'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."

While acknowledging that "the churches [meaning the Eastern Orthodox] and ecclesial Communities [Protestants] not yet fully in communion with the Catholic Church" have "elements of sanctification and truth that are present in them," the CDF reaffirms that "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." Subsistence means "to remain in force, being, or effect," and only in the Catholic Church does the one Church founded by Christ "and instituted it as a 'visible and spiritual community'" subsist.

Orthodox, Protestants, and the Mystery of Salvation

That does not mean, however, that other Christian churches and communities are wholly devoid of any participation in the Church of Christ, as "Responses" explain in its answer to the third question: "Why was the expression 'subsists in' adopted instead of the simple word 'is'?" Yet any of the "numerous elements of sanctification and of truth" that are found outside of the Catholic Church are also found within her, and they belong properly to her.

This is why, on the one hand, the Church has always held that extra ecclesiam nulla salus ("outside the Church there is no salvation"); and yet, on the other, She has not denied that non-Catholics can enter Heaven.

In other words, the Catholic Church holds the deposit of truth, but that does not mean that everyone who is outside of the Catholic Church has no access to any truth. Rather, the Orthodox Churches and Protestant Christian communities may contain elements of the truth, which allows the "Spirit of Christ" to use them as "instruments of salvation," but their value to that end "derives from that fullness of grace and of truth which has been entrusted to the Catholic Church." Indeed, such "elements of sanctification and truth" that are available to those outside of the Catholic Church point them in the direction of the fullness of sanctification and truth found only within the Catholic Church.

In fact, those elements, "as gifts properly belonging to the Church of Christ, impel towards Catholic Unity." They can sanctify precisely because their "value derives from that fullness of grace and of truth which has been entrusted to the Catholic Church." The Holy Spirit works always to fulfill Christ's prayer that we may all be one. Through those "numerous elements of sanctification and of truth" found in both Orthodoxy and Protestantism, non-Catholic Christians are drawn closer to the Catholic Church, "in which the Church of Christ is concretely found on this earth."

The Orthodox Churches and Union

Orthodox church in Nice
Orthodox church in Nice. Jean-Pierre Lescourret / Getty Images

Of the Christian groups outside of the Catholic Church, the Orthodox Churches share the most in those "elements of sanctification and truth." "Responses" notes in the answer to the fourth question ("Why does the Second Vatican Council use the term 'Church' in reference to the oriental Churches separated from full communion with the Catholic Church?") that they can properly be called "Churches" because, in the words of another document from Vatican II, Unitatis Redintegratio ("The Restoration of Unity"), "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."

In other words, the Orthodox Churches are properly called Churches because they meet the requirements in Catholic ecclesiology for being a Church. Apostolic succession guarantees the priesthood, and the priesthood guarantees the sacraments—most importantly, the Sacrament of Holy Communion, which is the visible symbol of the spiritual unity of Christians.

But because they lack "communion with the Catholic Church, the visible head of which is the Bishop of Rome and the Successor of Peter," they are only "particular or local Churches"; "these venerable Christian communities lack something in their condition as particular churches." They do not have the universal nature "proper to the Church governed by the Successor of Peter and the Bishops in communion with him."

The separation of the Eastern Orthodox Churches from the Catholic Church means that "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." Christ prayed that all would be one in Him, and that prayer compels all of the successors of Saint Peter to work for the full, visible union of all Christians, starting with those who retain the status of "particular or local Churches."

Protestant "Communities," Not Churches

Old White Church
A Protestant church building in the United States. Gene Chutka / Getty Images

The situation of Lutherans, Anglicans, Calvinists, and other Protestant communities, however, is different, as "Responses" makes clear in answer to its fifth and final (and most controversial) question ("Why do the texts of the Council and those of the Magisterium since the Council not use the title of 'Church' with regard to those Christian Communities born out of the Reformation of the sixteenth century?"). Like the Orthodox Churches, Protestant communities lack communion with the Catholic Church, but unlike the Orthodox Churches, they have either denied the necessity of apostolic succession (e.g., Calvinists); tried to maintain apostolic succession but lost it in whole or in part (e.g., Anglicans); or advanced a different understanding of apostolic succession from that held by the Catholic and Orthodox Churches (e.g., Lutherans).

Because of these difference in ecclesiology, the Protestant communities lack "apostolic succession in the sacrament of Orders" and therefore "have not preserved the genuine and integral substance of the Eucharistic Mystery." Because the Sacrament of Holy Communion, the visible symbol of the spiritual unity of Christians, is essential to what it means to be part of the Church of Christ, Protestant communities "cannot, according to Catholic doctrine, be called 'Churches' in the proper sense."

While some Lutherans and high-church Anglicans maintain belief in the Real Presence of Christ in Holy Communion, their lack of apostolic succession as the Catholic Church understands it means that a proper consecration of the bread and wine does not take place—they do not become the Body and Blood of Christ. Apostolic succession guarantees the priesthood, and the priesthood guarantees the sacraments. Without apostolic succession, therefore, these Protestant "ecclesial Communities" have lost the essential element of what it means to be a Christian Church.

Still, as the document explains, these communities contain "numerous elements of sanctification and of truth" (though fewer than in the Orthodox Churches), and those elements allow the Holy Spirit to use those communities as "instruments of salvation," while drawing Christians in those communities toward the fullness of sanctification and truth in the Church of Christ, which subsists in the Catholic Church.