The Motu Proprio on the Mass and the Document on “Certain aspects of the Doctrine on the Church”

Source: FSSPX News


The release of the Motu proprio Summorum Pontificum, on July 7, was followed three days later by the publication of a document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, entitled Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine on the Church (July 10, 2007). In an annexed commentary, the Congregation for the Faith makes known its intention to ‘recall the authentic meaning of some interventions of the Magisterium in the field of ecclesiology, so that sound theological research may not be marred by errors or ambiguity.” It was mainly a matter of answering the difficulties raised by the statement of the Second Vatican Council (Lumen Gentium, I, 8) according to which “the Church or Christ subsists in (subsistit in) the Catholic Church.”

The first response of the document is to declare that “the Council neither changed nor intended to change this [previous] doctrine [on the Church], rather it developed, deepened and more fully explained it.” Concerning the new expression “to subsist in,” the document gives the following explanation: “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”.

In other words: in the Catholic Church we concretely find the Church of Christ; this tends to affirm the identity of the Catholic Church and the Church of Christ. But the same answer adds that if “the word ‘subsists’ can only be attributed to the Catholic Church exclusively”, nevertheless “it is possible, according to Catholic doctrine, to affirm correctly that the Church of Christ is present and operative in the churches [Orthodox] and ecclesial Communities [Protestant] not yet fully in communion with the Catholic Church, on account of the elements of sanctification and truth that are present in them,” thus making its own the teaching of John Paul II (in Ut Unum Sint, n° 11).


Henceforth, the Congregation for the Faith justifies the use of the verb “subsists in” instead of the verb “is” in the following terms: “The use of this expression [subsists in], indicates the full identity of the Church of Christ with the Catholic Church,” but it is meant to signify also “that there are ‘numerous elements of sanctification and of truth’ which are found outside her structure [the Church’s].” For “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.”

In the appended commentary, the Congregation for the Faith admits that: “the Council Fathers wanted to recognize the presence of ecclesial elements proper to the Church of Christ in the non-Catholic Christian Communities as such. It follows that the identification of the Church of Christ with the Catholic Church is not to be understood as if, outside of the latter, there was an ‘ecclesial void’.” – And this is where all the ambiguity exists, which this document claims to dissipate without managing to do so. Indeed, the “subsistit in” was substituted in place of “est” in order to “signify the greater opening ( of the Church since the Council) in the face of the singular request of ecumenism to recognize a really ecclesial character and dimension to the Christian Communities which are not in full communion with the Catholic Church, because of the ‘plura elementa sanctificationis et veritatis’ present in them. Thus, though the Church is one and ‘subsists in’ one unique historical subject, there exist genuine ecclesial realities even outside of this visible subject.”

This document, continues the commentary, far from calling into question the ecumenism promoted by the Second Vatican Council, “offers precious indications for the furtherance of ecumenical dialogue. This dialogue still remains one of the priorities of the Catholic Church, and this was confirmed by Pope Benedict XVI in his very first message to the Church (April 20, 2005) and on so many other occasions, especially during his apostolic visit to Turkey (November 28 – December 1, 2006).”

The most interesting passage of the commentary is the following: “At first sight, Catholic ecumenism may seem paradoxical. With the expression ‘subsistit in’, the Second Vatican Council wanted to harmonize two doctrinal affirmations: on the one hand, that the Church of Christ continues to exist integrally only in the Catholic Church, in spite of the divisions among Christians; on the other hand, the existence of many elements of sanctification and of truth outside its boundaries, namely in the churches and ecclesial Communities which are not yet in full communion with the Catholic Church. On this subject, the Decree of the Second Vatican Council on ecumenism Unitatis Redintegratio had even introduced the term plenitudo (unitatis/catholicitatis) precisely in order to help to understand this situation which is to a certain extent paradoxical.”

The explicit acknowledgement in the commentary on the document, of a certain paradox leaves the reader perplexed. The ambiguities which should have been clarified are, in fact, replaced by this paradox in which the Council wants to reconcile two affirmations: ‘the Church of Christ is the Catholic Church’ AND ‘separated communities, without being in full communion with the Church, are not on that account ecclesial voids’, because they have many elements of sanctification and truth, which are ecclesial elements, according to the Second Vatican Council.

This raises a question: if the desire to reconcile these affirmations results in a paradox, are they reconcilable? Are they not contradictory? And is not the attempt to harmonize them tantamount to a suspension of the principle of non-contradiction? Since this paradox wants to marry the traditional definition of the Church with the conciliar definition of separated communities, it is useful to recall the traditional definition of the separated communities. This is what Archbishop Lefebvre wrote on the subject in They have uncrowned Him: “The Council took pleasure in exalting the salvific values, or the value – period – of the other religions. Speaking of the non-Catholic Christian religions, Vatican II teaches that “Although we believe them to be victims of deficiencies, they are not in any way devoid of meaning and of value in the mystery of salvation.” This is a heresy! The only means of salvation is the Catholic Church. Insofar as they are separated from the unity of the true faith, the Protestant communions cannot be used by the Holy Ghost. He can act only directly on the souls or make use of the means (for example, baptism) which, in themselves, do not bear any indication of separation. One can be saved in Protestantism, but not by Protestantism!” (p. 176)