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The New Vatican document restates the principal points of Vatican II.
BY FATHER RAYMOND J. DE SOUZA
VATICAN CITY — Reaching out to one group can look like
reaching away from another.
In substance as well as timing, a new Vatican document can
be understood as being of a piece with the motu proprio apostolic letter
Summorum Pontificum (Of the Supreme Pontiffs), which normalized the use of the
old Latin Mass.
Like the Latin Mass document, the new question-and-answer
document was signed on June 29 and released July 10. It’s called “Responses to
Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine on the Church,” and it
was signed by Cardinal William Levada, prefect of the Congregation for the
Doctrine of the Faith.
The document is meant to clarify Catholic doctrine on the
Church. But soon after its publication, it was accused of damaging ecumenical
relations. The document restates how Orthodox and Protestant Christians lack
essential elements of what Christ willed for his Church.
Yet that reaction is beside the main point, in that the
document was aimed not at ecumenical relations with the Church’s traditional
partners, but at fostering unity with traditionalist Catholics who broke away
after the Second Vatican Council.
The document answers five questions.
The first three deal with how Catholics understand the
Catholic Church: Did the Second Vatican Council change the Catholic doctrine on
the Church? What is the meaning of the affirmation that the Church of Christ
subsists in the Catholic Church? Why was the expression “subsists in” adopted
instead of the simple word “is”?
The fourth and fifth questions, respectively, ask why the
Catholic Church uses the word “church” for the Orthodox Churches, but not the
“Christian communities” that emerged from the Protestant Reformation.
The main point of the document is that the Catholic Church
is the one, true Church, lacking nothing that Christ Jesus willed for his
Church to be. That is what is meant by “the Church of Christ subsists in the
At the same time, elements of “sanctification and truth” can
be found in other Christian denominations and communities, even if they lack
all that Christ willed for his Church.
That is why the phrase “the Church of Christ is the Catholic
Church” was not used — to recognize that the grace of Christ is not absent from
other Christians. Because the Orthodox lack the communion with Peter that
Christ willed, they do lack something “constitutive” of the Church. Yet because
they have maintained apostolic succession and maintain valid ordinations,
sacraments and the Eucharist, they are properly called “churches.”
The Protestants, on the other hand, cannot be called
“churches,” as they lack apostolic succession, valid ordinations and,
consequently, the Eucharist.
Such clarifications of authentic Catholic doctrine can be
painful for other Christians to hear, but are essential for ecumenical dialogue
to proceed on a solid basis. The recent document only restates the principal
points of Vatican II.
“The Church is not backtracking on its ecumenical
commitment,” Dominican Father Augustine Di Noia, undersecretary of the
Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, told Vatican Radio. “But ... it is
fundamental to any kind of dialogue that the participants are clear about their
Yet the unity and uniqueness of the Catholic Church were
clarified just seven years ago in Dominus Iesus (The Unicity and Salvific
Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church), a Congregation for the Doctrine
of the Faith document on the Church, signed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. At
the time, it raised such howls of protest that Pope John Paul II took the
extraordinary step of defending the document in an Angelus address. So why
return to this now?
The key is the first question: “Did the Second Vatican
Council change the Catholic doctrine on the Church?”
That is not a question urgently put by either Orthodox or
Protestant theologians. Yet it is of principal importance to those who follow
the path of the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who believe that the Church
did in fact change her teaching at Vatican II.
“The Second Vatican Council neither changed nor intended to
change this doctrine, rather it developed, deepened and more fully explained
it,” Dominus Iesus begins. “This was exactly what John XXIII said at the
beginning of the council. Paul VI affirmed it and commented in the act of
promulgating the constitution Lumen Gentium: ‘There is no better comment to
make than to say that this promulgation really changes nothing of the
traditional doctrine. What Christ willed, we also will. What was, still is.
What the Church has taught down through the centuries, we also teach.’”
To hammer the point home, the document does something
In an extensive footnote, it not only quotes from the council
documents, but cites several of the debates at the council and earlier drafts.
The document takes pains to show that not even the intention
or spirit, let alone the letter, of conciliar teaching attempted to change the
traditional doctrine on the Church.
The clear audience for such arguments are the Lefebvrists;
for everybody else the Congregation for the Doctrine for the Faith responses
merely restated what was already well known.
For years, Lefebvrists have complained that the Catholic
Church’s ecumenical outreach was more vigorously pursued for those farther from
the Church than it was for them.
There are reasons for that, but to the extent that it was
true, it has been partially corrected by this document.
The message is plain enough: If you are concerned that
Vatican II changed Catholic doctrine on the Church, be assured that it didn’t.
The same teaching that was, still is.
Father Raymond De Souza
is the Register’s former