Imagine a father calling his many children to sit with him in the kitchen. A few, when they hear his call, come and gather around.
“But where are my other children?” he asks.
Then they hear the voices of the other children in the dining room. Together, they are saying out loud, “We love you, father, and we are so glad that you’ve called us together today.”
The father smiles and says to one of his sons, “Go tell them I want all my children together, in the kitchen, with me.”
The son does what he is told — but the dining-room group is aghast at his message. “Well, look at Mr. Special,” says one of them. “He thinks it’s his way or the highway!”
“All of this talk about ‘You must gather in the kitchen’ is silly,” says another. “What’s most important is that we love our father and we are talking to him. It’s all his house. He can hear us just as well from the dining room as from the kitchen.”
Another dismisses the son with a shrug. “It’s always rules with him, not love. For us, what’s most important is that we love our father, and show our love in all we do.”
That’s a little like the reaction to the new Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith document — in fact, the angry comments above are taken practically verbatim from media reports on reactions to the June 29 document that was released July 10.
The document is called “Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine on the Church.” It reiterates the teaching of the Second Vatican Council that “the one Church of Christ ... subsists in the Catholic Church, governed by the successor of Peter and the bishops in communion with him.”
It draws on the teaching of Dominus Iesus (The Lord Jesus), a Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith document from the year 2000 that distinguished three kinds of Christian communities.
1. First are Churches led by a bishop in communion with the bishop of Rome. These come in many varieties: Maronite, Ukrainian Rite, Roman Catholic, etc. But they are all in communion with the pope — and all Catholic.
2. There are Churches with true sacraments that are not in communion with the bishop of Rome. Orthodox Christians of various kinds worship in these Churches.
3. There are Christian communities that have no priesthood. These are the communities that Protestants worship in. Lacking the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, these can’t properly be called Churches.
The problem, of course, is that on the night before he died, Christ very pointedly asked exactly what the father in our story asked. He wanted his children to gather in his presence in one Church.
He formed one — and only one — Church in stages, but significantly at the Last Supper. That’s when he instituted the Eucharist and the priesthood — breaking the bread and saying, “This is my body,” handing it to the apostles and saying, “Do this in memory of me.”
He wanted the Church to remain one, he said, not just for the sake of Christians, but for the sake of others. He prayed to the Father “that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may be brought to perfection as one, that the world may know that you sent me, and that you loved them even as you loved me” (John 17:22-23).
He made it clear that the Church was his body. To divide it is to tear apart the very body of Christ. That’s why the greatest sin of all time is the disunity of Christians — and the sin isn’t only on the side of those who are outside the Church.
The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith document makes it clear that Catholics do not have a monopoly on the Father.
It points out that Vatican II didn’t say that the Church of Christ “is” the Catholic Church. The council document Lumen Gentium (Light of the Nations; the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church) said that the Church of Christ “subsists in” the Catholic Church.
That, says the congregation, is because the phrase “subsists in” “brings out more clearly the fact that there are ‘numerous elements of sanctification and of truth’ which are found outside her structure.”
It is true that the document points out that there are “defects” in the other Christian communities. It also points out that the Catholic Church falls short of what it should be. “Because of the division between Christians,” it says, “the fullness of universality” (another word for “catholicity”) “is not fully realized in history.”
The document is thus in the same position as the son in our story.
He’s calling out to his brothers and sisters. “You’re in the same house, and you’re praising the Father, but you aren’t doing it on his terms,” he’s saying. “We’d love for you to join us, so that we could all be together. It isn’t the same without you.”
We pray that this plea will one day be heard — and that we won’t make it any harder for our brothers and sisters to come back.