Is the Catholic Church the one true Church? (7 things to know and share)

Is the Catholic Church the one, true Church? Here are 7 things to know and share with others . . .
Is the Catholic Church the one, true Church? Here are 7 things to know and share with others . . . (photo: Register Files)

In today's brave new world of ecumenism, the Catholic Church no longer claims to be unique, right?

After all, Vatican II didn't say that the Church of Christ is the Catholic Church.

It merely said that the Church of Christ "subsists in" the Catholic Church.

So that means the Catholic Church no longer views itself as the "one true Church," right?

Not so fast . . .


1. The Source of the Issue

The source of the issue is found in Vatican II's dogmatic constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, where we read:

8. 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, 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.



2. "Subsists In"?

The matter would be much clearer if the Council had used the traditional language of saying that the Church of Christ is the Catholic Church.

Instead, they use the unfamiliar wording "subsists in" (Latin, subsistit in) instead of "is" (Latin, est).

This can make it appear that the Council was backing away from the claim that the Catholic Church is the Church of Christ, and many people--including Catholic theologians--took it in precisely this way.

But was that the Council's intent?


3. Addressing the Matter

The controversy over the meaning of this passage in the Council grew to such a point that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith decided to address it in 2007 in this document. It said:

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. . . .

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 [Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine of the Church, q. 2].

The Congregation thus teaches that "it is possible . . . to affirm correctly that the Church of Christ is present and operative in" non-Catholic churches (think: Eastern Orthodox churches) and ecclesial communities (think: Protestant communities).

But the Catholic Church is unique. The Church of Christ subsists in it and only in it.



4. Why Didn't They Just Say "Is"?

The document also addresses this:

Why was the expression “subsists in” adopted instead of the simple word “is”?

The use of this expression ["subsists in"], 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” [ibid., q. 3].

The CDF also issued a commentary on the Responses document. According to it:

The Second Vatican Council used the phrase “subsistit in” in order to try to harmonise two doctrinal affirmations:

[1] on the one hand, that despite all the divisions between Christians the Church of Christ continues to exist fully only in the Catholic Church, and

[2] on the other hand that numerous elements of sanctification and truth do exist outside the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church whether in the particular Churches or in the ecclesial Communities that are not fully in communion with the Catholic Church.



5. Is the Catholic Church the "one true Church" or not?

This is answered most directly in the commentary that the CDF published along with the document in question. According to the commentary:

Contrary to many unfounded interpretations, therefore, the change from “est” to “subsistit” does not signify that the Catholic Church has ceased to regard herself as the one true Church of Christ.

Rather it simply signifies a greater openness to the ecumenical desire to recognise truly ecclesial characteristics and dimensions in the Christian communities not in full communion with the Catholic Church, on account of the “plura elementa sanctificationis et veritatis” ["many elements of sanctification and truth"] present in them.

Consequently, although there is only one Church which “subsists” in one unique historical subject there are true ecclesial realities which exist beyond its visible boundaries.


6. What About Eastern Non-Catholic Churches?

While many Eastern Christians are in communion with the Catholic Church, not all are at present. Examples of the latter include the Orthodox, Copts, and members of the Assyrian Church of the East.

Vatican II continued to use "church" to refer to the particular or local churches among these Christians. The Responses document states:

The Council wanted to adopt the traditional use of the term ["church"]. “Because 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”, they merit the title of “particular or local Churches”, and are called sister Churches of the particular Catholic Churches. . . .

However, since communion with the Catholic Church, the visible head of which is the Bishop of Rome and the Successor of Peter, is not some external complement to a particular Church but rather one of its internal constitutive principles, these venerable Christian communities lack something in their condition as particular churches.


7. What About Protestants?

The Responses document explains:

According to Catholic doctrine, these Communities do not enjoy apostolic succession in the sacrament of Orders, and are, therefore, deprived of a constitutive element of the Church.

These ecclesial Communities which, specifically because of the absence of the sacramental priesthood, have not preserved the genuine and integral substance of the Eucharistic Mystery cannot, according to Catholic doctrine, be called “Churches” in the proper sense.

This does not exclude referring to them as churches in a colloquial sense. And, in fact, you can find many documents on the Vatican web site doing exactly that.

But it does mean that, because they lack a valid episcopate and a valid Eucharist, they are lacking things essential to the nature of a local church in the proper sense.

This is a view that can be documented all the way back to the beginning of the second century, where Ignatius of Antioch wrote about the necessity of the three-fold ministry of bishop, priest, and deacon for the local churches:

In like manner let everyone respect the deacons as they would respect Jesus Christ, and just as they respect the bishop as a type of the Father, and the presbyters as the council of God and college of the apostles. Without these, it cannot be called a church [Letter to the Trallians 3].


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