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July 15, 2007

Pope Reaffirms Teachings Of Vatican II (UPDATED)

No doubt we will hear screechings from liberal theologians, but this document issued by the Vatican does nothing more than restate what came out of the Second Vatican Council four decades ago.

Pope Benedict XVI has reasserted the universal primacy of the Roman Catholic Church, approving a document released Tuesday that says Orthodox churches were defective and that other Christian denominations were not true churches.

Benedict approved a document from his old offices at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that restates church teaching on relations with other Christians. It was the second time in a week the pope has corrected what he says are erroneous interpretations of the Second Vatican Council, the 1962-65 meetings that modernized the church.

* * *

It restates key sections of a 2000 document the pope wrote when he was prefect of the congregation, "Dominus Iesus," which set off a firestorm of criticism among Protestant and other Christian denominations because it said they were not true churches but merely ecclesial communities and therefore did not have the "means of salvation."

In the new document and an accompanying commentary, which were released as the pope vacations here in Italy's Dolomite mountains, the Vatican repeated that position.

"Christ 'established here on earth' only one church," the document said. The other communities "cannot be called 'churches' in the proper sense" because they do not have apostolic succession _ the ability to trace their bishops back to Christ's original apostles.

Now speaking as an ex-Catholic with four years of seminary training, I can tell you that there is nothing new or shocking here. And while you will have liberal Catholics rant about a betrayal of "the spirit of Vatican II", let me assure you that they are wrong. Indeed, my experience was that most folks who make that argument have never actually read the documents of Vatican II to see what they actually say.

In this case, the document does little more than restate what was written in 1964 in Unitatis Redintigratio -- and indeed also hearkens back to Lumen Gentium, which makes the following point.

This is the one Church of Christ which in the Creed is professed as one, holy, catholic and apostolic, which our Saviour, after His Resurrection, commissioned Peter to shepherd, and him and the other apostles to extend and direct with authority, which He erected for all ages as "the pillar and mainstay of the truth". This Church 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.

In noting that groups not in union with Rome are somehow defective and/or not fully churches but are still part of the Body of Christ we have something that is hardly a novel development in the post-Vatican II era. Indeed, were it not for the theological ignorance of many in the journalistic world, I'd be surprised that this new document even merits a mention by the press. What's more, I don't see anything that merits the statement found in the article that the document has a "harsh tone".

And interestingly enough, it would appear that the Protestant spokespeople cited by Reuters to comment don't particularly know anything about the last four decades of Catholic teaching on ecclesiology or ecumenism.

But Bishop Wolfgang Huber, head of the Protestant umbrella group Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD), said the new Vatican document effectively downgraded Protestant churches and would make ecumenical relations more difficult.

Huber said the new pronouncement repeated the "offensive statements" of the 2000 document and was a "missed opportunity" to patch up relations with Protestants.

"The hope for a change in the ecumenical situation has been pushed further away by the document published today," he said.

A statement from The French Protestant Federation said that while the document was an internal pronouncement of the Catholic Church, it would have "external repercussions."

But given the reality that absolutely nothing has changed in the position of the Catholic Church on the issue of ecumenism and the nature of the Church, I don't see where anything substantive has changed. What we have instead is simply alarmism.

* * *

Now let me expand upon that a little bit more. The Catholic Church has a body, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, that is charged with pronouncing upon Church doctrine, as you noted. They tend to do so as questions are raised and brought before it, based upon the writings of various theologians. What seems to have happened here is that particular writers have begun to call into question the meaning of certain Vatican II pronouncements I have mentioned above. As a result, Cardinal Levada and his staff prepared a document that does no more than go back to the earlier documents and restates them in much the same language as originally used 43 years ago. Unfortunately, the fifth question (as did the fourth) goes back to a technical definition of terms as used in Catholic theology that engenders a certain amount of confusion. Indeed, it would have been helpful for the document to more fully cite Communionis Notio, which includes the following passage:

17. "The Church knows that she is joined in many ways to the baptized who are honoured by the name of Christian, but who do not however profess the Catholic faith in its entirety or have not preserved unity or communion under the successor of Peter". Among the non-Catholic Churches and Christian communities, there are indeed to be found many elements of the Church of Christ, which allow us, amid joy and hope, to acknowledge the existence of a certain communion, albeit imperfect.

This communion exists especially with the Eastern orthodox Churches, which, though separated from the See of Peter, remain united to the Catholic Church by means of very close bonds, such as the apostolic succession and a valid Eucharist, and therefore merit the title of particular Churches. Indeed, "through the celebration of the Eucharist of the Lord in each of these Churches, the Church of God is built up and grows in stature", for in every valid celebration of the Eucharist the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church becomes truly present.

Since, however, communion with the universal Church, represented by Peter's Successor, is not an external complement to the particular Church, but one of its internal constituents, the situation of those venerable Christian communities also means that their existence as particular Churches is wounded. The wound is even deeper in those ecclesial communities which have not retained the apostolic succession and a valid Eucharist. This in turn also injures the Catholic Church, called by the Lord to become for all "one flock" with "one shepherd", in that it hinders the complete fulfillment of its universality in history.

Unfortunately, the fifth question was framed as asking why the term "ecclesial community" is used rather than "Church" when dealing with the various post-Reformation expressions of Christian community. It sticks strictly to a restatement of the definition, without delving deeper discussion of how those communities are viewed by the Catholic Church. Indeed, it appears presumed that those reading this new document (technically entitled Responsa Ad Qaestiones or Response To Some Questions -- doesn't the Latin have a classier ring to it?)

Now interestingly enough, there is an additional commentary released by the CDF to explain Responsa Ad Qaestiones more fully. Here's what it says about that fifth question:

The fifth question asks why the ecclesial Communities originating from the Reformation are not recognised as ‘Churches’.

In response to this question the document recognises that “the wound is still more profound in those ecclesial communities which have not preserved the apostolic succession or the valid celebration of the eucharist”. For this reason they are “not Churches in the proper sense of the word” but rather, as is attested in conciliar and postconciliar teaching, they are “ecclesial Communities”.

Despite the fact that this teaching has created no little distress in the communities concerned and even amongst some Catholics, it is nevertheless difficult to see how the title of “Church” could possibly be attributed to them, given that they do not accept the theological notion of the Church in the Catholic sense and that they lack elements considered essential to the Catholic Church.

In saying this, however, it must be remembered that these said ecclesial Communities, by virtue of the diverse elements of sanctification and truth really present in them, undoubtedly possess as such an ecclesial character and consequently a salvific significance.

This new document of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which essentially summarises the teaching of the Council and the post-conciliar magisterium, constitutes a clear reaffirmation of Catholic doctrine on the Church. Apart from dealing with certain unacceptable ideas which have unfortunately spread around the Catholic world, it offers valuable indications for the future of ecumenical dialogue. This dialogue remains one of the priorities of the Catholic Church, as Benedict XVI confirmed in his first message to the Church on April 20, 2005 and on many other occasions, especially during his apostolic visit to Turkey (28.11.06-1.12.06). However, if such dialogue is to be truly constructive it must involve not just the mutual openness of the participants but also fidelity to the identity of the Catholic faith. Only in this way will it be able to lead towards the unity of all Christians in “one flock with one shepherd” (Jn 10, 16) and thus heal that wound which prevents the Catholic Church from fully realising her universality within history.

Catholic ecumenism might seem, at first sight, somewhat paradoxical. The Second Vatican Council used the phrase “subsistit in” in order to try to harmonise two doctrinal affirmations: 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 on the other hand that numerous elements of sanctification and truth do exist outwith 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. For this reason, the same Decree of Vatican II on ecumenism Unitatis Redintegratio introduced the term fullness (unitatis/catholicitatis) specifically to help better understand this somewhat paradoxical situation. Although the Catholic Church has the fullness of the means of salvation, “nevertheless, the divisions among Christians prevent the Church from effecting the fullness of catholicity proper to her in those of her children who, though joined to her by baptism, are yet separated from full communion with her.” The fullness of the Catholic Church, therefore, already exists, but still has to grow in the brethren who are not yet in full communion with it and also in its own members who are sinners “until it happily arrives at the fullness of eternal glory in the heavenly Jerusalem.” This progress in fullness is rooted in the ongoing process of dynamic union with Christ: “Union with Christ is also union with all those to whom he gives himself. I cannot possess Christ just for myself; I can belong to him only in union with all those who have become, or will become, his own. Communion draws me out of myself towards him, and thus also towards unity with all Christians.”

Viewed in this light, there is not any trivialization of the post-Reformation expressions of Christianity or the action of God working though them for the sanctification of believers. Indeed, it is clear that there is a forward look towards a fuller unity/communion between all Christians -- but seeks to avoid minimizing the greater differences that exist between Catholicism and Protestantism than exist between Catholicism and Orthodoxy. After all, the differences between the Eastern and Western Churches are for the most part rooted in issues of primacy and governance, while the divisions that grew out of the Reformation have much deeper doctrinal issues at play.

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Can you email me a response?

Is the recent article`s claim truly the same as the original Vatican II council? The reason I ask is because if the "true" church is the Roman Catholic Church and salvation is only through Christ proclaimed through it, then it would seem useless to say the other Christian denominations had/have anything whatsoever to do with elements of sanctification and truth. Also.......I also believer that the Catholic Church is the only true church - in the fullest sense of the Greek rendering of the word - which is universal as I recall. Can you clarify?

|| Posted by Matthew, July 20, 2007 10:24 AM ||

Matthew -- given that the teaching of the Council is NOT that "outside the (Catholic) Church there is no salvation" (indeed, there have been folks excommunicated for taking that position). Click on the link above and read Unitatis Redintegratio side by side with the current document and you will see that they are the same in all essentials.

|| Posted by Rhymes With Right, July 20, 2007 11:46 AM ||

being a excatholic and now a evangelical,I think the catholic church wounded the protestant church by her latest down grade from them being called a church. In Ephesians 2:22.(church is spiritual) Hebrews 10:11-14(Priesthood only in christ)and us in eternity as a spiritual house of God (1st Peter 2: 4-5) We are Ambassadors for christ (2nd Corinthians 4:18-21)But we are all assigned different embassies (physcial churches)but one spiritual house(church) in the kindgom of Heaven. Where we glorify christ,spread the gospel and use the gift of the holy spirit. I like to point out to the Bishop of Roman,that every 3 out of five prostestants were formerly catholic. I like the Bishop of Roman to state this"

the Roman Catholic Church is the head of the christian embassies of the world that follow the same sacraments of the church and hold to the essential doctrines of salvation,but have different structures of leadership that are different than the catholic tradition." that arent part of the physical catholic church,but are part of the spiritual house of God and therefore are considered and recognized as the Body of Christ."

|| Posted by Nick Cucinella, August 14, 2007 02:18 AM ||

Your article is good, but I take exception with your statement in reply to one of the comments that the position of Vatican II was not that, "Outside the Catholic Church there is no salvation." If that was not the position of the Council, then it was not fully orthodox. You may be referring to Fr. Leonard Feeney who was excommunicated, NOT for holding that there was no salvation outside the Church but because of disobedience to his superior. He was reconciled during the reign of Pope Paul VI and was not required to make any renunciation of his former views. Instead, he was required to repeat the Athanasian Creed which, as you probably know, explicitly states that there is no salvation outside the Catholic Church.

This doctrine has always been held by the Church and follows from the nature of the Church as founded by Christ and follows from many Scriptural passages. There is one ark of salvation, outside of which no one at all is saved. Admittedly, Vatican II did not repeat this doctrine, and the new catechism formulates it in a positive expression rather than the negative one, but the fact remains that Vatican II did not deny it nor did it intend to deny it, and that the teaching of "extra ecclesia nulla salus" is still a dogma of the Church, even having been repeated by one of the most "progressive" of all Popes, John Paul II (I'd be happy to look up the references if you'd like to see them).

But you don't have to take my word for it, or even the word of Pope John Paul II. Here is the Second Vatican Council in the document Lumen Gentium:

"‘Basing itself on Scripture and Tradition, the Council teaches that the Church, a pilgrim now on earth, is necessary for salvation: The one Christ is the mediator and the way of salvation; he is present to us in his body which is the Church. He himself explicitly asserted the necessity of faith and baptism, and thereby affirmed at the same time the necessity of the Church which men enter through baptism as through a door. Hence they could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it or to remain in it’ (LG 14; cf. Mark 16:16, John 3:5)."

This is still the same dogma being simply explained properly. The dogma never changed, never was rejected. It was taught by Vatican II and held by all Popes after that.

|| Posted by James Layne, August 14, 2007 09:51 AM ||

However, that would explicitly contradict the teachings of Vatican II, which holds that the Church merely subsists in the Catholic Church, not that there is a 1-for-1 identification between the two -- which means, logically speaking, that there would have to be salvation outside the canonical structures of the Catholic Church.

And indeed, the quote you cite upholds my position -- to wit, "Hence they could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it or to remain in it." In other words, one would have know/believe that such was the case before failure to be within the canonical structure of the Catholic Church would impact one's salvation. As such, my statement does accurately reflect Church teaching -- which is that there is salvation outside the Catholic Church proper.

|| Posted by Rhymes With Right, August 14, 2007 02:24 PM ||
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