Next Vatican Document: CDF on “Subsistit in

Rorate Caeli reports (based on Il Giornale) that next week the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith will issue a clarification of statement in the Vatican 2 document, Lumen Gentium, that the church of Christ “subsists in” the Catholic Church. Some, including the late Cardinal Johannes Willebrands, the former President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, interpreted this in a broader sense. This came in a lecture he delivered several places in the US in 1987 (I heard him in DC). He noted that this was debated extensively at the Council–some wanted “consistit in,” some wanted “est“–and thus the choice of the phrase was quite deliberate. This helped spur the ecumenical movement, for it seemed that the Catholic Church was not simply identifying itself with the one Church of Christ, as it had in an earlier age, when Catholic participation in efforts at “Christian unity” was limited to inviting Protestants to abandon their rebellion and rejoin the Catholic Church. Such a reinterpretation of subsistit in would indeed be in keeping with an “hermeneutic of continuity” with Catholic teaching before the Council–but would it really be in keeping with the text of the documents, and the intention of the Council?

Update: Fr. Philip Powell, OP, weighs in, celebrating the news.

4 thoughts on “Next Vatican Document: CDF on “Subsistit in

  1. The problem with the “intention of the Council” is that it was committee work. More than 2000 bishops voted in favor of the text reading “subsistit in” in place of the previous “est”. No doubt there was more than one “intended sense,” if the intended sense means what the bishops understood themselves to be approving, when they approved this wording. This abstract possibility seems corroborated by the facts, for while some eyewitness accounts assert that “subsistit in” was intended to mean merely that the Catholic Church is one of the (several) communities in which the Church of Christ “subsists”, others hold that the language was intended to preserve the unique self-understanding of the Catholic Church while making room for the authentic “elements” of the Church present in other Christian bodies. The latter interpretation, I am inclined to believe, has more substantial foundation in the text and in the whole previous history of the Church.

  2. I thought that Willebrands’ essay was on-line somewhere, but I haven’t been able to find it.

    But here’s Walter Kasper commenting on the same point and referencing Willebrands:

    The decisive element of the Second Vatican Council’s ecumenical approach is the fact that the Council no longer identifies the Church of Jesus Christ simply with the Roman Catholic Church, as had Pope Pius XII as lately as in the Encyclical “Mystici corporis” (1943). The Council replaced “est” (the Catholic Church “is” Jesus Christ’s Church) with “subsisti”: the Church of Jesus Christ subsists in the Catholic Church, which means that the Church of Jesus Christ is made concretely present and can be met.6 This does not exclude that also outside the visible structure of the Catholic Church there are not only individual Christians but also elements of the church, and with them an “ecclesial reality”. “It is not that beyond the boundaries of the Catholic community there is an ecclesial vacuum”.7

  3. When the Council Fathers replaced the word “is” with the word “subsistit”, they did so for a very precise reason. The concept expressed by “is” (to be) is far broader than that expressed by “to subsist”. “To subsist” is a very precise way of being, that is, to be as a subject which exists in itself. Thus the Council Fathers meant to say that the being of the Church as such is a broader entity than the Roman Catholic Church, but within the latter it acquires, in an incomparable way, the character of a true and proper subject.

    –Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger

  4. Yes, that was Ratzinger’s position, with which Willebrands, head of another discastery, appeared to have disagreed. I guess Ratzinger, in his new role, is in a position to have the last word.

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