Vatican: Catholicism “is” the Church

It was released without the sensationalism accompanying the motu proprio on the Latin mass, but is just as significant in that it, like the other document, asserts the continuity of Catholic teaching before and after Vatican 2. From the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Responses to Some questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine on the Church:

  • “The Second Vatican Council neither changed nor intended to change this doctrine ….”
  • The term “subsistit in” affirms “the full identity of the Church of Christ with the Catholic Church,” and can be used only of the Catholic Church.
  • Protestant “ecclesial communities” don’t have priests, don’t have the Eucharist, and so can’t be “churches.”

CNS report.

This shouldn’t really come as a surprise, because it is a reiteration of historic Catholic teaching: Catholicism alone is the Church, all others are “heretics and schismatics”*; it alone is universal mater et magister; it alone has the fullness of the means of salvation; it alone has the keys to heaven and hell. Thus the only possible goal of ecumenism must be reunion of those who are separated with the Catholic church (see esp. Mortalium animos, 10ff). Catholicism will acknowledge that there are “means of sanctification” outside of her walls–specifically, the Bible, baptism, and some (albeit limited) true teaching about Jesus–but that these are all things that must lead the honest seeker back to Rome, which alone has what all Protestant communities lack: valid bishops, valid priests, and a valid Eucharist.

It should not surprise anyone that the Vatican reiterates this, for this point is critical to Catholic self-understanding. It is, in fact, the great dividing line between Catholicism and Protestantism–the understanding of the Church and the priesthood.

The Catholic claim is rooted upon its understanding of apostolic succession–to be a “true church,” one must have a valid ministry. But here’s where we have some historical problems–the Catholic Church has changed its understanding of what constitutes valid ministry from age to age. Today the Catholic church says that “valid ministry” is a threefold office of bishop, presbyter, and deacon, and that bishops must have apostolic succession through laying on of hands by other bishops. The episcopacy has the fullness of orders, and is the source of all others. The center of unity is the papacy, the bishop of Rome, unique successor of Peter and unique vicar of Christ.

If we look at history, the picture is a little muddier. The New Testament refers to deacon, presbyter, and bishop, but the latter two are interchangeable (as the old Catholic Encyclopedia affirms), and there are other offices besides. The threefold ministry, rooted in the monarchical episcopate, is found first in Ignatius of Antioch, and spreads from there. But as we get into the middle ages, two things happen. The diaconate atrophies, and becomes but a temporary stepping stone to the priesthood. The episcopacy is no longer understood as having the fullness of holy orders; rather, a bishop is simply a presbyter with the added power of jurisdiction. The “major orders” are said to be subdeacon, deacon, and priest (with priest including presbyter and bishop). Thus the focal point of ministry throughout the middle ages and later is the priesthood, because it alone can confect the Eucharist. Or it might better be said that since the focal point of the Church’s life is the sacrifice of the Eucharist, the focal point of ministry must be upon the priests who offer that sacrifice.

The Catechism of the Council of Trent affirms only one “sacerdotal order”, but within the order of priests are several degrees (priest, bishop, archbishop, patriarch, pope). Bishops alone can ordain the major orders, though abbots could, on occasion, be permitted to ordain men to the minor orders.

Vatican 2 dropped the “minor orders” and, following in the footsteps of the theological ressourcement of the previous generation, reverted to the patristic delineation of the “major orders” as deacon, presbyter, and bishop.

Though Catholic teaching on which orders are included in holy orders has demonstrably changed through history, the claim to supreme authority and the only valid ministry has not. Thus any ecumenical discussion must start on this basis–is the Catholic claim to authority valid? Is it the sole Church of Christ or is it not? Does it have the only valid ministries or does it not?

The Reformers defined the church as the place where the Gospel is preached and the sacraments administered in accordance with Christ’s command. Some made a distinction between the visible church, made up of sinner and saint, and the invisible church of true believers. They believed there to be one ministry, the office of preaching the word and administering the sacraments. The Eucharist was no longer understood as a sacrifice, something offered to God, but as the Lord’s Supper in which all believers share. Bishops, if retained, were said to hold an office of oversight, not a separate order of ministry.

A couple of key texts for the Protestant understanding: Matthew 18:20 (“For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”), Mark 9:38-40 (“And John answered him, saying, Master, we saw one casting out devils in thy name, and he followeth not us: and we forbad him, because he followeth not us. But Jesus said, Forbid him not: for there is no man which shall do a miracle in my name, that can lightly speak evil of me. For he that is not against us is on our part.”), 1 Peter 2:9 (“But ye a chosen generation, a royal priesthood…”) More texts could be cited, but for now, this is just to indicate some starting points for the position advocating a more expansive understanding of the church and of the ministry than that proposed by Catholicism, and a denial of a sacrificial priesthood.

The priesthood, and the inseparably related doctrine of the Mass as a sacrifice, was the primary target of the Reformation polemic. See, for example, Martin Chemnitz, Examination of the Council of Trent, 2:679. He has cited the decree of the 23rd Session and its first canon:

Sacrifice and priesthood are, by the ordinance of God, in such wise conjoined, as that both have existed in every law. Whereas, therefore, in the New Testament, the Catholic Church has received, from the institution of Christ, the holy visible sacrifice of the Eucharist; it must needs also be confessed, that there is, in that Church, a new, visible, and external priesthood, into which the old has been translated. And the sacred Scriptures show, and the tradition of the Catholic Church has always taught, that this priesthood was instituted by the same Lord our Saviour, and that to the apostles, and their successors in the priesthood, was the power delivered of consecrating, offering, and administering His Body and Blood, as also of forgiving and of retaining sins.

CANON I.–If any one saith, that there is not in the New Testament a visible and external priesthood; or that there is not any power of consecrating and offering the true body and blood of the Lord, and of forgiving and retaining sins; but only an office and bare ministry of preaching the Gospel, or, that those who do not preach are not priests at all; let him be anathema.

Chemnitz observes:

4 We are not fighting about words. Paul, with a general term, calls teachers and pastors “ministers.” In the Scripture of the New Testament the terms “priests” and “priesthood” are nowhere applied to the ministry of the New Testament. But in the use of the ecclesiastical writers a strong trend developed to call the ministry “priesthood” and the ministers “priests.” Thus Chrysostom calls whatever pertains to the ministry of the New Testament “priesthood.” Augustine, De civitate Dei, Bk. 20, says: “Bishops and presbyters are now properly called priests in the church.” Now if the papalists wanted only this, that there is in the New Testament an external priesthood, that is, an external ministry of the Word and the sacraments, as we have already explained, three would be no controversy, neither would disturbances arise on account of the term “priesthood” so long as matters which are true and necessary were inviolate.

5 But there is no obscurity about what they want and seek. For in this first canon they say expressly that by the priesthood for which they are contending they do not understand the office and ministry of preaching the Gospel, but declare in the first chapter that they are fighting in behalf of the sacrifice of the Mass, about their external and visible priesthood, which they define as being chiefly the power of sacrificing Christ in the Mass. And they think that such a priesthood is necessary in order that the church may have mediators who can plead their cause before Christ, the supreme Judge, and by this act of sacrifice placate the wrath of the Father and obtain for the church propitiation and other gifts, both such as are spiritual and necessary for salvation and also bodily gifts that pertain to this life, yes, the liberation of souls from purgatory.

He goes on to cite many texts to show that in the New Testament “spiritual sacrifices” are offered by all believers (who constitute a “holy priesthood”), but the specific office of the apostles is that of preaching the Gospel.

The Catholic Church lives and dies on its authority, and on the priesthood and the sacrifice. If no bishop, there is no priest; if no priest, there is no Eucharist; if there is no Eucharist, there is no Church. If a group of Christians were shipwrecked on an island without a priest, they would have no access to the sacraments. In the Protestant understanding, they would be the church in that place, and could freely select and set apart one of their own to minister to them, preaching the word, baptizing, and celebrating the Lord’s Supper.

A Protestant response to the new Vatican statement would be, at one level, a simple denial. “You say we aren’t part of the Church of Christ–we disagree. You say we don’t have a valid ministry–we disagree.” Protestants shouldn’t be troubled at the Vatican’s restatement of Catholic self-understanding, because it says nothing that the Catholic Church hasn’t always claimed.

The people who are going to be disappointed are those, Catholic and Protestant alike, who thought the Catholic Church had changed, that ecumenism had a basis in the 20th century beyond an invitation to “cross the Tiber,” that Protestant clergy and Catholic clergy could ever approach each other as real colleagues and equals. They imagined that the day would come when Protestants and Catholics could share in Holy Communion at each others’ altars without full visible unity. But the Catholic Church had not changed its historic teaching on any of these points.

Benedict XVI, in his motu proprio and through this statement, affirms the “hermeneutic of continuity”–Vatican 2 is to be assumed as consistent with earlier Catholic teaching. There is no break in the understanding of the mass as sacrifice, there is no break in the understanding of the necessity of the sacrificial priesthood, there is no break in the understanding of the Catholic Church as the one true Church of Jesus Christ.

This raises some questions, then. How far is he willing to go in affirming the “hermeneutic of continuity”? What about Church teaching regarding the Jews? Religious liberty? The Church’s relationship to civil authority? Persecution? These are all teachings of the pre-Vatican 2 Catholic Church that the SSPX says cannot change–and the Vatican has never rebuked the SSPX for its teaching on these points.

How far is Pope Benedict XVI willing to go in affirming the “hermeneutic of continuity”?


*The “heretics and schismatics” phrase comes from the Good Friday prayers of the 1962 Missale Romanum, the use of which was liberalized this week by Pope Benedict XVI:

1) For the unity of the Church. Let us pray also for heretics and schismatics, that our Lord and God may save them from their errors and be pleased to recall them to our holy Mother the Catholic and Apostolic Church.