Komonchak on Subsistit In

Joseph A. Komonchak is one of the leading experts on the Second Vatican Council, having edited the English version of Giuseppe Alberigo’s multi-volume History of Vatican II (Orbis/Peeters). He’s one of the contributers at the Commonweal blog, and today offers his reflection on the recent CDF document: The Subsisting Church.

He’s polite, scholarly, respectful–but the clincher comes with his last sentence.

When the Doctrinal Commission came to the text in which the word “is” [est] is replaced by the words “subsists in” [subsistit in], it explained the change in this way: “Some words are changed: in place of “is” the text says “subsists in” so that the expression may better accord with the affirmation about ecclesial elements which are present [adsunt] elsewhere.” This alteration did not please all the bishops and experts (for example, Maximos IV and Yves Congar were opposed to it), some of whom proposed amendments. Some wanted to strengthen the statement, others to weaken it, and so the Doctrinal Commission decided to stay with the change of verb.The first rule of conciliar hermeneutics should be to follow the indications of the official explanation provided by the Doctrinal Commission. To interpret the meaning of “subsists in,” then, we should look to the Council’s statements about the “ecclesial elements” that are found outside the Catholic Church.

He cites Unitatis Redintegratio 3 as the conciliar text which should interpret subsistit in:

I think this passage provides the best explanation of what is the unique claim that the Roman Catholic Church makes about itself and, thereby, I believe, sets out what “subsists in” means in LG 8: the Catholic Church alone possesses “the fullness of the means of salvation.” It is not a claim that it alone possesses the truth and grace of Christ; it is not a claim that it is holier than other Churches or communities. It is a claim about the “means of salvation,’ that is, institutions, ordinances, etc. with which God has blessed the Church for the sake of the salvation of its members. If these can be set out in terms of the ancient pillars of the Catholic form of the Church, they would include: the rule of apostolic faith (the Creed); the canon of apostolic Scriptures; the form of apostolic worship (sacraments); and the structure of apostolic ministry. To take some examples: Catholic believe that the canon of the Scriptures includes texts that Protestants do not receive, that there are seven sacraments willed by Christ, that the normative ministry includes that of the Bishop of Rome as minister of catholic unity. The Catholic Church regards these as divinely willed elements of the Church, and since no other Christian Church or community has them all, it says that the fullness of these means of salvation is found in the Catholic Church alone.

Perhaps one way of putting this is to say that the Council, in saying that the Church as an instrument of salvation is found in its fullness only in the Catholic Church, is not denying, in fact, it clearly says, that the spiritual reality that is the Church as the effect of God’s saving grace can be found not only in non-Catholic Christians but also in non-Catholic Christian Churches and communities. I think the CDF could have explained this much more effectively than it did.

That seems to me to be a polite, respectful, scholarly, proper-priestly-docility way of saying: “They blew it. They went with the hardliners’ hopes, not with the test itself.”