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A Reassertion of Catholic Ecumenical Primacy

A recent statement released by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith of the Catholic Church reasserted a somewhat conseravtive interpretation of Vatican II’s decree on the Church and ecumenism (Lumen Gentium and Unitatis redintegratio respectively).  Essentially, the docment just released states the following five points:

  1.  Vatican II did not “change” Catholic ecclesiology, “rather it developed, deepened and more fully explained it.”
  2. The phrase “the Church of Christ subsists in the Catholic church” means that while the church of Christ can conceiveably be present in other “churches” (Eastern Orthodoxy) and “ecclesial communities: (Protestants), they are not themselves churches in the proper sense.
  3. The reason that the church teaches that the church of Christ subsists in rather than simply is the Catholic church is because 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”.
  4. The Catholic church calls the Eastern Orthodox churches “churches” because of the fact that they have apostolic succession, and specifically the priesthood and the Eucharist.  As such they are churches, but they are marred by not standing in communion with the office of Peter.
  5. Protestant churches are called “ecclesial communities” rather than churches because they lack apostolic succession, the priesthood, and the authentic Sacraments, thus existing in a state “deprived of a constitutive element of the Church”.

Although these statements aren’t really much of a change from the offical posture taken by the Catholic church since Vatican II, I still find it a bit ecumenically discouraging.  I would certainly admit that Protestant and Eastern Orthodox churches are marred and lack the “fullness of communion” without standing in communion with the Roman Catholic church.  However, the day I await is when the Catholic church is able to say that they are likewise marred for their lack of communion with Protestant and Orthodox Christians.  We all need each other and no Christian tradition should claim ecclesiastical perfection and fullness.  But that’s just one sectarian Protestant’s opinion, I guess.


  1. Fred wrote:

    Thanks for this, Halden. At the risk of further offense, I’ll blunder in here.

    What this means perhaps, is that the Catholic Church’s identity is not solely doctrinal orthodoxy, but is tied up with specific history and relationships – an original vow of stability as it were.

    The Catholic Church has certainly suffered in its praxis, its spiritual life and charisms, its scholarship, the credibility of its missionary witness, etc. as a consequence of the divisions of Christianity (Ratzinger, others have noted this).

    To put it another way, the Catholic Church teaches that Communion is a complete and substantial union with Jesus Christ: body and blood, soul and divinity; a Communion guaranteed by a tradition that has been initiated and maintained by Christ. To simplify, most Protestants believe in a spiritual presence (my mother experienced this as a Baptist and in the Church of the Nazarene). So, if the Catholic Church sees Protestant Communion as incomplete, Protestants must see Catholic Communion as excessive, if not idolatrous. What makes Communion perfect is not the number or percentage of Christians that it embraces, but the presence of Christ.

    The Internet Monk (whom I respect tremendously) has tackled this sacramental topic in several posts lately, but his model of equality and union essentially reduces the Catholic Church to a nameless, ginormous denomination.

    Wednesday, July 11, 2007 at 1:15 pm | Permalink
  2. Halden wrote:

    I’m not offended by the Vatican’s statement. It’s essentially a rehash of what has been their official posture anyway. Why this was released now I’m not quite sure.

    In regard to this comment:

    “What makes Communion perfect is not the number or percentage of Christians that it embraces, but the presence of Christ.”

    I absolutely agree. But Christ is the one who will be all in all, and all Christians are members of his body then the hand cannot say to the foot, “I have no need of you.” I guess that’s what I feel like the conservative interpretation of Catholic doctrine on this point says, namely that they don’t need Protestants, but Protestants need them. I just think it goes both ways and that all seperated communions are exactly that: seperated, wounded and needy.

    Or, put another way, I know that as a free church Protestant I need to be in full communion with the Pope for the fullness of the church’s splendor to exist (leaving aside the issue of what the form of communion should be). But, I’m pretty sure that the Pope doesn’t feel that he needs to be in communion with me.

    Wednesday, July 11, 2007 at 1:27 pm | Permalink
  3. Fred wrote:


    I don’t think that form can be left to the side… As Marshall McLuhan said, the medium is the message. Or, if form is ignored, then we’re left with a spiritual unity which is the status quo (at best). The Catholic Church affirms that unity of spirit is part of the picture but is not all there is (there’s a fuller unity than that envisioned by the World Council of Churches).

    The bishop is the sign of unity with the visible Church. Or, to put in another way, where the bishop is, there is the [local] Church. So, it is by virtue of my adherence to my bishop that I am in union with the Pope in an ecclesial sense. It is through the bishop that I am ecclesially united with Christ. It is through the bishop’s agent, my pastor, that I am sacramentally united with Christ. And the bishops are such because of sacramental and historical relationships.

    The pope and bishops often express a spiritual unity and a desire for greater unity with the Orthodox Churches (the people in each local church in union with their bishops), and with followers of Christ or other Christian groups, but this unity is not expressed in all sacramental forms or ecclesial forms.

    Union with the Bishop of Rome developed as a sign of catholicity after the earliest years of the Church in which, for example, two bishops might break Communion with one another and yet both maintain Communion with a third bishop.

    I cannot say that I don’t need you and indeed insofar as each of us is one with Christ, then we are also one with each other. This unity has not yet been restored in form. Faithful and highly- placed theologians have discussed ways of modifying forms, but reversing the Great Schism and/or the Reformation is going to be a long road.

    The unison of a choir happens when all follow the director, and blending is an ancillary movement. The way to unity between Christians (which the Pope desires, as do I – and Christ prayed for) is through union with Christ, which we should all seek in the ways that are available to us. Christ is the one that I need to be in Communion with; unity with other Christians or with humanity starts here.

    As pontiff, the pope is responsible for all the baptized whether they recognize his authority or not. That’s his vocation, so I have a reasonable certainty that this pope feels that burden more intensely than you or I do (and there’s plenty evidence of this in writings before he became pope).


    Wednesday, July 11, 2007 at 6:25 pm | Permalink
  4. Halden wrote:

    Thanks for your thoughts, Fred. I agree with much of what you say, and I don’t advocate a fomless unity. I do question some of the contours of Roman Catholic theology on the point of what form visible communion should take, as you know. But a status quo spiritual unity is the last thing I want.

    Our communion is indeed with Christ and I also pray for the day when all may be one. I suspect what it will take for us to all be one will look much different from what all Christians, Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox presently imagine.

    Wednesday, July 11, 2007 at 7:59 pm | Permalink
  5. Fred wrote:

    Thank you also, Halden.

    Ultimate union is out of our hands, but I want to be walking toward it (no matter how slowly or timidly) when Christ returns!

    Thursday, July 12, 2007 at 10:18 am | Permalink
  6. Halden wrote:

    Yes indeed. I don’t think we can underestimate the value of cross-confessional Christain friendships as we await the unity that God will one day bring about.

    Thursday, July 12, 2007 at 10:28 am | Permalink
  7. Fred wrote:

    I was looking at the document again today, and I noticed something that was unclear to me, especially in regard to whether the pope recognizes the need to be united with you, Halden.

    The last paragraph of the fourth response read thus:
    On the other hand, because of the division between Christians, the fullness of universality, which is proper to the Church governed by the Successor of Peter and the Bishops in communion with him, is not fully realised in history.[18] (CDF, Levada)

    So, the catholicity of the Catholic Church is “not fully realized in history.” This provoked me, so I followed the footnote to “Some Aspects of the Church Understood as Communion” (author: Ratzinger of the CDF).

    Here’s what I found in section 17, paragraph 3:
    This in turn also injures the Catholic Church, called by the Lord to become for all “one flock” with “one shepherd”(77), in that it hinders the complete fulfilment of its universality in history.

    The divisions in Christianity have hindered the fulfillment of the catholicity of the Catholic Church in history. We need you!

    I think that the flowering of friendships between Catholics and others is one of the shining fruits of the Second Vatican Council. On a personal note, I have benefited greatly from your friendship and that of others.

    Friday, July 13, 2007 at 8:30 am | Permalink
  8. Halden wrote:

    Thanks, Fred that is helpful!

    Friday, July 13, 2007 at 9:38 am | Permalink
  9. Dev (Catholic) wrote:

    A fair-minded post.

    However, the day I await is when the Catholic church is able to say that they are likewise marred for their lack of communion with Protestant and Orthodox Christians

    In other words, the day the Catholic Church becomes Protestant. If you’re allowed to say you think Caths should be Protestants shouldn’t we likewise be able to say that Protestants should be Caths – without either of us getting upset :)

    (Btw, The Catholic Church admits that it is ‘marred’ and wounded in a certain way by Christian division, although no, not in the same sense as other Christian bodies are marred. E.g.:

    “Nevertheless, the divisions among Christians prevent the Church from attaining the fullness of catholicity proper to her, in those of her sons who, though attached to her by Baptism, are yet separated from full communion with her. ” Unitatis Redintegratio #4)

    no Christian tradition should claim ecclesiastical perfection and fullness. But that’s just one sectarian Protestant’s opinion, I guess.

    And a Catholic could just as easily say something like “no Christian tradition should deny the primacy of the pope” :) We shouldn’t take it personally when people disagree with us.

    It seems to me the CDF document has simply reminded us all that Catholics are still Catholic and Protestants are still Protestant. I have to say I find it bewildering that people seem surprised or indignant at that.

    Thursday, September 13, 2007 at 7:48 am | Permalink

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