Paragraph 2089 is in my opinion one of the most controversial articles of the Catechism, for it pushes the envelope of language to the limits. This segment continues the itemization of sins against the First Commandment we began last week, the sins of the believer or non-believer vis-à-vis God. Para. 2089 equates belief in God with obedience to the Roman Catholic Church, and it reflects none of the intense study and debate that surrounded this claim at Vatican II.
The issue of the nature of the Church and its right to command obedience was the subject of at least two Conciliar documents, Lumen Gentium (1964) on the nature of the Church, and for our purposes section 8; and Unitatis Redintegratio (1964), The Decree on Ecumenism. For some context here, theologians since the division of Eastern and Western Christendom have wrestled with the claim that the “Kingdom of God” proclaimed in the New Testament and the Roman Catholic Church are the same. For westerners, the question became more complex with the Protestant Reformation and the multiplication of churches claiming to be Christian while denying the validity of the petrine or papal ministry, i.e., the successors of St. Peter.
In the 1800’s the idea of reunification of Christian churches, or at least a reconciliation, became strong, in part because of Pope Pius IX’s movement toward a declaration of papal infallibility, which eventually did occur at the Council Vatican I in 1870. For an interesting treatment of this era I highly recommend The Pope and the Professor: Pius IX, Ignaz von Dollinger, and the Quandary of the Modern Age (2017). Dollinger was the voice of Catholic academics who feared that claims of infallibility would discourage any movement toward reunion. Dollinger was excommunicated and became the symbolic leader of a budding ecumenical movement that included Episcopalians and some Orthodox.
Pius IX and his immediate successors never directly stated that “outside the Roman Catholic Church there is no salvation;” his own preaching and writing are clear on the point that innocent ignorance of the Catholic Church did not condemn a person to hell. Pius would have agreed with the thrust of para. 2089 that the teachings of the Church and the Revelation of God are the same thing, or that the Kingdom of God is the Roman Catholic Church. In 1900 Catholic scholars—particularly historians and Biblical academics—who questioned this proposition were silenced and, in some cases, excommunicated for engaging in “modernism.” Seminarians were required to take an anti-modernist oath, a requirement that was lifted only a few classes ahead of mine.
By 1962 the theological landscape was considerably different. Scholars had deepened understanding of the biblical Kingdom of God, enlarging its meaning and significance. To put it another way, Catholic scholars were less comfortable domesticating the being and intentions of God and recommended more humility in claiming to speak for God. The debate over the wording of Lumen Gentium struggled to find the wording to describe the relationship of God’s Kingdom to the Roman Catholic Church. The Council agreed to this (para. 8): This is the one Church of Christ which in the Creed is professed as one, holy, catholic and apostolic…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.”
The key word here is “subsists”. Opponents in the debate argued for “is.” The word “subsists” insures the Roman Catholic identity as the teacher custodian of all beliefs necessary for salvation while acknowledging that “many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside of its visible structure.” The Council uses the term “Church of Christ” with greater breadth than Pius IX and Vatican I, while still looking forward to a day of catholic [i.e., universal] unity. The Council recognizes aspects of Protestant worship, for example, as effecting sanctification.
In terms of morality, what are we to make of para. 2089? The most serious struggle with the text results from its lack of nuance. As stated here, every married Catholic who uses the pill is a schismatic or a heretic, for “Heresy is the obstinate post-baptismal denial of some truth which must be believed with divine and catholic faith, or it is likewise an obstinate doubt concerning the same.” Paul VI, in his 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, reaffirmed the Church’s earlier teaching that artificial contraception is a grave [mortal] sin against God’s natural law, and Pope John Paul II reinforced this teaching on multiple occasions during his papacy. And yet, adherence to this teaching is not noteworthy. Entire bishops’ conferences questioned the wisdom of Humanae Vitae when it was released. While passions over this teaching have cooled over time, the reason may be a general disregard of reproductive moral teachings in general among Catholics. By the same token, are all of the private and public critics of Pope Francis in a state of schism or separation?
The words of Lumen Gentium to describe Christian non-Catholic believers can just as easily apply to members of the Catholic Church itself who find themselves in similar circumstances, i.e., wrestling with matters of proclaimed faith and morals. I draw a distinction between those who take their faith and conscience seriously and those who are casual about religion in general. This latter group resembles the Catechism’s definition of incredulity, “the neglect of revealed truth or the willful refusal to assent to it.” I fear that of all the sins listed in para. 2089, incredulity is probably the most common. The other sins, strange as this may sound, at least require a commitment from the “sinner.” Heresy, apostasy, and schism are often the fruits of anguish; Dollinger was judged fit for excommunication, but his academic and spiritual energies were devoted to matters of faith throughout his life, however history judges his actions. Technically speaking, apostasy is often a change of denominations—from Catholicism to another worshipping community—in an effort to find God in better preaching and strong community support.
The issues of para. 2089 require much better and more nuanced articulation. We don’t have a moral category for the questioning soul, and we should. Lumen Gentium uses the phrase “Pilgrim People” to describe the Church: we are not static but rather organic. Like Israel in the desert, we are a traveling people, learning from hard experience as we make our way to the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God. In defining the authority of the Church, this provisionally historical dimension must find its voice in the expression of Apostolic tradition.
Para. 2089’s point about “incredulity” may be the most valuable takeaway from this paragraph. The “neglect of revealed truth or the willful refusal to assent to it” suggests a degree of human pride with little acknowledgement of the need of any sort of higher power or helpful social interaction. Incredulity is a condition that reaches beyond the bounds of denominational religion. In the Catechism context, para. 2089 is also an invitation to examine the precise nature of the degree we allow Scripture and Tradition to penetrate our psychological center.