Paragraph 86 describes the relationship of the teaching authority of the Church to the Word of God. For many centuries, right up through Vatican II, the language of Church leadership smacked strongly of a unity with God’s mind that led to the belief that there was no difference between God’s mind and the Church’s words. At Vatican II, however, there was considerable debate about the Church’s identity as teacher, particularly when the Church Fathers debated whether other Christian (Protestant) churches exercise a true ministry of preaching and teaching. After considerable and intense debate, the Council arrived at a formula which continues to spark discussion to this day. It stated that the Church of Christ subsists in the Roman Catholic Church, when it could have used the traditional phrasing in the original draft of Lumen Gentium, that the Church of Christ is the Roman Catholic Church.
For the last fifty years, the meaning of Vatican II’s change in terminology has been the object of clarification. No one denies that the Catholic Church is not the “official” guarantor of sacred revelation; the question is whether it is the sole arbiter of revelation. In 2005, an editorial from L'Osservatore Romano, the official Vatican paper, weighed in on the subject: “As is well known this famous expression "subsistit in" [subsists] was subsequently the object of many and contradictory interpretations. The notion became quite widespread that the Council had not wanted to adopt as its own the traditional statement according in which the Church of Christ is (est) the Catholic Church — as was stated in the preparatory schema 2 — so as to be able to say that the Church of Christ subsists also in Christian communities separated from Rome.”
The wording of para. 86, which favors “is” over “subsists in,” is a little troubling to me and calls for elaboration on several points. The first issue is its rather sanguine assessment of how the Magisterium of the Church has passed along the Word of God. The second point is its over simplicity. The third is its exclusiveness in describing the authority of the Magisterium.
On the first point, the paragraph states that the Magisterium or teaching authority of the Church “teaches only what has been handed on to it.” The Church certainly has taught what was handed down from the Apostles, but it has also taught—at times with surprising confidence—many things that pastoral practice, time, scholarship, and reform have gently corrected or removed from public proclamation. In the first century St. Paul convinced the mother church that Gentiles could and should be baptized without Jewish initiation rites, most notably circumcision. Medieval popes held that their authority was both secular and religious. For many centuries, the Church defined human nature without freedom of conscience; it held to the political principle of the confessional state; it maintained the right to execute heretics. Catholic women, including religious sisters, were not admitted to Catholic theological degree programs until my lifetime. In its present teaching on the subject, the Church refers to homosexuality as a “gravely disordered state,” with the same tone and overconfidence that it condemned the Jews as “perfidious” on Good Friday, as late as the presidency of John F. Kennedy.
These examples, and there are many others, illustrate that the claim of teaching only what has been handed down is an ambitious claim, to say the least. Para. 86 passes over the misunderstandings of Revelation that plague the Church to this day, not surprising because the Church is a body of imperfect men and women. Vatican II was correct to describe us as a “Pilgrim Church.” To state baldly that the Church and God are of one mind on all things is a dangerous thing—millions have suffered and lost their faith because of such overconfidence. To say that Christ’s Church subsists in the Catholic Church acknowledges that as Magister, the Church does indeed hand on the Revelation of God in its fullness, but its structures for teaching have been aided considerably by the wisdom of the world at large, by history, and the good will of persons not fully in communion with Rome.
Many of the theological experts at Vatican II were Church historians who appreciated the complex development of Church doctrine as well as the means and limitations of teaching it over time. Para. 86 and many other portions of the Catechism take an ahistorical and simple posture: the Church has always known the precise mind of God in Revelation essentially from day one, and all its teachings enjoy a Teflon protection from serious faith-filled questioners within and outside the Church. Distinction between formal doctrinal declaration, or papal infallibility, and what is often called ordinary magisterial authority, is rarely if ever made clear in Catholic catechetics.
It is true that Vatican II, in many of its documents, spoke of the Church as the entire body of those professing Jesus Christ and Trinitarian Baptism, and even Sacrosanctum Concilium, the 1963 decree on the Sacred Liturgy, [and focus of our Saturday Stream] spoke of its working principle of making Catholic worship a means of embracing Christians of other faith families. There is a timeliness to the “subsists” controversy in an ecumenical vein in 2017. This year marks the formal beginning of the Protestant Reformation, and you can expect to hear much about Martin Luther in academic and secular formats. How the Catholic Church will formally mark this observance is hard to say.
Luther is a controversial man. New biographies are appearing this year; I have Lyndal Roper’s Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet (2017, many formats) on hold with Amazon, and will probably use it here at the Café at some point in the future. Whatever one thinks of Luther, his place in history will be recalled as the man who advocated a return to the Sacred Scriptures as the centerpiece of Christian thought. Catholicism, which at Luther’s time governed with a scholastic and monarchical style, would eventually profit from this insight, though not publicly till the twentieth century. As I write these words (Friday afternoon) Pope Francis and the Coptic Orthodox “pope” in Egypt agreed on the integrity of both Churches’ baptism. Pope Francis clearly understood the intention of Vatican II in his outreach today, believing that the Copts contribute to the holiness of the Church as a whole, and deserve official respect even without full communion.