The Subsisting Church of Christ
Interview With Father Augustine Di Noia
VATICAN CITY, JULY 10, 2007 (Zenit.org).- Some 30 years after the Second Vatican Council, the Holy See is reminding the faithful of an “essential” conciliar teaching.
The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith released today the document titled “Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine of the Church.” The brief text clarifies what Vatican II meant when it said that the Church founded by Christ “subsists in the Catholic Church.”
In this interview with Vatican Radio, Dominican Father Augustine Di Noia, undersecretary of the doctrinal congregation, discusses the major issues concerning this document.
Q: Could you outline the major points that the document addresses?
Father Di Noia: There really are two main points, and then some minor points.
The main point is to address the question of whether the Second Vatican Council changed the Church’s teaching on the nature of the Church herself, and this document tries to clarify this point to say no — it was a development, a deepening, but definitely not a kind of change in the sense of altering the way in which we think of the Church.
And the point is — the fundamental point — and this is the second thing, is how to interpret the expression of the Second Vatican Council, “Lumen Gentium,” paragraph 8: “The Church of Christ subsists in the Catholic Church.” It’s this “subsists” that has caused a tremendous amount of questioning, and we’re trying to address this.
Briefly, the point is, that instead of saying that the Church of Christ is the Catholic Church, the “subsists” is used to say the same thing […] in order to make it clear that across the whole of history, and in the present, we are not in the state of having an imperfect Church that has yet to become the Church of Christ, but that the fullness of what Christ wanted the Church to be, he has established in the Catholic Church.
Then, of course, the other points, in order to explain how other Churches and ecclesial communities relate to this; the Vatican council did not want to exclude the possibility that there were in fact elements of ecclesial life — valid sacraments or the means of grace. I mean, all of the Church/ecclesial communities that read the Scriptures, in that sense with faith, have a certain element of what Christ intended the Church to be.
Q: Why was it decided to have this document come out at this time?
Father Di Noia: That’s an important question.
I suppose it has to do with the reaction to an earlier document, the famous ” Dominus Iesus” that came out, if you recall, in 2000.
I remember that when I was working for the bishops’ conference in the United States, and we had received advanced copies of this document, and I was asked to prepare the bishops for ” Dominus Iesus,” I said well, there is absolutely nothing new here, so the bishops will be fine with it. But as you know, the reaction to ” Dominus Iesus” was extremely, let’s say, contestative. I mean, it was a very difficult document.
What we saw was the people […] didn’t understand that not simply we had to speak of Christ as being the universal savior, but that the Church was the principle means by which the grace of Christ would be communicated to the world, and that, if you recall, created most of the controversy, certainly ecumenically.
So this was kind of a wake-up call. I’d say that “Dominus Iesus” was a wake-up call, that 30 years after Vatican II, people seemed to have forgotten something very essential that Vatican II taught. And so it was out of that moment that the cardinal members of the congregation — and also other people, bishops and so on, raising questions about this — the congregation decided to proceed with a clarification.
The document is called “Responses to [Some] Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine on the Church.” It is a very narrow point, it’s a relatively short document, as you know, and the commentary attached, so it’s a very precise set of responses to questions that have arisen.
Q: How does this new document relate to previous documents speaking about the nature of the Church and ecumenism that have been released?
Father Di Noia: The response, the responses really, because there are a couple, do not add anything to the preceding teaching of the magisterium, but really are meant to recall and make more precise the authentic significance of the various doctrinal expressions used to speak about the Church in past magisterium.
See it’s a very important point that — experientially — that when you go into a Catholic Church, essentially this document is reaffirming this point, this very fundamental point, that when you go into a Catholic Church and become a participant in the community there, with the round of Mass, and the sacrament of penance, and baptism, and confirmation, and everything else that goes on there, you will find everything that Christ intended the Church to be.
And even though there are divisions in Christianity, that does not mean that the Church does not exist perfectly. You see it’s not that we have to repair or heal the divisions, we do have to seek the unity among all the different Christian communities that Christ willed, but the fact that not all Churches are in communion with the Sea of Peter does not mean that the Church is wounded to the effect that it no longer exists in its integrity.
Q: How can this document help in ecumenical dialogue?
Father Di Noia: The commitment of the Catholic Church to ecumenical dialogue is as Benedict XVI himself has said, and certainly Pope John Paul II said frequently as well, “irrenunciable.”
That is to say, the Church is not backtracking on its ecumenical commitment. As you know, it is fundamental to any kind of dialogue that the participants are clear about their own identity, that is, dialogue cannot be an occasion to accommodate or soften what you actually understand yourself to be in order to achieve a sort of false sense of consensus.
It is a fundamental condition of dialogue really, that the participants are clear about what their self-identity is so that in a sense they are being truthful; they are coming to the table with a clear expression of what they understand themselves to be.
So in that sense it is never a backtracking of dialogue to be clear about what you are, but it’s an essential condition for it, otherwise the results that you achieve, they’re easily undermined by the truth about it.