Catholic Church

by Alvin Kimel


The ultimate purpose of this article is to invite substantive responses to the following question: What does the Catholic Church teach about the Catholic Church? Specifically, how does the Catholic Church understand itself as the Church of Christ and her relation to other Christian bodies?

The pre-Vatican II answer to this question was crystal clear. In his encyclical Mystici Corporis Christi, Pope Pius XII makes the simple and direct identification between the “true Church of Jesus Christ” and “the one, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic and Roman Church.” There was nothing controversial about this identification for pre-Vatican II Catholics. We find this identification clearly asserted in the writings and correspondence of Cardinals Newman and Manning, for example.

In a lecture delivered shortly before the Ecumenical Council of Vatican II, “Theology of Christian Unity” (Irish Theological Quarterly [1961], pp. 255-278), Bishop Keven McNamara states that Christ has given to his Church a threefold visible unity: “the profession of one faith, the use of common sacraments, obedience to one government.” He then goes on to discuss the indissoluble union of the visible and invisible in the one Church:

Between the visible and invisible unity there is no separation or division. They are but two moments in a single unity. They stand to each other in a relationship of complete harmony and mutual dependence. On the one hand the outer unity is dependent on the inner. It serves it and in that service finds its true significance. The visible unity is, moreover, maintained in existence by the interior life of faith, which constantly supports and renews it. On the other hand, the inner life depends on the visible structure. It is nourished by the visible sacraments, protected by the visible government, maintained, augmented and extended by the outward profession of faith. This subtle and manifold interaction of interior life and exterior organization reveals the organic nature of the Church’s unity. The Church is a single living organism in which, under the universal unifying and animating influence of the single Spirit, each part serves the life of the whole. Its unity is the indivisible unity of a living body. This body is the mystical Body of Christ, which is identical with the Roman Catholic Church. Whoever is outside that Church is not, at least in the strict and full meaning of the term, a member of Christ’s Body, or is any non-Roman communion a part or member of the Church of Christ.

Bishop McNamara then discusses the various ways that “dissident” Christian bodies can be understood as related to the Church of Christ:

From the documents of the magisterium and from the Catholic doctrine of the Church’s unity one fact is clear. No dissident communion is a part or member of the true Church. The Church of Christ is a unit whose limits are defined by the bond of communion with the See of Peter. The integral parts of that Church—the local and national Churches—are within those limits. None lie outside them. On the other hand many elements of the Church, parts of her system of sanctification, obviously exist beyond those limits. Indeed the Orthodox Churches possess all the elements necessary to constitute them parts of the Church of Christ with the exception of one—the bond of union with the Universal Church. They have the sacraments, the apostolic priesthood and an almost complete object of faith. It is for this reason that they are regularly referred to as “Churches” in the Roman documents. “They are addressed as Churches, and as Churches they are asked to be reconciled to the Holy See” [Gregory Baum]. This does not mean that together, or taken as one whole, they stand alongside the Church of Rome as a more or less equal partner, that they can, to borrow the words of Newman used of the Church of England after his conversion, “take the rank, contest the teaching and stop the path of the Church of St. Peter.” “When the Roman documents ascribe to them a similarity to a Church,” writes Father Baum, “the comparison is made not with respect to the Church universal—which is numerically one and has no sisters—but with respect to a particular Church (such as the Church of Lyons) or to a group of Churches (such as the Church of France).” They have the nature of local Churches, but lack one essential element, viz., the bond of union with the Apostolic See which incorporates the local Church into the Church of Christ. For this reason they are sometimes referred to as “wounded” Churches. However, one cannot attribute to them a similarity to local Churches without thereby setting up a relationship between them and the Church universal. For local Churches are but particular manifestations of the Church universal, whose hierarchical and sacramental structure they reproduce, as a single cell may reproduce the pattern of an entire organism. The Orthodox Churches, therefore, as wounded or incomplete local Churches, are real but imperfect manifestations at the local level of the Church of Christ. They are real manifestations of the Church of Christ, since the means of sanctity which they exercise belong to it. They are doing the Church’s work. Through them the Church is present in the Orthodox Communion. Further, these means of sanctity create, sustain and sanctify a community which resembles the sanctified community of the People of God. The Orthodox Churches are, however, but imperfect manifestations of the Church of Christ….

Concerning the Protestant Churches our judgment must be more severe, and increasingly so in proportion to the degree of their abandonment of the true Christian heritage. It is most significant that the Roman documents assiduously avoid referring to the Protestant communities as Churches…. There is an obvious reason for the refusal of the Popes to give the Protestant communions the name “Churches.” It is the relative poverty of the means of holiness retained by them, in particular their lack of the Blessed Eucharist, around which the local Church, and also the Church universal, are assembled and on which the unity of both depends…. At the same time it is not to be denied that the Protestant communions too possess elements of the Church.

As is well known, in its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium §8, Vatican II used the Latin word subsistit to state the relationship between the Church of Christ and the Catholic Church:

Christ, the one Mediator, established and continually sustains here on earth His holy Church, the community of faith, hope and charity, as an entity with visible delineation through which He communicated truth and grace to all. But, the society structured with hierarchical organs and the Mystical Body of Christ, are not to be considered as two realities, nor are the visible assembly and the spiritual community, nor the earthly Church and the Church enriched with heavenly things; rather they form one complex reality which coalesces from a divine and a human element. For this reason, by no weak analogy, it is compared to the mystery of the incarnate Word. As the assumed nature inseparably united to Him, serves the divine Word as a living organ of salvation, so, in a similar way, does the visible social structure of the Church serve the Spirit of Christ, who vivifies it, in the building up of the body.

This is the one Church of Christ which in the Creed is professed as one, holy, catholic and apostolic, which our Saviour, after His Resurrection, commissioned Peter to shepherd, and him and the other apostles to extend and direct with authority, which He erected for all ages as “the pillar and mainstay of the truth”. 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 question is raised: What does it mean to say that the Church of Christ subsists in the Catholic Church? Did Vatican II intend to change the uniform teaching of the pre-Vatican II Catholic Church?

I asked one Catholic theologian to exegete subsists as used in this passage. He suggested the following: “the Church of Christ radically exists in the Catholic Church.”

In his 1971 Catholic Catechism, Fr John Hardon asserts a fundamental continuity in the Church’s teaching on the Church:

There is only one Church established by Christ; not only one but uniquely one. What, then, about the many “Churches” that we see in contemporary Christianity? Is the Roman Catholic Church only a Christian denomination, one of many branches of the Church, each of whom shares in a partial possession of Christ’s revealed truth and its own equally valid and effective means of sanctification?

For the first time in conciliar history, this issue was squarely faced and answered. The issue in question was not whether the Church is one. No believer in Christ would say otherwise. The issue was where this one Church of Christ can be found. The Second Vatican Council’s answer is unequivocal. That which constitutes the one true Church—its churchness, so to speak—not only exists but it subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the bishops in communion with him. Behind the carefully chosen verb “subsists” stands the affirmation that the objective fullness of Christ’s heritage to the Church—totality of his revelation, totality of his sacraments, and totality of authority to rule the people of God in his name—resides in the Catholic Church, of which the bishop of Rome is the visible head.

Other Christian bodies participate, in greater or less measure, of those elements of sanctification and truth that exist in their divinely ordained fullness (hence subsist) in the Roman Catholic Church. (p. 213)

Is Hardon’s exegesis of Vatican II correct? This appears to be a controverted topic, with more ecumenical-minded Catholics asserting that Vatican II departed decisively from pre-conciliar teaching.

Much more could be cited, but I’ll close with the important and authoritative gloss on subsistit provided by the CDF Declaration Dominus Iesus:

The Lord Jesus, the only Saviour, did not only establish a simple community of disciples, but constituted the Church as a salvific mystery: he himself is in the Church and the Church is in him (cf. Jn 15:1ff.; Gal 3:28; Eph 4:15-16; Acts 9:5). Therefore, the fullness of Christ’s salvific mystery belongs also to the Church, inseparably united to her Lord. Indeed, Jesus Christ continues his presence and his work of salvation in the Church and by means of the Church (cf. Col 1:24-27), which is his body (cf. 1 Cor 12:12-13, 27; Col 1:18). And thus, just as the head and members of a living body, though not identical, are inseparable, so too Christ and the Church can neither be confused nor separated, and constitute a single “whole Christ.” This same inseparability is also expressed in the New Testament by the analogy of the Church as the Bride of Christ (cf. 2 Cor 11:2; Eph 5:25-29; Rev 21:2,9).

Therefore, in connection with the unicity and universality of the salvific mediation of Jesus Christ, the unicity of the Church founded by him must be firmly believed as a truth of Catholic faith. Just as there is one Christ, so there exists a single body of Christ, a single Bride of Christ: “a single Catholic and apostolic Church.” Furthermore, the promises of the Lord that he would not abandon his Church (cf. Mt 16:18; 28:20) and that he would guide her by his Spirit (cf. Jn 16:13) mean, according to Catholic faith, that the unicity and the unity of the Church—like everything that belongs to the Church’s integrity—will never be lacking.

The Catholic faithful are required to profess that there is an historical continuity—rooted in the apostolic succession—between the Church founded by Christ and the Catholic Church: “This is the single Church of Christ … which our Saviour, after his resurrection, entrusted to Peter’s pastoral care (cf. Jn 21:17), commissioning him and the other Apostles to extend and rule her (cf. Mt 28:18ff.), erected for all ages as ‘the pillar and mainstay of the truth’ (1 Tim 3:15). This Church, constituted and organized as a society in the present world, subsists in [subsistit in] the Catholic Church, governed by the Successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him.” With the expression subsistit in, the Second Vatican Council sought to harmonize two doctrinal statements: on the one hand, that the Church of Christ, despite the divisions which exist among Christians, continues to exist fully only in the Catholic Church, and on the other hand, that “outside of her structure, many elements can be found of sanctification and truth,” that is, in those Churches and ecclesial communities which are not yet in full communion with the Catholic Church. But with respect to these, it needs to be stated that “they derive their efficacy from the very fullness of grace and truth entrusted to the Catholic Church.”

Therefore, there exists a single Church of Christ, which subsists in the Catholic Church, governed by the Successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him. The Churches which, while not existing in perfect communion with the Catholic Church, remain united to her by means of the closest bonds, that is, by apostolic succession and a valid Eucharist, are true particular Churches. Therefore, the Church of Christ is present and operative also in these Churches, even though they lack full communion with the Catholic Church, since they do not accept the Catholic doctrine of the Primacy, which, according to the will of God, the Bishop of Rome objectively has and exercises over the entire Church.

On the other hand, the ecclesial communities which have not preserved the valid Episcopate and the genuine and integral substance of the Eucharistic mystery, are not Churches in the proper sense; however, those who are baptized in these communities are, by Baptism, incorporated in Christ and thus are in a certain communion, albeit imperfect, with the Church. Baptism in fact tends per se toward the full development of life in Christ, through the integral profession of faith, the Eucharist, and full communion in the Church.

“The Christian faithful are therefore not permitted to imagine that the Church of Christ is nothing more than a collection—divided, yet in some way one—of Churches and ecclesial communities; nor are they free to hold that today the Church of Christ nowhere really exists, and must be considered only as a goal which all Churches and ecclesial communities must strive to reach.” In fact, “the elements of this already-given Church exist, joined together in their fullness in the Catholic Church and, without this fullness, in the other communities.” “Therefore, these separated Churches and communities as such, though we believe they suffer from defects, have by no means been deprived of significance and importance in the mystery of salvation. For the spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them as means of salvation which derive their efficacy from the very fullness of grace and truth entrusted to the Catholic Church.”

The lack of unity among Christians is certainly a wound for the Church; not in the sense that she is deprived of her unity, but “in that it hinders the complete fulfilment of her universality in history.”

How do you interpret these citations? How do other Catholic theolgians interpret Vatican II and Lumen Gentium?

What does the Catholic Church teach about the Catholic Church?

10 August 2005


Edwin of Ithilien recently outlined his “Case for Protestantism.” In this article he thoughtfully presents his reasons why he must remain Protestant. Basically, it boils down to this: He must remain Protestant because he cannot authentically convert to Catholicism or Orthodoxy. Conversion signifies a willingness to to subject oneself to another tradition.

Conversion, by its very name, implies a radical change of heart. It implies that one’s priorities have been radically reoriented, however much continuity one may experience. It requires a radical humility toward the tradition one is accepting. That is not to say that the convert has nothing to offer from her former tradition–but all such offerings must be made humbly and tentatively, subject to the new rules by which one is playing. This requires an act of ultimate trust in the integrity of the tradition to which one is converting.

I agree, and I applaud Edwin for his honesty and integrity. One cannot become Catholic (or Orthodox) on Protestant terms. There must be a willingness to allow the Catholic faith to challenge one’s basic preconceptions and to rewire one’s thinking and sensibilities. One must be willing to learn from the Church, trusting in God to take that which is good and true in one’s Protestant faith and return it in its proper Catholic significance and power. As many Protestant converts to Catholicism can testify, they have found the deepest truths of their faith fulfilled and transfigured in the Catholic Church, not repudiated. But one cannot insist that Catholicism become Protestant. When Christ brings a person into full communion with his Catholic Church, he asks him to submit to the magisterial tradition of the Church. If one will not or cannot do this, one should not become Catholic. As Cardinal Newman explained to Mrs. Phillips: “It is quite true that the Catholic Church claims absolute submission to her in matters of faith—Unless you believe her doctrines, as the word of God revealed to you through her, you can gain no good by professing to be a Catholic—you are not one really.”

Edwin honestly admits that he cannot find the necessary trust within himself. He can only accept Catholicism if it supports his deepest Wesleyan convictions:

It is this act of trust which I have so far found impossible in the case of Catholicism. Because it is precisely the central elements of my Wesleyan tradition that have led me toward Catholicism, I am only capable of considering conversion to Catholicism _if_ those elements can be preserved within Catholicism. I would therefore be coming in with a set of mental qualifications. I can accept the hierarchical priesthood _if_ it does not violate the underlying primacy of the universal baptismal priesthood. If I found that in practice the ministerial priesthood did not serve the universal priesthood, I would be compelled to question it. I can accept the equality of Scripture and Tradition _if_ it does not make me regard Scripture with less reverence or see it as a less central means of grace than I have heretofore done. I can possibly accept the doctrine of unformed faith if it still allows me to place my trust in Jesus Christ with the same confidence and simplicity that my evangelical tradition has taught me to do.

At this point argument must cease. The answers Edwin seeks can only be found on the other side of conversion.

But I would like to address Edwin’s statement that he could accept the Catholic understanding of faith if it allowed him to continue to trust in Christ with confidence and simplicity. It seems to me that he has confused the dialectics of Trent for actual Catholic believing and living. Just look at St Thérèse of Lisieux. Has any Christian had a simpler trust in Jesus—and she is considered a doctor of the universal Church! Would that we all could believe as simply and profoundly as the Little Flower.

When I think of the good God’s statement: ‘I shall come soon and bring my reward with me, repaying everyone according to his works’, then I say to myself that He will find Himself wonderfully embarrassed with me, because I have no works! So He will not be able to repay me according to my works. Very well, then, I trust that He will repay me according to His works.

I am tempted to point Edwin to the Lutheran/Catholic agreement on justification and ask, “With what do you disagree?”; but I know he has already read and evaluated it. In the agreement the Catholic Church not only asserted the compatibility of the Tridentine and Reformation formulations on justification, but she implicitly affirmed the freedom of Catholics to articulate the realities of grace and faith in the existential categories of the Reformation. Two years ago, when I began seriously studying Catholicism, I called one of the Lutheran composers of the statement and asked him if he would now have any trouble becoming Catholic. Absolutely not, he replied. Indeed, he said, one is just as likely nowadays to get a decent justifying sermon from Catholics as from Lutherans! I received a similar reply from another Lutheran theologian who has also been involved for over three decades in both the national and international Lutheran/Catholic dialogues. The recent conversions of thoughtful Lutheran men such as Richard John Neuhaus, Robert Wilken, Leonard Klein, Reinhard Huetter, and Bruce Marshall would seem to confirm this confidence in the Catholic Church. I doubt any of them became Catholic in order to abandon saving faith in Jesus Christ and begin working their way into heaven. But Edwin is well aware of all of this.

The question of justification was a major hurdle for me personally; but my years studying under Robert Jenson worked to my benefit here. Jenson had taught me to understand the reforming doctrine of justification not as a third-person description of how God and human being interacts to produce the salvation of the individual believer but as instruction to preachers to so speak the gospel that faith in Jesus Christ is generated and not works-righteousness. When one construes justification along these lines, one quickly realizes that Protestant preachers offend the reforming principle just as grossly and frequently as Catholic preachers do.

But if one insists on understanding justification by faith as a description of the process of salvation, then one finds oneself trapped in an interminable dispute and polemic about which description is superior. This is not to say there aren’t substantive differences between the Catholic and the Lutheran and Reformed traditions, especially if one takes the monergism of Luther and Calvin seriously; but Luther and Calvin would have found the Wesleyan construal of justification almost as objectionable as the Catholic. The Wesleyan and Catholic traditions actually share a great deal in common. Both uphold a synergistic understanding of grace. Both insist that the believer must cooperate with the unconditional grace of Christ and pursue a life of holiness, obedience, and faith.

But there is one important difference between the Catholic tradition and most Protestant traditions. In the Catholic Church the gospel is sacramentally embodied. Salvation is objectively communicated to the believer in the eucharistic Body and Blood and the absolution of the confessional. And this difference makes all the difference in the world!

Chesterton has a wonderful paragraph on the magnanmity of the confessional that is especially apt:

Most of those who have gone through this experience have a certain right to say, like the old soldier to his ignorant comrade, “Yes, I was afraid; and if you were half as much afraid, you would run away.” Perhaps it is just as well that people go through this stage before discovering how very little there is to be afraid of. In any case, I will say little more of that example here, having a feeling that absolution, like death and marriage, is a thing that a man ought to find out for himself. It will be enough to say that this is perhaps the supreme example of the fact that the Faith is a paradox that measures more within than without. If that be true of the smallest church, it is truer still of the yet smaller confessional-box, that is like a church within a church. It is almost a good thing that nobody outside should know what gigantic generosity, and even geniality, can be locked up in a box, as the legendary casket held the heart of the giant. It is a satisfaction, and almost a joke, that it is only in a dark corner and a cramped space that any man can discover that mountain of magnanimity.

The sacrament of confession is perhaps the most powerful expression of God’s mercy and grace that I have ever experienced. When rightly celebrated, when the confessor knows what he is doing and the penitent has prayerfully prepared himself, justification becomes more than just a theological explanation; it becomes event in the life of the believer.

This is why I did not consider, and could never have considered, leaving the Episcopal Church for an evangelical Protestant denomination. I was raised a Methodist, with a dose of revivalism thrown in for good measure. That which drew me into the Anglo-Catholic tradition was precisely the objectivity of grace, particularly the real presence of the incarnate Word in the Eucharist. Each Sunday, no matter how I was feeling, I was given the Body and Blood of my Savior. I did not have to conjure up faith. Faith was simply receiving the gift of the eucharistic Christ. I subsequently became convinced, and remain convinced, that the gospel is intrinsically sacramental and must be sacramental to be gospel. Again, it was Robert Jenson who helped me to see this clearly:

Justification by my own righteousness is overcome only by a word that both declares my justification and is clearly and permanently not my own word. Justification by faith can only be opened by a word addressed to me, from outside of me. The gospel is intrinsically an “external” word; it is a word with a home out there in the world that stands against my subjectivity, and that is to say, out there in the world of objects, of bodies and places for bodies. It is, therefore, intrinsically a word “with” a body, with an undetachable nonverbal or more-then-verbal manifestation: a word “with” a bath or a meal or a finger-sign….

Words that are mere words, that could in principle get along without objects and bodily performances, are too mental to open the righteousness of faith. If all the word of promise does is convey the information that, let us say, Jesus lives, then once that information is in my head, I can forget the way I learned it. Then the bit of knowledge becomes my knowledge, that I can henceforth tell myself—and if hearing it justifies, I can justify myself. Thus the word that Jesus lives does not occur as a mere conveyance of information, but as a word that includes such addresses as, “This piece of bread is the living Jesus, take it,” thereby pinning me each time anew to what does not come from me, but is out there in the world and comes to me from it. (Lutheranism [1976], pp. 81-82)

When the forgiveness and mercy of Christ is sacramentally embodied, it is always objectively there for me, an external word upon which I may hang my faith. I cannot manipulate it. I cannot assimilate it to my need to justify myself to God and man. I can only believe it. The priest places the Host into my hand and says, “The body of Christ.” At that moment, to believe and to eat are the same action. The Catholic doctrine of ex opere operato is evangelically liberating. My faith does not create the sacrament. The sacramental Christ is given to me. I eat him and I drink him.

Here are two fundamentally different apprehensions of the gospel. Believers are formed differently in Catholic and non-sacramental Protestant traditions. We may not, for good reasons, wish to say that Catholicism and Protestantism are two different religions; but Catholicism must insist that God intends his gospel to be communicated to mankind through the tangibility of sacrament. Sacrament is not accidental to the gospel. The good news of Christ seeks and demands embodiment. Luther knew in his bones that justification by faith and catholic sacramentalism could not be divorced without calling into question the very gospel that is humanity’s salvation. On this point he was willing to risk the unity of the Reformation.

Hence arises one of my big questions about current Catholic/Protestant ecumenism: Has the Catholic Church done Protestants any favors by muting this sacramental difference between the Catholic and Protestant traditions? Protestants need to know that they are not experiencing the gospel as it was divinely ordained to be experienced and known. They need to know that the righteousness of faith requires a word that they can not only hear but can see and touch and smell. They need to know that the sacramentality of the gospel is a decisive reason for converting to the Catholic Church.

Before our Wesleyan readers protest, let me acknowledge that in the past decade or two Methodism has been slowly moving in a more liturgical direction. Methodists are starting to sound and look like Episcopalians! But Methodism’s pietistic roots run deep.

Since the Reformation we have seen catholicizing movements come and go in various Protestant denominations. The Anglo-Catholic movement achieved perhaps the greatest notoriety and success. Yet none have been able to rewrite the Protestant DNA of their respective churches. Something profound was lost at the Reformation. It cannot be recovered through liturgical reform, conferences, or changes in seminary curriculum. It can only be recovered by reunion with the true vine.

At the conclusion of his article, Edwin asks for our prayers. I gladly do so and invite the readers of Pontifications to do so likewise.

Let me close with these words that Newman wrote to a woman in 1851:

“Of course, my only answer to you can be that the Catholic Church is the true fold of Christ, and that it is your duty to submit to it. You cannot do this without God’s grace, and therefore you ought to pray Him continually for it. All is well if God is on our side.”

21 August 2005


I have just become aware that a former parishioner of mine, Charlie Wingate, has started a new blog: Tune: King’s Lynn. As I survey his postings over the past couple of weeks, I find that he has devoted several posts to critiquing my pontifications. I’m sure he would appreciate constructive engagement from others, and so I invite you to visit his site. Unfortunately, he has not yet forgiven me for becoming Catholic, but the content of his postings deserve thoughtful response.

In his article “The Roman Sect,” Charlie interprets my recent postings on the catholicity of Anglicanism as a denial of God’s grace in Anglicanism and, in particular, in my ministry while I was rector of St. Mark’s Church in Highland, Maryland:

The biggest hole in all of this is the amnesia of our many personal histories in this. Since Al is now denying that, by virtue of his priestly office, I ever received grace from his hand, I’m faced with, on the one hand, his and my apparent faith, and its central role in motivating any positive relationship with any church, and on the other, his adoption of a theology which denies efficacy to that faith. It’s the same old story I’ve seen dozens of time: in order to protect his personal judgements from his old church, he picks a new church under whose infallible aegis he can tuck his old faith. The only defense it then requires is that of ratifying his rejection of where he was, a defense it provides by virtue of its claims to infallibility. But what good is one’s personal rejection anyway? Catholically, none at all. If the only intellect that can be trusted is that of the magisterium, then they have nothing to say to me. If the only intellect that can be trusted is that of the church fathers, then they have nothing to say to me. Argue with me, and you have conceded some efficacy to my intellect.

I have never, of course, denied the presence of God within Anglicanism nor have I denied God’s use of my priestly ministry during my twenty-five years as a priest in the Episcopal Church. I rejoice that many of those whom I have been privileged to serve testify that I have been a vessel of God’s love and holy presence in their lives. It is unfortunate that Charlie has interpreted my conversion to Catholicism as a denial of such grace. Perhaps even more unfortunate is his apparent misunderstanding of the authentic teaching of the Catholic Church on the reality of God’s grace within the Churches of the Reformation. Lumen Gentium explicitly acknowledges that those who are baptized with water in the name of the Holy Trinity are truly united to Christ and therefore “in some real way they are joined with us in the Holy Spirit, for to them too He gives His gifts and graces whereby He is operative among them with His sanctifying power” (II.15). The Catholic Church does not require me to assert the emptiness of my priestly ministry, even if, by papal decree, Anglican orders have been declared “absolutely null and utterly void.” A judgment of invalidity is not a judgment of divine absence.

Charlie, I know, is partly responding to the severity of my recent postings on Anglicanism. A few days ago I received an email from a respected Episcopal theologian asking me to cease and desist. Once the divorce has been effected, it’s time to move on and not look back. If only it were so easy. Becoming a Catholic is not like joining another Protestant denomination. I became a Catholic because I became convinced (against my druthers!) that it was true, and this necessarily implies the judgment that in some basic ways Anglicanism is false or defective in its essential structure.

Every week or two I receive an email or phone call from one or more Episcopal priests who are struggling with their vocations. Having given their hearts and souls to ordained ministry in the Episcopal Church, they now find themselves questioning their fundamental ecclesiological commitments. Must I become Catholic or Orthodox? they poignantly ask. One priest called me last week and said, “Please give me a Christian reason why I should not become Catholic immediately.” What does conscience require? What does God require? What of the costs to my family? All who contact me tell me how important Pontifications has been to them. All urge me to continue to write. And so I write as forthrightly as I can. As I have said many times before, the present crisis in Anglicanism is forcing everyone to clarify their fundamental theological and ecclesiological commitments. The old elisions, obfuscations, incoherences, and compromises that permitted Anglo-Catholics, latitudinarians, and evangelicals to live together in one happy Anglican home are no longer sustainable. Hence it is crucial to emphasize the theological absurdity in trying to house contradictory theological convictions under one Anglican roof and to identify the reasons why catholic-minded believers must seriously consider conversion to Catholicism and Orthodoxy. Ecumenical good will and mutual affirmation are for another day.

Do my articles on Anglicanism sound and feel harsh? I imagine they do. As I said, becoming Catholic (or Orthodox) is not like joining another denomination. In a letter to Anglo-Catholic Thomas Allies, Cardinal Newman explained:

Persons like you should recollect that the reason why I left the Anglican Church was that I thought salvation was not to be found in it…. If it led me to leave Anglicanism, it necessarily led me and leads me to wish others to leave it. The position of those who leave it in the only way in which I think it is justifiable to leave it, is necessarily one of hostility towards it. To leave it merely as a branch of the Catholic Church for another which I liked better, would have been to desert without reason the post where Providence put me. It is impossible then but that a convert, if justifiable in the grounds of his conversion, must be an enemy of the Communion he has left, and more intensely so than a foreigner who knows nothing about that Communion at all.

These are hard words. I daresay they are virtually incomprehensible in our ecumenical age. Yet I have come to see and experience their truth, at least to a degree. I am profoundly grateful for the faith that the Lord formed in me through the liturgical and ascetical heritage of Anglicanism and the witness of my brothers and sisters; but I cannot pretend that Anglicanism is Church in the way I once believed it to be. This does not mean that the gospel of Jesus Christ is not proclaimed in the Churches of the Anglican Communion. I was reborn through this gospel. Nor does it mean that God is absent from the Churches of the Anglican Communion. The vitality and courage of the Anglican witness around the world is manifest. Nor does it mean—most certainly does not mean—that Anglicans cannot be saved. The unmerited grace of Christ overflows the covenantal boundaries of the Catholic Church. But it does mean that once one has seen the fullness of truth in the Catholic Church, once one has seen that the covenantal promises of Christ properly and preminently apply to the Catholic Church, then union with the See of Peter becomes a spiritual and moral imperative. This act of union is rightly described as a conversion, for it requires the subjection of private judgment to Holy Tradition and Roman magisterial authority and the reconfiguration of many of one’s religious convictions.

One must be willing to undergo a shift in paradigms. Reason can only take one to the water’s edge. And then all that is left is to take that plunge of faith. If you find yourself at the water’s edge, pray for the grace to take that plunge.

26 November 2005


Is the Catholic Church the Catholic Church? A century ago every Catholic would have given an enthusiastic and emphatic yes to that question. The identity of the Church with the Churches in communion with the Bishop of Rome is asserted by Pope Pius XII in his encyclical Mystici Corporis Christi: “The true Church of Jesus Christ … is [est] the One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic and Roman Church.” This identity is reasserted in the Vatican II decree Orientalium Ecclesiarum:

The Holy Catholic Church, which is the Mystical Body of Christ, is made up of the faithful who are organically united in the Holy Spirit by the same faith, the same sacraments and the same government and who, combining together into various groups which are held together by a hierarchy, form separate Churches or Rites. Between these there exists an admirable bond of union, such that the variety within the Church in no way harms its unity; rather it manifests it, for it is the mind of the Catholic Church that each individual Church or Rite should retain its traditions whole and entire and likewise that it should adapt its way of life to the different needs of time and place.

These individual Churches, whether of the East or the West, although they differ somewhat among themselves in rite (to use the current phrase), that is, in liturgy, ecclesiastical discipline, and spiritual heritage, are, nevertheless, each as much as the others, entrusted to the pastoral government of the Roman Pontiff, the divinely appointed successor of St. Peter in primacy over the universal Church. They are consequently of equal dignity, so that none of them is superior to the others as regards rite and they enjoy the same rights and are under the same obligations, also in respect of preaching the Gospel to the whole world (cf. Mark 16, 15) under the guidance of the Roman Pontiff.

But in the Dogmatic Constitution of the Church, Lumen Gentium (§8), the council fathers also decided to nuance this identity in order to publicly acknowledge the ecclesial reality of Churches outside the Roman Communion. To accomplish this purpose they chose the word subsistit. Here is the controversial passage:

This is the one Church of Christ which in the Creed is professed as one, holy, catholic and apostolic, which our Saviour, after His Resurrection, commissioned Peter to shepherd, and him and the other apostles to extend and direct with authority, which He erected for all ages as “the pillar and mainstay of the truth”. 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.

Since Vatican II a number of Catholics, however, have aggressively advanced the thesis that Lumen Gentium represents a revolution in Roman ecclesiology. The Catholic Church has abandoned, they say, her exclusivist ecclesiology and has in fact accepted her identity as being one denomination, albeit the largest and bestest, among very many (see, e.g., the recent comments of jcecil3).

Evidently, this “ecumenical” interpretation of Lumen Gentium arose fairly quickly after the council, because in 1973 the Magisterium was compelled to issue the document Mysterium Ecclesia to refute the “ecumenical” interpretation:

Catholics are bound to profess that through the gift of God’s mercy they belong to that Church which Christ founded and which is governed by the successors of Peter and the other Apostles, who are the depositories of the original Apostolic tradition, living and intact, which is the permanent heritage of doctrine and holiness of that same Church. The followers of Christ are therefore not permitted to imagine that Christ’s Church is nothing more than a collection (divided, but still possessing a certain unity) of Churches and ecclesial communities. Nor are they free to hold that Christ’s Church nowhere really exists today and that it is to be considered only as an end which all Churches and ecclesial communities must strive to reach.

But despite this Magisterial interpretation, it’s clear that many Catholics have in fact accepted a denominational, relativistic view of the Church. It is not uncommon for Protestants exploring the possibility of converting to Catholicism to meet, even among priests and theologians, the attitude “But why would you want to do that?! Stay in your own church and be a good _____ [Episcopalian, Lutheran, or whatever].” Needless to say, J. H. Newman would be, and no doubt is, dismayed by this attitude of indifference.

It appears that the Vatican may be seeking to bring greater clarity to the meaning of subsistit in. The December 5-6 edition of L’Osservatore Romano has an article by Fr Karl Josef Becker, S.J. John Allen cites the following statement by Becker:

The phrase subsistit in meant not only to reconfirm the sense of est, that is, the identity between the church of Christ and the Catholic church. It also meant to reiterate that the church of Christ, with the fullness of the means instituted by Christ, perdures (continues, remains) forever in the Catholic church.

I personally find it incomprehensible how anyone could believe that Vatican II actually intended to abandon the claim that the Catholic Church is the Church. It’s one thing to deepen, nuance, and clarify a long-held teaching; it’s quite another thing to abandon it, especially if it is a teaching that is goes to the heart of Catholic identity. Ecumenical Councils just don’t operate that way; they are traditionally traditional and only break fresh ground, as with the homousion at the Council of Nicaea, when compelled by doctrinal controversy. But where was the controversy at Vatican II on the nature of the Church? The council incorporated into her self-understanding the ecclesiological vision of De Lubac and others; but did it really intend to reject the traditional identification of the Church of Christ and the Catholic Church? The Catholic Church has always believed and taught that her unity is visible and indivisible. This conviction has been pointedly expressed in the proposition Extra ecclesiam nulla salus. As St Cyprian wrote, “He who has not the Church for his mother, has not God for his Father.”

So what did the Vatican II fathers intend when they confessed that the Church of Jesus Christ subsists in the Catholic Church? In his article “The Church of Christ and the Catholic Church,” James O’Connor reviews the Acta of the council and reaches this conclusion: “According to the teachings of Vatican Council II, the Church of Christ and the Roman Catholic Church are one and the same complex reality.” O’Connor cites this important passage from the written relatio dealing with the passage in question:

From the great number of observations and objections, which were brought forth by the bishops in respect to this paragraph (as it appeared in the working draft), it is evident that the intention and context of this section were not clear to all.

Now, the intention is to show that the Church, whose deep and hidden nature is described and which is perpetually united with Christ and His work, is concretely found here on earth in the Catholic Church. This visible Church reveals a mystery—not without shadows until it is brought to full light, just as the Lord Himself through His “emptying out” came to glory. Thus there is to be avoided the impression that the description which the Council sets forth of the Church is merely idealistic and unreal.

Therefore, a clearer subdivision is set forth, in which the following points are successively treated:

a) The mystery of the Church is present in and manifested in a concrete society. The visible assembly and the spiritual element are not two realities, but one complex reality, embracing the divine and human, the means of salvation and the fruit of salvation. This is illustrated by an analogy with the Word Incarnate.

b) The Church is one only (unica), and here on earth is present in the Catholic Church, although outside of her there are found ecclesial elements….

Certain words have been changed: in place of “is”, “subsists in” is used so that the expression may be in better harmony with the affirmation about ecclesial elements which are present elsewhere.

This certainly doesn’t read as if the council fathers intended to reject or abandon the ancient claim that the the Church of Jesus Christ is the Catholic Church. But the choice of subsistit in did allow the council to acknowledge and affirm the work of the Spirit outside of the canonical boundaries of the Catholic Church and to commit the Catholic Church to the work of ecumenism. Pope Benedict elaborates in his article “The Ecclesiology Of The Constitution On The Church, Vatican II, ‘Lumen Gentium’“:

The Second Vatican Council, with the formula of the subsistit—in accord with Catholic tradition—wanted to teach the exact opposite of “ecclesiological relativism”: the Church of Jesus Christ truly exists. He himself willed her, and the Holy Spirit has continuously created her since Pentecost, in spite of being faced with every human failing, and sustains her in her essential identity. The institution is not an inevitable but theologically unimportant or even harmful externalization, but belongs in its essential core to the concrete character of the Incarnation. The Lord keeps his word: “The gates of hell shall not prevail against her”.

At this point it becomes necessary to investigate the word subsistit somewhat more carefully. With this expression, the Council differs from the formula of Pius XII, who said in his Encyclical Mystici Corporis Christi: “The Catholic Church “is” (est) the one mystical body of Christ”. The difference between subsistit and est conceals within itself the whole ecumenical problem. The word subsistit derives from the ancient philosophy as later developed in Scholastic philosophy. The Greek word hypostasis that has a central role in Christology to describe the union of the divine and the human nature in the Person of Christ comes from that vision. Subsistere is a special case of esse. It is being in the form of a subject who has an autonomous existence. Here it is a question precisely of this. The Council wants to tell us that the Church of Jesus Christ as a concrete subject in this world can be found in the Catholic Church. This can take place only once, and the idea that the subsistit could be multiplied fails to grasp precisely the notion that is being intended. With the word subsistit, the Council wished to explain the unicity of the Catholic Church and the fact of her inability to be multiplied: the Church exists as a subject in historical reality.

The difference between subsistit and est however contains the tragedy of ecclesial division. Although the Church is only one and “subsists” in a unique subject, there are also ecclesial realities beyond this subject—true local Churches and different ecclesial communities. Because sin is a contradiction, this difference between subsistit and est cannot be fully resolved from the logical viewpoint. The paradox of the difference between the unique and concrete character of the Church, on the one hand, and, on the other, the existence of an ecclesial reality beyond the one subject, reflects the contradictory nature of human sin and division. This division is something totally different from the relativistic dialectic described above in which the division of Christians loses its painful aspect and in fact is not a rupture, but only the manifestation of multiple variations on a single theme, in which all the variations are in a certain way right and wrong. An intrinsic need to seek unity does not then exist, because in any event the one Church really is everywhere and nowhere. Thus Christianity would actually exist only in the dialectic correlation of various antitheses. Ecumenism consists in the fact that in some way all recognize one another, because all are supposed to be only fragments of Christian reality. Ecumenism would therefore be the resignation to a relativistic dialectic, because the Jesus of history belongs to the past and the truth in any case remains hidden.

The vision of the Council is quite different: the fact that in the Catholic Church is present the subsistit of the one subject the Church, is not at all the merit of Catholics, but is solely God’s work, which he makes endure despite the continuous unworthiness of the human subjects. They cannot boast of anything, but can only admire the fidelity of God, with shame for their sins and at the same time great thanks. But the effect of their own sins can be seen: the whole world sees the spectacle of the divided and opposing Christian communities, reciprocally making their own claims to truth and thus clearly frustrating the prayer of Christ on the eve of his Passion. Whereas division as a historical reality can be perceived by each person, the subsistence of the one Church in the concrete form of the Catholic Church can be seen as such only through faith.

Since the Second Vatican Council was conscious of this paradox, it proclaimed the duty of ecumenism as a search for true unity, and entrusted it to the Church of the future.

The Church of Jesus Christ radically exists in the Catholic Church. If she, per impossible, were to disappear from the face of the earth, all non-Catholic Christian bodies would also cease to exist, for they enjoy their existence only from and in the Catholic Church. Hence the insistence of the Magisterium that the Holy Catholic Church “is not sister but mother of all the particular churches.”

14 December 2005


Evan May semi-jokingly wonders: “The Roman church has long called itself the ‘Catholic’ church. It has claimed this word for itself to such a degree that the Roman position is anachronistically read back into the word ‘Catholic’ in any early document. This, of course, is unjustified. But why do they get to be the ‘Catholic’ church to begin with? Who gave them the right to be a linguistic terrorist by hijacking a Biblical word (‘universal’) for themselves?”

I suppose it must seem unfair that the word catholic is the proper name of that communion of Churches united to the bishop of Rome. Nobody legally registered the name. Nobody officially assigned the name. It just happened. And it happened fairly quickly. We see the beginnings of this development in St Ignatius of Antioch (“Wheresoever the bishop shall appear, there let the people be, even as where Jesus may be, there is the catholic Church”). By the latter half of the third century, we see St Pacian of Barcelona defending the pronominal status of Catholic Church against the Novationist bishop Sympronian.

Pacian readily concedes that the term is not found in the New Testament. He acknowledges that the appellation arose because of the need of the Catholic Church to identify itself over against heretical churches:

But under the Apostles, you will say, no one was called Catholic. Be it thus. It shall have been so. Allow even that. When after the Apostles heresies had burst forth, and were striving under various names to tear piecemeal and divide the Dove and the Queen of God, did not the Apostolic people require a name of their own, whereby to mark the unity of the people that were uncorrupted, lest the error of some should rend limb by limb the undefiled virgin of God? Was it not seemly that the chief head should be distinguished by its own peculiar appellation? Suppose, this very day, I entered a populous city. When I had found Marcionites, Apollinarians, Cataphrygians, Novatians, and others of the kind who call themselves Christians, by what name should I recognise the congregation of my own people, unless it were named Catholic? Come tell me, who bestowed so many names on the other peoples? Why have so many cities, so many nations, each their own description? The man who asks the meaning of the Catholic Name, will he be ignorant himself of the cause of his own name if I shall enquire its origin? Whence was it delivered to me? Certainly that which has stood through so many ages was not borrowed from man. This name “Catholic” sounds not of Marcion, nor of Apelles, nor of Montanus, nor does it take heretics as its authors.

Observe how Pacian delights in the fact that the Catholic Church is not named after any specific teacher. Moreover, Pacian tells Symphronian, the use of Catholic Church as a proper name has been consecrated by the saints, confessors, and martyrs of the Church. It is not lightly dismissed or amended:

What of so many aged Bishops, so many Martyrs, so many Confessors? Come say, if they were not sufficient authorities for the use of this name, are we sufficient for its rejection? And shall the Fathers rather follow our authority, and the antiquity of Saints give way to be emended by us, and times now putrifying through their sins, pluck out the grey hairs of Apostolic age? And yet, my brother, be not troubled; Christian is my name, but Catholic my surname. The former gives me a name, the latter distinguishes me. By the one I am approved; by the other I am but marked. And if at last we must give an account of the word Catholic, and draw it out from the Greek by a Latin interpretation, “Catholic” is ‘every where one,’ or, (as learned men think,) “obedience in all,” i. e. all the commands of God. Whence the Apostle, Whether ye he obedient in all things; and again, For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of One shall many be made righteous. Therefore he who is a Catholic, the same man is obedient. He who is obedient, the same is a Christian, and thus the Catholic is a Christian. Wherefore our people when named Catholic are separated by this appellation from the heretical name.

Certainly that which has stood through so many ages was not borrowed from man. The name may not have been appointed by Jesus or his Apostles, yet who dares deny that the Holy Spirit has conferred this name upon the Church of Christ? Saints Cyril of Jerusalem and Augustine of Hippo also explicitly referred to the pronominal status of Catholic Church in their writings. “Whether they wish or no, heretics have to call the Catholic Church Catholic,” declared Augustine.

Here is one of those simple facts that are so hard to argue away. It will not, I know, persuade anyone who is not open to persuasion, yet it stands before us and demands our attention. Just as Rome has the bones, as Fr Scott Newman likes to say, so Rome has the proper name by which the Church of Jesus Christ has been known for almost two millenia. The power of Catholicism is its historical facticity. Stanley Jaki observes that heretics have always preferred ideas, their own ideas, to the simple facts of the Catholic Church.

My father moved from North Dakota to Washington, D.C. in 1934. He got a job working for Sears and eventually worked his way up to manager of their furniture department. In 1943 he and a man named Cedric Barnes started their own furniture store. Eventually they built four stores in Northern Virginia. Their company was named Barnes & Kimel. In 1958, Mr. Barnes decided that he wanted to dissolve the partnership. They split the assets of the company down the middle, each taking two stores. My father kept the proprietary appellation Barnes & Kimel. Barnes named his company C. L. Barnes & Son. Question: Which company was the continuation of the original company? Which was its rightful successor? In the eyes of the public, the answer was clear—the company with the old name. A few years later my father, in a moment of vanity, changed the name to Kimels. He later admitted this was the single greatest blunder of his business career!

So why does the Catholic Church get to call herself the Catholic Church? Perhaps because she is.

29 January 2006


My son Aaron tells me that when philosophy students talk about the perdurance of personal identity through time, they love to invoke the Star Trek: Next Generation episode “Second Chances.” In this episode, the Enterprise visits the planet Nervala Four, a planet that Commander Will Riker had visited eight years earlier. To everyone’s surprise they find an exact duplicate of Riker on the planet’s surface. The planet’s distortion field had caused the transporter to create a second Will Riker on Riker’s prior visit, a Will Riker with identical memories up to the point of transport. So who is the real Will Riker? The one who was fortunate enough to beam back to his ship, or the one who was left behind on the planet? Both men consider themselves to be the original. Both know and remember themselves as William Thomas Riker.

In my recent article “A Church by Any Other Name,” I cited the historical fact that there is only one ecclesial body that has gone by the name the Catholic Church for over eighteen hundred years—namely, the Church constituted by communion with the bishop of Rome. However one wishes to explain it, the fact remains that this usage is a fact. Evan May criticized me for engaging in anachronistic argumentation. I have assumed without argument, he says, that the “modern Roman Church” is identical to the Church that called itself the Catholic Church in the third and fourth centuries. And May is absolutely correct. I did make and do make this assumption, without apology. The assumption is neither strange nor anachronistic. The Catholic Church of the twenty-first century simply knows herself to be identical to the Catholic Church of the sixteenth century, the Catholic Church of the tenth century, the Catholic Church of the fourth century, and the Catholic Church of the first century.

On January 30th I celebrated my fifty-fourth birthday. It’s hard to believe that I am as old as my birth certificate tells me I am. It was only yesterday that I graduated from high school. Despite all of the years that have passed, I know that I am the same person who grew up in Arlington, Virginia; who attended Woodmont Elementary School; who met his first wife, Christine, at Bard College; who celebrated his first Mass at St Philip’s Church in Miami, Florida; who blessed the H. L. Hunley when it was raised in the Charleston harbor; and who now serves as the Catholic chaplain at Kean University. I am the very same person. I don’t know how I could prove this to a third party, if challenged. I simply know it to be true. Moreover, for most of these fifty-four years, I have called myself, and been called by others, by the first name “Al.” This proper name too is part of my self-identity as a person in time. (My relatives still call me “Little Al” but let’s not talk about that!)

In the movie The Sixth Day, Arnold Schwarzenneger stars as a man who has been cloned. Both the original and the clone share identical memories. The clone believes that his life, including wife and child, has been stolen by an imposter. He simply knows that he is Adam Gibson. Only by confrontation with overwhelming evidence is he persuaded that he is a copy of the real Adam Gibson. Until presented with that evidence, the clone is correct to assume that he is whom he believes himself to be.

The Catholic Church knows herself to be the Church named Catholic. She knows herself to be the Church that was created on the Day of Pentecost and has continued in time until the present. She knows her history; she knows her identity; she knows her proper name. She knows all of this in way analogous to the way that every human being knows and remembers who they are.

But is it not inappropriate to speak of the Church in such personal terms? Surely we are only speaking figuratively when we refer to the Catholic Church by the feminine pronouns she and her. But is it only figure? At this point, I admit, I am wading into un-charted waters, at least for me (and I welcome correction and superior formulations); but for Catholics this way of speaking comes very naturally. Catholics know that the Church is more than an organization or the aggregate of individual believers. They know that the Church is not just a community like other worldly communities. The Catholic Church is a personal reality, a “supra-personal whole” (Karl Adam). She has a mind, a consciousness, a sense, a self-understanding, a history, an identity, a faith, a spirit and soul. She has a living voice and “mystical memory” (Georges Florovsky). She is the bride of Christ and mother of the baptized. In some mysterious way, she is a believing and teaching subject, yet her existence is not autonomous. She is united to the risen Christ as his body and indwelt by his Spirit. She lives in, from, and by the objective revelation that she has received and to which she is accountable. She exists in Christ and with him constitutes the totus Christus. “Marvel and rejoice,” proclaimed St Augustine: “we have become Christ.” And St Thomas Aquinas: “Head and members form as it were one and the same mystical person.”

When the Church speaks of Holy Tradition, she refers primarily, not to a scholarly appeal to the past, but to her memory of who she is in the Holy Spirit and what she has received. Johann Adam Möhler writes:

The scripture is God’s unerring word; but however the predicate of inerrability may belong to it, we ourselves are not exempt from error; nay, we only become so when we have unerringly received the word, which is in itself inerrable. In this reception of the word, human activity, which is fallible, has necessarily a part. But, in order that, in this transit of the divine contents of the Sacred Scriptures into possession of the human intellect, no gross illusion or general misrepresentation may occur, it is taught, that the Divine Spirit, to which are entrusted the guidance and vivification of the Church, becomes, in its union with the human spirit in the Church, a peculiarly Christian tact, a deep sure-guiding feeling, which, as it abideth in truth, leads also into all truth. By a confiding attachment to the perpetuated Apostleship, by education in the Church, by hearing, learning, and living within her pale, by the reception of the higher principle, which renders her eternally fruitful, a deep interior sense is formed that alone is fitted for the perception and acceptance of the written Word, because it entirely coincides with the sense, in which the Sacred Scriptures themselves were composed….

How is the Divine Word to be secured against the erroneous conceptions that have arisen? The general sense decides against particular opinion—the judgment of the Church against that of the individual: the Church interprets the Sacred Scriptures. The Church is the body of the Lord: it is, in its universality, his visible form—his permanent, ever-renovated, humanity—his eternal revelation. He dwells in the community; all his promises, all his gifts are bequeathed to the community—but to no individuals, as such, since the time of the apostles. This general sense, this ecclesiastical consciousness is tradition, in the subjective sense of the word. What then is tradition? The peculiar Christian sense existing in the Church, and transmitted by ecclesiastical education; yet this sense is not to be conceived as detached from its subject-matter—nay, it is formed in, and by this matter, so it may be called a full sense. Tradition is the living word, perpetuated in the hearts of believers. To this sense, as the general sense, the interpretation of Holy Writ is entrusted. The declaration which it pronounces on any controverted subject, is the judgment of the Church; and, therefore, the Church is judge in matters of faith (judex controversiarum). Tradition, in the objective sense, is the general faith of the Church through all ages, manifested by outward historical testimonies; in this sense, tradition is usually termed the norma, the standard of Scriptural interpretation—the rule of faith. (Symbolism [1838], pp. 277-279.)

I know it must seem that I have drifted far from my topic; but consider the very different approach to the matter as expressed by Evan May. Evan has composed a parable to state why the Catholic Church is improperly named the Catholic Church:

Once upon a time, there were a group of associates. These associates called themselves “The Cool Dudes.” They wrote this name in documentation, and everyone knew that this was their name. Their beliefs were clear: chocolate ice cream is superior to vanilla ice cream. But as hundreds of years passed, their beliefs changed. Along the way, some people were equating vanilla ice cream with chocolate ice cream. Eventually, the people who came up in this group (the founding fathers and their beliefs having long died) believed that vanilla ice cream was superior to chocolate ice cream, the direct opposite of what the original “Cool Dudes” taught! Yet these people still called themselves “The Cool Dudes.” However, then came a man by the name of Marvin Lonestar. Marvin had read up on the history of “The Cool Dudes.” He read their original documents, and realized that the modern “Cool Dudes” were not teaching what the original cool dudes believed. He called for a Reformation, to go back to the beliefs of the original Cool Dudes. His group was eventually simply known as “The Dudes.” To this day, however, the modern “Cool Dudes” argue to “The Dudes” that they are the true Dudes, simply because they use the original name. The response of “The Dudes,” however, is “You may call yourselves ‘The Cool Dudes,’ but you don’t believe and practice the same things that they did, and that is simply not cool.”

Here the Church is compared to a human organization or society. This society was instituted by Jesus Christ to advance specific aims (viz., to advance the gospel and pass on the original revelation) and has stated these aims in a written constitution (viz., the Bible). This society called itself the Catholic Church. Somewhere along the way, it lost its way and ceased fulfilling the aims for which it was originally created. So who cares whether the Catholic Church calls itself the Catholic Church? What is important is whether or not it has departed from Christ’s intention for his Church, whether it in fact still teaches the faith once delivered to the saints. If it is no longer fulfilling its ordained ends, then it has effectively become a different society, no matter what its name.

As a critique of my earlier article, May’s parable is irrelevant, since the purpose of my article was quite modest. I wasn’t trying to prove anything about the Catholic Church. I was simply noting the interesting fact that she alone continues to name herself Catholic Church. All Christian Churches, of course, describe themselves as catholic; but only the Catholic Church pronominally identifies herself as Catholic and has done so for almost two millenia. It is important to recall that a proper name refers to its referent independently of descriptive content and is used to distinguish some thing from some other thing. It may well be the case, for example, that in the past post-schism Eastern Churches identified themselves as the Catholic Church or perhaps the Orthodox Catholic Church; but that is no longer common usage today. If one asks, Where can I find the nearest Catholic parish? one will always be directed to a Church in communion with the bishop of Rome. One will not be directed to an Orthodox Church, a Coptic Church, or an Assyrian Catholic Church (Nestorian); and this is true even if the person answering is Orthodox, Coptic, or Nestorian.

But how might a Catholic respond to May’s parable? He might respond head-on and insist that the Catholic Church continues to teach and has always taught the catholic faith. As a Catholic, I firmly believe this to be true. But the Catholic should be wary precisely at this point, for this move in essence allows the Protestant to define the rules of the game. I suggest that the proper response is simply to deny the aptness of the parable as a way of talking about the Church. The Catholic Church is so much more than a human organization. She is a supernatural, supra-personal, trans-historical reality. She knows she is the Church because she was there when the ascended Christ poured out his Spirit upon her: this same Spirit has indwelt, formed, and guided her ever since. She knows she is the Church because she remembers that moment when Christ made Peter the rock upon which she was subsequently built: as long as she maintains communion with his successors, the gates of hell will not prevail against her. She knows she is the Church, because she has been entrusted by her Lord with the promises of salvation and the fullness of his self-revelation: by the preservation and empowerment of the Spirit she will always communicate this revelation to the world, despite the failures, sins, and heresies of individual ecclesiastics. Hence the Catholic Church cannot seriously entertain the Protestant scenario of her apostasy. Individual branches may die and drop off, but the vine remains as full of life and truth as on that brilliant first day of her beginning. In every age, the Church is always primitive in her grasp and articulation of the Catholic faith. As Henry Cardinal Manning writes:

The doctrines of the Church in all ages are primitive. It was the charge of the Reformers that the Catholic doctrines were not primitive, and their pretension was to revert to antiquity. But the appeal to antiquity is both a treason and a heresy. It is a treason because it rejects the Divine voice of the Church at this hour, and a heresy because it denies that voice to be Divine. How can we know what antiquity was except through the Church? No individual, no number of individuals can go back through eighteen hundred years to reach the doctrines of antiquity. We may say with the woman of Samaria, ‘Sir, the well is deep, and thou hast nothing to draw with.’ No individual mind now has contact with the revelation of Pentecost, except through the Church. Historical evidence and biblical criticism are human after all, and amount at most to no more than opinion, probability, human judgment, human tradition.

It is not enough that the fountain of our faith be Divine. It is necessary that the channel be divinely constituted and preserved…. [T]he Church contains the fountain of faith in itself, and is not only the channel divinely created and sustained, but the very presence of the spring-head of the water of life, ever fresh and ever flowing in all ages of the world. I may say in strict truth that the Church has no antiquity. It rests upon its own supernatural and perpetual consciousness. Its past is present with it, for both are one to a mind which is immutable. Primitive and modern are predicates, not of truth, but of ourselves. The Church is always primitive and always modern at one and the same time; and alone can expound its own mind, as an individual can declare its own thoughts. ‘For what man knoweth the things of a man, but the spirit of a man that is in him? So the things also that are of God no man knoweth, but the Spirit of God.’ The only Divine evidence to us of what was primitive is the witness and voice of the Church at this hour. (The Temporal Mission of the Holy Ghost [1881], pp. 227-228.)

In the most fundamental sense, therefore, the Church can never be reformed in her authentic teaching, for she has always taught and will always teach the truth given to her by Christ. She may express her dogmas in new language; she may cast aside formulations deemed inadequate to the the divine revelation; she may develop her doctrines and render them more explicit, being led by the Spirit into a deeper understanding of the deposit of faith; but she will always faithfully witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ and embody his salvation in the world. False teachings and corruptions exist and have always existed in the life of the Church; but they are the false teachings and corruptions of individuals, not of the Church. The Church is the body of a Divine head and the Temple of the Holy Ghost. She is indissolubly bound to her Lord and indwelt by his Spirit. For this reason, Manning avers, “no human error can fasten upon the supernatural consciousness of the truth which pervades the whole mystical body, and this passive infallibility preserves the doctrines of the faith whole and incorruptible in every age” (p. 221).

But could not the Catholic Church be deluded in her self-understanding? The impossibility of the question for the Catholic becomes clear as soon as the question is posed. As J. H. Newman explains in his sermon “Faith and Doubt,” Catholics “are Catholics only while they have faith, and faith is incompatible with doubt. No one can be a Catholic without a simple faith, that what the Church declares in God’s name, is God’s word, and therefore true. A man must simply believe that the Church is the oracle of God; he must be as certain of her mission, as he is of the mission of the Apostles.” For the Catholic to seriously question the divine identity and calling of the Church is to fall immediately into disbelief. “No one can determine to doubt what he is already sure of,” states Newman; “but if he is not sure that the Church is from God, he does not believe it.”

Hence when the Protestant employs Holy Scripture to attack the identity of the Catholic Church, all the Catholic can do is reply, “You have misunderstood.” The Church knows her Scriptures. Every moment of her existence she has heard the Father speaking his Word to her through its words. The very same Spirit who inspired the composition of the biblical writings inspires and guides the Church in her reading and application of them today.

The analogy of personal identity through time is decisively more apt for the illumination of the Church’s catholicity than the efforts to prove or disprove catholicity by conformity to an external standard. The Bible is not equivalent to a written constitution. It cannot be rightly interpreted by neutral observers; hence it cannot rightly be employed to determine whether or not the Catholic Church has definitively fallen away from the original aims of the ecclesial organization. The faith of the Church is prior to Scripture and can only be properly interpreted from, by, and in that faith. Here, as Orthodox theologian Georges Florovsky declares, is the great sin of the Reformation: the assertion of Scripture’s formal self-sufficiency represents nothing less than the denial of catholicity and the destruction of catholic consciousness. “The Church, as the Body of Christ,” writes Florovsky, “stands mystically first and is fuller than Scripture.” Möhler agrees:

The Church … was not founded by Holy Writ, but already existed before its several parts appeared. The certainty which she has of the truth of her own doctrines, is an immediate one, for she received her dogmas from the lips of Christ and the apostles; and by the power of the Divine Spirit, they are indelibly stamped on her consciousness, or as Irenaeus expresses it, on her heart. If the Church were to endeavour, by learned investigation, to seek her doctrines, she would fall into the most absurd inconsistency, and annihilate her very self. For, as it would be the Church that should institute the inquiry, her existence would be presupposed; and yet, as she would have first to find out her own being, the thing whereby and wherein she absolutely consists, namely, Divine Truth, her non-existence must at the same time be presupposed! She would have to go in search of herself, and this a madman only could do; she would be like the man that would examine the papers written by himself, in order to discover whether he really existed! The essential matter of Holy Writ is eternally present in the Church, because it is her heart’s blood—her breath—her soul—her all. She exists only by Christ, and yet she must have to find him out! Whoever reflects on the signification of those words of Christ, ‘I am with ye even to the consummation of the world,’ will be able to conceive at least the view, which the Catholic Church takes of herself. (pp. 296-297)

Or as the Apostle Paul declares, “We have the mind of Christ” (1 Cor 2:16).

Orthodox and Catholic disagree on the identity of the true Church of Christ, yet both share a common understanding of Holy Tradition, Scripture, and catholic consciousness. Both claim to be, both believe themselves to be, the true William Riker. Perhaps one day God will miraculously reunite the two, or perhaps we will have to wait until the last trump to discover the truth; but the claims of both are credible and persuasive. Until God acts, we live by faith. The Protestant, on the other hand, stands alone in his divorce of Scripture from the catholic life of the Church. Bible in hand, he boldly asserts his private exegesis over against the historic Churches of the Apostles. There is something new here that did not appear in history until fifteen hundred years after the death of the last apostle. The Protestant bears a family resemblence to the Catholic and Orthodox, yet his differences are striking. Even his name is new.

5 February 2006


Kevin Johnson and Mark Horne have shared their reasons why they cannot become Catholic. Let’s take a look and see how persuasive they are. First Kevin Johnson:

1) I am firmly committed to a Reformed understanding of the Christian faith as expressed in her historic confessions and the writings of the major figures of the magisterial Reformation especially. Though my understanding differs somewhat from an overly modern Reformed view, I see my understanding of what it means to be Reformed to be quite in line with the magisterial Reformers—especially John Calvin. The magisterial Reformers had a much higher view of ecclesiology and the sacraments than many Reformed churches do today and consequently what is often mistaken for more Catholic doctrine is actually just a return to what the Reformation was really about—returning to the catholic, biblical, historic Christian faith of our forefathers.

Quite right. As long as someone believes that the Reformed understanding of the Christian faith is true, he cannot and should not become Catholic. But why should anyone believe that the Reformed belief-system is true, as opposed, say, to the Lutheran or Methodist belief-system? Are we really to believe that Reformed exegetes are superior to their counterparts in other Protestant denominations?

The claim that the the Reformed Reformation represented a return to the “catholic, biblical, historic Christian faith of our forefathers” is especially dubious. It would be more accurate to say that the Reformed faith represents the appropriation, and radicalization, of the problematic views of St Augustine, views which the ecumenical Church ultimately found it could not embrace. I’m thinking here especially of the Reformed restatement of Augustine’s views on predestination and sacraments. Of course, the only folks who find Calvinism in Scripture are the Calvinists. As far as the doctrine of justification, it is safe to say that the Reformed formulation of the doctrine is completely new in the history of Christian dogma, but the same can also be said of the Lutheran formulation.

Hence I agree with the judgment of Newman: “And this one thing at least is certain; whatever history teaches, whatever it omits, whatever it exaggerates or extenuates, whatever it says and unsays, at least the Christianity of history is not Protestantism. If ever there were a safe truth, it is this…. To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant.”

One may not be persuaded by Newman’s arguments on behalf of the Catholic Church; but if not, then there is only one other credible candidate as successor of the Church of the Fathers—the Churches of Eastern Orthodoxy. If, however, both Catholicism and Orthodoxy are deemed apostate religions, then the revelation of Christ, if there ever was one, is irretrievably lost: the Church that was given the stewardship of this revelation has disappeared from history. It cannot be recovered by archaeology and certainly cannot be recovered by picking up a Bible: the only hermeneutical matrix in which the writings of the Bible can be read as Christian Scripture has disappeared along with the Church. One can, of course, create a new Bible-based religion, but it will not be Christianity. One can also create a new religion based on the Nag Hammadhi documents. It might be an interesting and edifying religion, but it would not be the same religion that originally lived by those documents.

2) While the bishop of Rome enjoys a special place in Christendom I do not believe that the powers and rights currently or historically espoused in the extreme by later Roman pontiffs are either biblically or historically justified. The papacy developed over a period of several hundred years in competition with other views on church government even within the Roman communion and the patristic record clearly points this out. Though the Reformers, I believe, were wrong in their extreme rhetoric of calling the pope the antichrist, I do believe that they were essentially right in rejecting papal infallibility, papal authority beyond Rome’s original jurisdiction (ie. beyond the scope that a normal bishop would enjoy), and the idea that the Pope speaks the voice of Christ any more than any other minister might.

The papal claims are clearly asserted as early as Leo the Great. By non-Catholic lights, therefore, this must mean that the Western Church became a heretical body by the Middle Ages, if not earlier. At this point, the Western Church presumably ceased to be Church. The rejection of the Council of Florence by the Byzantine Churches represents, therefore, not only the formal declaration of the heretical condition of the Western Church, but also their confession that the promises of Christ to his Church are now exclusively continued in the Churches of the East. From this point on, Orthodoxy is the touchstone of catholicity and orthodoxy. To be part of the Church, to be the catholic Church, is to be in communion with the Orthodox Patriarchs.

The Churches of the Reformation, therefore, must be seen as break-away bodies from a body that had ceased to be Church well before 1439. Not only are these Churches not in communion with the Orthodox Church, but their belief-systems are deemed heretical by the Orthodox Church. Of course, this doesn’t bother the Protestant denominations. They reject both the necessity of eucharistic communion with the Eastern Churches and the necessity to conform to the faith as articulated by the Eastern Churches. Indeed, Protestantism, especially in its Reformed expressions, can be as harshly critical of Orthodoxy as it is of Catholicism. But the problem posed remains: How can 16th century schismatics from a heretical body constitute themselves as the Church of Jesus Christ when they refuse to enter into full doctrinal and sacramental unity with the only body left that can legitimately claim to be the Church?

So the real issue isn’t the Pope. The real issue is whether the Churches of the Reformation are bearers of the ecclesial promises of Christ.

3) While apostolic succession was successfully used very early on in countering the threat of Gnosticism, such usage by the Church long ago does not make the doctrine catholic or biblical. The New Testament is generally silent on addressing issues like apostolic succession in any detail sufficient to lend Rome’s view any real support. In addition, Rome’s attempt to use apostolic succession to defend the papacy does nothing but demonstrate the lack of catholicity involved in pledging allegiance to the Supreme Pontiff and his Church.

I readily admit that the necessity of the historic succession of bishops is not clearly stated in Holy Scripture. This criticism only has cogency if one accepts the Protestant construal of sola scriptura. As Michael Ramsey points out in his classic book The Gospel and the Catholic Church, the Church that canonized the Scriptures and asserted their authority for Church doctrine is the same Church that composed the creeds and established the necessity of the historic Episcopate. The canonization of the New Testament is as much a product of the Church’s conflict with Gnosticism as the creeds and the ministerial succession. Ramsey elaborates:

Faced by the spiritual perils, which Gnosticism typifies but which recur again and again, the Church appeals to the scriptures, which are slowly being formed into the Canon, and to the historic Episcopate which has taken the place of the Apostolate; and these are both facts which point the Christians away from what is partial or subjective, to Jesus in the flesh, and to the one universal Church. Both the Canon of Scripture and the Episcopate are “developments,” and it would seem highly arbitrary to select one of these and to call it essential, while rejecting or ignoring the other. It would be more reasonable to seek in both of them, through their close inner connexion and their place in the life of the one Body, the utterance of the Gospel of God. (p. 63)

To pit Scripture against the apostolic succession of the ordained ministry is to stand outside the Church catholic.

4) Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament is profaning the Sacred Supper and does not enjoy any sort of biblical support.

Once again, the Reformed Christian opposes the beliefs and practices of the Church on the basis of a sectarian, 16th-17th century reading of Holy Scripture. The real issue is not eucharistic adoration. The real issue is eucharistic real presence. Here the Reformed Church rejects the eucharistic theologies and practices of Catholicism and Orthodoxy, as well as its Reformation sister, the Lutheran Church, and dogmatically asserts its own beliefs about the Supper. Given that the Reformed Church rejects the catholic identification of the consecrated elements with the Body and Blood of the risen Christ, it is unsurprising that it judges the worship of these elements to be idolatrous.

“He walked here in the same flesh, and gave us the same flesh to be eaten unto salvation. But no one eats that flesh unless first he adores it; and thus it is discovered how such a footstool of the Lord’s feet is adored; and not only do we not sin by adoring, we do sin by not adoring” (St Augustine).

For my own views on eucharistic adoration, see “Daring to adore the Missal-god of Wafer” and “Eucharistic Idolatry?

5) Though the Reformation was in some sense tragic, it was also necessary (it was Jaroslav Pelikan who came up with this sort of language regarding the Reformation). Not everything that needed to be fixed during the Reformation actually was fixed. For example, Congar and others have noted that sola fide properly understood was a necessary correction—though such thoughts have not filtered down to all of Rome’s churches or members quite yet. The Roman Catholic Church needs to come to the point where she can admit that the Reformation happened primarily because of her failure to maintain her witness to the cause of Christ and not because of rebellious power-hungry replacements. In short, the Roman communion still needs to repent, confess her sins, and transform into the communion of Christ she should be.

Would it be out of place to note that Pelikan eventually came to the conclusion that he could no longer remain Protestant and joined the Orthodox Church?

That the Catholic Church, especially in Germany, was in need of reform in the 16th century is admitted by virtually all (see, e.g., Karl Adam’s “The Roots of the Reformation”). But was schism justified? It all depends on whether one wants to defend the distortions and heresies of the Reformation. If one is looking to place blame, there is plenty of blame to be shared around. Certainly the consequences of the Reformation are clear for all to see—endless schism and splintering among the communities of Protestantism.

6) While recognizing that there is moral failure by Christians and ministers in many ways and in many places (including among the Reformed and Protestants in general), there does seem to me to be a huge issue within the Catholic Church regarding celibate and/or homosexual clergy and the moral turpitude that goes along with the molestations and other sexual sins that are perpetrated on innocent victims here in America and elsewhere.

This is simply unfair. Talk about hitting below the belt. No one, and certainly no Catholic, denies the seriousness of the crimes that have been committed, both by the priests who have molested teenagers and children and the bishops are sought to cover-up their misconduct. But let him who is without sin cast the first stone. In every generation, the Church is betrayed by her members and leaders.

And now on to Mark Horne:

1) Contacting dead people and praying to/through images is high-handed sin. Some of the severest warnings and punishments in Scripture are assigned to such practices along with murder and sexual perversion. Sure, grape juice in the Lord’s Supper is an abomination. But it is your abomination, the one God assigned you to deal with. Trading that for necromancy and idolatry doesn’t seem remotely safe.

Oh my. So invocation of the saints and the veneration of images, practices long, long practiced by both the Eastern and Western Churches, are to be condemned as necromancy. The Angelus just rang at the Catholic Church next door. I stopped my typing and prayed the Hail Mary three times. Was I engaging in necromancy? Of course not. What a silly contention. I was participating in the prayers and intercessions of the communion of saints. Catholic Christians have always known the difference between the invocation of the saints and necromancy. Mr. Horne appears to be stuck back in a time before the incarnation and resurrection of the Son of God and his Pentecostal outpouring of the Holy Spirit had occurred. Like the iconoclasts of the seventh and eighth centuries, who did not see how the incarnation of the Son of God necessitated a reinterpretation of the second commandment for Christians, Horne does not see our baptismal incorporation into the triune life of God through the sacred humanity of Christ Jesus has affected the life of prayer for the people of the New Covenant. In Christ we share in the wondrous mystery of communion with the saints and all the faithful departed. We are upheld by the prayers of the saints and are bidden by the Church to invite their intercessions. None of this was possible before the death and resurrection of Christ but is wondrously possible now in the Holy Spirit.

2) More positively, the Protestant Faith seems like a much more likely place to truly escape gnosticism. After all, for all the real virtues one finds in the Roman Catholic or the Eastern Orthodox communions, whispering prayers to omniauditory ghosts and talking to pictures is hardly an affirmation of anything embodied or alive, let alone both. We have the potential, at least, to truly put the community back in its proper place as the embodied inhabitation of the Spirit of God. Other people are God’s images, his icons. And when you are face to face with them you can and should ask them to intercede for you. In interacting with other living, present people, rather than artificial images or imaginations, God will renew us in the image of Christ. Idolatry leads the other way.

This is confusing, and insulting, and it’s difficult to see a proper response. That it is possible to invoke the saints and venerate images and not fall into gnosticism is evidenced by the long history of the Church. These are completely different issues. The grounding of both Catholicism and Orthodoxy in the incarnation and sacraments is solid protection against the retreat into gnostic interiority. As to whether Protestantism is a superior protection against gnosticism, I refer the reader to Philip Lee’s Against the Protestant Gnostics.

3) More on the anti-gnosticism thing: While even as late as Benedict Pictet vile allegations against the Mother of God were deemed pious, we are now all happy that Mary and Joseph joyfully did it to and with one another and gave Jesus a bevy of brothers and sisters. God blessed Mary and Joseph with orgasms and children. Deal with it. Even if nothing more had been at stake, the idea that antique squeamishness and false view of spirituality and deity should be permitted to be perpetuated would alone be worth a reformation and a schism or two if necessary. I do appreciate the way that orders of celibates can accomplish great things for the kingdom. If that can be continued without making sex evil, more power to such groups. If not, we’ll have to live without them.

Need I point out that Zwingli, Luther, and Calvin, as well as other reformers, believed in the perpetual virginity of Mary. As far as the tendency of many Christians in the past to associate sexual intercourse with sin, I certainly agree that this was unfortunate. It’s a tragedy the Church Fathers did not learn from the rabbis—one of the many evil consequences of the first great schism, the schism between Church and synagogue. In any case, contemporary Catholicism certainly cannot be accused today of demeaning sexual intercourse or identifying it as evil. Mr. Horne should carefully read the reflections of the celibate John Paul II on the sacredness of the nuptial union.

4) You can’t play both the institutional card and the development card in the same hand and expect to win anything. If the Papacy was instituted by Christ, then everyone from Peter on down knew about it. But, as anyone who reads Clement’s letter to Corinth knows that he was unaware of this great bequest So we come to the idea that the Papacy naturally evolved. It probably did. And it also withered quite drastically. Why would we chain all the present and future church to an arrangement that was so obviously an adaptation to the world of Classical antiquity. No one denies that the Pope can serve as a transnational reference point (i.e. compare the German Roman Catholics to the German Evangelicals in the struggle against Nazism). But these benefits can probably be derived from a more stable foundation. In most cases the doctrine of the Papacy seems comparable to burying a widow alive in the grave of her husband.

A proper response to this criticism is beyond this article and most likely my competence. I am persuaded by the arguments of Newman and others, but I acknowledge that the papal claim, based on the historical evidence alone, is less than coercive. But the Catholic does not properly ground his belief in the supremacy and infallibility of the successors of Peter on the scholarly, and not so scholarly, research of historians but on the authoritative teaching of the Catholic Church. “What I believe about the Pope,” Newman wrote, “I believe, as I believe any other doctrine,—because the Church teaches it—but, for me, the Church directs me to the Pope not the Pope directs me to the Church.” (Also see my article “Newman did not become Catholic because of the Pope.”)

5) And how can any Protestant who takes church history seriously not simply shake one’s head at the historical revisionism that must be swallowed. The relationship between the medieval church and Trent is that of a pregnancy to a late abortion. Christendom flowered with new knowledge and scholarship and suddenly we are told that all theology must come from the Vulgate. This form or reactionary repristinization is as revolutionary as anything Luther ever dreamed of and is an obvious kick at the Jerome who thought so highly of recovering the true text of Scripture. I don’t think it would be hard to point out many other discontinuities. There is nothing in history that compels anyone into Rome.

I’m going to let the historians address Horne’s comment on the Vulgate and the Council of Trent. I will simply register the judgment of Pope Pius XII:

But that the Synod of Trent wished the Vulgate to be the Latin version `which all should use as authentic,’ applies, as all know, to the Latin Church only, and to the public use of Scripture, and does not diminish the authority and force of the early texts. For at that time no consideration was being given to early texts, but to the Latin versions which were being circulated at that time, among which the Council decreed that that version was rightly to be preferred which was approved by the long use of so many centuries within the Church.

So this eminent authority of the Vulgate, or, as it is expressed, authenticity, was established by the Council not especially for critical reasons, but rather because of its authorized use in the Church continued through the course of so many centuries, and by this use it is demonstrated that this text, as the Church has understood and understands, in matters of faith and morals is entirely free of error, so that, on the testimony and confirmation of the Church herself, in discussions, quotations, and meetings it can be cited safely and without danger of error, and accordingly such authenticity is expressed primarily not by the term critical but rather juridical.

Therefore, this authority of the Vulgate in matters of doctrine does not at all prevent—rather it almost demands today—this same doctrine being called upon for help, whereby the correct meaning of Sacred Scripture may daily be made clearer and be better explained. And not even this is prohibited by the decree of the Council of Trent, namely, that for the use and benefit of the faithful in Christ and for the easier understanding of divine works translations be made into common languages, and these, too, from the early texts, as we know has already been praiseworthily done with the approval of the authority of the Church in many regions.” (Divino Afflante Spiritu [1943])

Pope Pius’s judgment was reaffirmed at the Second Vatican Council.

I applaud Johnson and Horne for publicly stating their reasons for not becoming Catholic. I pressume that they would offer similar reasons for not becoming Orthodox. Are their reasons convincing?

11 February 2006


Dare we entrust our children to the Catholic Church? Perhaps this is the most challenging question raised by Rod Dreher’s declaration of his disenchantment with Catholicism. In my previous article, I argued, following Cardinal Newman, that the moment a Catholic seriously considers the possibility of leaving the Catholic Church for another “Church” he has ceased to believe. He has ceased to believe in the Catholic Church; but in a real sense he has ceased to believe in Christ. Faith in the Church and faith in Christ is a unified act. To sunder the two is to sunder that which God made to be one. Hence the stark words of Newman:

And so again, when a man has become a Catholic, were he to set about following a doubt which has occurred to him, he has already disbelieved. I have not to warn him against losing his faith, he is not merely in danger of losing it, he has lost it; from the nature of the case he has already lost it; he fell from grace at the moment when he deliberately entertained and pursued his doubt. No one can determine to doubt what he is already sure of; but if he is not sure that the Church is from God, he does not believe it. It is not I who forbid him to doubt; he has taken the matter into his own hands when he determined on asking for leave; he has begun, not ended, in unbelief; his very wish, his purpose, is his sin. I do not make it so, it is such from the very state of the case. You sometimes hear, for example, of Catholics falling away, who will tell you it arose from reading the Scriptures, which opened their eyes to the “unscripturalness,” so they speak, of the Church of the Living God. No; Scripture did not make them disbelieve (impossible!); they disbelieved when they opened the Bible; they opened it in an unbelieving spirit, and for an unbelieving purpose; they would not have opened it, had they not anticipated—I might say, hoped—that they should find things there inconsistent with Catholic teaching. They begin in self-will and disobedience, and they end in apostasy. This, then, is the direct and obvious reason why the Church cannot allow her children the liberty of doubting the truth of her word. He who really believes in it now, cannot imagine the future discovery of reasons to shake his faith; if he imagines it, he has not faith; and that so many Protestants think it a sort of tyranny in the Church to forbid any children of hers to doubt about her teaching, only shows they do not know what faith is—which is the case; it is a strange idea to them. Let a man cease to inquire, or cease to call himself her child.

We read these words and we think to ourselves, This is all fine in Newman’s ethereal intellectual world; but he isn’t living today. He didn’t have to suffer wishy-washy post-Vatican II American Catholicism, nor did he have to worry about the spiritual welfare and formation of children. What loving parent wouldn’t risk eternal damnation for the sake of his or her children? as one of our readers asked. Yet as soon as one begins to reflect a little more on the question, one realizes its impossibility. The Catholic Church does not indulge in utilitarian ethics. She does not authorize or permit her members to sin that good may abound.

The Catholic Church holds it better for the sun and moon to drop from heaven, for the earth to fail, and for all the many millions on it to die of starvation in extremest agony, as far as temporal affliction goes, than that one soul, I will not say, should be lost, but should commit one single venial sin, should tell one wilful untruth, or should steal one poor farthing without excuse. (John Henry Newman, Apologia pro Vita Sua)

The Catholic believes that the various regional Churches that enjoy eucharistic communion with the bishop of Rome constitute the one Church of Jesus Christ. This is not a negotiable conviction. It is true that Vatican II nuanced its exclusivist ecclesiology and formally acknowledged the existence of particular Churches and ecclesial ecclesial communities outside of her canonical bounds—and the saving work of God within them—but Vatican II did not, and could not, alter the fundamental assertion that the Catholic Church is the Church of Jesus Christ (see “Is the Catholic Church the Catholic Church?”). Separated Churches remain visibly and sacramentally separated from the Church. As Charles Journet wrote a few years before the Second Vatican Council:

From the Catholic point of view, there are the separated churches and the Church from which they have separated, the Church of Christ; the dissident churches and the Church from which they have dissented, the Church of Christ; the disunited churches and the Church with which they have broken unity, the Church of Christ. (Charles Cardinal Journet, Theology of the Church [2004], p. 312)

Hence the warning of Vatican II that anyone who knows the salvific necessity of the Catholic Church and refuses either to enter into her communion or remain within her communion separates himself from God and salvation. But why such a strong warning? For the Catholic, the answer is easy: because the Catholic Church objectively contains within herself all of the means of salvation willed by God. In the words of the Catholic Catechism: “She bears in herself and administers the totality of the means of salvation.” Or as Vatican II expressed the matter: “For it is through Christ’s Catholic Church alone, which is the universal help toward salvation, that the fullness of the means of salvation can be obtained.” For our good the Lord wills us to attach ourselves to his Catholic Church; for our good the Lord summons us to enter into full communion with his mystical body. The Catholic Church is good for us because she is salvation.

That is the theory. But it is not always well embodied in ecclesial life on the ground. Sometimes it seems that in her varied local manifestions the Church is a colossal obstacle to faith.

Yet so it has always been.

To be a Catholic is to be a member of a Catholic congregation, for good or ill. For those who live in small towns, this may mean being restricted to one parish. Modern transportation opens up wider options for those who live in metropolitan areas. But always one’s choices are limited. In olden days canon law required the Catholic to attend his local parish (at least so I undertand). Canon law no longer imposes this loyalty. But always one’s choices are limited, no matter where one lives in the world. Such is the Church God has established. Inevitably this must mean that some Catholics will be required to attend less than theologically and spiritually optimal congregations.

But the Catholic Church isn’t the only show in town in most places, at least in the United States. There are almost always Protestant and Orthodox alternatives, and American culture encourages us to shop around and find a congregatoin where we feel secure and happy, a congregation where we believe our family will be safe and in which our children can grow up as strong and faithful believers. “Join the church of your choice and glorify God.” At this point culture and Catholicism collide. God requires to be at Mass every Sunday. But can we do so in good conscience, with the spiritual welfare of our children at stake?

I suggest that at this point we are confronted with a decision of faith. Will we trust God to care and provide for our children through his Church, despite all of her apparent weaknesses, sins, and failings? Will we trust the Church to be the Church? We cannot save our children, nor can we protect them from secular culture or compromised, worldly congregations. I am confident that Catholic parents, even in the most hostile ecclesiastical environments, can faithfully raise their children in the Catholic faith. It may not be easy, but it is by no means impossible. But there are no guarantees. Even in an orthodox congregation and diocese, there are no guarantees. Ultimately, the spriritual destiny of our children is in the hands of God. We can only do our best as parents, after which all we can do is entrust our sons and daughters to the Almighty.

No matter how theologically problematic our parish priest might be, no matter how unhelpful our local Catholic congregation might be, there is always the Scripture, the magisterial teaching of the Church, the prayers and meditations of the saints, the presence of the risen Jesus in the Holy Eucharist. We may want more, we may well think we need more; but what God gives us is sufficient. Our cup runneth over.

Dare we entrust our children to the Catholic Church? Dare we not to?

11 May 2006


On May 25th, Andy of All Too Common published a piece criticizing the decision of Jeff Moore, a former Episcopal priest in the Diocese of Fort Worth, to become Catholic. “It boggles my mind,” he writes, “why a priest at a Catholic parish in the Diocese of Ft. Worth would leave for Rome individually, rather than try to work for a corporate reunion.”

I had a similar reaction to Andy’s article. It boggles my mind how any catholic-minded Anglican can remain within Anglicanism, even in a fairly catholic diocese like Fort Worth, and I say this even if the ecclesiastical landscape changes dramatically in the months and years following the 2006 General Convention. The Fort Worth diocese is to be strongly commended for firmly holding the line during the past thirty years against the forces of revision. But the diocese remains a member of the Anglican Communion. Not only are Anglo-Catholics a rapidly dwindling minority within the Anglican Communion, but Anglo-Catholicism remains simply one theological alternative among many within Anglicanism. Even in the eagerly awaited reconfigured Anglican Communion—especially in a reconfigured Anglican Communion!—the fundamental tenets and practices of Anglo-Catholicism will be rejected by the large majority of bishops: ex opere operato understanding of sacramental efficacy, eucharistic real-real presence, eucharistic sacrifice for the living and the dead, eucharistic adoration, the historic episcopate as belonging to the esse of the Church, invocation of the saints, prayers for the dead, veneration of icons and relics, special devotion to the Mother of God. The Diocese of Fort Worth may understand itself as catholic, but it continues in communion with many bishops and dioceses that understand catholic in a very different way. Andy believes that an Anglo-Catholic should remain Anglican and work for church unity, yet Anglicanism is itself incapable of establishing doctrinal unity within its own communal life. Anglicanism practices “dispersed authority.” Edward Norman explains the consequences of this peculiar practice:

The concept of “dispersed authority,” however, does not propose any means of arriving at an orderly conclusion in each particular area of controversy. It is a steady-state; permanent indecision. The more weighty the doctrine at issue the less likely the prospect of a resolution: “dispersed authority” is a formula for, or rather a description of, the means of reducing Christianity to generalities…. The most telling difficulty about “dispersed authority” is that four centuries of its operation in the Church of England has produced what most acknowledge: a crisis of identity, a crisis of unity, and an inability to adduce a coherent ecclesiology. It is hard to imagine that divine providence, disclosed in the guidance of the Holy Spirit, can have entrusted the presence of Christ in the world to such an ideological shambles.

The Windsor Report witnesses to this fundamental flaw of the Anglican Communion, but it does not and cannot solve it. The solution cannot be found within Anglicanism. The only escape from the crisis of “dispersed authority” is the adoption of the divinely-instituted teaching office; but such an adoption would quite literally mean the undoing of Anglicanism (see my review of Norman’s book Anglican Difficulties).

Andy then advances his Common Anglican ecclesiological thesis:

Thesis: I argue that while juridical unity is important for Catholics and while juridical unity with the Holy Father is preferable, that the Catholic Church exists where the Sacraments exist; and the Sacraments exist where Succession exists and the Catholic Faith is taught.

Andy makes clear that he is not advancing a new form of the branch theory. His argument is based, rather, on communio-ecclesiology. This is an interesting argument. I bet Andy had a great deal of fun quoting then-Cardinal Ratzinger in support of his thesis. I am not well read enough yet in Catholic ecclesiology to offer a substantive response, but I do have a few thoughts.

I agree that where true sacraments are, there is the Church of Jesus Christ. One might also more simply say, where the gospel is, there is the Church of Jesus Christ. Our Lord did after all promise, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Matt 18:20); and St Ignatius assures us that “wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic Church” (Smyrneans 8). I imagine this is precisely why Vatican II felt it necessary to affirm the presence of the Church, in some way, outside the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church. One cannot divide the risen Christ and parcel him out in bits. He comes to us in the wholeness of his glorified reality.

Andy wishes to insist upon the valid succession of the ordained ministry constitutive of the Church: the Church exists where the sacraments exist, and the sacraments exist where “Succession exists and the Catholic Faith is taught.” Several questions are raised by this stipulation. Certainly almost all Protestants would disagree with the insistence upon the historic succession of the Episcopate, including most Anglicans; and even Catholics acknowledge that Holy Baptism may be validly administered by the non-ordained. One therefore must ask by what authority Andy advances his ecclesiological thesis. It certainly does not enjoy the authority of the communion to which Andy and the Diocese of Fort Worth belongs.

Yet it must be acknowledged that the Catholic Church does acknowledge the existence and ecclesial reality of particular Churches that are not presently in communion with the See of Peter—specifically the Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Churches. The Catholic Church affirms the validity and efficaciousness of the sacraments of these particular Churches. In the words of Dominus Iesus:

Therefore, there exists a single Church of Christ, which subsists in the Catholic Church, governed by the Successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him. The Churches which, while not existing in perfect communion with the Catholic Church, remain united to her by means of the closest bonds, that is, by apostolic succession and a valid Eucharist, are true particular Churches. Therefore, the Church of Christ is present and operative also in these Churches, even though they lack full communion with the Catholic Church, since they do not accept the Catholic doctrine of the Primacy, which, according to the will of God, the Bishop of Rome objectively has and exercises over the entire Church.

From the recognition of true particular Churches, Andy then draws the following problematic conclusion:

Being in communion occurs by having common sacraments and having a common Lord. So we are, in fact, in communion with all Catholics, by virtue of having the sacraments. Is it bad that we are not in juridical union with the Pope? Absolutely! But not being in juridical union with the Pope is not breaking Christ’s command that we be one like He and the Father are one. Unless the sacraments are not what unite us to Christ and make us His Bride, the local churches are indeed a part of the universal Church.

In other words, Andy tells us, because true particular Churches enjoy valid sacraments, separation from the successor of Peter does not violate the divine call to unity. But surely this conclusion only follows if one rejects the Catholic understanding of the universal primacy of the bishop of Rome. Perhaps it might be useful to recall the teaching of Vatican II on the constitutive role of the Pope in the life of the Church and the universal summons to unity with him:

This Sacred Council, following closely in the footsteps of the First Vatican Council, with that Council teaches and declares that Jesus Christ, the eternal Shepherd, established His holy Church, having sent forth the apostles as He Himself had been sent by the Father; and He willed that their successors, namely the bishops, should be shepherds in His Church even to the consummation of the world. And in order that the episcopate itself might be one and undivided, He placed Blessed Peter over the other apostles, and instituted in him a permanent and visible source and foundation of unity of faith and communion. And all this teaching about the institution, the perpetuity, the meaning and reason for the sacred primacy of the Roman Pontiff and of his infallible magisterium, this Sacred Council again proposes to be firmly believed by all the faithful. Continuing in that same undertaking, this Council is resolved to declare and proclaim before all men the doctrine concerning bishops, the successors of the apostles, who together with the successor of Peter, the Vicar of Christ, the visible Head of the whole Church, govern the house of the living God. (Lumen gentium 18)

It follows that the separated Churches and Communities as such, though we believe them to be deficient in some respects, have been by no means deprived of significance and importance in the mystery of salvation. For the Spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them as means of salvation which derive their efficacy from the very fullness of grace and truth entrusted to the Church.

Nevertheless, our separated brethren, whether considered as individuals or as Communities and Churches, are not blessed with that unity which Jesus Christ wished to bestow on all those who through Him were born again into one body, and with Him quickened to newness of life-that unity which the Holy Scriptures and the ancient Tradition of the Church proclaim. For it is only through Christ’s Catholic Church, which is “the all-embracing means of salvation,” that they can benefit fully from the means of salvation. We believe that Our Lord entrusted all the blessings of the New Covenant to the apostolic college alone, of which Peter is the head, in order to establish the one Body of Christ on earth to which all should be fully incorporated who belong in any way to the people of God. This people of God, though still in its members liable to sin, is ever growing in Christ during its pilgrimage on earth, and is guided by God’s gentle wisdom, according to His hidden designs, until it shall happily arrive at the fullness of eternal glory in the heavenly Jerusalem. (Unitatis Redintegratio 3)

My intent here is not to argue for the Catholic view but simply to state it. All Churches are called to maintain unity and communion with Peter. The refusal to enter into such unity might not be judged as formal sin, because of historical factors and the force of invincible ignorance, but it most certainly must be judged as material sin. Christ Jesus wills the visible, sacramental unity of his Church through union with the rock upon which he has established her. It is not only Catholics who are called to juridical and eucharistic unity with the Pope but all Christians and all particular Churches.

But if I am a member of a particular Church that has true sacraments and true bishops, what do I lose by not being in communion with the bishop of Rome? Why not simply remain a catholic Anglican and work for unification, as Andy suggests? Two reasons immediately come to mind.

First, if God indeed calls us to unity with the Church of Rome, and if I recognize the fact and truth of this call, then disobedience to this summons is disobedience to God. Thus the Second Vatican Council solemnly declared that any person who knows that “the Catholic Church was made necessary by Christ” and refuses to enter her or remain in her cannot be saved (LG 14). This fact alone should justify the decision of Jeff Moore, Taylor Marshall, Al Kimel, and others to leave the Anglican priesthood and enter into full communion with the Catholic Church. To stay with ECUSA and work for unity simply is not a spiritual possibility for those who know the Catholic Church to be the Catholic Church.

Second, if the Pope is indeed the head of the college of bishops, then only those bishops and Churches that are united to him can share in the infallibility and teaching authority of the Catholic Church. Only these bishops and Churches can rightly claim that their authoritative teachings are presented in and with the authority of the Holy Trinity. Here is the solution to the Anglican crisis of authority and its doctrinal confusion and impotence. Dom Gregory Dix, despite his papalist convictions, remained within the Church of England in order to work for the restoration of unity with the Church of Rome. During his second bout of Roman fever in 1940, he was even dissuaded from converting by a Catholic monk, Dom Bede Winslow. Yet surely the time for such a hope is long past.

Anglicanism has decisively decided that it will be Protestant, whether liberal Protestant, revisionist Protestant, or evangelical Protestant. The refusal of the Catholic Church to recognize Anglicanism as a true particular Church has been proven to be well justified. Corporate reunion with the Catholic Church is no longer a reasonable hope. (Even the ever-ecumenical Cardinal Kasper is about ready to throw in the towel.) Anglo-Catholics who recognize the truth of the papal claims are called by God to submit the hearts and minds to Rome, for their good and salvation. Rome has graciously offered sanctuary to married Episcopal priests through the Pastoral Provision and even made possible the continued use of a modified Anglican liturgy for congregations that follow their priest into the Catholic Church. Anglo-Catholics who do not yet accept the papal claims must search their consciences and justify to God their continued separation. Given the distintegration of the Anglican Communion and the failure of the Anglo-Catholic mission, who is most likely to have been right, Pusey or Newman?

It is time to climb back into the barque of Peter!

7 June 2006


Over at the Generous Orthodoxy Think Tank, Coleman Fannin has written a thoughtful piece on why he is attracted to Catholicism and why he, at least for the moment, has decided to remain within the American Baptist Church. Fannin is particularly attracted to the transnational witness of the Catholic Church and its ability to “resist the all-encompassing demand for allegiance of the modern state(s) and its culture(s).” He does not attempt to explain the freedom of the Catholic Church over against culture and state; but I think the answer is clear—the divinely-created institution of the papacy.

But Fannin has decided to remain with Ephrem Radner and Stan Hauerwas in the Protestant ruins:

The Catholic Church remains one part of a divided whole, that is, equally “in the ruins.” To me, to convert now would be a very Protestant thing to do; that is, as an individual I’d be picking my favorite denomination. To quote Dorothy Day (quoting Peguy, I believe): “Somehow we must be saved together.” I see my calling as one of teaching Baptists and other free churchers to be more catholic and to work for the unity of the church, not as Kaspar says, by a simple return to Rome, but by mutual conversion to Christ

I agree. If the Catholic Church is merely “one part of a divided whole,” it may not make much sense for a Protestant believer to become Catholic. Every denomination has its strengths and weaknesses. The verity of Christ is only partially revealed in each. None possesses a monopoly on the truth. None can claim to be the one Church of Jesus Christ in an exclusive or preeminent sense. Much Catholic ecclesiological and ecumenical reflection of the past forty years seems to agree with this assessment. Many Catholic laymen look upon their Church as simply one denomination among many. Many Catholic theologians affirm the full ecclesiological reality of the Protestant Churches. Many Catholic ecumenists declare that the goal of dialogue is not the return of the separated Churches to mother Church but “a common pilgrimage to the fullness of catholicity” (Walter Kasper). Many Catholic priests discourage individual Protestants from converting to Catholicism. One lay Catholic ecumenist recently wrote me that “if we have the will to address ourselves to the issues of dispute [between the Churches] we will discover that the disputes are not real.”

Small wonder, then, that a Protestant believer might decide to sit in the ruins of his own denomination rather than transferring to the ruins of the Catholic Church.

But what if the Catholic Church is not just “one part of a divided whole”? What if the Church of Jesus Christ truly is the Catholic Church? Immediately the reply comes back: But the Catholic Church abandoned exclusive ecclesiological claims at Vatican II. Lumen gentium confesses that the Church of Christ only subsists in the Catholic Church, which logically allows the possibility that the Church of Christ also subsists in other Churches. Yet this is not what Vatican II said, and this is not what the Catholic Church teaches. When the Second Vatican Council adopted the phrase subsistit in to describe the ecclesiological reality of the Catholic Church, it did not intend to advance any form of ecclesiological relativism, and it certainly did not intend to say that being a member of a Protestant Church is just as good as being a member of the Catholic Church (see my article “Is the Catholic Church the Catholic Church?”). What it did intend to do was provide a theological foundation for its commitment to the ecumenical dialogue to which it felt called, in discernment of “the signs of the times” under the guidance of the Spirit.

The Church of Christ exists as a concrete subject in the historical reality of the Catholic Church, and no where else, yet as Cardinal Ratzinger notes, there also exists in the world authentic “ecclesial realities beyond this subject—true local Churches and different ecclesial communities.” The separation of these particular Churches and ecclesial communities from the Catholic Church thus represents a tragic and mysterious rupture in the unity of the Church of Jesus Christ. Hence the mandate of ecumenism. In the words of Pope John Paul II:

It is not that beyond the boundaries of the Catholic community there is an ecclesial vacuum. Many elements of great value (eximia), which in the Catholic Church are part of the fullness of the means of salvation and of the gifts of grace which make up the Church, are also found in the other Christian Communities. All these elements bear within themselves a tendency towards unity, having their fullness in that unity. It is not a matter of adding together all the riches scattered throughout the various Christian Communities in order to arrive at a Church which God has in mind for the future. In accordance with the great Tradition, attested to by the Fathers of the East and of the West, the Catholic Church believes that in the Pentecost Event God has already manifested the Church in her eschatological reality, which he had prepared “from the time of Abel, the just one”. This reality is something already given. Consequently we are even now in the last times. The elements of this already-given Church exist, found in their fullness in the Catholic Church and, without this fullness, in the other Communities, where certain features of the Christian mystery have at times been more effectively emphasized. Ecumenism is directed precisely to making the partial communion existing between Christians grow towards full communion in truth and charity.

But it is one thing for the Catholic Church to acknowledge the work and presence of the Holy Spirit outside her visible boundaries and to commit herself to the work of ecclesial unity; it is quite another thing for individual Protestants to infer that they need not, for the sake of their salvation and spiritual good, enter into full communion with the Catholic Church. If the fullness of Church and ecclesial life truly exists in the Catholic Church, then the decision to become Catholic cannot be treated as analogous to the decision to move one’s membership from one denomination to another. Becoming Catholic is always a matter of conversion. It represents a radical submission to the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ in his Church.

It is quite true, as Fannin states, that the decision to become Catholic is an act of private judgment; but it is qualitatively different from picking one’s favorite denomination. If I had my druthers, I would gladly have remained a high church Episcopalian. I still deeply love the liturgical and spiritual tradition that formed me for thirty years of adulthood. I will always miss the Book of Common Prayer, the hymnal, Anglican chant, and coffee hour. But when one finally experiences the claim of Christ upon one’s mind and soul as embodied in the Catholic Church, druthers and preferences become irrelevant. All that matters is surrender.

But may one not remain within a Protestant denomination and work and pray for its catholicization? Richard John Neuhaus thought he could do precisely that within Lutheranism, but discovered that he was only avoiding that abandonment of private judgment to which all sinners are called:

Evangelical catholicism proposed an idea of Lutheranism, but an idea is not a church. There came a time in the life of John Henry Newman when he was forced to recognize that his insistence on the catholicity of the Church of England had resulted in his creation of “a paper church.” His Anglicanism was vibrantly alive in his own head, and he could write about it eloquently, but it was not Anglicanism. He could cite document after document in support of his argument for what the Church of England should be, but wishing did not make it so. The same, I reluctantly concluded, is true of the Church of the Augsburg Confession. I was told that I had an obligation to the cause of evangelical catholicism, that I owed a loyalty to the Lutheranism that might yet be, and I thought long and hard about that. Until it became evident to me that what I called my loyalty was not to Lutheranism but to my idea of Lutheranism, which is to say that it was loyalty to myself, which is no loyalty at all.

The problem went deep. I was in love with my idea, I was loyal to my idea, and I had spent years calling others to a similar love and loyalty. Yet although it was an idea shared, and therefore our idea, it was still no more than an idea. An idea such as this is what Newman dismissively referred to as a “theory.” A theory, he explained, is “notional” rather than “real.” As I said earlier, whoever becomes a Catholic by following an intellectual or theological path, or by following other paths that he cannot help but think about in intellectual or theological ways, finds himself in the company of Newman. And when one inquires deeply into the difference between love for and loyalty to oneself and one’s ideas, on the one hand, and love and loyalty ordered to the truth, on the other, one finds oneself in the company of the fifth-century St. Augustine.

Lutheranism understands itself to be Augustinian, and in some ways it is. The root of all sin, said Luther, following Augustine, is a condition described in two words: Incurvatus est–—we are turned in upon ourselves. The young Augustine, like people of all times, including our own, thought he was searching for God. Yet in his mastery of all the philosophical paths, he was the master, and therein was the problem. Finally, he faced the question: “What am I to myself but a guide to my own self-destruction?” Perhaps his best-known line is this: “You have made us for yourself, 0 Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” Rest comes with surrender, with being shaken out of the state of incurvatus est, with submission to an other, and finally to the Other. The Other is embodied, as in the body of Christ, the Church. The form of the body, most fully and rightly ordered through time, has a location as specific as the location of New York. Finitum capax infiniti—the finite is capable of the infinite. One’s search could not forever stop short of the finite that is the Catholic Church. (Catholic Matters, pp. 61-63)

The claim of the Catholic Church to be the Church offends. Her demand to surrender one’s private judgment to her infallible teaching authority scandalizes. Yet every sinner needs to make this surrender, this submission of mind and heart. Only by this surrender are we saved from our ideas of who God is, from our ideas of what Church is, from our ideas of what salvation is, from our ideas of what truth is. The Catholic Church saves us from our ideas and gives us the reality of God and his salvation.

In a very real sense, Protestantism cannot save humanity because Protestantism is private judgment. Please do not misunderstand. I am not suggesting that God is not present and active in powerful, saving ways in Protestant Christianity. I could not suggest that without denying my own salvation. I am not denying the millions of souls who have been saved through the witness of committed Protestant believers and preachers. I am not denying the liberating work and presence of the Holy Spirit in Protestant congregations. But the fact remains that no Protestant is ever asked to surrender his judgment to an infallible living authority. No Protestant is ever asked to believe in the Church. Even the most patristic Anglican retains the right to adjudicate between the competing testimonies of Scripture, tradition, and reason. Even the most devout fundamentalist retains the right to his private interpretation of Scripture.

Hence the spiritual impossibility of being Protestant and catholic. Hence the spiritual impossibility of remaining within one’s evangelical denomination to work and pray for its catholization. Once one has seen the gift of salvation that is the Catholic Church, one has no choice but to complete the journey. As John Henry Newman declared, “I became Catholic to save my soul.”

2 September 2006


When Vatican II declared that the Church of Jesus Christ subsists in the Catholic Church, what did it mean? Karl Josef Becker, S. J., retired professor of dogmatic theology at the Gregorian University, revisited this question in his recent article “The Church and Vatican II’s ‘Subsistit in’ Terminology” (Origins [19 January 2006], pp. 514-522; originally published “An Examination of Subsistit in” in L’Osservatore Romano [14 December 2005]).

Becker notes three steps in the evolution of Lumen gentium and its eventual adoption of subsistit in:

(1) In the initial schema Aeternus unigeniti, we find this assertion: “And therefore only the Roman Catholic Church is rightly called the Church.”

(2) In the original version of Lumen gentium, we find this assertion: “The church therefore … is the Catholic Church … although certain elements of sanctification can be found outside its total structure.”

When this text was discussed by the bishops, none objected to the assertion that the Church of Christ is (est) the Catholic Church. Apparently it was considered uncontroversial.

(3) In the revised Lumen gentium (the textus emendatus) we find this assertion: “This church, constituted and organized as a society in this present world, subsists in the Catholic Church, governed by the successor of Peter and by the bishops in communion with him, although many elements of sanctification and truth can be found outside her visible structure.”

The relatio accompanying the document offers the following explanatory statements:

(a) “Another church apart from the church of Christ does not exist.”

(b) “The mystery of the church, however, is not an idealistic or unreal notion but exists in the concrete Catholic community itself, under the leadership of the successor of Peter and of the bishops in communion with him.”

(c) “The church is one and in this world is ‘present’ in the Catholic Church, although ecclesial elements are found outside her.”

(d) “A few words are changed: Instead of ‘is,’ Line 21 says ‘subsists in’ so that the expression fits better with the affirmation of ecclesial elements ‘present’ elsewhere.”

If the assertion “The Church is the Catholic Church” was the belief of the council fathers, why was the phrase subsistit in substituted for est? Evidently this change, unrequested by the bishops, was made by the subcommission. Between the second and third drafts, Msg Gerard Philips changed is (est) to present in (adest). He believed that it might be “better for saying later that elements are present elsewhere.” The members of the subcommission, however, did not accept this change. Fr Sebastian Tromp, S.J., a vigorous opponent of indifferentism and a strong believer in the absolute identity between the Catholic Church and the Church of Christ, proposed the subsistit in, which was accepted by the subcommission. He is recorded as saying, “Indeed [the Church of Christ] subsists in the Catholic Church and this is exclusive insofar as it is said that elsewhere there are only elements.” Clearly, then, the change from est to adest to subsistit was seen only as terminological, not substantive. The council fathers agreed and overwhelmingly approved Lumen gentium. Becker writes: “The bishops never questioned the phrase ‘Ecclesia Christi est Ecclesia Catholica‘; in other words, they clearly believed that the church of Christ is identified with the Catholic Church” (p. 518).

Becker’s assessment is supported by the conciliar discussion of Unitatis redintegratio. Numerous bishops objected that the document did not express the unicity of the Church strongly enough. The secretary responded:

“It is subsequently clearly stated that only the Catholic Church is the true church of Christ.”

“The identification of the church of Christ with the Catholic Church appears clearly from the text in its entirety although, as is fitting, the ecclesial elements of the other communities are brought out.”

Becker concludes:

“The phrase subsistit in cannot possibly be interpreted in a way which would contradict the meaning of est. This is completely clear from both the opinions of the fathers and the responses of the secretariat…. The phrase subsistit in is intended not only to reconfirm the meaning of est, that is the identity of the church of Christ with the Catholic Church. Above all it reaffirms that the church of Christ, imbued with the fullness of all the means instituted by Christ, perdures (continues, remains) forever in the Catholic Church…. The church of Christ in all its fullness is and remains forever the Catholic Church. Before, during and after the council this was, is and will remain the teaching of the Catholic Church” (pp. 519-520).

4 September 2006

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