- This is the only (unica) Church of Christ, which we profess in the Creed to be one, holy, catholic and apostolic, and which Our Savior after His Resurrection handed over to Peter to be shepherded … This Church, established and ordained as a society in this world, subsists in the Catholic Church, governed by the successor of Peter and the Bishops in communion with him, although outside her bodily structure there are found many elements of sanctification and truth which, as gifts proper to the Church of Christ, impel toward Catholic unity.
Traditionalist critics has expressed their concern over the substitution "subsists in" for "is" in the following section of Lumen Gentium which, quoting Christopher Ferrara, "lends itself to the interpretation that the Church of Christ, while “subsisting” in the Catholic Church, is an entity greater in scope than the Catholic Church."
In "The Church of Christ and the Catholic Church" (Homiletic & Pastoral Review Jan. 1984), Fr. James Connor helps us to attain a proper understanding of "subsists in" by examining the Acta Synodalia of Vatican II, consisting of the various drafts of the documents in their development with the accompanying oral and written expressions of the participants. This includes the relatio, or introduction to the draft presented to the bishops explaining the purpose and meaning of each section and the document as a whole, and the modi, or emendments to the text recommended by the Council fathers which were then rejected or incorporated into the text.
While such sources are usually not necessary for understanding a document, Fr. Conner believes they can be of particular assistance in situations where a specific section is subject to various interpretations, as in the case of the phrase "subsists in the Catholic Church" (" subsistit in Ecclesia catholica"). The written relatio concerning this particular section of LG reads as follows:
- 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.
Use of the term "subsists in" is not confined to Lumen Gentium, as Fr. Connor identifies five other cases in which the term "subsistere" was used in Vatican II documents, appearing in various translations as "to dwell in", "to exist in", "to endure in", as well as literally "to subsist in."
He goes on to explain that a proper understanding of the term can be attained only through the examination of the relationship between between the Church's and the "ecclesial elements" outside of her visible boundaries, since it was precisely because of this relationship that the term was used.
The relationship between the Church and the "ecclesial elements" outside her boundaries was expressed in the Decree on Ecumenism (Unitatis Redintegratio), which recognized elements of sanctification and truth in separated churches and communities which have their source in -- and derive their efficacy from -- the Catholic Church, and which assist in the salvation of those Christians who do not enjoy a perfect communion with the Church of Christ. Fr. Conner notes that:
- Any student of St. Augustine's works will recognize that the teaching of Vatican Council II on the ecclesial elements present outside the visible bounds of the Catholic Church, as I have just attempted to outline it, is similar to Augustine's position on the matter taken during his controversy with the Donatists. He wrote in his tract On Baptism: "… there is one church which alone is called Catholic; and whenever it has anything of its own in these communions of different bodies which are separate from itself, it is most certainly in virtue of this which is its own in each of them that she, not they, has the power of generation."
According to Fr. Conner, "the presence of these Catholic elements outside the visible bounds has occasioned a new terminology — not a new fact, since the fact was seen already by Augustine. This terminology speaks of the Church of Christ as subsisting in the Catholic Church and of elements of this Catholic Church subsisting in the separated Christian Churches and Communities."
Fr. Conner's article has written a good article which assists in clearing up certain misunderstandings concerning ecumenism and false conceptions of the Church, and I encourage those curious about this topic to read it.