August 10, 2007
A Shepherd’s Message
By Archbishop Daniel N. DiNardo
I must apologize in advance for the undue length of this article, but the issues to be discussed demanded it.
A few weeks ago (July 10), the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published a text about the truth and uniqueness of the Catholic Church which caused some heated reaction from some, both inside and outside the Church. The motivations behind the publication of this text concern the growing theological reflection in recent years on ecclesiology, the study of the Church. The Doctrinal Congregation wanted to reaffirm and clarify traditional Catholic Faith teaching on some issues which had been either confused or erroneously interpreted by some Catholic theologians writing in the field of ecclesiology.
The text is composed in a semi-“scholastic” form, that is, in the model of a question posed and an answer given along with various notes and footnotes, a style akin to forms of theology in the Medieval period, to whit, St. Thomas Aquinas. At the same time the text is not written to dispute but to present the traditional “received” teaching on the doctrine of the Church. In that sense it is distinguished from a theology text or article. The form of the writing means that it is intended chiefly for bishops and theologians. It also means that the Doctrinal Congregation is writing THEOLOGICALLY, not sociologically or psychologically. The notion of the term “Church” in the text is not being examined from a purely descriptive point of view; rather, it is being analyzed from the slant or angle of Catholic theological identity. In the United States, there is a tendency to employ the term “Church” in a descriptive or religious sociological vein: “The Church of the Covenant,” “The Lutheran Church.” In fact, every religious body is either referred to as “Church” or so describes itself, particularly if the religious group is Christian. An analogous term is “denomination.”
There is nothing wrong with using such designations, but these meanings of “church” can be highly ambiguous or equivocal, almost too generic for a deeper understanding of the faith content of this important word. A few years ago the World Council of Churches even asked for “profiles” of the Christian groups in its membership and what each of these groups understood by the word “church” theologically. The Catholic Church has always been clear about the theological meaning of the church and thus about her own identity. The Doctrinal Congregation wrote the document to underline some important aspects of “the Catholic profile” on the meaning of the Church. Some might find the style of writing and form of presentation too stringent, but the Holy See was clarifying the Catholic understanding of its ecclesial self-identity theologically. And that understanding has always been quite distinctive. (It is interesting to note that an Orthodox bishop, while expressing disagreement with some of the individual points raised, praised the clarity of this text’s emphasis on the theological understanding of “church,” something shared by both Catholics and Orthodox.)
When one speaks about the Church theologically, one is asking about her identity, her definition as that identity is given in Revelation, that is, in Sacred Scripture and the Rule of Faith (Tradition). One is distinguishing what are the essentials and the necessities involved. The Catholic Faith names those necessities and the recent text highlights a few of them that have been overlooked or misinterpreted. Certainly other Christian groups would not want to hear that they lack something essential theologically. By the same token the Catholic Faith would not like to hear the statement of the Orthodox Faith that they alone keep the truth of the first millennium of Christianity or the theological analysis of those who come from the Reformation that the Catholic Church had not remained faithful to Christ and Scriptures. The reason for all such statements is for the parties involved to “know their ground.” It is really the only way that dialogue can move forward. Such statements can also reveal the common ground that all Christian parties to the dialogue share. That is also very crucial since the dialogue must work simultaneously on both the identities and the differences at play in the understanding of the word “church.”
What did the text say? It first states that the Second Vatican Council did not nor did it intend to change the doctrine on the Church. It did make some aspects more explicit and deepened some other terms. The text then explains the meaning of the affirmation that the Church of Christ “subsists” in the Catholic Church. The word, “subsists,” had caused much commentary. By using the word “subsists,” the Second Vatican Council was emphasizing that Christ founded only one Church endowing her with perduring, historical continuity and the permanence of all the elements that Christ wished for the Church; that one “Church” is the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church has the fullness of the meaning of “Church.” At the same time, there are numerous elements of sanctification and truth which are found outside the Catholic Church and her structure. These gifts properly belong to the Church of Christ and impel towards Catholic Unity. The Churches and communities outside the structure of the Catholic Church are not deprived of significance or importance in the mystery of salvation; nor has the Spirit of Christ refrained from using them as instruments of salvation. But from the Catholic understanding such Churches and communities still suffer from wounds or defects. It is, in other words, a question of the fullness of truth theologically.
The various Orthodox Churches are still called “churches,” because they have true sacraments, the apostolic succession of bishops and the priesthood, and thus, the Eucharist. But the Catholic Church considers communion with the Successor of Peter to be something internal to the constitution of a local Church and not an external complement. That essential aspect of the church is not fully realized between Rome and the Orthodox Churches.
The communities that arise from the Reformation do not enjoy apostolic succession in the sacrament of Holy Orders and therefore miss a constituent and necessary element of being a “church” theologically. This is especially shone in the absence of a sacramental priesthood for these communities. The integral substance of the Eucharistic Mystery is thus missing. According to the Catholic profile, then, such communities cannot be theologically designated as “church.”
This text, by its own admission, was not meant to handle all, even most, questions in ecclesiology. The motivation was to clarify some elements of the Catholic Church’s position and to correct some theologians who either said or implied that the Church of Christ does not exist anywhere “concretely” on earth, but is either a kind of theological construct or a future reality or the sum total of all churches, whether they are united or not. In such views the Church of Christ really does not exist at all theologically; it is a utopia of future convergences or a pure object of study and research. Any genuine ecumenical dialogue, and such dialogue is absolutely essential, must be constructive. Such a constructive dialogue involves, on our part as Catholics, fidelity to the identity of the Catholic faith theologically. Other parties in the dialogue must be faithful to their understanding of the word, “church.” The presence or absence of certain necessary elements for the meaning of the concept “church,” is precisely what can engender deeper dialogue, clarify disagreements and even lead to a deeper agreement in the truth. Open mindedness theologically has nothing to do with speaking from a void or an emptiness of content.
Last week, even as I was already intending on publishing an article about the recent text of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, I received an e-mail from a Catholic in this archdiocese. That e-mail intensified my motivation. The second sentence of the email states that the Catholic laity think the Pope is a complete idiot for this latest statement “on the solo legitimacy of the Roman Catholic Church as a Christian religion.” That is not what the text of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith states. Further it is unbecoming and at the very least lacks Christian charity to call the Successor of St. Peter a “complete idiot.” Such a statement is empirically false, is highly tendentious and is not conducive to create dialogue with the Archbishop of Galveston-Houston. (I phoned the person involved and said as much.) I have tried to disengage three arguments in the e-mail from the general nastiness and overly angular rhetoric in order to attempt a somewhat rational response to the writer. The arguments, as I see them, are: (1) the statement could hurt world peace since Muslim radicals also call their religion the only permissible one to rule the world; (2) the statement is the muttering of a Pharisee (i.e. the Pope); (3) it is insulting to non-Catholics.
On Number 1, it is to be recalled that the truth claim affirmed is made on the basis of an understanding, not on the basis of a political program. As I stated above, the formal theological language of Catholicism is traditional and is offered as a way to unpack the truth of God’s revelation to us. The language is used in theological dialogue with other Christian groups to get at the meaning of the identity of the term “Church.” The statements are not slogans or paths “to rule the world” but ways to understand the New Testament and the ongoing teaching of the Church. The author of the e-mail in question is a lawyer; surely he would not be opposed to the technical language of law which itself is based on a series of reasonable legal principles. Because of the complexity of issues, a technical language is needed, frequently opaque to others, because one is being reasonable within the methods of legal principle and custom. Not everyone can enter into such reason because not everyone is trained in law, though everyone can understand some of the basis for complex legal reasoning and technical language and can appreciate its use. An analogous situation is meant here. The desire to understand God’s revealed word and truth leads in a variety of directions. One way is through the development of human reasoning on Revelation that results in a more technical and refined language to make some terms more precise, even though we are always dealing with Mysteries of Faith and not purely human realities. Even ordinary Catholics understand that the everyday language we use in faith is always saturated with a deeper level of meaning, and, while not hostile to reason and its everyday use let alone hostile to a person outside the faith, this language is always addressing a spiritual reality that meets us and embraces us, but is also transcendent to us. The Catholic Faith has an objectivity and a truth that is not fabricated but is accepted as true and life-giving. This total experience/expression is called the fullness of truth, not out of pride but out of wonder of being called to the Catholic Faith. This fullness of truth includes the teaching about the inestimable worth and dignity of each human person, even the person with whom we might disagree. This is a far cry from some aspects of radical Islamic fundamentalism. (I would also add that the vast majority of faithful members of Islam would also disagree with Islamic fundamentalism on this point, even though they would state that their faith is the true faith.) Thus the text of the document cannot be viewed as a long term harm to world peace. Far from such an effect, the document clarifies and invites other Christians to enter into a deeper conversation about the meaning of the Church and Christian faith, a conversation meant to highlight our inestimable dignity as human persons.
The second point of the e-mail is that somehow the Pope is a Pharisee. I must confess that I cannot fathom what this point means. In approving the text of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith the Pope was giving approval to what the faith of the Catholic Church has always stated. There was nothing of a Pharisee there at all.
The third point of the e-mail concerns a fact: the statement of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is insulting to non-Catholics. On this point I would repeat some comments from above. At a psychological level the statement may indeed seem too stringent. At this level it may have been helpful if the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had given a more ample Press Conference on the day of the document’s publication. At a theological level, the statement is meant to clarify how Catholic teaching authority understands the Church, its continuity in time, its being founded as one by Christ, the importance attached to apostolic teaching authority and sacramental life, all elements that are seen as essential for the fullest expression of what the New Testament and the Early Church, as well as the Church through the ages, means when it speaks of “ecclesia,” “Christ’s flock,” the “Kingdom of God,” and many other statements and images concerning this fundamental reality of our incorporation by faith through the Holy Spirit into Christ’s Body to the glory and praise of God the Father. Though the document initially may have received negative comments from some non-Catholics, I think that the 40+ years of ecumenical dialogue with a wide variety of non-Catholic groups in addition to the wise comments by Cardinal Walter Kasper, the President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, on the document would more than balance such negativity. There are various affirmations in the document and these statements must be held together, particularly the balance between the fullness of expression of truth in the Catholic Church and the genuine elements of truth and sanctification in other Christian Churches and communities. The unity of the Church, for which Christ prayed, requires courage and perseverance. It also requires a respectful yet clear statement of our understanding. Such an understanding is not hurtful but an invitation to think and examine what is said.
I have tried to summarize the main points of the recent document on the Doctrine of the Church prepared by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. I have also tried, within the limits of my patience, to respond to a recent e-mail from a member of this local Church on the same document. May I finally add that the role of civility and prudence in expression, even in disagreement, is always necessary in our Church and in our country. The level of discourse in our country at the moment is not very healthy. I have a difficult time abiding insults to any human person; I have a very difficult time abiding insults to the Holy Father, especially by members of the household of the Faith. Let us try to regain our simplicity and purity of heart even in disagreements.