On being a "proper" Church (II)

A recent statement from the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (“Responses To Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects Of The Doctrine On The Church”), and especially an accompanying commentary reported in L’Osservatore Romano, contain some disturbing reminders about divisions among Christians.

Aggrieved reports on these statements often focussed on how they addressed what it means to be “Church”, at least “in a proper sense”. This seems not to have been well-understood. British coverage about the offence to Anglicans or others seemed rather twee, along the lines of a “proper” cup of tea or a “proper” game of cricket not being recognized.

The issue of being “Churches in the proper [strict] sense” has, according to the documents, largely to do with the presence or absence (and recognition) of the historic ministry of bishops. Only Orthodox Churches are credited with this characteristic outside Roman Catholicism – even then, the more florid L'Osservatore commentary suggests there is still a "wound" of sorts.

Other groups, “ecclesial communities” of various kinds emanating from the Reformation, are still more "wounded". The commentary is here rather more lucid (and more offensive) than the formal “Responses” document, wondering “how one could attribute the title ‘Church’ to such a community”.

It is easy to forget that this position is (still) the most generous in a millennium. The official CDF "Responses" document, its spiritual parent the papal encyclical Dominus Iesus, and their predecessor, the Vatican II Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium), all acknowledge that there is more to the Gospel and the Church than Roman Catholicism. They all claim, however, that the Church of Christ “subsists” in the Roman Catholic Church, which is uniquely adequate or legitimate, but that other elements of what Church “is” can potentially be found elsewhere.

While this Roman Catholic teaching may nonetheless seem ungenerous, it is worth remembering that Anglican and Orthodox Churches do also maintain that Church order and sacramental practice are important to being “Church”. Without some such emphasis on real practice and on the actual characteristics of the Church as historically-formed community, the Church is either an invisible company of the like-minded (which is an equally exclusive view, depending on whose mind you like), or a sort of catch-all, along the rather glib lines of the World Council of Churches statement from its 2006 Porto Alegre Assembly, that “Each church is the Church catholic and not simply a part of it”.

In fact each Church is just a part of it. And the same goes for the Roman Catholic Church too. The character of the one holy, catholic and apostolic Church is deeply compromised by disunity, by indifference to the characteristic practices of that one Church, but above all by failure to manifest love, which no claim to “subsistence” can mitigate.

For the real pathos of the statement from the CDF is how it ironically manifests the wounded character of the Roman Catholic magisterium. We are all wounded by our division, and more. As the Congregation strains at gnats of illegitimacy and swallows camels of uncharity, it unwittingly shows us all how much we need each other, and how badly we do when we claim not to.


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