So what's the Church?

In 2007 the Roman Catholic Church's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published a set of "Responses to some questions regarding certain aspects of the Doctrine of the Church". Not earth-shattering stuff. The "Responses" repeated or elucidated positions expressed by the Roman Catholic Church about what "Church" is, going back particularly to the Second Vatican Council's Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium. These two documents and others in between such as the controversial statement of Christian distinctiveness (or exclusivity?) Dominus Iesus have all put the view that the Church "subsists" in the Roman Catholic Church but that aspects of the Church are "present and active" in other groups such as Protestant Churches (which however are not afforded the title Church but the more guarded term "ecclesial communities").

Since then the wheels of dialogue and response continue to turn, if slowly. The Anglican Communion's peak body for ecumenical relations has been asking national groups like the Australian Anglican Church for its views on these documents and their implications for dialogue as well as for our own understanding of Church. As a member of the Doctrine Commission I am working with colleagues to make such a response.

The view expressed in Lumen Gentium and since reads like a compromise between the old exclusive identification of the Roman Catholic Church as the Church of Jesus Christ, and a view which has been more influential in some Protestant circles, where the Church is seen not so much as the concrete institution or community but as a spiritual reality, whose relationship to the actually-existing set of Christian communities is inexact.

The recent Responsa repeats the idea expressed in Lumen Gentium that there are two aspects of the Church, which is thus a single but complex entity with a dual nature, understood “by no weak analogy” as like the incarnation itself (LG 8). The theory underlying these formulations seems to be that the two elements of Church, historic or visible and spiritual, are inextricably bound up, yet that in reality their union is experienced variably and often imperfectly.

This avoids the extreme of the traditional Catholic position which tended to exclusivity, and to collapsing claims about the Church as it will be ultimately with the present and all-too-obviously fragile and broken institution. Unsurprisingly it also avoids the extreme of a Protestant “invisibilist” ecclesiology, wherein the relationship between the visible community of the Church and the real fellowship of like-minded believers is somewhat arbitrary.

There are nonetheless some difficulties with this position. It is not clear what it means not only to speak of the Church as this complex unity of visible and spiritual dimensions along the lines of the incarnation, but also to speak of it as, apparently, a more purely spiritual thing which can “subsist in” the Roman Catholic Church, or be “present and operative in” other “ecclesial communities”. These formulations seem to be using the more invisibilist tradition of ecclesiology (or substituting a Platonist for an Aristotelian paradigm?) for the purposes of special pleading. This language undermines the “strong” incarnational analogy used before, insofar as this “Church” seems more like the Spirit, which blows where it wills, than like the Word who became flesh and dwelt, in a costly and ineradicable way, among us.

We need to acknowledge and celebrate the reality of the Church as an actual historic community without, as in older Roman Catholic ecclesiology, claiming for it (or our piece of it) now the fullness of what it ultimately means to be Church. I would prefer to suggest that the Church has a real being and meaning which indeed “subsists”, but is variously revealed in history, and variously understood by its members. The Church does not “subsist in” any one Church, nor is it merely “present in” other Churches; rather they subsist and are present in it. There is no other spiritual “Church” that can subsist, or be “present or operative”, in the one historic Church brought into being by Jesus Christ and sustained by the work of the Spirit, and which consists of all its baptized members. Their varying degrees of faithfulness and understanding are the condition for the truth of their new being as Church to be visible, but they are no less Church for that imperfection.

In the fragmentation and in the disobedience of the real Church as it is, we all are compromised, including those who are most faithful. No one group can properly claim the sort of privilege implied in the language of “subsistence”, or for that matter in any other ecclesiological formulation which implies adequacy without the other members of the whole, insofar as all suffer loss in the failures of the whole and in the disobedience of all.

Some Anglicans engaged in ecumenical endeavour are disappointed that there has not been progress since Lumen Gentium opened up a new set of possibilities for conversation by acknowledging that other “ecclesial communities” might have elements of sanctification and truth in them.

By implication some Anglicans seem to be hoping that the Roman Catholic Church would take a more positive attitude to the ecclesial character of our Churches and Communion. We should ask, however, whether it would be helpful or not to receive such recognition on the basis of an ecclesiology which is itself wanting. To be recognized as Church or Churches, when the nature of Church needs to be better understood and taught (by all of us of course), is not as great or positive a step as it might at first seem to be.

In present conversations within the Anglican Communion itself there is also some less-than-coherent ecclesiology at work. Some of the concerns driving current discussions such as those around a Covenant imply that the Anglican Communion is “a Church”, or otherwise attribute to our Communion properties which are really only those of the universal Church. For that matter, our local or national Churches are sometimes spoken of as though their "bonds of affection" with others in the Anglican Communion were more fundamental than, say, our relationships with other baptized Christians in our own or other places, whose claims on their affection are entirely as real.

While the current Roman Catholic discourse is not entirely adequate, its strengths include the refusal to reduce all untidy or inadequate relationships, theologies, and forms of community to a radical choice between “Church” and “not-Church”. Speaking as they do, Lumen Gentium and its documentary offspring remind us that the adequacy of doctrine and practice are of fundamental importance to being the Church, yet also that our specific inadequacies do not amount to a failure of the Gospel or the Spirit. At least by analogy, Anglicans may have to think harder about how to view other Anglicans and other Christians generally, without collapsing into ecclesiological or theological relativism.


  1. Ecclesial issues
    In the 1990’s I was a student at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome and was a residential member of the (official ecclesial) Community of St. Cecilia for the Theological Formation of Women (Diocese of Rome). Many of our ecclesiology lectures at the Gregorian involved discussions on the nature of the Church. I was therefore very interested to read, during 2006, about the debate between a former professor of mine, the German Jesuit Fr. Karl Becker and the American Jesuit Fr. Francis Sullivan concerning the words “subsistit in” in LG8 which originally had been “est”. In English the sentence in LG8 reads, “This Church…subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the bishops in communion with him. “ We had been taught that the words “subsist in” were the correct ones for the document although I noted at that time, the underlying sentiment of many was to identify the notion of Church with the Roman Catholic Church.

    The incarnational analogy used in LG8 introduces some very dangerous thinking because here we are very close to something that could quickly be clear idolatry – making the Church itself God. Underlying this assertion is the belief that somehow there is a sacred or holy nature to the Roman Catholic Church which, if unchecked, could easily take on the idea that relating to the Church is relating to God in Godself. When I was in Rome people talked about the Church as Sacrament but I don’t remember the use of the words “Universal Church” which is often used these days to refer to the Roman Catholic Church. I agree with your statements about the Church not subsisting in any one Church and that no group can claim the type of privilege that is implied in “subsist in” language. Unfortunately the meaning behind the words “ecclesial communities” were probably not clear to other Churches when the documents were made but Dominus Iesus has made that clearer (Sometime in the early nineties, in Rome, I was warned by an Australian priest that I should not speak about any of my Ecumenical activities or that I had been an Ecumenical Chaplain in Australia because the Church was “pulling back” from Ecumenism since it had “gone too far”). Dominus Iesus was confirmation of the understanding that for many in the Roman Catholic Church Ecumenism means “coming back to the Roman Catholic fold”.

    In my opinion the only tenable model of Ecumenism and, for that matter, the Church is one in which all participants, including the Roman Catholic Church, meet and interact in mutual respect and equality in what should be regarded as the harmonious diversity of the Church of Christ.


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