- George Weigel on "SUBSISTIT" -

The well-known biographer of Pope John Paul II and the author of some fine books and columns, George Weigel, has written an interesting work "The Truth of Catholicism" (Harper-Collins, 2001). As the book jacket notes, "In an engaging accessible style, George Weigel leads us through... questions into the truth of Catholicism". It is all the more surprising, then, to see in this work regrettable confusion concerning the relation of non-Catholic churches and ecclesial communities to the Catholic Church. In the welcome effort to explain the Church’s "ecumenical vision", Mr. Weigel makes some unfortunate statements which obscure the unicity of the One and Only Church Christ established for the salvation of all mankind.

These misstatements flow from the grave misinterpretation of the word "subsistit" committed by various post-conciliar theologians (e.g., Bonaventure Kloppenburg, OFM; Leonardo Boff, OFM; Richard P.McBrien; Francis A. Sullivan, S.J.; among others) which has necessitated the Holy See to issue clarifications of the meaning of the famous sentence in Vatican II’s key document "Lumen Gentium", n.8 :

"This [sole] Church, constituted and organized as a society in the present world, subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the bishops in communion with him. Nevertheless, many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside its visible confines. Since these are gifts belonging to the Church of Christ, they are forces impelling towards Catholic unity."

Erring theologians in Europe, the U.S. and Canada have fostered peculiar interpretations of "subsistit". They have twisted its meaning to signify:

  1. the one Church of Christ is a spiritual reality distinct from the Catholic Church; or
  2. the one Church of Christ transcends the Catholic Church; or
  3. that the one Church of Christ also subsists in the Eastern Orthodox autocephalous churches and Protestant communities.

In response to such deformations of Catholic doctrine undermining the unicity of the Church, the "Letter to the Bishops on the Church as Communion" issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on May 28, 1992, made it quite clear that NO separated body of Christians can be considered as possessing the "full communion" characterizing the "one and only Church" described in the 16 decrees and declarations of Vatican II.

In its authoritative commentary on the meaning of "subsistit", the later Declaration "Dominus Iesus" issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (August 6, 2000) reaffirmed that the Church as the unique community and institution of salvation founded by Christ for all mankind, "subsistit", that is, "continues to exist" in the singular society of the Catholic Church. "Subsistit" was used by the Fathers of the Council to mean that though elements of the Church existed outside its visible boundaries, the one true Church of Christ had concrete realization and identification ONLY in the Church known throughout the world as "The Catholic Church", i.e., the Church in communion with the See of Rome. "Dominus Iesus" insisted that :

"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’... [This means] 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."
(No. 16)

Mr. Weigel’s book correctly declares "There is only one Church because there is only one Christ, and the Church is His Body." Where he departs from Catholic teaching is in openly stating that:

"The one Church of Christ is not completely identical with the Catholic Church... Through prayer, theological dialogue, and common service to the world, the now divided elements of the one Church of Christ are undergoing a reciprocal process of purification... For all the baptized, from the Catholic point of view, are part of the Catholic Church, as Catholics are part of them."
(pages 134-136)

In other words, Mr. Weigel asserts that those Eastern Orthodox adhering to the dissident Greco-Slav churches and those adhering to the ecclesial communities stemming from the Protestant Reformation – all Christians whom Vatican II admitted possess an "imperfect communion" with the Catholic Church – constitute parts of the one Church of Christ and are actually members of that one Church of Christ. In this view, the unicity (numerical oneness) of the Catholic Church which Vatican II insisted upon as necessary for its historical identification becomes dangerously obscured with the unwarranted dissolving of its visible boundaries. Nowhere in the documents of Vatican II dealing with the Church’s internal and external bonds of unity are non-Catholic Christians acknowledged or termed parts or members of the visible society of the Catholic Church.

"Lumen Gentium" teaches that:

the Catholic Church is "joined (coniunctam) in many ways to the baptized who are honored by the name of Christian but who do not possess the faith in its entirety or have not preserved the unity of communion under the successor of Peter."
(Ibid. No. 15)

Their possession of "elements and endowments of the Church" (such as the baptismal character, sanctifying grace, supernatural faith, valid sacraments, a valid episcopal succession, and belief in orthodox doctrines) place all them "in some, though imperfect communion with the Catholic Church" ("Decree on Ecumenism", n. 3). Such elements are indeed positive factors contributing to the spiritual life of our separated brethren but they do not result in their being a visible part of the Catholic Church or possessing visible membership in the Catholic Church.

There is no text of the Second Vatican Council which teaches that non-Catholics "are part of the Catholic Church, as Catholics are part of them". Weigel’s reference to the "now divided elements of the one Church of Christ" mistakenly suggests that there is something essential lacking in the Catholic Church, and sharply calls into question the:

"Unity of Christ’s one and only Church which Christ bestowed on His Church from the very beginning. This Unity, we believe, 'subsists' [that word again] in the Catholic Church as something she can never lose..."
("Decree on Ecumenism", n. 4)

A fine dogmatic theologian who died much too early, Irish Bishop Kevin McNamara of Kerry, put it all very simply in a superb article on "The Theology of Christian Unity" wherein he stressed that the degrees of invisible and visible union with the Church that may be possessed by our separated brethren does not change the tragic fact that they still remain "separated". Vatican II acknowledged that dissident Christians in good faith "are indeed in some real way joined to us in the Holy Spirit" (Lumen Gentium, 15), but this reality still did not constitute them members of the Church nor place them within the Unity of the Church, whose "visible structure" is constituted by quite visible bonds, especially that of obedience to the visible head of the Church, the Successor of Peter.

"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 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, nor is any non-Roman communion a part or member of the Church of Christ."
(Irish Theological Quarterly, 1981; page 258)

On page 190 of his book, Mr. Weigel reveals that his "formulation of the meaning of ‘subsists in’ is borrowed from Father Richard John Neuhaus." It is doubly unfortunate that Fr. Neuhaus placed his own trust in writers who sought to deny that the one Church of Christ is identical with the Catholic Church.

About James Likoudis
James Likoudis is an expert in Catholic apologetics. He is the author of several books dealing with Catholic-Eastern Orthodox relations, including his most recent "The Divine Primacy of the Bishop of Rome and Modern Eastern Orthodoxy: Letters to a Greek Orthodox on the Unity of the Church." He has written many articles published by various religious papers and magazines.
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