Friday, July 13, 2007

"Subsists in"

TWO YEARS INTO HIS PONTIFICATE, Benedict XVI is now strongly addressing the problems that have plagued the Church since the Second Vatican Council. As one of the young "best and brightest" of the consultants at the Council, and champion of reform, he later saw how calls for 'reform' were leading to the self-destruction of the Church.

If you think that "self-destruction" is too strong of a term, consider how many former Catholics strongly support the reforms of recent decades, but no longer practice the faith. They support change, but will have nothing to do with it afterwards.

The new document, "RESPONSES TO SOME QUESTIONS REGARDING CERTAIN ASPECTS OF THE DOCTRINE ON THE CHURCH" from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at the Vatican clarifies some questions on the ecclesiology of the Church that have been raised since the Council. The modern interpretation of the documents of Vatican II assumes that they call for unlimited ecumenism, and that the Church disavows its old claims of legitimacy; this new document clarifies this, stating that nothing has fundamentally changed. Hence, we have howls of protest from former Catholics.

A major puzzle of the Council is the use of the phrase "subsists in", found in the Dogmatic Constitution Lumen gentium:
This Church constituted and organized in the world as a society, subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him, although many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside of its visible structure.
and found in its Decrees on Ecumenism (Unitatis redintegratio):
This is the way that, when the obstacles to perfect ecclesiastical communion have been gradually overcome, all Christians will at last, in a common celebration of the Eucharist, be gathered into the one and only Church in that unity which Christ bestowed on His Church from the beginning. We believe that this unity subsists in the Catholic Church as something she can never lose, and we hope that it will continue to increase until the end of time.
(emphasis added)

Why, many Catholics ask, do these say "subsists in" instead of just "is"? This seems like a rather weaker emphasis, and certainly that seems how the modernist reformers read the documents.

"Subsists in" is an odd phrase, and I've never heard it used outside of the context of Lumen gentium, until I heard it used in a philosophy lecture. "Subsists in" is not a vague phrase, but is rather has a more precise philosophical meaning.

In traditional philosophy, we speak about shared, universal natures: for example, we have many specific dogs, but they all share the nature of 'doggieness'. Even though each dog is a unique individual, they all, at some deep level, share in the one nature of the species of dog. We say that the nature of 'doggieness' subsists in each individual dog. This is even more clear in mathematics: a teacher may draw many triangles on a chalkboard when proving theorems of geometry, but these chalk triangles are not real triangles. Geometric theorems are only strictly true for real triangles, and are only approximately true for chalk triangles, which are imperfect and irregular. But the nature of the true triangle subsists in a chalk triangle, albeit imperfectly to a greater or lesser degree. The many chalk triangles participate in the nature of the one true triangle: a many-to-one relationship is crucial in understanding the meaning of Lumen gentium.

This brings me to what I thought was an odd doctrine: that each of the Particular Churches (dioceses, Patriarchates, etc.) contain the wholeness of the Catholic Church! According to the Catechism, paragraph 833:
The phrase "particular Church," which is first of all the diocese (or eparchy), refers to a community of the Christian faithful in communion of faith and sacraments with their bishop ordained in apostolic succession. These particular Churches "are constituted after the model of the universal Church; it is in these and formed out of them that the one and unique Catholic Church exists."
Similarly, from the LETTER TO THE BISHOPS OF THE CATHOLIC CHURCH ON SOME ASPECTS OF THE CHURCH UNDERSTOOD AS COMMUNION, paragraph 9:
In order to grasp the true meaning of the analogical application of the term communion to the particular Churches taken as a whole, one must bear in mind above all that the particular Churches, insofar as they are "part of the one Church of Christ", have a special relationship of "mutual interiority" with the whole, that is, with the universal Church, because in every particular Church "the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church of Christ is truly present and active". For this reason, "the universal Church cannot be conceived as the sum of the particular Churches, or as a federation of particular Churches". It is not the result of the communion of the Churches, but, in its essential mystery, it is a reality ontologically and temporally prior to every individual particular Church.
This brings us back to the many-to-one relationship. Many individuals share in the nature of the one, and they are all one, although many. Mysterious, until you think of the chalk triangles in geometry class: they are many, but share (imperfectly) in the nature of the one true triangle. Recall that the theorems of geometry only apply perfectly to the true triangle, and are only approximately true for chalk triangles. Likewise, the many Particular Churches all share in the nature of the One Church; and yes, as we are painfully aware, they are quite imperfect!

This is perhaps the reason why "the Church of Christ subsists in the Catholic Church" is considered more accurate than "the Church of Christ is the Catholic Church" — but only if you look at it from a traditional, and not modern, philosophical viewpoint. This formulation does not exclude other Churches from sharing in the nature of the One Church. For example, the Orthodox Churches certainly participate in virtually everything that we would consider the One Church founded by Christ except for explicit unity.

This is also probably the reason why the Protestant denominations are called "ecclesial communities" and not Churches. If we go back to our geometry example, many of these communities aren't even more-or-less good chalk triangles: some are squares, others circles, and some are just random squiggles. Their participation in the One Church can be slight indeed, but Vatican II tells us that we ought to be extraordinarily generous and recognize those elements that are good in them.

When proposing the idea of the One Church, we are not closing the door to ecumenism. Ironically, when we say that "everyone is OK", and that "all roads go up the same mountain", we actually are closing off debate: this very loose kind of ecumenism does not tolerate any kind of debate for the sake of tolerance. If instead, we say that there really exists One Church, founded by Christ, then various opinions about that Church could be mistaken, leading to vigorous debate.

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