Why Vatican II’s Definition of Church Makes Sense

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One of the most common criticisms of the Second Vatican Council is that it changed the teaching regarding the relationship between the idea of the Church of Christ and the Roman Catholic Church. Much of the debate among interpreters (and detractors) of Vatican II has centered around the phrase subsistit in, found in the conciliar document Lumen Gentium (LG), which declares: “This Church constituted and organized in the world as a society, subsists in the Catholic Church.” The confluence of history, theology, and Latin often leads many passersby to consider the debate over this phrase to be obscure and thus unnecessary for everyday Catholics to understand. The One Church of Christ: Understanding Vatican II, by Stephen A. Hipp, proves why this thinking is misguided. A proper understanding of Vatican II’s teaching on the identity of the Catholic Church and its relationship to other churches and ecclesial bodies is essential for ecumenism.

The most crucial question that Dr. Hipp, a professor of dogmatic theology at both St. Paul Seminary and the University of St. Thomas, aims to answer is whether or not “the ecclesiology of the Second Vatican Council represents a rupture with that of the previous magisterium.” Hipp’s answer, in short, is “no.” In order to reach this conclusion, he works his way through the three Latin ideas considered for use in LG to formulate the relationship between Christ’s Church and the Catholic Church: est (translated “is,” which appeared in the original schema of LG), the approved subsistit in (“subsists in”), and adest (“is present in”). In a detailed study of the Church’s Tradition regarding the Catholic Church’s identity (beginning with St. Ignatius of Antioch), he establishes the longstanding use of est. Christ’s Church can be, and should be, identified with the Catholic Church via the word “is.” They are “one in being, in the sense that they are an identical subject.”

So if est has a two-thousand-year precedent in Tradition and Magisterial writings, why make an adjustment to subsist in? The newer phrase, Hipp argues, is both “indicative of the plenary realization of Christ’s Church in the Catholic Church,” while allowing for the “possibility for inferior, non-divine-intended expressions of Christ’s Church in communities besides the Catholic Church.” In other words, “subsists in” reaffirms the fullness communicated by est while allowing for Christ to be operative outside the physical boundaries of Catholicism. This shift of language is in continuity with Tradition, which has recognized ecclesial elements outside the Church for almost as long as it has used est. Pope St. Stephen, for example, recognized the validity of baptism in heretical Christian sects, while St. Augustine “explicitly taught … that there existed elements of Christ’s Church beyond the visible boundaries [of the Catholic Church].”

For those who question Hipp’s interpretation of subsistit in, the theologian defends his position by recourse to the historical stages of that terminology, the theological formation and opinions of the men who employed that language in LG (and explained it afterwards), subsequent teachings of the Magisterium, and theological suitability vis-à-vis Church Tradition. Moreover, one must weigh less the semantic function typically ascribed to subsistit, and more what theologians and official Church teaching have sought to communicate philosophically and theologically by that term. There is plenty of precedent for this. Hypostasis and ousia, Greek words essential to the Chalcedonian conception of the Trinity, were applied by the Council Fathers less for the semantic definition of those terms, and more for what the Church needed them to communicate about God’s essence.

If this explains subsistit in, there is still the question of what this means for non-Catholics. Hipp’s position is that these communities possess “parts or properties or actions of the Catholic Church,” that whatever salvific power they possess flow from their relative communion with the Catholic Church, and that they possess “nothing distinctive” per se in reference to “salvific mediatory value.” In effect, whatever of Christ these communities retain, it is solely through Catholicism. Moreover, because they are not the Catholic Church, they necessarily have defects. Among these include ecclesial properties, sacraments, the Petrine office, an integral profession of faith, and unity. Does calling these communities deficient undermine ecumenical dialogue? By no means! Rather, it allows interlocutors to clarify and take seriously theological and ecclesial differences, while reciprocating an acknowledgement of others’ real status as Christians.

Hipp’s is a thoroughly technical theological and philosophical work. To help the reader through complex subject matter, he often uses graphics, though even these at times are so overwhelming they may confuse more than elucidate. More casual readers may find the chapter on the causal relationship between the Catholic Church and non-Catholic communities, which applies the Thomistic fourfold understanding of causality (i.e., formal, efficient, material, and final) a bit esoteric. The same may be said of the chapter on the strictly analogical use of “ecclesiality” and the title “church” in reference to non-Catholic communities. The key point here is that the description of non-Catholic communities as “churches” or “ecclesial bodies” must be understood analogically, rather than in perfect proportion to their use describing the Catholic Church. Elsewhere, Hipp explains how features of Vatican II’s ecclesiology preclude applying a univocal sense of “ecclesial” and “church” to both non-Catholic communities and the Catholic Church.

Perhaps the most salient contribution of The One Church of Christ is its middle road between liberal and reactionary interpretations of LG. The document is certainly a development, but it is also in perfect continuity with the past. It affirms extra ecclesiam, nulla salus (outside the Church there is no salvation), while recognizing members of separated Christian community, in certain respects, as in the Catholic Church. This perspective presents opportunities to view ecumenism through a different lens—if others are in an imperfect relationship to the Church, that means the gifts particular to their tradition could actually be a gift to Catholicism, and enable it to “recover aspects of the universality proper to her.” Perhaps the Anglican Ordinariate—which affirms a Catholic Anglican identity—is such an example. We should pray, as does Hipp, that the vision of LG will get us closer to a true and complete Christian unity.

Casey Chalk


Casey Chalk is a senior contributor at Crisis. He holds a Masters in Theology from Christendom College.

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