The Catholic Church As Unique Source of Sanctity

 In Mediaeval Latin, things “exist;” only persons “subsist.” Hence, the means of sanctitication – “things” – can be found outside the Catholic Church, but the “I” of Christ can only be found as “I” inside the Catholic Church

Given the extensive confusion today over the truth of the Church, I think it is valuable to understand precisely what has been written as authoritative interpretation of the Church as the unique source of holiness (“Subsistit”) and how there are elements of sanctity and sanctification outside the Church

‘Subsistit In’: Church of Christ ‘Subsists In’ Catholic Church: Ecclesiology Of The Constitution On The Church, Vatican II, ‘Lumen Gentium’, The Ecclesiology Of The Constitution On The Church, Vatican II, ‘Lumen Gentium’

By Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger

June 28, 1992

Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith


“At this point I would like to interrupt my analysis of the concept of communio and at least briefly take a stance regarding the most disputed point of Lumen gentium: the meaning of the disputed sentence of Lumen gentium, n. 8, which teaches that the unique Church of Christ, which we confess in the Creed as one, holy, catholic and apostolic, “subsists” in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the Successor of Peter and by the bishops in communion with him. In 1985 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was forced to adopt a position with regard to this text, because of a book by Leonardo Boff in which he supported the idea that the one Church of Christ as she subsists in the Roman Catholic Church could also subsist in other Christian Churches. It is superfluous to say that the statement of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was met with stinging criticism and then later put aside.

In the attempt to reflect on where we stand today in the reception of the Council’s ecclesiology, the question of the interpretation of the subsistit is inevitable, and on this subject the post-conciliar Magisterium’s single official pronouncement, that is, the Notification I just mentioned, cannot be ignored. Looking back from the perspective of 15 years, it emerges more clearly that it was not so much the question of a single theological author, but of a vision of the Church that was put forward in a variety of ways and which is still current today. The clarification of 1985 presented the context of Boff’s thesis at great length. We do not need to examine these details further, because we have something more fundamental at heart. The thesis, which at the time had Boff as its proponent, could be described as ecclesiological relevatism. It finds its justification in the theory that the “historical Jesus” would not as such have conceived the idea of a Church, nor much less have founded one. The Church, as a historical reality, would have only come into existence after the resurrection, on account of the loss of the eschatological tension towards the immediate coming of the kingdom, caused in its turn by the inevitable sociological needs of institutionalization. In the beginning, a universal Catholic Church would certainly not have existed, but only different local Churches with different theologies, different ministers, etc. No institutional Church could, therefore, say that she was that one Church of Jesus Christ desired by God himself; all institutional forms thus stem from sociological needs and as such are human constructions which can and even must be radically changed again in new situations. In their theological quality they are only different in a very secondary way, so one might say that in all of them or at least in many, the “one Church of Christ” subsists; with regard to this hypothesis the question naturally arises: in this vision, what right does one have to speak at all of the one Church of Christ?

Instead, Catholic tradition has chosen another starting point: it puts its confidence in the Evangelists and believes in them. It is obvious then that Jesus who proclaimed the kingdom of God would gather disciples around him for its realization; he not only gave them his Word as a new interpretation of the Old Testament, but in the sacrament of the Last Supper he gave them the gift of a new unifying centre, through which all who profess to be Christians can become one with him in a totally new way, so that Paul could designate this communion as being one body with Christ, as the unity of one body in the Spirit. It then becomes obvious that the promise of the Holy Spirit was not a vague announcement but brought about the reality of Pentecost, hence the fact that the Church was not conceived of and established by men, but created by means of the Holy Spirit, whose creation she is and continues to be.

As a result, however, the institution and the Spirit have a very different relationship in the Church than that which the trends of thought I just mentioned would like to suggest to us. The institution is not merely a structure that can be changed or demolished at will, which would have nothing to do with the reality of faith as such. This form of bodiliness [body of Christ] belongs to the Church herself. Christ’s Church is not hidden invisibly behind the manifold human configurations, but really exists, as a true and proper Church, which is manifest in the profession of faith, in the sacraments and in apostolic succession.

The Second Vatican Council, with the formula of the subsistit — in accord with Catholic tradition — wanted to teach the exact opposite of “ecclesiological relativism”: the Church of Jesus Christ truly exists. He himself willed her, and the Holy Spirit has continuously created her since Pentecost, in spite of being faced with every human failing, and sustains her in her essential identity. The institution is not an inevitable but theologically unimportant or even harmful externalization, but belongs in its essential core to the concrete character of the Incarnation. The Lord keeps his word: “The gates of hell shall not prevail against her”.

Council: ‘Subsistit In’ Explains Church As Concrete Subject

At this point it becomes necessary to investigate the word subsistit somewhat more carefully. With this expression, the Council differs from the formula of Pius XII, who said in his Encyclical Mystici Corporis Christi: “The Catholic Church “is” (est) the one mystical body of Christ”. The difference between subsistit and est conceals within itself the whole ecumenical problem. The word subsistit derives from the ancient philosophy as later developed in Scholastic philosophy. The Greek word hypostasis that has a central role in Christology to describe the union of the divine and the human nature in the Person of Christ comes from that vision. Subsistere is a special case of esse. It is being in the form of a subject who has an autonomous existence. Here it is a question precisely of this. The Council wants to tell us that the Church of Jesus Christ as a concrete subject in this world can be found in the Catholic Church. This can take place only once, and the idea that the subsistit could be multiplied fails to grasp precisely the notion that is being intended. With the word subsistit, the Council wished to explain the unicity of the Catholic Church and the fact of her inability to be multiplied: the Church exists as a subject in historical reality.

The difference between subsistit and est however contains the tragedy of ecclesial division. Although the Church is only one and “subsists” in a unique subject, there are also ecclesial realities beyond this subject — true local Churches and different ecclesial communities. Because sin is a contradiction, this difference between subsistit and est cannot be fully resolved from the logical viewpoint. The paradox of the difference between the unique and concrete character of the Church, on the one hand, and, on the other, the existence of an ecclesial reality beyond the one subject, reflects the contradictory nature of human sin and division. This division is something totally different from the relativistic dialectic described above in which the division of Christians loses its painful aspect and in fact is not a rupture, but only the manifestation of multiple variations on a single theme, in which all the variations are in a certain way right and wrong. An intrinsic need to seek unity does not then exist, because in any event the one Church really is everywhere and nowhere. Thus Christianity would actually exist only in the dialectic correlation of various antitheses. Ecumenism consists in the fact that in some way all recognize one another, because all are supposed to be only fragments of Christian reality. Ecumenism would therefore be the resignation to a relativistic dialectic, because the Jesus of history belongs to the past and the truth in any case remains hidden.

The vision of the Council is quite different: the fact that in the Catholic Church is present the subsistit of the one subject the Church, is not at all the merit of Catholics, but is solely God’s work, which he makes endure despite the continuous unworthiness of the human subjects. They cannot boast of anything, but can only admire the fidelity of God, with shame for their sins and at the same time great thanks. But the effect of their own sins can be seen: the whole world sees the spectacle of the divided and opposing Christian communities, reciprocally making their own claims to truth and thus clearly frustrating the prayer of Christ on the eve of his Passion. Whereas division as a historical reality can be perceived by each person, the subsistence of the one Church in the concrete form of the Catholic Church can be seen as such only through faith.

Since the Second Vatican Council was conscious of this paradox, it proclaimed the duty of ecumenism as a search for true unity, and entrusted it to the Church of the future.

Conclusion: Call To Holiness

I come to my conclusion. Anyone who desires to understand the approach of the Council’s ecclesiology cannot ignore chapters 4-7 of the Constitution, which speak of the laity, the universal call to holiness, religious, and the eschatological orientation of the Church. In these chapters the intrinsic purpose once again comes to the fore: that is, all that is most essential to her existence: it is a question of holiness, of conformity to God, that there be room in the world for God, that he dwell in it and thus that the world become his “kingdom”. Holiness is something more than a moral quality. It is the dwelling of God with men, and of men with God, God’s “tent” among us and in our midst (Jn 1,14). It is the new birth — not of flesh and blood, but of God (Jn 1, 13). The movement toward holiness is identical with the eschatological movement and indeed, from the standpoint of Jesus’ message, is now fundamental to the Church. The Church exists so that she may become God’s dwelling place in the world and thus be “holiness”: it is this for which one should compete in the Church — not for a given rank in rights of precedence, or for occupying the first places. All this is taken up and formed into a synthesis in the last chapter of the Constitution, which presents Mary, the Mother of the Lord.

Marian Vision

At first sight the insertion of Mariology in ecclesiology, which the Council decided upon, could seem somewhat accidental. In fact it is true, from the historical viewpoint that a rather small majority of the Fathers voted for the inclusion of Mariology. But from the inner logic of their vote, their decision corresponds perfectly to the movement of the whole Constitution: only if this correlation is grasped, can one correctly grasp the image of the Church, which the Council wished to portray.”

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