Introduction: The Church and Apostolic Succession
Our Lord Jesus, from the very beginning of His public ministry, called disciples to follow Him and, from those who became His disciples, He immediately chose the Apostles for an essential service within the community of all the disciples. Throughout His public ministry, He prepared the Apostles to receive a particular grace, the grace of the Sacrament of Holy Priesthood, by which they and their successors would act in His person as Head and Shepherd of the flock in every time and place. When His public ministry had reached its culmination, on the night when He entered upon His Passion and Death, our Lord Jesus instituted the Holy Eucharist and the Holy Priesthood which is indispensable for the offering of the Holy Eucharist.
The Apostles and their successors, the Bishops, with and under the headship of Saint Peter and his successor, the Bishop of Rome, — through the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, through their teaching and through their governance — , are "the visible source and foundation of unity" in the Church (Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Dogmatic Constitution Lumen gentium, "On the Church," 21 November 1964, n. 23a). Through apostolic succession, effected by the laying-on of hands and the prayer of consecration in the Rite of Ordination, Christ remains faithfully and unceasingly the Head and Shepherd of the flock.
Tests of the Unity of the Church and Ecumenism
From the beginning, the unity of the Church has been severely tested by those who have wanted to form and lead the Church in a direction which suited their ideas and preferences but was not the mind of Christ. Recall, for instance, in the very first days of the Church, the controversy caused by those who insisted that new members of the Church who were not Jewish had to follow certain practices of the Jewish religious law. In order that the unity of the Church not be compromised, the Apostles gathered in Jerusalem, with Saint Peter as their head, and gave a definitive decision in the matter (Acts 15:1-21).
Throughout the Church's history, her unity has suffered serious threats. Sometimes, most sadly, groups of the faithful have refused to accept the decisions of the Roman Pontiff and the Bishops in communion with him, and have broken communion with the Church. In some cases, the apostolic succession was broken and the groups of the faithful were left without the essential priestly service of the Apostles and their successors, and, therefore, without the true Holy Eucharist. Today, there are, for instance, hundreds of different Christian ecclesial Communities without apostolic succession. There are also communities separated from the Roman Catholic Church which have preserved apostolic succession and are thus Churches separated from the Roman Catholic Church.
From the time of the first break with the communion of the Church, the Church has necessarily declared her relationship with the other Churches (with apostolic succession) and the ecclesial Communities (without apostolic succession). At the same time, she is called to work for the restoration of the unity of the Body of Christ. During the years of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, there was a concerted effort to promote Christian unity in response to the prayer of our Lord before entering upon His Passion: "I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one; even as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me" (Jn 17:20). The teaching of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council continues to inspire the work of Christian unity or, as it is commonly called, the work of ecumenism. On the same day that the Fathers of the Council promulgated the Dogmatic Constitution Lumen gentium, "On the Church," they also promulgated a document on ecumenism (Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Decree Unitatis redintegratio, "On Ecumenism," 21 November 1964).
Recent Document of the Holy See
On this past June 29, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the office of the Holy Father which helps him "to promote and safeguard the doctrine on faith and morals in the whole Catholic world" addressed a number of questions which have been raised in the teaching about the Church, especially in what pertains to ecumenism. In specific, the Congregation responded to five questions about the teaching on the Church. The title of the document is: Responsa ad quaestiones de aliquibus sententiis ad doctrinam de Ecclesia pertinentibus ("Responses to Questions regarding Some Opinions Pertaining to the Teaching on the Church"). The full text of the document can be found here on the website of the Holy See.
Some have characterized the most recent Vatican document as a new teaching which is unfaithful to the teaching of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council. Some of the faithful of the Archdiocese have expressed concern that the recent document represents a weakening of the Church's commitment to the work of ecumenism.
The document makes it clear that it is only presenting the perennial teaching of the Church in response to certain questions which have been frequently raised in recent theological writings on the Church. The document addresses the questions, in order to remedy possible confusion and doubt. Everything contained in the document is teaching found in the official documents of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council and in subsequent official documents.
The Five Questions
The first question is: "Did the Second Vatican Council change the Catholic doctrine on the Church?" The response makes clear that the Council "neither changed nor intended to change this doctrine, rather it developed, deepened and more fully explained it."
The second question is: "What is the meaning of the affirmation that the Church of Christ subsists in the Catholic Church?" The response is that our Lord Jesus Christ established one Church which "throughout the centuries has always existed and will always exist, and in which alone are found all the elements that Christ Himself instituted." According to the teaching of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, subsistence means the "perduring [to last permanently, to endure], historical continuity and the permanence of all the elements instituted by Christ in the Catholic Church, in which the Church of Christ is concretely found on this earth." The Church of Christ "is present and operative in the Churches and ecclesial Communities not yet fully in communion with the Catholic Church, on account of the elements of sanctification and truth that are present in them," but the one Church of Christ, with all of the elements intended by Christ, subsists in the Catholic Church.
The third question is: "Why was the expression ‘subsists in' adopted instead of the simple word ‘is'? The particular expression does not change the teaching of the Church but makes it clearer that there are elements "of sanctification and of truth" found in other Churches and ecclesial Communities which, because they belong properly to the Church of Christ, draw Christians to the unity of the one Church of Christ.
The fourth question is: "Why does the Second Vatican Council use the term ‘Church' in reference to the oriental Churches separated from full communion with the Catholic Church?" The answer, as noted above, is the reality of apostolic succession and, therefore, of the true Holy Eucharist in the oriental Churches. Still, the separated oriental Churches lack full communion with the Catholic Church. "Since communion with the Catholic Church, the visible head of which is the Bishop of Rome and the Successor of Peter, is not, however, some external complement to a particular Church but rather one of its internal constitutive principles, these venerable Christian communities lack something in their condition as particular churches."
The fifth question is: "Why do the texts of the Council and those of the Magisterium since the Council not use the title of ‘Church' with regard to those Christian Communities born out of the Reformation of the sixteenth century?" As indicated above, the communities in question lack apostolic succession which is "a constitutive element of the Church" and, therefore, are not properly called by the title, "Church." "These ecclesial communities which, specifically because of the absence of the sacramental priesthood, have not preserved the genuine and integral substance of the Eucharistic Mystery cannot, according to Catholic doctrine, be called "Churches" in the proper sense."
The recent document of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith does not set forth new teaching on the Church but rather enunciates the Church's perennial teaching in responding to five questions which are frequently raised. The document also does not draw back from the Church's responsibility for the work of ecumenism. It, rather, gives clear expression to the Catholic Church's understanding of herself. The clear statement of the Church's teaching about herself is indispensable to the work of ecumenism. Such clarity does not discourage ecumenical conversation but, rather, rests it upon the honesty which is necessary for all true conversation.