Vatican II - Voice of The Church
Vatican II - Voice of The Church


By Bishop Christopher Butler

[Chapter 5 of The Theology of Vatican II, 1967, revised ed. 1981]

Constantly, since New Testament times, it has been a Christian conviction that outward unity among believers is a normal consequence of redemption, and that schism between Christians is a result of sin. There was, throughout antiquity and up to the time of the Reformation, a consensus that the Church on earth not only ought to be, but is, visibly one, and that this unity is permanently guaranteed by divine assistance. Faced with the existence of other Christian bodies from which his own was separated, the Christian held that these other bodies were 'outside the Church'; and he would be swift to mention that 'outside the Church there is no salvation'.

Such was the view held within the Great Church of the third and fourth centuries, from which all our existing forms of Christianity can trace their descent. The Great Church, it was held, was the one ark of salvation, the only refuge from the deluge of divine judgment. But it was also the view normally held in the ancient 'schismatical' bodies - Novatianists, Donatists, what you will - which have since died out. They, too, held that visible unity was of the esse of the Church; but, of course, they believed that their own body was the Church, and that the Great Church was a false pretender. All would have echoed Origen's cry: 'My desire is to be truly ecclesiastical' i.e. a genuine son of the Church, with which Origen identified the Great Church.

The suggestion has recently been made that St Augustine wavered on this cardinal point of ancient ecclesiology, or at least that he made theoretical concessions which were inconsistent with it. A hundred and fifty years earlier, St Cyprian, objecting to the practice of reconciling to the Church those baptised in schism without 're-baptising' them, had argued: Where there are valid sacraments, there the Church is; but schismatics are outside the Church; therefore, sacraments administered by schismatics are invalid. St Augustine, in his dispute with the Donatists (who denied the validity of the sacraments of the Great Church) found himself at odds with Cyprian, and maintained that schismatics could administer valid sacraments. But Augustine did not draw the conclusion that therefore schismatical bodies form (separated) parts of the Church; he agreed with Cyprian and virtually all Christian antiquity that the Church does not subsist in a number of separated communions. It remains true that the admission, which has become general in western Christendom, that valid sacraments can be found in more than one communion sets a problem for theological developments which have become overdue.

The nature of the Church on earth was not originally at the centre of the Reformation disputes. Their consequences, however, included the fragmentation of western Christendom, and this, in turn, gave rise to new theories about the Church, including - in some quarters - a denial that the Church is necessarily a visible unity, and sometimes to a denial that she is a visible entity at all. On the Catholic side of the Reformation controversies there was a reaction towards a rigidity if possible even more narrow than before. Meanwhile, the Orthodox Churches, not directly affected by the Protestant Reformation, simply maintained their old position: the Orthodox communion is the true Church of Christ, from which both Catholics and Protestants are divided by schism.

In modern times, the whole world position of Christianity has been changing from that inherited from the Middle Ages. Medieval Christendom was a solid geographical and human block, surrounded by Islam and barbarism. The medieval synthesis of religion, politics and culture made it easy to identify being Christian with being fully human - a supposition which at first seemed to be confirmed when discovery opened up America, Africa, and Asia, disclosing what was taken to be a low state of culture among the non-Christian inhabitants of these regions, who were regarded simply as savages. (Jesuit attempts to reconcile Christianity with the great cultures of China and India were eventually frustrated by the action of Rome.) The conquistadores opened the way for the missionaries, and the latter brought with them not only the gospel but a western culture which had been more or less inadvertently regarded as a necessary part of a package deal.

The breakdown of 'colonialism', together with a juster appreciation of cultures other than that of Europe, has made Christians more aware alike of the distinction between 'the faith' and 'Europe' and of their own minority situation in face of the total experience and population of the world. Despite their doctrinal and other differences among themselves, they are acquiring a sense of sharing with one another a common conviction and a common faith peculiar to themselves. This sense has, of course, been enormously intensified by the major historical phenomenon of anti-religious Communism, and, in the last few years, by the growing clamour of irreligious humanism.

Already before the first world war, the problems raised by rival Christian missions in non-European countries had given birth first to practical difficulties and then to a sense of guilt, and thus the Ecumenical Movement was born. After nearly forty years, at Amsterdam in 1948, the World Council of Churches came into existence, giving a new institutional expression to ecumenical aspirations. The membership of the World Council includes most of the great Protestant bodies, the Anglican communion, and some of the eastern Orthodox Churches. But a number of the more extreme evangelical bodies stand aloof, and the Catholic Church has never sought membership.

In fact, the Catholic Church was for many years very reserved in its official attitude to the Ecumenical Movement as a whole. A general suspicion that the movement entailed a measure of doctrinal indifferentism or at least compromise combined, to cause this reserve, with a particular notion that the movement was in some way implicitly committed to the view that no existing Christian body could claim simply and exclusively to be the Church founded by Christ - and this represents a claim which the Catholic Church had traditionally made for itself. However, it should be noted that, although eastern Orthodoxy makes a similar claim for its own communion, some of the eastern Orthodox Churches have for a long time succeeded in combining this claim with vocal membership of the World Council of Churches. And for more than ten years the World Council itself has made it clear that it neither stands for nor excludes any particular ecclesiology and does not require any member-Church to renounce any of her own claims.

The first signs of a thaw in Rome's attitude came with a very cautious Instruction issued by the Holy Office a few years after the last world war. Soon after that there came into existence an unofficial but permitted international conference of Catholic theologians interested in the ecumenical problem. And at length, before the opening of the second Vatican Council, John XXIII set up at Rome, but outside the framework of the curia, the Secretariat for forwarding the Unity of Christians, with Cardinal Bea at its head. This Secretariat assumed a unique position in Vatican II itself. It was not created as a conciliar commission, and its original membership was of the Pope's own choosing; yet it functioned as an extremely influential commission of the council. It had been made responsible for inviting, and entertaining, official observers from other Churches. But after the withdrawal of the abortive draft document on the Sources of Revelation, it made its influence felt, mainly through Cardinal Bea, in the early drafting of De Divina Revelatione.

It is beyond my scope here to recount the long and chequered story leading up to the acceptance and promulgation, on 21 November 1964, of the Decree of Ecumenism. Nor need I summarise its contents.

The importance of ecclesiology in the Ecumenical Movement, and the difficulties which can flow from a rigidly determined ecclesiology are obvious. Professor Greenslade, writing from personal experience of ecumenical dialogue, says of the question of the nature of the Church: 'Participation in the movement forces precisely this consideration almost daily upon one, with an urgency and in a manner not perhaps familiar to members of the Roman Catholic Church.' And he adds, with reference to a Catholic critic of his own ecclesiology: 'I am bound to conclude that there are facts which he is not facing, facts of the utmost importance since they consist in what - as we believe - Christ has done and is doing through his Holy Spirit.'(1) Replying to the same Catholic critic, Bishop Tomkins argues that 'schism within the Church does not preclude the idea of schism from the Church, nor necessarily imply ... a purely "invisible" Church'. These quotations may introduce our examination of Vatican II's ecclesiology so far as it relates to ecumenism. But first, I remark that the Decree on Ecumenism explicitly sees in the movement the operation of the Holy Spirit, something therefore that 'Christ is doing through his Holy Spirit; something, in other words, of the utmost importance.

Both Lumen Gentium and our Decree restate, as was to be expected, the Roman Catholic Church's peculiar claim for itself, which has been the theme of treatises on the Church ever since the Reformation. The Catholic position is based on two convictions: 1. that visible unity, or full communion between all its parts and members, is of the esse, not merely of the bene esse, of the Church as established by Christ; 2. that this unity is centred in the apostolic and episcopal 'college' with the successor of St Peter (the bishop of Rome) at its head. The early history of the principle that, as the Council of Aquileia (A.D. 381) puts it, 'the rights of communion derive from Rome' or from the bishop of Rome may be studied in the history books; it may be remarked that the dispute between modern Catholics and Orthodox concerns the question whether this centre of communion is of divine origin or is merely an ecclesiastical or canonical creation.

The problem, and it is not an easy one, is, granted this unchanged and unchangeable Catholic position, how to make Catholic participation in the Ecumenical Movement not just an exercise in Christian courtesy but a positive and constructive contribution. No one, it is true, on engaging in ecumenism is expected to begin by denying or sacrificing his own basic convictions; though he must not insist on these as the starting-point of dialogue. But these specific Roman Catholic convictions are certainly an obstacle to easy dialogue. Can the Catholic ecclesiology be enriched and qualified without being surrendered?

We may approach this problem by asking, in the light of the council documents: Who, when we consider men individually, belongs to the Church?; and again: What can we say of the non-Catholic Christian Churches as Churches or Christian communions; is there any sense in which they also 'belong to the Church' as collectivities?(2)

The chapter on the People of God in Lumen Gentium develops its thought between two complementary ideas. It begins by stating, in biblical language, that 'whoever fears God and does what is right is acceptable with him' (n. 9; cf. Ac 10:35). This is a principle of the widest application, and a later reference to those who, through no fault of their own, have not yet come to an expressed acknowledgment of God (n. 16) suggests that it can take within its scope professed atheists who 'strive to attain to a (morally) good life' (ibid.) ; in doing which, the council points out, they are in fact - though they do not recognise it - helped by divine grace. The other governing idea of the chapter follows immediately: 'It has pleased God to sanctify and save men, not singly and without any mutual connexion, but by constituting them as a people which should acknowledge him in truth and serve him with holiness' (n. 9).

Thus human salvation moves between, involves, two poles. Subjectively, it requires - of adult human beings - that 'they fear God and do what is right'. They must be men who rule their lives by their conscience; and, as moral theology points out, a genuine conscience is always to be obeyed, even if, inculpably, it is misinformed - there are those who judge themselves conscientiously required to profess atheism. But there is an objective aspect of salvation.(3) Man cannot save himself; salvation is a gift from God, and God was free to give it the form and content which seemed good to him. He chose, in fact, a social form, and the chosen content is summed up in Christ and his new covenant. Salvation has thus been incorporated into and entrusted to the Christian People of God, the Church; and we have already seen that the council teaches that the Church 'subsists in the Catholic Church, governed by Peter's successor and the bishops in communion with him' (ibid., n. 8). Hence we are told (n. 14) that 'Those could not be saved, who though they were not unaware that the Catholic Church was founded through Jesus Christ as necessary, yet refused to enter it or persevere in it.'

It may be relevant here to point out that there is a strong vein of intransigence running through the Bible. The people of Israel is contrasted with 'the Gentiles that know not God' and, in fact, is addressed by God through the words of his prophet: 'You only have I known of all the peoples of the earth.' Doubtless God is the creator of nature and of man, and is the Lord of all history. But, for this 'intransigent' vein of thought, it would hardly be too much to say with the ancient Rabbis that the whole divine purpose in creation and history reaches its end in Israel, to the welfare and destiny of which all else is subordinate and contributory. This intransigence is carried over into the New Testament. Jesus is the Messiah promised to Israel, and his Church is the spiritual (true) Israel. 'There is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved except the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth (Ac 4:12); and it is as a Christian speaking to Christians that the author of the first Epistle of St John can say: 'We know that we are of God, and the whole world is in the power of the evil one' (5:19).

There is, it is true, another line of thought to be found in both Old and New Testaments, a line which may be called universalistic. But it is based on intransigence. Israel - in the New Testament the Christian Church - has a mission to bring light, indeed salvation, to all mankind. But it is the light and redemptive grace of the God of Israel, of Jesus Christ: 'God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation' (2 Co 5:19). Because God's whole purpose of man's salvation is summed up in Christ, the function of the Church is indispensable: 'Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved. But how are men to call upon him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how are they to hear without a preacher?' (Rm 10: 13f). And once a man has believed he still has to be baptised: 'Repent, and be baptised every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit' (Ac 2:38).

Thus, on the supposition that the Roman Catholic Church is the unique Church of Jesus Christ, the historical embodiment of his messianic and eschatological people, the 'intransigent' vein in the De Ecclesia is fully justified. But it has to be theologically reconciled with the 'universalistic' implications of the affirmation that whoever 'fears God and does what is right' is acceptable with God.

We may begin by considering a particularly interesting group of unbaptised persons, bearing in mind that Lumen Gentium teaches that 'Christ alone is the mediator and way of salvation, and becomes present to us in his body, which is the Church. He himself by emphasising the necessity of faith and baptism in express words (cf. Mk 16:16, Jn 3:5), has thereby confirmed that necessity of the Church, into which men enter through baptism as through a door' (n. 14). The group we have to consider is constituted by the catechumens, those who have been moved by the Holy Spirit, and by an express act of will seek to be incorporated in the Church, and are, in fact, being prepared for baptism. Catechumens were a familiar feature of the ancient Christian scene, as they still are in missionary countries. Of them the constitution says that 'already Mother Church encompasses them as her own with love and solicitude' (ibid.). The language is rather vague, but still we have here a group of unbaptised persons whom the Church recognises as 'her own'. Implicitly, I suggest, the council accepts the very ancient and uncontradicted conviction that catechumens, though actually not yet baptised, are yet in such manner related to the Church 'the instrument of the redemption of all' (n. 9) that, if they die before baptism, they are held to be saved. As a group (for no one can judge the interior dispositions of any individual) they are thus regarded as men in whom salvation, that is to say Christ, is already present and efficaciously operative. Externally, they have not yet passed through the 'door' of baptism; but in reality they are already, in some sense, 'inside' the ark of salvation. In them the Church already transcends its own visible limits; in them baptism, not yet externally received, is already operative. They are a privileged case, because they already have an explicit desire for baptism and so for incorporation in the Church; but they are a decisive case, since they show that lack of material or external incorporation into the Church does not prove that one is not, in the vitally important sense that determines salvation, already 'within' it.

In n. 16 the constitution considers the situation of a large mass of other unbaptised persons, who, however, differ from catechumens because, unlike them, they lack any explicit desire to be baptised. Such are non-Christian Jews, Moslems, followers of other religions, and, as already noted, professed atheists or agnostics. All are classified here as 'those who have not yet accepted the gospel', and they are said to be in various ways related to God's people. And it is said, in general, of all who are in inculpable ignorance of Christ's gospel and Church, but who 'seek God with a sincere heart' and seek to fulfil in act his will, which they recognise through the imperative of their conscience, that they can attain eternal salvation. This implies a notable, but not novel, extension of the theological notion utilised in the case of catechumens. Theology is, of course, familiar with the idea that a desire of receiving a sacrament may do duty for actual reception, in cases where the latter is physically or morally impossible. Indeed, in the instance of the sacrament of penance, it is acknowledged that contrition, including a genuine intention of sacramental confession, brings immediate remission of sin, while leaving intact the obligation of actual sacramental confession when a suitable occasion offers. There is thus no special difficulty about catechumens with their explicit desire for baptism. Where, however, this explicit desire is absent, either through ordinary ignorance of the traditional Christian faith, or through a conscientious non-reception of its teaching, we have to fall back on what is known as an 'implicit desire' of the sacramental means. A person who genuinely 'fears God and does what is right' would obviously wish to become a Christian if he recognised this as God's will; it is God's will, and he wishes to do God's will; hence, he may be said to desire implicitly what he rejects explicitly. He is like a man who fails, through no fault of his own, to recognise the friend whom he genuinely loves. The implication of the council's positive attitude to all these groups of non-Christians is, that in them also Christ is (anonymously) at work, and that in them also the Church, extra quam nulla salus, is transcending her own visible limits.

Obviously, then, the constitution had to take a still more positive line about non-Catholic Christians; about those who 'being baptised, are honoured with the name of Christian, but do not profess the complete faith or do not maintain the unity of communion under Peter's successor' (n. 15).(4) There are many links which unite the Church to these: not only baptism, important as it is because it actually incorporates into Christ (and the Church is Christ's body), but the Bible as the norm of belief and life, and - not to speak of Christian zeal and devotion - there may be other sacraments, too; and in general there is a 'certain communion in prayers and other spiritual benefits, nay a union in the Holy Spirit' (n. 15).

The question of non-Catholic Christians is, we may say, posed in this passage of Lumen Gentium. It is here given only a very vague and exiguous answer. More, however, can be gleaned from the Decree on Ecumenism. Schism - a word which the decree avoids, as it does the word 'heresy' - is, in itself a sin; it is a sin against the charity which binds Christians internally and externally with all their fellows. But the decree states explicitly that, while there may have been sin on both sides at the origin of our modern divisions, those who are today born in separated Christian bodies are not to be accused of this sin of division; in fact, the Catholic Church embraces our separated brethren with reverence and love. 'For those who believe in Christ and have duly received baptism are established in a certain communion with the Catholic Church, albeit not a perfect communion' (n. 3).

The notion of communion, and the distinction between perfect and imperfect communion, may be said to be fundamental to this decree. It is a notion firmly embodied in the New Testament: 'That which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you may have fellowship (koinonia, communion) with us; and our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ' (1 Jn 1-3). It appears to signify that kind of association which is involved in common possessions.(5) In this general sense, we may say that the common land of a medieval village was a material reality, shared as a possession by each of the families, and constituting a link between the personal lives of all the villagers. To possess something is to be constituted in relationship with everyone to whom that thing is a reality, and especially to everyone who, like you, possesses it. Thus there is born the reality and idea of a commonwealth.

A primitive expression of the idea of Christianity as communion was the pooling of material possessions in the early Church in Jerusalem: 'The company of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had everything in common' (Ac 4:32). The experiment seems to have been abortive, though it has been continued or re-enacted in the 'religious communities' of later Christianity. But the 'goods' which believers possess in common are, of course, above all the spiritual 'goods' which Christ communicated to the apostles (De Divina Revelatione, n. 7). They are summed up in the gift of the Holy Spirit, whereby Christ himself, God's supreme 'gift' to man, is made sacramentally present in and through the Church. The common possession of these spiritual goods sets up a communion between believers. And, by a natural development of linguistic usage, the Church herself comes to be called a 'communion' (St Augustine speaks of communio sacramentorum, a phrase which emphasises that the sacraments, as signs conveying what they signify, are the visible means of communion); and again the eucharistic meal is called 'Holy Communion', since in it we become 'one body', the body of Christ.

Within this general notion of 'communion' the decree makes a distinction between 'perfect' and 'imperfect' communion. By perfect communion it means the total sharing of the whole sacramental reality of Christianity by those who are 'fully incorporated into the society of the Church', those, that is to say, 'who having the Spirit of Christ, accept its complete structure and all the means of salvation established in it, and are in its visible organism (compage), joined with Christ who rules it through the supreme pontiff and the bishops -joined in him by the bonds of the profession of faith, the sacraments, ecclesiastical government and communion' (De Ecclesia, n. 14).(6)

Before discussing imperfect, or incomplete, communion, it is well to emphasise the unique feature of perfect or complete communion: it involves a common experience made tangible not only in friendly sympathy, external good works, and common witness to the gospel, not only in a positive mystical relationship to Christ the head of the Church, but in actual worship and shared community life, above all in the sharing of a common eucharistic table. Every Christian knows by experience that his links with the other members of his own 'communion' are unique, as compared with those that bind him to other Christians, even though in the sphere of theology and in apostolic concern he may be closer to the latter than the former. This uniqueness has a doctrinal depth. The Bible teaches that it is by sharing in 'one bread' that we become one body; this sharing is diminished where there is not complete communion. The ancient Church branded schism as the setting up of 'altar against altar'. One of the profoundest motives of the ecumenical movement is the wish to recover this full eucharistic communion of all with each and each with all. Imperfect communion, as we shall now proceed to say, is real and valuable. But the measure of its reality is the ache at its heart for full communion.

Such being 'perfect communion', it is obvious that Christian communion can be imperfectly realised in a number of modes. Unbaptised believers, for example Quakers, are united to those baptised by their common faith in Christ, their common veneration of the Bible, and their common inherence in the Christian tradition as a reality of the historical order. At the other extreme we have, for example, the Christians of eastern Orthodoxy, who are united to Catholics in the apostolic succession, the Eucharist and the other sacraments; thus they 'are joined with us in the closest relationship' (De Ecumenismo, n. 15). Between these limits, there are all those who by baptism are united with each other and with Catholics through the sacrament of 'incorporation into Christ' and are therefore properly acknowledged by 'the sons of the Catholic Church' as their 'brothers in the Lord' (n. 3). Besides faith and baptism, there are also, of course, many other 'common goods' which deepen communion and enrich it both as reality and as idea.

It must be observed that such common possession of authentic elements of the total Christian treasure does not merely unite various groups among themselves; it unites the members of each group with those of all the other groups, including the group called the Roman Catholic Church. Perfect communion, in other words, has a real extension in imperfect communion, and once again we see how the Church transcends her own visible limits; once again we appreciate the cautious statement: 'The Church subsists in the Roman Catholic Church' which falls short of a sheer material identification of Church and Catholic Church.

From consideration of the relation to the visible Church of individuals who are in 'imperfect communion' with her it is possible to pass on to consider the situation of the separated Christian bodies as such. Any failure on the part of the decree to do so would have had most unfortunate results, since the ecumenical movement has taken the form of a convergence of Christian groups, not merely of individual Christians. The step had not been taken in Lumen Gentium, but is taken in the decree: 'The separated Churches and communities, though we believe that they suffer from deficiencies, are by no means destitute of significance and importance in the mystery of salvation. The Spirit of Christ does not refuse to use them as means of salvation, means whose effectiveness is derived from that fullness of grace and truth which has been entrusted to the Catholic Church' (n. 3). This statement, I think, has no parallel in previous official pronouncements of the Catholic Church, and it deserves to be carefully scrutinised.

Christianity is a mystery of communion. Every authentic Christian 'element' is, in its measure, a 'unifying' factor, a factor which produces communion, fellowship, between those who alike acknowledge and live by it. The separated Christian bodies are therefore - from the Catholic point of view - to be seen as ambivalent. As 'separated' they may be said to exist in virtue of a rejection of some element of the total gift of God in Christ to his Church. But as 'Christian bodies' they are, in fact, built upon Christian elements, and are alike cause and effect of the acceptance of such elements by their own adherents. A secular nation-state, however 'Christian' its laws and mores, is 'built' on natural foundations. But a Christian church is built upon 'supernatural' elements, elements accepted as deriving from the gospel. They must therefore be considered to be themselves - doubtless in varying degrees - supernatural. And as such they play a positive part in the divine design of man's supernatural redemption and salvation, as that design takes concrete shape amid the sins and imperfections of mankind. In an ideal order there would be no separated Christian bodies, but only one visible universal Church, and towards this ideal the Ecumenical Movement may be said to be moving. But in the actual historical order, where sin and error have intervened, the actual salvation of actual men is being promoted by the Holy Spirit both in and by the Catholic Church and in and by other bodies.(7) Hence the decree, while firmly maintaining that the Catholic Church is 'the general aid of salvation' in which 'all the fullness of the means of salvation can be attained', boldly speaks of the separated bodies (without distinction) as 'used by the Holy Spirit as means of salvation'.

At this point a Catholic might wonder whether the council was not in danger of slipping into the 'branch theory' of the Church. If there are numerous Christian bodies, each divided from the others, but all genuine Christian communions, means of salvation - and some of them, at least, besides the Catholic Church, entitled to be called 'Churches' - then is not the one Church to be conceived as the sum of these bodies? But the council had no intention of countenancing this theory, long ago denounced as an error. The theory is excluded by the council's explicit teaching. In Lumen Gentium we learn that the Church has been given, in perpetuity, by Christ a ministerial or hierarchical structural principle; and that this, again by Christ's institution, is expressed in the apostolic-episcopal college, of which the reality is essentially bound up with the full communion of each member with all the others. (A bishop can exercise his sacramentally given functions of teacher and ruler 'only in hierarchical communion with the head and members of the college', n. 21; he is 'constituted a member of the episcopal body by virtue of sacramental consecration and hierarchical communion with the head and members of the college' (n. 22).) This doctrine is presupposed in the Decree on Ecumenism, and is implicit in its teaching that 'perfect communion' is to be found only in the Catholic Church. The 'branch theory' is not constructed to safeguard this truth. Yet it seems inescapable that the decree forces us to acknowledge, outside the visible unity of the Catholic Church, not only 'vestiges' of the Church, not only individuals who, especially if they are baptised, have some communion with the Church and, if incorporated in Christ, are in some degree incorporated in his mystical body which is the Church, but Christian communions of an ecclesial character which, at least if they have 'the genuine and complete substance of the eucharistic mystery' (De Ecumenismo, n. 22) (which is the food of the mystical body, and of which the unity of the mystical body is, says St Thomas, the res) can truly be called 'Churches'.

There is a field for further theological investigation here. We seem driven to say that the Church, existing in its integral fullness in the Catholic Church, exists also, by self-transcendence, in bodies out of communion with the Catholic Church. We shall mean by 'out of communion' that they do not enjoy 'perfect communion'; but we shall admit that they have with us, and we with them, a communion which is very real, which can increase, and which is ontologically ordered, by the elements which constitute it, towards perfect communion. Our resulting ecclesiology may lack something of the clarity and definiteness of views associated with the name of Bellarmine; but it will have gained in richness and nuance, and in recognition of the mysteriousness of Christianity, not easily framed in precise human language. Perhaps we could say, with a distinguished Orthodox theologian, 'We know where the Church is; it is not for us to judge and say where the Church is not.'(8)

Our examination of the decree has shown that the notion of 'communion', while fully traditional, is yet flexible. In this respect it has a great advantage, for the ecumenical dialogue, over the description of the Church as 'a society'. A society is something whose edges are essentially sharp. You belong to it so long as you recognise and are recognised, in a juridical sense, by its governing authority; otherwise, you do not belong to it. Communion, by contrast, exists wherever there is common possession, whether of material or spiritual riches. There is a primordial communion between all men through their possession of a common specific (and rational) nature.(9) There is a closer communion between men of a single culture or single political system. There is a certain communion between all who recognise the existence of a holy creator God. But there is obviously a much greater 'communion' between all those who acknowledge Jesus Christ as the redeemer of mankind. And this is still more true of Christians who, having been truly baptised, are thereby marked with a common seal of incorporation into Christ - a sealing which we believe to be indelible in this life. On the other hand, since all must agree that Christ gave a total endowment of spiritual means to his Church, there must remain a marked difference between forms of Christian communion based on the common sharing of only part of this totality and a 'perfect communion' in the totality of the Sacred Tradition.(10)

It may be almost superfluous to enlarge upon the value, for ecumenical dialogue, of such an ecclesiology of communion. Its importance is that it approaches the whole question of the Church and her nature as visible on earth, from a basis which does not presuppose, on the part of those taking part in the dialogue, an acceptance of the belief that the perfect communion exists on earth - or that it is identical with the Roman Catholic Church. Just as it enables Catholics to recognise other Christian bodies as genuinely Christian communions, linked with the Catholic Church by all that is held in common between them, so it enables non-Catholics to acknowledge the Catholic Church as a Christian communion, closely linked to them by the same constitutive elements. Behind this common agreement, or rather beyond it, there remains, of course, disagreement about the actual existence here and now, or the identification, of the perfect communion. But if ecumenical dialogue is directed towards visible Christian unity, it is implied that a perfect communion either can exist on earth, or a least is the ideal which must govern ecumenical endeavour. The Catholic, like the eastern Orthodox, in holding that what can exist does exist, and has a divine guarantee of perpetual existence, can claim that he holds to a 'realised' eschatological conception of the Church. But he can respect and co-operate, in thought and practice, with those who hope from the future for what he believes God has guaranteed in the present.

A view of the Church whose sole recommendation was that it could help the Ecumenical Movement might arouse suspicion. But the ecclesiology of communion is, in fact, intimately related to the general view of the Church inspiring the documents of Vatican II, and particularly Lumen Gentium. We have already seen that the Constitution on the Church represents a move away from a rather narrow juridical outlook whereby the nature of the Church is deduced from the nature of the papal primacy. This constitution offers an ecclesiology which seems to be basically sacramental. The mystical body of Christ is given substance in human history by sacramental signs; and the visible Church herself is not only a sign of human unity but a sign and instrument of divine salvation; it makes present and active within history the redemptive incarnation of the Son of God. And the centre and climax of this whole sacramental order is the Eucharist, 'whereby the Church continually lives and grows' (De Ecclesia, n. 26). As the Constitution on the Liturgy puts it, it is through offering 'the immaculate Victim', Christ, and with him themselves, to God in the Eucharist that the faithful 'are daily consummated unity, with God and among themselves' (De Liturgia, n. 48). Thus the climax of sacrament is also the focal point of communion. When St Thomas, as already mentioned, describes 'the unity of the mystical body' as the res or fruit of the Eucharist he is echoing the Christian tradition in its purest form. 'Church' and 'communion' become one thing in the mystery of the Eucharist. Holy Order is itself a sacrament; but it is a sacrament subservient to the mystery of the Eucharist and therefore to communion. Since communion, in its perfection, takes shape as the existential common or social life gathered round the altar, 'the bishops, in virtue of their sacramental status, have an authority which has a partial expression in juridical terms. But this juridical element in the Church, seen in the wider vision of the ecclesiology of Vatican II, is not creative of the Church. The Church is daily created or re-created in and by her sacramental life, and the juridical element in her government is there to prevent that sacramental life from anarchy and disintegration. In short, though it is true that ubi episcopus, ibi ecclesia, it is still more deeply true that ubi Eucharistia, ibi ecclesia. And this means that the local Church, centred in the Eucharist - which can only be celebrated as a space-time event - is, as has been said, one of a number of 'cells, each of which contains the whole living mystery of the one body of Christ'.(11) The world-wide communion is 'a communion of communions', not some sort of army in which all power is delegated from above and each platoon has significance only as bestowed on it through its subordination. It is at the local level of the eucharistic fellowship that the People of God actually lives and that Christ is made present through that People.

We have seen that the decree approves the idea that every Christian - and, we may add, every Christian ecclesial body - finds communion with the Catholic Church through sharing in the gospel blessings. It is proper that this communion should find external expression. This will come about through genuine fraternal charity among Christians, and more specifically through ecumenical dialogue. But there should be other expressions of the already existing unity of Christians. As the decree indicates, there should be mutual respect and a common effort in the witness we all bear to the Christian faith and hope. And there should be common Christian co-operation in the broad field of social-economic and, indeed, cultural action (n. 12). The point is taken up in one of its aspects in the Constitution on the Church in the World of Today, where it is said to be desirable that Catholics should actively and positively co-operate, to play their part in international fellowship, 'both with the separated brethren who, like them, profess gospel charity, and with all men who thirst for true peace' (n. 90). A more delicate theological issue arises concerning 'praying together'. The decree acknowledges the value of this on suitable occasions, but speaks with caution of a particular form of it: 'communicatio in sacris' (n. 8). The term is not defined in the decree. T. F. Stransky, a staff member of the Secretariat for Unity, states that the decree uses it directly to refer to participation in the sacramental life of other Churches, especially in eucharistic services; indirectly, to refer to the sharing of any form of prayer offered by or with members of other Churches.(12) Such common worship, especially if it is liturgical, and above all if it is eucharistic, presents difficulties in ecumenical practice which are now notorious. The liturgy, above all the Eucharist, by its nature 'signifies unity'; it normally expresses, and deepens, a unity already present. In early Christianity as already stated, the existence of altare contra altare was seen as the very hall mark of schism; and, on the other hand, even catechumens might be dismissed from Mass before the beginning of the Great Prayer. Thus many have felt, and the feeling is particularly strong among the eastern Orthodox, that it would be something like profanation to hold 'joint Eucharists' before external unity is attained. On the other hand, the grace flowing from the Eucharist is a grace of charity, a grace therefore making directly for unity; so that it could he urged that 'joint Eucharists' would be most effective ways of forwarding ecumenism. The decree therefore states that 'communicatio in sacris' is not to be considered as a means of indiscriminate application with a view to restoring Christian unity; and leaves the decision in particular cases to the competent authority.

Ecumenism is, in itself, an affair of practice based on theology rather than of pure theology. Are there any theological grounds for hoping that practical ecumenism, inspired by prayer and taking shape especially in dialogue, may, in fact, culminate in Christian unity? It seems that there are. Dialogue, as we have seen, seeks to operate from a basis of shared convictions and to extend the area of such common convictions through a process of clearing up misunderstandings and communicating insights. Behind the dialogue, however, there will usually be divergent convictions, and these may comprise: 1. truths held by faith on the one hand, but not accepted by another or other parties to the dialogue; 2. tenets which are neither 'of faith' nor necessary corollaries of what is held by faith; and of these tenets some may be erroneously supposed to be 'of faith'. Faith, however, results from a supernatural enlightenment of man's natural powers whereby he is enabled to assent to, and hold by, divine revelation and its content. The precise or 'formal' object of faith is truth revealing itself, for which, and for which alone, it has a natural affinity. It would seem to be strictly impossible to give the assent of faith to something which is not actually true and not given or implied in divine revelation; though it is plainly possible to withhold the explicit assent of faith from something which is actually revealed or implied by revelation, while giving a genuinely 'faithful' assent to other aspects or contents of divine revelation. In the latter case, we shall have to speak about 'implicit faith' and we could compare the situation of a man who has an 'implicit' desire for the baptism which he explicitly refuses. Now the ecumenical dialogue is calculated to communicate insights, and thus to bring the participants to a recognition of aspects of divine revelation which they had overlooked, or to which they had given insufficient attention. It is also calculated to clarify the distinction between what we really 'believe' and what we only hold by opinion. It can lead therefore to mutual enrichment in the apprehension of divine revelation and mutual purification of the articulated faith. It sets the participants, in other words, on convergent theological courses. Doubtless, the achievement of Christian unity will be God's work, not men's; but ecumenism can pave the way to it, and 'dispose' us for the reception of this great and hoped-for grace.

The actual practice of the ecumenical dialogue may be helped by a sentence added during the fourth session of the council, which has been described(13) as possibly the most important change made in the text at that stage: Catholic theologians, in comparing doctrines, 'should bear in mind that there is an order or "hierarchy" of the truths of Catholic doctrine, since these truths are variously linked up with the foundation of the Christian faith' (n. 11). This sentence must not be misunderstood. It does not mean that, of the articles of faith, or among defined doctrines, there are some which are unessential; nor that some are only probably true. You cannot be a Catholic on the basis of a selection of Catholic doctrines excluding some which you, or others advising you, think to be 'unimportant' or disputable. All doctrines, in other words, are equally necessary. But they are not equally important. The doctrine of man's redemption by Christ is not more true than the doctrine of indulgences; but it is vastly more important. When doctrines are viewed in their aspect of being equally necessary they are seen, as it were, two-dimensionally. But the world to which they belong is three-dimensional, a world of perspective.

The importance of this distinction between truth and varying importance is obvious as regards the ecumenical dialogue, in which it should quickly become apparent that most of the more important truths are held in common. This is only to be expected if the criterion of importance is the closeness of the link between a doctrine and the 'foundation of the Christian faith'.(14) It may be of even greater consequence that the acceptance of the distinction could have profound effect on Catholicism as existentially lived. We have already seen that the council, without in any way denying the 'juridical' element in the Christian totality, has shifted the emphasis from this element to the sacramental aspect of the body of Christ. Such shifts of emphasis can change the quality of a religion as actually lived - and can increase or diminish its existential credibility.

  1. Schism in the Early Church, 2nd edition, p. xv.
  2. I have examined these questions at greater length in 'Les Chrétiens non-catholiques et l'Église', in L'Église de Vatican II, Vol. 2, ed. G. Baraúna, pp. 651-68.
  3. That salvation has an objective aspect is common ground among Christians. 'For us men and for our salvation' the Son of God was incarnate, died, and was raised from the dead. This aspect is already adumbrated in deutero-Isaiah's teaching that Israel has a divine mission to the Gentiles. It has priority over the subjective aspect, inasmuch as it was 'when we were yet sinners'- i.e. before we feared God'- that Christ died for us.
  4. Explicit mention is not made of, e.g., Quakers, who do not include sacraments in their idea of 'essential Christianity'. Obviously, they are to be 'classified' somewhere between catechumens and those who 'do not know of the gospel'. Their faith in Christ would lead them to baptism, if they understood that it is the 'necessary' door to the Church, and the way in which Christ wishes us to be incorporated in his mystical body.
  5. The Greeks had a saying, which puts the thing in reverse perspective: The possessions of friends are common to each.
  6. It should be obvious that the term 'perfect communion' does not involve a claim that the Catholic Church, as she existentially exists, is morally perfect - such a claim would, of course, be absurd. The term is an improvement on the familiar term 'perfect society', used to describe a society which is sui iuris for all purposes involved in its intrinsic raison d'être. A nation-state is a perfect society in this sense; a trade union is not, because it is subject to the overriding law of the state within which it exists.
  7. The decree refers to the non-Catholic Christian bodies as Churches and communities. Some have seen an invidious distinction here. The council was in something of a dilemma. Modern non-Catholic practice speaks of 'the Churches' without discrimination. Catholic precedent, however, confined the use of the title 'Church' to the Catholic Church herself (and her dioceses, each a church within the Church) and to those eastern Christian bodies which, though estranged from Rome for many centuries, have an undoubted continuity of full sacramental and especially eucharistic life, carried on from before communion with the West ceased. By speaking of 'Churches and communities' the decree bore witness to this Catholic precedent, but it did not clearly indicate which bodies it would refer to as Churches and which as 'only' communities. Behind the linguistic distinction there may lurk a theological consideration. The Eucharist is the heart, centre, food, and growing-point of ecclesial communion at its fullest: 'The bread which we break, is it not a participation (koinonia) in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread' (1 Co 10: 16f). Hence, it seems natural to speak of a 'Church' where there exists a Eucharist which we can unconditionally recognise as such. Such unconditional recognition can be more easily given to eastern Orthodox Eucharists than to some others. [It is also possible that the drafters had in mind that some Christian bodies prefer not to be called 'Churches'.]
  8. P. Evdokimov, L'Orthodoxie, p. 343.
  9. It is often said that this sharing of a common rational nature by all men creates a universal human society. I prefer to avoid this phraseology. There is no universal authority, at the natural human level, that can at present give that cohesion which I think necessary to constitute a society; the 'authority of conscience' is not external but internal, and - since men's conscientious judgments vary - can be divisive. But it seems true to say that the possession of a common human nature makes men potentially a society, and that it is a dynamic factor making for a universal society. However, in the actual historical order it seems doubtful whether this potentiality can be realised except with the help of a universal supernatural society - the Church.
  10. F. D. Maurice, in his important work The Kingdom of Christ, builds his ecclesiology on 'signs of a spiritual society'. He enumerates various signs: baptism, the creeds, forms of worship, the Eucharist, the ministry and the Bible. And he argues that these signs are all present in the Church of England. Maurice's 'signs' correspond to our 'common spiritual goods'. Like them, they tend towards communion. While a Catholic would say that Maurice did not grasp the whole idea of the structured episcopal college, one can read with admiration his clear sense of the universality of the episcopate: 'The overseers or bishops of the Christian Church have felt themselves to be emphatically the bonds of communication between different parts of the earth. The jurisdiction of each has been confined within a certain district; but, by the very nature of their office, they have held fellowship, and been obliged to hold fellowship, with those who lived in other districts.... This episcopacy has not been merely an accidental addition to, or overgrowth upon other forms of priesthood. In those countries where it has been adopted it has been the root of all other forms, and has been supposed to contain them within it' (op. cit., pp. 98f). The De Ecclesia similarly sees the presbyterate as a participation of the priesthood held in fullness by the bishops.
  11. T. F. Stransky, The Decree on Ecumenism, < /br>a New Translation with a Commentary, p. 27.
  12. T. F. Stransky, op. cit., p. 41, n. 9.
  13. T. Stransky, op. cit., p. 64, n. 30.
  14. How is that 'foundation' to be designated? The first proclamation of the faith was presumably 'Jesus is risen'. Very early too, were such 'confessions' as 'Jesus is the Christ', 'Jesus is Lord'. The decree wisely abstains from further precision.

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