Münsteraner Forum für Theologie und Kirche

Is Card. Ratzinger´s Interpretation of the conciliar "subsistit" the end of the catholic ecumenism?

By Leonardo Boff

Lumen Gentium, Vatican II´s Constitution on the Church, says that "this (Christ's) Church, constituted and organized as a society in the present world, subsists in the Catholic Church. Nevertheless, many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside its visible confines" (#8). In previous, preparatory documents, an identification between Christ´s Church and the Catholic Church had been made, noting that "Christ´s Church is the Catholic Church." Dialogue amongst the Council Fathers as well ecumenical sensibilities caused the Fathers to replace the word “is" with the word “subsists". Making such a change indicates that the Council Fathers wished to avoid a pure and simple identification between Christ´s Church and the Catholic Church.

1. The Controversy around "subsists"

The majority of interpreters, and myself included, in my book "Church, Charism and Power" (1981) have understood "subsists" as meaning "taking a concrete form, being made visible, appears." In 1985 Cardenal J. Ratzinger condemned my interpretation of "subsists" (sentencing me as well to a year of "obedient silence"), declaring that the Council had chosen the word "subsists" precisely to clarify that there was only one "subsistence" of the true Church, and that outside of its visible structures only existed elements of the Church ("elementa Ecclesiae" ; AAS 77, 1985, 756-762). He further declared that Leonardo Boff had subverted the sense of the Conciliar text. . .a result of ecclesiological relativism" (ibid.). The same condemnation is reasserted in the Declaration Dominus Iesus (in # 16 and the footnote #56, June 8, 2000). He repeated his affirmations, with considerable detail, in a conference on the nature of the Church at the International Congress on the practical implementations of Vatican II (Rome, February 25-27, 2000 in Il Regno 7/2000, 231-238). At this conference, he explained that "subsists" comes from ancient philosophy and corresponds to the Greek word hypostasis (ibid. 237b).

2. The Official Understanding: "Subsiste" is not synonyous with "is"

What is the theological intention of the Council and of the Council Fathers? What light does this shed upon the exact meaning of the change from "is" to "subsists"?

The theological commission of the Council gave its reasons for this change: "so that the expression might be in better concordance with the affirmations about ecclesial elements that are found in other places" (Acta Synodalia III/1, 177). This commission, moreover, never officially or explicitly explained the sense of the expression "subsiste". It did, however, give two indications which marked out its sense of "subsist". In explaining the meaning of paragraph 8 of Lumen Gentium (where "subsiste" is found) the commission notes that "Christ's Church can be concretely found (concrete inveniri), on earth, in the Catholic Church." A little further on they say that the Church "is present" (adest) in the Catholic Church (Acta synodalia III/1,176). Here it seems very clear that "concretely find" and "be present" are synonyms for "subsiste". The meaning, therefore, is this one: the Church "subsiste" in the Catholic Church, or, in other words, "takes a concrete form and is concretized in the Catholic Church." But this does not exhaust the concretization of the Church, because there are "elements of Church" in other churches and Christian communities, as well as the historical limitations, and especially due to the presence of sinners within her (Lumen Gentium 8c). Christ's Church can also subsist in other churches. All churches and Christian communities in communion with each other do in fact form the one Church.

When an explicit meaning is not given to a term such as "subsiste", then the usual understanding of the term is accepted. If we use as a reference Forcellini's well-known Latin dictionary, we can verify that the basic sense of "subsistere" is always that of "concrete": "manere, permanere, sustentare, resistere, consistere, fermare e adstare" (Totius latinitatis Lexicon V, 707-708). Not a single one of these meanings, nor any of the examples listed, offers the sense that Cardinal Ratzinger gives of "subsistence" or "hypostasis".

We note a modification motu proprio of fundamental importance that the Cardinal introduces here, which distorts the intention of the Council. The text of the Cardinal claims that in other churches exist "only elements of the Church". The Council does not teach this. It says, without limitations, that there exists in them "many (plura) ecclesial elements" thereby offering an opening for understanding these others churches as the Church.

By introducing the limitation "only", the Cardinal denies other churches the character of the Church. This contradicts number 15 of Lumen Gentium where it is clear that such elements do not refer to sacraments and individuals, but to "the churches themselves and the ecclesiastical communities" in which are found these individuals and their celebration of sacraments. The theological commission emphasized that "the foundation of the ecumenical movement is found precisely in the recognition of this fact" (Acta Synodalia III/ 1, 204). For this reason, the Decree on Ecumenism sustains that "the Spirit does not refuse to use them as instruments of salvation" (n. 3d).

Cardinal Ratzinger could argue that the Council avoided calling the Christian communities that were born of the Reformation "Church", saving this word for those who celebrate the Eucharist and maintain Apostolic succession. However, the theological commission noted that the Council "was not about investigating and determining who should be theologically termed Church" (Acta Synodalia III/7,35), but that the Council intended to stay with the traditional sense of the language. But the commission underlined that such Communities were not simply a sum of individuals, but that they were "constituted by social and ecclesiastical elements which conferred upon them a truly ecclesial character; in such Communities, although in an imperfect way, was present the true Church, in a manner similar to the one according to which she was present in particular Churches, and through its ecclesial elements, the Christ's Church, in some way, works in them" (Acta Synodalia III/2,335). In non-Catholic churches, then, subsists the Church. Indeed, the Pontifical Magisterium, the postconciliar Synods and bishops have spoken of these churches referring to them as Evangelical Communities. This is surely not a matter of softening the language, but rather a concrete application of the conciliar sense of "subsiste", which allows us to affirm that various non-Catholic churches participate in the Church intended by Christ.

3. Cardinal Ratzinger regresses to pre-Vatican II.

The interpretation that the Cardinal gives to "subsiste" as "subsistence" or "hipostasis"‹which "could occur only once" as he said in his conference (Il Regno, loc. cit. 237b), or, in other words, only in the Catholic Church‹therefore makes "subsiste" a synonym of "is". The Cardinal himself says this in writing, "subsistit is a special case of "esse" (to be)" (ib. 237b). Giving this interpretation to the word voids the will of the Council Fathers, who wanted to change "is" for "subsiste". They wanted to avoid the pure and simple identification of the Church with the Catholic Church. For Ratzinger, the other "churches" were not really Church, they simply had "the elements of Church". This would be like saying, "Only my house is really a house; your house simply has the elements of a house, such as bricks, windows, and doors; all of this is not really a house, only the elements in fact derive from my house." Such a statement, aside from being arrogant, is, in the thinking of the Council Fathers, mistaken. Ratzinger has returned to a pre-Vatican II time.

The Cardinal himself notes the reductionism of his position when he notes that "this difference between "subsiste" and "is" can not be fully resolved, in the end, from the point of view of logic" (ibid.). Moreover, he says that , "the subsistence of the Catholic Church can only be perceived as such with faith" (Ibid. 238a). Such an admission goes against the words of Lumen Gentium, which insisted that the Church was concretely visible when it emphasized that "this Church, constituted and organized in this world as a society, subsists in the Catholic Church" (n. 8b). We don't "believe in" a society‹we see it.

The problem of logic is a false one and one that belongs to the Cardinal and not to the Council. He would have avoided confusion if he had recurred to the word "sacrament" that the Council applied to the Church. A sacrament, as theology teaches us, has different levels of concretization and density (sacramentum/res, sacramenti/res). In the same way, the Church of Christ could have different levels of realization, more or less substantial, but all of them nonetheless real. The Catholic Church might intend to be the fullest realization of the Church. But this realization can not be understood in such a way that it would impede other churches from being expressions of the Church. In many respects, these other expression could actually be fuller realizations, as for example in the manner in which they venerate Scripture, in the case of the Evangelical Churches, or in the cultivation of the solemn liturgy, as in the case of the Orthodox Church.

The Second Vatican Council wished with its use of "subsist" to open the door to ecumenism. Cardinal J. Ratzinger, with his interpretation of "subsiste" has wished through distortions to close this door. It is worth asking, who is it that is subverting the sense of the Conciliar text? The official documentation would indicate that it is the Cardinal who has subverted Vatican II, and consequently, it is he who has killed off the future of Catholic ecumenism.


Münsteraner Forum für Theologie und Kirche (MFThK)