Richard John Neuhaus writes in a previously unpublished essay appearing now in First things of how the Church may best characterize herself in relationship with other ecclesial communities of the Body of Christ. Neuhaus wants us to think more fully about this, saying, “We need to clarify what the Catholic Church claims for herself and what she does, and does not, acknowledge with respect to other Christian communities.” He acknowledges that it is a tricky business. In the long search for a greater visible unity of the Body of Christ in the world, a miss-step, misunderstanding or misspoken phrase can produce ever greater dis-unity and contention in tribal disharmony.
Neuhaus quotes Christopher J. Molloy, writing in his essay titled “Subsistit In: Nonexclusive Identity or Full Identity?” in reflecting on the uniqueness of the Catholic Church. Molloy states, “one can affirm both the essential fullness of the ecclesial reality of the Catholic Church and the concrete poverty and woundedness of her lived life, together with her practical need of the expressive ecclesial riches found outside her visible boundaries.”
On the Church, Lumen Gentium, the Constitution on the Church, reads:
“This is the one Church of Christ which in the Creed is professed as one, holy, catholic, and apostolic, which our Savior, after his Resurrection, commissioned Peter to shepherd, and him and the other apostles to extend and direct with authority, which he erected for all ages as ‘the pillar and mainstay of the truth.’ This Church, constituted and organized in the world as a society, subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him, although many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside of its visible structure. These elements, as gifts belonging to the Church of Christ, are forces impelling toward catholic unity.”
The word “subsists” in the Lumen Gentium statement is thought by some a weakening of the Church’s understanding of Herself as the One True Church. Enter our present Pope Benedict XVI, then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. He clarifies with:
“The word subsistit derives from ancient philosophy, as it was later developed among the Scholastics. It corresponds to the Greek word hypostasis, which of course plays a key role in Christology in describing the union of divine and human natures in the one person of Christ. Subsistere is a special case of esse. It refers to existence in the form of an individual subject. . . . With the word subsistit, the Council wanted to express the singularity and non-multipliability of the Church of Christ, the Catholic Church: the Church exists as a single subject in the reality of history. But the difference between subsistit and est also embraces the drama of ecclesial division: for while the Church is only one and really exists, there is being which is from the Church’s being—there is ecclesial reality—outside the Church.”
Neuhaus writes on, including discussions arising from works of Avery Dulles as well as Molloy, finally, coming to this:
“In sum, Catholics should not fear offending our ecumenical partners by affirming what we believe the Catholic Church to be. To be sure, that affirmation has weighty implications. For instance, Lumen Gentium also says, “Whosoever, therefore, knowing that the Catholic Church was made necessary by Christ, would refuse to enter or to remain in it, could not be saved.” But that, too, should not offend non-Catholic Christians, since we can all agree that such a person would be acting against his conscience and his sure discernment of the will of God. If he continues on that course without repentance, he could not be saved. It is quite a different matter with those who do not know—i.e., do not recognize the truth—that the Catholic Church is what she claims to be. They are wrong about that, of course, but that, presumably, is one reason why they are not Catholics.
And so I think I’ll stay with my admittedly provocative title, “The One True Church.” …. I will also continue to make the case for the proposition that “the Catholic Church is the Church of Jesus Christ most fully and rightly ordered through time.”
For those who would argue on, here is an olive branch: “All Christians can agree on the formula that there is finally only one Church because there is only one Christ and the Church is his Body.”