The Impact of Dominus Iesus on Ecumenism

by Francis A. Sullivan, S.J.

Francis A. Sullivan, S.J., is a professor of theology at Boston College, Chestnut Hill, Mass, and the author of Creative Fidelity.

This article was originally printed in America, October 28, 2000, and is reprinted with permission of America Press, Inc. Copyright 2000 All Rights Reserved. For subscription information, call 1-800-627-9533 or visit

Although the major theme of the document Dominus Iesus, which was issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on Sept. 5, concerns the role of Christ and his church in the salvation of people who do not share Christian faith, the strongest reactions to it have come from spokespersons of the other Christian churches. In the view of many of them, this document has ignored or even negated the progress toward reconciliation that had been made in over 30 years of ecumenical dialogue.

Although another document issued by the same congregation on June 30, with the title “Note on the Expression ‘sister Churches’,” will make the dialogue with the Orthodox more difficult than it has already proven to be, Dominus Iesus should not have a very negative effect with the Orthodox. In fact, Dominus Iesus has some remarkably positive points that seek to improve relations with the Orthodox. In its opening section, for example, it gives the text of the creed in its original form, that is, in the way the Orthodox recite it, without the words “and from the Son,” which were added about the Holy Spirit in the Creed by the Latin church in the ninth century. Another is that in Dominus Iesus the Orthodox communities are called “true particular churches”: an unusual use of “true” referring to any but the Catholic Church.

On the other hand, in its recent documents the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has made no effort to improve relations with the Anglicans and Protestants. In its “Note on the Expression ‘Sister Churches’,” it excluded the use of the term “sister churches” for ecclesial communities that have not preserved a valid episcopate and Eucharist. In Dominus Iesus it declared that such communities “are not churches in the proper sense.” Critical comments expressed by Anglicans and Protestants make it obvious that they take these statements as referring to their own churches.

I presume that the officials of the C.D.F. would justify this language on the grounds that it is consistent with that of Vatican II. This raises two questions: whether in fact it is consistent with Vatican II, and whether the ecumenical progress that has been made since Vatican II would not call for the use of more positive language regarding the Anglican and Protestant communities. The dialogues have produced important documents, such as “Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry” (BEM) published in 1982 by the Faith and Order Commission, the final report on Eucharist, ministry and authority in the church of ARCIC I, and the “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification” of ARCIC II.

To explain the language used at Vatican II, it is helpful to recall that the official Catholic doctrine prior to the council—as expressed, for instance, in the encyclical Mystici Corporis of Pius XII—was that the church of Christ is strictly and exclusively identified with the Catholic Church. This was still asserted in the first two drafts of Vatican II’s “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church,” which said flatly: “The church of Christ is the Catholic Church.” The observation made by a number of bishops that this exclusive identification was inconsistent with the acknowledged presence of elements of the church elsewhere led the council to the decision no longer to say that the church of Christ is the Catholic Church, but to say, rather, that it subsists in it. The intention clearly was to continue to make a positive statement about the Catholic Church, but without the negative implication that the previous doctrine of exclusive identity had regarding the other churches. However, the Theological Commission did not spell out in detail how the term “subsists in” was to be understood.

This question was raised by Leonardo Boff, who proposed that one could say that the church of Christ subsists also in other churches. In its critical Notificatio of 1985 concerning Boff’s book, the C.D.F. rejected this opinion as contrary to the authentic meaning of Vatican II. It added: “The council instead chose the word subsistit precisely to clarify that there exists only one “subsistence” of the true church, while outside of her visible structure there only exist elementa Ecclesiae, which—being elements of that same church—tend and lead toward the Catholic Church.”

At that time I criticized this statement by the C.D.F., noting that Vatican II had not said that outside the Catholic Church there exist only elements of the church, and that if that were what it had meant, it would hardly have been consistent with itself when it recognized that there were not only elements, but churches and ecclesial communities outside the Catholic Church. I also argued that the meaning of subsistit that best corresponds to its meaning in classical Latin, and to its context in the passage where it occurs, is “continues to exist.” I further argued that in light of the “Decree on Ecumenism,” one can conclude that the council meant to affirm that the church Christ founded continues to exist in the Catholic Church with a fullness of the means of grace and of unity that are not found in any other church.

It is gratifying to see that this is how the term is now explained in Dominus Iesus (No. 16), which says: “With the expression subsistit in, the Second Vatican Council sought to harmonize two doctrinal statements: on the one hand, that the church of Christ, despite the divisions which exist among Christians, continues to exist fully only in the Catholic Church, and on the other hand, that ‘outside of her structure, many elements can be found of sanctification and truth’.”

Here the word “fully” plays a key role; it is only if “subsists” means “continues to exist fully” that one can say that the church of Christ subsists only in the Catholic Church. It is crucial to keep this in mind when one reads footnote 56 of Dominus Iesus, which says: “The interpretation of those who would derive from the formula subsistit in the thesis that the one church of Christ could subsist also in non-Catholic churches and ecclesial communities is therefore contrary to the authentic meaning of Lumen Gentium.” I would insist that this is true only if subsistit means what the C.D.F. now agrees that it means—“continues to exist fully.”

Note also that in its recent document the C.D.F. does not say that outside the visible structure of the Catholic Church there exist only elements of the church (even though in footnote 56 it still quotes its 1985 statement that said this). In Dominus Iesus the C.D.F. has followed Vatican II in recognizing that outside the Catholic Church there are not only elements of the church, but Christian communities that are used by the Holy Spirit as means of salvation for their members. In speaking of them, the council consistently distinguished between those it called “churches,” and those it called “ecclesial communities.” While there is no explicit explanation of this language in the conciliar documents, its meaning can be inferred from a passage in the “Decree on Ecumenism” (1964) that says, speaking of “the ecclesial communities separated from us”: “We believe that especially because of the lack of the sacrament of orders they have not preserved the genuine and total reality of the Eucharistic mystery” (No. 22). On the other hand, in a report to the bishops, the commission responsible for this text mentioned the Old Catholics, saying that their communities, like the Orthodox, should be called churches “in view of the valid sacrament of orders and valid Eucharist which they possess.”

From these texts it is evident that the council judged the presence of “the genuine and total reality of the Eucharistic mystery” so essential to the full reality of the church that it preferred not to use the term “church” of communities that, “because of the lack of the sacrament of orders,” had not preserved the Eucharist. The council never specified which those communities were, but it was well known that Pope Leo XIII had declared Anglican orders invalid and that orders in most Protestant communities were not conferred by episcopal ordination in the historic apostolic succession, on which Catholics believe their validity to depend.

In its recent document, then, the C.D.F. has followed Vatican II in distinguishing between “churches” and “ecclesial communities.” On the other hand, the council never flatly declared that the ecclesial communities are “not churches in the proper sense,” as the C.D.F. has now done. One would think that the progress made in more than 30 years of dialogue with those communities would have suggested a more positive recognition of their ecclesial reality. The C.D.F. could also have said of them what it actually said regarding only the Orthodox churches and others in which we recognize the presence of valid episcopal orders, namely, that “the church of Christ is present and operative in them.” That this can be said, although with some qualifications, also of the ecclesial communities, was affirmed at Vatican II by its Doctrinal Commission, which said:  

It must not be overlooked that the communities that have their origin in the separation that took place in the West are not merely a sum or collection of individual Christians, but they are constituted by social ecclesiastical elements which they have preserved from our common patrimony, and which confer on them a truly ecclesial character. In these communities the one sole church of Christ is present, albeit imperfectly, in a way that is somewhat like its presence in particular churches, and by means of their ecclesiastical elements the church of Christ is in some way operative in them.

In addition, more recently Pope John Paul II states in his encyclical Ut Unum Sint (1995):

Indeed, the elements of sanctification and truth present in the other Christian communities, in a degree which varies from one to the other, constitute the objective basis of the communion, albeit imperfect, which exists between them and the Catholic Church. To the extent that these elements are found in other Christian communities, the one church of Christ is effectively present in them” [emphasis added].

The recent document of the C.D.F. would give one the impression that the church of Christ is present and operative only in those that it calls “true particular churches.” The positive assessment of the other Christian communities expressed at Vatican II, and recently confirmed by Pope John Paul II in Ut Unum Sint, would surely have warranted a more positive appreciation of the ecclesial character of the Anglican and Protestant communities than one finds in Dominus Iesus. One way to arrive at a more positive appreciation would be to balance the one-sided emphasis that has been put on the question of the validity of ministry in those communities. This could be done by giving the proper emphasis to the evident fruitfulness of this ministry. Whatever deficiency there may be with regard to their orders, there can be no doubt about the life of grace and salvation that has been communicated for centuries through the preaching of the word of God and other Christian ministry in the Anglican and Protestant churches.

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