Is the Papacy a Constitutive Element of the Church?

Posted on January 14, 2013

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In Nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti, amen. Suscipe, Sancte Pater.

This is the question that arises from the ecclesiastical affirmations of Vatican II’s Unitatis Redintegratio and the subsequent post-conciliar magisterial teachings. This is because, on the one hand, when referring to the Protestant ‘ecclesiastical communities,’ the CDF interprets Unitatis Redintegratio as saying that

these Communities do not enjoy apostolic succession in the sacrament of Orders, and are, therefore, deprived of a constitutive element of the 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 (Unitatis Redintegratio, 22.3) cannot, according to Catholic doctrine, be called “Churches” in the proper sense (Dominus Iesus, 17.2).[1]

Thus the term “church” must be applied only in the case of a valid Eucharist and priesthood. This is the eucharistic ecclesiology; the church is manifest in the Eucharistic assembly.[2] Thus the Protestant communities, deprived (for the most part) of an episcopacy and valid Eucharist, do not possess what constitutes the local church.

On the other hand, the same CDF document affirms that the Chalcedonian Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, and Old Catholic churches are different:

Because these Churches, although separated, have true sacraments and above all – because of the apostolic succession – the priesthood and the Eucharist, by means of which they remain linked to us by very close bonds (Unitatis Redintegratio, 15.3; Communionis Notio, 17.2), they merit the title of “particular or local Churches” (Unitatis Redintegratio, 14.1) and are called sister Churches of the particular Catholic Churches (Unitatis Redintegratio, 14.1; Ut Unum Sint, 56f).[3]

Thus these churches, though being deprived of the universal primacy of Rome, still posses those constitutions of the local church which merit their recognition not only as particular churches, but also sister churches. These churches, therefore, possess something that the Protestant communities do not, and it is a fundamental element to be the church.

At the same, the lack of the universal primacy is not to be dismissed:

The visible head of which is the Bishop of Rome and the Successor of Peter, is not 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.[4]

This was essential paraphrasing CDF’s early 1992 Communionis Notio,

Since, however, communion with the universal Church, represented by Peter’s Successor, is not an external complement to the particular Church, but one of its internal constituents, the situation of those venerable Christian communities [of the east] also means that their existence as particular Churches is wounded. The wound is even deeper in those ecclesial communities which have not retained the apostolic succession and a valid Eucharist. This in turn also injures the Catholic Church, called by the Lord to become for all “one flock” with “one shepherd” (Jn. 10:16), in that it hinders the complete fulfilment of its universality in history.[5]

These explications are rather vague as to what exactly these churches are missing in the primacy of Rome if they already enjoy the term ‘church.’ The former quotation simply states that they “lack something in their condition as local churches” (conditio Ecclesiae particularis…defectu tamen afficitur) which is not the same quotation contained in the latter quote, which flatly declares that “their condition as particular churches is wounded” (conditio Ecclesiae particularis…vulnere quoque afficitur).

What exactly is this wound, then? We must consider, first and foremost, salvation. Does it have a negative effect on the means of salvation? In the discussion on the drafting of Unitatis Redintegratio at Vatican II, it was stated by bishop Pangrazio that

If all revealed truths are to be believed with the same divine faith and all constitutive elements of the Church maintained with the same loyalty, they nevertheless do not all claim or possess the same status. There are truths which belong to the order of the end, such as the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity, the incarnation of the word, the redemption, divine love and grace towards sinful mankind, eternal life in the perfection of the kingdom of God, and others. But there are other truths which belong to the order of the means of salvation, such as the truth that there are seven sacraments, the hierarchical structure of the Church, the apostolic succession, et. These truths concern the means which Christ bestowed upon his Church for its earthly pilgrimage; but thereafter they cease. It is a fact that the differences in doctrine between Christians concern not so much those truths which belong to the order of the end, but rather those which belong to the order of the means, and are undoubtedly subordinate to the former. One can say that unity in fact exists among Christians in their common faith and profession of those truths which belong to the order of the end.[6]

Thus according to this, the means of salvation must be agreed upon by the Catholics and Orthodox, and thus they are both “churches.” Indeed, Unitats Redintegratio states that “through the celebration of the Holy Eucharist in each of these [Orthodox] churches, the Church of God is built up and grows in stature.”[7] But at the same time, the Protestants’ communities are lacking something “only on the level of signs and instruments of grace, not on the level of the res, the grace of salvation itself.”[8] Thus the Protestants experience salvation, but there is no visible sign to guarantee and manifest the grace of that salvation (excepting, of course, the spiritual fruit of repentance).

We can say that the Orthodox do possess both the grace and the sign of the grace for salvation, which is a constitutive element of the local church—the means of salvation. But how does the Papacy affect the means of salvation if it is, as was stated supra, “not an external complement to the particular Church, but one of its internal constituents” (non est quoddam complementum Ecclesiae particulari ab extra adveniens, sed unum e principiis internis quibus ipsa constituitur)? Can we say, mutatis mutandis, that the Orthodox Church does experience the universal church, but is deprived of the sign of this universality?

On the one hand, Cardinal Kasper points out that Vatican I affirmed the Papacy’s iure divino status as a “constitutive element” for “the church being the Church.” At the same time, episcopacy and the petrine ministry

are not the whole Church. Vatican II for the first time gave a magisterial presentation of the Catholic understanding of the Church as a whole and situated the episcopacy and the Petrine ministry within the whole people of God as well as within the college of bishops.[9]

In some sense, therefore, the local episcopacy must pariticpate in the petrine primacy as the universal primacy also participates in the local ministry of the bishop. Cardinal Kasper sums this up beautifully when he states that

The one church exists in and out of the local churches (LG 23), but the local churches also exist in and out of the one church (Communiones notio 9), they are shaped in its image (LG 23). Thus local churches are not subdivisions, simple departments, emanations or provinces of the one Church, but neither is the one Church the sum of local churches, nor just the result of their association, their mutual recognition.[10]

Thus on the one hand, the local church obtains its esse from the universal church—insofar as it is orthodox and in communion with the universal church and thus has a valid Eucharist. And the universal church obtains its esse from the local church, inasmuch as there is no universal Eucharistic celebration—this can only happen on the local level. Both Orthodox and Catholic Churches therefore possess the integrity of the local church through a valid Eucharist. But if they do, then they must also possess somehow the universal church, since the former is contingent on the latter and vice versa.

In the Catholic conception of the universal church, a strong primacy of Rome is envisioned. On the Orthodox side, a strong conciliarity. However, the Catholic side, as Kasper notes, has been working to integrate a greater collegiality into its conception and actualization of the universal church. He says elsewhere:

we too can learn form the Orthodox and Reformation traditions, and consider further how best to integrate the episcopate and the Petrine ministry with synodical and collegial structures.[11]

What is fascinating—and promising—to the Ecumenical Struggle is the rejection of the Catholic Church of the “ecumenism of return” whereby all non-Catholics simply “return” to the papal monarchy from whence they strayed. Rather, while keeping the affirmation that the ‘true’ Church “subsists in the Catholic Church,”[12] the Catholic perspective also envisions something new for universal ecclesiastics which is built together with all Christians:

Can one say that the final goal of ecumenism is the unity of all Christians in the Catholic Church? No, if one understands by this that ecumenism is a tactical means to achieve the conversion of the interlocutor, by feigning encounters and dialogue… The ecumenist accomplishes a specific and valuable task, which is formally distinct from that of “conversion.” Yes, if one wants to say that the final goal, which Catholics envisage in all ecumenical endeavours, is the acceptance by all Christians of Catholic ecclesiology and, as a consequence, the union of all in the Catholic Church, but a Catholic Church with a new shape, as Vatican II made clear, i.e. with a new vital equilibrium, a new doctrinal equilibrium, a renewed physiognomy, in short: in the spiritual fullness of a catholicity that has been perfectly spread.[13]

Thus the Catholic Church seeks to give the ‘gift’ of universal primacy to the Church in such a way as it will be a service and benefit. It wishes to reforms its own structures, which can even be “sinful structures.”[14] Moreover, in this internal reform which actualizes a ecumenical effort to reorganize, the Catholic Church integrates the other gifts which other Christians provide, which actualizes its own catholicity and ecumenicity.[15] We must conclude then, that the Papacy itself, though being a “constitutive element” of the Church, is itself wounded, since it cannot accommodate the other Christians. It is then seeking to be healed by integrating greater conciliarity.

At the same time, we might also conclude that the conciliarity of the Orthodox church is also wounded lacking a central primacy to organize it. This is the conclusion of the Orthodox ecumenist of the 19th century, Vladimir Soloviev,

The manifest impossibility of finding or creating in the East a centre of unity for the Universal Church makes it imperative for us to seek it elsewhere. First and foremost we must recognize ourselves for what we are in reality, an organic part of the great body of Christendom, and affirm our intimate solidarity with our Western brethren who possess the central organ which we lack. This moral act of justice and charity would be in itself an immense step forward on our part and essential condition of all further advance.[16]

The necessity of this primacy must be admitted by the Orthodox, at the same time as they realize that it is not any explicit structural practice that was dogmatized at Vatican I, but rather the divine and universal authority of the Papacy as such. It must be realized that our divisions have come from different Christian lives lived in different contexts and cultures which necessitated different structures and pastoral provisions.

We could even say that, to a certain extent, the different understandings of spirituality are a reason for the divisions within Christendom. Christians did not diverge primarily because of debate and controversy about different doctrine, but through the way they lived. Different forms of living the Christian faith had become estranged, alienated to the point where they could no longer understand each other, and this led to divisions.[17]

Life in the Latin west was a different sort of spirituality than life in the Greek east, and this includes the ecclesiastical structures. Since the common political life of east and west became gradually two separate lives, the structures adapted to their separate territories and were less amicable to be applied within the space of the other. The papal primacy was dogmatized at a time when the west felt the need to affirm their absolute character:

The challenges of the Western Enlightenment to religious faith, and the threats of the new secular, absolutist forms of civil government that developed in nineteenth-century Europe, challenged the competence and even the right of Catholic institutions to teach and care for their own people. In this context, the emphasis of the First Vatican Council’s document Pastor Aeternus (1870) on the Catholic Church’s ability to speak the truth about God’s self- revelation in a free and unapologetic way, and to find the criteria for judging and formulating that truth within its own tradition, can be understood as a reaffirmation of the apostolic vision of a Church called by Christ to teach and judge through its own structures.[18]

Now in this era, as the separations of space are almost nullified, the common life of the churches is being reinvigorated by the Ecumenical Struggle in response to the rampant growth of secularist government programs of mass murder and other modern evils which have affected all of us. This comes from those who are willing to love across the divides of separate Christians lives to create a new, common life with common structures. This common life will recognize the constitutive elements of papacy and conciliarity for the universal Church, and their manifestation in the Eucharistic assembly. Since the conciliar Orthodox churches have preserved their valid Eucharist without a strong governance from Rome, a reform of the Papacy should seek to make the Holy Father’s office respectful to this integrity and honest about its self-governing ability to preserve the true Church. The Orthodox Church, for their part, must recognize that the strong government of the Papacy has not been a hindrance but an asset in preserving the same in the west. Let us pray, dear brothers and sisters, to the Blessed Virgin Mary, that she who is the Bride of God may guide her children into the right way to glorify Her Son, our Lord Jesus Christ and unite with one another with one voice of praise.

Placeat tibi, Sancta Trinitas.


[1] The Responses to Some Questions regarding Certain Elements of the Doctrine of the Church by the CDF (June 29, 2007), question 5

[2] See the Orthodox-Catholic agreed statement The Mystery of the Church and the Eucharist (1982), http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/chrstuni/ch_orthodox_docs/rc_pc_chrstuni_doc_19820706_munich_en.html

[3] Ibid., question 4

[4] Ibid.

[5] No. 17

[6] Commentary on Unitatis Redintegratio

[7] UR, 15

[8] W. Kasper, That They May All Be One: The Call to Unity Today (London – New York, Burns & Oates, 2004), 66

[9] Kasper, 63

[10] Ibid., 68

[11] Kasper, 73

[12] LG, 8

[13] Gustave Thils, In Ecumenicis (1963), in P. De Mey, “Gustave Thils and Ecumenism at Vatican Council II,” in D. Donnelly, J. Famerée, M. Lamberigts & K. Schelkens (eds.), The Belgian Contribution to the Second Vatican Council (Leuven, Peeters/Universitaire Pers, 2008),15

[14] Ut Unum Sint, 34

[15] As Catholic Ecumenist Gustave Thils stated in numerous places, “actualising the catholicity of the Church is one of the major goals of Catholic ecumenism if not its only major goal” (De Mey, 9). “By bringing their gifts, [Christians who unite themselves to the Catholic Church] contribute to the accomplishment of the ecumenicity of the Church” (12). The ecumenical task of Catholic theologians consists in the first instance in “cleaning out their own house.” They have to take care that their house is not only “open” for everyone, but “inhabitable” by all. They have to strive “… to be truly catholic, so that all Christians may find and enjoy all legitimate forms of piety, spirituality, ecclesial existence therein and are not obliged to accept one particular form, even if it might be the best form” (15).

[16] Soloviev, Russia and the Universal Church (Centenary, 1948), 81

[17] Kasper, 158

[18] North American Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation, Steps Towards A Reunited Church: A Sketch Of An Orthodox-Catholic Vision For The Future (2010), 3; http://www.scoba.us/articles/towards-a-unified-church.html

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