Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Why I'm not Pope...

See this picture: I wouldn't be able to resist the temptation to steal the Santa hat.
There's an interesting article in the Osservatore Romano (English edition) this week. John Allen reports:
Another indication that the "continuity" reading of Vatican II is gaining ground came in the Monday-Tuesday edition of L'Osservatore Romano, the official Vatican newspaper. It carried a front-page commentary from Jesuit Fr. Karl Becker on perhaps the most-debated bit of verbiage from the council, the famous formula in Lumen Gentium 8 that the church of Christ "subsists in" rather than "is" the Roman Catholic church.
Becker argued that 40 years of contrary interpretation notwithstanding, "subsists in" is simply a stronger way of saying "is."
Becker, a theological conservative now in his late 70s, has served as a consultor to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith since 1977. At a presentation of a book of essays marking Becker's 75th birthday in 2003, I heard Fr. Georg Gänswein, personal secretary to then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and now to Pope Benedict XVI, praise Becker in these simple words: "He is not afraid."
For the past 40 years, the shift from "is" to "subsists in" (in Latin, from est to subsistit in) has been considered one of the signal decisions of the council, a move away from a triumphalist identification of Roman Catholicism as the lone embodiment of Christ's church, towards a more humble ecclesiology that recognized that no existing Christian body perfectly represents Christ's will. [Note: I am not convinced that Allen has his theology straight here - I've never heard a serious theologian interpret 'subsisit in' in that manner. The more normal interpretation is that 'subsistit in' affirms the Catholic Church as being the One True Church, but allows space for 'churchy elements' outside the visible communion. I don't doubt, however, that some less orthodox theologians might suggest that 'subsistit in' might admit of imperfections in the manner in which the Catholic Church is the Church of Jesus Christ.]
Instead, Becker argued, the council's respect for "elements of truth and sanctification" in other Christian bodies should not "attenuate" the identification of the church of Christ with the Catholic church.
"The phrase subsistit in meant not only to reconfirm the sense of est," he wrote, "that is, the identity between the church of Christ and the Catholic church. It also meant to reiterate that the church of Christ, with the fullness of the means instituted by Christ, perdures (continues, remains) forever in the Catholic church."
Finally, Becker offered an interpretation of what it means to say that other Christian bodies have "ecclesial elements."
"If one says that the United Nations have brought order to a certain country, in reality it's the peace-keeping troops that have acted on the orders of the United Nations, but are not the United Nations, even in part," Becker wrote. "In a similar sense, though not identical, I can say that the church of Christ operates in the Christian communities, since Christ, as the head (and not the body) of the church, through the Spirit, the soul (and not the body) of the church, operates in these communities. Christ and the Spirit operate in them, reinforcing the elements that press towards the unity of Christians in the one church."
While all this may seem a dusty historical dispute, the difference between subsistit in and est has been at the heart of much recent high-stakes controversy, including two emblematic crackdowns of the 1980s and 1990s: Leonardo Boff, the symbol of the liberation theology movement, and Jesuit Fr. Jacques Dupuis, identified with the push for a more positive theological treatment of other religions. Both men invoked subsistit in to argue in favor of a more expansive doctrine of the roles of Christ and the Spirit outside the Catholic church, leading to what the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in the case of Boff, called "ecclesiological relativism."
Now, I'm no fan of ecclesiological relativism myself, but there was one thing that bothered me about Becker's argument which Allen also picks up on:
As a theologian friend in the United States pointed out, Teuffenbach's work poses a dilemma for the "continuity" school, which has long warned against using the private opinions of periti as a guide to the meaning of conciliar texts. Here's a case where one such private opinion, that of Tromp, who actually suggested the phrase subsistit in, clearly supports their reading. As noted, Becker is not shy about quoting Tromp's view of what the phrase meant.
It is, as my theologian friend observed, a "nice irony."
By-the-by, I've heard whispers that Becker was responsible for initiating the Holy Office's investigations into the work of the late Jacques Dupuis.

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