In The Bishop and Christian Unity, the December 4, 2020 document from the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, the question addressed briefly regards the following issue: “Changing ecclesial affiliation as an ecumenical challenge and opportunity.” It states, “Always maintaining a profound respect for the consciences of the individuals concerned [those who change ecclesial affiliation], those who make known their intention to leave the Catholic Church should be made aware of the consequences of their decision” (no. 37).
Why does one leave the Catholic Church? It would take us too far afield here to discuss the various reasons for Catholic disaffiliation. Stephen Bullivant’s recent study on Catholic disaffiliation after Vatican II is helpful for answering that question. I’ll leave for another time an analysis of his study. For now, suffice it to note that it is evident that some have left the Catholic Church.
My question here is: What are the consequences for leaving? The document does not tell us what those consequences are, but Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, does (no. 14). Indeed, in Lumen Gentium one consequence stands out. It affirms the “necessity of faith and baptism (cf. Mk 16:16; Jn 3:5), and thereby affirms at the same time “the necessity of the Church which men enter through baptism as through a door.” The consequence is clear that follows for those who “refuse either to enter [the Catholic Church], or to remain in it” (italics added). That is, “Hence [in both cases] they could not be saved who know that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ.”
Presupposed in the statement that one runs the risk of losing his salvation if he leaves the Church knowing that she was founded as necessary by God through Christ is an answer to the following questions: Where is the Church and where is she realized in her fullness? The Church of Jesus Christ fully and totally subsists in its own right alone in the Catholic Church (Lumen Gentium, no. 8), meaning thereby that it is an existing reality, even now, having a concrete historical form in the Catholic Church.
This ecclesiological particularism of Catholic ecclesiology—the scandal of particularity—is consistent with its affirmation that there are elements of truth and sanctification outside the visible boundaries of the Church (see Lumen Gentium no. 8, Unitatis Redintegratio, nos. 3-4, Ut Unum Sint, no. 14, Dominus Iesus, no. 16).
These elements do not exist in an ecclesial vacuum, however, and hence they are churches in some real but analogical sense, to a lesser or greater degree, to the extent that these elements of truth and sanctification exist in them. In addition, Catholic ecumenism recognizes that the churches to which our “separated brethren” belong “have a real, though incomplete communion with the Catholic Church” (see Unitatis Redintegratio, no. 11).
Still, Catholic ecclesiology rejects ecclesial pluralism or relativism, as if the Catholic Church is one among many churches.
Triumphalism and Receptive Ecumenism
Why, then, does this new document not make clear the consequence for the individual who leaves the Catholic Church? Would the answer cited above of Lumen Gentium, no. 14, be an example of what the document calls “triumphalism” (no. 37)? In my judgment, the response to the charge of triumphalism is answered by the Church since Vatican II with its ecumenical strategy of receptive ecumenism. Briefly, “Dialogue is not simply an exchange of ideas. In some way it is always an ‘exchange of gifts’. . . . Dialogue does not extend exclusively to matters of doctrine but engages the whole person; it is also a dialogue of love.” In short, ecumenical dialogue may be an exchange of gifts between normative Catholicism and other Christian traditions. Here, too, the document makes no mention of this strategy, but it is conceptually embedded in Vatican II’s Decree on Ecumenism (Unitatis Redintegratio, nos.4, 17) and St. John Paul II, 1995 encyclical, Ut unum sint (nos. 28, 47, nos. 19, 38).
What is receptive ecumenism? First, it presupposes that “ecumenism is not premised on compromise as if unity should be achieved at the expense of truth. On the contrary, the search for unity leads us into a fuller appreciation of God’s revealed truth” (no. 11). How may ecumenical dialogue lead Catholics and non-Catholic brothers and sisters in Christ into that fuller appreciation?
Second, this strategy presupposes the distinction between the propositional truth of faith and their formulations such that alternative formulations may give “ever richer expression to the authentic catholicity and apostolicity of the Church” (Unitatis Redintegratio, no. 4). This distinction has ecumenical significance for deeply pondering the propositional truths of faith, meaning, truth, and alternative formulations of the faith even in the “theological elaborations of revealed truth” (Unitatis Redintegratio, no. 4) by different Christian traditions.
Third, given this distinction between the propositional truths of faith and their formulations, it is understandable why Vatican II states in Unitatis Redintegratio, no. 17:
It is hardly surprising, then, if from time to time one tradition has come nearer to a full appreciation of some aspects of a mystery of revelation than the other, or has expressed it to better advantage. In such cases, these various theological expressions are to be considered often as mutually complementary rather than conflicting.
Thus, the “exchange of gifts” that characterizes receptive ecumenism is found at the level of the alternative formulations that are mutually complementary. They give us a fuller appreciation by another Christian tradition of some aspect of the revealed mystery shared with Catholicism, may “promote the right ordering of Christian life and, indeed, pave the way to a full vision of Christian truth.”
Receptive ecumenism was suggested by John XXIII in his opening address to Vatican II, Gaudet Mater Ecclesia: “The deposit or the truths of faith, contained in our sacred teaching, are one thing, while the mode in which they are enunciated, keeping the same meaning and the same judgment [‘eodem sensu eademque sententia’], is another thing.” The pope’s statement raised the question of the continuity or material identity of Christian truth between alternative formulations of revealed truth in differing Christian traditions. The subordinate clause (which I have cited in its Latin original) is part of a larger passage from the First Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Faith and Reason, Dei Filius (1869-70), which is earlier invoked by Pope Pius IX in the bull of 1854, Ineffabilis Deus, also cited by Pope Leo XIII in his 1899 encyclical letter, Testem benevolentiae Nostrae.
And this formula in Dei Filius is itself taken from the Commonitorium of Vincent of Lérins: “Therefore, let there be growth and abundant progress in understanding, knowledge, and wisdom, in each and all, in individuals and in the whole Church, at all times and in the progress of ages, but only within the proper limits, i.e., within the same dogma, the same meaning, the same judgment” [in eodem scilicet dogmate, eodem sensu eademque sententia].
Of course, the practice of receptive ecumenism has its limits because the differences between normative Catholicism and other Christian traditions involve genuinely incompatible truth claims at some points, such that ecumenical apologetics is necessary. The “Dialogue of Truth,” as the document calls it, is the “theological dialogue that aims at the restoration of the unity of faith.” This dialogue does not involve compromise at the expense of truth, and hence it will involve, at some points, theological polemics, and hence ecumenical apologetics, because incompatible truth claims are being made between Catholics and non-Catholics.
I conclude on this point with a final reference to John Paul II:
Here it is not a question of altering the deposit of faith, changing the meaning of dogmas, eliminating essential words from them, accommodating truth to the preferences of a particular age, or suppressing certain articles of the Creed under the false pretext that they are no longer understood today. The unity willed by God can be attained only by the adherence of all to the content of revealed faith in its entirety. In matters of faith, compromise is in contradiction with God who is Truth. In the Body of Christ, ‘[He who is] the way, and the truth, and the life’ (Jn 14:6), who could consider legitimate a reconciliation brought about at the expense of the truth? (UUS, no. 18)
Furthermore, what does it mean to say, as the document does, that the consciences of individuals who leave the Church should be respected? Of course, Catholics and non-Catholics are brethren in Christ and hence they share the truth of many beliefs—such as the assertions of the Nicene Creed and the Creed of Chalcedon. But we also hold incompatible truth claims about the Petrine Ministry, Christ’s substantial presence in the Eucharist, marriage as a sacrament, ecclesiological particularism, and more.
A helpful distinction exists between relating to people and evaluating their beliefs and practices. This distinction is affirmed by Vatican II: “But it is necessary to distinguish error, which always merits repudiation, and the person in error, who never loses the dignity of being a person even when he flawed by false or inadequate religious [or moral] notions” (Gaudium et spes, no. 28). Hence, in light of this distinction, those who leave the Catholic Church do not deserve respect if that entails respecting their false beliefs. Yes, our relation to them should be ethical, honoring the dignity of a person qua person. Also, our primary stance to a separated brethren in Christ is not conflictual but rather one of being ecumenical partners with the aim of reconciliation. Still, once we are convinced that a belief is false, we cannot respect, in any thicker sense, those who hold it; indeed, we would prefer that he change his mind so that he come back into fuller communion with the Catholic Church.
Moreover, conscience is not infallible. John Paul II correctly states, “Conscience, as the judgment of an act, is not exempt from the possibility of error” (Veritatis Splendor, no. 62). An erroneous conscience may be culpably ignorant or nonculpably ignorant. It is the former if the individual takes little trouble to find out what is true and good, or when the individual is by degrees almost blinded by the corruption of reason—by passion, evil habit, vicious custom, and evil persuasion (cf. Gaudium et Spes, no. 16; Veritatis Splendor, no. 63). A man’s conscience may also be nonculpably ignorant, meaning thereby “an ignorance of which the subject is not aware and which he is unable to overcome by himself” (Ibid.).
In this case, John Paul explains, “conscience does not lose its dignity, because even when it directs us to act in a way not in conformity with the objective moral order, it continues to speak in the name of that truth about the good which the subject is called to seek sincerely” (Veritatis Splendor, no. 62). Nevertheless, even in this case, that does not mean the individual is right and hence justified in holding certain beliefs to be true, beliefs leading him to change ecclesial affiliation.
As Karol Wojtyla (the future John Paul II) rightly insists:
It is not the strength, the power of conviction, or the authority of belief with which the given subject passes a judgment that determines the veracity of the judgment, but its conformity with that to which or to whom the given judgment pertains. The subject is the exclusive author of the judgment, but is not, however, the author of its truth. (Love and Responsibility, 136)
We must remember that at the forefront of Catholic ecumenical dialogue is the relationship between unity and truth, which is one of the most urgent problems the Church faces today. In this longing for unity, truth and unity may not be separated. “Authentic ecumenism is a gift at the service of truth” (UUS, no. 38).
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