Are Protestant Communities “Churches”?

john-calvinIn our last article, we demonstrated how Dr. Alan Schreck, as many orthodox Catholics do, erroneously applies the hermeneutic of discontinuity to the use of the terms “heresy” and “heretic” before Vatican II and the non-use of those terms in the Council. We will now do likewise with the term “church” as it was used before and at Vatican II.

Dr. Schreck, after praising Vatican II for abandoning the use of the word “heretic” in reference to Protestants, also added: “Not only do Catholics recognize these baptized believers as Christians, but at Vatican II the Catholic church officially recognized for the first time the bodies to which these Christians belong as ‘churches and (ecclesial) communities.’” [page 204] Rather than seeing “churches” and “ecclesial communities” as two different terms being applied to two different situations and groups, he makes them out to be synonymous and to be applied to all, as is evident from his use of the term “Protestant church[es]” which he uses twice more going forth.

Although in the last article we were not able to get into the footnotes, we will do so here. As in the previous matter, the Council Fathers were also careful to footnote seemingly revolutionary statements. A footnote was inserted after the word “Churches” (“but not ecclesial communities”), and it refers to three ecumenical councils — the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 [Constitution IV], the Second Council of Lyons from 1274 [Profession of Faith of Emperor Michael Palaiologi], and the Council of Florence held in 1439. [Session VI] In the citation from Lateran IV, the council refers to the schismatic East as the “Greek church”, while in the Council of Florence, the proclamation of union refers to the schism as “the wall that divided the western and the eastern church”.

Dr. Schreck, in a previous book, Catholic and Christian, explained that from the beginning, the word “church” was used not only to refer to the one universal church or body of believers, but was also used synonymously with “diocese” or “parish” to refer to a local church or body of believers under a bishop or a pastor. Hence we can and often do speak about the “Church in Saskatoon” to refer to the Saskatoon diocese, or the “Church in Estevan” to refer to St. John the Baptist parish in my hometown.

But the term has also been used on a much broader scale to refer to a conference of bishops or to the bishops in a particular region or country. Hence we can and often do speak of the “Canadian Church” to refer to those dioceses under the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB), or “the Church in North America” (or the Church in Asia or the Church in Africa as Pope John Paul II did in a series of apostolic exhortations), or, as has been done since the second century, refer collectively to the Latin-speaking dioceses as the “Western Church” and the Greek-speaking dioceses as the “Eastern Church”. These terms continued to be used by the Catholic Church even after the schism.

Because the Eastern communions have preserved valid orders and a valid episcopate, the territories ruled by their bishops remain local or “particular churches”, even though these some of these particular churches are no longer in communion with the Bishop of Rome and, by extension, the Catholic Church.  At Vatican II, the Magisterium chose to speak of the Eastern Church in the plural, as the Eastern Churches, for two reasons: first, because there are other particular churches which have preserved valid orders, (such as the Nestorian churches in the East) and second because, in order to prevent the confusion seen with Dr. Schreck, namely that that it is possible to have a “church” without valid orders or valid apostolic succession.

Thus, if Dr. Schreck is correct that there has been a “radical departure” (which there has not been), it is a change in the opposite direction — from referring to the Eastern Orthodox collectively as a “Church” to speaking of them as a collection of local churches or dioceses/eparchies separated from Rome.

This was all made clear by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) in the year 2000 when it issued Dominus Iesus, a document correcting various misunderstandings that had arisen in the area of ecclesiology because of the application of the hermeneutic of discontinuity. Seven years later, the CDF issued an even more explicit response to some questions regarding certain aspects of the doctrine on the Church.  The response from the CDF affirms that it remains true and a valid teaching of the Church that “the Church of Christ is the Catholic Church” but that the word “subsists in” was used at Vatican II in order to better indicate that elements of truth and sanctification, such as baptism and Holy Scripture, are efficaciously used in communions which are separated from the one Church of Christ through schism or heresy.

The CDF went on to answer the question, “Why does the Second Vatican Council use the term ‘Church’ in reference to the oriental [Eastern Orthodox] Churches separated from full communion with the Catholic Church?” The answer begins with a restatement of the passage in Unitatis Redintegratio which used the term and explained the rationale for it, and then added, “The Council wanted to adopt the traditional use of the term”. In other words, the Council was not stating something “for the first time” in some “radical departure” but was employing a term in line with its “traditional use”.

Not only does Dr. Schreck make this error with regards to the Eastern Orthodox, but he also falsely states that Vatican II called Protestant bodies “churches and ecclesial communions”. However, the Magisterium gave and still gives two very different definitions to both of these terms, and applies “churches” only to those mentioned earlier (valid episcopate and orders), while the term “ecclesial communions” is reserved for the Protestant bodies. In Dominus Iesus, the CDF declares that “the ecclesial communities which have not preserved the valid Episcopate and the genuine and integral substance of the Eucharistic mystery [ie. Protestant communions], are not Churches in the proper sense”. (paragraph 17) This was also stated in the 2007 response — two years after Dr. Schreck revised and re-published his book under a different title, but with the same errors.

If we are to fully and properly implement Vatican II, we must not use it in isolation but read it in light of the broader Tradition of the Church. Dr. Schreck and other orthodox Catholics must heed the advice of St. Vincent of Lerins in his Commonitorium — a book that is a must-read today in order to avoid the errors of isolating Vatican II from the tradition — who begins his work by citing Moses: “Ask thy fathers, and they will declare to thee: thy elders and they will tell thee.” (Deuteronomy 32:7)

Go to Part I.

Wade St. Onge received a Masters degree in Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville. He is the self-published author of New Things and Old: Re-Implementing Vatican II, and An Acceptable Sacrifice: Reforming the Liturgical Reform, and is currently working on a manuscript entitled, Inquire of the Fathers: The Theology of the Body Debate and the Ignorance of Tradition. He blogs at The Ivory Tower, and lives in Saskatchewan, Canada.