Thursday, July 12, 2007


I was going to write a rather brief response to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith's recent Letter clarifying the doctrine on the Church, but I see that Mike Liccione has already written a long one, so I will content myself to quote a passage from Mike's post that I find particularly interesting:
When the Magisterium ceased to say that the Catholic Church simply "is" the one true Church of Jesus Christ, and began saying that the one true Church of Christ "subsists in" the Catholic Church, the aim was not, as many trads charged, to negate the older teaching but to clarify the the status of non-Catholic ecclesial bodies. For the fact is that there are countless millions of people who belong to Christ by a form of baptism always recognized as valid by the Catholic Church, but who are not Catholics; thus as individuals, they enjoy an "imperfect" communion with Christ and the Catholic Church; but until Vatican II, there wasn't any clear and widely disseminated answer to the question how the ecclesial bodies to which they belong relate severally to the Catholic Church. Hence Vatican II's and the CDF's use of term 'subsists'.

That term comes from the same Latin root as the noun "substance." In Catholic theology, a substance is ordinarily understood to be a unitary whole of a certain kind that perdures, and thus "subsists," through various activities and changes, which can include the sort of damage that consists in the loss of certain parts. Every human person, e.g., is a substance in that sense; one's bodily organs and cells are only parts that can remain alive (at least for a time, by nature or by artifice) while detached from the whole, but which have their full and proper reality only as parts of the living substance that is the person. Now the one true Church of Christ, as is clear from both Scripture and Tradition, is the universal "body of Christ" and thus, by analogy, a substance in the above-defined sense. Her high-level constituents are like organs or limbs: local churches, as the term 'church' is defined in the CDF document. Her base-level constituents are like cells: those individuals who belong to Christ and the Church by valid baptism but who might or might not belong either to some true, particular church or to an "ecclesial community" that doesn't quite qualify as a church. To say, therefore, that the one true Church of Christ "subsists" in the Catholic Church is to say that the Catholic Church is where the one true Church of Christ exists as a perduring whole, containing all the parts necessary thereto. To refuse to speak thus of other true but particular churches, such as the Orthodox, is logically equivalent to saying that they are properly parts of that subsistent whole which is the Catholic Church but exist to some extent apart from that whole, which is detrimental to both the whole and the parts themselves. It is detrimental to the whole inasmuch the whole, while still functioning as that integral whole which is "the" Church, does not fully embrace some of her proper parts. The whole remains what she is, but wounded. It is detrimental to the parts inasmuch as, while still being true churches and means of sanctification, they are not fully integrated into that subsistent whole of which they are proper parts, and thus can no longer manifest Catholic unity.
While the notion of "subsistence" is clearly a soundly Thomistic one, and represents a genuine advancement in sophistication over the older identity relation expressed by the very "to be", there is a down-side to this particular development of doctrine.

Whenever we speak of a unitary whole that is nonetheless by its very nature composed of parts, we raise the question of the constitutive relation between the whole and the parts. This is a question from an age old area of metaphysics known as mereology, the philosophy of the relations between parts and wholes. Let me illustrate one of the central issues at stake by means of a rather humble example. Consider two things, which we may for our purposes classify as entities, both of which contain parts: a loaf of bread and a television set. The TV clearly consists of parts: it is built out of wires, capacitors, transistors, and things of that sort. The loaf of bread also consists of parts, but their status qua parts is not as immediately evident: it is made out of flour, yeast, and water, and perhaps a few other ingredients depending on what kind of bread it is. Here is one difference between the TV and the loaf of bread: I can disassemble the TV and reassemble it as many times as I like. It is relatively easy to do, provided one knows how to do such things. I cannot, however, "disassemble" the loaf of bread and find, spread out on my kitchen table, a pile of fresh flour, some yeast, and a cup of water. Of both entities, however, we may say something like the following: "A TV is a set of wires, capacitors, transistors, etc.", and "A loaf of bread is flour, yeast, and water."

We may also say that a TV subsists in this particular collection of wires, capacitors, transistors, etc. That is, suppose one of the capacitors wears out, causing the TV to cease functioning as a TV. I can replace that capacitor, restoring functionality to the TV, and we say that it is still the same TV that it was before I made the repair. I think this is probably true in the case of a human being getting a transplant: if my heart were to wear out, I would cease to function as a human being, that is, I would die. However, if I get a heart transplant before my old heart ceases to function, I would presumably go on living and yet still be the same person as I was before the transplant.

I don't know how this would work in the case of the loaf of bread, because for one thing it is difficult to imagine what it would mean to say that there is a need to "replace" the flour that is in it with different flour. Maybe I made a wheat loaf when I was supposed to make an oat loaf or something, and I would like to take out the wheat flour and replace it with oat flour. But of course you can't do that, and even if you could it would not be the same kind of thing it was before, it would cease being a wheat loaf and it would become an oat loaf.

However that may be, the case of the Church seems clearly to be more like the TV than the loaf of bread, because the Church's parts, that is, the people that constitute her, can and do change, but the Church remains the same Church. Here is where a potential down-side to the notion of subsistence comes in. If we think of the Church as consisting of parts, we must think of the People of God as the constitutive parts of the Church. These people, taken as individuals, are very often sinners. This means that some of the Church's parts are sinful. The Church herself, however, according to dogma, is sinless. But this has not stopped some folks from asserting, rather wildly, that "the Church has sinned". What they mean, of course, is that some of the people in the Church have sinned, but because some of these people have been in positions of leadership in the Church, we now have a language of "institutional sin" that attributes sinfulness to the Church herself rather than her parts.

This is clearly a fallacy. In particular, it is the fallacy of combination: attributing to a whole one of the properties of some or all of its parts. For example, it may be that this particular nut or this particular bolt is very inexpensive. Here is a pile of such nuts and bolts, called a Lexus. The nuts and bolts are inexpensive, therefore the Lexus is inexpensive. Here is a sinner; there is a sinner; here is a pile of sinners called "The Church". These sinners are all sinful, therefore "The Church" is sinful. As it happens, the Church herself is not sinful, even though virtually all of her constituent parts are sinful. This is not a paradox: there are plenty of wholes that do not share some particular property with any of their parts. The set of integers is infinite even though each and every one of its members is finite. But even though this situation is not a paradox, some people find it impossible to imagine, and so they deny it. Because the Church is filled with sinful people, the Church herself must be regarded as sinful in some sense.

Now, it must be admitted that Ecclesia Dei semper reformanda est, but this does not mean that it is ever to be reformed because it is ever sinful. Sadly, the introduction of language of subsistence, bringing along with it the complicated mereology that is our ecclesial doctrine, has led to the mistaken notion that the Church is in itself sinful, which is clearly a heresy. The heresy can be avoided if the language of identity is used instead of the language of subsistence, so it remains a live question whether the language of subsistence is "better" in every respect than the language of identity, but I think that in most respects the language of subsistence is better, and for the reasons Mike gives. What one is to do with the boneheads who adopt either the heresy of a sinful Church or the heresy of a traditionalism gone badly awry is a difficult problem, but as long as the Church teaches anything there will be those who either don't understand the teaching or who willfully misrepresent it, so we are not entering frighteningly new territory here.


John Farrell said...

Excellent post. One of the things I love about your blog, Scott, is almost every post drives me to Amazon to add yet another book to my wish list, based on authors or ideas you've discussed.

I hope you're having a wonderful summer.

Apollodorus said...

You're plainly right that it does not necessarily follow that the Church is sinful if its members are, even if all of its members are. Just because it doesn't follow necessarily, though, doesn't mean that it doesn't follow. Rotten yeast makes for rotten bread, and broken wires make for a broken television. Wholes don't necessarily take on the properties of their parts, but sometimes they do. It depends on the whole and parts in question.

So, what I wonder is this: what would it take for the Church to be sinful? Even if the sinfulness of all of its members does not make the Church sinful, what would? Surely you must be denying that something is the case when you say that the Church is not sinful. What is it?

Scott Carson said...


You raise an interesting and important question. I imagine that it's what motivates most of the talk of "institutional sin" in the first place. I meant to address the idea in my post, but it was already getting longer than I had intended.

My own view is that it is a mistake to reify institutions, and that is what it would take for the Church herself to be sinful. To reify the institution is to make a category mistake of almost precisely the same kind mentioned by Ryle in his famous example of the university: a visitor to the university, upon inquiring where the university is, is shown the students, the buildings, the faculty, etc., but then asks, at the end of the tour, "Yes, but where is the university?" The people, buildings, grounds, etc., just are the university--there isn't anything else, no other entity.

Since the Church, as an institution, has no free will of her own, she cannot commit sin; only her members can commit sin, and so only her members can be held morally culpable for the very bad decisions that have been sometimes made in the Church's name. The Church did not persecute the Jews in Spain, the individual persons living in Spain at the time persecuted the Jews, using their own flawed moral judgment. They may have claimed that they were acting in the name of the Church, but they were either lying or mistaken in that claim.

Indeed, this is why it is possible for the Church to be sinless even while it remains true that Ecclesia Dei semper reformanda est: the Church, qua institution, is guided by the Holy Spirit, because some of her members are/ Indeed, we define "the Church" theologically as that group of persons who, in their moral and theological acts and decisions, are guided in this way. So we do not say that the Church, qua institution, is guided by the will of the folks who are not acting in accordance with the Holy Spirit's will, even though some of those persons claim allegiance to, and sometimes leadership of, the Church as an institution. Hence the Church, qua institution, is necessarily sinless, even while the Church, qua collection of individual humans, contains many sinful elements and is sometimes directed, in terms of its day-to-day operations, in accordance with sinful wills.

I will note here that the sinful folk who make bad decisions in the name of the Church do not, thereby, fail to be members of the Church. This is where the language of subsistence actually comes in handy, since these folks would be outside the Church if the language of identity had been retained, but clearly there is a sense in which every sinner who has been baptized and who intends to repent and do penance is still a member of the Church. Even the unrepentant baptized sinner is in some sense still connected to the Church even while remaining out of communion with her.

Some bizarre protestants try to dodge this issue by insisting that folks who sin after baptism were never "really" baptized in the first place because they never "truly" accepted Christ as their "personal savior" and, hence, were never "really" Christians. On this view, it is impossible to sin if you are a"saved" Christian, but this is clearly well outside of the authentic Christian tradition.

Scott Carson said...


Thanks for the comment! I love your new profile picture. I wonder if there's a Catholic Blogger Award for "Coolest Looking Dude"?

John Farrell said...

Thanks, Scott! I noticed you updated yours, too--maybe there's something going around among us 40+ RCs!

...I'm actually cheating a bit as this is an older picture I'm using than I did before...part of it for sentimental it's 20 years this summer since my first indie-style on location movie production. (ah, youth...)

Anonymous said...

I agree with the substance of your reply to Apollodorus. I was wondering, however, if another element needs to be taken into account here. The Church understands herself as the mystical body of Christ. This means that in the Catholic understanding the Church is more than the sum of its parts. She is, in fact, a mystery. The head of the Church is Christ and the mystical union of His members on earth, in purgatory, and in heaven with their Head constitutes this entity which is the Church --- what Augustine, I believe, referred to as "the Whole Christ." The Church viewed as the whole Christ is at once both sinful and holy. She is sinful in her members but holy in her head. Moreover she is more essentially holy than she is sinful for several reasons:
1. She is eschatologically holy. She shall be presented to God as "immaculate, holy, without spot or wrinkle."
2. The headship of Christ is of her essence and Christ is holy.
3. Sinful members cut themselves off from the body (though they still stand in relation to that body much as a member cut off from an individual's body still remains the member of that particular body).

Ed De Vita