An Unpublished Essay of Richard J. Neuhaus

From the First Things Website.

My church is better than your church. It sounds like the stuff of schoolboy quarrels on the playground: My dad can beat your dad! Yet, sad to say, that is how many Christians have understood recent statements on Catholic ecclesiology. In 2000 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a document called Dominus Iesus and then, in 2007, reiterated its main points in “Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine on the Church.”

The gist of these is that, with important qualifications related to Eastern Orthodoxy, non-Catholic churches are not to be called “Church” in the proper sense of the term but are better described as “ecclesial communities.” This was widely decried by many non-Catholic (and some Catholic) theologians as a departure from, if not reversal of, the teaching of the Second Vatican Council. It was, we were told, a body blow to ecumenism, the quest for visible unity among Christians.
I have on occasion offered this proposition: “The Catholic Church is the Church of Jesus Christ most fully and rightly ordered through time.” Some of my critics have questioned whether that is adequate. To say that it is the most fully and rightly ordered, they contend, implies or at least invites the inference that other communities are also the Church of Jesus Christ, albeit not so fully and rightly ordered.

To think more fully about this, we need to clarify what the Catholic Church claims for herself and what she does, and does not, acknowledge with respect to other Christian communities. My own thoughts are occasioned by two essays I read recently: one by Avery Cardinal Dulles in a volume called Vatican II: Renewal Within Tradition and the other by Christopher J. Molloy, an essay titled “Subsistit In: Nonexclusive Identity or Full Identity?” that appeared in The Thomist.

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