If Rome is the One Church How Can Pope Francis Speak of Our Being One in Christ?

Yesterday, I shared the general audience address of Pope Francis from last week on Christian unity. Today I would like to offer some simple commentary and explanation of this amazing address.

The pope began his audience by saying:

Today I will focus upon another expression with which the Second Vatican Council indicates the nature of the Church: that of the body, the Council says that the Church is the Body of Christ (cf. Lumen Gentium, 7).

imagesLumen Gentium, in English, means: “The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church.” It is one of sixteen dogmatic documents that make up the whole of Vatican Council II’s work. Lumen Gentium was the third of the sixteen formal documents, or decrees, that were passed by the council between October 1962 and December 8, 1965. Here is a part of that dogmatic constitution cited by Pope Francis last week:

The present-day conditions of the world add greater urgency to this work of the Church so that all men, joined more closely today by various social, technical and cultural ties, might also attain fuller unity in Christ.

It is generally agreed that this “urgency” was one of the primary reasons for Vatican II. It is also understood that this is a primary reason for the “New Evangelization” – now a major part of official Catholic teaching. I, for one, pray that the new evangelization will grow and capture the hearts and minds of millions of Catholics, especially in the U.S.

He then added to this quotation from Lumen Gentium his own words, saying:

I would like to start from a text of the Acts of the Apostles which we know well: the conversion of Saul, who will then be called Paul, one of the greatest evangelists (cf. Acts 9:4-5). Saul was a persecutor of Christians, but while he is on the road leading to the city of Damascus, suddenly a light envelops him, he falls to the ground and hears a voice saying “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? He asks: “Who are you, Lord?”, And the voice answers: “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting” (v. 3-5). This experience of St. Paul tells us how deep the union between we Christians and Christ Himself [is]. When Jesus ascended into heaven he did not leave us orphans, but with the gift of the Holy Spirit, our union with Him has become even more intense. The Second Vatican Council says that Jesus “communicating His Spirit, Christ made His brothers, called together from all nations, mystically the components of His own Body” (Dogmatic Constitution. Lumen Gentium, 7).

You will note, if you read the entirety of the pope’s address in context, that he is not denying that the Roman Catholic Church is the one church but rather he is using statements from Vatican II to remind us that all of those who share in the one Spirit are true brothers and sisters in Christ. This is THE important thing to note in the first part of his general address on Christian unity.

This statement confuses both Catholics and evangelicals. How can it be said that we evangelicals are not inside the one church yet we are called brothers and sisters? In short, the answer to this query has to do with specific Catholic thinking about the nature of the church. Because the church has one earthly head, the bishop of Rome, and because the Catholic Church confesses itself to be the one continuous church of Christ, both sacramentally and historically, it claims to be the visible true church on the earth. But, and this is essential to understand, the Catholic Church does not claim that only members within her communion are true brothers and sisters in Christ. (It doesn’t even claim that all Catholics are true brothers and sisters in Christ, given what it also says in many other places about the necessity of true faith and works that reveal the grace of God at work in the human soul through divine love in operation.) There are brothers and sisters in Christ who are not Catholics. At another place Vatican II called these “separated” brothers and sisters, meaning separated from the communion on earth of the church sacramentally but nonetheless within the mystery of Christ’s body on the earth. It takes some careful and studied reading to see this but it is abundantly clear to all who do the work.

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