Brian Mershon
One year later...the forgotten document: A reaffirmation of the one true Church of Jesus Christ
An interview with Brother Andre Marie of the St. Benedict Center
By Brian Mershon
November 18, 2008

Ten months ago, the long-anticipated document Summorum Pontificum was promulgated by the Holy See officially acknowledging what many Catholics have held for years — that the Traditional Latin Mass was never abrogated and that every priest in the Latin Church had the right and continues to have the right to use this form of the Latin rite without scruple.

Three days after the promulgation of Summorum Pontificum, another document, at least as important, if not moreso, was promulgated by the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, with the full consent and approval of Pope Benedict XVI. Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine on the Church was like a second nuclear bomb being detonated within the post-Conciliar Church and the modern world.

These two nuclear bombs, however, were bombs of grace and significant examples of Pope Benedict's program announced in his December 2005 address to the Roman curia, showing how the Second Vatican Council, both liturgically and doctrinally, can be understood in continuity with the previous 1,965 years — "Vatican II in light of Tradition."

In this second document, long-held traditionalist Catholic objections to misinterpretations of subsistit in widely disseminated within the heart and soul of the Church — not just by intentionally dissident theologians — but by some theologians and clerics who are viewed as orthodox — have again been firmly acknowledged as correct. The Catholic Church is indeed, and continues to be, the one true Church of Jesus Christ, outside of which neither holiness nor salvation can be found.

The "Responses" document, hereinafter called the "Subsists" document, clearly and concisely, in just five simple questions and answers, dismantled the entire post-Conciliar misunderstanding and misunderstanding of ecclesiology. And the genius of Pope Benedict's method is that it was done by relying solely upon the Second Vatican Council documents and the official notes from the Synod (explanatory commentary) to show how the traditional understanding of the Church was reaffirmed by the Council Fathers.

In short, the much debated term from Lumen Gentium paragraph eight, subsistit in, in Latin, received an official magisterial explanation and clarification. Some traditionalist Catholics objected that this document did not use any pre-Conciliar references to show its continuity with Church doctrine on its being "the one true Church." However, the genius and clarity of Pope Benedict XVI was to show from the explanatory notes of the Council itself, the true intention of the Council, rather than to use Mystici Corporis, for instance, promulgated by Pope Pius XII, toward the end of his pontificate and shortly before the Council. It should, however, be noted that Mystici Corporis is indeed referred to in footnotes in Lumen Gentium.

The St. Benedict Center's Brother Andre Marie, famous for defending and upholding the Church's thrice-infallibly defined dogma Extra Ecclesia Nulla Salus (Outside the Church, there is no salvation) explained a much-overlooked aspect of the "Subsists" document that revealed the authoritative magisterial definition of subsistit in.

In footnote No. 4 from the document, there is a series of questions and answers taken from the commentary from the "Notes of the Synod" of the Second Vatican Council that clearly shows the intention of the Council Fathers was two-fold in using the word subsistit in.

One, they wanted to reaffirm that the one true Church of Jesus Christ has its identity in the Catholic Church. The commentary said they chose the word subsistit in to show the perduring identity of the one true Church of Christ with the Catholic Church.

The second truth they wanted to make explicit, even though it has been traditionally held and taught by the Church for centuries, is that elements of sanctification, or grace, exist outside the visible and formal structure of the Church, even within heretical and schismatic non-Catholic denominations.

Many traditionalist Catholics, priests and maybe even a bishop or two, hold semi-heretical views by continuing to promulgate the false notion that no grace exists outside the visible boundaries of the juridical Church. This is simply not traditional doctrine.

The St. Benedict Center treatise on the "subsists" document can be found at entitled "What's in that Latin footnote?" The unofficial Latin-to-English translation of this footnote, which has not been translated into any of the vernacular translations, declares the following: "The Council wished to express the identity of the Church of Christ with the Catholic Church. This is clear from the discussions on the decree Unitatis redintegratio." [1]

Another question from the Council floor on whether or not the language of subsistit in clearly affirmed the identity of the one true Church of Christ with the Catholic Church received this authoritative response: "Afterwards it is clearly affirmed that the Catholic church alone is the true Church of Christ. (Act Syn III/VII 12)." [2]

And a third example from the footnote in the "Subsists" document: "Thus the commission whose task it was to evaluate the responses to the Decree Unitatis redintegratio clearly expressed the identity of the Church of Christ with the Catholic Church and its unicity, and understood this doctrine to be founded in the Dogmatic Constitution Lumen gentium."

I would heartily encourage readers re-read the official document at the Vatican's official website and then read the St. Benedict Center commentary, expressed clearly and succinctly, to see how monumental this Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith document really is in explaining the continuity of Vatican II with Tradition. Traditionalist Catholics who do otherwise raise the level of the authority of Vatican II to a higher doctrinal level than does the Church — many times while simultaneously claiming that Vatican II was merely pastoral and has little, if any, doctrinal value.

The following interview with Brother Andre Marie of the St. Benedict Center delves more deeply into this document and its potential ramifications for the Church and the traditional Catholic doctrinal perspective.

Q: Would you please let our readers know the mission of the St. Benedict Center?

Our community was founded in1949 by Fr. Leonard Feeney. We were founded as a missionary and educational community.

We do apostolic work by encouraging Catholics to learn more about the Catholic Faith — all of the full, complete doctrine of the Church — including the hard truths. We especially educate people about the doctrine "Outside the Church, there is no salvation."

Relevant to that, we also try to work for the conversion of non-Catholics. We do this through education and publishing, both electronic and with print with newsletters and tracts.

Q: What is your status in the Church? Is your community's understanding of extra ecclesia nulla salus an orthodox one?

We have it on the word of the Monsignor who was the juridical vicar for the Worcester, Massachusetts diocese. In fact, there are several houses of our community associated with Fr. Feeney still within that diocese that have gone through processes of canonical regularization. The have complete canonical status as Catholic religious communities. They still uphold exactly what Fr. Feeney always taught.

There were inquiries that had to go to the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith during this process and in every case, even though they still believe and teach what Fr. Feeney believed and taught, they still have the complete bona fides of the Church. And they are able to teach exactly what priests always taught commonly all along.

We also have a letter on our website from Pete Vere, a canon lawyer who attests to our orthodoxy from his inquiries from different Roman congregations, and who has done considerable canonical study himself.

He came to the conclusion that because of the way the situations have been handled by the different Roman dicasteries and by the diocese of Worcester, the Church allows us to teach this — by the common parlance — a rigorous interpretation and certainly falling within the bounds of Catholic orthodoxy.

Q: In Ecclesia Dei Adflicta, Pope John Paul II said, "Moreover, I should like to remind theologians and other experts in the ecclesiastical sciences that they should feel called upon to answer in the present circumstances. Indeed, the extent and depth of the teaching of the Second Vatican Council call for a renewed commitment to deeper study in order to reveal clearly the Council's continuity with Tradition, especially in points of doctrine which, perhaps because they are new, have not yet been well understood by some sections of the Church." [3]

In the English-speaking Church world, it seems that only a few, Fr. Brian Harrison, Fr. Brian Mullady and the late Fr. William Most come to mind, have taken up this calling.

In view of the late Pope John Paul's challenge coupled with Pope Benedict XVI's call for a hermeneutic of continuity of Vatican II with Tradition, how important do you think this "Subsists" document is?

Near the beginning of his pontificate during his Christmas address of December 22, 2005, Pope Benedict XVI spoke about the two divergent interpretations of Vatican II; one he called "the hermeneutic of rupture and discontinuity"; the other is now truncated to "the hermeneutic of continuity." He actually used a much broader circumlocution. People now say "hermeneutic of continuity. He differentiated the two and he said that Vatican II, as Pope John Paul II affirmed in the indult document, that it must be understood in light of Tradition — in continuity with Tradition. He laid a foundation there.

Now this document is a direct application, as you correctly pointed out, of one of the keystones of this papacy. Some people I guess — liberals and conservatives — progressives and traditionalists — whichever terms you want to use... Some people in these camps have expressed cynicism as to whether there really is continuity. Here the Pope has shown that it is possible to read it with continuity.

From observing the Catholic press, the effect has been that many traditionalists who have not been happy with the ambiguities of Vatican II, and who certainly have not been happy with the way it has been interpreted by and large, are very heartened to see the positive developments and are welcoming them.

As Michael Matt recently said in the Remnant, we have to realize that the Holy Father is attempting to move heaven and earth to try to restore liturgical and doctrinal sanity to the Church. And we have to support that. And if he can show us how to read Vatican II in light of Tradition, then we will welcome that.

I would just emphasize that this is a concrete application of that theoretical principle that he has outlined at the beginning of his pontificate.

Q: Secular and Catholic media covered this story extensively right after the document was issued, but it seemed to lose some of its "media legs" if you will due to the fact that Summorum Pontificum somewhat overshadowed it since it was issued so close to its promulgation.

Your Catholic community seems to be the only one that seems to have found "the interpretive key" so-to-speak, on the "S
ubsists" document. Would you like to comment on how important the four footnotes, which were kept in the original Latin in all translations, are for a proper understanding this document?

How do you answer those who charge that because this document referenced only Vatican II and post-Vatican II documents, it cannot begin to show continuity with Tradition?

These footnotes, especially on the heels of the motu proprio, are very important. There is the traditional axiom, "lex orandi est lex credendi" — the law of prayer is the law of belief. It can also be inverted; it works both ways. And fundamentally, we learn our Faith from the way we pray. That is the organic way we learn. That is one of the reasons — not perhaps the most important one — but it is still one of the reasons why messing with the liturgy or tampering with it is always going to cause confusion and jeopardize the faithful, unless it is the organic development that has always happened in our Church's history. One of the most important reasons is that the liturgy is the way that we give glory to God. For that reason alone, you don't want to do anything to lessen its vigor.

From a doctrinal point of view, whenever we pray, whenever we enter into the most sacred part of the Mass on Sundays and on important feast days, what do we do? Before entering into the most sacrosanct part of Mass, we recite the Creed.

This shows us that in order pray rightly in a way that is pleasing to God, we have to believe rightly. We have to remind ourselves of the Faith and we profess it in the Creed.

It's the same thing when we recite the rosary. Before we get into the full mysteries of the rosary, we recite the Creed at the beginning to summarize our Faith — to show that right prayer follows from right belief.

We think this document is important because it gets to the issue of some of the most controverted and neglected aspects of Catholic doctrine that pertains to the Church's teaching about herself.

This is a very important thing today. On the one hand, you have people who are indifferentists and who think any religion is as good as any other. The Church has always condemned indifferentism.

On the other hand, you have Catholics who are confused about the nature of the Church itself. There are those who think the parameters of the Church go considerably wider than the confines of the Catholic Church with the Pope as its head.

This document uses the word "identity." It confirms that the true Church of Christ has an identity to the Catholic Church. You can debate all day what subsistit in means, but once you use the word "identity," that settles it entirely.

You have figuratively drawn an equals sign between "true Church of Christ" and "the Catholic Church." The document did that thoroughly.

If I could comment on the reaction of some traditionalists who are displeased because the answers were limited to only the documents of Vatican II; there is a good reason for that. In order to appreciate that reason, you have to understand the nature of this document. Rather, what is the nature of the document it is citing.

Those footnotes come from the Acts of the Synod, which is an enormous resource for theologians and historians to use to draw from for writing about the history of Vatican II.

In fact, most histories of Vatican II are based upon the notes of the periti like Ives Congar. Many of the periti took copious notes and had diaries like books and those became the sources of most of the writing about the history of Vatican II.

But there is a more authoritative source than that which is in all Latin and has the discussions of everything that was going on in the committees and so forth: these are the official Acts of the Synod. Very few scholars have dug into those to actually get into what happened during the discussions.

This document was based upon those. In seeking to answer questions about Lumen Gentium, they looked through a series of responses that were coming from the bishops that were being sent into the Secretary of Christian Unity, not about Lumen Gentium, but about Unitatis Redingratio: the Decree on Ecumenism.

The draft of the document was handed out to the bishops who were reviewing them and they would send in their suggestions and objections. You can see from all of the objections that were made that are related in this footnote, the bishops were concerned about that Unitatis Redingratio was not firm or clear enough that the true Church of Christ is the Catholic Church.

In several different instances, the answers were sent back by the Secretary of Christian Unity under Cardinal Bea. Their response was this had already been sufficiently explained elsewhere in the text. They brought out quotes from Unitatis Redingratio showing that the Catholic Church was called "the one sole flock of God," for instance, and other expressions of that nature. We pointed those out in our summary.

They also said that this is what the decree De Ecclesia said. What they were doing was referring to the draft of Lumen Gentium. They were taking the passage of Lumen Gentium, No. 8, which contains the phrase subsistit in. They were using that to show that the Council already teaches that the true Church of Christ is the Catholic Church.

But they were wondering why they had to keep affirming that here, in the part where they were trying to affirm the ecclesial elements of the Church that were present in other so-called Christian communities.

Q: This is nothing new. Despite what some prominent traditionalist naysayers have publicly written and apparently hold, the Church has always taught that grace can exist outside the visible confines of the Catholic Church, right?

Absolutely, one of the heresies condemned against the Jansenists was that no grace could be found outside the Catholic Church.

Q: With the understanding that the Pope said earlier in his pontificate, through the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, that the Church currently has not issued authoritative translations of the documents of the Second Vatican Council from the Latin. So, we are relying upon unofficial translations for 40-plus years. Why do you think the nebulous language of "numerous elements of sanctification... in non-Catholic denominations" was used throughout the Second Vatican Council documents instead of calling it "grace"? For examples, there are different types of grace that exist such as actual grace and sacramental grace, but those alone are not always necessarily sanctifying.

When reading these texts, it is important that we keep a level head about them. We cannot limit the graces to simply actual graces because there are sacramental graces too. The Greek Orthodox have them. Protestants generally have two sacraments. So there are sacramental graces as well. The priesthood of course is sacramental.

You also have what is called external graces when truths of the Faith are preached that are part of the Gospel and what the Catholic Church preaches and teaches; for example, the Trinity and the incarnation. So if you limited it to actual graces, you wouldn't have a sufficient expression of it [Ed. Note: those graces found outside the visible confines of the Catholic Church].

The Church Fathers recognized that the Greek philosophers had seeds of the Word. And I think Vatican II quoted Eusebius of Caesaria something to that effect. There is nothing wrong with acknowledging this. St. John said the Word — Logos — enlightens every man that comes into this world by natural knowledge of reason or by some knowledge of supernatural revelation or a combination of both. Every man has something that they have received through the Word — through our Lord.

But I think what Unitatis Redingratio did say, but perhaps could have emphasized much more clearly, was that all of these things lead toward Catholic unity. It did say that. It said that all of these ecclesial elements that are found outside the visible confines of the Church — whether it is the priesthood of the Russian Orthodox — the priest or Bishop — or the baptism that a Presbyterian minister can confer which of course makes the baby a Catholic — all of these lead toward Catholic unity. These are concrete examples where you can see it.

Unfortunately, in the broader context of the kind of unheard of optimism about non-Catholic sects... that is kind of the ambience of Unitatis Redingratio — those truths [Ed. Note: graces impelling toward the Catholic Church] get easily get passed over.

There I think is the key. Everyone knows there are ambiguities. Some people say it is because of the phenomenological philosophical underpinnings that were part of the whole abandonment of scholasticism — where you had this kind of ambiguous verbiage. But the ambiguity combined with "news-style" optimism about non-Catholic religions, either Christian denominations or the Jews or the Moslems, this new-found optimism put the whole understanding in a different light.

Q: So just because there are "salvific elements" outside the visible confines of the Catholic Church, it does not follow that those people are saved without, in the end, uniting themselves, or with the denominations uniting with, the Catholic Church? The hope expressed in Unitatis Redingratio is that these graces will impel non-Christian denominations to unite themselves to seek full unity with the Catholic Church, right?

Absolutely. For instance, since we know the whole purpose of actual grace is to bring to us to, to keep us in, and to increase us in, the state of sanctifying grace. But that does not mean that everyone who has actual grace is going to persevere to the end and find sanctifying grace and everlasting life.

By the same token, if we consider all of these elements that help impel people toward Catholic unity, they are not necessarily going to achieve their goal. That is the tragedy of the drama of salvation. But to acknowledge that these do that is fine. It just ought to be emphasized more clearly that these elements are not sufficient within themselves. They are necessary. They are good. But they are not sufficient.

Q: Many readers may find your positive comments to the subsist it document surprising because they may misunderstand the St. Benedict Center teaching on extra ecclesiam nulla salus. Do you have any final thoughts on how you think this document might encourage evangelization efforts of Catholics now that an authoritative pronouncement on the meaning of subsistit in has reaffirmed the identity of the one true Church of Christ with the Catholic Church?

I can say that I have seen concrete good results from this document. Where formerly, I had conversations with people about this traditional teaching is indeed still binding, where they had viewed Vatican II to efface it. They used this Bologna school interpretation where Vatican II is seen as a new beginning.

Here, without discounting Vatican II, without saying it has no authority or that it was not an Ecumenical Council, using clarifications, especially most recently with some of things Cardinal Biffi has in his book where he said explicitly that Vatican II did not bind the Church to any new teaching. There is a whole body of evidence now that is growing that in the gradations of binding Church teaching, none of the new things you can attribute to Vatican II are binding on the Church even of the ordinary and universal magisterium — not just de Fide.

Now, it did say some important things about bishops that had not previously been clarified. And in some regards, it actually completed some of the work that Bl. Pope Pius IX had done to explain the role of bishops and the magisterium.

It is important to say that here we have an example where we even had theologians like Avery Cardinal Dulles who explained this subsistit in thing completely wrong. If you read one of his books on Catholic theology, it completely misinterpreted this passage. That was the sort of reigning "orthodoxy," if you want to call it that about what this passage meant. Now the Holy See has completely come down on the side of Tradition as far as the identity of the Church.

Q: So to simplify, subsist it in means at least est. St. Thomas uses it in the Summa Theologiae, right?

You see. That is the problem. It is a very problematic term. They were not really using it in the scholastic sense. They were using it in a more classical sense. Early Latin, not medieval Latin. In medieval Latin, subsistit in is an abominable platology. It just makes no sense. To "subsist" is the manner of being of a substance, not an accident. Subsist means "to exist in itself." So if you say subsistit in, it is like saying "subsist in in" in English. In makes no sense.

Long before this document came out, there was a German Jesuit, Fr. Becker, who gave a similar reading of based upon a much longer study .[4] He was going into this question and he was quoting some of these same passages that are in the document. I wouldn't be surprised if that article was used as the basis for some of this.

He gave three different readings of what subsistit in could mean. He discounted the scholastic use, because again as I said, it is gibberish. But he said it is an older, classical Latin. You can't discount that. The Council Fathers, when they abandoned scholasticism, which was a sure norm and a consecrated vocabulary, it opened us up to these divergent readings.

Such a luminary as Cardinal Dulles could get it completely wrong. Yet this German Jesuit, Fr. Becker, could get it right. And this new document is authoritative. I'm sure that Cardinal Dulles has conformed. I would assume that others have as well.

It should give the traditionalists who have complained about his ambiguity some relief. I mean, just because they are quoting Vatican II about Vatican II, you cannot just dismiss out of hand.

Q: They have taken the commentary notes of the Council where the Council Fathers themselves explained what this term meant completely in keeping with the traditional doctrine.

That is absolutely true. In fact, I would be incomplete in my analysis if I didn't say that knowing what the Secretary of Christian Unity was doing — they weren't doing the best stuff at this time. There were a lot of shenanigans going on. But when you look at some of these answers that came back in hindsight, you have to say they were being a little bit coy. They were being coy in that they were saying, "We've already answered that. We've already answered that. We've already answered that."

But here we have their answers saying, "Yes. We affirm, and already have affirmed, the traditional explanation." So if that is what they are doing, we can say that this is a definitive reading of substitit in.

When you leave it at that, it is fine. Was the Secretary Christian Unity really being so thoroughly honest at the time that these ambiguities as far as objecting to it are really causes for concern.

Q: The late Michael Davies wrote about "time bombs" within the Council documents that were planted so they could be interpreted differently once the Council was approved. That is what you are talking about here, right?

Yes. And the ecclesiastical career of a lot of these ecclesiastics like Cardinal Bea showed what their true colors were. But nonetheless, they could only get away with so much in black and white.

And here we have a black and white document that reflects traditional orthodoxy. And that is good.

Q: So to wrap up, Brother Andre, would you say the St. Benedict Center is pleased with this document as well as the liturgical actions of this pontificate?

Yes. We are pleased.


[1]  Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine of the Church, Approved June 29, 2007, by the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith. Footnote No. 4: "The Council wished to express the identity of the Church of Christ with the Catholic Church. This is clear from the discussions on the decree Unitatis redintegratio. The Schema of the Decree was proposed on the floor of the Council on 23.9.1964 with a Relatio (Act Syn III/II 296-344). The Secretariat for the Unity of Christians responded on 10.11.1964 to the suggestions sent by Bishops in the months that followed (Act Syn III/VII 11-49). Herewith are quoted four texts from this Expensio modorum concerning this first response.

[2]  A) [In Nr. 1 (Prooemium) Schema Decreti: Act Syn III/II 296, 3-6]

"Page 5, lines 3-6: It also appears that the Catholic church is found among those Communions, which would be false."

The reply is made: Here only the fact, as it is viewed by all, is to be described. Afterwards it is clearly affirmed that the Catholic church alone is the true Church of Christ. (Act Syn III/VII 12).

[3]  Ecclesia Dei Adflicta, motu proprio of Pope John Paul II, July 2, 1988. With the noted of exceptions of Father Brian Mullady and Father Brian Harrison and the late Father William Most, there have been noticeably few theologians, aside from Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger, who have taken up the task on showing how some elements such as religious liberty and ecumenism, for instance, harmonizes, and does not contradict, the previous, continuous ordinary magisterial teaching of the Church.

[4]  L'Osservatore Romano, one of the weekly Dec. 2005 issues.

© Brian Mershon


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Brian Mershon

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