A collection of personal reflections. Copyright © 2005-2011 K. Gurries

Friday, February 11, 2011

Full Communion vs. Partial Communion

There is not a little confusion on the concept of full communion vs. partial communion with the Church.  Specifically, what does it mean to be in partial or imperfect communion with the Church?  Is this in fact possible?  This question has some relation to the canonical status of the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) and recently there has been some controversy on the question of whether or not the SSPX in fact enjoys "full communion" with the Church.  For example, Pope Benedict XVI summarizes the situation from the perspective of the Holy See within the context of the remission of the excommunications and reorganization of the Ecclesia Dei Commission in view of the subsequent doctrinal discussions:    

In the same spirit and with the same commitment to encouraging the resolution of all fractures and divisions in the Church and to healing a wound in the ecclesial fabric that was more and more painfully felt, I wished to remit the excommunication of the four Bishops illicitly ordained by Archbishop Lefebvre. With this decision I intended to remove an impediment that might have jeopardized the opening of a door to dialogue and thereby to invite the Bishops and the "Society of St Pius X" to rediscover the path to full communion with the Church. As I explained in my Letter to the Catholic Bishops of last 10 March, the remission of the excommunication was a measure taken in the context of ecclesiastical discipline to free the individuals from the burden of conscience constituted by the most serious of ecclesiastical penalties. However, the doctrinal questions obviously remain and until they are clarified the Society has no canonical status in the Church and its ministers cannot legitimately exercise any ministry. (Ecclesiae Unitatem

Full Communion
Before taking up the question of partial communion, it seems worthwhile to take a brief look at the notion of full communion.  Basically, those that are fully incorporated into the Church enjoy a threefold bond of unity with the Church: (1) unity of faith; (2) unity of sacraments; (3) unity of ecclesiastical government in communion with the successor of St. Peter.
What are these bonds of unity? Above all, charity "binds everything together in perfect harmony."  But the unity of the pilgrim Church is also assured by visible bonds of communion:
- profession of one faith received from the Apostles;
- common celebration of divine worship, especially of the sacraments;
- apostolic succession through the sacrament of Holy Orders, maintaining the fraternal concord of God's family. (CCC, 815) 
Fully incorporated into the society of the Church are those who, possessing the Spirit of Christ, accept all the means of salvation given to the Church together with her entire organization, and who - by the bonds constituted by the profession of faith, the sacraments, ecclesiastical government, and communion - are joined in the visible structure of the Church of Christ, who rules her through the Supreme Pontiff and the bishops. Even though incorporated into the Church, one who does not however persevere in charity is not saved. He remains indeed in the bosom of the Church, but 'in body' not 'in heart.'  (CCC, 837
The Human Family
If all three of these bonds are missing then there is a complete lack of communion.  On the other hand, if there are only partial defects while other elements or bonds of unity remain in tact then the communion with the Church is considered more-or-less imperfect (not full).  What this implies is that the question of communion (or lack thereof) is not always answered with a binary (all-or-nothing) solution (e.g., analogous to being half-pregnant).  Rather, this implies the possibility of degrees of communion with the Church.  Therefore, a more fitting analogy would be the various degrees of family relationships.  For example, brothers have a closer family bond than first cousins.  First cousins have a closer family bond than second cousins, etc.  Ultimately, there is a certain bond that extends across the entire human family.  What we are dealing with here has to do with variations of degree rather than a simple yes-no problem.
The Family of God
How does one become a member of the family of God or the Church?  He does so by entering through the "door" of baptism.  Therefore, all of the baptized are related to one another within the family of God.  Just as the wayward son still retains a relationship with his kinsmen, even those Christians that belong to dissident sects retain a certain union with the Church: "Validly baptized Protestants are still by virtue of baptism in a certain union with the Church" (Cf. Ketteler).  In one sense it is possible to say that heretics, schismatics and the excommunicated are "separated" from the Church and "excluded from her pale."  At the same time, however, this is not understood as an absolute separation.  Even those responsible for the personal sin of separation still belong in a certain way to the Church and remain "subject to the jurisdiction of the Church" in a manner analogous to how "deserters belong to the army from which they have deserted" (Cf. Catechism of the Council of Trent, art. ix).  To put it another way, the prodigal son remains a "brother" to his kinsmen in spite of his "separated" status.  Therefore, baptism creates a bond that can never be completely severed.      
Baptism makes us members of the Body of Christ: "Therefore . . . we are members one of another." Baptism incorporates us into the Church. From the baptismal fonts is born the one People of God of the New Covenant, which transcends all the natural or human limits of nations, cultures, races, and sexes: "For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body." (CCC, 1267
Baptism constitutes the foundation of communion among all Christians, including those who are not yet in full communion with the Catholic Church: "For men who believe in Christ and have been properly baptized are put in some, though imperfect, communion with the Catholic Church. Justified by faith in Baptism, [they] are incorporated into Christ; they therefore have a right to be called Christians, and with good reason are accepted as brothers by the children of the Catholic Church." "Baptism therefore constitutes the sacramental bond of unity existing among all who through it are reborn." (CCC, 1271)        
Elementa Sanctificationis et Veritatis
What is true for wayward individuals is also true for dissident groups.  Dissident groups retain a certain union with the Catholic Church insofar as they retain Catholic elements of sanctification and truth.  These Catholic element may subsists -- in an imperfect and partially debased state -- even outside the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church.  Cardinal Journet explains this as follows:
Insofar as the dissident Churches carried away with them fragments of the true Church and still retain genuine Christian elements, something of her nature may still be found there, in a debased state; and therefore also something of her influence.  The notes may then in a manner be present, no doubt attenuated and altered, even in the dissident Churches. Far from demonstrating the ineffectiveness of these notes to indicate the true Church, this imperfect presence attests the existence of remnants of the true Church in the very core of the sects that have left her. They enable us to recognize, under the debris, something of the splendor of the original design.  Catholic apologists have often recognized the presence of signs of a Christian origin in the separated Churches. They have even proposed to call them "negative notes", that is to say notes accompanying the true Church but insufficient to reveal her. It is, I think, preferable to think of them as debased or mutilated notes. When compared with the notes in their state of perfection and integrity they witness at once to the presence of Christian elements in the dissident Churches and to the alteration they have undergone.  One may say, for example, that the Oriental Churches, where the power of order has been validly transmitted, possess a partial and mutilated apostolicity. (Cf. Journet, The Church of the Word Incarnate, Sheed and Ward, 1955, pp. 531-532)    
What this means, for example, is that the power of order can survive even the ruptures of schism and heresy.  In this case the power of order may exist in a more-or-less debased state insofar as the power of jurisdiction is lacking (following a rupture with the Sovereign Ponfiff).  In other words, those lacking this power of jurisdiction cannot legitimately exercise any ministry.  Indeed, a certain union exists -- but not the perfection of union insofar as the power of order is exercised in an "uprooted state" or beyond its "proper and natural sphere."  Cardinal Journet again explains as follows:  

The hierarchy is indivisible. But it can, in certain regions, be broken by force so that fragments of it subsist in a mutilated state beyond the field of the Church. Thus, in lands overrun by schism or by heresy we may find not only the sacramental powers deriving from Baptism and Confirmation, but the hierarchical power of order.  The violent disjunction of the power of order from the power of jurisdiction—which latter disappears of itself whenever there is a rupture with the Sovereign Pontiff—its persistence in the uprooted state to which it is then reduced, its transmission, valid but not licit, beyond its proper and natural sphere, is always the sign of a terrible spiritual catastrophe, a partial victory of the spirit of evil over the Church of Christ, which henceforth will move through history as though divided in herself, and become a scandal to the Gentiles.  However, the Church is not in reality divided. She is indivisible like the hierarchy from which she is suspended. Peoples who have received her and belonged to her can fall away from her in consequence of schism and heresy; yet, despite failing her in this way, they can still carry away with them some of her treasures and certain relics of her royalty. What then remains of her among them may, at first glance, suggest a division; but to a wider knowledge and a deeper perception these scattered riches will themselves witness to her unicity. They are rays from one same original centre of life and activity.  Those who are responsible before God for a schism or a heresy may carry away with them the valid succession of the sacrament of Holy Order. They do so in the darkness of a personal sin by which they partially rend the Church; and insofar as their own hearts are closed to the good influence of the sacraments they are like sick men taking to others medicines which they do not know how to use for their own benefit. But their followers in later times, who inherit a patrimony of schism or heresy from their birth, are not culpable on that account. They can grow in spiritual stature by remaining in good faith. The sanctifying influence of the sacraments, no longer finding the same obstacles in the will, can result in graces of a high order.  What they still lack in order to be fully and openly of the Church is the divinely assisted orientation of the jurisdictional power. But, from this standpoint, the uninterrupted transmission of the valid exercise of the power of order within the dissident Churches is a moving witness to the depth of the salvific will of God. By thus continuing to dispense the graces of contact by way of His sacrifice and His sacraments, and thereby closely conforming to Christ many whose spiritual situation is in itself very precarious, He reveals an astonishing design: that of beginning, in a way, to form the Church outside the Church, to collect His "other sheep" as in a flock, and to draw them to the one fold by a strangely powerful ontological desire, a "virtual act" not far removed from ‘act achieved’.  (Cf. Journet, The Church of the Word Incarnate, Sheed and Ward, 1955, pp. 504-505)


All of this helps us to avoid the pitfalls of one-sided positions.  On one hand, we should not exaggerate the unity that exists between Catholic and non-Catholic Christians.  On the other hand, we should not exaggerate the separation that exists between Catholic and non-Catholic Christians.  A certain union does not mean full union nor does it mean a complete lack of union.  Put another way, one may "affirm correctly that the Church of Christ is present and operative in the churches and ecclesial Communities not yet fully in communion with the Catholic Church, on account of the elements of sanctification and truth that are present in them.  Nevertheless, the word “subsists” can only be attributed to the Catholic Church alone precisely because it refers to the mark of unity that we profess in the symbols of the faith (I believe... in the “one” Church); and this “one” Church subsists in the Catholic Church" (CDF, Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine on the Church).  But if all of this is true regarding "partial communion" then why does it seem as though the Holy See sometimes puts heavy emphasis on the aspect of separation while in other cases it seems to put the emphasis on the aspect of unity?  The answer seems to lie in the particular pastoral (prudential) approach depending on the circumstances.  For example, if an individual or group is in the process of a growing separation from the Church then the aspect and consequences of separation will be stressed.  On the other hand, if an individual or group is in the process of drawing closer to the Church then there appears to be a greater emphasis and appeal to those bonds of unity that link them to the Church.  One could say that this pastoral approach is somewhat analogous to using a "carrot" or "stick" depending on the direction one is moving in relation to communion with the Church. 




Anonymous Anonymous said...

thanks for this nice post 111213

February 20, 2011 2:25 PM  
Blogger Cruise the Groove. said...

And through all this we are allowed, by competant Roman authority, and canon law, to fulfill our Holy Day obligation at an FSSPX Mass.

So the abrogation of the excomms of the 4 FSSPX bishops did nothing else, as far as law goes, to permit them to go to confession to a non-FSSPX priest.
Hmmmm.... I wonder how realistic it is to expect this.

An FSSPX bishop who has been all but ostracized by most diocesan priests and bishops is now supposed to go to confession to them?

February 22, 2011 12:06 PM  
Anonymous Ben G said...

Mr. Gurries,

Have you read this criticism of "partial communion" ideas on this site: http://credidimuscaritati.blogspot.com/2009/01/partial-communion-hoax.html

It's from a Society of St. Pius X priest. If so, how would you respond to it?

May 24, 2011 12:31 AM  
Blogger K Gurries said...

Hi Ben G. I think my post should be a sufficient response. Basically, one of the chief effects of baptism is that it incorporates one into the mystical body of Christ. This sacrament seals forever his bond to the mystical body -- and that is why baptism is never repeated. But this does not imply that all are in equally good standing within the mytical body. One can become distant, rebellious, and lose many important advantages. For example, a prodigal son may give up various rights and advantages. At the same time, he still remains a son and kinsman to his brothers.

I think that if the good priest were to read my post he would see that there is nothing there contrary to Faith and Tradition.

May 24, 2011 9:58 AM  

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