Are There Degrees of Communion?

A theology of "partial" or "imperfect" communion actually dates back long before Vatican II.

In a recent piece here at Crisis Magazine, Kennedy Hall gave voice to a rather common complaint among traditionally-minded Catholics—namely, that Vatican II and sixties’ theology blurred the borders of the Church by introducing the notion of degrees of communion.

Hall’s claim is that an understanding of communion susceptible to degrees is absurd and logically leads to further absurdity. He seeks to show this absurdity by suggesting that communion must be akin to pregnancy (either you are or you aren’t), to gender theory that allows for a spectrum, or to critical race theory that requires an unconscious bias. Evidently, he thinks it must be akin to pregnancy, since that alone does not allow for degrees (and alone conforms to Catholic faith).

In contrast to the “absurdity of this post-conciliar understanding of ‘communion.’” Hall states that before Vatican II, “it was utterly simple” for one to know who is in and who is not. “According to the traditional understanding,” he states, “all that was necessary to be in communion with the Church was to be united in Faith, Sacraments, and Governance. If you believe Catholicism, attend Catholic sacraments, and recognize the authority of the pope and the bishops, then you are Catholic.” However, Vatican II said the same thing (cf. Lumen Gentium, 14).

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What I believe Hall (and many others) fails to recognize is that there is and always has been more to the story. It has never been so clearly simple to decide who is in the Church and who isn’t. Hall’s definition of unity in faith, sacraments, and governance is incomplete. Vatican II gave these three bonds of unity as the requirements for “full incorporation into the society of the Church,” which certainly allows for partial or imperfect unity, as the Council goes on to explain.

Yet, this idea did not originate at Vatican II. Pope Pius XII, of happy memory, already described the threefold bond as necessary to be “actual [reapse] members” of the Church (Mystici Corporis, 22). He also noted that it is by water baptism that we become members (18); for this reason, he does not include catechumens as members, though one can easily assume that they are in some degree of communion with the Church by their unity in faith and governance.

Again, Pius explained, “by an unconscious desire [voto] and longing they have a certain relationship with the Mystical Body” (103). Hence Vatican II’s language that they are in some way “related to” the Church (LG, 16). It was this concept of belonging to the Church in voto that allowed the Fathers to explain the salvation of Jews and virtuous pagans.

In commenting on the ecclesiology of Pius XII, Joseph Clifford Fenton (1906–69) rightly pointed out that the distinction between belonging to the Church in re and in voto was long included in the works of traditional Catholic theology. Objecting to the language of “members” for those belonging to the Church in voto, Fenton upheld the doctrine of no salvation outside the Church by arguing that one can be “within” the Church even by implicit desire.

Thus, for Fenton and the neo-scholastics of the preconciliar era, they may not be members of the Church—this is black and white—but they do belong to the Church and are even within the Church. Such ones must have some degree of communion with the Church that is not “full.”

Because the corpus of the Catholic theological tradition could not fit in a single short article, permit me to present a brief summary of what Fenton described as the traditional Catholic doctrine.

St. Augustine (354–430), when disputing with the Donatists, notably acknowledged the validity of baptism outside the Catholic Church. He also admitted that there were many among the Donatists who, though bodily separated from the Church’s governance, had charity and so were spiritually in the Church. Many Catholics, on the other hand, lacked charity and led vicious lives; such ones were bodily in the Church but were spiritually outside.

Hugh of St. Victor (d. 1141) picked up Augustine’s position and proposed that those who have faith but not charity—which for him included the Jews—are in the Church, while those with both faith and charity are of the Church. Alexander of Hales (d. 1245), notable for defending the use of Aristotle at the University of Paris, taught instead that those with faith alone are material members of the Church, while those with faith and charity are formal members.

St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–74) builds on Alexander’s distinction and develops four degrees of union with Christ, and therefore the Church. For Thomas, all men without faith are potential members, those with faith alone are material members, and those enlivened by grace are formal and complete members (Sent. III.D13.Q2.a2.qa2; ST III.q8.a3).

The Council of Trent, in its Decree on Justification and its accompanying canons, teaches that one may have faith and so be justified, but in losing charity through sin he becomes a dead member, imperfectly united to Christ.

Finally, St. Robert Bellarmine (1542–1621), is well-known for his defense of the Thomist and Tridentine doctrine by distinguishing between those bodily in the Church through unity of faith, baptism, and governance (in re), and those spiritually in the Church through charity and the life of grace (in voto). It is Bellarmine’s formulation that became the standard usage by Suarez and the Jesuits of the Roman College and eventually the neo-scholastics of the early twenty-first century.

Suffice it to say, this notion of degrees of communion in the Church is nothing new. What is new, however, is its separation from the complementary doctrine that, as Vatican II states, to the Catholic Church “all should be fully incorporated who belong in any way to the People of God” (Unitatis Redintegratio, 3). The doctrine of Vatican II, being no different than ever before, is that all those who belong to the Church either in re or in voto must seek full and perfect communion in the Church. One might say we must all be in the Church in re and in voto. The notion of degrees of communion in the Church is nothing new. What is new, however, is its separation from the complementary doctrine all should be fully incorporated into the Catholic Church.Tweet This

Yet, as Hall surely recognizes, this doctrine is abused by certain “actual members” of the Church in order to alienate such groups as the SSPX on account of irregularity in governance, while—pardon me—“baptizing” Protestants on account of our common baptism. Such an abuse of Catholic doctrine does not, however, permit us to dispense with the doctrine. We cannot pick and choose which doctrines to accept; otherwise, we become no different than the Protestants.

Feeney’s abuse of extra ecclesiam nulla salus to throw members in voto out of the Church does not allow us to throw the abused doctrine out of the Church, even if we intend to save those who belong in voto. Calvin’s abuse of God’s foreknowledge to revoke man’s free will does not allow us to throw it out the window so as to emphasize our freedom in Christ.

The fact of the matter is that many Catholic doctrines stand in tension with a seemingly opposite doctrine. Justice stands in tension with mercy, Christ’s divinity with His humanity, the holiness of the Church with her sinful members, one divine Being in three Persons. When we take one element of any of these tensions alone and neglect the other, we have a dangerous form of heresy. It is not so much a false doctrine as it is a half truth. 

This is the case with our doctrine of degrees of communion when taken without the doctrine that all must seek full and perfect communion. Feeney took the requisite for full communion without the degrees of communion; today’s progressives take the degrees without the fullness. The unfortunate result is that such progressives progressively slide out of full communion.

The purpose of this twofold doctrine is to indicate, first, our desperate need for God’s grace most readily and freely available in full and perfect communion and, second, the infinite mercy of God toward those who seek full and perfect communion despite even their ignorance of the fact. Just as we should not presume on God’s mercy and let pagans and Protestants sit in the mire of ignorance, neither should we neglect our own obligation to maintain full and ever more perfect communion in the Catholic Church.


tagged as: Church full communion

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