Subsistit in

Subsistit in (subsists in) is a Latin phrase which appears in Lumen gentium,[1] the fundamental document on the church from the Second Vatican Council of the Catholic Church. Since the Council the reason for use of the term "subsists in" rather than simply “is” has been disputed. Generally, those who see little or no change in church teaching in Vatican II insist on the equivalence of subsistit in and “is”. Those who point to a new, ecumenical thrust in Vatican II insist that the term was introduced as a compromise after much discussion, and acknowledges new elements in the Council's teaching.

The context of the statement is:

This Church constituted and organized in the world as a society, subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him, although many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside of its visible structure. These elements, as gifts belonging to the Church of Christ, are forces impelling toward catholic unity. (Lumen Gentium, 8)

This is a debate about externals, the institutional integrity of a church, the fullness of the means of salvation. "There is no question of denying that a non-Catholic community, perhaps lacking much in the order of means, can achieve a higher degree of communion in the life of Christ in faith, hope and love than many a Catholic community."[2]

Development of doctrine

The issue

The correct meaning of "subsists in" has important implications for how the Catholic Church views itself and its relations with other Christian communities and other religions. Questions have been raised[3] about whether Lumen gentium altered the longstanding phrase according to which the Church of Christ is (Latin est) the Catholic Church. Lumen gentium does recognize that other Christian ecclesial communities have elements of sanctification and of truth. And the Council used the traditional term "Church" to refer to the Eastern Churches not in full communion with the Catholic Church. "These Churches," it said, "although separated from us, yet possess true sacraments and above all, by apostolic succession, the priesthood and the Eucharist, whereby they are linked with us in closest intimacy."[4][5][6]


After the 16th century Reformation, Catholic theology identified the Church of Christ with the Catholic Church. This continued through the teaching of popes Pius XI and Pius XII. At the Second Vatican Council, the preparatory draft for the Decree on the Church contained this long-held understanding, following Pius XII in identifying the Mystical Body of Christ with the Catholic Church.[2]

Joseph A. Komonchak, "the best of the American ecclesioligists",[7] chronicles the breakdown of this long-held understanding at the Council. The Council's Doctrinal Commission explained the change in the final draft of Lumen gentium from "is" to "subsists in", "so that the expression may better accord with the affirmation about ecclesial elements which are present elsewhere." Komonchak points out that since "some wanted to strengthen the statement, others to weaken it" the Doctrinal Commission decided to stay with the change of verb. He suggests that following "the first rule of conciliar hermeneutics" we should examine statements of Vatican II about these "ecclesial elements" found outside the Catholic Church. He mentions that the same document, Lumen gentium, preferred to speak of those "fully incorporated" into the church and avoided the term "membership".[8] It mentioned that "several elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside its visible structure."[9] Elements mentioned as a part of the church's visible structure that are "present elsewhere" include the Spirit of Christ, the means of salvation, the profession of faith, and sacraments.[10] This is reinforced in the decree on ecumenism (Unitatis redintegratio) which says: "Very many, of the most significant elements and endowments that together go to build up and to give life to the Church itself can exist outside the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church: the written Word of God, the life of grace, faith, hope, and charity, with other interior gifts of the Holy Spirit, as well as visible elements ... (and) not a few of the sacred actions of the Christian religion."[11] The decree then says that only the Catholic Church has the "fullness of the means of salvation".[12] Cardinal Walter Kasper has pointed out that, as to this claim that the fullness of the Church of Christ resides in the Catholic Church, this "does not refer to subjective holiness but to the sacramental and institutional means of salvation, the sacraments and the ministries."[2]

Ongoing dispute

Progressives and traditionalists have continued to argue their point on whether "subsists in" means "is": did Vatican II say that the Catholic church is the only church (as external society) that Jesus founded?

Some point to Paul VI's statement that seems to favor the identity of the two terms.[13] In response, others point out that many “became increasingly alarmed at relatively early signs of regression beginning in the pontificate of Paul VI." This regression is further noted in the near disappearance, in the Extraordinary Synod of 1985, of the term "The People of God", another key concept of the Council.[14]

Sebastian Tromp as author

Sebastian Tromp, a Dutch Jesuit, a Scholastic theologian and close to Pope Pius XII, is considered to have been the main though unacknowledged author of Mystici corporis. As advisor to Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani during Vatican II, Tromp was also, according to existing tape recordings and diaries, the father of "subsistit", which to his understanding of Latin did not mean anything new but indicated completeness.[15][16] But Francis A. Sullivan pointed out:[17]

If one considers the fact that the draft in which "est" had been changed to "subsistit in" was the first one that spoke of “Churches” and “ecclesiastical communities” that are found outside the Catholic Church, one can hardly escape the conclusion that the doctrinal commission did not agree with Tromp, who had forcefully insisted that "subsistit in" must be understood to be exclusivum, with the consequence that outside the Catholic Church there could be nothing but elements.

When in 2007 a statement from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith called into question the contemporary consensus on the import of the use of "subsistit", some identified inconsistencies in the Congregation's own statement, and pointed out that this goes against four decades of teaching by such eminent theologians as Christopher Butler, Yves Congar, George Tavard, Joseph A. Komonchak, and Francis A. Sullivan.[18][2]

Response to traditionalists

Traditional Catholic groups consider Lumen gentium one of several demarcations of when the post-conciliar Church fell into heresy, pointing to the use of "subsistit in" rather than "est" as an abdication of the Church's historic (and to them compulsory) identification of itself alone as God's church.[19]

In an interview with Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, then-Cardinal Ratzinger (later elected Pope Benedict XVI) responded to this criticism as follows:

The concept expressed by "is" (to be) is far broader than that expressed by "to subsist". "To subsist" is a very precise way of being, that is, to be as a subject, which exists in itself. Thus the Council Fathers meant to say that the being of the Church as such is a broader entity than the Roman Catholic Church, but within the latter it acquires, in an incomparable way, the character of a true and proper subject.[20]


  1. Lumen gentium, 8 (latin). Accessed 2009-06-13. Lumen gentium, 8 (english) Accessed 2011-10-25.
  2. "The Church of Christ and the Churches: Is the Vatican retreating from ecumenism?". America Magazine. 2007-08-27. Retrieved 2019-12-17.
  3. Peter Hebblethwaite, Pope Paul VI,Paulist Press 1993
  4. Unitatis redintegratio, 15. It called them "particular or local Churches".
  5. Unitatis redintegratio, 14; and these particular or local Churches are referred to as "Sister Churches".
  6. Ut unum sint, 56.
  7. " - Your favorite newspapers and magazines". Retrieved 2019-09-24.
  8. Lumen gentium, 14.
  9. Lumen gentium, 8.
  10. Lumen gentium, 14.
  11. Unitatis redintegratio, 3
  12. "The subsisting Church | Commonweal Magazine". Retrieved 2019-09-24.
  13. "There is no better comment to make than to say that this promulgation really changes nothing of the traditional doctrine. What Christ willed, we also will. What was, still is. What the Church has taught down through the centuries, we also teach." (Speech at the promulgation of the Constitution on the Church and the Decrees on the Eastern Churches and Ecumenism)
  14. "Where is The Church". Retrieved 2019-12-17.
  15. Alexandra von Teuffenbach Die Bedeutung des subsistit in (LG8). Zum Selbstverständnis der katholischen Kirche, Herbert Utz Verlag, München 2002 ISBN 3-8316-0187-9 and Alexandra von Teuffenbach Konzilstagebuch Sebastian Tromp SJ mit Erläuterungen and Akten aus der Arbeit der Theologischen Kommission, 2006, Editrice Pontificia Università Gregoriana ISBN 978-88-7839-057-7
  16. Also claiming credit for this phrase in Lumen gentium is Wilhelm Schmidt, then Pastor of the Protestant Church of the Holy Cross at Bremen-Horn, who states that "At the time I was pastor ... and during the third and fourth sessions, an observer at the Council as the representative of the Evangelical Fraternity Michael, at Cardinal Bea’s invitation. I submitted in writing the formulation “Subsistit in” to the man who was then the theological adviser of Cardinal Frings: Joseph Ratzinger, who relayed it to the Cardinal. ("Catechism Of the Crisis In the Church, Pt. 6, Angelus Online) Some regard this as unlikely, since Protestant observers did not have any direct and active role in the proceedings. Wilhelm Schmidt is not mentioned in Bea's diary nor does his name come up in the relevant sections of the authoritative autobiography of Cardinal Augustin Bea by St. Schmidt, the autobiographies of Joseph Ratzinger, Karl Rahner, Küng or in any other historical treatease of Vatican II. However it is quite possible that such an observer could have privately and informally suggested to a Council Father or periti some turn of phrase which the Father or periti might find useful, and which the periti or Father might pass along to the Council.
  17. Sullivan, SJ, Francis (2006). "Quaestio Disputata: A response to Karl Becker, SJ, on the Meaning of Subsistit in" (PDF). Theological Studies. 67: 395–409.
  18. "Where is The Church". Retrieved 2019-12-17.
  19. Talk by Fr. Franz Schmidberger, First Assistant to the Superior General of the SSPX Archived 2008-10-17 at the Wayback Machine (February 22, 2001).
  20. "ANSWERS TO MAIN OBJECTIONS AGAINST DOMINUS IESUS" by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI)

Further reading

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