The Particular Church

The theology of the particular Church has been posed in these last thirty years as an alternative proposal to the theology of the universal Church, dominant in the Latin Church from the Middle Ages to Vatican II. If it must be stated that there does not exist a priority of the universal over the particular Church, contrary to that which has been asserted by Western ecclesiology for too long, it would be equally incorrect to maintain the priority of the particular over the universal Church. From the constitutional point of view, Christ has neither founded the universal nor the particular Church, but the one Church with a double dimension, universal and particular. Without wishing to minimize other factors, such as the rediscovery in the West of Eastern theology, it seems clear that the primary impulse for the so-called theology of the particular Church comes both from doctrinal reflection on the missions, as well as from the desire for the democratization of ecclesial structures. The recognition of the value of non-western cultures, forced perhaps by nationalist awakenings and the progressive weakening of the colonialist mentality, have provoked a theological rethinking of the missionary activity of the Church. In terms of a theology of the universal Church, missions had been understood as a propagation of the faith for the salvation of the infidel; this has passed to the notion of a “plantatio Ecclesiae.” This conception has posed the problem of the particular Church in an irreversible way. Whereas formerly, the first priority was seen to be the dismantling of Western superstructures (the Latin language, common law, etc.) so as to give greater value to the culture and to indigenous consuetudinary law, in a second stage the doctrinal revision has affected the question more deeply. Along with the socio-cultural European image of the Church, the ecclesiology of the universal Church with which it was linked and which did not take new cultures sufficiently into account has also been put into question. Characterizing the local Church not on the basis of its essential theological properties, but rather on the basis of the cultural context in which they existed, the new theology of the particular Church again proposed the same misunderstanding into which the theology of the universal Church had already fallen, of welding Christianity, notwithstanding its eschatological transcendence, to a given culture. Expressions such as “Latin Church” or “Eastern Church” are not less ambiguous than “African,” “American,” or “Italian Church,” and which are frequently hardly camouflaged by more correct ecclesiological expressions such as the “Church in Europe,” “in Africa,” or “in Italy.” 1
The second motive that has given rise to an ecclesiology of the particular Church is the desire for democratization. This has been caused, from the cultural point of view, by the experience of modern democracy and, from a theological perspective, by the highly significant rediscovery of the common priesthood of all the faithful – and consequently, of the laity – through the work of Vatican II. Evidently, the discourse concerning the democratization of the Church is not put forward in relation to the universal Church, where episcopal collegiality raises an insurmountable barrier, but in relation to the particular Church, as if its constitutional structure were essentially different from that of the universal Church. The structures of “synodal” participation, directly or indirectly promoted by Vatican II for the particular Church, were frequently misunderstood and lived as democratic structures parallel to those of the State. Consequently, they were conceived in terms of a redistribution of power from above to below. This was done in the hope of attenuating the hierarchical principle by means of the majority principle, forgetting that only ordained ministers, invested with ecclesial office, carry out the function of representing the entire community and guaranteeing the unity of the Church. 2
The reference point for an ecclesiology capable of reevaluating the particular Church in the fullness of its constitutional function, without falling into the unilateral quality of the theology of the universal Church, is the ecclesiological formula of LG23, 1, according to which the universal Church is realized in and from the particular Churches: “in quibus et ex quibus una et unica Ecclesia catholica exsistit”; 3 a formula taken up by the Code in can. 368. This formula has many implications, since it means a) that the universal Church does not exist in herself, as if she possessed her own consistency and place of existence, but rather she exists there where she is realized in a particular Church. She only exists in concomitance with a particular Church “in quibus.” b) The universal Church is formed from all the particular Churches, for which reason she is not an abstract reality, but an historically concrete reality which coincides in fact with all the particular Churches. She is a “corpus Ecclesiarum” (LG 23, 2), a notion not received by the Code, or a “Communio Ecclesiarum.” Indeed, the universal Church herself that is realized in those particular ones, is the same reality that is constituted from all the particular Churches “ex quibus.” c) It follows that, in every particular Church, all the other particular Churches are ontologically present, through the mediation of the universal Church, of which they are the constituent elements. The particular Church is Church only in the measure in which she realizes in herself all the values and essential common elements, proper to all the particular Churches, whose communion with the Roman Church is “plena.” The profound structure of the ministry of the Church is thus essentially a structure of immanence: reciprocal and total immanence of the universal and particular Church according to the principle of “universalia in rebus.” Only when this immanence is realized with all its totality is the note of “communio plena” realized. This is a prerogative of the Catholic Church, since in her, by definition, the one Church of Christ “subsists” (can. 204 § 2) in all her structural and constitutional truth, and especially according to the perfect immanence of the universal and the particular dimension which is realized in her. All other solutions are ecclesiologically deviant, because they suppress the first or second element. The Orthodox tradition tends in fact to conceive the universal Church, according to the Platonic conception of “universalia ante res,” as a transcendent model or archetype, which does not exist concretely in history, but is realized in the individual particular Churches in a way that is always the same. Putting the emphasis on the “in quibus,” Eastern Orthodoxy is thus not able to conceive the unity of the “Communio Ecclesiarum” around an institutional fact. 4Unity is guaranteed only by the transcendent model, common to all the autocephalous Churches. The Protestant tradition, on the contrary, in the nominalist tradition of “universalia post res,” emphasizes the second element: that is, the “ex quibus.” There only exist the particular Churches, not the universal Church. The unity among the individual particular Churches can find an expression, along the lines of a voluntarist solution, only according to the model of a federation of particular Churches. The principal obstacle to a correct conception of the ecclesiological formula of “in quibus et ex quibus” lies in the fact that the universal and the particular Church are generally conceived as two materially distinct entities, which tend to be related to each other according to a dynamic of potential contraposition or reciprocal competition. In reality, they are not two material realities, but only two formal dimensions of one sole reality: that of the one Church of Christ. It follows that the particular Church has a constitutional legitimacy that is as great as that of the universal Church, in so far as the particular Church is the indispensable local or concrete dimension of the one Church of Christ, which is realized where the Word and the Sacrament are concretely realized in time and in space. The universal Church does not coincide with its specific institutional organ, which is the college of bishops with the primacy. The college, in its essence, has a twofold relationship of dependence with regard to the particular Churches: that of the hierarchical communion existing between the diocesan bishops and the Pope, and that of the Pope who in his turn is bishop of a particular Church: that of the Church of Rome.
This doctrine underlies the Code, although in a very condensed way, due above all to the reception, in can. 368, of the conciliar formula “in quibus et ex quibus,” partially taken up in can. 369 (cf. CD 11, 1). Instead of defining the particular Church, the Code, following Vatican II, has formulated a legal definition of the diocese (can. 369), provoking in this way an overlapping of the notion of the diocese and that of the particular Church. The diocese is only one of the possible juridical forms of the particular Church, even if it is the most structured and complete form from the institutional point of view. Actually, the particular Church and the diocese are not identical, as is clearly indicated by can. 372 § 1. According to the norm of can. 369, the constitutive institutional elements of the particular Church are: the existence of a portion of the People of God, a bishop, and a presbyterium. These three elements can also be realized in other juridical figures, as in territorial prelatures and abbacies, or in apostolic administrations when their ordinaries enjoy the episcopal dignity. These figures are enumerated and defined (tautologically), together with those of the vicariates and apostolic prefectures, in can. 370-371. When these circumscriptions are headed by a bishop, the clergy present in them is ontologically constituted as part of a presbyterium, of which the bishop is head. The reason for the existence of the clergy, in fact, is not only functional – that of aiding the bishop in the carrying out of his office – but is also of an ecclesiological order. According to Vatican II (PO 7, 1), presbyters (and perhaps also deacons) are not simply useful collaborators of the bishop, but necessary collaborators. For these and other reasons deriving from the ontological structure itself of the presbyterium, one must conclude that the theological figure of the bishop (not titular bishops) is always and inevitably realized as the head of a presbyterium. The notion of “diocesan bishop” utilized by can. 376 to designate all non-titular bishops, is reductive, because a bishop who is a territorial prelate (as also an abbot or administrator), realizes, from the theological point of view, the same ecclesiological figure as the diocesan bishop, although not from the juridical point of view. It follows that the institution of “assimilation,” used by can. 368 to make territorial prelatures and abbacies, vicariates, apostolic prefectures and administrations equivalent to the diocese, cannot be applied in any way to the particular Church, as might be suggested by the ambiguous formulation of the text. Whereas it is possible to attribute the same juridical relevance, “ex parte” or “in toto,” to two realities of a positive institutional extraction (for example, the personal prelature and the diocese), it is not possible to apply the juridical institution of assimilation to two ecclesiologically different realities (as, for example, the apostolic prefecture and the particular Church). The Code does not correctly resolve even the case of the apostolic administration. In the event that this is headed by a bishop, it is not ecclesiologically exact to affirm, as does can. 371 § 2, 9, that it is headed by its ordinary, not “nomine proprio,” but “nomine Summi Pontificis,” in the same way as vicariates and prefectures. Apostolic administrations headed by a bishop, like territorial prelatures and abbacies, are true particular Churches even if they are not juridically constituted as dioceses.
These specifications are fundamental to understand the profound implications of the nature of the particular Church, which, contrary to every other juridical reality or figure, is the Church in the proper sense of the term, due to the fact that in it, and in it alone, the one Church of Christ is realized with her entire universal dimension. It follows that a particular Church cannot be manipulated from the juridical perspective according to purely positivistic legislative criteria. An analogous imprecision of the Code in grasping the structure of the particular Church on the legislative level appears also in other vital sectors of the canonical order, as in that of dispensations and that of juridical persons. With regard to the institution of dispensation, can. 87 treats diocesan bishops along the same lines as all other ordinaries, without allowing their specific nature to appear, by which they are distinguished from the ecclesiological and juridical perspective. The diocesan bishops possess the faculty to dispense from universal law “ex sese,” that is, due to the fact of possessing the episcopal order and of being pastors of a particular Church. Other ordinaries, however, such as territorial prelates and abbots, vicars, apostolic prefects and administrators, in addition to all vicars general who are not bishops, or bishops that are only titular, possess these faculties only in virtue of a delegation “ex iure.” Also in the area of juridical persons, the position of the particular Church has not been distinguished with sufficient ecclesiological solicitude from the other public canonical entities. Can. 113 distinguishes between moral and juridical persons, to emphasize the fact that the latter are institutions created “ex iure” or “ex concessione.” The Catholic Church and the Holy See, not being erected in virtue of positive law, are referred to instead as moral persons. The particular Churches, although historically placed in existence on account of an administrative intervention of the authority, cannot be included among public juridical persons like other entities of positive law which do not have the root of their existence in the ius divinum. Like the Church of Christ and the Holy See, the particular Churches are also necessary “ex ipsa ordinatione divina,” although they are not determined by it in the historical concreteness of their existence. They are, in fact, constitutive elements of the same Church of Christ, which, in her universality, is realized in them and from them. Their concrete erection is thus a fact that is purely contingent and determinative, with respect to their constitutional necessity. Aside from the fact that divine law does not recognize moral and juridical persons, the Code would have better grasped the ecclesiological identity of the particular Churches if they had been qualified as moral persons in the same way as the Catholic Church and the Holy See (cf. also can. 1257 § 1).
From these considerations it should also be concluded that the notion of “autonomy,” frequently used by canon law to define the constitutional position of the particular Church within the universal Church, is not correct. It connotes the incorporation of a part into a whole which is held to be superior, such as that of the provinces and municipalities in a State. The notion of autonomy lacks both the element of “in quibus” as well as that of “ex quibus,” since according to that notion, the part is not constituted as a reality in which the whole is realized, and the whole is not constituted by parts having their own proper existence. If it were not culturally and juridically tied to the idea of independence from other realities, the notion of sovereignty would more closely express at least the idea that the whole, as in a confederation of States, is formed of parts in possession of their own ontological substantiality, which can be partially limited in favor of a larger unity. However, even in this case the element of “in quibus,” at least, is lacking. It follows that the constitutional position of the particular Church within the Church of Christ, precisely because it is only a formal dimension of it, cannot be defined with political and juridical categories derived from the modern system of the State. The mystery of the “Communio Ecclesiae et Ecclesiarum,” which is the mystery of the reciprocal immanence and inseparability of all the constitutive elements of the Church (Word and Sacrament, common and ministerial priesthood, the faithful and the ecclesial community, etc.), cannot be adequately translated with secular rational categories. However, the effort expended by the Code to express the relationship between the universal and particular Church, is visible less on the theoretical level than in the area of positive options, as in the division of competencies of the two aspects of the Church. Here the concern is no longer the universalistic perspective of the Code of 1917, which sought to unify the entire ecclesial discipline by applying the medieval principle “unum imperium, unum et ius,” but that of guaranteeing a greater constitutional equilibrium between the universal and the particular Church. 5 Actually, the deferment to the legislation of the particular Church no longer seems to be, as in 1917, a contingency concerning which the legislator decides on an individual basis, but rather a principle that is co-essential to the spirit of the new juridical order. 6


* First published: “Chiesa particolare,” in: Digesto4 – Discipline Pubblicistiche III (Turin 1989), pp. 17-20.

1  Cf. G. Colombo, “La teologia della Chiesa locale,” in: La Chiesa locale, loc. cit., pp. 17-38.

2  Cf. E. Corecco, “Parlamento ecclesiale o diaconia sinodale?,” SILT Communio 1 (1972), 32-44.

3  Cf. W. Aymans, Das synodale Element in der Kirchenverfassung (Munich 1970), pp. 318-330.

4  Cf. Y. Congar, “De la communion des Églises à une ecclésiologie de l’Église universelle,” in L’Épiscopat et l’Église Universelle, loc. cit., pp. 227-260.

5  Cf. E. Corecco, “I presupposti culturali ed ecclesiologici del nuovo «Codex»,” in: Il nuovo codice di diritto canonico, ed. by S. Ferrari (Bologna 1983), pp. 39-43.

6  Cf. H. Schmitz, “Gesetzgebungsbefugnis und Gesetzgebungskompetenzen des Diözesanbischofs nach dem neuen CIC von 1983,” AfkKR 152 (1983), 62-75.