Amoris Laetitia and Lumen Gentium: ‘Partial’ Marriage, ‘Partial’ Church

Editor’s note: The following originally appeared at Whispers of Restoration. It is reprinted and adapted here with the author’s permission. 

Faithful Catholics have something to be edified and encouraged by in the “Filial Correction” of Pope Francis just made public, originating from 62 clerics and lay signatories, with more cosignatories each day. The 25-page document makes for clear reading, insightful in addressing some of the more egregious errors being propagated during the current papacy. I was particularly struck by the section denouncing the errors of Martin Luther, some of which have been endorsed (if not espoused) by Francis during his reign – a scandal that will undoubtedly deepen during this month’s “commemorations” (are we celebrating this?) of Luther’s rebellion.

Understandably, the document spends a great deal of time on Amoris Laetitia, and thus on issues connected to marriage and family life. The document also comes close to making an observation I have yet to find noted elsewhere but that I hope to make explicit here.

Upon my first reading of Amoris, I was struck by how oddly familiar some of Pope Francis’s phrasing sounded, as if I had read it before, years ago. It was only after a more careful rereading (particularly the statements on “graduality,” “values,” etc.) that I recognized: here, in fact, was the framework for a pastoral praxis that was the natural fruit of Lumen Gentium, the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church

It seems clear to me now that Francis (and many bishops following suit) are simply applying in the “pastoral concrete” what Vatican II once described in the abstract: this time moving from the sacramentum hoc magnum of Christ’s love for the Church to its image and reflection in Christian marriage.

Writ small, my observation is essentially this: if the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church exists only as a set of divisible elements or amassable quantities – a “sacred sum of pious parts” – then why should not the Sacrament of Marriage be regarded similarly?

First, a little background.
“Subsistit In” = Partial Church?

It is widely maintained that one of the greatest theological disasters following the Second Vatican Council occurred in the realm of ecclesiology: the theology of the Church. For centuries, the Church’s self-understanding had been clear and evident in her liturgy, the work and writings of her saints, and all her magisterial pronouncements: Christ had set up one Church on Earth, founding it upon Saint Peter as a visible society enlivened by His spirit and governed by his authority enduring in the successors of Peter (the pope) and the apostles (the bishops), and this Church is the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, the Mystical Body of Christ, necessary for the salvation of all people and comprising members on Earth, in Purgatory, and in Heaven.

It’s worth noting from the outset that it is truly a matter of eternal life (and death) to get this question right: what is the Church? This because it is necessary to enter this Church in order to be saved; one cannot live the life of Christ without belonging to His Body. This singular conviction, constantly energizing apostles and martyrs, continued to find ever fresh echoes in the shepherds of the Church throughout the centuries. It was heard again on the eve of the First Vatican Council, when Blessed Pius IX extended the invitation to Protestants and Orthodox:

Wherefore, let all those who do not hold to the unity and truth of the Catholic Church avail themselves of the opportunity of this Council, whereby the Catholic Church, of which their forefathers were members, displays a fresh proof of her perfect unity and her unconquerable vitality; and let them, in obedience to the longings of their own hearts, be in haste to rescue themselves from a state in which they cannot be assured of their own salvation. And let them not cease to offer most fervent prayers to the God of Mercy, that he may break down the wall of separation, that he may scatter the mists of error, and that he may lead them back to the bosom of Holy Mother Church, where their fathers found the wholesome pastures of life, and in which alone the doctrine of Jesus Christ is preserved and handed down entire, and the mysteries of heavenly grace dispensed. (Pope Bl. Pius IX, Iam Vos Omnes [1868])

Note how the heartfelt invitation of the pope begins from the constant teaching that those who do not hold to the unity and truth of the Catholic Church are behind a wall of separation, which must be overcome by man’s free cooperation with grace in order to attain salvation. Since entrance into this Church is a matter of eternal life and death for all people, a correct understanding of the Church is essential. One must know where the wall is.

This understanding endured, clear and consistent in the teaching of tradition, up to the eve of the Second Vatican Council. Papal statements just decades before that Council evidence this constant teaching, at pains to exclude any notion of a divisible or strictly spiritual, invisible, interior Church:

The true Church of Jesus Christ was established by divine authority, and is known by a fourfold mark, which we assert in the Creed must be believed; and each one of these marks so clings to the others that it cannot be separated from them; hence it happens that that Church which truly is, and is called Catholic should at the same time shine with the prerogatives of unity, sanctity, and apostolic succession. Therefore, the Catholic Church alone is conspicuous and perfect in the unity of the whole world and of all nations, particularly in that unity whose beginning, root, and unfailing origin are that supreme authority and “higher principality’’ of blessed PETER, the prince of the Apostles, and of his successors in the Roman Chair. No other Church is Catholic except the one which, founded on the one PETER, grows into one “body compacted and fitly joined together” in the unity of faith and charity. (Pope Bl. Pius IX, Letter to the Bishops of England, DZ n. 1686)

If we consider the chief end of His Church and the proximate efficient causes of salvation, it is undoubtedly spiritual; but in regard to those who constitute it, and to the things which lead to these spiritual gifts, it is external and necessarily visible[.] … For this reason the Church is so often called in Holy Writ a body, and even the body of Christ – “Now you are the body of Christ” (1 Cor 12:27) – and precisely because it is a body is the Church visible[.] … From this it follows that those who arbitrarily conjure up and picture to themselves a hidden and invisible Church are in grievous and pernicious error[.] … Jesus Christ did not, in point of fact, institute a Church to embrace several communities similar in nature, but in themselves distinct, and lacking those bonds which render the Church unique and indivisible[.] … For this reason Christ, speaking of the mystical edifice, mentions only one Church, which he calls His own – “I will build my church”; any other Church except this one, since it has not been founded by Christ, cannot be the true Church... The Church of Christ, therefore, is one and the same for ever; those who leave it depart from the will and command of Christ, the Lord – leaving the path of salvation they enter on that of perdition. (Pope Leo XIII, Satis Cognitum n. 3-5)

If we would define and describe this true Church of Jesus Christ – which is the One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic and Roman Church – we shall find nothing more noble, more sublime, or more divine than the expression “the Mystical Body of Christ” – an expression which springs from and is, as it were, the fair flowering of the repeated teaching of the Sacred Scriptures and the Holy Fathers. That the Church is a body is frequently asserted in the Sacred Scriptures. “Christ,” says the Apostle, “is the Head of the Body of the Church.” If the Church is a body, it must be an unbroken unity, according to those words of Paul: “Though many we are one body in Christ.” But it is not enough that the Body of the Church should be an unbroken unity; it must also be something definite and perceptible to the senses[.] … Hence they err in a matter of divine truth, who imagine the Church to be invisible, intangible, a merely spiritual entity as they say, by which many Christian communities, though they differ from each other in their profession of faith, are united by an invisible bond. (Pope Pius XII, Mystici Corporis n. 13-14)

Some say they are not bound by the doctrine, explained in Our Encyclical Letter of a few years ago, and based on the Sources of Revelation, which teaches that the Mystical Body of Christ and the Roman Catholic Church are one and the same thing. Some reduce to a meaningless formula the necessity of belonging to the true Church in order to gain eternal salvation. Others finally belittle the reasonable character of the credibility of Christian faith. These and like errors, it is clear, have crept in among certain of Our sons who are deceived by imprudent zeal for souls or by false science. To them We are compelled with grief to repeat once again truths already well known, and to point out with solicitude clear errors and dangers of error. (Pope Pius XII, Humani Generis n. 27-28)

Sadly, those “dangers of error” warned against by Pope Pius XII just twelve years before Vatican II grew exponentially after the penning of what may be the single most contentious sentence in all the approved texts of that Council. It is found in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, in paragraph 8, wherein a definition of the Church is offered, which reads in part:

[T]he one Church of Christ which in the Creed is professed as one, holy, catholic and apostolic, which our Saviour, after His Resurrection, commissioned Peter to shepherd, and him and the other apostles to extend and direct with authority, which He erected for all ages as “the pillar and mainstay of the truth.” 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.

Now, vats of ink have been spilt both in attack on and defense of this phrasing, which, it must be noted, was employed without magisterial precedent. To say the Church of Christ subsists in the Catholic Church – rather than saying it is identical to the Catholic Church – was a novel framing of the teaching, and one without any traditional pedigree.

Thus, regardless as to whether or not the phrasing was well chosen, it can be readily understood why “clarifications” began issuing from the Vatican in ensuing years on this very point. Many were interpreting Lumen Gentium as a kind of “broadening” of the nature of the Church until a kind of “redefinition by expansion” had taken place, leading to an essentially Protestant concept: the “Church of Christ” had become an abstracted, amorphous, primarily invisible, interior, and spiritual entity that could be more or less present in any number of Christian communities and denominations (perhaps even in other religions), depending on which or how many “elements of sanctification and truth” they might possess.

The “Church of Christ” had suddenly become a quantitative assembly of parts, which admittedly could be fully present only in the Catholic Church but could nonetheless be “partially present” elsewhere. Such a “Church of Christ” could therefore have a considerably broader expanse than that of the Catholic Church – a proposition eminently contrary to that found in Sacred Tradition, and one still awaiting a clear condemnation from the Vatican. Instead, a number of statements immediately following Lumen Gentium gave rise to further confusion.


For men who believe in Christ and have been truly baptized are in communion with the Catholic Church even though this communion is imperfect. The differences that exist in varying degrees between them and the Catholic Church – whether in doctrine and sometimes in discipline, or concerning the structure of the Church – do indeed create many obstacles, sometimes serious ones, to full ecclesiastical communion[.] … [But] the separated Churches and Communities as such, though we believe them to be deficient in some respects, have been by no means deprived of significance and importance in the mystery of salvation. For the Spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them as means of salvation which derive their efficacy from the very fullness of grace and truth entrusted to the Church. (Vatican II, Unitatis Redintegratio n. 3)

Indeed, the elements of sanctification and truth present in the other Christian Communities, in a degree which varies from one to the other, constitute the objective basis of the communion, albeit imperfect, which exists between them and the Catholic Church. To the extent that these elements are found in other Christian Communities, the one Church of Christ is effectively present in them. (John Paul II, Ut Unum Sint n. 11)

The Church knows that she is joined in many ways to the baptized who are honoured by the name of Christian, but who do not however profess the Catholic faith in its entirety or have not preserved unity or communion under the successor of Peter. Among the non-Catholic Churches and Christian communities, there are indeed to be found many elements of the Church of Christ, which allow us, amid joy and hope, to acknowledge the existence of a certain communion, albeit imperfect. (CDF, Letter to the Bishops [May 28, 1992] n. 17)

One surmises that “partial church,” “semi-church,” “becoming church,” and “not yet realized church” sounded rather unseemly, so those terms never quite caught on in the postconciliar rush to explain exactly how heretics, schismatics, and idolaters could be incorporated into the new and ever expanding theological concept of the Church

But fullness…now, there’s a word for you.

“Fullness” quickly became the password for what is now the larger part of modern ecclesiology: the Catholic Church has the fullness of truth, the fullness of communion with Christ, the fullness of the means of salvation…but elsewhere there may be found all manner of “participations in,” “sharings in,” or “emerging realizations of” that one “fullness”…perhaps even in other religions.

Thus, we find that a great deal of contemporary ecclesiology has become, in a word, squishy. However, this article is not principally concerned with that issue, but rather what it portends for the future of “pastoral praxis” regarding marriage, for the two are innately linked.

Why Not Partial Marriage?

In speaking about marriage to the Ephesians, Saint Paul teaches on this sacramental union of wedded love in words denoting a “great mystery” or “great sacrament” (sacramentum hoc magnum), inasmuch as it signifies (and, through grace, participates in) the spousal union of Christ with his Holy Church. She is the true Bride.

But if the Bride of Christ is not fundamentally one, or if her union with Christ is not a chaste and monogamous unicity, then why should we not regard our sacramental marriages similarly, and begin affirming any host of “irregular situations”? For are there not, after all, many positive values to be found outside the “fully realized ideal” of Christian marriage – say, in other conjugal relationships of various shapes and sizes?

Pope Francis says yes.

Christian marriage, as a reflection of the union between Christ and his Church, is fully realized in the union between a man and a woman who give themselves to each other in a free, faithful and exclusive love, who belong to each other until death and are open to the transmission of life, and are consecrated by the sacrament, which grants them the grace to become a domestic church and a leaven of new life for society. Some forms of union radically contradict this ideal, while others realize it in at least a partial and analogous way. The Synod Fathers stated that the Church does not disregard the constructive elements in those situations which do not yet or no longer correspond to her teaching on marriage. (Amoris Laetitia n. 292)

The theological conclusion here is staggering but obvious: if one does in fact allow for “partial and analogous realizations” of marriage (in concept only, since in reality such a concept is a non-thing; it cannot exist), then one must destroy the very concept of marriage as a singular and exclusive institution, a society with its own inherent nature and laws created by God, the violation of which is an intrinsically evil act.

Now reread that previous sentence – the same exact thing can be said with regard to the Church. (Seriously, just replace “marriage” with “the Church” in that sentence.) And yet this very error is a central tenet of modern ecclesiology, and the very marrow of the “ecumenical movement” for the last half-century and more. Such an error begins in the “affirmation of constructive elements” in those situations “not fully the Church” and eventually terminates in dispensing with the necessity of the Church altogether.

So why should marriage be at all different?

No Partial Marriage because No Partial Church

A simple theological remedy must be applied here, per the perennial teaching of the Church throughout the ages: there is no partial marriage because there is no partial Church.

This connection will likely prove an important reference this month, as Bishops around the globe gear up for various “commemorations” of the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s rebellion against Holy Mother Church, the beginning of one of the greatest tragedies in our history. We should be in sackcloth and fasting, but we’ll doubtless be invited to rejoice in newfound understandings and our “shared heritage” with the heresiarch Luther, our “common tenets of Christian faith” held with his disciples, and certainly a great deal of talk about “partial communion,” whatever that might mean. Never mind the words of Pope St. Leo the Great:

Wherefore, since outside the Catholic Church there is nothing undefiled, the Apostle declaring that “all that is not of faith is sin,” we are in no way likened with those who are divided from the unity of the Body of Christ; we are joined in no communion. (Sermo 129)

…or Pope Benedict XV…

Such is the nature of Catholicism that it does not admit of more or less, but must be held as a whole or as a whole rejected: This is the Catholic faith, which unless a man believe faithfully and firmly; he cannot be saved. (Ad Beatissimi, n. 24)

…or the dogmatic pronouncements of the Council of Florence…

The Holy Roman Church firmly believes, professes and preaches that all those who are outside the Catholic Church, not only pagans but also Jews or heretics and schismatics, cannot share in eternal life and will go into the everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels, unless they are joined to the Church before the end of their lives; that the unity of this ecclesiastical body is of such importance that only for those who abide in it do the Church’s sacraments contribute to salvation and do fasts, almsgiving and other works of piety and practices of the Christian militia produce eternal rewards; and that nobody can be saved, no matter how much he has given away in alms and even if he has shed blood in the name of Christ, unless he has persevered in the bosom and unity of the Catholic Church. (DZ n. 714)

…or any authoritative voice in the Catholic tradition prior the 1960s.

Per the pressing pastoral question of how to fruitfully engage “them that are without” (1 Cor 5:12) – that is, outside the Church – with love and solicitude, we may do well to recall that we really do have a divine treasure to share: the very House of God and “sacrament of salvation,” as the Fathers referred to her. We ought to desire earnestly (as He does) that all men enter here, the Ark of salvation. We dare not keep such divine treasures to ourselves in a world grown hungry and desperate, or worse, full and complacent. Passing in silence over the necessity of membership in the Church does a grave disservice to the work of true evangelization, and to deny it is to deny Christ our Head, Who will not be separated from His Body.

We might consider instead the type of loving and earnest invitations made by our venerable predecessors in the Faith, convinced as they were of their mission and their gifts, conferred by Christ and maintained inviolate in the Church over centuries. Perhaps the words of Pope Pius XII, penned as an invitation to Protestants everywhere as recently as 1950, offer us an example of genuine truth in charity – one better than the balderdash we will likely be subjected to in coming days.

A little inoculation, then, by way of closing:

We have committed to the protection and guidance of heaven those who do not belong to the visible Body of the Catholic Church … and from a heart overflowing with love We ask each and every one of them to correspond to the interior movements of grace, and to seek to withdraw from that state in which they cannot be sure of their salvation. For even though by an unconscious desire and longing they have a certain relationship with the Mystical Body of the Redeemer, they still remain deprived of those many heavenly gifts and helps which can only be enjoyed in the Catholic Church. Therefore may they enter into Catholic unity and, joined with Us in the one, organic Body of Jesus Christ, may they together with us run on to the one Head in the Society of glorious love. Persevering in prayer to the Spirit of love and truth, We wait for them with open and outstretched arms to come not to a stranger’s house, but to their own, their father’s home. (Pope Pius XII, Mystici Corporis n. 103)

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