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Christ to Catholicism


V. Definition of the Catholic Church

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

Up to this point, our study of the Catholic Church has been primarily historical and apologetic. We examined the Church from the early beginnings in the Gospel, through the apostolic age and the centuries of persecution, with special emphasis on the Roman primacy as the most important visible bond that unites modern Catholicism with the society that Christ established. We also determined that of all the religious bodies in the world, only the Catholic Church has the right to profess divine authority for her actions because, like her Founder, she confirms the profession by working miracles of power and wisdom which no other body can claim.

From now on our treatment will be dogmatic, drawing on the Church's teaching about her own nature and prerogatives, and thus gaining a deeper insight into that mysterious reality which of all human institutions is the most loved when its character is properly known, and the most hated when perverted and misunderstood.

As the ground plan for later analysis, we must know what the Church is. How do we define it? What are its essential properties? These may be found in the writings of the popes and the general councils, or in the common teaching of ecclesiologists. And the agreement on what constitutes the Church is uniform in Catholic theology. However, the definition of the Church may be approached from two aspects, comparable to the two-fold nature in Christ, and depending on which aspect is kept in focus, certain characteristics will be stressed and others implied; so that an adequate understanding of the Church's nature comprehends both viewpoints, considering the Church as a visible, juridical society, and as a spiritual entity whose cohesive force is the invisible grace of God.

The Church as a Visible, Juridical Society

The greatest exponent of Catholic teaching on the nature of the Church as a visible institution is St. Robert Bellarmine, whose life of seventy-nine years, from 1542 to 1621, spanned the time immediately following the Protestant Revolt; Luther died in 1546, Henry VIII in 1547, Melancthon in 1560, and Calvin in 1564. Bellarmine was therefore a contemporary of the original rebels against the authority of the Church and historically became the first comprehensive expositor of Catholic doctrine against the attacks of the Protestants. Since the radical principle they denied was the Church's sovereignty, he met their opposition on that level and as a consequence elaborated a theology of the Church that for three hundred years has enjoyed undisputed authority.

At the root of the Protestant Reformation was a new concept of the Church as a purely spiritual society, composed of all the believers, or all the just, or all the predestined--depending on the theory--but always discernible to the eye of God alone. Against this limitation, Bellarmine declared that "according to our doctrine, the one and true Church is the assembly of men, bound together by the profession of the same Christian faith, and by the communion of the same sacraments, under the rule of legitimate pastors, and in particular of the one Vicar of Christ on earth, the Roman Pontiff." [1] From this definition, he says, "we can easily decide what people belong to the Church and what people do not." Each of the three elements excludes one class of persons. Since profession of faith is the first requisite, all unbelievers are excluded from the Church, whether pagans, Jews or Moslems who never professed the Christian religion, or heretics and apostates who went back on their original profession. Because communion of the same sacraments is also necessary, catechumens who are not yet baptized, and the excommunicated are also debarred from membership. And most important, submission to the Roman Pontiff eliminates even professed Christians, sharing in the Church's sacraments, who are schismatically separated from the unity of Rome.

By comparison with Protestant definitions of the Church, Bellarmine explains that ours is radically different for one basic reason. "All the rest require only internal virtues to constitute a person in the Church, and, therefore, they make the true Church something invisible. Whereas we also believe that in the Church are found all the virtues: faith, hope and charity, and the rest," However, for anyone to be called in some sense a part of the true Church, of which the Scriptures speak, what is essential is "an external profession of faith and communication of the sacraments, which can be perceived by the senses themselves. For the Church is an assembly of men, as visible and palpable as the assembly of the Roman people, or the Kingdom of France, or the Republic of the Venetians." [2]

Consequently, the specific difference between the correct and false conception of the Church rests on what may look like a minor detail: external profession of faith and external participation in the sacraments, under obedience to the Roman See. But, as Bellarmine points out, to call this a minor detail is to belie the true nature of the Church, and finally the true nature of man, for external profession and participation are as necessary to the Church as man's body is essential to man. "The Church is a definite society, not of angels, or of spirits, but of men. Therefore it cannot be called a human society unless bound together by external and visible signs. How could it be a society unless those who belong to it recognized each other as members? And being men, they have no other means of mutual recognition than the sensible and external bonds by which the society is united." [3] Not only the Church but every human institution, whether civil or religious, must obey the same law. The alternative would have been to change the nature of man, which is bodily and visible and therefore limited in the perception of the spiritual in others by means of external signs. If we had a society of pure spirits, then we could talk about invisible, and only invisible, bonds of unity; that is, invisible to us, but visible to them. But given a society of men, unless by a miracle of grace we could read the minds of others to tell what they believed and whether they believed the same as we do, there must be external profession of internal conviction. Otherwise, the society does not begin to exist, much less increase and perfect itself in that unity which is the special mark of the Church's divinity.

The Church's visibility and unity, therefore, are so intimately related that without the one the other cannot exist. As constituted by Christ, the Church's juridical structure requires a subordination of subjects to superiors, finally culminating in subjection to one single head, the pope; it also requires co-ordination of the subjects among themselves, co-operating with each other in mutually working out their salvation within the framework of the Church. But this kind of vital unity cannot exist among men, in the present disposition of Providence, unless it is entered into, manifested and preserved, by means of common, unifying, external symbols and signs. Unless a person receives baptism, for example, which is an external rite, how is a man to know whether he is subject to the pope, and therefore should obey him; and how is the pope to determine whether he is the man's superior, and therefore should command him? The same for coordination among the members. How can two persons co-operate in a common enterprise sponsored by the Church unless they recognize each other as fellow-members in the same organization?

When the Reformers proclaimed that unity of faith, interior and invisible, is enough for the Church, Bellarmine countered that it could be, if Christ had so willed. Absolutely speaking He might have instituted a society in which only invisible bonds prevailed. But then He would not have organized the Church as described in the Gospels, with Peter as the visible head, or as found in the first century, when the Christians were so evidently distinct as a religious body that the pagans singled them out for persecution and demanded, as a sign of apostasy, only the external denial of their faith in Jesus Christ.

The Church as the Mystical Body of Christ

The foregoing description of the Church as a visible society is perfectly valid and for purposes of refutation indispensable. Protestants still profess the same Reformation theory of an amorphous Christianity. "The true Church," they claim, "is not defined by institutional limits. Protestantism recognizes all as Christians, who sincerely respond in faith to the tender of Christ, however perverted their church administration or theology." [4] To expose this aberration it is necessary to show that Christ founded an organization with defined authority and a stable body of doctrine, and any other notion of the Church is a parody of the Gospels.

There is another valid concept of the Church, however, besides the juridical one developed by Bellarmine to combat the Reformers. For the Church is not only a visible organization with discernible members, an external ritual and a code of laws, but also a spiritual organism whose character was first delineated by Christ Himself, and developed by St. Paul into a whole system of theology. In the words of Pope Pius XII, "If we would define and describe the true Church of Jesus Christ--which is the One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic Roman Church--we shall find nothing more noble, more sublime, or more divine than the expression "the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ"--an expression that flows spontaneously from the repeated teaching of the sacred Scriptures and the holy Fathers." [5]

A study of the sources would show that Christian tradition from apostolic times regarded the Mystical Body as the true Church of Christ. But the identification was ambivalent, as illustrated in the writings of the Fathers. None of them wrote more extensively or profoundly on the subject than St. Augustine, yet his doctrine is not without obscurity. Speaking of Christ, he declared that "His Body is the Church, not simply the Church that is in this particular place, but both the Church that is here and the Church which extends over the whole earth; not simply the Church that is living today, but the whole race of saints, from Abel down to all who will ever be born and will believe in Christ until the end of the world.” [6]

Does this mean, therefore, that all the just of the Old Testament belonged to the Mystical Body; or that non-Catholics today, in good faith, are real members of the Body of Christ?

Heretics over the centuries had capitalized on the broad notion of the Mystical Body described in patristic literature, especially the idea that spiritual forces joined the members together with their invisible Head. Isolating passages from the Fathers and taking them out of context, it was not difficult to formulate a theory of the Church whose members had no visible bond of unity, at least not the most inconvenient one of submission to the Roman Pontiff. Thus in the fifteenth century, John Wyclif propounded the thesis that only people in the state of grace belong to the Mystical Body, and therefore only they are members of the Church, and have any power or jurisdiction in the Kingdom of God on earth. Two corollaries which he drew from this postulate had dire consequences. "If a bishop or priest is in mortal sin," he concluded, "he does not ordain, consecrate, confer the sacraments or (even) baptize." And still more radically, to include the laity, "while a man is in mortal sin, he ceases to be a civil ruler, or prelate or bishop" [7] in a word, he loses all his authority and the people are freed from the duty of obeying him.

About this time, in Bohemia, John Hus was condemned for teaching that the grace of predestination placed a man into the Mystical Body, so that "the only universal and holy Church is composed of the multitude of those who are predestined, (because) the grace of predestination is the bond, whereby the Body of the Church and any of its members are indissolubly joined together with Christ the Head." Consequently," if the pope is a wicked man and especially if he is a reprobate (not predestined), then, as Judas was an apostle of the devil, a thief and the son of perdition, so the pope is not the head of the holy Church Militant because he is not even its member." [8]

Later on, the Protestants followed the same line and ended with discarding not only the authority of Rome but, as we shall see, spiritual allegiance to any agency except the Holy Spirit or, as they became more liberal, the autonomous human will.

Without the aberrations of heresy, many Catholics were hazy about the meaning of the Mystical Body, particularly in its relation to the Church. Consequently the Vatican Council planned to settle the issue by a solemn definition. "The only-begotten Son of God," we read in the proposed draft, "appeared visibly in the assumed form of our body so that carnal men of this earth might put on the new man, and form a Mystical Body whose Head would be Christ Himself…. The author and perfector of faith, Jesus Himself, founded and instituted this Church, which He purchased for Himself with His own blood, and loved it eternally as His only chosen spouse.” [9] Circumstances prevented the Council from finishing more than a fraction of its business, and the foregoing definition was never made.

Meanwhile the interest of the faithful in the Mystical Body grew apace, stimulated no doubt by the current development in the whole field of social philosophy. A contributing factor may also have been the decadence of Protestant theology. In opposition to the Reformation concept of a purely invisible Church, Catholic apologists had to emphasize the visible side of the society founded by Christ, following the lead of Robert Bellarmine. Until recently, this juridical idea was dominant in Catholic thought and teaching, and it is still necessary. But at least since the Vatican Council there has been a change of accent, paying more attention to the interior life of the Church as a supernatural organism, co-extensive with the Mystical Body of Christ.

The most authoritative teaching of the Church on this important and yet delicate subject is the Encyclical Mystici Corporis Christi which Pius XII published in 1943, and in which he simply and unequivocally identifies the Mystical Body on earth with the hierarchical Roman Catholic Church. When seven years later, certain writers were still not convinced, the Pope reprimanded their lack of obedience, declaring that "Some think they are not bound by the doctrine, set forth in our Encyclical Letter of a few years ago and based on the sources of revelation, according to which the Mystical Body of Christ and the Roman Catholic Church are one and the same (Corpus Christi Mysticum et Ecclesiam Catholicam Romanum unum idemque esse)” [10] This removed the last vestige of theological hesitation about the mutual identity, and today the opposite opinion would be considered heretical. [11]

Chapter V - References

  1. St. Robert Bellarmine, De Controversiis Christianae Fidei, vol. II, Naples, 1857. p. 74.

  2. Ibid., p. 75.

  3. Ibid., p. 95.

  4. James Hastings Nichols, Primer for Protestants, New York, 1951, p. 117.

  5. Pius XII, "Mystici Corporis Christi," Acta Apostolicae Sedis, vol. 35, p. 199.

  6. St. Augustine, "Enarrationes in Psalmos," MPL 37, 1159.

  7. Denzinger, 584, 595.

  8. Denzinger, 627, 646-647.

  9. Collectio Lacensis, "Acta Concilii Vaticani," vol. VII, coll. 567-568. English translation in The Church Teaches, 190-191.

  10. Pius XII, "Humani Generis," Acta Apostolicae Sedis, vol. 42, p. 571.

  11. Sebastian Tromp, Corpus Christi_Quod Est Ecclesia, Rome, 1946, p. 167.

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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