Epiphany : a theological introduction to Catholicism
by Aidan Nichols O.P.
Chapter 7: The Church
The topic of "the Church" naturally follows that of "salvation." Our Christological enquiry has prepared us for the discovery that there can be no salvation without the mediation of the Church's head, the incarnate Word. Against some modem theologians — notably those concerned to find parallel ways of salvation in the great religions of the East — we have to say that never can the saving work of the Logos be found in splendid isolation from that of Jesus Christ. Some would speak of unevangelized people as "anonymous Christians," a phrase acceptable enough if it be taken to mean that the graces human beings receive are always the grace of Christ, even though this goes unrecognized by them. But the term is sometimes taken to imply that the real substance of Christianity is available without any explicit knowledge of or belief in the gospel, and that only the name of Christian is lacking to the unevangelized who follow the dictates of personal conscience. How could such a position ever be reconciled with the salvific importance which Bible and Tradition attach to the proclamation of the gospel and to explicit faith in Christ?
Now we must take a further step and say that, in the salvation of non-Christians, the Church is always involved, since saving grace is itself always ecclesial. The mediation of Christ, though it excludes other agents' parallel efforts, includes participated forms of mediation, which draw their efficacy from his unique work. Under Christ (in "submediation"), the Church is the divinely appointed way of salvation. Though the gifts of grace and salvation may be given to people who are not, and do not consciously wish to be, her members, without her neither grace nor salvation is possible.
The Church exists to perpetuate Christ's redemptive work, equipped for this task as she is by her apostolic heritage of faith, sacraments, and ministry, together with the promised assistance of the risen Christ, who acts through the gift of the Holy Spirit. Not only is she, in the words of Pope John Paul H's encyclical Redemptoris mater, the "first beneficiary" of salvation, since Christ won his bride at the price of his own Wood. She is also, as the Second Vatican Council loved to say, the "universal sacrament of salvation." Ever since the moment of Pentecost, believing the gospel and entering the ecclesial ark of the gospel community is the way of salvation desired by God for all members of the human race.
Catholic discourse about the Church is lyrical. But to avoid misunderstanding we must begin by setting out what it is we are speaking of in cooler, even canonical (and hence legal), language. To be fully incorporated in the Church it is a necessary (though not, as the philosophers say, a sufficient) condition to be a baptized Christian in union with bishops themselves in communion with the Roman pope — in a word, a Catholic.
and even then we must add the negative rider "and who are not legitimately excommunicated" for some grave offense against the Christian life. These are necessary conditions for adherence to the Church's saving fellowship. They remain insufficient, however, for unity with her at the deepest level, which requires the gift of the indwelling Spirit and perseverance in charity. Henri de Lubac was not speaking of some purely ideal Church when he chiselled this mosaic of texts from Scripture, the Fathers, and the medievals:
Two most important nuances must now be added. First, other Christian Churches and ecclesial communities have, happily, some at least of the divinely instituted means of grace — most notably, the Scriptures, certain sacraments, and spiritual traditions. Considered as means of salvation these derive their efficacy from that "fullness of grace and truth which has been entrusted to the Catholic Church." "On her own recognisances, " then, the Catholic Church herself in this sense lives and acts by way of these schismatic (or partially schismatic) communities.
Second, and more widely, non-Catholics, and non-Christians, have the possibility of being "ordered" — oriented — to the true Church by what Pope Pius XII called an "unconscious will and desire." As the Second Vatican Council put it:
Perhaps this happens by way of a divine illumination in the moment of "passover" at the hour of every person's death — a view that has the merit of reconciling the modern teaching that God's salvific will extends to every individual with the thesis (supported by many Fathers and medieval divines) that no one can be saved in the Christian era without explicit belief in the Trinity and the incarnation.
In the language of Scholasticism: within the mystery of the Church's outreach to all human beings both "final" and "efficient" causality are at work. Those ignorant of the Church are nonetheless, when they respond to grace, moved toward her (final causality), while she for her part, as an "instrument for the redemption of all," acts as a moving agent (efficient causality) in their salvation. For those whom she cannot reach with her proclamation she offers prayer, the holy sacrifice of the altar, and the spiritual sacrifices of her children, and in all these ways sets up hidden filaments of connection with those beyond her bounds. The body is always involved in the dispensing of grace, for the head has joined it indissolubly to himself.
In the Catholic understanding of the Church, the vertical is the primary dimension of her consciousness. That dimension makes her aware that she has come from God-sent by the Father, through the incarnate Word and the Holy Spirit, on her own "horizontal" mission to the world God created and redeemed. When we look at the Church with that illumination of the mind which revelation and dogmatic thought make possible, we see that her structure is that of a communion, and a communion that makes manifest the yet more fundamental structure of the Christian mystery as a whole: namely, the way Christ shares with us the life of the triune God himself. The dogmas that enable us to grasp what the Church is are twofold: they are Christological and Trinitarian.
In Jesus Christ, divinity and humanity were not only perfectly united: they also actively penetrated each other. God made his own life shareable, so that it made its way into the humanity of Christ: "in him ... all the fullness of the Godhead dwells bodily" (Col 1:19). The Church, though prepared in Israel, and indeed from the beginning of the human race, nay, the foundation of the world, truly came forth only at the moment when the energies of that divine humanity began to pass into other men and women — when, with the resurrection and ascension, the Crucified entered completely into the glory for which his perfect love equipped him, and, with Pentecost, the power of his Holy Spirit sent that glory into the history of the world.
The Church of the Father, through Christ, in the Spirit
Energy and power are impersonal terms, but the divine form of them which the Spirit communicates to us is nothing other than the life of the Trinity itself, the original mystery which throws light on everything else, all that is originated from it. Perhaps the most important reality on which the mystery of the Trinity throws light is the human individual. In its light we see that individual as a person — a point where absolute unity and absolute diversity coincide. A person is neither an isolated individual nor the source of those conflictual oppositions and damaging multiplicities that isolated individuals generate. Rather is the person diversity in unity. Persons are infinitely different yet endlessly united, whereas individuals tend either to become like each other or to become enemies. We know from the Trinity, however, that the full realization of personal existence consists in unique selves united in one Being. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are defined by their differences, yet the Father is never alone, never without his Son, and the duality of Father and Son is itself transcended by the Holy Spirit. Each exists by giving to the others what it is, and the the extension of that kind of personhood to the world is the sign of the work of the Holy Spirit on earth. Human beings become different from each other without being opposed to each other, since they "propose" (put forward) others in the same moment that they propose themselves. Christian existence is, therefore, a spirituality of the self-in-communion. It stands equally over against Western individualism and over against the Oriental exaltation of a self lost in beatific solitude.
The Church, accordingly, is the sphere where such communion is created. It is the extension of the unity in diversity of the Holy Trinity to the world. Its center can only be, then, the Eucharist, which we call precisely "holy communion," and of which Paul wrote to the Corinthians that by participating in it those who are many become one body, since they all share in the one bread. Because such communion in the holy gifts brings about in us the presence of the Spirit of Christ, it is also the foundation for a communion of holy people. The communio sanctorum, which we affirm in the Creed, means in the first place a sharing in the sancta, "holy things," but. for that very reason it also means a sharing in the life of sancti, "holy people," the "communion of saints." Christian consciousness is not individual but personal, and therefore ecclesial. It does not belong to the individual who has separated himself or herself from the rest of humanity, and in that way darkened the revelation of Trinitarian love, but to the person who realizes in the Holy Spirit his or her Eucharistic co-being with all the rest. That is why thinking with the Church is the proper form of Christian theology, and attentiveness to the consensus of the Church the distinctive virtue of Christian teachers.
It is as the nexus of the work of Son and Spirit that the mystery of the Church is best understood. If the Son is the authoritative teacher of truth in the world, the Spirit is the living freedom of God. When freedom defines itself over against authority, regarding the latter as something external and to that degree alienating, a pseudo-freedom arises, made up of protest and revolt. Christ's obedience to death was not a surrender of his freedom to such an outside force, but the expression of his total unity in the Spirit with the Father. The life of the Church, as a life by the Word in the Spirit, lies beyond the dichotomy of freedom and authority. That prophet of the mid-twentieth-century ecclesiological renaissance, Romano Guardini, wrote:
The Church is "full of the Trinity." The Church cannot be thought without thinking at the same time of those mysteries that form the heart of Christian revelation. This Trinitarian life in Christ is, however, given to the Church not so that she can enclose it within herself, but, on the contrary, so that she may communicate it to all humanity. For the problem of unity-in-difference to which by grace she holds the key is the fundamental problem of human living at every level — from the individual psyche, through marriage and the family, to civil society and the international order. The world, it is true, could not become such a communion without becoming the Church, just as the Church could not fully become that communion she is called to be without becoming the kingdom. But this is precisely what we pray for each day in the Our Father. We pray for a total integration of the human creation, not obliterating the precious distinctiveness of its selved parts, but rather enhancing them. "Thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven" is a prayer which was answered, for in the exaltation of the Crucified, earth and heaven were joined.
Not surprisingly, then, Catholicism favours speaking of the mystery of the Church as the "sacrament of Christ." At Pentecost, the Spirit of Christ is sent upon the apostles so as to form the social body of the Church as the continuing instrument of God's saving work. In Israel, God's Word, his self-communication, was already ordered to the creation of a unique community, a transformed people, in and through which God's plan for history would be realized. But if Jesus is in a total and absolute way God's communication of his Word, his own inner life, and is this in an embodied human existence, then he could not but transform the community of the promise. On the biblical view of how God's self-disclosure and humanity's salvation come about, he could not but found a community. If he really is God's self-communication, then he must necessarily be, in his own person, the foundation of the Church. For that communication is always "community-shaped," taking the form of a divinized community in whom God is then known. Augustine, in his homilies on the Psalms, declares that the Word was made flesh in order to become the head of the Church. And the Letter to the Ephesians speaks of the passion as Christ giving himself up for the Church that he might "present her to himself in splendor" (5:27), holy and immaculate. The Church is the visible sign and mediation of the embodied grace (the "sacrament") which is Christ.
The sacramental idea enables us to articulate a grasp of the Church as signifying, in historically tangible form, the redeeming grace of the Savior. The symbolic structures that constitute the Church as a sign of Christ's redeeming work are, on the one hand, the seven sacraments and, on the other, the concrete expressions of faith, hope, and charity found among those attached to Christ through the sacramental pattern. Because the Church is the milieu where the redemptive work of Christ becomes efficacious in the Holy Spirit, she is the primordial sacrament of the grace of God for all human beings. Such ecclesial sacramentalism carries a necessary load of paschal realism: if the Church is really endowed with so high a calling, she can expect to tread no other road than that of the Easter Savior whom, in the divine drama of continuing time, she represents. In history she both suffers and is (for a time) glorified, in likeness of her Lord, until that final trial and triumph which Christ promised for the end of time.
Theologically, for Catholics, the Church cannot be understood save in relation to the mystery of the Son; but the same is true with respect to that other expression of the Father's resourcefulness, his fontal being: the mystery of the Spirit. The Church was born at Pentecost, when she was generated by the Holy Spirit who is himself the living bond of love between the Father and the Son; and the Holy Spirit, as anima Ecclesiae, the Church's native spirit, remains the divine principle of her own fecundity. It is the Spirit who endows the Church with memory and consciousness, those essential features of personality which allow (and require) us to speak of Church as "she." The graces that God gives through the Church, the virtues he nurtures in her, are all made possible by the life-giving Spirit, sent thanks to the reconciling work of the Son. Alessandro Manzoni's poem Pentecost brings out this pneumatic basis of the Church:
And if the Church is all of this, the special creation of the Father in the image of the communion of the triune life, the sacrament of Christ, born of the Holy Spirit, then she must have the most intimate relation to the reign of God — God's kingdom, the center of Jesus' preaching. The Church is the bearer and present form of that kingdom. She is the point at which the powers and blessings of the age to come (God's effective rule over his creation, and thus its fulfillment in him) break through into present time, and from her pass into the world. As Pope Paul VI wrote in the Credo of the People of God,
Aspects of the Church
In the Creed, we confess the Holy Spirit as unifying, sanctifying and preserving in the wholeness (catholicity) of the apostolic faith the Church to which we belong: "we believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church." Since the Church is, then, a new creation by the Holy Spirit, analogous to the first creation when he moved over the chaos waters, and to the moment of the annunciation, when he brought about the incarnation in Mary's womb, there is, naturally enough, a spirituality of the Church. A text for the consecration of a church building says:
By contrast, there is in Protestantism, to the Catholic eye, an inadequate sense of the continuing reality of the incarnate One in his body. In Protestant thought the Church is seen as the gathering (congregatio) of men and women who have already come to faith, through learning to know God in Christ. In Catholicism, the Church herself is the gatherer (convocatio), calling people to the kingdom, her life the very form in which we come to faith, and learn, in Christ, the knowledge of God.
The chief symbol in which Catholics express their instinct for the Church as (under God) their life-giver is Ecclesia mater: "Mother Church." In this figure, the Church stands forth as mediatrix of salvation in continuity with the divine action. God's vivifying, environing, and securing maternity comes to expression in her activity. Just as the old Israel was portrayed as bride and mother by Hosea, and Jerusalem as future mother of many nations in Second Isaiah, so in the Letter to the Galatians, the Church is the fecund mother of all who are born in the Spirit by virtue of union with Christ. In his treatise on the Church's unity the North African Doctor Cyprian defines the aim of his pastorate as ensuring that
If then she alone communicates divine sonship,
The Church as communion is thought of by Catholic theologians on two levels. Externally, the ecclesial communion is constituted by the totality of the means of grace — the Word preached and taught, the Word celebrated in sacramental form, the Word present in the pastoral office of the apostolic succession of her bishops and priests (and deacons) — as that is exercised within, not over against, the holy people formed by the Word preached and taught, by the sacraments celebrated. Internally, that communion is the life of grace of which these visible realities are the sign. Together they constitute the Church. So far we have been speaking by and large of the internal communion but the bond of union is more than sharing some identical attitude or enjoying mutual friendly affection: it is also the public peace and unity, papally guarded, of bishops and faithful. We must now turn to a fuller account of the visible face of the Church.
If the Church is a mystery, from the Father, through Christ, in the Spirit, her mystery is embodied in a social form. She is, ineluctably, an institution. Jesus, in commissioning the Twelve as leaders of a company of disciples, founded a visible community endowed with a common mission and the means whereby to realize it. At the very beginnings of the formal discipline of ecclesiology (the study of the Church) in the early fourteenth-century Latin West, the Church is spoken of, accordingly, as a "kingdom," differing from other kingdoms only in the supernatural character of its foundation and its end. In the context of the Reformation, Catholics would stress ever more emphatically the visible character of the Church (over against Luther's dichotomy of the invisible-spiritual and visible-natural orders, with the latter consigned to the reign of sin). In the writings of Robert Bellarmine, for instance (a good example of a "doctor raised up by God to defend the walls of Jerusalem")," the Church is defined as all those professing the right faith, communicating in valid sacraments, and obeying legitimate pastors. And since relation to lawful pastors is needful in order to find out what should count as "right" faith and "valid" sacraments, there is a natural highlighting of the element of government in this ecclesial kingdom which prepares the kingdom of God. Thus the eighteenth-century English bishop Richard Challoner, commenting on the types or foreshadowings of the Church in ancient Israel, remarks that:
It is a basic task of ecclesiology today so to revalue the institution as to let it appear as the plausible organ of the Church as mystery. For, as Pope Leo XIII pointed out in his letter Satis cognitum:
Not the least significant aspect of this enterprise is a more truly ecclesial reading of the phenomenon of canon law, now seen as a real raid on revealed truth, captured by a distinctive means and logic, as the Church-mystery enters the social nexus with binding force. If the Church is a society she must have a law. So much is obvious, but the unique qualities of this society must also be brought out if canon law is not to be simply the engrafting of secular law-forms, naturalistically, onto the Church's stem. The philosophical notions that underlie much modern law-making are not applicable to canon law, whose self-understanding can never prescind from a strictly theological dimension. The society canon law directs is a sacramental mystery; an Enlightenment concept of the autonomy of natural reason cannot do it justice. This difference must be borne in mind in interpreting the canons as an aspect of the Christian reality.
Canon law is intended to be a schooling in ecclesial life together, contributing to the visibility of the people of God.
The early Church had soon felt the need for a discipline in such areas as the admission of catechumens, reconciliation of the lapsed and the treatment of heretics, marriage, baptism, Eucharist, sacred space and time, the relief of the poor and the sick. The bonds of faith were complemented by the bonds of a common life. After Constantine the Church found it convenient to model some aspects of her law on civil law (for now Roman law was the law of Christians), but with an admixture of the ecclesial inventiveness of popes or bishops meeting in conclave. Gradually the idea of the "reception" of laws took hold as the canons of one council were tacked onto those of another. Canon collections were increasingly regarded as tools for the reform of the Church in godly order. In the West the composite Corpus Iuris Canonici, as unsystematic as Eastern canon law, and requiring a special class of interpreters (so difficult was it to consult), was replaced at the end of World War I by a codex where old laws became merely instruments of interpretation, their quality as law depending on their newly allotted place in the codex as a whole. Despite the opposition of some of the cardinalate, the new idea of the codex was born in part from admiration for the nineteenth-century civil codes. Still more recently, by shifting emphases in Catholic ecclesiology the Second Vatican Council, though it created no canons, made a revision of canon law inevitable.
The two great codices which are its fruit (that of the Latin Church, and that of the Eastern Churches in communion with Rome) translate the council's ecclesiological vision of a Church both one and many in different respects into a program of practice.
So far as the single Catholic Church throughout the world and the many local Catholic Churches are concerned, the history of ecclesiology shows two ways of thinking through this crucial relation of the one and the many. One can have either a universalist or a particularist ecclesiology. That is: one can give a formal priority to the concept of the Church universal, or to the Church in particular. The first of these two perspectives has its full justification in the account of Pentecost in the Acts of the Apostles, where a single faith and life, born of the Spirit, are evidently meant to encompass all languages and cultures and so all particular Churches. This approach will lay its main stress on those elements in the Church's tradition that guard the principle of universality: letters of communion, the collegial symbolism at the ordination of a bishop, conciliarity, the unity of the episcopal college safeguarded by its communion with the bishop of Rome. Various particularities are seen as the explication, unfolded over time and across space, of the richness of a primordial unity. The second perspective, giving priority to the concept of the Church-in-particular, is also justified on grounds of Tradition.
The Church of Christ is really present in all legitimately organised local groups of the faithful which, in so far as they are united to their pastors, are also quite appropriately called churches in the New Testament. For these are in fact, in their own localities, the new people called by God, in the power of the Holy Spirit and as the result of full conviction. In them the faithful are gathered together through the preaching of the Gospel of Christ, and the mystery of the Lord's Supper is celebrated "so that, by means of the flesh and blood of the Lord the whole brotherhood of the Body may be welded together." In each altar community, under the sacred ministry of the bishop, a manifest symbol is to be seen of that charity and "unity of the mystical body, without which there can be no salvation." In these communities, though they may often be small and poor, or existing in the diaspora, Christ is present through whose power and influence the one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church is constituted. For "the sharing in the body and blood of Christ has no other effect than to accomplish our transformation into that which we receive."
In this perspective, it is the bishop's responsibility to ensure that, in the celebration of the Eucharist, his Church acts in such a way that the other Churches are able to recognize therein their own fullness of identity. At the same time, his Church must be able to recognize its own essential features in the others, as well as its true identity with them. Thus, since each bishop must ensure that the local communion is distinctively Christian, he has to make it aware of the universal communion of which it is part. And so the two perspectives meet, and are complementary.
In particularist ecclesiology, the whole Church is present in a particular Church; in universalist ecclesiology, by contrast, the whole Church is present only in the integration of all the particular Churches. If one thinks the universal Church from a particularist ecclesiology, one has the idea of the communion of Churches; through participation in this communion, the particular Churches express or "focus" the being of the entire Church. If, however, one thinks the particular Churches from a universalist ecclesiology, one understands the local Church as a portion of the people of God, existing through incorporation into the Church universal.
It would be quite wrong to attempt to suppress either perspective, since both are well based in the sources of revelation. Yet in a given period there may well be a need to express one more firmly than another in order to restore a balance between them. This should not be done in such a way as to create fresh imbalance! Some statements may fit only awkwardly into one or another perspective, and yet be required by Christian faith in the mystery of the Church. If in recent memory the particular Church has been unjustly neglected in Catholic practice, today it is likely to be distortingly exalted, as local culture and the values of pluralism and differentiation are, in the contemporary context, prized above unity of religious believing. In 1992, therefore, the Roman Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, in promulgating a letter on the Church as communion, thought fit to insist that
In aphoristic mood, the "Letter" proposes that the formula Ecclesia in et ex ecclesiis, "the Church is formed in and from the churches," is inseparable from its sister axiom, Ecclesiae in et ex Ecclesia, "the churches are formed in and from the Church." If all this sounds highly abstract, the text ends by making clear that it is dealing with something highly concrete: how Catholics should think of themselves.
1. Codex luris Canonici (1983), canon 205; Codex Canonum Ecclesiarum Orientalium (1990), canon 8.
2. H. de Lubac, The Splendour of the Church (London and New York, 1956) 20.
3. Unitatis redintegratio, 3.
4. Gaudium et spes, 22.
5. Lumen Gentium 9
6. R. Guardini, The Church and the Catholic (London, 1935) 46.
7. Origen, Excerpts on the Psalms 23.1.
8. Benson, Confessions of a Convert, 109.
9. From the translation by Kenelm Foster in "'Pentecost' and Other Poems," Comparative Criticism: A Year Book 3 (1981) 203-4.
10. C. Journet, L'Eglise du Verbe incarné (Bruges, 1951) 2:57.
11. Consecration rites are a neglected source of Latin ecclesiology: see R. W. Muncey, History of the Consecration of Churches (London, 1930).
12. Cyprian, On the Unity of the Church 23.
13. Cyprian, Letter 74.
14. A. Gréa, L'eglise et sa divine constitution, 2d ed. (Paris, 1965) preface.
15. R. Challoner, A Caveat against the Methodists (London, 1760) 4, cited in Challoner and His Church: A Catholic Bishop in Georgian England, ed. E. Duffy (London, 1981) 111.
16. Lubac, The Splendour of the Church, 131.
17. Lumen gentium, 26, with internal citations of a prayer from the Mozarabic liturgy; Thomas's Summa theologiae 3.73.3; and Leo the Great, Sermons 63.7.
18. Letter on Certain Aspects of the Church Understood As Communion, 9.
19. Ibid., 10.