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Chapter Nine


The Church, the followers of Jesus Christ united with each other and their Head by baptism and belief is not something that has to be discovered, invented, made or remodelled. It simply is. But what it is contains a large element of mystery.

To describe that mystery, the Bible, the Fathers and the Church herself through her official teaching and approved theologians, have used many images, some of which in the course of her history have received more .attention than others. But all are part of her general understanding of herself. None on its own says all that can be said. The attempt to explain the Church in terms of one image alone results in distortions. Many of the present troubles are the result of this kind of selectivity.

Among the images of the Church mentioned by the Council are: Christ's Body, Bride and Spouse; a sheepfold to which he is the entrance and a flock for which as Chief Shepherd he has laid down his life; a field where wheat and weeds grow together until the harvest; a vine to which branches, twigs and leaves must remain attached if they are to live; a temple made of living stones; God's family or household; God's people, the second Israel or the new chosen race making its way as an exile and pilgrim in this world towards its heavenly homeland; the new or heavenly Jerusalem.1

The element of mystery is due to the fact that this unique social body exists outside as well as inside time and space in heaven and purgatory as well as on earth and has a mainly supernatural purpose and end. In other words it has invisible as well as visible dimensions.

To the outward eye, the Church on earth looks much like other organised bodies of people with rulers, laws, institutions and customary practices. That is how the world sees her. And as far as it goes, the world is right. God meant the Church to be like that. Indeed, in her own realm, according to an age-old definition, the Church is "a perfect society": that is, she has everything in herself necessary for her life and mission; she has recognizable boundaries; she is not dependent on any other society (she is not, for instance, as so many emperors, kings and statesmen have tried to make her, a department of state).

Of course the style of the Church's government, not its essence but the way it is exercised, can be coloured by contemporary secular styles. In this sense the age of absolutism and princely grandeur did leave some marks on the Church's skin in a fashion of which I gave examples earlier. They have been easily erased without touching the substance of the papal and episcopal offices. It was largely a matter of changing a mode of authority and living, and removing a few yards of watered silk on state occasions.

Such is the Church's visible component.

But this naturally organised and governed society is also a community of believers who, rulers as well as ruled, when not separated from God by sin, live by the divine life of habitual or sanctifying grace as well as natural and biological life, and act under the impulsions of the Holy Spirit not all the time of course, but when and as they let Him. The Holy Spirit is the soul of the Church.

This is the aspect of the Church that only believers can recognise. Whether or not they appear so to outsiders, and however improbable it may often seem to themselves, the faithful really are in the words of St. Paul a "new creation". All have spiritual gifts and charisms of some kind, even if they frequently fail to use or develop them as they should.

However, the visible society (or "institutional Church", as dissenters like to call it) and the Spirit-guided community are not two separate realities artificially joined together like blocks of stone with cement. Nor are they opposed to each other (as in Concilium theology) with the Holy Spirit making war on Himself through the two parts. The Holy Spirit acts through the institution (the shepherds, sacraments, laws, and governmental forms) as well as directly on the individual soul, with the latter subordinate to the former. Institution and spiritual community are one and the same reality. The institutional features may be destined to vanish at the Last Day, but until then they are instruments of the Holy Spirit.2

Such is the understanding of the Church, that Catholics ought to have, and which for the most part, I think, implicitly always have had. However, for various reasons, one aspect, the visible or invisible, the human or the divine, can be emphasised at the expense of the other. When that occurs one of two things may happen.

Too much emphasis on the organisation leads to a veiling of what is heavenly by what is earthly, and to the faithful identifying the Church mainly with her rulers. To some extent this is inevitable since the Pope and bishops are the Church's visible matrix. It was through the apostles that God summoned the community of believers into existence, and it is through their successors that he continues to hold it in being. The hierarchy preceded the community; it did not emerge from the community later under the pressure of necessity. It is in the hierarchy that Christ's threefold powers of prophet, priest and king are vested in the first place. Nevertheless, the identification of the Church largely with her rulers does tend to distort the faithful's understanding of the Church and their role in it.

A sort of separation comes about in their minds between themselves and the Church (I am talking, of course, about unconscious or semi-conscious ideas and attitudes). The Church tends to appear as something external, like a hotel or department store, to which they resort from time to time to get certain spiritual goods and services, without having any closer connection with the business than that of being habitual customers.

Even if this is a caricature, it contains a likeness. How often even today, after all that has been said about everyone "being Church" does one hear the same people say "Why does the Church do this or that?" as though they themselves were external to it. What they are talking about is not the Church but the magisterium or the episcopate.3 Even the Council documents do not always avoid making the identification.

Such a state of mind encourages the individualistic approach to religion so deplored by the new theologians and reform party. Religion is getting to heaven by avoiding grave sin, with the clergy providing the means. The faithful are the passive recipients of the clergy's ministrations. Spreading the faith is the clergy's business, while large-scale works of charity are for the religious orders.

Alternatively, the faithful can see their relationship to the clergy in military terms. The clergy are the officers; the faithful, the troops. The officers give the orders, the troops obey, often without having much understanding of the reasons for the orders. Orders are concocted far away at headquarters, and who on earth knows why.

This way of looking at things was less far from the mark than the hotel or department store view, since in an army officers and men are at least conscious of all belonging to one corps with a single collective purpose (defeat of the enemy). And, as we have seen, many of the faithful were contented troops, attached to their officers and happy to be led by them. They had a strong sense of belonging, if not of taking the initiative.

Even so, the military analogy does not give a fully accurate picture of what the clergy-laity relationship should be. Besides weakening lay initiative, it makes religion seem too much a matter of "keeping the rules".

In saying all this I am decrying neither concern for personal salvation   ultimately nobody can save a man's soul but himself with God's help nor the importance of keeping the law. No Christian holiness can be built without them. The commandments are like a concrete launching pad without which the rocket of the spiritual life cannot get off the ground. But if personal salvation and keeping the law are seen as the sole substance of religion, the result is an impoverished idea of the Christian vocation, which is essentially incorporation into a supernatural mystery.

It would also be a mistake to think that many of the faithful did not have a strong practical appreciation of the Church's supernatural dimension. They had a firm faith in the reality of miracles and the appearances of Christ and his Mother to holy people "religious experiences" which, unfortunately, too many of the reformers were anxious to have played down on the grounds that modern man could hardly be expected to believe in them. Christ, his Mother, the saints, and souls in purgatory were as real to them as their own families and friends. They knew, too, that as sources of grace the sacraments really "worked". What they would seem to have needed was a more theologically integrated understanding of the two dimensions.

On the other hand, emphasis on the invisible dimension at the expense of the visible, has usually been the first step on the path to heresy. This was the road Tertullian eventually took, followed by the founders of a number of medieval sects and eventually by Luther.

The Church for Luther was "nothing else than the congregation or assembly of the saints, that is pious believing men on earth, which is gathered, preserved and ruled by the Holy Ghost." The Church has no visible boundaries, only the virtuous belong to her and all her members are equally priests. The appointment of special ministers to lead or rule the congregation is a man made convenience. The clergy have no powers not possessed by other members of the assembly. As for what is to be believed, the Holy Spirit makes it known through the consensus of the faithful. That at least was the theory. In practice, the belief of each "confession" was determined by its founder or its dominant members.

Another idea often found in movements of this kind is that of a coming new "age of the Holy Spirit". The Old Testament period belonged to God the Father; New Testament times and the reign of the Church belonged to God the Son. But the reign of the Church is now over. The future belongs to the Holy Spirit, who is about to inaugurate an age of perfect spiritual liberty in which Church government and institutions will be unnecessary. The most famous exponent of this theory was the 12th-century Calabrian abbot, Joachim of Flora. Ghostly reincarnations of all these ideas began to appear again after the Council, particularly among the more extreme forms of Protestant Pentecostalism's overgrown child, the charismatic movement.

Such can be the consequences of one-sidedly emphasising the Church's invisible dimension.

At no time in her history did the Church fail to speak about both dimensions, but in the post-reformation period, the need to defend herself against Luther's theories led her to place special emphasis on her existence as an organised society with recognizable boundaries whose leadership, laws and institutions have their source in God. Only those who accept her authority and believe as she does, belong to her and they include sinners as well as saints. The 16th/17th-century Jesuit theologian and cardinal St. Robert Bellarmine did not coin the term "perfect society", but he was mainly responsible for its becoming the primary definition of the Church for the next two and a half centuries, with some of the consequences I have described.

To highlight the invisible dimension was therefore one of the reform party's first concerns. In this they were not doing anything new. Restoring a proper balance had been one of the aims of the movement for theological reform, which began in the wake of the revolutionary and Napoleonic wars.

The endeavour started in Germany under the leadership of the Bavarian theologian Michael Sailer, a professor at the recently-founded university of Landshut, and his more famous pupil Johann Adam Möhler (1796-1838) who taught at Tübingen and later Munich, where the University of Landshut had meanwhile been moved.

Möhler's earliest writings about the Church were cast in a Gallican mould. He put the customary stress on the Church as a visible society, but with the Pope ultimately subordinate to the majority vote of the bishops. Then, partly under the influence of German romanticism with its interest in folk culture, partly as a result of his studies in Protestant theology, undertaken with a view to arriving at a deeper understanding of the points of agreement and disagreement, he swung the other way and made the action of the Holy Spirit in the community as a whole, the all-important factor. According to him, it is the Holy Spirit who brings the community into existence. The faith and charity that the Holy Spirit imparts to individual believers provides the inner impulse towards unity which is personified locally in the bishop, and throughout the Church as a whole in the Pope. Ordination is a sign that a particular member of the Church has become capable of representing the love of a certain number of believers.

This second stage in the development of Möhler's thinking about the Church found expression in his book Unity in the Church (1825). Here the Church's hierarchy seems at times to owe its origin more to the community's impulse towards unity than to its descent by succession from the apostles.

Eventually, however, by putting the main accent on Christ and the Incarnation, he achieved a balance which did justice to both the Church's dimensions the action of the: Holy Spirit and the visible organisation. The Church, the Body of Christ with the Holy Spirit as its soul is an extension of the Incarnation in space and time. It is a visibly organised body because Christ had a body. He also got the pope and bishops into the right relationship.

This final vision of the Church was expounded in his Symbolism: or the Exposition of the Doctrinal Differences between Catholics and Protestants (1832-1838).

About the same time in England, John Henry Newman, Möhler's younger contemporary, began contributing to the growth of a more "biologised" spiritualised theology of the Church with his Development of Christian Doctrine.

Writing while still an Anglican, Newman was looking for an answer to the question as to why in the Catholic Church of his day, he found practices as well as teachings in a form not explicitly mentioned in the New Testament and earliest Fathers. Roughly, his answer was the Scriptural one. The mustard seed was not destined by the divine planter to remain in a seed-like state. It has a principle of growth. Growth, however, does not mean change or transformation of nature, any more than development of doctrine means change or transformation of belief, or growing-up means turning into a different person.

Between them, Möhler and Newman began the revival of a way of thinking about the Church which led to the study of the Church as Christ's" Mystical Body" with the works of Kleutgen and Mersch among the outstanding milestones culminating a hundred years later in Pius Xll's encyclical Mystici Corporis Christi (1943) and twenty years later in the Second Vatican Council's dogmatic constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, whose first chapter is entitled The Mystery of the Church.

Lumen Gentium, which satisfied the aspirations of the more moderate reformers and new theologians, together with Dei Verbum, the dogmatic constitution on divine revelation, is the heart of the Council's teaching about the Church and its message. All the other Council documents can be considered as radiating from these two as spokes from a wheel's hub, or rays from a star and are to be understood in relation to them.


Notes to Chapter Nine

1. Other scriptural or traditional images represent her as a ship sailing the seas of history with St. Peter as the chief steersman, a fishing net holding in its mesh a mixed catch only to be sorted out on the last day; the ark of Noah in which alone there is safety from death by drowning in the floodwaters of sin; a mother conceiving and forming in her womb the new Christian man.

2. Among (the Spirit's) gifts", says the Council, the primacy belongs to the grace of the apostles to whose authority the Spirit subjects even those who are endowed with charisms." (Lumen Centium, Art.7). Saints like St. Brigid of Sweden and St. Catherine of Siena, raised up by God to rebuke popes and bishops, are never found challenging their authority, only their failure to live up to its demands.

3. Technically, the word "magisterium" is used for the episcopate's teaching, not its governing office. But popularly, it tends to be used for both.

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Copyright © Philip Trower 2003, 2017

Version: 28th March 2017

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