What is the Church of Jesus Christ?
by Thomas Storck
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Since the Second Vatican Council one of the concepts in Catholic doctrine that has been most discussed and debated is the concept of the Church. What exactly is the Church of Jesus Christ? Is it identical with the Catholic Church? And what are we to think of Christians who are not members of the Catholic Church, especially those who belong to bodies having valid apostolic orders and thus a valid Eucharist? Are they part of the Church of Jesus Christ, or indeed, of any church? This article will not deal with the entire theology of the Church, but only with those aspects that concern the question of what the Church is and who her members are.
The Church in the New Testament
If we begin with the books of the New Testament the Church looms very large in their pages. Moreover, it is clear that there is only one Church: Christ promises to build his Church on the rock of St. Peter (Matt. 16:18), and St. Paul calls Christ head of the Church (Eph. 1:22 and 5:23, Col. 1:18) and compares the love of a husband for his wife to that of Christ for his Church (Eph. 5:29-32). There is no question of there being any other but this one Church, which is also identified as the Body of Jesus Christ.1 Yet St. Paul also speaks often of "churches," for example, at the conclusion of his epistle to the Romans, Paul writes, "All the churches of Christ greet [the church at Rome]" (Rom.16:17),2 and often he begins his epistles by greeting "the church of God at Corinth" (I Cor. 1:2) or "the churches of Galatia" (Gal. 1:2).3 But what is the relationship between the one Church, which is the body of Christ, and these local churches? Is the one Church a kind of federation of local churches? And is it possible for a local church to exist apart from the one Church?4
What is the Church of Jesus Christ?
The word "Church" . . . means a convocation or an assembly. It designates the assemblies of the people, usually for a religious purpose. Ekklesia is used frequently in the Greek Old Testament for the assembly of the Chosen People before God. . . . By calling itself "Church," the first community of Christian believers recognized itself as heir to that assembly. In the Church, God is "calling together" his people from all the ends of the earth. (CCC 751)
In view of God's plan to restore mankind after the fall of Adam (Gen. 3:15), God at certain times has called together and constituted certain men as his people, such as the inhabitants of the Ark and the entire people who would be the descendants of Abraham, the people of Israel.5
But with the Incarnation, a new era was inaugurated. Now membership in the New Israel, the Church, was opened to all of mankind. Israel remains the People of God, but now Israel includes not only those bound together by ties of blood, but also the New Israel, the spiritual kingdom of the Church, the Body of Jesus Christ. St. Paul makes it clear in his epistle to the Romans, especially chapter 11, that the Gentiles were grafted onto the pre-existing "olive tree" (verse 17) of Israel, which is now constituted on an entirely different basis and whose sign of entry is no longer physical descent or circumcision, but baptism, the rebirth by water and the Holy Spirit. This is the Church of Jesus Christ, with which our Lord promised to be always (Matt. 28:19-20).
What and where is this Church today? We are fortunate that a short time before the opening of the Second Vatican Council Pope Pius XII addressed this question and made absolutely clear the identification of the Catholic Church with the Church of Christ and Christ's Mystical Body.6 In his encyclical, Mystici Corporis Christi (1943), Pius states without ambiguity, "And so to describe this true Church of Christ — which is the Holy, Catholic, Apostolic, Roman Church — there is no name more noble, none more excellent, none more divine, than 'the mystical Body of Jesus Christ"' (no. 13). This point, therefore, is clear: the Catholic Church is the Church of Christ and the Mystical Body of Christ. These are not two or three different entities, having some sort of mysterious connection with each other. No, rather they are different names for the same thing. So important was this teaching that in the encyclical Humani Generis (1950), Pope Pius returned to this point, and lamented those who "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" (no. 27).7 The question, then, of what the Church of Christ is and where it is today was settled by the teaching of Pope Pius XII before the Second Vatican Council assembled in 1962.
The teaching of Lumen Gentium
But when we look at the conciliar documents, we encounter a seeming difficulty. This difficulty arises from a passage in one conciliar document, the dogmatic constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium (1964). For we read in no. 8 of that document:
The one mediator, Christ, established and ever sustains here on earth his holy Church, the community of faith, hope and charity, as a visible organization through which he communicates truth and grace to all men. But, the society structured with hierarchical organs and the mystical body of Christ . . . are not to be thought of as two realities. On the contrary, they form one complex reality which comes together from a human and a divine element . . . This is the sole Church of Christ which in the Creed we profess to be one, holy, catholic and apostolic . . . This Church, constituted and organized as a society in the present world, subsists in [subsistit in] the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the bishops in communion with him.8
Moreover, this statement, that the Church of Christ "subsists in the Catholic Church" is repeated in a number of post-conciliar documents, particularly in the Catechism of the Catholic Church9 and the declaration Dominus Jesus,10 on the unity and salvific universality of Jesus Christ and the Church (2000), which was intended to emphasize the unique place of Jesus Christ and his Church in salvation history.
This language of "subsists in" is certainly a novel choice of words. What ought we to think of it? Is there here some hint of a new doctrine of the Church, an attempt to suggest anything less than a simple identification between the Church of Christ and the visible Catholic Church organized around the Roman pontiff? Certainly this phrase has given various writers the opportunity to suggest such a novelty. But is such an interpretation reasonable?
I think that there is a very direct and simple way to show that, whatever reason the Council Fathers had for using the phrase "subsists in," this wording cannot mean anything different from the previous teaching of the Church as proposed, for example, in Mystici Corporis.11 For if we look at some of the other documents of the Second Vatican Council we see the previous teaching reaffirmed without ambiguity. So unless we are to suppose that the Council taught two contradictory doctrines about the Church, we must presume that what is less clear can best be understood by means of what is more clear.
There are at least three other conciliar documents, two of them promulgated on the same day as Lumen Gentium, that teach the simple identity of the Church of Christ and the Catholic Church. These three documents are the Decree on the Means of Social Communication, Inter Mirifica (December 4, 1963), the Decree on the Eastern Catholic Churches, Orientalium Ecclesiarum, and the Decree on Ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio (both November 21, 1964).
The first two may be gone through rapidly. Inter Mirifica states as a matter of course, "The Catholic Church was founded by Christ our Lord to bring salvation to all men" (no. 3). It is obvious here that the identity between the Church of God and the Catholic Church is assumed, and indirectly asserted, unless we think that Christ founded two different churches, the Catholic Church and the Church of Christ. This is even more clear in Orientalium Ecclesiarum. No. 2 of that document begins, "The holy Catholic Church, which is the Mystical Body of Christ, is made up of the faithful who are organically united in the Holy Spirit by the same faith, the same sacraments and the same government." Again, the identity is taken for granted and stated by the Council Fathers without feeling any need for apology or further explanation.
One might fear that perhaps the Decree on Ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio, would blur the clear teaching of Pius XII. But this is exactly opposite to what is the case. Perhaps because of the unprecedented nature of the decree — urging Catholic participation in the ecumenical movement, contrary to the guidelines of Pius XI in his encyclical Mortalium Animos (1928)12 — Unitatis Redintegratio seems to go out of its way to affirm the uniqueness of the Catholic Church. For example, in section 2, the decree speaks of the Holy Spirit, who "enriches the Church of Jesus Christ," and states that
[in] order to establish this his holy Church everywhere in the world till the end of time, Christ entrusted to the College of the Twelve the task of teaching, ruling and sanctifying. Among their number he chose Peter . . . [and] he determined that on him he would build his Church . . . It is through the faithful preaching of the Gospel by the Apostles and their successors — the bishops with Peter's successor at their head . . . that Jesus Christ wishes his people to increase . . .
In the next paragraph the decree refers to the Church as "God's only flock." Similarly in the next section (no. 3), it speaks of "this one and only Church of God," and later in that section the Council Fathers teach that
it is through Christ's Catholic Church alone, which is the universal help towards salvation, that the fullness of the means of salvation can be obtained. It was to the apostolic college alone, of which Peter is the head, that we believe that Our Lord entrusted all the blessings of the New Covenant in order to establish on earth the one Body of Christ . . .
Again, the identification between the Catholic Church and the Church of Christ is assumed, and the two names are used more or less interchangeably for one another.13
Unless we are to embrace the unreasonable hypothesis that in different documents promulgated on the very same day, the Council was teaching different things about the relation of the Church of Christ to the Catholic Church, we must assume that Lumen Gentium no. 8 cannot mean anything different from what was taught by Pius XII and by the other conciliar documents. Certainly there is the possibility of some development of doctrine here, but like any genuine development of doctrine, it can never deny or change what came before, only deepen and enrich our understanding of it.
In sum, then, theologians can and should continue to ponder the exact meaning and significance of "subsists in," as long as they recognize that it cannot teach other than what the Church taught both before, at the same time as, and since Lumen Gentium: namely, that, as Orientalium Ecclesiarum states, "The holy Catholic Church, which is the Mystical Body of Christ, is made up of the faithful who are organically united in the Holy Spirit by the same faith, the same sacraments and the same government."14
In view of the novel language of Lumen Gentium, it was not surprising that some would think that the previous and constant teaching of the Church about herself had changed. Already in 1973 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith felt obliged to issue a declaration on the subject, Mysterium Ecclesiae, the Declaration in Defense of the Catholic Doctrine on the Church against Certain Errors of the Present Day. The congregation is quite frank in acknowledging that since the Council some theologians "through the use of ambiguous or even erroneous language, have obscured Catholic doctrine, and at times have gone so far as to be opposed to Catholic faith even in fundamental matters." The heart of the declaration's teaching, as far as it concerns our subject, is this: that while Catholics must recognize "'the truly Christian endowments . . . which are to be found among our separated brethren' . . . at the same time Catholics are bound to profess that through the gift of God's mercy, they belong to that Church which Christ founded and which is governed by the successors of Peter . . ." (no. 1). Here again we find that same directness of language that characterizes most of the Church's pronouncements on the subject: "Catholics . . . belong to that Church which Christ founded," which repeats what the Church has always understood about herself and makes clear that whatever the ultimate significance of "subsistit in" may be, it does not indicate any lack of identification between the Catholic Church of today and the Church that Christ founded.
Pope John Paul II's encyclical, Ut Unum Sint (1995), although it witnesses to the ardent desire of this Pontiff to bring about the unity of all Christians in one visible body, nevertheless contains clear allusions to the identity of the Catholic Church as the Church of Christ. For example, John Paul mentions that the "Catholic Church . . . during the two thousand years of her history . . . has been preserved in unity, with all the means with which God wishes to endow his Church" (no. 11). Unless the Catholic Church is the Church of Christ, it is hard to see how it could be that Church possessing "all the means with which God wishes to endow his Church."
Who are the members of the Church?
In view of our conclusions in the above, we may briefly deal with the question of who the members of the Church are, especially since here Lumen Gentium repeats the substance of Mystici Corporis. If the Church of Christ, the Mystical Body of Christ, is simply the Catholic Church, then it follows that only Catholics are full members of the Church of Christ and of his Mystical Body.
In Mystici Corporis Pius XII stated, "Only those are to be accounted really members of the Church who have been regenerated in the waters of baptism and profess the true faith, and have not cut themselves off from the structure of the Body by their own unhappy act or been severed therefrom, for very grave crimes, by the legitimate authority" (no. 21).15 Lumen Gentium no. 14 teaches the same doctrine: "Fully incorporated into the Church are those who, possessing the Spirit of Christ, accept all the means of salvation given to the Church together with her entire organization, and who — by the bonds constituted by the profession of faith, the sacraments, ecclesiastical government, and communion — are joined in the visible structure of the Church of Christ, who rules her through the Supreme Pontiff and the bishops."16
It is no doubt painful to many Catholics to have to tell non-Catholics that they are not really full members of the Church of Christ and thus of his Mystical Body, although they do have "some, though imperfect, communion" with her. But as John Paul II said in Ut Unum Sint, "In matters of faith, compromise is in contradiction with God who is Truth" (no. 18). It is a false charity toward our separated brothers in Christ to fail to tell them the entire truth as taught by Christ's Catholic Church. Of course we should tell them such truths in humility and love, and as circumstances suggest, especially as this will no doubt come as an unpleasant surprise to most of them.
What do we mean by the term "churches"?
Now that we have made clear the fact that the Catholic Church is the Church of God and the Body of Christ, and have discussed who is a member of that Church, we must discuss the meaning of "churches" as used in both Scripture and tradition. We saw above that from the beginning of the Catholic Church there have also existed such individual "churches." In what way are these related to the Catholic Church, the one Church of God? Perhaps the clearest explanation of this phrase is found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. This states, "The phrase 'particular church,' which in the first place is the diocese (or eparchy), refers to a community of the Christian faithful in communion of faith and sacraments with their bishop ordained in apostolic succession" (CCC 833).17 In other words, the reason St. Paul addressed many of his letters to the church of Corinth or the churches of Galatia is that he was referring to local churches gathered around their bishops; in modern terminology, dioceses or (for eastern Christians) eparchies. The one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church, then, is made up of many particular churches. It is not, however, "nothing more than a collection . . . of Churches and ecclesial communities,"18 but is rather a single body consisting of many parts and organs. We should note, moreover, that a "particular church" may signify either a single diocese or a grouping of dioceses around their patriarch or metropolitan, such as the Ukrainian Catholic church or the Chaldean Catholic church.
Can a particular church lose its place in the Catholic Church?
But given that each diocese with a true bishop is a genuine particular church, one question suggested by our discussion is whether particular churches can lose full membership in the Catholic Church. That is, without ceasing to be a "church," can such an entity no longer be fully a part of the one Church? The answer is clearly yes.
Dominus Jesus states, "The Churches which, while not existing in perfect communion with the Catholic Church, remain united to her by means of the closest bonds, that is, by apostolic succession and a valid Eucharist, are true particular Churches . . . even though they lack full communion with the Catholic Church . . ." (no. 17). But it is only by being in full communion with the particular church of Rome that any particular church is and remains a true part of the Catholic Church: "Particular Churches are fully catholic through their communion with one of them, the Church of Rome 'which presides in charity'" (CCC 834).19
In speaking of these true but separated particular churches, we should be very careful in our use of terms. Thus we should, it seems to me, always speak of the Eastern Orthodox churches, because they are a grouping or federation of particular churches around various patriarchs and metropolitans. Unless one has abandoned the scriptural, conciliar and traditional doctrine of the one Church, it is impossible to imagine that there is an entity known as the "Orthodox Church" which exists on the same level as the one Catholic Church of Christ.20
May we use the term "sister churches"?
As an apparent extension of the rightful use of the terms churches or particular churches, some have employed an expression occasionally used in the early Church, the expression "sister churches," especially when speaking of relations between the Church of Rome and the Eastern Orthodox churches. But when we remember the double meaning of the word church, namely, as both the one Church of God and also the constituent parts (or former parts) of that Church grouped around their respective bishops, we can see that there might well be difficulties and dangers in the use of this expression. If we may say, for some purposes at least, that all particular churches are sisters, could we ever make the whole a sister of a part? Because of these and like difficulties, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a document dealing with this issue in 2000. The CDF stated:
Unfortunately, in certain publications and in the writings of some theologians involved in ecumenical dialogue, it has recently become common to use this expression to indicate the Catholic Church on the one hand and the Orthodox Church on the other, leading people to think that in fact the one Church of Christ does not exist, but may be re-established through the reconciliation of the two sister Churches. In addition, the same expression has been applied improperly by some to the relationship between the Catholic Church on the one hand, and the Anglican Communion and non-catholic ecclesial communities on the other. In this sense, a 'theology of sister Churches' or an 'ecclesiology of sister Churches' is spoken of, characterized by ambiguity and discontinuity with respect to the correct original meaning of the expression . . .21
What then is the correct use of this expression? "In fact, in the proper sense, sister Churches are exclusively particular Churches (or groupings of particular Churches . . .) among themselves. It must always be clear . . . that the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Universal Church is not sister but mother of all the particular Churches." One may even call the particular church of Rome (i.e., the Diocese of Rome)
the sister of all other particular Churches . . . [but] one cannot properly say that the Catholic Church is the sister of a particular Church or group of Churches. This is . . . above all [a question] of respecting a basic truth of the Catholic faith; that of the unicity of the Church of Jesus Christ. In fact, there is but a single Church, and therefore the plural term Churches can refer only to particular Churches.22
A part does not have the same relationship to the whole as it does to another part. An arm and a leg may be sister members of a body, but an arm can hardly be called a sister of the body as a whole. The inappropriate and confusing use of the term "sister churches" seems likely to further obscure the unique reality of the one Catholic Church and to elevate the separated particular Orthodox churches to a status they do not enjoy.
Needless to say, Protestant bodies, since they "have not preserved the valid Episcopate and the genuine and integral substance of the Eucharistic mystery, are not Churches in the proper sense . . ."23 Thus, whenever we are taking pains to speak precisely, we should avoid speaking of Protestant churches, but rather Protestant denominations or bodies or ecclesial communities. Above all we must never do anything that implies or seems to imply that we accept a status for the Catholic Church as simply one among many Christian denominations. The Catholic Church is the one Church of Christ, and we must not be afraid to confess that truth.
The notion of the invisible church
We have seen that the Church of Christ, identified in Holy Scripture as the Body of Christ and the pillar and ground of the truth (I Tim. 3:15), is none other than the Catholic Church, and that all particular churches are intended by Christ to be healthy members of that one Church. Particular churches, moreover, "have preserved a valid Episcopate and Eucharist," otherwise they would be simply ecclesial communities. We can see from this that one essential element they possess is that they are visible churches. They have visible officials, ceremonies, hierarchies and a visible condition for membership, the sacrament of baptism. However schismatic or even heretical any of them may have become, they have preserved the visible sign of the one Church of Christ. But among Evangelical Protestants another theory of the Christian Church is common. This is to consider the church as invisible, that is, as simply made up of all true believers in Jesus Christ, the sheep whom Christ knows as his own and who are truly saved. Thus the outward ecclesial structures established by these Protestants are not seen by them as the Church of Jesus Christ, but only as convenient and man-made ways to carry out certain functions, such as preaching the Gospel. The Southern Baptist Convention, for example, is not held to be the one Church spoken of in Scripture, but simply a human construction. The Church (as they see it) is invisible and her members are known only by God.
Needless to say, such a doctrine is contrary to the Catholic faith. I mention it here since it is a widespread notion in this country. This concept of the Church of Christ is mentioned by Pope Leo XIII, who notes that "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 . . ."24 This error about the nature of the Church of God is less apt to appeal to those with historical or theological knowledge, but can sometimes mislead those who are ignorant of the unhistorical status of Protestantism.25
"Catholics are bound to profess that through the gift of God's mercy, they belong to that Church which Christ founded and which is governed by the successors of Peter . . ." These words of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith make a fitting end to this article. Catholics have been given the immense privilege of belonging to Christ's Mystical Body, of having the true faith and knowing the sure means of salvation and holiness. But we were not given all this for ourselves alone. Rather on all of us is the command, "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age" (Matt. 28:19-20)26
1. For the existence of one only Church, which is also the Body of Jesus Christ, see especially, I Cor. 10:32, 12:27-28; Gal. 1:13; Eph. 3:10, 3:21; Phil. 3:6; Col. 1:24; I Tim. 3:15. Moreover, in addition to the scriptural witness, both the Apostles' Creed and the Nicene Creed affirm that there is but one Church of Jesus Christ, a Church which is also "holy, catholic and apostolic."
2. The editors of the Revised Standard Version, Catholic edition, rightly note with regard to this verse: "A remarkable salutation, not used elsewhere" (p. 241). It seems to be an additional and little-noticed scriptural witness to the primacy of the church of Rome.
3. See also the following for mention of local churches: Rom. 16:1-5, 16:23; I Cor. 4:17, 7:17, 11:16, 16:1, 16:19; 2 Cor. 1:1, 8:1, 8:18-24, Gal. 1:22; Phil. 4:15; Col. 4:15-16; I Thess. 1:1, 2:14; 2 Thess. 1:1, 1:4; Phil. 2; I Peter 5:13; Rev. 1-2.
4. Throughout this article I will capitalize the initial "c" in "church" only when speaking of the one Church of Christ. In all references to particular churches or groupings of particular churches, I will use the lower case. Although ecclesiastical documents do not always make this typographical distinction, I think that it is useful in helping to keep our thoughts clear on the essential distinction between the Church and individual churches.
5. Cf. Gen. 12:1-3, 15:4-6, 17:4-7, etc.
6. Of course this had always been part of the Church's doctrine, but before Mystici Corporis it had been usually assumed or implied rather than explicitly asserted.
7. Pope Pius, of course, did not mean by Roman Catholic Church the Latin church, but rather the entire Catholic Church whose earthly center is the bishop of Rome.
8. Emphasis mine. The Flannery translation is used throughout for the documents of Vatican II.
9. CCC 816 and 870.
10. See no. 9.
11. The Relatio Generalis of the Council stated in part, with reference to the substitution of "subsistit in" for the earlier "est," that "dictur 'subsistit in', ut expressio melius concordet cum affirmatione de elementis ecclesialibus quae alibi adsunt" — that is, so that the expression will better agree with the affirmation concerning ecclesial elements which are present elsewhere (Latin text quoted in Alexis Bugnolo, "On the History and Significance of 'Subsistit in' in the Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium"). This explanation is repeated in substance in the declaration Dominus Jesus, no. 16.
12. Ecumenism is not a new doctrine, but rather a new strategy for attaining the end that the Catholic Church has always desired, "the reconciliation of all Christians in the unity of the one and only Church of Christ" (section 24). But like any other strategy, it would seem that ecumenism should be judged, sooner or later, by how well it is accomplishing that end.
13. There are even passages in Lumen Gentium that appear to presuppose the identity of the Catholic Church with the Church of Christ. See nos. 14, 18, 26 and 52.
14. A number of theologians have produced valuable studies that investigate the meaning of "subsists in." For example, see Robert Fromageot, FSSP, Subsistit in: De Eius Significatione in Constitutione Dogmatica de Ecclesia Lumen Gentium (2006), or Karl Josef Becker, S.J., "An Examination of Subsistit in: A Profound Theological Perspective," L'Osservatore Romano, December 14, 2005, p. 11.
15. "In Ecclesiae autem membris reapse ii soli annumerandi sunt, qui regenerationis lavacrum receperunt . . ."
16. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, 837, quotes this passage, and Dominus Jesus, no. 20, gives substantially the same doctrine. The Decree on Ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio, no. 3, speaking of non-Catholics, says that those "who have been properly baptized are put in some, though imperfect, communion with the Catholic Church."
17. See also Catechism of the Council of Trent, translated by John A. McHugh and Charles J. Callan, (Rockford: TAN Books, c. 1982), p. 101.
18. Mysterium Ecclesiae, no. 1.
19. See also, Leo XIII, Satis Cognitum (1896), no. 15, and Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Litterae ad Catholicae Ecclesiae Episcopos de Aliquibus Aspectibus Ecclesiae prout est Communio (1992), nos. 7-9, 13 and 18.
20. See, Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, "Letter to the Presidents of the Conferences of Bishops" accompanying the "Note on the Expression 'Sister Churches'", 2000, par. 2.
22. "Note on the Expression 'Sister Churches'," nos. 10-11.
23. Dominus Jesus, no. 17.
24. Satis Cognitum, no. 3.
25. In July 2007, the CDF released the document, "Responsa ad Quaestiones de Aliquibus Sententiis ad Doctrinam de Ecclesia Pertinentibus." This document nicely sums up much of what I have said in this article. For example, it states that the Second Vatican Council did not change the previous doctrine on the nature of the Church and notes that the separated Eastern churches are rightly called "particular or local Churches," while Protestant bodies, since they lack apostolic succession, are not called churches in the proper sense.
26. Cf. CCC 863-64.