If one were to take a survey of various Christian thoughts on the question, “What is the Church?” there would undoubtedly be answers as numerous as the people questioned. Even amongst Catholic Christians, the answer would differ depending on the person asked, their level of formation and understanding, and their own personal experience. Answers would likely range from the physical building, to a particular congregation, or even a Christian denomination at large. However, when the question is examined at a theological level, the complexity of God’s Church and its role in God’s economy throughout salvation history starts to come forth. The Church reaches its richest and fullest meaning in the Catholic faith as is demonstrated by several Catholic theologians.
Veli-Matti Karkkaine, a Pentecostal theologian, attempted to give an overview of ecclesiology as perceived by various Christian denominations in 2002. In his book, An Introduction to Ecclesiology, Karkkainen includes a chapter on the Catholic perspective of ecclesiology. While it is true that the analysis is brief and not intended to be an in-depth study of Catholic ecclesiology, his overview falls short of true ecclesiology. Karkkainen correctly identifies the Catholic understanding of the Church as the “body of Christ”, but fails to capture all that is encompassed in that body.
He explains the pilgrim Church as an institutional-hierarchy as defined by the Vatican II document, Lumen Gentium, and that through the institution, the people of God are brought into union with the Trinity. He goes on to explain the communion of people that make up the Church are brought into union through the sacraments and particularly the sacrament of Baptism. Karkkainen also acknowledges that as members of the body of Christ, the Catholic faith teaches that all individuals are given specific charisms by the Spirit and that in using the charisms, the members of the body, bring the body into a unity. While all of this is true, Karkkainen focuses on the body of Christ on earth and fails to include the true Catholic understanding of the Church which is the Kingdom both in Heaven and on Earth and the unity between the two. In looking to Catholic theologians, the body of Christ is seen as a much larger entity that encompasses all of humanity: past, present and future and that entity plays a crucial role throughout salvation history.
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger is able to find the beginnings of the Church in the most primitive and foundational sources, that is, natural theology. In his work, “The Essence of the Liturgy”, he discusses how even the very early pagan religions are rooted in the idea that the search for God is written on the heart of man. Because of this intuitive knowledge of the existence of some god or gods, man has been naturally ordered to the service of God while expecting him to care for their needs in turn. From the earliest of times, regardless of how incomplete the idea of God was, man wanted to be in communion with Him and participate in His life through sacrifice while living on earth.
In his work, The Mystical Body of Christ in the Modern World, Denis Fahey examines the Church in the context of social and political structures and how it has fit in with civilization throughout history and modern developments. Fahey begins with the “theology of history” defining natural theology as reason guided by faith which leads us to accept God’s revelation and his divine plan for the history of the world. The theology of history is then the way in which humanity accepts or rejects the divine plan for the restoration of man’s participation in the divine life which was lost with original sin. In and through the mystical body of Christ, a social organization has developed and the earthly order mirrors the divine order in an imperfect way. He states that when Christianity emerged, “it…meant the constitution of a supernatural society, the mystical Body of Christ, absolutely transcending every natural development of culture and civilization.” and that the Catholic Church then has had a profound effect on earthly culture and civilization. In this synopsis of Christianity’s entry into the world, the natural and the supernatural are bound together and inseparable. The heavenly and earthly societies have a symbiotic impact on one another.
Fahey then goes on to analyze various events and developments in human history that have led to a more individualistic approach to religion, thus slowly separating the unity of the natural and the supernatural. With the evolution of Freemasonry, political revolutions overturning monarchies, emergence of communism, and the entrance of democracy came pantheism and the deification of man. Fahey points to Pope Pius IX who condemned this pantheistic and individualistic approach, calling it the “root-error of modern times”. Fahey links the focus on the deification of man to the Fall when Satan promises, “your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” “In the state of fallen nature the human will tends generally in its concrete acts to seek in self the end of life, unless it is healed by grace.” This way of thinking wrongly leads to the definition of Church as laying in nature, the cosmos, or in man’s own tendencies toward individual passions. Rather, the unified Church, the Mystical Body of Christ, whole, undivided and focused on life in the Trinity over self, provides the grace necessary for healing the effects of Original Sin.
If the unification of God’s people throughout salvation history is included in the definition of the Church, one must examine how God has revealed his plan for His Family. In his work, Kinship by Covenant, Dr. Scott Hahn tackles the complex nature of God’s relationship with His people over the course of time and how His divine pedagogy has revealed His plan which ultimately leads to the Body of Christ and the Kingdom of Heaven. Dr. Hahn holds that unifying factor throughout all of salvation history from Genesis through Revelation is in God’s forming of covenantal bonds with His people. The term covenant implies that an oath is sworn by parties to draw them into a familial type of union, as in adoption. “The purpose of this type of covenant is to draw others who are potentially at enmity into a family circle where amity might prevail.” As fallen humanity fails to adhere to the terms of the covenant, God mercifully continues to adjust the expectations in order to accommodate human nature and to continue to allow man the opportunity to remain in union with Him as members of His family. The final covenant of the Old Testament is with David when here he is promised a kingdom that will be everlasting and all-encompassing.
With Jesus comes the fulfillment of the Davidic covenant, but in a way that no human could have ever imagined. Dr. Hahn goes on to link Jesus and His coming with David and his kingdom through the prophesies of the Old Testament and the language of the New. Just like the covenants in the Old Testament were solidified over a shared meal, so too was culmination of the New Covenant in the Eucharist. “Jesus is the heir of the covenant with David, by virtue of which he is eternal king over Israel and the nations (Luke 1:32-33). In Luke 22:19-20 he enacts a new covenant between himself and the disciples, who share in the covenantal meal.” In addition to the command to share a Eucharistic meal of remembrance, the Great Commission establishes the governing body of the Church that will help to lead the people of the Church to their salvation. The election of Matthias to replace Judas re-emphasizes this governing body in establishing that if one apostle is to be replaced, they will all be replaced in due time creating an unbroken line of apostolic succession. Dr. Hahn concludes:
If Jesus is the Davidic king, then his kingdom is the Davidic kingdom. That kingdom is present already, because it was conferred on the disciples at the Last Supper. Their rulership over Israel is manifested in their rulership over the Ekklesia. The ekklesia is the incipient, growing kingdom of David, incorporating Jews, Israelites, and the nations, under the reign of Jesus the Davidic king, which is exercised through his Spirt-empowered apostolic vice-regents.
With Jesus now at the head of the kingdom and the Church He established, all members of the Church now have access to the sanctifying grace that was lost with Original Sin. Because Jesus was both God and man, the supernatural has mixed with the natural allowing for humanity to have the ability to participate in the supernatural life of the Holy Trinity. In his encyclical, Pope Pius XII defines this mixing of supernatural and natural in the Church as the “Mystical Body of Jesus Christ” Because the Church is a body with Jesus as its head, it cannot be broken and all the parts of the body must have unity as a body. As a body, it must be governed under a hierarchy as any body does not contain independent parts operating in their own interests or according to their own minds. Everything is interconnected and works together for the good of the body as a whole. Lumen Gentium, paragraph 16, quotes Romans 12:4, “For as in one body we have many members, and all the members do not have the same function.”
Upon Jesus’ ascension, He went to reign in heaven. Since His body is unified, it does not make sense for the body to have two heads. Jesus assigns Peter as the vicar of His Church here on earth while He reigns over his body in its entirety – both natural and supernatural – from His heavenly throne. This idea of the impossibility of the head as being separated from its body lays the foundation for the unity of all of the members, both in heaven and on earth, which make up the one, holy, and apostolic Catholic Church. (emphasis mine)
Henri De Lubac examines the Church extensively in his work Catholicism: Christ and the Common Destiny of Man. His theology beautifully captures the necessary unity of the mystical body of Christ and the necessary emphasis of community over the individual. A part of the body cannot operate only for its own interests and therefore must bear in mind the good of the entire body in order for it to function properly. With the Church defined as the body of Christ, it too cannot have members operating independently on behalf of their own interests instead of the body as a whole if it is to function properly as the means of salvation for all humanity.
De Lubac begins his thesis by saying that upon our creation, we were not intended to be different. He quotes St. Athanasius, “For the divine image does not differ from individual to another: in all it is the same image.” The unity of humanity lies in the fact that it was all created in the image and likeness of God and that image is not one of confusion and disjointed interests. It is when sin entered the world that separation occurred and individual interests emerged. This image of sin creating individualism and discord brings Fahey’s arguments for pantheism and the deification of man into clearer focus. It then follows that, in order to bring about the salvation of humanity, God’s divine plan must be brought about by a means of uniting men together as He originally intended. As a united creation intended for a common destiny, “Christ the Redeemer does not offer salvation merely to each one; he effects it, he is himself the salvation of the whole.”
The Church, therefore, must be one. Individual beliefs or approaches to God or the Church are incongruent in God’s plan for salvation, because while sinful humanity is ever-changing and misguided, His unity and plan do not change. As De Lubac points out, even if the majority of the world were in a state of heresy or apostasy, by its very nature, the Catholic Church would still be the means of salvation for the whole of eternity as it is not governed on majority opinion.
While God’s Church must be united, the body of Christ contains both the perfection of humanity in heaven and the imperfection of humanity on earth. Therefore, the Church as a whole, before its fulfillment, amounts to a mixed bag of sinners and saints. Jesus illustrates this concept in the parables contained in the Gospel of Matthew. Through His parables, He establishes that the kingdom of heaven exists in the present tense within the kingdom on earth and that the good will be separated from the bad at the end of time. In the meantime, the sinners exist with the saints together on earth. While there is a sense of disunity in this illustration, there is also unity in that the two kingdoms actually exist together as one united Church. De Lubac likens the Church to the “ark which shelters clean and unclean animals”. In order for sinners to be properly guided to salvation, the Catholic Church then submits to a hierarchy, an ordered obedience to a body with Christ as the head, not for its own sake, but to “enjoy a spiritual union”.
The sacraments, administered by the institution and hierarchy of the Church serve as the means or the vehicle to the unity of the members of the body. This causes the Church to serve not as an individual means of redemption, but a social one. Through all of the sacraments, but particularly through Baptism and the Eucharist, the members of the body interact in a communal way. De Lubac quotes Fr. H. Weiswiler with a most beautiful image of what communal participation in the sacraments means for the unification of the body of Christ.
“Now as one loaf is made of many grains which are first wetted, then milled and baked to become bread, so the mystical body of Christ, that is to say the Church, formed by the gathering together of a multitude of persons, like to many grains, is wetted in the water of baptism. It is then crushed between the two millstones of the Old and New Testament of hope and fear…, and in the last place it is baked in the fire of passion and sorrow that it may be made worthy to be the body of Christ.”
Theologian Yves Congar agrees with the communal participation in the Church through the Sacraments in his book, The Meaning of Tradition. He states that participation in the Church and a relationship with God is not an individual and personal quest. To maintain an individualistic approach to salvation would be to ignore the way God designed creation to live in complete communion with Him. To address this, Congar stresses the importance of participating in the sacraments through the institution and hierarchy of the Church. “We are united to God personally, not merely by personal links, by passing through a Church framework that is definitely public, comprising an established ministry, sacraments, etc.”
In looking at Scripture and its place in history as the link between the ages, De Lubac holds that “if salvation is social in its essence it follows that history is the necessary link between God and man.” The Catholic Church’s teaching of the unity between the Old and New Testaments is central in its approach of salvation history. Dei Verbum makes this point, “Thus God, the inspirer and originator of the books of both testaments, has brought it about in his wisdom that the New Testament should be hidden in the Old, and the Old Testament should be made manifest in the New.” Through a communal history, interpreted by typology, allegory and spirituality, God’s economy is unveiled and the plan for salvation through the Church is revealed.
Jesus came to save all of humanity. Because of that, believers and non-believers alike can be saved, particularly if the unified body is working toward the goal of salvation for all. According to St. Thomas, “the grace of Christ is of universal application, and that no soul of good will lacks the concrete means of salvation, in the fullest sense of the word.” Therefore, it becomes the role of the believing Christian, operating within the body of Christ, the universal Church, to assist its other members in achieving salvation. In order for the Church to properly serve as a means for humanity to be united as one, participating in the life of the Trinity, it must call its participating members to act with charity in the best interest of the whole as opposed to its individual members. Through the sacraments the members within the Church function in a communal way, but must also be moved by the Holy Spirit to act with charity toward those outside of the sacramental life in order to bring them into the Trinitarian life. “We must strive to earn merit by intensive use of the Church’s spiritual treasury on behalf of those, less fortunate, who are far from this treasure, for those who have died or will die without having the Good News preached to them.” Congar also states, “All Christians are collectively responsible for Christianity, just as, collectively, they all form a priesthood and spiritual fabric (cf. 1 Pet 2:5-10). They carry and transmit Christianity and the Gospel from generation to generation.”
To use a concrete example of how the hierarchy of the Church uses obedience of rejection of self for the good of the whole as an act of charity in leading others to salvation, one can look to St. Benedict. In his rule, St. Benedict provides concrete guidelines for the role of his monks including perfect obedience to authority in order to avoid one’s own “whims and appetites”, sacrifice of personal property in order to avoid indulgence, and charity toward others as they represent Christ. Through this simple, but not easy to execute rule, St. Benedict shows how operating as a communal unit as opposed to a group of individuals assists the united group on its path to salvation as a whole.
De Lubac continues with the Church on earth as not just existing in the here and now, but as existing through the ages. Those generations who have passed beyond the present one and those who have yet to come are united in the Church of God. Therefore, there is not only a horizontal unity of the Church on earth, but a vertical unity between the kingdom in heaven and the kingdom on earth, including all generations past, present and future. This sort of unity is all-encompassing and expands far beyond the constructs of a particular congregation, denomination, nation or race. This is the ultimate fulfillment of the Davidic covenant in which God promises to extend David’s kingdom at an international level and that it shall last forever.
Since the Church is vertical and horizontal in nature all Christians who have gone ahead to heaven and those yet to come are included as members of the body that necessarily must function for the greater good of the whole. They also serve as charitable agents, acting for the best intentions of all and striving to draw those far away, closer to Trinitarian life. Asking for the helping prayers of loved ones who have gone before does not take away from the glory of God, rather it adds to it. Those in heaven have reached perfection in the beatific vision and therefore can love perfectly and offer those on earth perfect Christian charity. Thus, prayers from others in heaven, as they exist perfectly in the Trinitarian life, bring the focus to God’s glorified and perfect body as they pray for others on their journey to that same life.
In taking a closer look at the horizontal and vertical aspects of the unified mystical body of Christ, the question of suffering and its purpose comes to mind. If God’s greatest desire is for all of humanity to participate fully in His Trinitarian life, how does suffering contribute to fulfilling his divine plan? One thing that separates the Catholic faith from other Christian denominations is the idea of penal substitution. Jesus could not suffer in our place as it would be contrary to God’s perfect justice; He did not come to suffer so that men would not. Rather, a man must join his suffering to the cross and walk alongside Jesus to Calvary where he will receive his glory. In the Catholic Church, suffering is redemptive. Lumen Gentium calls special attention to the suffering members of the body saying, “they should realize that they are united in a special way with Christ in his suffering for the world’s salvation,” then calls to attention that they will receive their reward in eternity with Jesus who will restore and strengthen them.
Upon review of various theologians’ criteria for defining the Church, there are a few other aspects to consider. The body then, as a united whole, plays a role if there is any suffering in any part. If a finger or a toe is hurt, the entire body is aware and unable to ignore the suffering as all of the parts work together for the good of the whole. It is the duty of all the members of the Church, both natural and supernatural, to participate in the redemptive suffering of any other member as a united body. Of course, Christians on earth should, and often do, charitably pray for other members of the earthly Church in their suffering, however, as mystical members, those gone before are not exempt from partaking in the duties of contributing to the good of the whole. As Lumen Gentium explains, those in heaven are more intimately united with God and therefore have a unique role in the building up of the Church. “For, since they have been admitted into their homeland and are present before the Lord, through him and with him and in him they do not cease to intercede for us to the Father…”
The unity of the Church, as De Lubac so wonderfully and thoroughly examines seems to be one of the most compelling arguments that separates the Catholic definition of the faith from the definitions of other Christian religions. As new denominations have split off and formed themselves over generations, as local congregations collapse or implode due to differences of opinion, and since doctrine and scriptural interpretation varies depending on who one asks, one should be struck by how much this disunity necessarily cannot reflect God’s plan. The one Church that has maintained unity and consistency throughout centuries from the time of the resurrection of Jesus Christ is the Catholic Church. God is not a disjointed body with each member asking on its own accord, rather He is one – one that includes all of His creation: past, present, and future on heaven and on earth.
From the Catholic perspective, it would be impossible to examine the entirety of the Church without calling attention to Mary, the Blessed Mother and the role she plays in the divine economy. Mary plays a unique role in salvation history in that her fiat – her “Yes” – is the cause of the possibility of redemption for all of humanity. Without Mary, there would be no Jesus and therefore no Church which is the means to salvation. Mary gave birth to Jesus who was both man and God. Therefore she gave birth to his body, both natural and supernatural which is the mystical body of Christ – the Church. In his encyclical on the Immaculate Conception, Pope Pius X quotes St. Bernard: “she is the neck of Our Head, by which He communicates to His mystical body all spiritual gifts”. In effect, she joins the head to the body and cannot be separated.
Not only is Mary the mother of the Church, but she is also the model of the Church. Beginning with her fiat, she perfectly exemplifies how the faithful Christian should demonstrate faith and trust in God and obediently submit to His will in order that His divine plan may come to its ultimate fulfillment. She also serves as an example of a virtuous life toward which all the members of the body should strive. In his essay, Mary, Mother and Model of the Church, Fr. Enrique Llamas quotes Pope Paul the VI:
“During her mortal life [Mary] achieved the perfect figure of a disciple of Christ, was a mirror of all the virtues and plainly lived the beatitudes preached by Christ. This is why the Church, in the conduct of the various features of her life and activities, takes the example of the Virgin Mother of God as the absolute norm for perfect imitation of Christ.”
Appealing to man’s reason and natural tendencies, it makes sense that God would provide a human example to follow. Mary sets a standard of Christian life by which all others are to be measured. In determining how a member should act for the good of the whole in faith and charity, the Church has access to a mother who can guide merely through her perfect example.
Additionally Mary provides a perfect model for redemptive suffering. As Jesus suffered, she suffered with Him as only a mother can. Whether she knew the fullness of what her son’s suffering would bring is impossible to say, but she accepted His suffering with faith that it was for the good of all of humanity. Rather than fight or run from her suffering, she faced it and walked alongside of Jesus with the hope that glory would come from it. Glory is brought to the mystical body when all of the members face challenges on behalf of the whole and there is no greater example of that then Mary’s walk to Calvary. St. Ambrose said, “Well did she know the mystery, that she had given birth to One who was to rise; moreover, she knew that her Son’s death would happen for the good of all. Thus, by her death, she hoped to add something to the common good.” All members should seek to imitate that level of faith when it comes to personal suffering. Suffering should not be perceived as individualistic or as something to be avoided at all cost. Rather, suffering should cause one to be transfixed on the cross and focused on the glory that will come with redemption.
Taking all of these theologians and their approaches to the question of the definition of the Church into account, one can see that God’s economy is vast and complex. His divine wisdom and knowledge far surpasses anything that man is capable of imagining and he can only begin to grasp what is intended for him at the end of time. Because of His infinite mercy, man was not left to navigate a path to salvation alone solely dependent on his own devices. Through the effects of the Fall, it would impossible to even approach participation in the divine life of the Trinity because humanity tends toward corruption and left to its own devices would move further and further away from God. It is only through the Church, the mystical body of Christ, united by participation in the sacraments, charity, and redemptive suffering, and guided by the example of the most Holy Mother that one can begin a journey to the eternal life that God intended at the very beginning of creation.
Congar OP, Yves. The Meaning of Tradition. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004.
De Lubac, Henri. Catholicism: Christ and the Common Destiny of Man. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988.
Fahey CSSp, Dennis. The Mystical Body of Christ in the Modern World. Kansas City: Angeles Press, 1994.
Gambero, Luigi. Mary and the Fathers of the Church: The Blessed Virgin Mary in Patristic Thought. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1999.
Hahn PhD, Scott W. Kinship by Covenant: A Canonical Approach to the Fulfillment of God’s Saving Promises. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009.
Karkkainen, Veli-Matti. An Introduction to Ecclesiology: Ecumenical, Historical & Global Perspectives. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2002.
Miravalle, Mark, edit. Mariology: A guide for Priests, Deacons, Seminarians and Consecrated Persons. Goleta: Seat of Wisdom Books, 2007.
New American Bible, Student Edition. World Catholic Press, 1987.
Ratzinger, Joseph. Collected Works: Theology of the Liturgy. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2014.
St Benedict. The Rule of St. Benedict. New York: Random House, 1998.
Paul VI. Dei Verbum. Vatican City: Liberia Editrice Vaticana, 1965.
Paul VI. Lumen Gentium. Vatican City: Liberia Editrice Vaticana, 1964.
Pius XII. Mystici Corporis. Vatican City: Liberia Editrice Vaticana, 1943.
Pius X, Ad Diem Illum Laetissimum, Vatican City: Liberia Editrice Vaticana, 1904.
 Veli-Matti Karkkainen, An Introduction to Ecclesiology: Ecumenical, Historical & Global Perspectives (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 31.
 Ibid., 34-36.
 Joseph Ratzinger, Collected Works: Theology of the Liturgy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2014), 12-13.
 Ibid., 13.
 Dennis Fahey, CSSp, The Mystical Body of Christ in the Modern World (Kansas City: Angeles Press, 1994), 1.
 Ibid., 2.
 Ibid., 5.
 Ibid., 115.
 New American Bible, Student Edition (World Catholic Press, 1987), Genesis 3:5.
 Fahey, the Mystical Body of Christ in the Modern World, 117.
 Scott W. Hahn, PhD., Kinship by Covenant: A Canonical Approach to the Fulfillment of God’s Saving Promises (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009), 37.
 Ibid., 230, (emphasis his).
 Ibid., 230-232.
 Ibid., 237.
 Pope Pius XII, Mystici Corporis (Vatican City: Liberia Editrice Vaticana, 1943), 13.
 Ibid., 14.
 Pope Paul VI. Lumen Gentium (Vatican City: Liberia Editrice Vaticana, 1964), 16.
 Ibid., 40.
 Henri Du Lubac, Catholicism: Christ and the Common Destiny of Man ( San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988), 29.
 Ibid., 33.
 Ibid., 39.
 Ibid., 49.
 Ibid., 69.
 Ibid., 76.
 Ibid., 82.
 Ibid., 94-95.
 Yves Congar, OP, The Meaning of Tradition (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004), 62.
 De Lubac, Catholicism, 166.
 Paul VI. Dei Verbum (Vatican City: Liberia Editrice Vaticana, 1965), 16.
 De Lubac, Catholicism, 219.
 Ibid., 242.
 Congar, The Meaning of Tradition, 62-63.
 St Benedict, The Rule of St. Benedict (New York: Random House, 1998), 14-15.
 Ibid., 36.
 Ibid., 51-52.
 New American Bible, 2 Samuel 9-16.
 Lumen Gentium, 41.
 Ibid., 49.
 Pius X, Ad Diem Illum Laetissimum (Vatican City: Liberia Editrice Vaticana, 1904).
 Mark Miravalle, Editor, Mariology: A guide for Priests, Deacons, Seminarians and Consecrated Persons (Goleta: Seat of Wisdom Books, 2007), 599.
 Luigi Gambero, Mary and the Fathers of the Church: The Blessed Virgin Mary in Patristic Thought (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1999), 202-203.