The Church: Distinctively Catholic

We are going to explore one of the areas where Catholics and other Christians use the same word but do not necessarily mean the same thing. That word is “Church.”

Study of the church is called “ecclesiology,” which is based on the greek word for church. Ekklesia is a word in Greek that means “those called out” so it is an assembly assembled for a purpose. The purpose of this assembly is the worship of God.

There are many ways we describe the Catholic Church, and each term draws out something true but always incomplete. At the Second Vatican Council, the document on the Church, which is called Lumen Gentium, described the church as a sacrament. This term certainly draws out the mystical nature of the church but it does not give us much to grab a hold of. On the other hand, when we think of the priests and bishops in the church, they are certainly tangible and we can identify them because of their ordination and sacred role. Sometimes we focus on the building and the decorations; that is even more tangible than the priests and bishops.

Our focus sometimes narrows to just our parish. Our priests, our staff, our volunteers, the people we see at the Mass we typically attend. This is great in the sense that we should be alert to each other and ready to help each other. That is at the heart of the rule to “love thy neighbor as thyself.” A strong sense of community is certainly part of what the term, “church”, means. We are the community called out for the purpose of worshiping God. So community is an important component of what church means.

Theologically, we get the image of the Bride of Christ and the image of the church as a New Jerusalem from Holy Scripture. We see both terms in Revelation 21:2. “Then I John saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” And the instruction for husbands we read in St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is that they should love their wives as Christ loved the church. So that is not a literal example, but the implication of a spousal relationship between Christ and the Church is very clear.

Important to the bridal imagery of the church is the exclusive relationship that marriage is. Christ as the Bridegroom will have only one Bride, which is the Church. At least that is the most logical conclusion one can draw from Scripture.

Likewise, Jerusalem was the sacred city, where the most important acts of worship were performed. The Church is a new Jerusalem, where the most important acts of worship in the New Covenant are performed. Most of the scriptural references are from John’s Revelation, and St. Paul talks about us being raised up with Christ in the heavenly realms (Eph 2:6). So the Church as the New Jerusalem certainly points to an understanding as something much bigger than our parish or our archdiocese.

So, you can see that there is no simple definition of the word Church, for even within the Catholic Church it has many shades of meaning.

When we recite the Nicene Creed at Mass on Sundays, we list what are called the four marks of the Church. We say that it is One. We say that it is Holy. We say that it is Catholic. And we say that it is Apostolic. Let’s take a look at each of those marks and see what they mean.

Pope John Paul II wrote an encyclical in 1995, a letter to the entire Church, on the subject of ecumenism. Ecumenism is the movement to have one church. The call to unity comes to us directly from Jesus, when he prays to the Father in the Upper Room on Holy Thursday. This prayer is known as the Priestly Prayer, and it is in chapter 17 of John’s gospel account. The phrase, “that they may all be one” is the English translation of the Latin phrase, “ut unum sint.” So Pope John Paul was discussing how we can be true to the expressed desire of Jesus at the time of his Passion.

Now there are limits on ecumenism. The One Church has One Faith that is a requirement, and it is one organism of many complementary parts. Thus, the first thing necessary for a true Church is that it share the key dogmas of the faith: the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus; that Jesus is fully God of exactly the same substance as the Father and yet also fully human; that the one Godhead has three Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. That the central act of worship does result in the substantial transformation of elements of bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus. That the priests who perform that central act can show the validity of their ordination by tracing back through the centuries to the Twelve.

These issues mean that for Catholics, ecumenism is limited to the Orthodox Churches. They can trace themselves back to the Twelve Apostles. They share the same articles of faith. The great schism between the East and the West had mostly to do with the issue of the primacy of Peter. When the Germanic tribes have sacked Rome and the Roman Empire is now centered at Constantinople, it can be a prickly issue to tell the Bishop of Constantinople that despite all his earthly power and riches, he is subordinate to the overrun Bishop of Rome. They argued about this for 300 years before officially splitting in 1054. And there are other great metropolitan sees (places where the Bishop sits) in the East, which further complicates the issue of unity. Antioch, Alexandria, Constantinople, and later, Moscow were four of the major cities. The first two were quickly captured by the Moslems, and Constantinople finally was taken, which is why we call that city Istanbul.

And we get the idea of Petrine Primacy again directly from the mouth of Jesus. The man chosen was named Simon, but Jesus gave him a new name, Rocky, when he gave him the office of primate.

That there is only one church can also be stated negatively in the sense of drawing firm limits. In the 14th century, Pope Boniface VIII found the term in the writings of St. Cyprian of Carthage from the 3rd century, and it was defending the idea that nobody can reach salvation if they are not subject to the Roman Pope. Boniface was facing the rise of the nation-state, when people began to be Frenchmen speaking French rather than a collection of people from Avignon and Paris and the Loire Valley. Boniface was telling the temporal kings that they ultimately were under the Pope if they desired Heaven for there is no salvation outside the Church.

This kind of teaching sounds harsh to modern ears, but it was in many ways confirmed in a more recent document issues 20 years ago from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, what years ago was known as The Holy Office, by Cardinal Ratzinger under Pope John Paul II. In the document, the teaching office of the Catholic Church explains that the term “Church” is only for bodies that have preserved a valid episcopate and the genuine and integral substance of the Eucharistic mystery.” This is what we discussed earlier: the priests’ ordinations are valid and the central act of worship is valid. The opportunities for ecumenism are limited to the true Churches of the Easter Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, and the Old Catholic Churches. Since they do not accept Petrine primacy, they are not in full communion, but the spirit of ecumenism offers us hope there.

Here are the limits on that hope: everybody else that thinks he’s in a church is actually in an “ecclesial community.” So, according to this document, which is the teaching of the Catholic Church, there is no such thing as the Methodist Church or the Episcopal Church. For one of the two reasons given above, they cannot be true churches, and so we call them ecclesial communities. Sadly, only the true Churches can overcome their minor issues and finally be One. The Protestant issue will be resolved another way.

As Catholic missionaries, this is important. You cannot preach to a Lutheran that he’s not in a real Church, but you have to know it. How you preach – just living your life – to people who claim to know and love Jesus but are in a Protestant community is something to have at the heart of your prayers. We cannot abandon or water down the truth, but we must always be reflecting the light of Christ to which everyone is called.

One further thing should be made clear: a person who leaves the Catholic Church for one of the Protestant ecclesial communities is entirely different from a person who grows up in one of those communities. The first has walked away from the One True Church, while the second was never able to be a part of it because of his family traditions. So, we should be quick to discern the truth but really avoid any judgment of another person. That is God’s job.

The Church is protected by the Holy Spirit, which is why we can say with confidence that a church — an assembly — full of sinners can somehow be Holy. Remember that we are all called to be holy. After our Baptism, we are called to grow in holiness by conforming our wills to the will of Christ. That lifelong process of sanctification is what this assembly was called out to do; it is a substantial component of our ekklesia. So, in addition to participating in the central act of worship of the church, which is the other major component of our ekklesia, we are called to grow personally in holiness. That is the main theme of the Monday Night class, Faith in the Spiritual Life. It is a main theme of our call as a People sent to proclaim the good news by how we live our lives. Holiness is central to our mission as Catholic Christians. The Church has been described as a Sacrament, which is a sign of God’s grace, and a sign that effects what it signifies. Jesus sends his grace upon the members of his body, so most of our mission is simply cooperating with that grace. We let him send us and we do what he asks.

St. Vincent of Lerins lived in the fifth century — around the time of St. Augustine and St. Jerome. His description of what it means to be Catholic has passed on down to us 1500 years later. He said that the Catholic faith is that “which was believed everywhere, always, and by all.” This is a good way to understand what we mean by Catholic. It is spread around such that all the churches preach it, and it is the same teaching over the centuries, and it is the teaching that is held by everyone.

Thinking about this, one can see how many things that we hear are “Catholic” are not necessarily so, if this Vincentian canon is applied. Some things we learned in Catholic grade school turn out to be the teaching of Sister Mary Jesus, and because we were eight years old and she was a nun, we just accepted it as the teaching of the Church. Sometimes the Holy Father will speak on a subject that does not meet the threefold criteria of diffusion, endurance, and universality. So we are free to take what these figures of authority say that is good and to discard whatever is not good.

Notice that my personal conscience is not part of St. Vincent’s rule. This is a great reminder that my conscience is only correct when it aligns with the Catholic Church. So, when I come up with a rationalization for something and say it is based on my conscience, I first need to check that whatever I’ve come up with meets the requirements of diffusion, endurance, and universality. The struggles we have inside the Church on sex and marriage are all based on our personal views and how those line up with the ancient, consistent, and persistent teaching of the Church on those topics.

In terms of organization, we will read in church documents about a “particular church,” which is addressing the fact that the archdiocese of Atlanta and the diocese of Charleston are bodies that are in many ways separate from the Bishop of Rome while being in communion with the Holy Father. Our archbishop is our spiritual father, and he answers to God for the care of our souls. He is not an assistant vice president under Pope Francis as though the Catholic Church was a corporation. So there can be a bit of a gap in practice and emphasis between particular churches while there cannot be any division of the Catholic Church. This is yet another mystery that we get to embrace and will only fully understand when we meet God in Heaven.

Jesus appointed the Twelve. When Judas abandoned the Faith, they appointed Matthias to fill his office. There were many other disciples, some of whom were more public than some of the Twelve Apostles. So the teachings of Jesus were known by more than the Twelve.

We teach that the revelation of God was complete in Jesus. After Jesus there is no more revelation. There can be — and there certainly was — further development of understanding of that revelation. But the teaching of the Apostles — what Jesus taught them and manifested in his life with them — is what we call the deposit of faith that is handed down from one generation to the next.

St. Paul speaks of this in his first letter to the Corithians. St. Paul is a good example of an Apostle who was not one of the Twelve. St. James, the brother of the Lord, is another. So, it was not that some secret messages were given to the Twelve, but that all the Apostolic Fathers heard and saw the same gospel of Jesus and passed that on to those who had not been present.

It is the apostolic character that St. Vincent was referencing when he uses the term “semper” which is Latin for always. No teaching that could not be traced back through the Fathers to Jesus was part of the Catholic Church because it is an apostolic church.

An apostolic church is also a sent church. Jesus gave his apostles the instruction to go and baptise everywhere, first in Judea and then to the ends of the world. Sacred Tradition — the deposit of faith that was not recorded in Scripture — teaches that St. Thomas went all the way to India. Centuries later, St. Francis Xavier went all the way to Japan to preach the Gospel.

Another aspect of Church that is unique to the Catholic Church is how it is administered. I have a table of three general issues and we can compare how Protestant ecclesial communities handle that issue with how the Roman Catholic Church handles it.

The most important issue is the doctrine. What does the community teach? How fluid is that teaching? If you are familiar with mainline Protestant denominations like Prebyterians or Episcopalians, they have General Conventions every few years where the participants may be asked to vote on some matter of the faith. It was through this process that many mainline Protestant denominations reversed their teaching on homosexual marriage. It is also how they decided not to punish their progressive members who did something illegal, as was the case when some Episcopalian bishops ordained some women as priests. This was against the teaching of the Episcopalian church in the 1970s, but that bishop was not in any way punished for his transgression. And now we have women priests in that denomination. Contrast that with when Archbishop Lefebvre ordained some bishops in the 1980s so that there would be some SSPX bishops after he died. He was immediately excommunicated by the CDF.

The other way Protestants handle shifting doctrine is with their feet. They separate, as the Lutheran Missouri Synod separated from the Evangelical Lutheran Synod over some teaching. By and large, there are two of each mainline Protestant church because of the issues of sex and marriage. One is “conservative” and the other “liberal.”

Contrast all of that with the Catholic Church. In the Catholic Church, if you abandon the deposit of faith, and you are very public about it, you will get a rebuke or an invitation to leave. Martin Luther is an example of the former who then became an example of the latter. At first, he was counseled to return to the True Faith. Eventually, he was declared a heretic. More recently, there was a German professor named Hans Kung who publicly in the late 1960s rejected the doctrine of papal infallibility that had been promulgated about 100 years before at the First Vatican Council. It took about 10 years, but finally he was stripped of the right to teach theology at the German Catholic University by the Church’s magisterium.

The Catholic Church has a magisterium, which is the office for maintaining the deposit of faith, and only it has one. It is an authoritative place to go when asking if something being preached is truly Catholic. Since, as we have recently discussed, the Church is One, then what a person teaches about the faith is either in harmony with the teaching of the Church or it is against it. If so, then the teacher is wrong and needs to correct himself. If he won’t, then he needs to be silenced. If he won’t be silenced, then he is declared an apostate or heretic. An apostate has renounced his religion; a heretic is declared to have renounced his religion.

What about the property? Again, there is a big difference between Protestants and Catholics. Since so many Protestant churches have no hierarchy, most of the assets (the buildings and the land) are owned by some independent non-profit corporation. In some denominations, the property is owned by the church. When a parish of a hierarchical church like the Episcopalians wants to leave, they usually have a huge fight over the property. Most of the time, the leavers do not get the building, but sometimes they have better lawyers and win.

In the Catholic Church, there is no confusion. Everything the Archdiocese owns is owned by the current archbishop. One of the reasons why trial lawyers are eager to sue the Catholic Church is that it is very easy to spot the property that can be sold to satisfy the settlement. Some country priest near the Tennessee border does something wicked, and the Archbishop of Atlanta gets sued. But that also makes it clear when we are not being sued. It is all owned by the bishop, even if I made the check out to St. Catherine of Siena because I love Fr. Neil and Fr. Valery. We are not in this country very used to this kind of monarchy, but that is what the Catholic Church is.

This monarchical structure is very clear in the exercise of authority. In a Protestant community, the new pastor was called by the vestry. Lay people on a committee found the new guy and he answers to them. In fact, they talk about being called to a post the way we talk about a man being called to the priesthood. But our priests come to us because the bishop sent them. We have no say in the matter. We can have the perfect priest and the bishop can move him. We only had Fr. Matt for a year before the bishop made him pastor of St. Luke’s in Dahlonega.

And the difference between a Protestant vestry and a Catholic Parish Council is quite sharp. The Protestant vestry has the power and the pastor must do what they insist or quit his job. If you have ever been on a Catholic Parish Council, then you’ve had that moment when you realize you have no power to do anything unless the pastor wants it done. People might complain about Father X running the parish without asking for advice, but he is not required to do so. He is required to do what the bishop tells him to do. And, of course, a prudent pastor does gather opinions and spends time in prayer before making a decision. We are blessed at this parish to have a prudent pastor, which is a big part of why everyone likes him and respects him and feels heard on their particular issue.

Now it is time for some pictures. I have mentioned a few times the early Ecumenical Councils such as the Council of Nicea that were held from the early 300s to the late 700s. These were councils called to address a significant question about the faith. Subjects were serious things like the divinity of Jesus, the humanity of Jesus, the two natures of Jesus, and so forth.

After some of these councils, the losing party just could not accept the conclusion and we had some early separations. Seel the purple and yellow lines after the Councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon. These were related to the fact that Jesus was truly God and therefore Mary was truly the Mother of God, so they touched on the two natures of Christ and the that he had two wills.

But the big split first came at the end of the first millennium, when the Latin Rite Church and the Eastern Rite Church divided over the issue of Petrine Primacy. There was no serious theological disagreement, really only the issue of organization caused the schism in 1054. As we noted earlier, some of those churches that split away eventually returned to full communion with Rome, which you see with the various Eastern Rite churches coming back to the red Roman color.

So the second big split was the Protestant revolt. You can tell that Protestants have controlled the narrative because everyone calls it the Reformation, but it was in fact a revolution. There were many contributing factors, and perhaps we can have some future sessions on the details of those revolutions, but today we can admit that some of the pressures were theological and related to doctrines and the sacramental life, while in other cases they were more political as the idea of the nation state began to increase. The major channels are shown here: the Lutherans, the Anglicans, the Calvinists, and the Anabaptists.

We are going to close our topic with a new vocabulary word. I hope you will try to work it into your next family dinner or maybe at a Christmas party. The word is “fissiparous.” It is related to the word fissures, which are breaks or cracks in something. Fissiparous is the tendency to break into parts.

And it is the perfect word to describe an essential characteristic of Protestantism. They break up into smaller parts. And that doesn’t include the local splits. We used to live in Buckhead near Second Ponce Baptist Church. That implies there was a First Ponce Baptist Church. We also see lately the rise of the non-denominational Protestant church. Northpoint and Passion are local examples of this, as is our neighbor, the Influencers Church.

Contrast that with the Catholic Church, which leaks and topples but doesn’t split up because it bears the four marks: it is one, it is holy, it is catholic, and it is apostolic. Now, the German bishops are pushing hard, but even there we have seen the Holy Father do some things to make it clear that if they keep pushing, they have to leave. The Germans — or at least some of the Germans who get their opinions in newspapers — want to ordain women as deacons. Pope Francis recently amended Canon Law to say that someone who ordains a woman as a deacon is automatically excommunicated.

Our friends who are Protestant, and certainly new Catholics who were raised Protestant, or even just American, struggle with the way the Catholic Church is ruled because it sharply contrasts with our experience in the United States and in American Protestant denominations. But it seems necessary to retain the four marks of the Church.

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