The Evangelization Station
Pray for Pope Francis
Scroll down for topics
Rev. John Hardon, S.J.
Not the least difficulty in writing about Catholicism is the problem of isolating the subject. The history of the Catholic Church is so closely woven into Christian civilization that the one cannot be told fairly without the other, and to do justice by the Church would mean to retell the story of Christianity. Moreover not only Catholics claim the first millennium of Christian history as their own. The Orthodox and Protestants might therefore resent having all the centuries from Christ to Photius and Caerularius, or to Luther and Calvin, called Catholic instead of simply Christian.
Practically speaking, however, there is no choice except to treat the first thousand years in the East and fifteen hundred in the West under Roman Catholicism. The characteristic features of the latter today are imbedded in the Church's life before the Eastern Schism and the Reformation; Catholicism makes the claim of continuing these features and retaining them substantially unchanged through all the vicissitude of time; and, most importantly, the institution of the papacy is a historical phenomenon that reaches back to the early centuries to give Christianity that cohesion which even the sharpest critics of Catholicism are willing to admit while they deplore, in Harnack's phrase, the lot of those who "have subjected their souls to the despotic orders of the Roman papal King."1
The amount of authentic Christian literature from the first century after Christ's ascension is more extensive than most people who are not specialists suppose. Besides the Gospels, written between 50 A.D. for the Aramaic Matthew and 100 A.D. for St. John, we have the fourteen letters of St. Paul, seven Catholic epistles, the Book of Revelations or Apocalypse and the Acts of the Apostles which Chrysostom called the "Gospel of the Holy Spirit," and Harnack "the manifestation in history of the power of the Spirit of Jesus in the apostles." Outside the New Testament are the Didache, written about the year 90 as a manual on the liturgy and Christian morals; the letter of Pope Clement I to the Corinthians (98 A.D.), the epistle of Barnabas of the same date, Polycarp's letter to the Philippians and the remarkable collection of seven epistles which St. Ignatius of Antioch wrote to seven churches while on his way to martyrdom in Rome (107 A.D.).
The first and strongest impression left us by these writings is the devotion of the early Christians to the person of Jesus. He dominates their thoughts, determines their ritual customs, inspires their daily practices and so completely enters every phase of their lives it is no wonder they were soon given the simple title of "Christians," as followers of one whom they called the Messias and on whom all their religion was centered.
According to Tacitus, the name was already current among the populace in Rome at the time of the Neronean persecution (A.D. 64) and soon became the official Roman designation for members of the new Church.2 During times of persecution the confession or denial of this name was crucial, as reported by Pliny the Younger, proconsul of Bithynia in Asia Minor (A.D. 112) . He described to the Emperor Trajan the method he used to ferret out the Christians.
It is impossible to read a single letter of St. Paul without feeling that for him Christianity was Christ. He speaks of himself as "the servant of Jesus Christ," and of those to whom he is writing "called to be Jesus Christ's." His preoccupation with the Savior makes him say, "if any man does not love the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be anathema." In closing salutations, he writes, "My love is with you all in Christ Jesus." When necessary, he vindicates his authority, that he is an apostle, "sent not from men nor by man, but by Jesus Christ." In his suffering, he rejoices that "I bear the marks of the Lord Jesus Christ in my body," and in humility he prays, "God forbid that I should glory save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ."4
Paul's exhortations were not so much to virtue as to the following of Christ. "Have this mind in you which was also in Christ Jesus." His reproaches are less against vice than against those who "seek their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ." His great hope is to be dissolved, and to be with Christ. By comparison with this treasure, "I count everything loss because of the excellent knowledge of Jesus Christ my Lord. For His sake I have suffered the loss of all things." And in the apostrophe which summarizes his gospel, he sets the master idea that he learned from the Savior and that Christians in all times, and not only the converts in ancient Rome, have needed to remain loyal to the faith.
Correlative with this dedication to the person of the Savior, early Christianity appears from the first as communal in character and under perceptible authority.
Shortly after the ascension of Christ, while the disciples in the company of Mary were awaiting the Holy Spirit, Peter stood up in the midst of the brethren and announced that another apostle should be chosen to replace the traitor Judas. He laid down the conditions of election, "of these men who have been with us from the time the Lord Jesus moved among us, from John's baptism till the day He was taken from us, of these one must become a witness with us of the resurrection."6 Two candidates were put forward, Joseph called Barsabbas, and Matthias. After the assembly had asked the Lord to show "which of these two Thou hast chosen," lots were drawn and the choice fell upon Matthias, who was immediately numbered with the eleven apostles. Commenting on this first act of Peter's primacy, St. John Chrysostom remarked how spontaneously he was accepted as the shepherd of Christ's flock and the leader of the apostolic college.
When the Master commissioned His disciples to preach the Gospel, He also gave them power to work miracles in His name, to cast out demons, to heal the sick and even to raise the dead. These signs and wonders are part of the logic of revelation. If God demands faith in revealed mysteries, He makes them acceptable by integrating what exceeds human power in the realm of knowledge with phenomena that surpass human agency in the order of visible reality. Since the latter is certainly from God, the former must also come from Him. Consequently just as Christ went about simultaneously preaching His doctrine and confirming it with prodigies, so the apostles (beginning with Simon Peter) started the Christian catechesis with teaching what they had learned from Jesus and making His new-found society credible with signs and wonders that followed.
Soon after Pentecost Sunday, as Peter and John were going into the temple to pray, they met a certain man who was lame from his mother's womb. Instead of giving him the alms he begged, Peter gazed upon him and said, "Silver and gold I have none, but what I have I give thee. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, arise and walk." Immediately the man's feet and ankles became strong and "leaping up he began to walk."7
Illustrative of the ecclesiastical structure of Christianity in apostolic times, the authors of the New Testament outside the Gospels repeatedly speak of the Church (ekklesia) to describe the community of Christ's followers, as distinct from the synagogue of the Jews. The latter meant simply an existing religious gathering of people, the former the assembly of people called together by God. Also, where the term occurs in only two contexts in the Gospels, both in Matthew,8 it is used over one hundred times in the Acts, Epistles, and Book of Revelation.
As the number of gentile converts increased, the ethnic nature of Christianity became correspondingly less Jewish. Members of the Palestinian Church who lived according to the pharisaic rule watched the development with regret and made every effort to keep the Church within the limits of Judaism. Its estrangement from Jewry, they believed, could be prevented or mitigated only when all the churches and their members agreed to observe the Mosaic law. The conflict which arose from this attitude provoked the most serious crisis in apostolic Christianity and was finally settled by the first ecumenical gathering of the Church, in which Peter presided and gave the decisive judgment. Once he declared that "We believe we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as we are," and without the burden of the Mosaic code, "the whole meeting quieted down," and listened while Paul, the apostle of the Gentiles, and James, the venerable leader of the Judaeo-Christians, expressed their agreement.9
Qumran and primitive Christianity
Since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scriptures from 1947 onwards, it is impossible to speak of Christian origins without taking stock of what some have called the most significant documents outside the Bible bearing on the foundations of Christianity.
Over sixty manuscripts and innumerable fragments have been excavated at the site of the ancient Qumran Community, located close to the Dead Sea in Palestine. The principal texts include a set of rules for the monastic community, namely The Manual of Discipline, A Zadokite Document (discovered earlier at Cairo) and a Formulary of Blessings; two collections of hymns, for the initiants and a psalm of thanksgiving; several commentaries, on the Books of Michaeas, Nahum and Habakkuk; a long oration of Moses which was a paraphrase of the Law; an epic on The War of the Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness; and a manual for the future congregation of Israel, the so-called Messianic Banquet. Conservative scholarship holds that the scrolls were composed at various dates between 170 B.C. and 68 A.D.
The burning question on which a library is fast developing is the relation of this documentation to Christian beginnings. Some extremists have claimed that we have in these documents the rude clay of which the Christian Church was later molded, with the implication that the latter is not really unique but merely continuous with its Judaic predecessor among the ascetics at Qumran. Nothing could be further from the facts. There is in the Dead Sea scrolls no trace of any of the cardinal theological concepts of Christianity — the incarnation of the Son of God, original sin, redemption through the cross and the life of divine grace, the sacramental system or the universality of the Gospel kerygma.
On the other hand, there are numerous affinities which balanced scholarship has unearthed and which cast abundant light on the meaning of the Christian faith. The scrolls furnish a picture of the religious and cultural climate in which John the Baptist conducted his mission and in which Jesus of Nazareth was initially reared. They portray in vivid but authentic colors the spiritual environment whose language the Precursor and the Savior spoke, whose idea they used to teach their message of salvation, and whose sympathetic attitude they employed as the seedbed of the New Testament. They give the lie to over a century of rationalist criticism of the New Testament, that the ideals of the Gospels (notably St. John), and of the Pauline Epistles could not have come from Judaic sources but must have been imported from elsewhere, from Hellenism or from Gnostic lucubrations.
Among the affinities between the thought and language of the scrolls and that of the New Testament, the most prominent touches on the communal nature of the Qumran sect and the Christian community. The Qumran group had a variety of inspectors who were overseers and whose duty it was to admit new members, pass judgment on those in probation, direct the interests of the community and, when necessary, dismiss those who failed to live up to prescribed regulations. This spiritual 'leader is called "teacher" or "right-teacher." In the Gospel according to St. John, Jesus is hailed as the teacher sent by God, appointed by the Father to bring the light of truth to all nations.
In the Manual of Discipline, the community is promised to become a veritable "temple of God, a true holy of holies," provided it abides by the community regulations. This is more than superficially like the words of St. Paul to the Corinthians, "Do you not know that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If anyone destroys the temple of God, him will God destroy; for holy is the temple of God, and this temple you are."10
Members of the Qumran body styled themselves "the elect" or "the elect of God," with an accent that is familiar in the writings of St. Paul, who spoke of himself as an apostle of Jesus Christ, "according to the faith of God's elect," and in St. Peter who said he was an apostle of Jesus Christ "to the elect who are sojourners of the dispersion."11 In both sources, the Qumran and Christian, the faithful declared that they stand in the eternal congregation of God, hold direct converse with Him, and "share the lot of the holy beings." They enjoyed a community of goods, practiced obedience to superiors, and were told to abstain from divorce with the right to remarry. Thus in the Zadokite Document we read, "One of the traps is fornication, by marrying two women at the same time, even though the principle of creation is, male and female He created them."12 And in Mark we read, 'Because of the hardness of your heart he (Moses) wrote you that precept (allowing a bill of divorce to put away one's wife). But from the beginning of creation God made them male and female."13Some commentators have been so struck by the similarity they rushed to conclude that the Zadokite Document is Judaeo-Christian.
Comparable to the Christian emphasis on the struggle between light and darkness is the theme of the Qumran manuscripts that speak at length of the two spirits, the Prince of Light and the Angel of Darkness, with constant opposition between them. While the idea is a commonplace of ancient Iranian and later Jewish thought, it suggests a development that became part of the structure of Christianity. It should be noted, however, that the New Testament subjected this doctrine to an essential change by contraposing the Angel of Darkness not with an Angel of Light but with Christ or the Holy Spirit, with never a suspicion that the two were equally matched.
Even more striking is the parallel between the meal of the Palestinian monastery and the Lord's Supper. There was no transformation of the elements in the Dead Sea documents, but otherwise the two ceremonies were quite similar. Speaking of communal duties, the Qumran members were told that "when they prepare the table to eat and wine to drink, the priest must be the first to extend his hand to bless the first portions of the bread. And if wine is being drunk, the priest must be the first to extend his hand to bless the first portion of the bread and wine."14 So, too, in describing the Messianic banquet, "When they gather around the table to eat or to drink wine, and the common board has been spread and the wine mixed, no one is to stretch out his hand for the first portion of bread and wine before the priest. For it is he who is to bless the first portion of bread and wine, and the first to stretch out his hand to the bread. After that the Messias of Israel will place his hands on the bread."15
In spite of these and similar analogies, the early Church was aeons removed from the Judaic community which some have identified with the Essenes and others, with more caution, describe as the Dead Sea Covenanters. The Jewish ascetics were legalistic in the extreme, attached to externals, and at the opposite pole to the injunctions of Christ for internal faith, purity of heart and detachment from the things of this world. Their observance of the Sabbath was more demanding, if possible, than the burdens laid down by the Pharisees. They were a closed sect, socially, psychologically and even physically; and forbidden association with others at the risk of. being excommunicated for consorting with outsiders. Their whole thought and practice was steeped in the Old Testament, with no hint of a new communication from on high, and combined with a rigid determinism that comes closer to the predestination passages in the Koran than to anything found in the New Testament.
Future research may reveal new correlations between Qumran and the Church of the Apostles, at least in heightening the spiritual idealism of the Jewish people at the time of Christ. It will also show that, while Christianity appealed to the best in human nature and made demands on generosity beyond anything hitherto suspected in Judaism, its inspiration did not come from the Law or the Prophets alone but from a new dispensation which fulfilled and superseded the old.
Fathers and early councils
From earliest times, the title Pater (Father) was applied to bishops of the Church as witnesses to the Christian tradition. But from the close of the fourth century it was used in a more restricted sense of a more or less clearly defined group of ecclesiastical writers of the past whose authority on doctrinal matters carried special weight. St. Basil (330-379) and St. Gregory of Nazianzen (329389) are among the first to prove the orthodoxy of their teaching by appealing to the agreement of the Fathers, technically the consensus Patrum, in support of their position.
By the end of the fifth century the term "Father" was also applied to teachers who were not bishops, like St. Jerome (342-420), and even the layman, St. Prosper of Aquitaine (390-463). According to the commonly accepted teaching, the Fathers were characterized by orthodoxy of doctrine, holiness of life, approval by the Church and antiquity. The patristic period is generally held to close with St. Isidore of Seville (560-636) in the West, and St. John Damascene (675-749) in the East.
The significance of the Fathers in the history of Catholicism lies in their witness to the apostolic tradition, of which they were the faithful transmitters and their deference to the Church as final interpreter of Christian revelation. Quantitatively their testimony is monumental (upwards of four hundred volumes in the Migne edition), and qualitatively their function has been that of reservoirs from which subsequent generations may safely draw on the deposit of faith. Even popes and general councils, while standing above the Fathers as final judges, depended on their wisdom and insight to define the Church's mind.
For seven hundred years, the patristic teaching, periodically stabilized by ecumenical councils, was the mainstay of Christianity. Yet the Fathers were not self-made but created by a series of crises which threatened the Church at every turn in her history. In the second and third centuries arose the peril of Gnosticism, a complex religious movement which denied the historical validity of the Gospels. Essentially a claim to the possession of "higher knowledge," independently of the stream of apostolic tradition, Gnosticism already plagued the Church before 100 A.D. Among the reasons which led St. John to write his Gospel was the refutation of the Gnostic Cerinthus and the Nicolaites. At the turn of the century, Ignatius of Antioch stressed the reality of Christ's earthly life, death and resurrection against the Gnostic perversion of these facts,
However this was only a prelude to the inundation that broke over the Church in the middle of the second century. The last survivors of the apostolic age felt they were faced with a new and powerful enemy that came out into the open. Now that the apostles were gone, Oriental zealots began to preach and organize religious sects. Other factors were also operative, like the rapid growth of the Church and her penetration into the world of philosophy and letters, where the simple faith of the people was exposed to Hellenic speculation and an attempt to engraft Asiatic fancies on the body of Christian revelation.
Christ, they said, was not the Deity in human form but only an aeon, or intermediary, who was apparently endowed with human nature. Accordingly salvation was not to be obtained through the merits of Christ, but through the Gnosis or superior knowledge which was manifested in Him and discovered by the Gnostics Christ, therefore, was not really born, nor did He actually live and die or rise from the grave. The events described in the Gospel were not historically but only symbolically true. Spiritual insight possessed by the Gnostics, and not the reported words and deed of Christ demonstratable by history, furnished Christianity wit] the religious truths of salvation.
The sequence of Fathers who combated Gnosticism reads like a roster of the Christian writers before the Edict of Constantine but the outstanding among them was St. Ireneus (130-200), Bishop of Lyons, who forms in thought and action an important link between the East and West. His chief work, Against the Heresies, is a detailed expose of Gnosticism.
Ireneus was the first great Catholic theologian. Unlike the Fathers in the East, he opposed Gnosticism not by setting up rival Christian speculation, but by emphasizing the traditional elements in the Church, notably the papacy, the episcopate, the canon of Scripture and religious tradition. At every point in his writing he is conscious of the chasm that separates the Oriental concept of God and religion, inherited from the Hindus and Parsis, from the Christian message preached by Christ and handed down by His disciples. Christians have only one God, infinite Creator of all things; their revelation comes from this same Deity, especially the person of Jesus of Nazareth, "Savior, King and God." The faith is founded on His preaching and on the teaching of His Church, whose seed has been sown to the ends of the earth; and preserved by the bishops "who were instituted by the apostles," as the apostles were by Christ.
To discover Christian truth, therefore, and sift it from error, we have only to see what the bishops have taught since the time of Christ.
Even before the Gnostic danger had passed, another problem arose, in the form of Arianism, which denied the uniquely divine nature of Jesus Christ. Its author was Arius (256-336), a priest of Alexandria, who in 318 began to teach that there were not three distinct persons in God, coeternal and equal in all things, but only one person, the Father. The Son is only a creature, made out of nothing like other created beings. He may be called God, but only by an extension of language, as the first and greatest person chosen to be divine intermediary in the creation and redemption of the world.
Boldly anti-trinitarian, Arianism struck at the foundations of Christianity by reducing the Incarnation to a figure of speech. If the Logos, the Word of God, was created and not divine, God did not become man nor redeem the world and all the consequent mysteries are dissolved. In Arianism we see the first major challenge of the non-Christian world to the premises of the Christian faith. Philo among the Jewish Hellenists and Plotinus among the Neo-Platonists contributed the theory of an agglomerate of ideas as the first mediator between God and the world; Gnosticism furnished the notion of aeons or lesser deities, so familiar in Zoroastrian and Hindu thought.
The Council of Nicea was convoked in 325 to meet this challenge. Since the signature texts are defective, the exact number of prelates who attended this first ecumenical gathering is not known. However, at least two hundred and twenty bishops, mostly from the East, but also from Africa, Spain, Gaul and Italy, signed the creed which affirmed the divinity of Christ. "We believe," the formula read, "in one God, the Father Almighty, Creator of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only-begotten of the Father, that is, of the substance of the Father; God from God, light from light, true God from true God; begotten, not created, consubstantial (homo-ousion) with the Father."17
The soul of the council was St. Athanasius (296-373), Bishop of Alexandria, whose resolute character and theological clarity were the main obstacle to the triumph of Arianism in the East.
About thirty years after Nicea, some Arian bishops began to teach that the Holy Spirit is also not divine. Called Pneumatomachi (enemies of the Spirit), they were answered by St. Basil and the two Gregories, of Nyssa and Nazianzen, and condemned in 381 by the second general council at Constantinople, which reaffirmed the Nicene Creed and clearly defined the divinity of the Holy Spirit. The present Nicene Creed, used at Mass in the Catholic Church on feast days, dates from this council. The interpolation Filioque, "and the Son," was added, to its dogmatic formula to express a Double Procession of the Holy Spirit, in the next century and has since become a symbol of tension between Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy.
Closely connected with Arianism was the theory of Nestorius (died 451), a Syrian monk who preached against the expression Theotokos (Mother of God), applied to the Blessed Virgin. The principal defender of Mary's honor was St. Cyril of Alexandria (died 444), whose efforts were crowned with success at the Council of Ephesus (431).
During the next century and a half, the Church underwent the interior trial of purification at the hands of Pelagius and his followers, who claimed that a man does not need supernatural grace to be saved.
Pelagius was a lay monk, born in England about 354, who came to Rome at the end of the fourth century. Having heard a bishop quote St. Augustine with relation to chastity, "Grant what You command, O Lord, and command what You will," he attacked the doctrine on the ground that the whole moral law was imperiled. If a man were not responsible for his good and evil deeds, there was nothing to restrain him from indulgence in sin. He was moreover so alarmed by the low morality of the day that he felt it could only be reformed by concentrating on man's personal responsibility for his actions. Together with his disciple Celestius, he began teaching that the only real grace we possess is free will, which alone, without any elevation or assistance from God, can lead us to heaven.
St. Jerome wrote that the world woke up one day and found itself Pelagian. He and Augustine spent themselves vindicating the traditional doctrine that free will is indeed a gift of nature, but in addition we need supernatural light and strength and, above all, infusion of sanctifying grace in order to be saved.
So numerous were the Church's pronouncements in defense of the supernatural life that by the end of the fifth century a catalogue had to be made for easy reference. Known as the Indiculus (short index), it re-stated the teaching of Christ, "without me you can do nothing," and closed every avenue of escape for a naturalistic interpretation of man's relations with God. "No one," it declared, "not even the person who has been renewed by the grace of baptism, has sufficient strength to overcome the snares of the devil, and conquer the passions of the flesh, unless he obtains help from God each day to persevere in a good life."18
One more trial plagued the Church before the end of the patristic age. Under suasion from Manichaean tendencies, inherited from the Zoroastrians, and pressure from Islam, certain Christian emperors in the East opposed the use of images in divine worship. One of their reasons was that icons are a grave obstacle to the conversion of Moslems and Jews, who outlaw sacred images on principle.
St. John Damascene, chief representative of the Christians to the Caliph, became protagonist for the believers against the Iconoclasts (image breakers) and wrote three discourses on the subject. He barely escaped martyrdom for his zeal. The second Council of Nicea (787), and the last accepted by the Eastern Orthodox, settled the issue on dogmatic grounds, but left untouched the crucial problem that three centuries later led to the separation of the East from Rome.
Caesaro-papism, or the theory of absolute control of the Church by a civil ruler, showed itself with increasing clarity during the iconoclast struggle. Started by the intervention of the State in religious matters, the conflict encountered less and less resistance in the Greek Church, especially among the secular clergy, while it was viewed by the Popes with growing apprehension. The unity achieved by Imperial decree in 787 and again in 843 proved artificial, and with the restoration of the Empire by the Franks and the development of the temporal power of the Popes, the ground was ready for the final separation between the Church of Rome and the state-dominated Church of the Byzantine Empire.
Church and state relations
With the disintegration of Charlemagne's empire in the tenth century and the inroads of the Northmen, Magyars and Saracens, political and moral values fell into decay and the Church herself was deeply affected by the return to "semi-barbarism." When feudalism emerged as a reaction to the crisis, ecclesiastical authority came under the sway of feudal lords and princes.
A reforming tendency inside the Church had started as a monastic movement in France (Cluny) and in Germany (Lorraine). After the deposition in 1046 of the anti-pope, Sylvester III (created by a Roman political party), a series of high-minded pontiffs ascended the papal throne, culminating in the pontificate of Gregory VII (1073-1085), who had served as secretary and adviser to his five predecessors.
The two principal objects of Gregory's reform were clerical celibacy and lay investiture, with the prior importance attached to the second as a contributing cause of the first. By controlling the elections of bishops, lay princes had been able to name their own creatures or relatives and even to sell bishoprics to the highest bidder. And after a bishop's consecration, they further assumed the power of "vesting" the prelate ostensibly with temporal assets like property and buildings but actually (as symbolized in the ring and pastoral staff used for investiture) by claiming also to give him ecclesiastical jurisdiction in the diocese. As a result, bishops considered themselves quite independent of the pope. Simony, incontinence and clerical abuses remained unchecked and were fostered by the political overlords.
A year after his election, Gregory held a synod in Rome, which renewed old legislation against simony and violations of celibacy. This was followed by another synod against the custom of lay investiture, with the result that at Worms in 1076 the Emperor Henry IV forced the bishops to repudiate the authority of the pope. Gregory thereupon excommunicated two German archbishops and the emperor, and then absolved Henry's subjects from all their allegiance — the first recorded papal deposition of a civil monarch.
Henry made his submission and was absolved at Canossa in 1077; but as soon as he had regained power, he renewed the opposition and was again deposed and excommunicated. But this time, the pope went beyond the first sentence. Not only was Henry dethroned but the royal power was granted by the pope to the Duke Rudolf of Suabia. In concluding the sentence, Gregory prayed that Henry "be confounded until he makes penance in order that his soul be safe at the day of the Lord."
This time the king retaliated by marching into Italy with an army, seizing Rome and setting up an antipope, Clement III. Gregory received protection from the Normans but had to retire to Salerno, where he passed away in 1085 as the greatest reformer in the history of the papacy. His last words were, "I have loved justice and hated iniquity, therefore I die in exile," Victor III, who succeeded him, excommunicated Clement III and continued the policy of Gregory, which even non-Catholic writers admit was the salvation of the Roman primacy.
The most controversial figure in the history of Church and State relations was Pope Boniface VIII (1234-1303), and his Bull, Unam Sanctam, issued in 1302, was the high point of the controversy.
In order to appreciate the full import of Pope Boniface's legislation, we should recall the circumstances under which it was enacted. Political rivalry among the Hapsburgs prevented the coronation of a Western Emperor for half a century in the late 1200's, with the result that during this time the Roman Pontiffs became the acknowledged visible heads of Catholic Christianity to a degree unparalleled in papal history. When Boniface VIII, a professional jurist, ascended the throne of Peter, he decided to embody in a general enactment the legal position of the Roman See, as it had crystallized during the thirteenth century. His instrument was the Bull, Unam Sanctam, which subsequently became part of the Church's Canon Law.
The immediate occasion of the Bull was a long and heated conflict between the pope and the king of France, Philip IV, called "The Fair." Philip insisted on deriving his authority in the tradition of Charlemagne and was reluctant to admit any principle of subordination to the papacy in secular matters. When the king imposed a heavy taxation on the French clergy without previous agreement with Rome, Boniface took this as an infringement of ecclesiastical rights and after protracted study of the principles involved, published the document that was to sum up the plenitude of papal power over all the Christian community, including France and her king. Some have wrongly considered the Unam Sanctam an angry rejoinder of the pope, composed in a fit of revenge. Actually it was the deliberate pronouncement of a synod, headed by the pope, in which there were (besides others) thirty-nine French archbishops and bishops. Nor is it a document which the Holy See has ever retracted. In fact it was solemnly confirmed by the Fifth Lateran Council in 1513; and the very point in its teaching to which exception has been taken, is reaffirmed in the Syllabus of Errors of Pius IX.
After declaring there is only one Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, over which Christ placed only one head, "not two heads as if it were a monster," Boniface explained the relation of the secular power to the spiritual. "We are taught by the words of the Gospel that in this Church and in its power there are two swords, namely, a spiritual and a temporal. It is necessary that one sword should be under the other, and that temporal authority be subjected to the spiritual. For, the truth bearing witness, the spiritual power should instruct the temporal power and judge it, if it be not good. Hence We declare, affirm, and define and pronounce that it is altogether necessary for the salvation of every creature to be subject to the Roman Pontiff."19
At the outset we must distinguish between defined doctrine and ordinary papal teaching. Only the final sentence was solemnly defined and clearly represents traditional Catholic dogma on the Church's necessity for salvation.
But how are we to understand the preceding statements on the subordination of State to Church. We cannot interpret Boniface to mean that the whole sphere of temporal jurisdiction is directly subject to the Church; an injustice against which he protested shortly after the Bull was published. Followers of Philip the Fair inserted into the document the spurious phrase, "We wish you (the king) to know that you hold your kingdom from Us," adding that anyone who denied the proposition was a heretic. In a solemn consistory, Boniface denounced the forgery. "For forty years We have studied law, and We know that there are two powers appointed by God. Who should, then, or can, believe that We entertain, or have entertained, such stupid absurdity? We declare that in no way do We wish to usurp the jurisdiction of the king. And yet, neither the king nor any one else of the faithful can deny that he is subject to Us where a question of sin is involved (ratione peccati)."20
The pope's phrase "ratione peccati," has since become the Church's norm to judge when and to what extent she may use her spiritual power to intervene in the secular affairs of State. She may do so when, in her judgment, an otherwise temporal affair (like civil legislation) affects the religious interests of the faithful by placing unwarranted burden on their conscience, exposing them to sin or otherwise conflicting with that spiritual welfare over which the Church believes she alone has ultimate jurisdiction by the mandate of her Founder.
The Middle Ages
The period from the beginning of the twelfth to the end of the fifteenth century, spanning about four hundred years of European culture, has been called the Middle Ages. Once viewed as a sterile interlude between the age of barbarism and modern times, it has come to be regarded as one of the most creative and fruitful periods in the word's history. For the historian of Catholicism it has special interest as the age which approached most nearly the ideal of Christendom as a religious unity.
Superficially it might seem that the source of this unity was an external agency, namely, the despotic control by an absolute papacy. Actually it was the fruit of interior solidarity of faith, which ten centuries of conflict had purified and that, in spite of sporadic upheavals, remained substantially intact until the dawn of the Reformation. The papacy was created by the faith, not vice versa; and as long as Christians believed substantially the same truths, Western Christianity remained one.
At the heart of the medieval faith was a conviction that the Church was a visible society, guided invisibly by its divine Founder but visibly directed by the successors of Peter in the apostolic see.
Saints and mystics, scholars and the ordinary faithful commonly recognized this principle.
According to Paul Sabatier, Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) had been "expected, desired, longed for and prepared for by the sigh of Christian humanity. He drew from the Gospel a new spirit, a new soul, he vivified these by humility, love and submission." Yet his message and program were simple: to follow Christ in perfect poverty. Stirred by the words of the Master, "Do not possess gold nor silver," he gave away all that he had and soon gathered around him a group of like-minded companions.
True to the spirit of his age, Francis went to Rome to secure approval for his project. He had three audiences with Innocent III, whose pontificate is said to climax the medieval papacy. In the first he told the poverello to "go and pray God to manifest His will; when we know it we shall be able to answer you in all security." In the second he listened to Francis address him as "Holy Father" and tell the parable of the king, the poor woman and her children, personifying Christ, himself and the begging mendicants whom he wished to organize. Finally after the third interview Innocent verbally approved the Franciscan Rule. As he explained, he saw in this humble man, who asked only the authority to live by the Gospel, one who would redress the great Church of God and put it back into equilibrium.
It was no coincidence that among the provisions of the rule was this short one on Orthodoxy. "Let the Brethren on pain of being expelled from the fraternity behave themselves always as good Catholics; let them follow the usage and doctrine of the Roman Church."21
Excited by the reformers of the epoch, some Christians professed contempt for the sacraments administered by incontinent or simoniacal priests. Some refused to assist at Mass celebrated by them; others trod under foot the sacred species they had consecrated. One of these people approached Francis, who answered his questions with candor. "The hands of this priest may be such as you know, I know nothing about it. But even if they be so they cannot change the virtue of the sacraments. By these hands God bestows on His people a multitude of graces. I kiss those hands in honor of the benefits they dispense and of Him whose sacraments they are."22 Francis himself was not a priest, but he knew the distinction on which the Catholic doctrine of the sacraments rests: that their efficacy is not dependent on the sanctity of the one who ministers them.
The greatest theological light of his day, St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) professed the same faith. His Summa Theologiae has been compared to a great cathedral, built of the elements that twelve centuries of Christian wisdom had accumulated but never synthesized. "He combined, without confusing philosophy and theology, State and Church, civic and Christian virtues, natural and divine law, Christ and culture."23 He also believed the Church of Christ was a divine creation, solid as a house built on massive foundations.
St. Thomas was no idle theorist. He singled out for special mention the dangers to the Church from within in her unholy churchmen. He could recall that John XII (955-964) was elected Bishop of Rome at the age of eighteen and in less than a decade proved so unworthy that a synod, ordered by the emperor, tried and deposed him on charges of sacrilege, simony, perjury, murder and incest; that Benedict IX (1032-1048) was driven out of Rome because of his wicked life.
Although the popes, as a class, have been men of high integrity, there were tragic exceptions. And what even Aquinas had not experienced, came to pass within a century of his death, when the low morality of Catholic prelates and the weakness of several Pontiffs brought on the Western Schism (1378-1417), of which de Maistre asked, "What human institution could have withstood the ordeal?"
The schism broke over the harsh methods that Urban VI (1318-1389) used to try to reform the college of cardinals. Though Urban had been validly elected, the malcontents proceeded to choose one of their own number, Clement VII, as antipope, and until the Council of Constance settled the dispute by electing Martin V, there were three lines of rival claimants: the Roman started by Urban VI, the French under Clement VII, and the Pisan begun by Alexander V in an effort to solve the previous rupture.
Theologians, canoeists and saints were divided in their allegiance, St. Catherine of Siena recognizing Urban VI and St. Vincent Ferrer Clement VII. True, the Great Schism was not schismatic in the ordinary sense because all parties upheld the supremacy of the Holy See. The problem was: which of the two or three claimants was legitimate pope? In spite of this trial, the Church grew in strength and vitality. Gregorovius, an impartial observer, remarked that the Schism "raised the papacy from decadence to a new eminence, and showed the world once again how the mystical faith of the people endows the pontiffs with powers that can rise to glory even when apparently dead."25
A dramatic proof of this mystical faith was the conduct of St. Catherine of Siena (1333-1380), Dominican tertiary and contemplative. Her extant correspondence with Gregory XI and his successor Urban VI reveals the spirit of Catholicism that acknowledges the Vicar of Christ while mercilessly rebuking his human failings.
Addressing Gregory as "sweet Christ on earth, on behalf of Christ in heaven" she censures his self-love which condoned the three vices then plaguing the Bride of Christ: impurity, avarice and swollen pride. "Human wretchedness!" she exclaims. "Blind is the sick man who does not know his own need, and blind the shepherd physician, who has regard to nothing but his own advantage. Such men do as Christ says: for if one blind man guide the other, both fall into the ditch. Sick man and physician fall into hell." In another letter, she begs his pardon for her boldness, explaining it was "the great love which I bear your salvation, and my great grief when I see the contrary, that makes me speak so." Then she adds, "Take care that I do not have to complain about you to Jesus crucified. There is no one else I can complain to, for you have no superior on earth."26
Catherine was equally explicit with Urban VI, at once recognizing his supreme authority and his human failings. "You are father and lord of the universal body of the Christian religion; we are all under the wings of your holiness. As to authority, you can do everything, but as to seeing, you can do no more than one man."27
It would be naive to assume that papal authority was uncontested during the Middle Ages. A theory of conciliarism, which claimed that a general council was above the pope, had been current in France since the thirteenth century. It reached its climax in the fifteenth, at the Council of Constance (sixteenth ecumenical) that put an end to the Western Schism by electing Martin V.
Among its published decrees were statements that contradicted papal supremacy and personal infallibility. Speaking of itself, the council declared that "it holds authority immediately from Christ, and all persons, of whatever authority, even the pope himself, are bound to obey the council in all that regards the faith, the healing of schism, and the reformation of the Church of God in her head and members. Anyone who disobeys this or any other general council, even the pope himself, shall, unless they repent, suffer the punishment they deserve."28
In approving the Council of Constance, Martin V excluded these sentiments from his approbation, and the restriction was accepted by the Church. Under his successor, Eugenius IV, the Council of Florence (1438-1445) removed the last vestige of doubt by solemnly proclaiming "that the holy, Apostolic See and the Roman Pontiff have the primacy over the whole world, and that the Roman Pontiff is the successor of St. Peter, the Prince of the Apostles, and the true vicar of Christ, the head of the whole Church, father and teacher of all Christians."29
Florence came at the end of a great schism in the West and was convoked to heal the centuries-old schism in the East. Among its most celebrated members were the Greek Emperor, John VIII Palaeologus, and Joseph, Patriarch of Constantinople. A decree of union between the East and West, based on the Roman primacy and beginning with the words "Laetentur Coeli" (may the heavens rejoice), was signed by all but one of the Eastern delegates. Political pressure in the East prevented the union from taking permanent effect.
There is something pathetic about the Council of Florence in trying, unsuccessfully, to heal the Eastern Schism and yet taking no cognizance of the still greater rift in Christendom about to take place in the next generation.
By the close of the Middle Ages, the Church had become involved in a turmoil of change. The rise of the modern secular State created a new rival to the Church's authority and a strong competitor for allegiance from citizens who were also Catholic Christians. Contact with the culture of the Islamic East, inspired by the Crusades, opened new horizons of knowledge that were a challenge to European and, by association, to Catholic forms of thought. Discovery of the Greek and Roman classics stimulated research in the ancient languages, and produced a critical attitude towards the Scriptures and a desire to have the inspired word of God, in or from the original.
The same sort of conflict appeared on the social and religious planes. Invention of printing multiplied the diffusion of ideas by geometric proportion, and where before 1440 men like Waldo, Aquinas and Huss could affect only a small number in restricted areas, by the end of the fifteenth century dynamic concepts and personalities had influence on numberless thousands in all parts of the Christian world. For the Church this was an opportunity and a threat, depending on whose ideas became prevalent and whether the new instrument was used to support or question ecclesiastical authority.
An accurate calculation shows that ninety saints and blessed from the fifteenth century were raised to the honors of the altar, men and women whose virtues during life were so outstanding they merited to be called heroic. At the same time, the contrast with the immorality and avarice in high places, including high churchmen, was so startling that the very term "Reformation" was coined to describe the reform of the Church "in head and members" demanded on all sides. It is symptomatic of the age that one of the purest flowers of Christian sanctity, St. Joan of Arc (1412-1431), was burned to death through the connivance of a corrupt ecclesiastical court. Her words, under trial, when asked to recant, "Let all the things I have said and done be reported to Rome, to our Holy Father, the Pope, to whom, after God, I refer them," only emphasize the struggle that men had to remain faithful to their Church under grave provocation."30
In one of the most remarkable documents of religious history, Adrian VI (1522-1523), the last non-Italian pope of modern times, held nothing back in describing the state of affairs on the eve of the Reformation, which he called a persecution.
Adrian has been blamed for Teutonic bluntness in making this open confession of sins. But he was too clear-sighted a theologian not to distinguish between admission of moral guilt and acceptance of divinely-instituted authority. The latter he professed with courage and humility. "We desire," he said, "to wield our power not as seeking dominion or means for enriching our kindred, but in order to restore to Christ's bride, the Church, her former beauty, to give help to the oppressed, to uplift men of virtue and learning and, above all, to do all that beseems a good shepherd and successor of the blessed Peter."32
All the evidence shows that the original intention of the Reformers was to reform the Church and not to separate from papal authority which they at first recognized as the bulwark of Christian unity. Among the extant writings of Martin Luther is a sermon he preached in 1516 on the feast of St. Peter in Chains. It would have done credit to Adrian himself as a testimony to the papacy. "If Christ had not entrusted all power to one man," he told the audience, "the Church would not have been perfect because there would have been no order, and each one would have been able to say he was led by the Holy Spirit." Since the invisible head of the faithful desires that "all may be assembled in one unity, Christ wills that His power be exercised by one man, to whom also He has committed it. He has made this power so strong that He permits all the forces of hell to be let loose against it without injury."33 Clearly, as a Catholic, Luther had no misgivings about Church authority or whether a Reformation of morals was possible without a revolution of doctrine.
Reformation to modern times
The immediate effect of the Reformation on Roman Catholicism was theological. The Protestant emphasis on the Bible and rejection of the Roman primacy stimulated theologians to investigate more closely the sources of revelation in Scripture and Tradition, and establish the grounds for a rational apologetic in support of the Catholic claims. The first need was met by developing a system of positive theology, whereby the truths professed by Catholic Christianity were shown to be found in the deposit of faith.
The Jesuits, led by St. Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621), became the main expositors of this system, as they also laid the groundwork for fundamental theology, which proves from history and philosophy the credibility of the Christian religion.
Speculative theology also began a new era, occasioned by the challenges of Protestantism on almost every portion of the Catholic Church. During the twenty years of the Council of Trent (1545-1565), the combined intelligence of Roman Catholicism concentrated its efforts on so defining the nature of grace and justification, the Sacrifice of the Mass and the priesthood, the sacramental system and ecclesiastical authority, that insights were gained on which post-Tridentine writers have built an imposing theological structure.
But the fruits of the Counter-Reformation were more than theological. Since the Council of Trent, the Catholic Church has entered on a new phase of existence. The dogmatic bases were not changed, but their implications broadened; the very need of defending her claim to autonomy made the Church more than ever conscious of her corporate character; and the loss of large segments of membership (or practical disappearance under political pressure in England and Scandinavia), was made up by a new devotedness among those who remained faithful to the Church of Rome. "We must put aside all judgment of our own," wrote St. Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556), "and keep the mind ever ready and prompt to obey in all things the true Spouse of Christ, our Lord, our holy Mother, the hierarchical Church."34
This was no pious rhetoric. Catholics throughout Europe rallied to the defense of their common Mother and, as in England and Ireland, laid down their lives in her cause. "I am a Catholic man and a priest," Edmund Campion told the judge who condemned him. "In that faith have I lived and in that faith I intend to die." The trials of purification during the sixteenth century were a blessing in disguise. Though at a terrible price, the Church bought a lease on her spiritual life that had no counterpart in previous history. There was a growth in the personal sanctity of her leaders and people, an expansion of zeal in missionary enterprise, a development of religious education, a deepening sense of solidarity among the laity, and a rising influence of Catholic principles on the world at large.
Holiness is an elusive concept. The title "saint" has been applied to such varied individuals as Savonarola, John Wesley, and Mahatma Gandhi. In the Catholic Church, however, only those are called saints who were either martyrs or who during life practiced the moral virtues over a long period of time, under severe trial and temptation, and to a degree that clearly exceeds the native capacity of the human will. All the virtues were comprehended, but especially charity, fortitude and temperance, including chastity. Several thousand men and women, in every walk of life, have been raised to the honors of the altar (saints and blessed) in the past four hundred years, almost seven hundred since Pius XI, as a living witness to the Church's capacity for uniting the soul with God.
Coupled with the miraculous sanctity of a small number has been a raising of demands on the conscience of all Catholics in modern times that were practically unknown in the "ages of faith."
In pluralistic societies, the pressures from an alien environment, the tendency to moral conformity, the urge to follow prevalent standards in marriage, business and the professions, the example of well-meaning persons whose religious principles are foreign to the Catholic way of life, have placed clergy and laity in the dilemma of choosing between compromise or often near-heroism in remaining true to their own convictions. More respectability is swept along with the stream; only a strong faith and more than normal courage have been able to withstand the tide. Yet the Church has grown, from an estimated world membership of a hundred million at the turn of the century to over half a billion in the sixties.
Foreign missions outside Europe were few and sporadic until the sixteenth century. The Counter Reformation brought a rebirth of missionary zeal, comparable only to the evangelization in apostolic or early medieval times. Some have called it an effort to counteract the losses in north-western Europe. More accurately it was a spontaneous result of the change of interior life among the Catholic peoples who had for so long taken their faith for granted. A letter of St. Francis Xavier, written from Cochin to Rome in 1543, illustrates the spirit of the Gospel to which he could appeal and be heard by so many volunteers they had to be restrained from following him to the Indies.
Missionary enthusiasm has continued unabated through the centuries, in spite of obstacles from rapacious or near-sighted political rulers, indifference or savage reprisal among the natives, domestic and foreign wars, and all the inclemencies of learning a strange tongue and living in an atmosphere devoid of Christian principles and customs. A current annual increase of more than one million Catholics in the Far East, where Communism has become dominant, indicates the established character of the Church's missions.
Since the liberation of Christianity under Constantine, the Church had conducted an immense variety of schools and institutions in every branch of learning. In the Middle Ages, a home of study was attached to the monasteries, convents and cathedral chapters scattered throughout Europe. Chantry endowments were normally associated with giving free instructions to the children of the surrounding country-side. After some two thousand centuries were suppressed in England during the sixteenth century, there was no English grammar school for the next two hundred years which had not previously been a chantry. Universities were spread over the continent and in Great Britain, always by the initiative and under the protection of the Holy See.
If anything, Catholic education has been intensified in modern times, and in countries like the United States, where freedom of religion is enjoyed, it has reached a scope and degree of intensity unknown in previous history. Catholic education in Catholic schools for Catholic youth was the ideal proposed by Pius XI, where "all the teaching and the whole organization of the school, its teachers, syllabus, and textbooks in every branch are regulated by the Christian spirit."
In many countries, e.g., England, France, Scotland, Canada, and the Netherlands, the State contributes to the support of church affiliated institutions, on the principle that "the school plays a vital part in the child's attitudes and sense of values. If the school gives little place to religious teaching, then the child quite naturally assumes that religion is not an integral part of his mental development."36 The judgment on the need for religion-centered education, originally professed by the Church, is now shared by many educators in the western world.
Cultivating a sense of unity among widely scattered peoples is a difficult process, and one contributing factor to the breakdown of solidarity in the sixteenth century was that so little was done to make the faithful conscious of their common heritage and their bond of union under the See of Rome. A great deal has happened since then. The very option that Catholics were forced to make, between acceptance or rejection of the pope, resulted in strengthening the ties of membership in the Catholic Church.
But that was only the beginning. The modern world has become smaller than ever before. Mass media for the exchange of ideas and rapid transportation have made neighbors of once-distant nations and joined whole continents closer than formerly were towns of the same province. All of this has affected the Catholic Church whose inner structure is already based on a principle of interrelationship that no other body enjoys. Where in the Middle Ages the pope was for most people only a distant figure, he is now as near (or nearer) to the average Catholic anywhere on the globe as the local parish priest; papal statements and attitudes become in a few hours the common property of all nations. The happenings and misfortunes of Catholic people in once remote places in Asia or Africa are made known to their co-religionists in America overnight.
The sense of fellowship thus created between church leaders and the laity, and among the laity themselves is a matter of experience, and heightens the faith-accepted idea that Catholics are more than members of a juridical society, that they belong to a mystical organization whose principle of unity is the Spirit of God.
Bound in with the foregoing and rising out of the Church's sense of mission, is the influence which Catholicism exercises in modern times beyond anything previously known. The Catholic Church believes itself to be in full possession of revealed truth, and divinely qualified to interpret and transmit this revelation to its own members and, indeed, to the whole world. Among the crucial areas on which it believes the human mind is naturally incapable of complete and accurate knowledge is the moral law, involving such basic responsibilities as the precepts of the Decalogue.
With the growing secularization of Western society, the call for enlightening the people, once Christian in their religious duties to God and neighbor, has increased enormously. On one side the grave need, and on the other the Church's felt duty to answer the need, have given Catholicism a role to play in "teaching the nations" that some of its worst critics are willing to respect.
It is not only papal encyclicals on the social order, like Rerum Novarum of Leo XIII or Mater et Magistra of John XXIII, but the whole gamut of natural religion founded on belief in a personal God, that passes from the Church into every phase of human society. At the first Vatican Council, when atheism and rationalism were scored as denials of man's nature and insults to God, principles were set forth that have penetrated wherever the faithful live and affect those with whom they come into contact. An issue like artificial contraception, for example, has been raised as a moral problem mainly because of the Church's stand on the intrinsic dignity of womanhood and the sacred character of sex relations in marriage.
At the opening of the Second Vatican Council, Pope John XXIII stressed a new dimension in the Church's outreach to the world at large. Where previous ecumenical councils had been convoked to stem the rise of some error or clarify a disputed area of revealed doctrine, this one was met for a different purpose. "Nowadays," the Pope said, "the spouse of Christ prefers to make use of the medicine of mercy rather than that of severity. She considers that she meets the needs of the present day by demonstrating the validity of her teaching rather than by condemnations." Behind this attitude is the conviction that no other way is more effective to promote unity among Christians and, indeed, among all men than the practice of charity, particularly of that supernatural love which seeks to communicate to others the graces it has received from God.
Active participation of Protestant and Orthodox delegates at the Second Vatican Council has made history. It also demonstrated the new spirit which people in every communion sense has entered the Christian world.
Meaning of Catholicism
The term "Catholic" was first applied to the Church by Ignatius of Antioch in his letter to the Smyrneans, to whom he said that "wherever the bishop appears, let the congregation be present; just as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church."38 No doubt Ignatius used the adjective to distinguish the universal Church from particular churches in different countries. Yet the emphasis he placed on unity of doctrine suggests that already at the beginning of the second century the word "Catholic" had something of the connotation it soon acquired, of an institution that claimed to remain true to the teachings of its Founder in contrast with other Christian systems and modes of thought.
Along with the profession of fidelity there developed the idea of universality, which the early apologists were quick to exploit in their defense of Christianity. "There is not one single race of men, whether barbarians, or Greeks, or whatever they may be called, among whom prayers and giving of thanks (the Eucharist) are not offered through the name of the crucified Jesus."39 Thus wrote Justin the Martyr around 150 A.D. But the classic expositor of what "Catholic" means was St. Ireneus, Bishop of Lyons, writing at the end of the second century in his controversy with the Gnostics.
Here is the essence of Catholicism as its adherents understand their faith: a universality pervading all nations and languages, races and social structures.
Yet, even as they identify catholicity with universality, Catholics believe their religion is more than a broadly diffused form of Christianity. They see their Church as an extension of the Incarnation and view it as participating in the twofold nature of Christ, who was at once true man and the Son of the living God. According to one view, therefore, the visible phase as a juridical institution is stressed — corresponding to the humanity of Jesus; and according to another aspect are emphasized the internal qualities of a spiritual entity whose cohesive force is the invisible grace of God — comparable to Christ's divinity.
The clearest exponent of the Church as a visible institution was St. Robert Bellarmine, contemporary of Luther, Calvin, and the early Reformers. To meet their challenge of a new concept of Christianity as a purely invisible society composed of all the believers, or all the just, or all the predestined, he described the Catholic Church as "the assembly of men, bound together by the profession of the same Christian faith, and by the communion of the same sacraments, under the rule of rightful pastors, and in particular of the one Vicar of Christ on earth, the Roman Pontiff."41 The purpose of this definition was mainly functional, to determine who are members of the Catholic Church and who are not. To make sure his meaning was not misunderstood, Bellarmine added: "the Church is an assembly of men, as visible and palpable as the gathering of the Roman people, or the Kingdom of France, or the Republic of Venice."42
Each of three different elements set down the conditions for membership in this juridical body. Since profession of faith is the first requisite, only those who accept all that the Church infallibly proposes for belief actually belong to the Catholic Church. They may not be aware of the whole corpus of required doctrine, or may be subjectively mistaken in their understanding of what is taught, but they accept whatever is part of the Church's official teaching.
Behind this condition for Church affiliation is the premise that God came to earth in the person of Jesus Christ to teach people the way to salvation — how to live in this world in order to attain heaven in the next. If this is true, it is argued, then Christ would not have left the door of salvation opened for His own times only. He wanted His saving teachings to remain available to mankind until the end of time. Yet this availability would have been less than sterile if He had not provided a living authority to explain and interpret His doctrine as found in the Gospels. Is divorce with remarriage moral? Was Christ born of a virgin and did He rise in bodily form after death? Does the Church in her priests have the power of forgiving sins, and will impenitent sinners be punished eternally in hell? Without a sure court of appeal, Catholicism says, moral and theological disintegration seem inevitable. It was therefore to avert such disintegration that Christ established the Church to be His authoritative interpreter on earth, to be His one completely competent spokesman for adjudicating between truth and error on life and death matters.
Sharing in the same sacraments is also necessary for Catholic membership, on the postulate that those who belong to the Church must be united not only by profession of the same faith but in the manifestation of the same forms of divine worship. The Sacrifice of the Mass in particular is considered the mainstay of ritual solidarity, wherein the same High Priest who offered Himself on the Cross for the Redemption of the world offers Himself in an unbloody manner every time the Eucharistic oblation is repeated.
Up to this point, all Christians participate in some of these conditions, and a few (among the Orthodox and Episcopalians) subscribe to practically everything. But the third element, obedience to the Roman Pontiff as Vicar of Christ, is uniquely Catholic. It explains why the term "Roman" is commonly added to "Catholic Church" in popular terminology.
In accepting papal authority, the Catholic Church understands that the Roman Pontiff has more than just the highest office of inspection as a kind of superintendent or director. He is believed to have received from Christ the full and supreme power of jurisdiction over the universal Church, not only in matters of faith and morals, but also in things relating to the discipline and government of the Church throughout the world. Consequently, the pope is held to possess not merely the principal part but the fulness of this supreme power. His authority is not merely occasional or delegated, but ordinary and immediate over each and all the churches and over all the pastors of the faithful.
In Bellarmine's ecclesiology, the external phase was emphasized to bring out the Church's visibility and sense perceptibility. It is a definite society, he explained, not of angels or spirits but of men.
It must then be bound together by external and visible signs, so that those who belong to it can recognize one another as members and thereby share in their common and distinctive possessions.
There is another, more profound concept of the Church, which the late Pius XII traced to the writings of St. Paul and the early Fathers. "If we would define and describe the true Church of Jesus Christ," he said, "which is the one, holy, Catholic, apostolic Roman Church — we shall find nothing more noble, more sublime, or more divine than the expression 'the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ.'"43
The term "mystical" has a variety of meanings in theological parlance, but when applied to the Church it describes the mysterious presence of Christ which Catholics believe is the Incarnation extended into history and destined to be consummated in heaven after the last day. Once the word "mystical" is seen to be the same as "sacramental," the full import of how Catholicism understands itself becomes clearer. In a broad sense anything spiritual conveyed through bodily means partakes of the nature of a sacrament. There are seven sacraments properly so-called in the Catholic Church, containing the grace they signify and conferring that grace from the rite itself (ex opere operato) on those who place no obstacle in the way. However, by analogy the Church itself may be considered sacramental, and the two concepts together afford the deepest insight into the meaning of Catholic Christianity.
As explained by St. Thomas, who borrowed his ideas from the patristic tradition, the body with which St. Paul identified the Church is a living entity, and like every organism requires suitable means to enter into life, to grow and mature according to its nature. Similarly Christ has provided for His Mystical Body by endowing it with the sacraments, to give its members access to powerful channels of grace, from birth to death, and to provide for the social needs of the society He founded.
Leading this sacramental series is baptism, called the door of the Church because it is the only way a person can become an actual member of the Catholic Church. At the Council of Florence, which sought the reunion of the Eastern Orthodox, "holy Baptism" was said to "hold the first place among all the sacraments because it is the door of the spiritual life. By it we are made members of Christ and of His Body the Church. And since through the first man death has come to all men, unless we are reborn of water and the Holy Spirit we cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven."44
Having entered the Church, a Catholic is held by divine law to give profession of his belief in Christ, at no matter what cost and under penalty of eternal loss of his soul. When explaining this injunction, Canon Law refers to the precept of Christ: "Everyone who acknowledges me before men, him will the Son of Man also acknowledge before the angels of God. But whoever disowns me before men will be disowned before the angels of God." Since the precept is universal and may at times require extraordinary courage to fulfill, the faithful receive the sacrament of Confirmation by which they are given additional strength to protect and defend the Church, their Mother, and the faith she has given them.
Confirmation, therefore, has a double aspect: to safeguard not only one's own faith but also to defend the Church from whom the faith was received. Its function is not only negative, to shelter the faith and the Church, but openly to defend both against the forces of opposition.
Likewise, in the sacrament of Penance or Confession, the benefit is considered both individual and social. Here the Church is seen as providing a salutary remedy for those who have fallen into sin, and at the same time removing from other members of the Mystical Body the danger of contagion — besides giving them an incentive and example for the practice of virtue. As sin is removed from one cell of the Body, the rest of the Church profits accordingly, much as the removal of a diseased organ or limb benefits the whole person. What happens is not merely the checking of bad influence, in this case the effects of sin, but the transmission of new vitality in the form of grace from one part of the Church's body to all the others.
The Eucharist is pre-eminently the sacrament of Catholicism. It is a dramatic symbol of the unity of the Church, about which St. Augustine and other ancients wrote their homilies, and illustrated in the liturgical prayers of the Mass, like the oration from the Didache, dated in the first century of the Christian era: "As this broken Bread was scattered over the hills and then, when gathered together became one mass, so may Your Church be gathered from the ends of the earth into Your Kingdom. For Yours is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ for evermore."45
Moreover in the Eucharist Catholics believe they receive the very Author of grace and the Head of the Mystical Body, and through Him an increase of charity towards God and of love for others for the sake of God. Thus the Eucharist is an aliment of the Church, wherein Christ nourishes Christ, Head to members, and they in turn become more unified with one. another through Him.
In a category by itself is the Sacrifice of the Mass, which the popes down the centuries have said is the central act of worship in the Church, and the main single source of grace for mankind, benefiting people in the Church and out of it, whether in the friendship of God or estranged from Him by sin.
Extreme Unction is the sacrament of passage from the Mystical Body on earth to the Mystical Body in heaven. Where the other sacraments help the faithful to remain steadfast during life, anointing with the oleum infirmorum gives the promise of strength to resist the evil spirit at the hour of death. There are two effects proper to this sacrament and both are related to the mystical Body. Its main purpose is to remove the vestiges of sin and strengthen the soul in its departure from this world, thus facilitating its entrance into the Church Triumphant, which is the Mystical Body in heavenly consummation. An important secondary effect, however, is to remove the guilt and punishment due to sin, whether grave or venial, thus restoring (if need be) life to a dead member of the Church and making possible, besides accelerating, his admission to celestial glory.
Two sacraments of the Church are conceived as providing directly for the social needs of the Mystical Body. In Matrimony the husband and wife are ministers of grace to each other. Since they are not only man and woman but also belong to a supernatural society, the procreation of children for them means more than just conserving the human race and providing for its orderly development; it means the duty of preserving and increasing membership of the Mystical Body. All the laws that nature has implanted in the two sexes to insure the welfare of mankind are sublimated by grace in the faithful for the common benefit of the Church. Where natural instinct makes the two sexes mutually attractive, grace provides for a similar attraction on a higher level, so that children will be not only physically brought into the world but also spiritually reborn in Baptism, educated and nurtured into vital cells of the Body of Christ.
It is this concept of Matrimony that makes the Catholic Church so adamant in its stand on divorce and contraception. Marriage between Christians is indissoluble because it should reflect that most perfect union which exists between Christ and the Church which is perpetual. One of the most frequent causes of estrangement from the Church of his Baptism and his deepest loyalties on the part of a Catholic is a marriage attempted after a divorce. He is reminded that "the whole of eternity is gambled against the fascination of human companionship," that men are ultimately made not for earthly happiness but for heavenly joy. "Hence, if there is loneliness and a longing for companionship, let these be looked upon not as a warrant to contravene divine law, but as a challenge to Christian fortitude."47
The same with contraception. "Since the conjugal act is destined primarily by nature for the begetting of children, those who in exercising it deliberately frustrate its natural power and purpose sin against nature and commit a deed which is shameful and intrinsically vicious."48 If this applies to all married persons, it is specially pertinent to Catholics who would thus frustrate not only the natural function of sexual intercourse but the connatural way in which Christ intends His Church to increase and multiply in the supernatural order.
By the sacrament of Ordination the Church is provided with the means of nourishing the life of the faithful through the Mass and the sacraments and, in a true sense, with the juridical power to govern by legitimate authority and proclaim the word of God. Except for the sacraments of Baptism and Matrimony, which do not require ordination to be administered, all the others depend on the power of priestly orders.
Here is a crucial difference between Catholic and other forms of Christianity. In Catholic thought, the priestly powers communicated by Christ through the apostles and their successors are intimately bound up with the power of jurisdiction. In practical terms, the authority which the pope and bishops exercise in the Church derives from their ordination and consecration. No doubt a single person, say a bishop-elect, may be invested with jurisdictional powers before his consecration. But considering the Church as a whole, the power of jurisdiction requires the power of orders necessarily and absolutely. If there were no power of orders at all, there could be no ecclesiastical authority in the accepted Catholic meaning of that term.
Viewed in this light, the Catholic Church's claim to apostolic lineage is more than a simple assertion of fidelity to the teaching of the apostles. It is a claim to historical continuity from Christ, through the apostles, to all the members of the hierarchy and from them to all priests: that when Christ ordained the first ministers of the Gospel, He gave them delegated power to communicate to others what they had received, in literal and direct succession until the end of time.
However, the Catholic Church professes to more than having a sacramental system, from Baptism to Holy Orders. It claims to be itself the great Sacrament of the New Law. The logic behind this profession stems from the general principle that although God can perform by His own power all that is effected by created natures, nevertheless in the counsels of His providence He has preferred to help men by the instrumentality of other men's work; so also He makes use of human aid for that which lies beyond the limits of nature, for the salvation and sanctification of souls.
It is assumed that the divine mission committed to Him by His Father was not to end with Christ's death but continue after his ascension through the Church which He founded. Consequently as Catholics view their Church, it is undoubtedly spiritual if we consider the chief purpose of the Church, which is to make men holy, and the immediate cause of holiness, which is supernatural grace in its various forms. But as regards the persons who constitute the Body of Christ and the means which lead to these spiritual gifts, the Church is external and its very external elements are the instruments for communicating the internal life of God to souls.
This fusion of visible and invisible elements is not coincidental; it is causally interdependent. Comparable to what occurs in one area of the Church's operation in the sacramental system is perennially taking place in the Church as a whole. External unity among the members and stability in doctrine and discipline are the sign of a deeper solidarity which comes from the animating Spirit of God. Conversely, doctrine and discipline, and the juridical forms which govern the faithful carry the assurance of an invisible efficacy which for Catholics as far transcends the material instruments used as the raising of Lazarus exceeded the sound of Christ's voice or the conversion of the Mediterranean world was beyond the capacity of a dozen Jews.
The Body of Christ is said to be mystical, then, because it is sacramental, not only in the functional sense of an external action signifying the conferral of interior grace, but on the cosmic level of a visible entity whose Body, in all its amplitude, is a manifestation of God's presence on earth, begun at the Incarnation and extended into human history. Those who benefit from this communication are first of all the actual members of the Mystical Body, who receive these gifts as by a special privilege. But also outside the Body, whoever is eventually saved is told to credit his salvation to the instrumentality of the Church, whose invisible Head is the fountain of all life and holiness; and of whose fullness anyone who is sanctified must have received.
Although the main lines of this concept of Catholicism are clear enough, its full implication is open to wide development, as Pope Paul told the Second Vatican Council. "It is necessary," he said, "to elucidate the teaching regarding the different components of the visible and Mystical Body, the pilgrim, militant Church on earth, that is, priests, religious, the faithful, and also the separated brethren who are also called to adhere to it more fully and completely."49
For the first time since the Reformation, the term "separated brethren" has taken on a new and profound meaning, in which the Catholic Church sees other Christians as related to herself spiritually by the three-fold bond of baptism, faith and devotion to the persons of Jesus Christ.
Father John A. Hardon. "Roman Catholicism." Chapter 13 in Religions of the World (Westminster, Maryland: The Newman Press, 1963), 300-338.
This chapter is reprinted with permission from Inter Mirifica.
Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J. (1914-2000) was a tireless apostle of the Catholic faith. The author of over twenty-five books including The Catholic Catechism, Modern Catholic Dictionary, Pocket Catholic Dictionary, Pocket Catholic Catechism, Q & A Catholic Catechism, Treasury of Catholic Wisdom, Catholic Lifetime Reading Plan and many other Catholic books and hundreds of articles, Father Hardon was a close associate and advisor of Pope Paul VI, Pope John Paul II, and Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity. Order Father Hardon's home study courses here.
Copyright © 2004 Inter Mirifica