Essay XIX


Essay XXI



by Rev. Aelred Graham, O.S.B.



The purpose of this essay is to give a brief but comprehensive outline of the nature and constitution of the community of believers founded by our Lord Jesus Christ, the Christian Society with which the Catholic and Roman Church affirms her substantial identity.  What is chiefly aimed at is not an apologetic defense of the Church, or even a direct vindication of her claims against those who would challenge them, but to explain the import which Catholics themselves attach to the words of the Creed: Credo in . . . unam sanctam catholicam et apostolicam Ecclesiam.  The sources for such an exposition are the official pronouncements of the Church herself, as formulating the deliverances of Scripture and Tradition.  Accordingly these will be generously drawn upon, personal comment and reflection being reduced to a minimum.  Among the documents of the Church’s teaching authority, Pope Pius XII’s great Encyclical Mystici Corporis Christi (29 June, 1943.  All references are to be marginal numbers in Canon G. D. Smith’s translation for the Catholic Truth Society) now holds a place of first importance: it is a magisterial restatement of traditional doctrine in the face of the divided Christendom in which we live, and should clarify much of the contemporary confusion about the nature of the Church.  From this treatise, for it is nothing less, the following pages draw their main inspiration.  The preceding essay has dealt with “The Mystical Body of Christ” considered in its inner life.  Here we shall be concerned to show, what is in fact one of the objects of the Encyclical, how the inner mystery of the Mystical Body is inseparably linked with the concrete juridical structure of the Catholic Church.





1.  Remote origins of the Church

The Church of Christ did not come suddenly into existence, unheralded and unannounced, during the lifetime of our Lord.  It has its roots deep in the past, not only in the previous history of Judaism, but in the remote origins of the human race, with Adam fell from grace and with him his whole progeny.  Our first parents were not, however, left without the hope of ultimate redemption; the evil one who had compassed their downfall would finally be crushed (Genesis iii 15); someone was to restore what was lost and, as we gather from subsequent prophecy, a new people would be born endowed with a life of undreamt of fullness.  The connection which exists between the Church and the sinful state of man, due to Adam’s disobedience, is of capital importance to understand, for it provides the key to the Church’s raison d’etre.  Just as there is little evidence to suggest that the Son of God would have become incarnate had Adam not offended, so the Catholic Church, as we know it would never have appeared in history but for man’s being cut off from God, and at odds with his fellows, through the primal disaster of sin.

2.  The fact of sin

Nevertheless, “where sin abounded, grace did more abound” (Romans v 20).  Sin has worked itself out in all manner of rebellion and human selfishness, but its first result, so far as Adam was concerned was to deprive him of that state of holy innocence and integrity which he was intended to transmit to posterity.  The sons of Adam were thereby robbed of God’s adoptive sonship and the participation in the divine nature which should have been theirs and became instead “children of wrath” (Ephesians ii 3).  This was the calamity which, first and foremost, Christ came to undo (Cf. Encyclical Mystici Corporis Christi (hereinafter designated MCC).  The Son of the Eternal Father took to himself a human nature, innocent and stainless, becoming as it were a “second Adam”; for from him the grace of the Holy Spirit was to flow into all the children of our first parent.  Through the Incarnation of the Word men would regain their lost inheritance, become brethren according to the flesh of the only begotten Son of God, and so themselves receive the power to become the sons of God.  Thus, by the great redemptive act on the Cross, not only was the Father’s outraged justice placated, but an immense treasury of graces was merited for us, his kindred.  These heavenly gifts might have been bestowed upon us directly; but God’s plan was that they should be distributed by means of a visible Church in which we, being united together, should co-operate with him in his redemptive work.  “As the Word of God vouchsafed to use our nature to redeem men by his pains and torments, in a somewhat similar way he makes use of his Church throughout the ages to perpetuate the work he had begun” (Ibid.). 

Mankind, broken away by its own act from its Creator and Lord, bereft of a divine inheritance, turned in upon itself, no longer united but disintegrated and atomized, each man for himself and no man for his brother–such was the tragic state of things from which Christ came to set us free.  And, in this very act of liberation, he restored what was lost and raised us to a supernatural destiny surpassing in splendor all human conception.  “For God so loved the world, as to give his only begotten Son: that whosoever believeth in him may not perish, but may have life everlasting” (John iii 16).  Nor did he will to bring salvation simply by his physical presence on earth, to serve as a gracious memory for the ages to come; or even by the great act of redemption achieved on the Cross, considered as a climax to a life which there was to be no sequel.  The Second Person of the Blessed Trinity was to remain united to humanity, and his saving work continue, until the end of time.  There was never again to be a day when man should find himself in the condition of “having no hope of the promise and without God in this world” (Ephesians ii 12).  The human race was to be transformed, born anew, integrated and reunited to God through the Church.

3.  The Incarnation

By the Incarnation a single human nature was taken up into union with God in the Person of Christ our Lord.  Jesus is the Son of God by nature.  The manhood of Christ is perfect and undiminished; but in Person he is none other than the Word of God himself.  But he is also “the firstborn amongst many children” (Romans viii 29); he wills that, so far as may be, we should share his divine sonship.  Whereas he is the Son of God by nature, we are meant to become the sons of God by adoption.  It was to enable us to be admitted as it were into his family that he lived and died.  “But as many as received him, he gave them power to be made the sons of God, to them that believe in his name” (John i 12).  The plan he devised for carrying out this project was to continue the Incarnation through the centuries; not simply in its effects but, so to say, in its very substance.  This prolongation of the Incarnation is but another name for the Church.  So we find the great incarnational principle–viz., the pouring out of material elements–verified in every aspect of the Church’s life.

4.  The Mystical Body of Christ

From this we should be able to understand why the Holy, Catholic, Apostolic, Roman Church, to employ her official title, rejoices in proclaiming herself “the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ” (MCC 13).  For she is animated by his life, co-operates with him, declares his message and distributes the fruits of his redemption; in a very real sense she suffers with him, just as one day she will triumph with him, when her supreme task of perpetuating his work throughout the ages has been accomplished.



1.  The Church born from the death of Christ

The Mystical Body, which is the Church, took its rise from the death of Christ on Calvary.  “By his death on the Cross he made void the Law with its decrees and fastened the handwriting of the Old Testament to the Cross, establishing the New Testament in his blood which he shed for the whole human race” (MCC 28).  So centuries before it had been foretold; so in fact it was fulfilled (Cf. Hebrews viii 8 ff).  By the Incarnation itself our Lord had become Head of the whole human family; but it is in virtue of his saving death that he exercises in all its fullness his Headship of the Church (Cf. MCC 29).  “It was by the victory of the Cross that he merited power and dominion over all nations” (St. Thomas, Summa Theologica, III, Q. xlii, ar. 1).  All the graces which through the centuries were to be poured out upon the Mystical Body were won for it by this supreme act of atonement.  At that moment the Church, like a second Eve, a new “mother of all the living” (Genesis iii 20), was born from the Savior’s side.

2.  Three successive stages in the formation of the Church

But without prejudice to Christ’s sacrificial death as being the decisive factor, we may yet distinguish three stages in the formation of the Mystical Body.  Though the Church, as a juridical institution, had no proper existence before the death of Christ, nevertheless, during his public ministry, he had outlined its constitution, described what were to be its functions and powers, and prepared the organs through which these were to be exercised.  “For while he was fulfilling his function as preacher he was choosing his Apostles, sending them as he had been sent by the Father (John xvii 18), that is to say, as teachers, rulers and sanctifiers in the community of believers; he was designating him who was to be their chief, and his own Vicar on earth (Matthew xvi 18-19); he was making known to them all the things which he had heard from the Father (John xv 15; xvii 8, 14); he was prescribing Baptism (John iii 5) as the means by which believers would be engrafted into the Body of the Church; and finally, at the close of his life, he was instituting at the Last Supper the admirable sacrifice and the admirable sacrament of the Eucharist” (MCC 26).

This preparatory work, as we have said above, was ratified by the redemptive act on the Cross.  At that moment “the veil of the Temple was rent in two from the top even to the bottom” (Matthew xxvii 51), the Old Law was abolished and the Messianic Kingdom on earth came into being.  The Church, thus brought to birth, was, so to say, formally constituted on the Day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit animated the organism of the Mystical Body, infusing each of its organs with his own power and endowing the whole with life, vigor and abiding fruitfulness.

Thus, within the limits of the New Testament writings, we can discover three successive states of Christ’s Church:  (a) an inchoative, or initial period, during the lifetime of is Founder, when he announced and prepared the Kingdom of God (The notion of “the Kingdom (perhaps, more accurately, the Rule) of God” is extremely rich.  We find three aspects of it foreshadowed in the prophetical teaching: (i)  Kingdom that was national and at the same time universal; reigning over Israel as his chosen people, God was to extend the Kingdom to the Gentiles; (ii) a spiritual Kingdom in which the moral qualities of justice and peace were to flourish; (iii) an eschatological Kingdom, in the sense that its perfection was to come after a judgment in which the wicked were to be separated from the just.  In continuity with, and development of, this doctrine, our Lord announced a Kingdom that was to be (i) no longer national but universal, embracing all peoples and times; (ii) external and social, but at the same time internal and spiritual; (iii) present, but also future and eschatological, when the good should be separated from the bad.  We may note, for it is sometimes overlooked, that theologians do not identify tout court the Catholic Church with the Kingdom of God.  The Church is the Kingdom of God on earth.  Cf. Schultes, De Ecclesia Catholica, p. 41: “Nevertheless the Kingdom of Heaven (i.e. of God) and the Church founded upon Peter are not wholly identical.  For the Church founded on Peter belongs to this world and this life: for it is founded on Peter, a mortal and terrestrial man, who will bind and loose ‘on earth’; –but the Kingdom of Heaven will exist when time is at an end and for all eternity”;  (b) its foundation, beginning with the death of Jesus, by which the Old Law was done away with and the new Messianic Kingdom, the Church, instituted;  (c) its definitive existence with the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost when the Church, both as a collectivity and in its individual members, became instinct with divine power, and began as a social organism the new life which was to continue “even to the consummation of the world” (Matthew xxviii 20).



1.  Christ the Head of the Church

“Rather we hold the truth in charity, and grow in all things unto him who is the Head, Christ.  From him the whole body, welded and compacted together by means of every joint of the system, part working in harmony with part–(from him) the body deriveth its increase, unto the building up of itself in charity” (Ephesian iv 15-16). 

We shall now pass briefly in review the chief points of the Catholic doctrine concerning the relationship between Christ and the Church (Briefly, because the matter, which is of paramount importance, has been dealt with more fully elsewhere.  See Essay XIX), and consider in greater detail (below, VIII) the manner in which his Headship is exercised through his Vicar, or visible representative, the Pope, who, together with the Bishops, rules the juridical society which is the Church on earth.

It will help us to understand how Christ is the Head of the Church if we paraphrase St. Thomas’s teaching on the point (Summa Theologica, III, Q. viii, art. 1, “Utrum Christus sit caput Ecclesiae”).  As the whole Church is one Mystical Body by a similitude with man’s natural body, each of whose members has its appropriate activity (as St. Paul teaches in Romans xii and 1 Corinthians xii), so Christ is called the Head of the Church by a parallel with the human head.  This Headship may furthermore be considered under three aspects, viz., from the point of view of order, perfection and power.  To take the first, order: we note that, beginning with what is highest, the head is the principal part of a man; it is thus that we call the source of origin of anything its “head.”  Considered in this way, Christ has the chief place, by reason of his soul’s nearness to God; he is pre-eminent in God’s grace to such a degree that all others receive grace in virtue of his.  This is what is implied in St. Paul’s words: “For whom he foreknew, he also predestinated to be made conformable to the image of his Son: that he might be the firstborn amongst many brethren” (Romans viii 29).  Secondly, in the hierarchy of perfection: St. Thomas points out that, whereas in the head we find located all the interior and exterior senses, in the other parts of the body there is only the sense of touch.  Similarly in Christ, as distinct from the inferior members of the Mystical Body, we find the fullness and perfection of grace (Cf. John i 14).  Finally, with reference to power: just as the control of the other parts of the body resides in the head, so Christ rules over the Church’s members by the influence of grace.  “And of his fullness we all have received” (John i 16). 

2.  Christ’s influence upon the Church

In virtue of this pre-eminence our Lord “reigns in the minds and hearts of men, bending and constraining even rebellious wills to his decrees” (MCC 37).  He takes charge both of the individual soul, by reason of his intimate presence within it, and of the whole Church, enlightening and strengthening her rulers in the faithful discharge of their high office.  It is by his power that the fruits of holiness are brought forth in the Church, as made manifest in the lives of the saints, with a view to “the building up of the body of Christ” (Ephesians iv 13).  Whenever sin is resisted, whenever a soul grows in holiness, whenever the Church administers her sacramental rites, “it is he himself who chooses, determines, and distributes graces to each ‘according to the measure of the giving of Christ’” (Ibid. iv 7; MCC 49).

3.  His love for the Church

Of Christ’s love for the Church it should be almost superfluous to speak, for it is but another aspect of his love for redeemed humanity.  “Christ is the Head of the Church.  He is the savior of his body” (Ephesians v 23).  In the illuminating words of Pius XII: “the loving knowledge with which the divine Redeemer has pursued us from the first moment of his Incarnation is such as completely to surpass all the searchings of the human mind; for by means of the beatific vision, which he enjoyed from the time he was received into the womb of the Mother of God, he has for ever and continuously had present to him all the members of his mystical body, and embraced them with his saving love” (MCC 75).  Nor does that love ever grow less; our Savior continues his redeeming work from his state of heavenly glory: “Our Head,” says St. Augustine, “makes intercession for us; some members he receives, some he scourges, some he cleanses, some he consoles, some he creates, some he calls, some he calls again, some he corrects, some he renews” (Enarr., in Ps lxxxv 5, Migne, P. L. xxxvi, 1085; quoted from MCC 57).

4.  The Holy Spirit and the Church

Moreover, as the greatest pledge of this love, Christ has given us his own Spirit, the Paraclete, to be the life-force, the very “soul” of the Mystical Body.  Again, it is impossible to state this doctrine more clearly than in the words of Pope Pius XII.  Speaking of “the Spirit who proceeds from the Father and the Son, and who in a special manner is called the ‘Spirit of Christ’ or the ‘Spirit of the Son’” (Romans viii 9; 2 Corinthians iii 17; Galatians iv 6), he continues, “For it was with this Spirit of grace and truth that the Son of God adorned his soul in the Virgin’s immaculate womb; he is the Spirit who delights to dwell in the Redeemer’s pure soul as in his favorite temple; he is the Spirit whom Christ merited for us on the Cross with the shedding of his own blood; the Spirit whom he bestowed upon the Church for the remission of sins, breathing him upon the Apostles (Cf. John xx 22).And while Christ alone received this Spirit without measure (Cf. John iii 34), it is only according to the measure of the giving of Christ and from the fullness of Christ himself that he is bestowed upon the members of the Mystical Body (Cf. Ephesians i 18; iv 7).  And since Christ has been glorified on the Cross his Spirit is communicated to the Church in abundant outpouring, in order that she and each of her members may grow daily in likeness to our Savior.  It is the Spirit of Christ which has made us adopted sons of God (Cf. Rom. viii 14-17; Gal. iv 6-7), so that one day ‘we all, beholding the glory of the Lord with open face, may be transformed into the same image from glory to glory’” (2 Cor. iii 18; MCC 54).

5.  The Church modeled on Christ

Where love does not find a likeness it tends to create it.  So it is with the union between Christ and the Church.  The Word, in taking flesh, assumed our human nature; this he did in order that his brethren according to the flesh might be made “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter i 4).  We were to be made conformable to the image of the Son of God (Cf. Rom. viii 29), renewed according to the likeness of him who created us (Cf. Col. iii 10; vide MCC 44).  Thus all Christians have as the object of their lives the imitation of Christ, the shaping of their thought and conduct in response to his Spirit.  So, in fact, the Church, as Christ’s Mystical Body, models her life upon his.  “Following in the footsteps of her divine Founder, she teaches, governs and offers the divine sacrifice.  Again, when she practices the evangelical counsels she portrays in herself the poverty, the obedience, and the virginity of the Redeemer.  And again the manifold Orders and institutions in the Church–so many jewels with which she is adorned–show forth Christ in various aspects of his life: contemplating on the mountain, preaching to the people, healing the sick, bringing sinners to repentance, and doing good to all.  No wonder, then, that during her existence on this earth she resembles Christ also in suffering persecutions, insults and tribulation” (MCC 45).

6.  Co-operation between Head and members

Finally there follows, as a consequence, the need for co-operation between Head and members.  The Bridegroom and the Bride, which is the Church, must be of one mind.  Our Lord invites–in a sense, he needs–our working together with him in the building up of the Mystical Body.  We could not have affirmed a truth so audacious were it not for St. Paul’s reminder that the head of the body cannot say to the feet “I have no need of you” (1 Cor. xii 21).  That we depend utterly upon Christ our Head is clear enough:  “Without me you can do nothing” (John xv 5).  But he has also condescended to make us joint-agents with him in the carrying out of the great redemptive plan.  “By one and the same means,” says Clement of Alexandria, “we both save and are saved” (Strom. vii 21.  Migne P.G. IX, 413; quoted from MCC 57).  God need not have arranged it thus; for he lacks nothing of self-sufficiency; but in the divine liberality of One who “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant” (Phil. ii 7), he has chosen this method for the greater glory of his Church.

The most striking example of this co-operation with Christ is the part played by the Blessed Virgin in man’s redemption.  “She, the true Queen of Martyrs, by bearing with courageous and confident heart her immense weight of sorrows, more than all Christians filled up ‘those things that are wanting of the sufferings of Christ, for his Body which is the Church’” (Col. i 24; MCC 110).  Within the sphere of Church government our Lord’s appointment of a Vicar, or representative, on earth is a conspicuous witness to his design of delegating divine responsibility to a merely human agent.  But, even in his personal capacity of direct and invisible ruler of the Church, Christ has honored us by requiring our co-operation.  “Dying on the Cross, he bestowed upon his Church the boundless treasure of the Redemption without any co-operation on her part; but in the distribution of that treasure he not only shares this work of sanctification with his spotless Bride, but wills it to arise in a certain manner out of her labor.  This is truly a tremendous mystery, upon which we can never meditate enough: that the salvation of many souls depends upon the prayers and voluntary mortifications offered for that intention by the members of the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, and upon the co-operation which pastors and faithful, and especially parents, must afford to our divine Savior” (MCC 42.  Canon Smith in his C.T.S. pamphlet Some Reflections on the Encyclical Mystici Corporis Christi, has pointed out how Pius XII ‘condemns a quietism which attributes all activity exclusively to the grace of God (MCC 86) and on no fewer than ten occasions insists upon the necessity of our energetic co-operation.”  Very strikingly, on the subject of reunion, the Pope himself asks for the co-operation of the faithful, “that most effective aid,” to the 4end that “all of us may be one in the one Church which Jesus Christ founded”; Encyclical Orientalis Ecclesiae Decus, 9 April 1944.  C.T.S. translation Rome and the Eastern Churches, 39-40).



1.  Diversity of function

“For as in one body we have many members, but all the members have not the same office: so we, being many, are one body in Christ; and every one members one of another” (Rom. xii 4-5).  The oneness of the Church does not consist in a universal sameness but, as we might have expected in a creation so beautiful as to merit the title of “Bride of Christ” (Cf. Apocalypse xxi 1-6; xxii 17), in a manifestation of unity in variety.  There is subordination of function, diversity of office.  This is most clearly to be seen in the doctrinal, sacrificial and juridical work of the Church, wherein she inherits our Lord’s tripe role of prophet, priest and king.  It is evident also in the grades of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, bishops, priests and deacons, lawfully exercising their power of orders in virtue of their communion with the Pope, Vicar of Christ and successor to St. Peter.  But the rich and manifold life of the Mystical Body has multifarious patterns.  Members of the religious orders and congregations, whether contemplative or active, or aiming at an apostolate which issues from contemplation, testify to its abundant fruitfulness.  So too do the Catholic laity, more especially in their work of co-operation with the pastors of the Church.  There are states of life holier than others: the episcopate, for example, as compared with the condition of the layman in the world; likewise do the religious vows offer to a select few instruments of perfection which are denied to the majority.  But, in the last resort, “the Spirit breatheth where he will” (John iii 8); the ultimate criterion is not official status but the measure of charity in the individual soul (Cf. 1 Cor. xiii).  By this test the mother of a family may be more closely united to God than Pope or Bishop, a man or woman immersed in “worldly” duties than the monk or cloistered nun.

“To every one of us is given grace, according to the measure of the giving of Christ” (Ephesians iv 7).  Thus there is a profound mystery, as well as a natural fittingness, in the variety of place and function proper to each member of the Mystical Body.  We do not know, or, at best, can but dimly discern the role for which we are cast; hence we have no material for passing judgment on one another, still less for mutual jealousy.  St. Paul was at pains to make this clear: “God hath set the members, every one of them, in the body as it hath pleased him” (1 Cor. xii 18; but see whole passage 14-21 and 27).  A fact which provides us with the chief motive for neighborly charity.  We are being invited to rejoice in, to show good will towards, our neighbor simply for being what he is and doing what he does.  Our evil actions apart, we each make our distinctive contribution by being our own best selves and behaving accordingly.  The doctrine of the Mystical Body excludes any enforced or rigid conformity to a single pattern.  It teaches us to appreciate other people in their very differences from ourselves; we are left with no grounds for assessing the worth of others, as we are all too prone to do, merely by our own individual standards.

2.  The Sacraments

The vital channels of this life of grace and charity are the Sacraments of the Church.  These visible signs, effecting what they signify, minister to our spiritual needs progressively from the cradle to the grave.  By Baptism we are reborn from the death of sin into the living membership of Christ’s Body, the Church, and invested with a spiritual power enabling us to receive the other sacraments.  Through Confirmation we are strengthened in the faith and gain spiritual maturity; it has been well described as “the sacrament of Catholic action,” as it fits us to defend the Church, conferring on us the privileges and duties of a soldier of Jesus Christ.  To enable us to recover from the sins into which we may have fallen after Baptism we have been given the sacrament of Penance.  Supreme among them all is the Eucharist, the sacrament par excellence of the Mystical Body, whereby we are continually nourished and united ever more closely with its Head.  Lastly, to console us in mortal sickness, there is the comfort of Extreme Unction.  Sometimes, if God so wills, it effects the restoration of bodily health; always it ministers a supernatural balm to the wounded soul and prepares it for entry into heaven.

So much for our needs as individuals.  For the benefit of the Church’s social life our Lord instituted the two sacraments of Matrimony and Holy Order.  Through the first the parties in marriage minister to each other the graces needful for their state.  By this means is sanctified the whole process by which the Christian community gathers increase.  The mutual love between man and wife is raised to the supernatural level of divine charity and the welfare of their offspring, especially in regard to that religious education which is of such moment to the growth of the Mystical Body, is safeguarded.  Holy Order, finally, “consecrates to the perpetual service of God those who are destined to offer the Eucharistic Victim, to nourish the flock of the faithful with the Bread of Angels and with the food of doctrine, to guide them by the divine commandments and counsels, and to fortify them by their supernatural functions” (MCC 19).  Thus the whole sacramental system is designed to ensure the prosperity of the Mystical Body on earth, to enable it to grow and gather strength “unto the measure of the age of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians iv 13).



1.  The Church a visible society

Just as all men of good will who came into contact with our Lord were able to know him for what he was, the Son of the living God (Cf. Matt. xvi 16), so it must be equally possible for them to recognize his Church as a divine institution.  For the claims of the Church upon the world’s attention are no less imperative than those of Christ himself.  Indeed it is the Church’s boast that she is, in her very constitution, “a perpetual motive of credibility and unassailable witness to her own divine mission” (Vatican Council (1869-70): Constitution de fide catholica, cap. 3; Denzinger, 1794).  Whence it follows that she must be a society visible to all as an unmistakable concrete fact.  Not that we shall be led to expect the sort of visibility proper to a building or landscape; rather must we look for certain marks or notes characteristic of the Church whereby she can be clearly and definitely apprehended by the mind for what she is.  Thus, for example, when we hear of a book entitled “The History of the English People,” though it may suggest to the imagination no very clear-cut picture, we know that its subject-matter is nothing vague and intangible; it is a reality as intelligible in its own order, as susceptible of scrutiny, as anything which comes within the range of sense observation.  So it is with the Church.  She is “a city seated on a mountain” (Matt. v 14), challenging men’s gaze, proclaiming her own authenticity to those who will pause to examine.

2.  Hostility to this doctrine

Curiously enough, this claim of the Church to be a visible society has proved a stumbling-block to many.  In the Middle Ages the Fraticelli thought they had discovered two Churches, one “carnal,” the other “spiritual,” while Wycliff and the Hussites vigorously opposed the notion of a Church that could be visible.  In the same line of thought lies Luther’s restriction of the Church to the Communion of Saints, and Calvin’s to the number of the predestined.  All these theories were devised to justify the repudiation of traditional Christianity as embodied in Catholicism.  Analogous to them is the modern antithesis between “the religion of authority” and “the religion of the spirit”; likewise the familiar distinction drawn by idealists between the “institutional” and “mystical” elements in religion.

3.  The Church and mysticism

It is not to our present purpose to discriminate the amount of truth which lies concealed in these fundamental aberrations.  All heresy is an isolating of a part of the Christian inheritance and setting it in opposition to the whole, a principle which is conspicuously verified in every attempt to concentrate attention on the hidden riches of the Church to the exclusion of what is visible.  But it is worth remarking that there is an all but ineradicable tendency in certain minds, not least among the loftier and more intellectual, to show devotion to the spiritual by contempt for the material.  The Manichean dualism, reproduced in a different form in the Platonic and neo-Platonic philosophical tradition, which has deeply influenced sections of Christian thought, bears striking witness to this.  There is evidence of it also in the widespread contemporary interest in “mysticism,” as divorced from Christian faith and worship.  The neo-mystics professedly inveigh against “established Christianity,” which is alleged to have “failed,” but in fact their revolt is against the Incarnation itself.  Now, as to the intellectuals in St. Paul’s day, the notion of a God who so loved sinners as to identify himself with them in visible humanity is “foolishness” (1 Cor. i 18 ff.  One of the objects of the Encyclical Mystici Corporis Christi was the refutation of this error; cf. 9, 62, 63.  “We therefore deplore and condemn also the calamitous error which invents the imaginary Church, a society nurtured and shaped by charity, with which it disparagingly contrasts another society which it calls juridical.  Those who make this totally erroneous distinction fail to understand that it was one and the same purpose–namely, that of perpetuating on this earth the salutary work of the Redemption–which caused the divine Redeemer both to give the community of human beings founded by him the constitution of a society perfect in its own order, provided with all its juridical and social elements, and also, with the same end in view, to have it enriched by the Holy Spirit with heavenly gifts and powers.  It is true that the Eternal Father willed it to be the ‘kingdom of the Son of his love’ (Col. i 13), but he willed it to be a true kingdom, one, that is, in which all believers would yield the complete homage of their intellect and will, and with humble and obedient hearts be likened to him who for us ‘became obedient unto death’ (Phil. ii 8).  Hence there can be no real opposition or incompatibility between the invisible mission of the Holy Spirit and the juridical office which Pastors and Teachers have received from Christ.  Like body and soul in us, the two realities are complementary and perfect each other, both having their origin in our one and the same Savior who not only said, as he breathed the divine Spirit upon the Apostles: ‘Receive ye the Holy Ghost’ (John xx 22), but also enjoined aloud: ‘As the Father hath sent me, I also send you’ (xx 21); and again” ‘He that heareth you heareth me’ (Luke x 16)” –MCC 63; see also 64-66).

The Catholic Church, though she gives scope to the highest aspirations of mysticism, provided it is based on an acknowledgment of sin and the need for salvation, is concerned with the eternal welfare of all mankind, not of a select group.  And men in the mass need to approach the things of the spirit through the medium of what they can see and hear and touch.  So the Church comes before them, as did Christ himself, with evidence which testifies to divinity, in lineaments recognizable by all who have eyes to see.  As our Lord pointed to his life’s work in proof of the validity of his claims (John x 25), so does his Mystical Body exhibit to the world the distinctive qualities of unity, holiness, catholicity and apostolicity as warranting her divine origin.

4.  The Church’s unity

UNITY. –To speak of the Church as the Body of Christ is to proclaim her unity, her undividedness.  No truth was dearer to the heart of St. Paul than this: “We, being many, are one body in Christ” (Rom. xii 5).  This oneness was not simply a unity of ideals and aspirations, or even that union in charity for which our Lord prayed at the Last Supper (John xvii 21), indispensable though that is if we are to be wholly united to him; rather was it a surrender to the complete “mind of Christ” (1 Cor. ii 16).  The Church was one because her most sacred rite was one (1 Cor. x 17), because her Lord, her faith, her baptism was one (Ephesians iv 5).  The Church worshipped “One God and Father of all” (Ibid. 6); hence her unity was not a prospect set before her to be realized in the remote future; it was a mark of her constitution from the beginning.  The unity promised by Christ was that proper to the society of his faith, the performance of one act of worship, the acceptance of one system of government.

But the divine and human elements in the Church alike demand her unity.  She comes from the Triune God, the one and the true, in whom disunion is unthinkable, and shares in a manner the oneness of the life of the Godhead.  This life is given to us through grace, faith, hope and charity, created gifts emanating from the depths of the Blessed Trinity and raising us up to a supernatural union with God.  On the other hand, the unity of the human race, the whole of which is intended to be incorporated into the Mystical Body, demands a Church that is manifestly one and undivided.  Moreover, the fact that there is no approach to God save through Christ, that he is the “one mediator of God and men” (1 Tim. ii 5), reinforces the need for unity.  He is the only door to God’s sheepfold (John x 1); we cannot hope to please the Father except in so far as he sees us in his Son.

5.  The Church’s holiness

HOLINESS. –No less evident a mark of the Church than her unity is the note of holiness.  Christ’s sanctifying mission demands that the organized society, which is its instrument, should share in the sanctity of its Founder.  We have express evidence that, in its consummated state at least, he willed it to be “a glorious Church, not having spot or wrinkle” (Ephesians v 27), and that he himself sanctified it for this very purpose (Ibid. vv 23-30).  The Holy Spirit, who is the living source of holiness, had been promised to it for ever (John xiv 16-17).  Sanctity means the dedication of ourselves and all our actions to God; it implies freedom from sin and impurity and the possession of grace, whereby the whole direction of our lives is brought into harmony with the divine commandments.  Accordingly the Church presents herself to the world as the fellowship in which this happy state of things may be realized.  Her claim is that, on the authority of our Lord himself and as informed by his Spirit, she teaches what is holy both in doctrine and in conduct, that she offers the means whereby this may be put into practical effect, and that, despite the exceptions which prove the rule (It need hardly be said that the Church’s sanctity does not imply universal sinlessness.  There is no incompatibility between this doctrine and the ready admission of “the lamentable tendency of individuals towards evil, a tendency which her divine Founder suffers to exist even in the higher members of his mystical Body.”  MCC 64; cf. 65, 66), her teaching conspicuously bears fruit throughout her membership.

The fact that the Church proclaims the Gospel of Christ is in itself sufficient proof of the holiness of her teaching.  From him she was given her mandate (Matt. xxviii 19-20; cf. Luke x 16) and the promise of the Spirit’s guiding presence (John xiv 16).  Our Lord himself claims to have received his doctrine from the Father and to teach only within the limits of that commission.  “When you shall have lifted up the Son of Man, then shall you know that I am he and that I do nothing of myself. But as the Father hath taught me, these things I speak” (John viii 28).  This message thereafter passed into the keeping of his Body, the Church, as witness St. Paul’s complete assurance on the point: “As we said before, so now I say again: If anyone preach to you a gospel, besides that which you have received, let him be anathema. . . . For I give you to understand, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man.  For neither did I receive it of man: nor did I learn it but by the revelation of Jesus Christ” (Gal. i 8, 11-12).

Moreover, by means of her sacramental system, the Church effectively produces in her members the holiness which she preaches.  She cleanses them from original guilt by Baptism, strengthens them by Confirmation, absolves them by Penance, and crowns these and other instruments of grace with the Holy Eucharist, the supreme sacrament and sacrifice of the Mystical Body, containing the living presence of Christ himself.  This is the method by which the Savior “who gave himself for us” fulfills for each individual his plan “that he might redeem us from all iniquity and might cleanse to himself a people acceptable, a pursuer of good works” (Titus ii 14).  In this people, which is the Church, we find realized the fruits of the Spirit, the source of sanctity: “charity, joy, peace, patience, benignity, goodness, longanimity, mildness, faith, modesty, continency, chastity” (Gal. v 22-23).  With justice does the Vatican Council attribute to the Church “a marvelous holiness, an inexhaustible fecundity in all good things” (Denzinger, 1794).

6.  The Church’s catholicity

CATHOLICITY. –The Fathers of the Council referred also to the “wonderful propagation” and
Catholic unity” (Ibid.) of the Church.  Not only is she one and undivided, but her unity is conspicuously diffused throughout all mankind.  Hence she possesses a universality by which she appears as a constituted society in every part of the world.  The Church’s catholicity
(The phrase “Catholic Church” first appears in St. Ignatius of Antioch (+117), Epistle to the Smyrnaeans viii 2”wheresoever Christ Jesus is, there is the Catholic Church.”  The word “Catholic” is Greek and means “universal,” or, literally, “according to the whole.”  Whence it follows that the Church can be called “Catholic” in a variety of senses: with reference to, first, place, inasmuch as she is diffused throughout the world; secondly, time, because she will always exist; thirdly, peoples, having members of every tribe, nation and tongue; fourthly, conditions of men, for neither masters nor slaves, neither wise nor foolish, are excluded from her fold; fifthly, doctrine, in that she possesses the entire teaching of Christ in its unimpaired truth; sixthly, the means of salvation, because, as the whole of Christ’s Passion operates within her, she possesses a remedy against the spiritual ills of all men; seventhly, the obligation and necessity of embracing the Church which bears upon all, as she is the divinely appointed means for their salvation.  Cf. Schultes, De Ecclesia Catholica, p. 179) was to pass gradually from the sphere of legal right to that of accomplished fact, as conditioned by the circumstances of time and place in which she finds herself.  That the Church was intended to grow to full statue, not suddenly but by a process of gradual development, is clearly indicated by our Lord’s parables of the mustard seed (Matt. xiii 31-32) and the leaven (Ibid. 33).  But it is no less clear that this catholicity, far from arising as it were by an accident of history, was part of the divine plan from the beginning.  The whole scheme of the redemption demands it; all division of nation against nation, free man against slave, is to be transcended.  “There is neither Jew nor Greek: there is neither bond nor free: there is neither male nor female.  For you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. iii 28).  To this objective the Apostles had been directed from the outset of their ministry: “Go ye into the whole world and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark xvi 15).  And forthwith they set out to achieve it: “But they going forth preached everywhere: the Lord working withal, and confirming the word with signs that followed” (Ibid. 20).

7.  The Church’s apostolicity

APOSTOLICITY. –As a consequence of this Apostolic mission there follows, as a property and distinguishing characteristic of Christ’s Mystical Body, its identity and continuity with the Church of the Apostles.  In express words he built it upon the rock-foundation of the twelve (Matt. xviii 18; John xx 21), and pre-eminently of Peter (Matt. xvi 18; John xxi 15-17).  Whence there is to be looked for in the Church a legitimate, public and uninterrupted succession of pastors, heirs, as it were, of the Apostles, and in agreement with them in faith, worship and Church government.  This condition of things is implicit in our Lord’s manifest desire that his Church should remain substantially as he had founded it “even to the consummation of the world” (Matt. xxviii 20).  Indeed such a continuity is demanded by the Church’s oneness.  To have departed from its original constitution would mean that the unity of the Mystical Body had been broken; that which St. Paul regarded as an impossibility–the “division” of Christ (1 Cor. i 13)–would have come about.

Thus we see that each of the properties of the Church emanates from the first and more evident of them all, its oneness.  Catholicity is, to so say, the diffusion throughout the world of the Church’s unity, a witness to the divine efficacy and power within her.  Holiness demonstrates the world-wide fruitfulness of the life of the Church, disclosing her as the effective instrument of men’s salvation.  Apostolicity, in making clear the line of continuity with the primitive Church, points at the same time to her divine origin.  Whence we catch a glimpse of the immense significance of the words of the Creed wherein we proclaim our faith in unam, sanctam, catholicam et apostolicam Ecclesiam.


“For in one Spirit were we all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Gentiles, whether bond or free” (1 Cor. xii 13).  We have now to examine the conditions for membership of Christ’s Mystical Body.  What is it that makes us “fellow citizens with the saints and domestics of God”? (Ephesians ii 19)  Not a few erroneous answers have been given to this question.  The Donatists in the fifth century, for example maintained that only the “just”–or, as we should say nowadays, those in a state of grace–belonged to the Church.  Others, notably Wycliff and Hus, have limited Church membership to the predestined; nor do Luther and Calvin, in this respect at least, seem to have held a different view.

1.  The conditions of membership

Pius XII has reaffirmed in the clearest language what are the conditions for membership of the Church.  “Only those are to be accounted really members of the Church who have been regenerated in the waters of Baptism and profess the true faith, and have not cut themselves off from the structure of the Body by their own unhappy act or been severed therefrom, for very grave crimes, by the legitimate authority.”  The Pope then cites the words of St. Paul to the Corinthians with which this section opens and continues: “Hence, as in the true communion of the faithful there is but one Body, one Spirit, one Lord, and one Baptism, so there can be only one faith; and therefore whoever refuses to hear the Church must, as the Lord commanded, be considered as the heathen and publican.  It follows that those who are divided from one another in faith or government cannot be living in the one Body so described, and by its one divine Spirit” (MCC 21.  The following is the Latin text of this highly significant passage:  In Ecclesiae autem membris ii soli annumerandi sunt, qui regenerantionis lavacrum receperunt veramque fidem profitentur, neque a Corporis compage semet ipsos misere separarunt, vel ob gravissima admissa a legitima auctoritate seiuncti sunt.  Etenim “in uno Spiritu,” ait Apostolus, “omnes nos in unum corpus baptizati sumus, sive Iudaei, sive gentiles, sive servi sive liberi” (1 Cor. xii 13).  Sicut igitur in vero christifidelium coetu unum tantummodo habetur Corpus, unus Spiritus, unus Dominus et unum Baptisma, sic haberi non potest nisi una fides (cf. Eph. vi 5); atque adeo qui Ecclesiam audire renuerit, iubente Domino habendus est ut ethnicus et publicanus (cf., Matt. xviii 17).  Quamobrem qui fide vel regimine invicem dividuntur, in uno eiusmodi Corpore, atque uno eius divino Spiritu vivere nequeunt).

That it is through the reception of Baptism that we “put on Christ” (Gal. iii 27) is the Church’s constant teaching (Denzinger, 696, 895), and the Code of Canon Law (Codes Iuris Canonici, can. 87) lays it down that it is precisely by this means that we become a “person” in the Church with all the rights and duties of Christians.  By Baptism we are incorporated in Christ and made his members; we attain a state of grace and become the adopted sons of God, all our sins being remitted, both that which we inherit from Adam and those of which we are personally guilty.  Furthermore Baptism imprints on the soul a “character” –described by St. Thomas as a “spiritual power” (III, Q. lxiii, art. 2)–which provide us as it were with a title to the reception of the other sacraments.

2.  Sin does not exclude from membership

Sinners, as such, are not deprived of their membership of the Church (MCC 22).  It is true that, having lost baptismal innocence, they are now but imperfectly incorporated in Christ; for, though they retain supernatural faith and the baptismal character, they lack the sanctifying grace and charity which give full and living membership.  They are, so to say, “putrefied” members, but, as long as they are on earth, not beyond revivification from the Church’s inexhaustible treasury of graces.  That our Lord did not wish to exclude sinners from membership of his Mystical Body is clearly indicated by his own words.  “They that are in health need not a physician, but they that are ill” (Matt. ix 12) . . . “For I came not to call the just, but sinners” (Mark ii 17).  The parables of the lost sheep and the prodigal son offer a moving illustration of the same point (Luke xv).

3.  Excommunication, apostasy, heresy, schism

Nevertheless the melancholy possibility must be envisaged of those who may have “cut themselves off from the structure of the Body by their own unhappy act or been severed therefrom, for very grave crimes, by the legitimate authority” (MCC 21).  In other words, the Church, as being a perfectly constituted society, has the right for grave reasons of excluding from membership.  She may pass sentence of, or lay down conditions which involve, excommunication.  This carries with it the deprivation of rights and privileges enjoyed by those in communion with the faithful (C.I.C. can. 2257-2267).  But such a juridical penalty does not wholly nullify membership of the Church, still less does it necessarily imply the final condemnation before God of the excommunicated person.  Certain sins–viz., apostasy, heresy and schism (Can. 1325 #2)–of their nature cut off the guilty from the living Body of Christ.  Apostasy is a form  of spiritual suicide, being the complete and voluntary abandonment of the Christian faith which one once professed.  Heresy, objectively considered, is a doctrinal proposition which contradicts an article of faith; from the subjective point of view it may be defined as an error concerning the Catholic faith, freely and obstinately persisted in by a professing Christian.  Schism consists in a refusal of subjection to the Vicar of Christ, the Pope, in whose office the source of the Church’s visible unity is embodied, or a withdrawal from communion with the faithful subject to him.  It can hardly be denied that those who take up any of these positions–most evidently is this the case with the deliberate apostate–sever themselves by their own act from membership of the Church.

4.  Non-Catholics in good faith

The necessity of belonging to the Catholic Church in order to obtain salvation is a dogma based on the words of our Lord himself: “Go ye into the whole world and preach the gospel to every creature.  He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved: but he that believeth not shall be condemned” (Mark xvi 15-16).  But here we must remark briefly upon the position of non-Catholics in good faith (That is to say, the much misunderstood doctrine of extra Ecclesiam nulla salus: “no salvation outside the Church.”  For the meaning of “good faith” see the article “Bonne Foi” in the Dictionnaire de Theologie Catholique, tome ii, cols. 1009-1019).  Even such authorities as Suarez and the theologians of Salamanca, writing at a time when, and in a country where, Catholicism reigned supreme, were prepared to allow that there could be heretics and infidels so untouched by Christian influences as to experience no doubt about the truth of their own religious tenets (Suarez, De Fide, disp. XVII, sect. ii, n. 6; Salamanticenses, Cursus theologicus dogmaticus, tr. XVII, disp. ix, n. 9).  The possibility of a sincere adherence to error is clearly recognized by the Church.  Pope Pius IX has declared that, taking into account all the circumstances of time and place in which individuals might find themselves, as well as of their capacity to understand, it would be presumptuous to set limits to the possibilities of invincible ignorance of the true Church (Denzinger, 1647).  The recognition of this fact, however, can do nothing to attenuate the Church’s often repeated teaching that it is necessary for all men to belong to her explicitly (Denzinger, 423, 268, 714, 1646-1647, 1716 and 1717).

5.  The “soul” and “body” of the Church

It has sometimes been argued that non-Catholics in good faith may be said to belong to the soul, as distinguished from the body, of the Church.  In the previous essay it has been pointed out that this is not an entirely satisfactory way of viewing the matter, as the distinction in question is not free from ambiguity.  It lends itself to the false antithesis between an “invisible” and “visible” Church, and suggests that one might belong to Christ’s Mystical Body without being incorporated, simultaneously and in the same degree, in the visible Catholic Church–which is impossible.  Moreover, the “soul” of the Church, according to tradition is the Holy Spirit, by whose power the Mystical Body is animated (Cf. MCC 55).  Although, from a slightly different viewpoint, we may also consider the created effects of the Spirit’s activity–viz., the vital organism made up of grace, the theological virtues and the gifts of the Holy Spirit–as being the source of the Church’s supernatural life (Ibid., 56), and to that extent her “soul.”  But limitations of space preclude a detailed examination of the relevance of this doctrine to the position of non-Catholics in good faith.  Here we shall be content to summarize the generally accepted teaching on a question of great theological difficulty.

6.  Membership by desire

The whole tenor of the Church’s official documents makes it clear that, apart from two cases, it is necessary for salvation to belong explicitly (in re) to the Catholic Church.  The two exceptions, wherein membership of the Church by desire (in voto) suffices, are the following: (i) In the event of the impossibility of Baptism, which is always necessary for membership, being effectively received.  Since, according to the teaching of the Council of Trent (Session VI, cap. iv) (Denzinger, 796), the desire for Baptism (contained in the act of charity) can suffice for the soul’s regeneration, it is clear that the desire for membership of the Church, which is made effective by this sacrament, can likewise suffice.  And this holds good both for catechumens, who are prevented from receiving the sacrament owing to some insuperable obstacle, and for converts from heresy whose antecedent Baptism may be uncertain and who are impeded by the like extremity from the actual reception of the sacrament.  (ii) The Church teaches no less clearly that actual membership of the Catholic Church is not necessary for the salvation of those in invincible ignorance of her true nature.  This is stated expressly in the consistorial allocution Singulari quadam of Pius IX, 9 December 1854 (Ibid., 1647), and in his Encyclical to the Italian Bishops, 10 August 1863 (Ibid., 1677).  It follows therefore that in this case also to belong to the Church in voto suffices for salvation (Cf. art. “Eglise” in D.T.C., tome iv, col. 2166-2167).

7.  Necessity of belonging to the Church explicitly

But, when rightly understood, these seeming exceptions serve to emphasize rather diminish the universal urgency of full and explicit membership of the Catholic Church.  “We invite them all,” writes Pope Pius XII (MCC 102), alluding to the whole non-Catholic world, “each and everyone, to yield their free consent to the inner stirrings of God’s grace and strive to extricate themselves from a state in which they cannot be secure of their own eternal salvation; for, though they may be related to the Mystical Body of the Redeemer by some unconscious yearning and desire, yet they are deprived of those many great and heavenly gifts and aids which can be enjoyed only in the Catholic Church.  Let them enter Catholic unity, therefore, and joined with us in the one organism of the Body of Jesus Christ, hasten together to the one Head in the fellowship of most glorious love.  We cease not to pray for them to the Spirit of love and truth, and with open arms we await them, not as strangers but as those who are coming to their own father’s home.”





1.  The inner life of the Church and its outward structure inseparable

We must now consider how Christ rules the Church visibly through his Vicar, the Pope, and the Bishops in their respective dioceses.  Nor shall we lose sight of the fact that “in the first place, in virtue of the juridical mission by which the divine Redeemer sent forth his Apostles into the world as he himself had been sent by the Father (John xvii 18; xx 21), it is indeed he who baptizes through the Church, he who teaches, governs, absolves, binds, offers, makes sacrifice” (MCC 52).  Although it must be admitted that “the structure of the Christian society, proof though it is of the wisdom of the divine Architect, is nevertheless something of a completely lower order in comparison with the spiritual gifts which enrich it and give it life” (Ibid. 61), we have seen how complete is the error of those who would detach the inner mystery of the Mystical Body from the outward framework of the Church (Cf. p. 685; cf. MCC 63).  Both are so closely connected that it is impossible truly to love the one without loving the other (Ibid. 91); they are as integral to the Church as body and soul to man, as divinity and humanity to Christ, who is the Head and Pattern of his Church (Ibid. 62).

2.  Powers conferred by Christ on his Church

To enable the Church to carry out Christ’s commission of leading mankind to salvation she has been vested by him with a threefold power, corresponding to his own office of Prophet, Priest and King: that of teaching, her doctrinal authority; that of order, her ministerial authority; that of government, her jurisdictional authority.  We may note in passing that some theologians make further subdivisions within these three powers and arrange them differently (Schultes, op. cit., pp. 329-332), while others point out that they are fundamentally reducible to two, that of order and that of jurisdiction (Billot, De Ecclesia Christi (tome i, editio 5), PP. 339-342).  But the classification here given (Cf. Tanquerey, Synopsis Theologiae Dogmaticae (tome i, editio 23)) perhaps lends itself to the clearest treatment in the space at our disposal.  Further, as the power of order, which is concerned directly with the sanctification of the Church, is discussed elsewhere in this volume (Essay xxix: The Sacramental Order), there remain for our consideration only the Church’s (a) doctrinal authority and (b) jurisdictional authority.

(a) Doctrinal Authority

1.  The infallible magisterium of the Church

The doctrinal authority, or magisterium, with which Christ has equipped his Church includes all the rights and privileges necessary for the effective teaching of divine revelation and guarding intact the deposit of faith.  He has willed that the human race as a whole should acquire God’s truth, not by individual inspiration, nor by the private interpretation of Scripture, but by attending to the living voice of the Church.  Hence, as a corollary, he has ensured that that voice shall not err; in other words, he has endowed his Church with the gift of infallibility.  This infallibility extends, in principle, to the tradition of Christian belief (faith) and the manner of life (morals); it is concerned with what men must believe, and what they must do, if they are to be saved.

As, however, the Church derives her teaching on these points from the original deposit, “the faith once delivered to the saints” (Jude 3), she must know how to preserve her sacred trust from contamination by “philosophy and vain deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the elements of the world and not according to Christ” (Col. ii 8; cf. 1 Tim. vi 20).  That is to say, the teaching of the Church (Ecclesia docens) may pass an infallible judgment, not only upon truths of revelation, but on matters so intimately connected with those truths that, were an authoritative decision upon them lacking, men’s hold upon revelation itself would be endangered.  Such activities as the formulation of creeds, the public condemnation of errors, the prohibition of certain books as dangerous to faith and morals, are all functions of the Church’s doctrinal magisterium.  It is by the same authority that she sends out missionaries, both to the faithful and to unbelievers, that she opens her schools and, in general, supervises with such vigilance the education of the young.

2.  The nature of infallibility

But, as it has often been misunderstood, we must examine in greater detail the meaning and extent of the Church’s infallibility.  We recall that it has for its object all the truths, collectively and individually, which are formally contained in the sources of divine revelation; indirectly it bears also upon such other truths as are necessary for our knowledge so that the deposit of revelation may be safeguarded.  Be it noted that infallibility is a gift, a charism, bestowed upon the Church, the effect of which is to exclude the possibility of error from her teaching with regard to faith and morals.  It implies the assistance of the Holy Spirit, and so may be called a supernatural grace (Gratia gratis data; cf. I-II, Q. III, art. 1); its function, however, is not, as such, to sanctify the Church or her individual members, but to ensure that she does not teach false doctrine.  Infallibility should further be carefully distinguished from revelation and inspiration.  Revelation is the new manifestation of truth by God.  Scriptural inspiration implies a divine prompting of the sacred author in the very act of writing, so that what results is literally the “word of God,” even though what is contained in it need not always be a revelation.  Or, to put the matter another way: revelation belongs exclusively to God; inspiration is a joint divine-human act, the writer playing the role of God’s instrument; infallibility, as being proper to the Church and the Roman Pontiff, concerns a human activity wherein God is neither revealer nor inspirer, but in which he assists (Deo adiutore).

In the popular mind it is Papal infallibility which most arrests attention.  But it should be remembered that, when the Pope defines infallibly, he does so as the mouthpiece or organ of an infallible Church.  Technically, he may use his official prerogative without first consulting the Church; nor do his decrees depends for their validity upon the Church’s subsequent ratification; but he cannot be thought of as defining doctrine apart from the Church–for “he enjoys that infallibility with which the Divine Redeemer willed his Church to be endowed” (Denzinger, 1839).  Infallibility, then, belongs fundamentally to the Church, and to the Pope in his capacity of visible Head of the Church.  In harmony with the doctrine of the Mystical Body of Christ, it is a gift bestowed upon Head and members.  Thus the Church enjoys not only an active infallibility in teaching, but also a passive infallibility in believing.

3.  The scope of infallibility

The direct object of the Church’s infallibility includes, in addition to the revealed truths, such matters as the drawing up of the official Creeds or Symbols, the determination of the terms to be employed in dogmatic canons and definitions, the manner of interpreting Scripture and Tradition, the decision as to what is to be included in the Canon of Scripture, the condemnation of heresy.  All these are but instruments for the expression and clarification of revealed truth; were the Church deprived of them her doctrinal authority would be nullified and without effect.  Accordingly they form an indispensable part of the Church’s teaching office.

We must now briefly summarize the implications of what theologians call the indirect object of infallibility.  This covers inter alia matters which, strictly speaking, are the concern of the natural philosopher, but error in which would undermine the rational structure on which faith is built; e.g. the spirituality of the soul, which is the natural foundation for its immortality and future life.  On occasion the Church, without stigmatizing a proposition harmful to faith and morals as heretical, will attach to it a censure such as, proximate to heresy, erroneous in faith, false; in so doing she judges infallibly, for she thus defines, though negatively, a truth as closely affecting divine revelation.

Dogmatic facts fall likewise within the scope of this infallibility.  These concern such information as is necessary for our knowledge if our belief in dogma itself is to be safeguarded; e.g. the legitimacy of a Pope, the ecumenicity of a General Council.  Clearly, were there uncertainty on such points, we should have no guarantee of the authenticity of doctrinal definitions emanating from these sources.  Similarly the Church can decide infallibly whether a given book, objectively considered, contain orthodox or heterodox doctrine–and this without prejudice to what the author meant to say.  Thus the Fathers at Necaea condemned the Thalia of Arius, and Innocent X certain propositions from the Augustinus of Jansen.  The moral precepts of the Church, as affecting the conduct of all the faithful, are backed by her infallibility; so also is the Church’s definitive approval of the various Religious Orders.  Though what is here guaranteed is the essential goodness of what is proposed, the fidelity with which a given religious rule reflects the evangelical counsels, but not necessarily its suitability for all times and places; since this is a matter, not of infallibility, but of practical prudence.  In the same connection the Church exercises her infallibility in the solemn canonization of saints.  For it is unthinkable that the lives of those whom the Church upholds as models of heroic sanctity should be other than she declares them to be.

We have yet to touch upon a subject which, after the original deposit of faith itself, first engages the attention of the Church’s doctrinal authority, viz., theological conclusions, sometimes called truths virtually revealed.  They are propositions not formally contained in, but deduced from divine revelation.  Often the mind reaches them by means of a reasoning process, or syllogism, of which one premise is known by faith, the other by reason.  For instance, that “God will render to each according to his works” is a truth formally revealed.  With this I may connect the thought: “God can only so act on the supposition that man is free,” and draw from these two statements together the inference: “Therefore man is free.”  This is a theological conclusion.  Some famous examples of truths arrived at in this way are the following: “Christ never lacked efficacious grace”; “Christ is impeccable”; “Christ’s knowledge is immune from error.”  Now these conclusions fall within the scope of the Church’s infallibility.  In a matter so closely connected with the deposit of faith, involving also the whole process of the development of dogma (See Essay i, Faith and Revealed Truth), it is imperatively demanded that the Church should have the deciding voice; without it her teaching authority would be gravely deficient.  Finally, we should note that infallibility in this connection guarantees that the truth in question is in fact virtually (Or mediately, as distinguished from immediately (i.e. formally), revealed.  The theologians further distinguish, within the sphere of formal or immediate revelation, between what is explicitly and what is implicitly revealed.  But this complex, though highly important, subject cannot be pursued further here.  Cf. Schultes, Introductio in historiam dogmatum, pp. 99-115;, 116-179; F. Marin-Sola, L’Evolution homogene du Dogme Catholique, I, pp. 61 et seq.) revealed, but it says nothing about the validity of the arguments by which the mind may have deduced it.  The charism of infallibility safeguards, not the reasoning processes of theologians, but what the Pope and Bishops, as custodians of divine revelation, teach to the faithful throughout the world.

(b) Jurisdictional Authority

(The Church’s jurisdictional authority, strictly speaking, includes her doctrinal authority; for she teaches by divine right (ius).  We here use the term in its more restricted sense of power of rulership (potestas regendi seu regiminis); to be distinguished again from the power of order.)

In addition to her authority to teach men the way of salvation the Church has been given effective power to guide them along its course.  The right to rule, no less than the right to teach, is an integral part of her saving mission.  So Christ very clearly laid it down: “As the Father hath sent me, I also send you” (John xx 21).  “Whatsoever you shall bind on earth shall be bound also in heaven” (Matt. xviii 18).  “Going therefore, teach ye all nations . . . teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you” (Matt. xxviii 19-20).  We shall see more clearly how this power of rulership is exercised when we come to consider the functions of the Pope and the Bishops, in whom it is chiefly vested.  For the moment we may note that the practical government of the Church falls under three heads: the authority which she posses is legislative, judicial and coercive.

1.  Legislative authority

The Church’s legislative authority, as its name implies, means that she has power to make laws binding in conscience, for the general good of the Christian community.  It includes also the right to impose precepts; that is, to apply the law to individuals in the form of a command.  Every properly constituted society must, from the nature of the case, be able to legislate for its members.  Least of all can this right be denied to the Church, which is a divine society organized for the most vitally significant of purposes: the eternal salvation of mankind.  Nor may it be objected that the words of Christ and the precepts of the Gospel should be sufficient without any further commandments being added.  It is true that the fundamental principles of the Christian law are to be found in these sources; but the Church has been promised the assistance of the Holy Spirit in adapting, interpreting and developing these for the benefit of the faithful according to the diversity of time and place.  Confident of the divine guidance, she has exercised this prerogative from the beginning, e.g., in the decrees of the apostolic assembly at Jerusalem with regard to the Mosaic observance (Acts xv 28 ff.), as also in the so-called “Pauline privilege” (1 Cor. vii 12 ff).  So the Church has continued to act through the ages, assured that her charism of infallibility will protect her from enacting what is contrary to Christ’s Gospel.

 2.  Judicial authority

As a consequence of the Church’s power to legislate there follows her judicial authority.  This may be defined as the right, and duty, of deciding definitively in a given case the true meaning of her own laws, and of the conformity, or non-conformity, of the actions of her subjects with the law.  Our Lord himself gave an indication of the exercise of this sort of power (Matt. xviii 15 ff.) with reference to wrong-doing among the faithful.  The offending brother is first to be corrected privately, then, if he refuse to amend, the case is to be brought before the Church.  Ecclesiastical authority must next pronounce judgment.  Should the guilty party refuse to abide by it, there is the appropriate sanction: he is to be regarded “as the heathen and the publican.”  St. Paul acted as judge in this way in the case of the incestuous Corinthian (1 Cor. v 3), and he gives explicit advice to Timothy as to the correct procedure (1 Tim. v 19).

3.  Coercive authority

Again, as an inevitable corollary to the foregoing powers, we find the Church possessed of coercive authority.  In fact, the words of our Lord just quoted and the behavior of St. Paul illustrate the Church’s judicial and coercive powers operating together.  What is here meant is not that the Church can bring direct physical compulsion to bear upon her subjects, but that she has the right to punish them when they offend against her ruling.  Unpalatable as this doctrine may be to the mind of the modern man, living as he does in a world contemptuous of all ecclesiastical authority, it is nevertheless counterpart, on a higher plane, of the right of civil society to attach to its laws the sanction of a penalty for their infringement.  Canonical punishment normally consists in the wrongdoer being deprived by legitimate authority of some spiritual or temporal benefit (C.I.C., can. 2214-2219).  Excommunication is an example of a spiritual penalty, the imposition of fasting of a temporal.  The object of such punishment, it need hardly be said, is not any arbitrary exercise of power, but the correction of the delinquent and the restitution of the order of justice broken by his offense.  St. Paul’s second Epistle to the Corinthians shows him conscious of the possession of coercive authority as here understood (2 Cor. xiii 10; cf. x 6).

With the power of the Church in temporal affairs we shall deal more fully when we come to consider her relations with the State.  Here it will suffice to note that those directly subject to the Church’s potestas regiminis are baptized persons; for these only, as we have seen, are in the proper sense of the word members.  Finally, it should be borne in mind that governmental authority was given directly and immediately by Christ to the Apostles and their successors, and not to the Church as a whole or to the collectivity of the faithful.  In other words, this power is now vested in the Bishops, who are not delegates of the Church’s members, but appointees of God.  The constitution of the Church is thus not democratic (Though there is a very real element of democracy in the appointment to the chief offices of the Church: the Pope and the Bishops, not being hereditary officials, are drawn from all nations and every condition and walk of life.  Election by voting has also its part in the procedure), but hierarchic, its pastors deriving their office from above, not from below.  To this must be added, as a qualification, the principle of monarchy, inasmuch as the fullness of authority was given solely to Peter, Prince of the Apostles, and to his successors, the Bishops of Rome. 



(“Moreover it is absolutely (omnino necessarium est) necessary that there should be the supreme Head, visible to all, effectively directing the mutual co-operation of the members to the attainment of the proposed end; and that visible Head is the Vicar of Jesus Christ on earth.  For just as the divine Redeemer sent the Paraclete, the Spirit of Truth, to undertake in his name (John xiv 16, 26) the invisible guidance of the Church, so he gave mandate to Peter and his successors, representing his person on earth, to conduct also the visible government of the Christian commonwealth.”  MCC 69)

It is the belief of Catholics that our Lord promised to Peter a primacy of jurisdiction over his Church (Matt. xvi 18-19), a primacy which he actually conferred after his resurrection (John xxi 15 ff); they hold, moreover, that it was given, not to Peter alone, but to the successors in his office and that it is vested for all time in the Roman Pontiff, who is the visible Head of the Church.  No article of the Christian faith is more fully substantiated in Scripture and Tradition than this.  Our present task, however, is not to set out exhaustively the evidence for the doctrine (This has been compendiously done in, e.g., Dieckmann, De Ecclesia, I, pp. 285-319), but briefly to explain its meaning.

1.  St. Peter’s primacy

Let us recall the words of the principal Petrine text: “And I say to thee: That thou art Peter (Aramaic: kepha), and upon this rock (kepha) I will build my church.  And the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.  And I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven.  And whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth, it shall be bound also in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven” (Matt. xvi 18-10).  Our Lord here makes known his will in a series of three metaphors whose meaning, clear enough to us, would be still clearer to listeners familiar with Old Testament Scripture and the teaching methods of the Rabbis.  He first compares his Church to a building of which Peter is to be the foundation; he next employs the comparison suggested by “the keys” which will be handed to Peter as a sign of his power over Christ’s house; finally comes the reference to “binding and loosing,” a symbol of the moral nature of the office, which is furthermore backed by a divine sanction.

The comparison of the Church to a house–that is, of Israel–is derived from the Old Testament and occurs frequently in the New (Cf. Acts ii 36; vii 42; 1 Tim. iii 15; Heb. iii 6).  Equally scriptural is the idea of a foundation to the building (See especially Eph. ii 19 ff.; cf. iii 17; Col. i 23; 1 Cor. iii 10).  To the strength of this foundation the house owes its firmness and stability, enabling it to withstand rain, wind and floods, “for it was founded upon a rock” (Matt. vii 25.  An interesting text, showing our Lord himself using “rock” in the same sense as in xvi 18.  Cf. Luke vi 48).  Similarly it is from its foundation that the unity of the house arises, the walls, roof and whole structure being bound together in one single edifice in virtue of the rock on which it is based.  All this illustrates the relation between the Church and Peter.  He who was Simon is given the role of foundation to the building erected by Christ; hence he receives the name of “Peter,” which means “rock.”  By him the new House of Israel is to be unified and stabilized so that nothing, not even “the gates of hell” (Matt. xvi 18.  See the striking corroboration of this text in Luke xxii 31-32: “And the Lord said: Simon, Simon, behold Satan hath desired to have you (plural), that he may sift you as wheat.  But I have prayed for thee (singular), that thy faith fail not: and thou, being once converted, confirm thy brethren.”  We may note the parallels: Satan hath desired you–the gates of hell; I have prayed for thee–I will build upon this rock; confirm thy brethren–Peter the stabilizing force in the Apostolic college.  Cf. Dieckmann, op. cit., p. 313), symbol of all that is opposed to Christ’s Kingdom, can prevail against it.

2.  His primacy continued in the Pope

“Feed my lambs. . . . Feed my lams. . . . Feed my sheep” (John xxii 15-17).  So the promised primacy was conferred in the words of the risen Christ.  He who had spoken of himself as the “good shepherd” (John x 11), who desired that there should be “one fold and one shepherd” (Ibid. 16; xi 52 ff.), was handing over the sheepfold to Peter’s care; for he himself was to ascend to the Father (John xx 17; cf. xiv 1 ff.; xvi 28; xvii 4 ff.; viii 21 ff).  True, he was only withdrawing his visible presence; he would still take care of his own as their chief pastor; hence the commission: “Feed my sheep.”  But Peter had become shepherd of the flock of Christ in the same way as he was the foundation of his Church.  Christ remains, in the words of the selfsame Peter, “the prince of pastors” (1 Peter v 4 (lit. “chief shepherd”); cf. ii 25), but he now acts as the Lord’s representative, his Vicar, and he, together with the rest of the Apostles under his leadership, is a true pastor of souls (Cf. Matt. xviii 18; ix 36-38).  Nor can it be argued that this pastoral office was to terminate with the death of Peter.  For the Kingdom of God was to endure until the end of ages (Matt. xxviii 18-20; cf. xiii 38 ff.; xiii 47 ff).  Accordingly, unless the gates of hell were to prevail, there could never come a time when Christ’s sheepfold would be deprived of its shepherd, his Church of its rock foundation.

3.  Primary of jurisdiction

When, four centuries later, the Fathers at the Council of Chalcedon, on receiving the Tome of Leo, acknowledged its author as “the interpreter of Peter” (Synodal Letter to Leo; No. 98 in the collection of Leo’s letters; P.L. 54, 951-960.  Cf. Hefele, History of the Councils (Eng. trans. vol. 3), p. 429 ff.), they summarized in a phrase the traditional belief of Christians in the position of the Pope.  It is true that in an earlier age the great Patriarchs and Bishops acted with less frequent reference to Rome than is now the case, but they were none the less fully conscious of their subordination to the Apostolic See, “mother and mistress of all the churches” (Denzinger, 999).  In the Middle Ages the conspicuous exercise of the power inherent in their office by such pontiffs as Gregory VII and Innocent III was, in effect, no more than the Church’s assertion of the primacy of the spiritual over the temporal order.  In modern times the breakdown of Christendom at the Reformation and the disruptive influence of the various National Churches, together with the development of easy and rapid communications, has indeed produced a highly centralized ecclesiastical organization hitherto unknown.  But this “ultra-montanism,” as it has sometimes not very happily been called, serves only to emphasize the primacy, not merely of honor, but of jurisdiction, which belongs to the Pope in virtue of Christ’s commission to St. Peter.  The Pope’s rulership over the Church is thus not simply directive, it is wholly authoritative (potestas iurisdictionis); moreover, it concerns, in addition to faith and morals, matters of discipline and government as they affect the Church in every part of the world.

4.  Papal infallibility

The Church’s doctrinal and jurisdictional authority, which we have briefly examined, is vested also in the Roman Pontiff.  It is with regard to the first of these, as touching the Pope’s office as teacher, that he enjoys the charism of infallibility.  On this point it will suffice to quote the words of the Vatican definition:  “We teach and define it to be a dogma divinely revealed that the Roman Pontiff, when he speaks ex cathedra, that is, when acting in his office of pastor and teacher of all Christians, by his supreme Apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church, through the divine assistance promised him in Blessed Peter, he enjoys that infallibility with which the divine Redeemer willed his Church to be endowed in defining doctrine concerning faith and morals; and therefore such definitions of hte said Roman Pontiff are irreformable of themselves, and not from the consent of the Church” (Denzinger, 1839).

5.  The Pope’s non-infallible teaching

Every word of this pronouncement was weighed and debated by the Fathers of the Vatican Council.  It should be studied with equal care by those who would grasp the Church’s teaching on Papal infallibility.  Much of the hostility to which it has given rise has its source in ignorance or misunderstanding of the scope and limitations clearly indicated in the definition itself.  An ex cathedra definition is one in which the Pope employs the fullness of his apostolic authority to make a final and irrevocable decision (definit) on a question of faith or morals, with the clear intention of binding all the faithful to its acceptance, as involving, directly or indirectly, the deposit of faith.  It will be obvious that this does not necessarily include the normal teaching authority by which he is frequently addressing the faithful, either directly or through the medium of the Roman Congregations.  Teaching of the latter kind, though it is to be received with all reverence, does not enjoy the charism of infallibility.  The Holy Father may speak, for example, merely as Bishop of Rome; or, as Pope, he may give instruction to only a section of the universal Church; or again, he may address the whole Church,, but without the intention of defining anything as of faith.  In none of these activities does he enjoy, within the terms of the definition, immunity from error.  The same may be said of the occasions when the Pope expresses his mind motu proprio, i.e. by initiating a question himself, or, it may be, in response to queries submitted to him by others.  Teaching which is; technically, non-infallible may be imparted in Pontifical Decrees and Instructions and in Encyclical Letters, for all of which the Pope is the responsible author.  his authorization of the decisions of the Roman Congregations, notably that of the Holy Office and, of equal authority within its prescribed limits, the Biblical Commission, is not to be regarded in the light of a solemn definition.  To these decisions, on account of their great weight, a respectful internal asset is demanded of the faithful; but they are not necessarily irreformable and have not the sanction of infallibility behind them.

6.  The Pope’s jurisdictional authority

Of the Pope’s legislative, or jurisdictional, authority it will be enough to remark that all the power of rulership possessed by the Church is vested in his office; adding that while he is subject to none, save God himself, all the members of the Church, not excluding the Bishops, are subject to him.  He may appoint and depose Bishops and send Legates, with authority delegated by him, wherever he deems fit.  In a word, his jurisdictional authority is supreme.  But, though authoritarian and absolute within its own sphere, the Papal power cannot be fairly described as arbitrary or despotic.  The Pope is as subject to the least member of the faithful to the prescriptions of the divine and natural law; from these he can dispense neither himself nor any member of his flock.  His jurisdictional authority is such that the canons and positive laws of the Church have no coercive sanction in respect of his actions, but they have for him their directive force none the less; and he is bound to use his great powers with the charity and prudence of one ever conscious of his grave responsibility before God.  To enable him to do so–how otherwise could he hope to succeed? –he enjoys the assistance of the Holy Spirit, as a guarantee that his rulership will be “unto edification and not unto destruction” (2 Cor. xiii 10).

7.  The Pope representative, not successor, of Christ

Finally, be it remembered that nothing we have said concerning the successor of St. Peter militates against the supreme power over the Church exercised by Christ himself.  He is the Head of the Church in his own right; Peter and his successors only in virtue of the power received from him.  Thus the Pope is the Vicar (i.e. representative), not the successor, of Christ.  Christ is Head as Redeemer and Mediator of all men; “and therefore,” writes Pius XII, “this Body has only one principal Head, namely Christ, who, continuing himself to govern the Church invisibly and directly, rules it visibly through his personal representative on earth” (MCC 38).  Christ is the Head of all men throughout all time (Summa Theologica, III, Q. viii, art. 3), the successor of Peter only of those living under his Pontificate.  Christ is Head alike of the Church militant on earth, suffering in Purgatory, and triumphant in Heaven; the Pope’s headship is concerned only with the Church militant.  The Pope, as visible Head, rules the Church visibly; but Christ, though hidden, rules it still, bringing to bear upon his Mystical Body all those unseen influences, of grace and light and strength, which can emanate only from the Incarnate Son of God and his life-giving Spirit.



1.  Christ’s commission to his Apostles

An account will be found elsewhere in this volume of the institution of the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy and the origins of the Episcopate (Essay xxix).  Here we shall be concerned, not with the power of Order, but with the jurisdiction proper to the Bishops of the Church as successors to the Apostles.  For they collectively received from Christ a commission no less explicit than that given to their head, Peter.  “Amen I say to you, whatsoever you shall bind upon earth shall be bound also in heaven: and whatsoever you shall loose upon earth shall be loosed also in heaven” (Matt. xviii 18).  “Going therefore, teach ye all nations . . . teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you.  And behold I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world” (Ibid., xxviii 19-20; cf. Acts x 40-42). 

2.  The Bishops’ powers

“Therefore the Bishops are not only to be regarded as more eminent members of the Universal Church, by reason of the truly unique bond which unites them to the divine Head of the whole Body . . . but each of them is also, so far as his own diocese is concerned, a true Pastor, who tends and rules in the name of Christ the flock committed to his care” (MCC 40).  The Bishops possess, within the limits of the diocese assigned to them, jurisdiction in the fullest sense, i.e. as including doctrinal and jurisdictional authority.  It should be noted that they are not merely the Pope’s delegates, as, for example, are Apostolic Vicars in missionary countries; their jurisdiction is proper (i.e. belonging to them ex officio) and ordinary (i.e. not delegated).  Thus, as the episcopacy was a method of government instituted by Christ, it would be against the constitution of the Church for their authority so to be superseded as to be reduced to vanishing point.  On the other hand the Roman Pontiff’s supremacy implies that the exercise of the Bishops’ powers may be controlled by him, either by limitation, or extension, or, in a particular case, by their total removal. 

Here also it may be explained that no Bishop, with the exception of the Pope, has, by divine law, any jurisdiction over his episcopal brethren.  The episcopacy itself was instituted by Christ but, St. Peter alone excepted, all the Apostles ranked as equals.  Patriarchates, now little more than honorific titles, and archbishoprics have their origin in ecclesiastical law; their authority descends to them from that of Peter and his successors.  It was found to facilitate the government of the Church to raise certain Bishops to a higher rank and give them, within prescribed limits, powers of delegating faculties to others; but they exercise these powers, not in virtue of their own episcopacy, but as sharing in the governing authority of the Apostolic See.  Even the Cardinals, as such, have no powers distinct from those proper to the Holy See, i.e. the Pope.  They are his counselors and assistants in the government of the Universal Church; to them also pertains the negotiation of such business as must be done while the Roman See is vacant, notably the supervision of arrangements for the election of the succeeding Pontiff; but the cardinalate, unlike the episcopate, is not of divine institution.

3.  Other prelates in the Church

Abbots and Superiors of Religious Orders, though they may exercise a quasi-episcopal power in respect of their own subjects, do not belong to the hierarchy of jurisdiction in the Church as instituted by Christ.  Nor, strictly speaking, can parish priests claim this privilege; though in the past a case has been made out for them.  True, they have the power of Order by divine right and the indelible sacramental character; they may possess also, under the Bishop, ordinary jurisdiction over a portion of the faithful for the preaching of the word of God and the administration of the sacraments, but not for making laws or passing judgments in the external forum.  Their historic function is that of assistants to the Bishop.  They clearly share in the exercise of his pastoral office, but they are not pastors in the sense that he is, nor do they possess his jurisdiction.  Parish priests are not to be thought of as holding the same relation to the Bishops as the latter have to the Pope.  Their rights and privileges, though carefully legislated for in Canon Law (C.I.C., can. 451 et seq.), are, according to the divine constitution of the Church, of a far more subordinate kind.  The prerogatives of the Bishop, as successor to the Apostles, are inalienable (These remarks apply in their full import to residential Bishops who rule a diocese: vide can. 334; not to titular Bishops, who exercise no jurisdiction in the diocese (in partibus infidelium) whose title they bear: vide can. 348).

4.  The Bishops’ doctrinal authority

In virtue of the commission received from Christ it belongs to the Bishops to feed their flocks with the word of God; that is to say, they have doctrinal authority over their own subjects.  The subject-matter of this is proportionately the same as that of the Roman Pontiff’s magisterium, viz., divine revelation and matters connected therewith.  Accordingly, within their respective dioceses, they have the duty of supervising the teaching and defense of Christian doctrine, of proscribing errors, of prohibiting books and periodicals dangerous to faith and morals.  As the Bishops individually, however, are not graced with the charism of infallibility, they do not normally take responsibility for decisions of great doctrinal moment; here the procedure is to refer the matter to the Holy See or to an Ecumenical Council.  None the less, Bishops are authentic masters and judges in matters of faith, and their teaching is to be presumed sound until the contrary is proved.  Should doubt arise as to a Bishop’s orthodoxy, the question is to be settled, not by his subjects, but by an appeal to the Roman Pontiff.

But whatever be the possibility of individual Bishops falling into error, the Bishops collectively, i.e. the body of the episcopate, whether dispersed throughout the world in union with the Pope, or assembled under the presidency of the Pope in General Council, are infallible teachers of Christ’s doctrine.  Of General Councils we shall speak in the next section.  But, apart from these, the Bishops’ infallible doctrinal authority is exercised explicitly when, for example, they unanimously accept as the rule of faith the decrees of a particular Council; or in giving an identical response to a question proposed by the Pope; or by agreeing in the repudiation of some error.  implicitly the Bishops may testify infallibly to the truth of a doctrine by the fact that they unanimously allow it to be taught in their dioceses, since it is the duty of Bishops to oppose and forbid teaching that is untrue.

5.  Their jurisdictional authority

Their jurisdictional authority runs parallel with, or rather, is involved in, their office as pastors of the flock.  They rule their subjects in both the internal and external forum.  Accordingly they may legislate within their own dioceses in matters pertaining to faith, worship and Church discipline.  They are also judges in the first instance and may inflict canonical penalties on delinquents.  But, as has already been said, the Bishops exercise both their doctrinal and jurisdictional authority in dependence upon the Roman Pontiff; he may impose limits on their powers even within their respective dioceses, as well as reserve special matters to his own competence.  Bishops, it need hardly be said, may lay down nothing contrary to the decisions of the Holy See; nor have they, as individuals, any power of legislation over the Universal Church.

6.  Pastors of souls

Lastly, what has been said of the gravity of the Pope’s personal responsibility before God applies with no less force to the Bishops.  If the most eloquent description of his office is that of “the servant of the servants of God” so, proportionately, should it be theirs.  They, as he, must be mindful of the dignity of their calling; but as upholding the honor of the Church, not as a claiming of personal prestige.  Being true pastors of souls, they look for their model, not to the autocracy and despotism of secular monarchy, but to the “Good Shepherd” who lays down his life for the sheep (John x 14-15).  Notwithstanding the respect that is rightly paid them, like him they come “not to be ministered unto, but to minister” (Mark x 45).  If the Bishops can appeal for their great authority to the mandate given by our Lord to the Apostles (Matt. xviii 18; xxviii 18-20), they have received from him instructions no less clear as to the spirit in which it is to be exercised: “You know that the princes of the Gentiles lord it over them and they that are the greater exercise power upon them.  It shall not be so among you: but whosoever will be the greater among you, let him be your minister.  And he that will be first among you shall be your servant” (Matt. xx 25-27).



1.  Councils in the Church

A Church Council may be defined as a legitimate assembly of the Pastors of the Church for judging and legislating in matters of doctrine and ecclesiastical discipline.  Such a council is described as provincial when there are present at it the bishops of a single province, under the presidency of its Archbishop or Metropolitan; plenary (at one time called national) when composed of the bishops of one kingdom or nation; general or ecumenical when representing the Universal Church, with the Roman Pontiff presiding, either personally or through his representative.  The decrees of provincial and plenary councils are not, of themselves, infallible; they may, however become embodied in the rule of faith, if they are so regarded by the Bishops throughout the world, or are ratified by the Pope with his full teaching authority; as happened, for example, with the decrees of the plenary council of Carthage (418) and the second council of Orange (529).

2.  Ecumenical or General Councils

The decrees of a General Council, on the other hand, are an infallible witness to the Catholic rule of faith.  For a council to rank as ecumenical (There have been twenty Ecumenical Councils (of which only the first seven are recognized by the Greek schismatics): Nicae I (325), Constantinople I (381), Ephesus (431), Chalcedon (451), Constantinople II (553) and III (680-681), Nicaea II (787), Constanbinople IV (869-870), Lateran I (1123) and II (1139), III (1179), and IV (1215), Lyons I (1245) and II (1274), Lateran V (1512-1517), Trent (1545-1563) and Vatican (1869-1870).) a number of conditions must be fulfilled, of which the most important is its confirmation by the Roman Pontiff.  The convoking of such a council belongs to the Pope, as the supreme ecclesiastical authority; though this condition, with regard to certain of the early eastern councils, has been waived, or rather supplied by a subsequent ratification or the use of a legal fiction analogous to a sanatio in radice (Cf. Billot, op. cit., p. 718.  The phrase means “a validation from the beginning”; that is to say, the Council gains a retrospective legalization by the Pope’s recognition of it).  Thus the first general councils at Nicaea (325) and Constantinople (381) were summoned by the Emperor, but received the hallmark of ecumenicity by the Roman Pontiff’s approbation.  This procedure did not conflict with the present state of the law as violently as might be supposed.  There existed at that date an interconnection between secular and religious affairs the closeness of which we can scarcely realize today.  The unity of the Church, then practically conterminous in its visible extent with the Empire, was a vital interest to the Roman Emperor; hence he was not acting entirely beyond his rights in assembling the Bishops with a view to preserving that unity, especially as it lay with the civil authorities to keep open communications and generally to provide facilities for such a gathering.  Nor did he interfere in the strictly ecclesiastical deliberations of the conciliar Fathers, even though he may have been given the place of honor among them.  Due deference was always paid to the Papal Legates, and neither the Emperor nor the assembled Bishops were in doubt as to the need of having the Council’s decrees ratified by the Roman Pontiff.

3.  Those who take part

Those summoned to an Ecumenical Council, and having a deliberate vote, are (C.I.C., can. 223) the Cardinals of the Holy Roman Church, whether or not they be Bishops; Patriarchs, Primates, Archbishops, residential Bishops, even if not yet consecrated; Abbots and Prelates nullius (I.e. nullius diocesis, “of no diocese”: ruling over territory, with clergy and people, not enclosed in any episcopal diocese (can. 319).  Twelve Benedictine Abbots–among them the Abbots of Monte Cassino, Subiaco and St. Paul’s outside the Walls–enjoy this privilege); the Abbot Primate, the Abbot Superiors of Monastic Congregations, and the chief Superiors of exempt religious orders of clerics.  Titular Bishops also have a deliberative vote when called to a Council.  The expert theologians and canonists who always attend are there in an advisory capacity, not as judges and witnesses in matters of faith.  The Pope, as sole superior to all the Bishops, is the only president of the council, a presidency which he may exercise by means of Legates; with him the decision rests as to what is to be discussed and its order of treatment, likewise of transferring, suspending or dissolving the Council; should he die while it is in session, its deliberations are automatically suspended pending the orders of the succeeding Pontiff for their resumption.

4.  Conciliar decisions

Nor is it necessary that all the Bishops of the Catholic world should attend a Council in order to make it ecumenical.  This is a practical impossibility and it suffices that the whole Church, morally speaking, should be represented.  A completely unanimous decision is not required.  In the event of dissension arising, the final judgment lies with that portion of the Council adhering to the Roman Pontiff, since he is the Head of the Church and protected from error by the gift of infallibility.  But if the decision is to be conciliar, and not simply Papal, the Bishops siding with the Pope, even though a minority, must be morally representative of the universal Church.  Confirmation by the Roman Pontiff, as has already been said, is an indispensable condition of the ecumenicity of a Council; for a gathering of Bishops, no matter how numerous, could not, if separated from the Head, represent the Church as a whole.  By the same principle, it is within the Pope’s power to ratify some, but not all, of the Bishops’ decisions; as instanced at Chalcedon, when Pope Leo repudiated its 28th Canon concerning the prerogatives of the See of Constantinople.

5.  The function of a General Council

In conclusion, it should be remembered that Papal infallibility does not, as is sometimes imagined, render the calling of a General Council superfluous.  Such an assembly is not indeed absolutely necessary for the government of the Church, but there are occasions when it may be both advisable and highly beneficial.  The Pope, being neither the recipient of private revelation nor divinely inspired, is morally bound to employ all available human means in his investigations; accordingly, he is much helped in discovering the content of the deposit of faith by consultation with the Bishops, who aid him in this way, as well as acting as judges of whatever may be decided.  In matters of Church discipline the advantage of taking counsel with the pastors of souls from all parts of the world are too obvious to need emphasis; it is in this way that the needs of the faithful in the various countries can be understood and their case legislated for.  Furthermore, although the authority of a Council is essentially the same as that of the Pope, there is an impressiveness about decisions issuing from such an assembly more arresting to men’s minds than that of a single voice, however exalted.  But it is vain to attempt to place the Catholic episcopate in opposition to the Roman Pontiff; the specious appeal of the Gallicans, and of many a heretic before them, from the decision of the Pope to some future General Council is subversive of the divine constitution of the Church.  The Church’s infallible teaching authority is vested in the body of Bishops joined with the Pope, and in the Pope himself.  It is idle to seek to separate the two. 


XI.   CHURCH AND STATE          

1.  The teaching of Leo XIII

“Let every soul be subject to higher powers.  For there is no power but from God” (Rom. xiii 1).  All authority, whether ecclesiastical or civil, has for its final sanction the divine law.  But, as the main object of the State’s existence differs from that which is the chief concern of the Church, we must distinguish a duality of function.  Pope Leo XIII has restated for the benefit of modern society the principles which should determine the relations between Church and State.  “The Almighty, therefore, has appointed the charge of the human race between two powers, the ecclesiastical and the civil, the one being set over the divine, the other over human, things.  Each in its kind is supreme, each has fixed limits within which it is contained, limits which are defined by the nature and special object of the province of each, so that there is, we may say, an orbit traced out within which the action of each is brought into play by its own native right” (Encyclical “Immortale Dei,” 1 November 1885: translated as “The Christian Constitution of States” in The Pope and the People (1929 edition), p. 51).  Though both Church and State come from God, they are to be distinguished by the diversity of ends each has in view, a distinction which is the basis of the difference of powers enjoyed by each.

2.  The sphere of the Church’s authority

As we have gathered from the foregoing pages, the reason for which the Church exists is man’s sanctification and eternal felicity.  “Whatever, therefore, in human things is of a sacred character, whatever belongs either of its own nature or by reason of the end to which it is referred, to the salvation of souls, or to the worship of God, is subject to the power and judgment of the Church.  Whatever is to be ranged under the civil and political order is rightly subject to the civil authority.  Jesus Christ has himself given command that what is Caesar’s is to be rendered to Caesar, and that what belongs to God is to be rendered to God” (The Pope and the People, p. 52).  Among things “of a sacred character” there obviously fall such activities as the preaching of the Gospel, the administration of the sacraments, the celebration of divine worship, the final judgment with respect to the morality of human acts.  Besides these and the like indisputably spiritual functions, there are other matters, in themselves temporal but consecrated to God by reason of the uses to which they are put, which are subject to ecclesiastical authority; e.g. Church buildings and all articles set apart for divine worship, as well as the sources of income appropriated to the upkeep of God’s ministers.

3.  The authority of the State

But in actual practice the division between the respective provinces of Church and State is not absolute and clear-cut; there is a “mixed” category, pertaining to the Church from one point of view, to the State from another.  The marriage contract and education are conspicuous examples of this.  Marriage is a sacrament, and as such pertains exclusively to Christ’s Church; but it is also a social contract, and udner this aspect the State rightly takes cognisance of it.  Education, fostering as it does the growth and development of a free individual human person, potentially or actually a member of Christ’s Mystical Body, must always be among the chief preoccupations of the Church.  But the State, responsible in large measure for the welfare of its future citizens, may also legislate within the sphere of education, provided that in doing so it does not override, but rather respects and reinforces, the freedom and spiritual interests of those chiefly concerned.  More particularly is the State within its rights in using its powers to ensure that the benefits of the best education should not be withheld from any member of the community capable of profiting by them.  In furthering justice in one department, however, the State must guard against perpetuating, or aggravating, injustice in another.  Thus, for example, the State is beyond question exceeding its powers in determining that the adequate financial assistance, needful for the educational reforms which it imposes, shall be made conditional upon the acceptance of a religious syllabus offensive to the consciences of a large number of its citizens.  This is to trespass upon the rights of the Church, a usurpation by Caesar of the things that are God’s.

The business of the State is to foster the common good of its citizens, to provide for their temporal well-being.  But, as man is so constituted that he cannot be happy even in this world unless his heart is set on his final end, which is God, the State cannot disregard these supra-temporal aspirations; it must, at least indirectly, encourage whatever may assist their realization.  Directly, however, the State is concerned with promoting the public good by legislation in the interests of the political, social and private rights of its citizens.  The application of its laws to particular cases and the settlement of individual claims and counter-claims are subject to the State’s judiciary.  Determining the effects of civil contracts, the punishment of law-breakers, the imposition of taxes, preparation for national defense, subsidizing the arts and sciences–these are the activities which properly engage the attention of the State.  Nor can the State be fairly accused of undue interference with personal liberty when it reinforces the moral law with positive statues; for example, by forbidding blasphemy and public indecency.  Propaganda in favor of philanthropic endeavor and personal unselfishness and, in general, the fostering of an intellectual and moral atmosphere favorable to the practice of the natural virtues, especially justice and mutual well-doing, all likewise within the legitimate province of the State.

4.  Power of the Church in political and social orders

In none of these matters has the Church the right of direct interference.  Occasion might arise, however, when she must speak her mind even here.  For the political and social orders, in so far as they fall under the moral law and the judgment of human conscience, are subject to the authority of the Church.  This supremely important principle is not seldom overlooked: most often by those who resent the subjection of their political and social actions to any higher tribunal; though it is by no means unknown for the representatives of the Church to offend against it, for example, in advocating merely personal views on political and social questions by an illegitimate appeal to alleged “Catholic principles.”  The Bishops, it should be noted, are not qualified by their office to criticize the military strategy of a war, or express their views as to what the political and economic arrangements of a peace-settlement should be; but they may, as pastors of their flocks and witnesses to the Gospel, pronounce upon the justice, or otherwise, of the issues involved. 

Political elections, as such, are no concern of bishops and priests, save in their capacity as private citizens; it is in fact their duty to remain strictly impartial, so as not to prejudice their position as spiritual guides to every section of their flock; but if a political party, or individual candidates, are advocating measures opposed to the Church’s interests, then the faithful may be reminded of where their duty lies.  Again, ecclesiastical authority is not empowered to sit in judgment upon purely economic questions of supply and demand, though clearly it may use its influence, let us say, to ensure that the workers are not deprived of a just wage.  Thus many human situations can arise upon which the episcopate is entitled to give guidance, without being charged with “interference” in matters outside its sphere.

5.  Harmony between Church and State

These considerations should make clear both the distinction between Church and State, and the need for their harmonious cooperation.  “When political government (regnum) and ecclesiastical authority (sacerdotium) are agreed,” writes Ivo of Chartres, “the world is well ruled and the Church flourishes and bears fruit.  But when they disagree, not only do less important interests fail to prosper, but those of the greatest moment fall into miserable decay” (Epistle 238; P.L. 162, col. 246).  It is obvious that civil authority can, and should, while keeping within its due limits, facilitate the mission of the Church.  The making of good and just laws, the respecting of its citizens conscientious rights, especially in regard to religion, the preservation of peace and order effectively assist the growth of God’s Kingdom on earth; just as their contraries, social injustice, the absence of religious liberty, discord and anarchy constitute so many hindrances.  Similarly, though at a much deeper level, the Church contributes within its own order to the well-being of the State: by inculcating respect for authority, fostering the observance of civil laws, upholding the moral standard and encouraging the practice of the social virtues (For the benefits conferred by Christianity on the State, see Pope Leo’s Encyclical already quoted; op. cit. pp. 53-56).

6.  Concordats

It is beyond the scope of these pages to enter into the detailed relations of the Church with the modern State.  Liberal democracy on the one hand, and the various form of totalitarianism on the other, have given rise to a new set of problems, emphasized by the complete secularization of politics and an attitude towards religion ranging from skeptical indifference to fanatical hostility; but the principles of the solution remain the same.  The Church will always claim the right to judge of politics in their ethical and religious bearings; but she will never descend into the political arena or allow herself to be identified with any human polity.  If her own prerogatives are infringed she will make known her protest, not indeed on account of mere prestige, but lest she prove unfaithful to her mission.  In situations where the ideal is unobtainable, she will tolerate much that is imperfect for the sake of the good that may be preserved.  It is thus that, without compromising her message, she comes to terms, by means of a concordat, with government s in many ways opposed to her own interests.  Such a diplomatic instrument is a treaty between the Holy See and a secular State touching the conservation and promotion of the interests of religion in that State.  The extreme flexibility whereby the Church, in this way or by tacit agreement, can effect a modus vivendi with almost any political regime is a proof, not of unprincipled opportunism, but that she is committed to none.  Here , as in many other of her activities, she may appeal for her mandate to the example of the Apostle Paul: “I became all things to all men, that I might save all” (1 Cor. ix 22).



1.  Indefectibility of the Church

By way of concluding our brief survey of the juridical structure of Christ’s Mystical Body, which is the Catholic Church, we may note that it possesses the property described by theologians as indefectibility.  The Christian Society, of its nature “far more excellent than all other associations of human beings, transcending them as grace transcends nature and as things immortal transcend all things that pass away” (MCC 61), is destined to survive until the end of time.  “Unbelievers”, says St. Augustine (In Psalm. lxx, n. 8) “think that the Christian religion will last for a certain period in the world and will then disappear.  But it will remain as long as the sun–as long as the sun rises and sets; that is, as long as the ages of time shall roll, the Church of God–the true body of Christ on earth–will not disappear.”  The reason for this power of survival lies, not in the Church’s juridical elements, but in the indestructibility conferred upon her by the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit and of Christ himself (John xiv 16; Matt. xxviii 20).  The visible hierarchy, the elaborate Church organization, being inseparable from human imperfections, though a part of our Lord’s plan from the beginning, have not in themselves the stuff of immortality.  This they derive from the sources of grace and divine life within, the hidden riches of the Mystical Body which constitute the veritable “Mystery of the Church” (The title of an invaluable little book by Pere Clerissac; it comprises an admirable series of meditations on the Church).

No one has put this point more forcibly than Pope Pius XII, in words that refute for ever the charge that Catholic Christianity oppresses the free life of the spirit under the weight of ecclesiastical formalism: “For although the juridical grounds upon which also the Church rests and is built have their origin in the divine constitution given her by Christ, and although they contribute to the achievement of her supernatural purpose, nevertheless that which raises the Christian society to a level utterly surpassing any order of nature is the Spirit of our Redeemer, the source of all graces, gifts and miraculous powers, perennially and intimately pervading the Church and acting in her.  Just as the framework of our mortal body is indeed a marvelous work of the Creator, yet falls short of the sublime dignity of our soul, so the structure of the Christian society, proof though it is of the wisdom of its divine Architect, is nevertheless something of a completely lower order in comparison with the spiritual gifts which enrich it and give it life, and with him who is their divine source” (MCC 61.  Thus we are enabled to see how the overflowing richness of the Church’s inner life can find expression in a great variety of rites and formularies.  We may note in this context, and indeed on the whole subject of reunion of Christendom, the significant words of the same Roman Pontiff: “We would have this to be known and appreciated by all, both by those who were born within the bosom of the Catholic Church, and by those who are wafted towards her, as it were, on the wings of yearning and desire.  The latter especially should have full assurance that they will never be forced to abandon their own legitimate rites or to exchange their own venerable and traditional customs for Latin rites and customs.  All these are to be held in equal esteem and honor, for they adorn the common Mother Church with a royal garment of many colors.  Indeed this variety of rites and customs, preserving inviolate what is most ancient and most valuable in each presents no obstacle to a true and genuine unity.  It is especially in these times of ours, when the strife and discord of war have estranged men’s hearts from one another nearly all the world over, that all must be impelled by the stimulus of Christian charity to promote union in Christ and through Christ by every means in their power.”  Encyclical Orientalis Ecclesiae Decus; C.T.S. trans., 27).

2.  The Church lives by the Holy Spirit

It is by the Spirit within that the Church lives; it is by our correspondence with that Spirit that the Church grows, speaking metaphorically, to “the fullness of Christ” (Eph. iv 13).  While Christ and his members can never constitute physically one person, as some have mistakenly supposed (MCC 85), there is yet a profound sense in which the final consummation of the Mystical Body will realize, as St. Augustine saw, “the whole Christ,” totus Christus.  “It is due also to this communication of the Spirit of Christ that all the gifts, virtues and miraculous powers which are found eminently, most abundantly and fontally in the Head, stream into all the members of the Church and in them are perfected daily according to the place of each in the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ; and that, consequently, the Church becomes as it were the fullness and completion of the Redeemer, Christ in the Church being in some sense brought to complete achievement” (MCC 77).

3.  The will of Christ fulfilled in the Church

So it is that the Catholic Church remains, now as ever, the ultimate hope of the world.  She is the one supre-national force able to integrate a civilization fast dissolving in ruins.  Outside her visible communion there may be “broken lights,” half truths of authentic Christianity; but only within the fold can men respond to the full and objective will of Christ.  Fittingly we may end with the memorable words of St. Augustine (He is alluding to the schism of Donatus): “Let us love the Lord our God; let us love his Church; the Lord as our Father, the Church as our Mother. . . . What doth it profit thee not to offend the Father, who avenges an offense against the Mother?  What doth it profit to confess the Lord, to honor God, to preach him, to acknowledge his Son, and to confess that he sits on the right hand of the Father, if you blaspheme his Church?  Hold fast, therefore, O dearly beloved, hold fast unswervingly to God as yo9ur Father, and the Church as your Mother” (Enarratio in Psalm. lxxxviii, sermon ii, n. 14: quoted from Leo XIII’s Encyclical Satis cognitum, 29 June, 1896).

Rev. Aelred Graham, O.S.B.  

Essay  XIX


Essay  XXI



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