The Church: Like Us in All Things, But Without Sin
I love the Church so much, and in fact so intimately, that I can hardly express it. Many people seem to accept the Church as a sort of necessary evil, putting up with its hierarchical structure, its authority, its sacramental system, its Magisterial teachings, and so on, because they suppose, after all, that Christian life has to be organized and perpetuated somehow, and the Church is what has evolved to play that role over a long period of time. Such persons very frequently work out justifications for selectively ignoring the Church, forming an incongruous and even incompatible set of values and commitments while remaining nominally Catholic. But not me. To me, the Church is Christ.
At the moment we are missing a vital part of the Church because we are between popes. To some degree, then, we are on hold, and it is a good time to reflect on this identity between the Church and Christ, and on all the ways in which Christ is active and present within the Church. But let us first establish the broad lines of that identity.
Fundamental Identity, Nature and Structure of the Church
The easiest way to do this is to quote a single impressive passage from St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians:
Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. Even so husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. (Eph 5:25-30)
Here Paul captures the profound union between Christ and the Church as both body and bride. The intimacy of this connection is underscored by the Christian understanding of the nuptial bond, in which the husband and wife become one flesh. There is a deep unity between Christ and the Church because the members of the Church are transformed into Christ’s body by the Eucharist, and because Christ espouses the Church as his spotless bride, becoming one with her.
This emphasis on the unity of Christ with the Church as a whole immediately reveals the Church as what we might call a corporate sacramental mystery, removing any possibility of a Protestant misunderstanding which perceives the Church as only a series of connections between individual souls and Christ. Such a view would instrumentalize our understanding of the Church, causing us to fall into an attitude very much like that articulated in the opening paragraph—a sense that the Church is a sort of extraneous mechanism for attaching individual souls to Christ. But in fact she is much more than that, in her deepest corporate identity as both Christ’s body and Christ’s bride.
Thus it is not possible to conceive of the Church’s connection to Christ as only the sum total of the individual connections formed within it. To gain the full sense of the Church’s identity with Christ, it is essential to recognize that the Church is a structured body with a hierarchy of ministers and governance, a set of ordinances, a teaching authority, a sacramental system—all of which are Divinely instituted as substantive parts of the Church’s identity with Christ, and all of which necessarily serve to make man holy because they are already manifestations of the Church’s fundamental unity with Her Lord.
We see this essential structure and authority in the Church in history from the first, with local churches always presided over by presbyters (often denoting priests) and elders (often denoting bishops). We also see from the first that these local structures are tied into a universal structure. Existing bishops (or apostles) are necessary to create new bishops, and all serve under the central authority of the bishop of Rome. Thus the first authoritative document we have in the Church after the close of Scripture is the letter of Pope Clement to the Corinthians, written sometime between 69 and 96 AD, in which Clement rebukes the church at Corinth for its rebellion against its pastors, emphasizing the proper apostolic order of authority in the Church, insisting on the Church’s ordinances, and cautioning:
Ye therefore that laid the foundation of the sedition, submit yourselves unto the presbyters and receive chastisement unto repentance, bending the knees of your heart. (1 Clem 57:1)
Christ himself clearly established this structure and authority of an institutional church, as is obvious from the earliest history of the Catholic community, and even from Scripture itself. He declared that he would build the Church on Peter, that he would give Peter the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven, and that the gates of hell would not prevail against it (Mt 16:18-19). He also told first Peter and then the apostles as a group that whatever they bound on earth would be bound in heaven, and whatever they loosed on earth would be loosed in heaven (see also Mt 18:18). And of course He commissioned Peter to “feed my sheep” (Jn 21:15-17) (an obvious reference to spiritual nourishment through the sacramental system, especially the Eucharist). Moreover, He prayed for Peter that his faith would not fail, so that he could strengthen his brothers (an obvious reference to the Church’s infallible teaching authority) (Lk 22:32).
For all these reasons, we are not surprised that when Our Lord taught his disciples about the need to correct anyone who had fallen into sin or error, He recommended the presence of two or three witnesses, and He concluded with this mandate:
If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. (Mt 18:17-18)
The Hierarchy and the Sacramental System
The hierarchy of the Church, which is so essential to her identity, grows out of her sacramental system, which in turn grows out of the incarnational principle that lies at the heart of God’s dealings with his people. Just as Christ took on human nature, the incarnational principle proceeds by turning natural things into instruments and conduits of grace. Just as it is impossible to conceive of grace in the Christian system without the Word becoming flesh, so too is it impossible to conceive of grace in the Christian system without the great sacrament of the Church, extending Christ’s presence and mission through time, including the Church’s specific sacramental system.
Thus the hierarchy itself emerges from the sacrament of Orders. Peter, on whom Christ laid the task of both tending and feeding His sheep (Jn 21:15-17), set forth the basic principle in his first letter:
So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ as well as a partaker in the glory that is to be revealed. Tend the flock of God that is your charge, not by constraint but willingly, not for shameful gain but eagerly, not as domineering over those in your charge but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd is manifested you will obtain the unfading crown of glory. (1 Pet 5:1-4)
Again, because a precise terminology for the levels of the hierarchy emerged only over time, we must notice that the use of the term “elder” is most often equivalent to the term “overseer”, which is also often translated as “bishop”. The context is not always clear, but the title does not depend on age, as St. Paul indicated when he placed Timothy in charge of a local church: “Let no one despise your youth, but set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity” (1 Tim 4:12). Paul’s entire letter is the earliest instruction we have on how a bishop should act, and it refers specifically to Timothy’s own episcopal consecration: “Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophetic utterance when the council of elders laid their hands upon you” (1 Tim 4:14).
It is absolutely essential to see the hierarchy of the Church in union with her sacramental system as a prime means by which Christ is in and with the Church, and through which Christ brings the Church into a fundamental identity with Himself. These are not extraneous elements. They are to be loved and embraced as we love and embrace Christ. They are essential to the character of the Church as a body and a bride configured absolutely to Christ, carrying on the work of Christ through history. To honor Christ without honoring these fundamental features of the identity of the Church is analogous to claiming to love the Father while rejecting the Son. They are different, but the same.
The rest of the Church’s sacraments reinforce this concept. While it is certainly true that it is Christ who communicates His life to us in special ways in Baptism, Penance, Confirmation, Matrimony and Anointing (not to mention the more obvious case of the Eucharist), it is also true that Christ communicates Himself in these ways only through the presence and ministry of the Church.
Christians understand that, by means of baptism, we sinners are rendered justified before God through a radical transformation of our being: the removal of Original Sin, the birth of the life of the Trinity within our souls, and our incorporation into Christ precisely through membership in His Church. For St. Paul, membership in Christ and membership in the Church are equivalent terms: “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Cor 12:13). Or consider what Paul says in Romans: “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom 6:4).
As a quick aside, let me dispel any thought that this justification before God is anything like Martin Luther’s conception of God covering over, and agreeing to ignore, our fundamental corruption. Rather we are interiorly completely renewed, as St. Peter makes clear: “Baptism…now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet 3:21).
Once again, we are speaking of the Church’s sacramental system as the pre-eminent continuation of the ministry of Christ Himself. The sacrament of Penance is no different. The priest stands in for Christ and forgives sins by Christ’s own authority, as Our Lord Himself said:
And…he breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (Jn 20:22-23)
The same is true of Confirmation, by which we receive that intensification of the Divine life which brings us to Christian maturity, to a real courage and strength in living according to the Gospel. “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you,” Our Lord told his disciples (Acts 1:8), and this was verified on Pentecost when “they were all filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:1-4). The letter to the Hebrews shows the administration of the sacrament:
Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, with instruction about ablutions, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. (Heb 6:1-2, emphasis added)
We see the same thing in St. James’ description of the sacrament of anointing: “Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven” (Jas 5:14-15). Once again, our emphasis here is that these are all manifestations of Christ, and of the transmission of Christ’s life to us, through the formal, institutional ministry of the Church—and inseparable from the Church.
Finally, the same is true of the two great vocational sacraments—Orders, which we have already considered, and Matrimony, which has its prototype as a sacrament in the wedding feast at Cana (John 2), at which Our Lord began His path to Calvary, because He wanted to spare embarrassment to a bride and groom. We recall as well, from St. Paul, how marriage is both a profound reality in its own right and a great archetype of the union between Christ and the Church (see again Ephesians 5). (I have written extensively on this in my marriage and church series, which begins with There Is the World, and There Is the World with Marriage.)
Still More Modes of Presence
Every grace we receive from Christ, every means by which we enjoy and acknowledge His presence, is to be understood within this fundamental context of His body the Church. So far from diminishing our appreciation for what Christ has done for us, these reflections ought to increase it. As Peter said of God the Father:
By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. (1 Pet 3:5)
Similarly, St. Paul, in the fifth chapter of Romans, draws the famous parallel between Adam’s disobedience and Christ’s obedience, in that through one man’s disobedience, all were imprisoned in sin, and so even more, through one man’s obedience, will all be brought to life again.
Yet it is precisely this salvific gift—the passion, death and resurrection of Our Lord—which inaugurates the new communion of the Church, which possesses within it all the goods Our Lord offers for our salvation, so that they may be protected, preserved, renewed, extended and applied until the end of time. This is why the Fathers of the Church saw the very birth of the Church in the blood flowing from Christ’s pierced side. Thus St. John Chrysostom:
“There flowed from his side water and blood”. Beloved, do not pass over this mystery without thought; it has yet another hidden meaning, which I will explain to you. I said that water and blood symbolized baptism and the holy eucharist. From these two sacraments the Church is born: from baptism, “the cleansing water that gives rebirth and renewal through the Holy Spirit”, and from the holy eucharist. Since the symbols of baptism and the Eucharist flowed from his side, it was from his side that Christ fashioned the Church, as he had fashioned Eve from the side of Adam. Moses gives a hint of this when he tells the story of the first man and makes him exclaim: “Bone from my bones and flesh from my flesh!” As God then took a rib from Adam’s side to fashion a woman, so Christ has given us blood and water from his side to fashion the Church. God took the rib when Adam was in a deep sleep, and in the same way Christ gave us the blood and the water after his own death. [See the entire meditation by St. John Chrysostom.]
Saint Paul says: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21). And the way we “become the righteousness of God” is in and through the Church.
We can hardly be surprised, then, that Christ promised to be with his disciples “always, to the close of the age”, as they carried His very authority to “all nations” (Mt 28:18-20). Nor are we surprised, in this same corporate context, that Our Lord tells us that “where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Mt 18:20).
We also know that Christ is present in a special way in Scripture, which we rightly call the word of God. St. John makes this identity clear in the very first line of his gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (Jn 1:1). Without the Church, we would not know what Scripture is; nor would we be able to protect ourselves against certain errors of interpretation. So in the context of the Church, reading and meditation on the Word of God in Scripture is an important means of increasing the graced presence of the Word of God in our souls.
And we must remember that God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—does dwell in our souls, nurturing within us the supernatural virtues of Faith, Hope and Love. “I will pray to the Father”, says Our Lord,
and he will give you another Counselor, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him; you know him, for he dwells with you, and will be in you. (Jn 14:16-17)
And again: “But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (Jn 14:26).
St. Paul develops our understanding of this special Divine presence: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God? You are not your own; you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Cor 6:19-20). While this is a special action of the Holy Spirit, we recall that where one Person of the Holy Trinity acts, all three Persons are present, for there is only one God. Thus the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, purchased for us by the blood of Christ, is also the presence of the Holy Trinity, and of Christ Himself. So real and personal is this presence that it will even speak for us in times of persecution, as Our Lord Himself taught: “And when they bring you to trial and deliver you up, do not be anxious beforehand what you are to say; but say whatever is given you in that hour, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit” (Mk 13:11).
We come at length to the Eucharist, which is confected at each Mass when the redemptive sacrifice of Our Lord and Savior is re-presented on the altar. We recall how Jesus taught us to pray: “Give us this day our daily bread” (see the Our Father in Matthew chapter 6). The Eucharist is at once the special presence of Jesus Christ—what we call the Real Presence of Christ, body, blood, soul and divinity—and the very means by which the Church forms us into what she is, namely the Body of Christ. For when we receive ordinary food, we assimilate it to ourselves; but when we receive Christ, we are assimilated to Him.
John the Evangelist gives us the great discourse on the Bread of Life in chapter 6: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day" (see especially Jn 6:53-58). The reader will recall that many who heard this discourse thought it was ridiculous on its face, for how could anyone provide His flesh to eat? This fundamental doubt has caused many over the centuries to spin idle theories which suppose Our Lord’s words are meant symbolically. But in fact, this teaching caused Our Lord to be abandoned by many, and He made absolutely no effort to soften His words or explain them away.
Instead He turned to the apostles and challenged them point blank: “Do you also wish to go away?” Peter spoke for all believers when he responded: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life; and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God” (Jn 6:66-69). We encounter the same challenge, and the same opportunity for communion with Christ, in the Church today, at every Eucharistic liturgy, as described clearly in several places in Scripture and celebrated throughout the Church after Pentecost. St. Paul stresses the importance of this mystery:
Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself. (1 Cor 11:24-30)
May those who claim to love Christ while disdaining the Church recognize the danger in which they place themselves. I mean the danger—no, the inevitability—of throwing the Baby out with the bathwater. It is through her own perpetuation of the Eucharist that the Church is constantly formed, strengthened and renewed. Again, we turn to St. Paul: “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Cor 10:16-17).
This is the Church, and it is the Church because it is Christ. As members of the Church, we are poor sinners. To be sure, the Church is blemished by our sins as Christ was blemished by the wounds He suffered in His passion. His beauty was obscured, but He remained the unblemished sacrifice, the Lamb of God. So too with the Church, whom our sins similarly disfigure. At a deeper level, she is the body of Christ. She is the bride “without spot or wrinkle or any such thing”.
Who would be so foolish as to take exception to either Christ’s body or His spouse. Instead, we can and must say of the Church exactly what we say of Christ. His alleged sins were really the sins of those who refused to be transformed by Him. And the Church’s alleged sins are really the sins of those who refuse to be transformed by Her. Our sins are the Church’s Calvary. In this sense also, the Church is one with Christ—like us in all things, but without sin.
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Posted by: koinonia -
Mar. 13, 2013 8:18 PM ET USA
Magnificent Dr. Mirus! God bless you! The Church is the vehicle through which we have life. It is the duty of the pontiff to be profoundly "Pro-Life." Let us pray for our father Pope Francis I. We are called to eternal life by the mark of Baptism, and Pope Francis is our father and thus he is necessarily our advocate. May he be our advocate before the triune God and a witness to our Savior before the whole world. May he be a son of Mary. May he be found a worthy servant of the Good Lord.
Posted by: Cornelius -
Mar. 09, 2013 3:56 PM ET USA
Indeed, and we Catholics are continually marring the face of the Church to the world, obscuring her divine reality and spotlessness by our sins. We bear much of the blame for the contempt that the world hurls at her.
Posted by: larindoggieland5449 -
Mar. 09, 2013 10:31 AM ET USA
Amen, Dr. Mirus!
Posted by: John J Plick -
Mar. 08, 2013 8:37 PM ET USA
Finally! God has granted my prayer. A Catholic theologian has explicitely pronounced what I have always suspected, that the "Catholic" Church is perfect. That there is "no such thing" as "institutional" guilt? Even Israel, God's "Chosen People" had provision for sacrafices due to corporate sin. I would call Joan of Arc to the stand, and the ones' who sold indulgences without shame for avarice... Mystically perhaps, our Church stands outside of time and space perfected, but practically...?
Posted by: howland5905 -
Mar. 08, 2013 8:25 PM ET USA
Bravo Jeff! This is a magnificent essay. I can't tell you how many times I have heard Catholics say in various ways, "Oh I love Christ but I hate the Church." Sometime I've even slipped into that mindset myself. May God help me remember that it is my sins, our sins, that disfigure the Bride of Christ.