The MOST Theological Collection: Our Father's Plan: God's Arrangements and Our Response

"Chapter 13: We Are His Members"


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Chapter 12 leaves us with a problem: we saw that the true sense of membership in the Church is very broad, so that one can be, substantially, a member without even hearing of the Church or visibly adhering to it. Of course, this would not be full, but imperfect membership. If this is the case: Is there really any need of visibily joining the Church, of becoming a member in the full sense?

Clearly there is a need, even an obligation, because of the fact that the Father, and His Son, our Redeemer, the founder of the Church, so wills it. This is the full sense of 1 Tim 2:4: "God wills all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth." Coming to the knowledge of the truth of course includes explicit, visible adherence to His Church.

But there is more. Even though those who have not explicitly and visibly joined, if they fulfill the conditions we saw in chapter 12, can even be said to be members of the Mystical Body of Christ, since that Mystical Body is the same as the Church, yet we must add that Pope Pius XII in his great Encyclical on the Mystical Body1 urged

those who do not belong to the visible bond of the Church to . . . get themselves out of that state in which they cannot be secure of their salvation . . . [since] they lack such great and so many heavenly gifts and helps which can be enjoyed only within the Catholic Church.2

What are these gifts and helps of which the Pope spoke? He had in mind chiefly two things-the Sacraments, and the Teachings of the Church.

About the Sacraments: The Church itself is sometimes called the great sacrament.3 This is true, provided we understand that we are using the word Sacrament broadly. In the first centuries that word was so broad that it took in literally hundreds of things-anything religious and mysterious. But finally, by about the 12th century theologians developed more precise ways of speaking, limiting the meaning of the word to a sacred sign instituted by Christ to give grace. Then the Council of Trent could define that there are, in that sense, seven and only seven Sacraments.4 So we need to be careful not to lose the precision it took so many centuries to gain. Yet in a broad sense the Church is the great Sacrament, since it is the great channel of grace.

The security of which Pius XII spoke begins with Baptism. Yes, one can obtain remission of original and personal sins by an act of love based on the fact that the Father is good in Himself, not just good to us. But can one be certain one has achieved that? No, there is always a question. For forgiveness of original sin, and acquisition of sanctifying grace even in infancy, Baptism is the means.

Further, after receiving forgiveness of sin by such an act of love, there is commonly left over a debt of temporal punishment-a need to rebalance the scales of the objective order, of which we spoke in chapter 4. But Baptism provides a wonderful boon, a once in a lifetime gift of a complete payment of all such debts, so that one has an entirely clean slate.

Similarly, one can obtain remission of personal sins by such an act of loving contrition. But again, there is a problem of being certain. The Sacrament of Penance gives security, for even a lesser kind of contrition-attrition-suffices for certain forgiveness.

And it also is true that by the will of the Father and His Son, we are obliged to use the Sacraments of Baptism and Penance.

At the end of life there is the final anointing. If one is unconscious, but had the required minimum dispositions before receiving it, there comes the great gift of forgiveness, even when one is unconscious, by that wonderful Sacrament.

Interior participation in the Mass, as we described it in chapter 11, provides a stimulus and an opportunity to join our dispositions with those of the Divine Victim on the altar, and to join with His Mother's participation in that same renewal of Calvary.

There are other exterior means of grace to be had only with full membership in the Church. But what of those who through no fault of their own do not have these external means? They surely lack the security of which we spoke. But can they still have comparable graces? We do not entirely know. The Father wills that all come to the full knowledge of the truth, and to the use of these stupendous means. Yet His hands are not tied by these grants. He is still of course free to give His graces, even richly, outside of these external means. To what extent He does that, He has not revealed to us.

We cannot help thinking of the fact that there are remarkable souls such as Socrates. St. Justin the Martyr considered Socrates a Christian because, without realizing that fact, he was actually following the divine Logos, the Word of God made known to him interiorly5. Such was the dedication of Socrates to justice, that he would not take the opportunity offered him to escape from a clearly unjust condemnation; such was his zeal for truth that he asserted over and over again that the searcher for truth should have as little a possible to do with the things of the body!6 His attitude here follows the principles we will explain in chapter 19. Can we not suppose that God, who is more eager to give than we are to receive, would welcome so great an opening for His graces as He found in Socrates?

Vatican II, on this matter, tells us: "Beyond doubt, the Holy Spirit was at work in the world before Christ was glorified."7. Pope John Paul II, in his Encyclical on the Holy Spirit, quoted approvingly St. Basil who wrote: "The Spirit is present to each one who is capable of receiving, as if he were the only one, and gives complete grace to all."8

Nonetheless, there is still another kind of security that goes with full membership-the priceless help of the divinely protected Magisterium of the Church. Plato, in his dialogue called the Phaedo9, describes Socrates, not long before his execution, discussing with friends the proofs for survival after death. Pathetically and bravely he tries to prove it to himself and to them. After many such efforts, Simmias says the effort to prove immortality is extremely difficult, and wishes some god would simply reveal the answer.

Yes, the history of philosophy shows so many great minds struggling to attain truth. Some of them did attain a large measure of it. But even the greatest of the pagan Greeks, Aristotle, at times made considerable mistakes. How much better and more secure if he could have had a divine revelation! The Church has such revelation,10 along with a promise of her divine Founder that she will correctly interpret that revelation for us. She does this more abundantly than many persons realize: we are given not only solemn definitions, which are relatively infrequent, but also, as Vatican II assures us: "Although the individual bishops do not have the prerogative of infallibility, they can yet teach Christ's doctrine infallibly: this is true even when they are scattered around the world, provided that, while maintaining the bond of unity among themselves, and with the successor of Peter, they concur in one teaching as the one which must be definitively held."11 That is, the day to day teaching of the Church throughout the world, giving us things as definitely part of the faith, is also infallible.

There is even more: Pius XII, in 1950, in Humani generis, pointed out that: "It must not be thought that the things contained in Encyclical Letters do not of themselves require assent [of the mind] on the plea that in them the Pontiffs do not exercise the supreme power of their Magisterium. For these things are taught with the ordinary Magisterium, about which it is also true to say: 'He who hears you, hears me'."(Lk 10:16)12 Pius XII went on to say that such teachings are had when the Popes in their acta expressly pass judgment on a matter previously debated among theologians: then it can no longer be debated. We have the security that comes from the promise of Christ: "He who hears you hears me."

A less solid, but very valuable assurance can be had even below this level of teaching. Vatican II tell us that:

Religious submission of will and of mind must be given to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff even when he is not defining, in such a way, namely, that the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to according to his manifested mind and will, which is clear either from the nature of the documents, or from the repeated presentation of the same doctrine, or from the manner of speaking.13

This is a very broad declaration. Since it makes the level of teaching depend on the intention of the Magisterium, we can see that sometimes it belongs to the second level, especially when there is "repeated presentation" of the same teaching. Sometimes it will have the assurance of the third level, spoken of in the quotation we saw from Pius XII, which we know from the "manner of speaking". Sometimes the Popes do not intend to go so far: we still have a most valuable help, even if it be less than infallible.

A comparison will help. Suppose we are seated at a dinner table. Someone points to a certain dish, asks if it came from a can, wondering if it was sent to a lab for a check to be sure there is no Botulism (a specially deadly form of food poisoning, which routine opening of a can would not reveal). When he is told there was no lab check, he exclaims: Do you expect me to stake my life on a noninfallible assurance? Yet such are human affairs that we normally do ignore such a possibility for it is extremely infrequent, extremely rare. Now a teaching on a level below that of which Pius XII spoke in Humani generis is indeed not infallible. Yet the chances of error are far more remote than those of finding Botulism in canned food. So we do have an excellent help for securely finding the truth.

Really, without the Church, no one could know with certainty that there are such things as inspired books, i.e., Holy Scripture. Other criteria for determining which books are inspired have all failed, e.g., Luther's notion that if a book preaches strongly justification by faith, it is inspired. He had not proved that such was the criterion. And also, either he or I could write a book preaching that, and it would not be inspired.14

We need to realize too that we are not saved on, so to speak, a solo basis, each one working alone. This is the basic reason for the teaching that we saw in Chapter 12, that there is no salvation outside the Church. The Church is the extension of Christ throughout all time. On Calvary once for all He, with the cooperation of His Blessed Mother, earned for us all grace and forgiveness (the objective redemption). In the work of giving out the fruits of Calvary (the subjective redemption), we cannot dispense with Him and His Blessed Mother. No, we are saved precisely as His members, that is, members of the Church.

No, if we summed up the teaching of St. Paul (cf. e.g. Romans 6:3-5; Col 3:1) we would find him telling us that we are saved and made holy if and to the extent that we are members of Christ, and like Him. Whatever "merits" we may have, that is, claims to divine help or reward, we have not as individuals. Rather, we share in the great claim Jesus established in the New Covenant. We are His members, we are part of the great People of God.

This teaching that the Church is the Mystical Body of Christ is exceedingly rich. We have it basically from St. Paul, and elaborated further in the Encyclical on the Mystical Body of Pope Pius XII, and further stressed in Vatican II. The word "mystical" does not occur in Scripture. But it is a useful, really, a necessary word. For our union with Christ is not that of a physical body-we are not physically parts of Him. Yet our union is more than that in a moral body, such as a corporation. In fact, there is no parallel anywhere to this kind of union. Hence the word mystical, to categorize it in a special way.

St. Paul begins to speak of it in 1 Corinthians. In 6:15 he uses it as the basis for an argument against loose sex: "Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? So, taking the members of Christ [my body] should I make them members of a harlot?"(So as to be two in one flesh.) In 1 Cor 11:12-31 he goes into a long comparison: Just as the human body, though it is one, has various kinds of members, "so also is Christ. For by the one Spirit we all were baptized into [so as to form] one body." That is, the Church has, and needs, various kinds of members for diverse functions. The foot should not say that it does not belong to the body because it is not a hand. And similarly with other diverse members of the body. "But you are the body of Christ, and members (each in its own) part. God has placed in the Church: first, apostles, second, prophets, third, teachers. . . ."

Now of course, if we are members of Christ, it is implied that He is the Head. In the Epistles to the Colossians and Ephesians15 that implication is confirmed beautifully, e.g., in Col 1:18: "He Himself is the head of the body, the Church." A new term, the pleroma, the "fulnesss" appears. Col 2: 9: "For in Him lives permanently all the fulness of the divnity in a bodily way, and you have been made full in Him." So the Church receives from Him, and becomes His fulness (Eph 1:22-23): "And He subjected all things under His feet, and He made Him Head, over all things, for the Church, which is His Body, the fulness of Him who is filled in all things [or: Who fills all things]." The varied gifts He gives to His Church, mentioned already in First Corinthians, are aimed at the complete development of the pleroma (Eph 4:13) for God has given the varied gifts, "until we all come together into the unity of faith and the knowledge of the Son of God, to be a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ." Thus Christ becomes the center, or the new Head of all (Eph 1:10).

Even in heaven, we will be there as members of the Church, for Vatican II teaches: "The Church . . . will attain her full perfection only in the glory of Heaven."16

As we saw in chapter 12, one can be substantially a member of Christ, and so of His Church without external explicit adherence to the visible Church. In other words, one can have an imperfect membership. But the Father wills all to come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Tim 2:4), to have full membership and so to share completely in this rich fulness of the Body of Christ! The love of Jesus and His Mother invite us to this. Hence He prayed that there might be one flock and one shepherd (John 10:16). The Father's love of what is right in itself, what is part of good order (cf. chapter 4) wants all to have the fullest titles to grace and forgiveness through the fullest participation in the Body of Christ.

Without this full membership, and the full teaching of the Church, one is not likely to have the comfort of knowing fully the splendid truths about Mary which we have seen in the previous chapters. Nor would he understand her role as the Mother of the Church, the Mother of the Mystical Body.

Pope Paul VI, in an address at the close of the third session of Vatican II, explicitly gave her that title of Mother of the Church. But the doctrine was not entirely new. The Council itself had already said, quoting St. Augustine, that : "She cooperated in love that the faithful might be born in the Church."17 Pope Pius XII, in a message to the Marian Congress of Ottawa, on June 9, 1947, implied she is Mother of the Church:

When the little maid of Nazareth uttered her fiat to the message of the angel . . . she became not only the Mother of God in the physical order of nature, but also in the supernatural order of grace, she became the Mother of all who . . . would be made one under the Headship of her divine Son. The Mother of the Head would be the Mother of the members."18

It is sometimes objected: How could she be the Mother of the Church, when she is certainly a member of the Church? The reply is easy. In speaking of the Mystical Body we are making a comparison between physical and spiritual realities. It is not strange if physical terms do not fully work out. A different comparison will help: Mr. John Jones was the father of a corporation, for he started it, brought it into being. Yet after that, he was also a member of that corporation.

A few of the Fathers of the Church spoke of her as the type of the Church, i.e., as the advance model of what the Church was to be at present, and in the glory of heaven. Vatican II made this teaching its own:

The Mother of God is the type of the Church, as St. Ambrose had already taught, in the order of faith, love, and perfect union with Christ. For in the mystery of the Church, which is also rightly called a mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary went ahead, eminently and singularly giving the example of virgin and mother. . . . The Church, contemplating her hidden holiness and imitating her love, and faithfully fulfilling the will of the Father, by receiving the word of God faithfully, becomes a mother too; by her preaching and baptism she generates children, conceived by the Holy Spirit, and born of God, to new and immortal life. And she is a virgin, who completely and purely keeps the faith she gave to her Spouse, and, imitating the Mother of her Lord, by the power of the Holy Spirit, virginally keeps full faith, solid hope, sincere love.19

The Council goes on, saying that the Church "in the Most Blessed Virgin has already attained the perfection in which there is no spot or wrinkle."20 This means that the Church at present has not yet attained the perfect holiness it will have in heaven, a holiness it admires and tries to imitate in Mary who already has such holiness. Now in this world, the Church is not always holy in all its members, though it can be called holy in that it posseses all the means of holiness, and that in itself, by its nature-though not in each member-it is holy.

The image of the woman clothed with the sun in Revelation/Apocalypse 12 is fascinating. On the one hand, it seems to refer to Mary, for her Son is clearly the Messiah, who will rule the nations with an iron rod-an echo of Psalm 2:9. On the other hand, she labors in birth, which was not true of Mary. The result is that the image has some traits of Mary, some of the Church. St. Pius X puts these features together well:

John saw the Most Holy Mother of God already enjoying eternal happiness, and yet laboring from some hidden birth. With what birth? Surely, our birth: we, still detained in exile, are still to be brought forth to the perfect love of God and eternal happiness.21

How can we explain the double reference? Quite easily. There is a well known pattern in Hebrew, in which an individual stands for a group, and in a sense is even identified with it; this is often the case with the Jewish king in the Old Testament. Therefore, we can say that the image represents both Mary and the Church.

A further conclusion is possible, even though not certain. In a dissertation for the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome, published in 1954, Bernard J. LeFrois suggests that since the image seems to refer to the last days of the world, then it could mean that then the Church is to take on a specially Marian character, in an age of Mary.22 St. Louis de Montfort foretold an age of Mary before the end.23

If that age comes, will it also be the very time of the end? Definitely not. Jesus Himself tells us (Lk 18:8): "When the Son of Man comes [at the end] do you think He will find faith on the earth?" Yes, for the Church will endure to the end, but yet it will have declined greatly-so many will have fallen away. St. Paul in 2 Thes 2:3 foretells the great apostasy at the end. 2 Timothy 3:1-7 predicts dreadful times just before the end. 2 Timothy 4: 3-4 tells us that at that time men will not acccept sound doctrine, but will turn instead to fables. The reason, most probably, is that this will be the time of the great Antichrist.

These are fearful portents, yet those who are faithful to Jesus and His Mother will be enabled to persevere. Pope Pius XI assures us:

Nor would he incur eternal death whom the Most Blessed Virgin assists, especially at his last hour. This opinion of the Doctors of the Church, in harmony with the thoughts of the Christian people, and supported by the experience of all times, depends especially on this reason: the fact that the Sorrowful Virgin shared in the work of the redemption with Jesus Christ.24

She shared in earning all graces; therefore no request she makes is ever denied by the Father. Hence Pope Benedict XV beautifully but precisely calls her "Suppliant Omnipotence."25 Vatican II agrees, telling us that even in heaven: "She has not put aside this saving function, but continues by her manifold intercession to win the gifts of eternal salvation for us . . . the brothers of her Son, still in pilgrimage and involved in dangers and difficulties until they are led to the happy fatherland."26

As for her Son: He always knew and loved His Church from the first moment of His conception, as Pius XII tells us:

The most loving knowledge of this kind, with which the divine Redeemer pursued us from the first moment of the Incarnation, surpasses the diligent grasp of any human mind; for by the blessed vision which He enjoyed when just received in the womb of the Mother of God, He has all the members of the Mystical Body continuously and perpetually present to Himself, and embraces them with salvific love. . . . In the manger, on the Cross, in the eternal glory of the Father, Christ has all the members of the Church before Him, and joined to Him far more clearly and loving than a mother has a son on her lap.27


1 Pius XII, Mystici Corporis AAS 35.1943. 242-43.
2 The fact that we add to the teaching of Pius XII in saying there is a real membership, in addition to "pertaining to the Church" for some, does not contradict. To affirm more is not to deny the lesser.
3 Cf. John Paul II, Dominum et vivificantem AAS 78 (1986) 892.
4 The Council of Trent defined that there are only seven Sacraments: DS 1601.
5 St. Justin Martyr, First Apology 46.
6 Cf. note 17 on chapter 16.
7 Vatican II, On Missions 4.
8 St. Basil, On Holy Spirit 9.22. PG 32.110. Cited in John Paul II, Encyclical on Holy Spirit. AAS 78 (1986) 886. The Latin text and the Vatican Press English are too weak in rendering Greek holokleron as "sufficient." It really means "complete, entire, perfect."
9 Plato, Phaedo 85 D.
10 After going through a process that does not depend on faith, namely, apologetics, we reach the conclusion that the Church has a commission from Christ, the Messenger from God, to teach, and a promise of divine protection. That Church can then determine which books are divinely inspired, so as to be Scripture. Cf. W. Most Catholic Apologetics Today. This is the only possible way to know which books are inspired. For vain Protestant attempts, Cf. W. Most, Free From All Error chapter 2.
11 Vatican II, On the Church 25.
12 Pius XII, Humani generis, DS 3885.
13 Cf.note 11 above.
14 Cf. note 10 above.
15 Doubts on Pauline authorship of Colossians and Ephesians are weakly based. Reasons given: (1)language and style-but style is very inconclusive: cf. the style of Tacitus' Dialogue, compared to his other works. (2)similarity of the two Epistles-but a traveling speaker often repeats himself. (3)theological emphases and developments-but Paul, mentally alive, could develop. And emphasis would shift with the needs of the case. On other hand, ancient, external witnesses to authenticity are very strong. And it is generally admitted that at least the thought is Pauline.
16 Vatican II, On the Church 48.
17 Ibid. 53, citing. St. Augustine De Virginitate 6. PL 40.399.
18 English text from AAS 39 (1947) 271.
19 Vatican II, On the Church 63-64.
20 Ibid. 65 (alluding to Eph 5:27).
21 St. Pius X, Ad diem illum ASS 36 (1904) 458-59. Cf. Pius XII AAS 42 (1950). 762-63 and Paul VI, AAS 59 (1967) 465.
22 Bernard J. Le Frois, The Woman Clothed with the Sun, Orbis Catholicus, Rome, 1954. Some commentators think Revelation is purely Apocalyptic genre, with no predictions. We believe there are probably some, such as the present passage.
23 St. Louis de Montfort, True Devotion #49.
24 Pius XI, Explorata res, AAS 15 (1923) 104.
25 Benedict XV, Decessorem nostrum. AAS 7 (1915) 202.
26 Vatican II, On the Church 62.
27 Pius XII, Mystici Corporis. AAS 35 (1943) 230.