"The Church. Triumphant, Militant, Suffering"
By Rene De Cramer
By Rene De Cramer
The subject of what the Catholic Church is fills a multitude of books and, even in a lifetime of contemplation, could not be fully uncovered in the mind of a single person. Therefore, in order to keep this brief, I intend to introduce the subject from only three of many possible angles. It should not be assumed that this article constitutes the entirety of what a person should understand about what the Catholic Church is nor should it be considered as an argument by which I expect to convert you by the end of your reading it. It is merely what I would consider a solid introduction from the perspective of having had this conversation many times and developing an experience of what information I think most people are looking for (and usually don't get) when they ask this question.
WHAT DOES THE WORD "CATHOLIC" MEAN?
Before I begin, it seems logical to explain the reason the Church is called "Catholic."
The Catholic Church has actually had many different titles since the beginning. Catholic, Orthodox, Apostolic, Holy and so on. All of them apply, but one title has seemed to stick most prominently into the present age.
The word Catholic means "Universal." The spelling and pronunciation of the word "Catholic" as it appears today is a transliteration of the Greek word katholikos, which is a compound word formed from the words kata, meaning "according to," and holos, meaning "whole" or "complete."
The term has been used throughout the history of the Catholic Church, was used by the first century bishops who were literally ordained by the apostles themselves, and by the Church Fathers throughout the first few centuries of the Church. It actually even appears in the New Testament if read in it's original Greek.
Acts 9:31 is usually translated as
The church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria was at peace. It was being built up and walked in the fear of the Lord, and with the consolation of the holy Spirit it grew in numbers.
In the original Greek, the words "church throughout" read as "ekklésia kata holos." This translates more appropriately to "Universal Church" or "Catholic Church."
While a minority of Christians believe that "The Church" is a mystical, invisibly unified and decentralized body of Christian believers, Catholics believe that the Church is both the mystical Body of Christ as well as the visibly unified people whom Christ called together. An enduring physical culture with a unified religious Tradition that you can recognize and actually point at. A universal church. One, Holy Catholic and Apostolic.
The Catholic Church.
With that, I will go on to a few different explanations of what that Church is.
1. THE CHURCH THAT CHRIST FOUNDED
The first and what I have found to maybe be the simplest way that I would explain what the Catholic Church is would be to say That it is the Church that Jesus Christ founded.
To go into a little more detail, God, having become incarnate as a man (Jesus Christ), selected twelve men (the apostles) on whom to found His Church. Jesus conferred upon them certain authorities and charisms that would allow them to confer Sacraments in His name. He changed the name of Simon the apostle to Peter, which means "rock," and made him the head of the twelve apostles and the entire Church. This is referenced in the Gospel of Mathew:
And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.
The office of bishop was under the authority and power of the apostles to be passed on to others Sacramentally, which allowed for the Sacramental growth of the Church. The death of a bishop also called for his being succeeded by another. This is referenced the New Testament when Matthias is appointed as the successor of Judas. ( Acts 1:15-26 )
The bishops of today are the successors of the apostles. Their ordination can be traced back in a line of succession by Sacramental ordination directly to the apostles. To better illustrate the significance of this, the Sacrament of Holy Orders involves the laying on of hands, which means that the succession of bishops going all the way back to the apostles is connected by physical touch. The bishop who has been commonly referred to as "the pope" since the early third century is the bishop who is elected to succeed Peter as the head of the bishops of the Church. The present pope, Francis, is the 265th successor of Saint Peter the Apostle. The line of popes is likewise unbroken and can be traced all the way back to Peter.
A list of the 266 popes from Saint Peter the Apostle down to his present day successor, Francis, along with their biographies, can be found here.
This Church was established as a religious Tradition that was intended to be practiced and primarily preserved in the Sacraments and in the Sacred Liturgy of the Mass, which can only be celebrated by an apostle, one of his successors or a priest. When we say "priest" that is to say, a Catholic priest who was ordained by a bishop, who is himself a successor of one of the original twelve apostles. The priesthood, being an extension of a bishop's authority and charism.
In the above ways we can say that one explanation for what the Catholic Church is would be that it is the Church that Jesus Christ founded and promised that the gates of the netherworld would not prevail against. The original and True Christian Church.
2. THE INFALLIBLE SOURCE OF ALL TRUE CHRISTIAN TEACHING.
Thanks primarily to the movements of New Protestantism within the last few hundred years, it has become popular to believe that all Christians see the Bible as the only infallible source of Christian teaching. The truth is that the Christians in the world who believe this are a minority among the global population of Christians by a drastic margin. Somewhere around 70 percent of all Christians regard the concept of "Sola Scriptura" or "Scripture Alone" as a declared heresy. Catholics, who make up more than half of all the Christians on the face of the earth are among those who do not believe that the Bible is the sole source of Christian teaching.
On top of being a belief that is held by a minority of Christians that only emerged within the last 500 years, the "Sola Scriptura" claim also represents a simple logical fallacy. Even the Bible itself refutes it:
But if I should be delayed, you should know how to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of truth.
-1 Timothy 3:15
Timothy calls the church the pillar and foundation of truth. Not the Bible. A logical statement, of course, since the Christian Bible didn't even exist yet anyway.
Many of my accusers are very fond of pointing out that this verse does not specifically prove that the Catholic Church is the church that Timothy is talking about, ignoring the fact that I have not claimed this, nor would I claim that the Bible necessarily proves anything when read outside of its proper cultural and theological context. They almost never respond to the claim that I am actually making about the verse: That it is one of many Biblical references that clearly exposes the logical error in the "Scripture Alone" doctrine.
The New Testament is a collection of books and letters that emerged from and were intended to serve a Christian Tradition that existed for decades before the first of the Gospels was ever committed to writing. For all that time, Christianity was preserved in the practice of Sacred Tradition, namely, in the Sacred Liturgy of the Mass. The New Testament was developed from that Tradition and was intended to be used almost exclusively within the context of the Mass.
This is to say that, historically, Christ established a people and a priesthood, not a collection of books and letters. The New Testament and later the codification of the canon of scripture itself in A.D. 382 are a product of the infallible Tradition of the Catholic Church. A historically provable fact.
This is why Catholics do not view the Bible as the sole source or proof for our beliefs. The Bible emerged from our Tradition. Our Tradition did not emerge from the Bible.
You can read more about what Catholics believe about the Bible here...
... and here.
Now, to say that the Church is infallible is not to say that its bishops, priests, deacons, consecrated religious or laypeople are incapable of making mistakes or committing sin. As is corroborated by history, the authorities of the Church are as susceptible to committing deeds of profound evil as anyone else. Infallibility is not a characteristic of the Church's members and authorities. It is a characteristic of the Church herself. That is to say that the Holy Spirit prevents any official declaration of Catholic teaching to be made in error. This is a promise that Christ made that is recorded in the New Testament.
Infallibility does not mean that the pope can make up his own Church teachings. It means the exact opposite. Infallibility actually protects the Church from the fallibility of humanity. This means that even corrupt popes who have publicly taught errors have still failed to change the codified teachings of the Catholic Church. This historically unchanging nature of the Church's dogmas in spite of the existence of corruption among her authorities down through the ages is a testimony to the Church's infallibility.
You can read more about Infallibility here.
3. NECESSARY FOR SALVATION
This claim is often taken to mean that one must be an initiated member of the Catholic Church in order to be saved. This is not necessarily the case. The statement refers more to the fact that salvation comes through the Church, even in situations in which it is granted by God to those who do not outwardly profess to be members of it.
As an example, the Catholic Church recognizes the Baptisms of individuals who are Baptized outside the Catholic Church as valid Baptisms, so long as they are conferred using water, using the Trinitarian form and under the belief that the three persons of the Trinity are One God. The Baptism is not valid because the Catholic Church simply does not have relevant authority over Baptism, but rather, the Baptism is valid because the Catholic Church authoritatively recognizes it. This person has, perhaps unwittingly, received a Catholic Sacrament. In this way, the Catholic Church is necessary for that person's salvation whether they believe it or not.
This does not, however, exempt anyone from a sincere pursuit of the Truth. Those who know the Truth of the Catholic Church are obligated to live by its precepts. Those who innocently find themselves totally ignorant of the Truth or are sincerely limited in their capability to understand it by any legitimate circumstance are not culpable for their ignorance. However, those who willfully ignore the Truth are held accountable by God. Prejudice, laziness or a simple refusal to learn are not legitimate excuses for avoiding the sincere pursuit of the Truth.
THE MANY IMAGES AND TITLES OF THE CHURCH
The Catholic Church can be described in many different ways, some of which are considered much more important than the ways I have chosen to write about here. The Family of God, The People of God, The Body of Christ, The Sacrament of Communion, The Bride of Christ, The Kingdom of God and so on. But I have chosen not to expound on all of these because I have found that they are not as often misunderstood or altogether unknown to people who do not understand the Catholic Church. Therefore I have chosen above to write on three descriptions of the Church that I believe make the others begin to make more sense. An introduction that ought to lead to contemplation and hopefully provide a slightly better orientation from which to understand and appreciate the great spiritual, theological and cultural riches of the Church that Christ founded.