One of my favorite quotes from the Catechism of the Catholic Church comes from the mouth of St. Joan of Arc. The Catechism observes:
“Christ and his Church thus together make up the ‘whole Christ’ (Christus totus). The Church is one with Christ. The saints are acutely aware of this unity:… A reply of St. Joan of Arc to her judges sums up the faith of the holy doctors and the good sense of the believer: ‘About Jesus Christ and the Church, I simply know they’re just one thing, and we shouldn’t complicate the matter.’”CCC 795
If Jesus and the Church are one, we must seek this Church. The “spiritual but not religious” mentality is untenable as we are not merely spiritual beings. The incarnation of Jesus into the world tells us that! His Body, the Church, is visible! So trying to make it on our own, apart from Christ and his Church, is most perilous to our salvation. The head cannot be separated from the Body.
And so in the second and final part of this series we continue to probe deeper into what this teaching means. Just what is this Church of Christ and where does the one, true Church exist? Is it the same thing as the Catholic Church, or something more expansive? Do we who have been baptized have a mission to bring all into this one Church of Christ?
As we saw in the first part of this series after examining the documents of the Second Vatican Council, as well as twenty-first-century magisterial pronouncements and responses, it is clear that the Church of Christ Jesus is synonymous with the Catholic Church, whose visible head is the Vicar of Christ and successor of Peter, the pope. The early Church Fathers are also clear that union with this divinely instituted Church is something essential for all those that profess belief in Christ and not a mere optional complement. As Pope Leo XIII succinctly put it:
“[B]y the will and command of God the Church rests upon St. Peter, just as a building rests on its foundation.… Remove it and the whole building falls.”Satis Cognitum 12
The Second Vatican Council’s intention was to reaffirm the constant teaching of the Church in all areas, spanning many different doctrines and subject matters, including the fact that the council did recognize the “identity of the Church of Christ with the Catholic Church.”
As we navigate our way to reach people with the call to the New Evangelization ringing in our ears, we would do well to remember (or discover for the first time) just what that teaching is that the Second Vatican Council was reiterating. If the Church of Christ is synonymous with the Catholic Church, we must work in all charity and kindness to bring our loved ones and peers into that one sheepfold, for there reside the sacraments, which are essential to our spiritual health.
Pope Pius XI
Where do we start though? Surely, we could go back to the Church Fathers, but that would be well outside the scope of this article. We will confine ourselves to the decades immediately before the Second Vatican Council, becoming familiar with the constant teaching of the Church as it has been expressed throughout the centuries.
A good place to start is with the teaching of Pope Pius XI. In 1928, his encyclical on religious unity, Mortalium Animos, was promulgated. While we realize today that ecumenism properly understood is truly necessary in healing the divisions that have afflicted the Body of Christ, Pius XI gives us a reminder that indifferentism concerning the role of the Catholic Church in relation to our separated brethren is something we must remain vigilant about:
“[S]ince charity is based on a complete and sincere faith, the disciples of Christ must be united principally by the bond of one faith. Who then can conceive a Christian Federation, the members of which retain each his own opinions and private judgment, even in matters which concern the object of faith… How so great a variety of opinions can make the way clear to effect the unity of the Church We know not; that unity can only arise from one teaching authority, one law of belief and one faith of Christians. But We do know that from this it is an easy step to the neglect of religion or indifferentism and to modernism…. the union of Christians can only be promoted by promoting the return to the one true Church of Christ of those who are separated from it.”MA 9, 10
The pope highlights here that, since the Catholic Church is that one Church founded by Christ, we must endeavor to bring others back into the fold. It is heartening to see how various Christian communities have come together over the last few decades over common causes like abortion, the free exercise of religion, and other social justice issues. This is what the world needs to see: Christians united as one. But we can’t stop there. Pius XI reminds us that our ultimate goal is to realize the words of our Lord in the Gospels:
“[I pray] that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”John 17:21
The doctrine of the Holy Trinity is clear that the three Divine Persons are one God. You could say that Jesus and our Heavenly Father are pretty tight. Here, in this prayer, Jesus is praying for the same kind of unity among all baptized Christians. The fact that there are so many fractions in the Body of Christ is painfully sad. This is why we must have as our end goal full reconciliation so that we may “be one” just as God the Father and God the Son are. If we just stop at joint efforts in common causes, or have dialogue that is not actively working toward reconciliation with the one true Church, we must reorient ourselves. We can’t downplay what has been given to us as Catholics; we must be bold and unafraid.
Pope Pius XII
This sets the stage nicely for Pope Pius XII, first in his 1943 encyclical on the Mystical Body of Christ, Mystici Corporis Christi. Here, he gives a definition of what this body actually is:
“If we would define and describe this true Church of Jesus Christ – which is the One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic and Roman Church – we shall find nothing more noble, more sublime, or more divine than the expression ‘the Mystical Body of Christ.’”MCC 13
By referring to the “Roman Church”, Pius XII means the See of Peter, which connects back to Leo XIII a half century earlier, which in turn was drawn from the teachings of the early Church Fathers. That continuity with the Church throughout the ages remains intact both in 1943 and today in 2020.
But Pius XII would become even more explicit in his landmark encyclical Humani Generis seven years later. Put out in response to the undermining of Catholic doctrine, Pius XII answered those who took umbrage with his 1943 definition (emphasis mine):
“Some say they are not bound by the doctrine, explained in Our Encyclical Letter of a few years ago, and based on the Sources of Revelation, which teaches that the Mystical Body of Christ and the Roman Catholic Church are one and the same thing. Some reduce to a meaningless formula the necessity of belonging to the true Church in order to gain eternal salvation. Others finally belittle the reasonable character of the credibility of Christian faith. These and like errors, it is clear, have crept in among certain of Our sons who are deceived by imprudent zeal for souls or by false science. To them We are compelled with grief to repeat once again truths already well known, and to point out with solicitude clear errors and dangers of error.”HG 27-28
One cannot get much clearer than the bolded above, and it is this teaching the popes and magisterium have continued to uphold.
Pope St. Paul VI
As Pope St. Paul VI said during the Council:
“What is, still is. What the Church has taught down through the centuries, we also teach.”
This includes Pius XI and XII, all the way back to the first pope, St. Peter. There is a continuity that we cannot ignore, and the Church continues to emphasize that in our current day, despite the erroneous interpretations on the subject that continue.
Speaking of St. Paul VI, he expounds on this in his 1964 encyclical Ecclesiam Suam:
“We must stress however that it is not in Our power to make any concessions regarding the integrity of the faith and the obligations of charity. We realize that this may cause misgiving and opposition in certain quarters, but now that the Catholic Church has on its own initiative taken steps to restore the unity of Christ’s fold, it will not cease to exercise the greatest prudence and deliberation. It will continue to insist that the claims it makes for itself — claims which still have the effect of alienating the separated brethren — derive from the will of Christ, not from any spirit of self-aggrandizement based on the record of its past achievements, nor from any unsound theological speculation. Rightly understood, they will be seen to be for the good of all, for the common unity, liberty and fullness of the Christian life. The Catholic Church will never cease to prepare itself by prayer and penance for the longed-for reconciliation.”ES 109
Notice how the saintly pontiff points out that concessions can’t be made with our separated brethren due to the fact that charity demands we be honest with them. It is not charitable to tell our Methodist or Baptist friends that they’re all right where they’re at. It is, however, supremely charitable to tell our separated brethren that the grace of the sacraments, particularly in the Eucharist, will sustain them as we sojourn on this earth. We must let them know that the unity that our Lord desires for all Christians can only be found in the Catholic Church.
The Second Vatican Council
Even the Second Vatican Council itself reiterates these truths explicitly. In the Declaration on Religious Freedom we read:
“the council professes its belief that God Himself has made known to mankind the way in which men are to serve Him, and thus be saved in Christ and come to blessedness. We believe that this one true religion subsists in the Catholic and Apostolic Church, to which the Lord Jesus committed the duty of spreading it abroad among all men.”Dignitatis Humane 1
Furthermore in the Council’s Decree on Ecumenism, it’s declared:
“it is only through Christ’s Catholic Church, which is ‘the all-embracing means of salvation,’ that they [our separated brethren] can benefit fully from the means of salvation. We believe that Our Lord entrusted all the blessings of the New Covenant to the apostolic college alone, of which Peter is the head, in order to establish the one Body of Christ on earth to which all should be fully incorporated who belong in any way to the people of God.”Unitatis Redintegratio 3
We Need the Sacraments
There’s much more that could be quoted on the subject, but suffice it to say that the Church takes evangelization seriously. If Christ founded one Church we must do all we can, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to lead others to the fullness of faith.
We should reflect back to a specific episode in Sacred Scripture. I am indebted to the great Fr. Ryan Ryland for bringing this point up. In the nineteenth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, St. Paul finds some disciples as he goes through Ephesus. He asks them:
“‘Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?’ And they said, ‘No, we have never even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.’”Acts 19:2
Paul is incredulous; how could these believers in Christ not know the Holy Spirit?! He soon finds out that they had only received John’s baptism, and are then immediately given the sacraments of baptism and confirmation.
Imagine those non-Catholic Christians that have grown up not knowing that we can be at Calvary during the Holy Mass, or that we receive our Lord’s Body and Blood in the Eucharist. In a similar way, those early Christians seemed to be fine with their faith, despite not knowing the Holy Spirit. Paul had a duty to tell them about the Holy Spirit. Perhaps this “non-Holy Spirit” group could have gained salvation through invincible ignorance, but that chance of invincible ignorance cannot be our default. We must boldly proclaim there is a need for the Eucharist, and for being united to Peter, just as Paul told them the Holy Spirit exists and is needed.
Pray for Complete Union
To paraphrase Venerable Fulton Sheen, every religion under the sun has some good in it. Some of these Christian communities even contain many elements of sanctification. But there’s only one true Church. There’s only one religion that possesses the fullness of truth. We can recognize the goodness present in these other communities and use that as an opportunity to bring them into the fullness of faith, as Pope Benedict did with the Anglican Ordinariate. The Anglican Ordinariate is what all ecumenism sets out to do, and if that is not the end goal of dialogue, then can we truly say we are setting out to evangelize?
If Christ wills his people to be one, then we must work actively toward that goal, conforming ourselves to his will. We have all seen low Mass attendance, church closures, and so on. We can admit part of that reality (not all) has come from a relativization of religion.
Let’s be bold in our faith when we proclaim it. It is not triumphalistic to pray that all may become Catholic. Instead, it shows a deep love for our fellow man. We must be gentle and kind at all times, but never afraid. After allowing ourselves to become instruments of the Holy Spirit we will be the best equipped that we can be for this goal of the evangelization and salvation of all persons. And one day, please God, we will experience that full and complete union with each other and with our Lord.
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Nicholas LaBanca is a cradle Catholic and hopes to give a unique perspective on living life in the Catholic Church as a millennial. His favorite saints include his patron St. Nicholas, St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. John Mary Vianney, and St. Athanasius of Alexandria.