The Church as Human and Divine

In the Creed that we recite most Sundays, we profess belief in each of the three Persons of the Holy Trinity, but that is not quite all.  In addition, the first verb “Credo” (I believe) has as an object, “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.”  After this, the verbs change; we “confess” one baptism, and we “look forward” to the resurrection.  There is a distinction between the confession of belief in the Holy Trinity and in the Church, but it is somewhat slight.  In the Latin original, the construction “Credo in” is used, whereas the preposition in is not repeated for belief regarding the Church.

‘Believing in’ someone is stronger than ‘believing’ someone.  The idea of ‘believing the Church’ suggests that we believe the Church’s witness, the claims made by the Church as the “visible structure through which [Christ has] communicated truth and grace to all [LG 8].”

Thus, the privileged place of the Church within the Creed is quite suggestive, coming immediately after (and in the Apostles’ Creed, within) profession of faith in the Holy Spirit Himself.  Sometimes we can take the Church for granted, understanding it in a functional manner, dispensing and receiving sacraments, guarding teaching.  Other times, some persons will be tempted to ignore the centrality of the Church in the history of theology altogether, attempting to turn belief into an individual effort.

The last three paragraphs of the first chapter of Lumen Gentium are strewn with copious Scriptural references.  Once more, I highly urge readers to take the time to look each of these up and read them in your favorite translation, and in context.  One suddenly discovers that the Church is, next to God, the main preoccupation of the entire New Testament.  How aware of this reality are we?

When we think of God, as Christians, we should think of the Church.  When we think of Jesus Christ, we should be reminded of the Church, His ‘cherished bride’ (Ephesians 5: 21].  When we think of the Holy Spirit, we should think of the Church, whose birth was His action on Pentecost, and whom He daily builds up with gifts and charisms.  Our way to the Father is Jesus Christ, and His Mystical Body, through which and in which and with which we make our climb to the Father, “subsists in the Catholic Church.” [LG 8]

[This last phrase is quite controversial; I plan to examine it in a separate ‘excursus’ early next week.]

But if the connection between the Holy Trinity is so close that we should think of the Church when we think of God, then it is all the more important that we observe the reverse link.  Whenever we think of the Church, we ought to be reminded of God, and indeed to be conscious of the Church’s hidden divine nature.  “By no weak analogy, [the Church] is compared to the mystery of the incarnate Word [LG 8].”

This is important because in so many ways, in our secularized worldview, we are tempted to regard the Church only from her human aspect.  For example, as we prepare for a papal conclave to elect the successor to Pope Benedict XVI, news reports will unavoidably understand the process in purely political terms.

We are also tempted in this direction when sins of individual Catholics are obvious, even notorious.  Perhaps it is for this reason that Chapter One ends with a consideration of the constant purification being undergone by the various sinners (all of us!) who were sought out by Christ to be united to Him.  “The Church, in her own bosom embracing sinners, is at the same time holy and always being purified.” [LG 8]

Chapter One ends on an important note, that the Church is best at her mission when she imitates her Master in poverty and in persecution and suffering.  Now, if the Council of Trent had attempted to make this argument, it might have seemed a poor joke.  There was hardly a more powerful or wealthier institution in Europe at the time than the Church.  This is not to say that there were no Christians, even Catholics, giving witness in genuine poverty and under persecution; only that the Council Fathers of Trent were manifestly not the likeliest group to witness to this reality.

The case at Vatican II was rather different.  The Church had indeed suffered many persecutions in various parts of the world, even in Europe (primarily at the hands of German National Socialists and communist regimes).  In mission lands, the Church was, and remains, poor.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Church is growing in places of poverty and even persecution (though if the latter is violent enough, it can certainly suppress the growth of the Church) today, whereas we are still experiencing a decline in the West where we tend to be wealthier and have been relatively free of any genuine persecution for some time.

This presents one final reflection, that the Church is truly universal.  When we speak of the Church, it is not always easy to bear in mind her full extent.  In a previous post, I reminded readers that the “Jerusalem above, who is our mother [Galatians 4: 26],” comprises first the communion of saints, then the souls not yet purified (in whatever fashion we understand that to be taking place, though traditionally called ‘purgatory’), and finally the pilgrim Church on earth.  We also need constantly to remind ourselves of the communion of the fully ‘catholic’ (=‘universal’) Church everywhere throughout the world, by insistent prayers on behalf of persecuted Christians and support of the poor.

1 Comment

  • Bob says:

    Fr. Peter,

    Great post. Thank you.

    I’d like to jump off of this statement I highly urge readers to take the time to look each of these up and read them in your favorite translation, and in context. One suddenly discovers that the Church is, next to God, the main preoccupation of the entire New Testament.

    I would agree that the Church is a prominent fixture in the New Testament but I would also draw a close parallel with Israel being a prominent fixture in the Old. In both cases, the out workings of God’s over all action in the Bible–which I see to be “I am the Lord and I am making a people for myself. I will be their God and they shall be my people and I shall make my dwelling among them.”

    God the Father, as the creed states is first and foremost Creator. His first act is to create the heavens and the earth and His last act is to re-create the heavens and the earth. In both cases, the two–heaven and earth–were intended for perfect unity. In between these actions, He establishes covenants which are themselves creative acts. One is made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and creates the nation of Israel who are charges with corporately manifesting and perpetuating God’s presence on earth (His dwelling place). The other is made in the Eucharist by Christ which creates the Church (also His dwelling place). [LG 8] states:

    Just as Christ carried out the work of redemption in poverty and persecution, so the Church is called to follow the same route that it might communicate the fruits of salvation to men.

    So the Church here is similarly a vessel for carrying and proclaiming something much larger than herself–the reunification of heaven and earth, God and Creation, at the wedding supper of the Lamb. The church is “the pillar and mainstay of the truth”.[LG 8] but not the Truth itself. But I think it is easy, aided by the creed, to elevate the Church to equal standing and permanence of the Trinity itself.

    All that said, I look forward to your discussion of the word “subsists”. I think is also widely misunderstood.