It belongs to the nature of Christian theology that all of its questions have a practical, vital character. In the trinitarian and Christological controversies which accompanied the decline of the ancient world, the issue was: what did it mean that God had entered the world to redeem it. The doctrinal discussions of the age of the Reformation centered on the vital question of how man can stand in the divine judgment toward which all human life is moving. Thus a very practical question also stands behind the theological debates which in this “century of the church” dominate the theology of all Christendom: If we all confess the only holy Church, what do we mean by that and what does the reality of this Church mean to an age in which the entire social life of mankind is undergoing unprecedented revolutionary changes?

What is the Church? Every branch of Christendom has to give its answer, and none of the answers so far given can claim finality. This is shown by the remarkable fact that even the elaborate doctrinal system of the Roman Catholic Church to this day does not contain a dogmatic statement on the nature of the Church. Up to the beginning of the sixteenth century all Christendom was satisfied with the clause of the Nicene Creed: “I believe one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.” The churches of the East have never gone beyond this. They have left the exposition of this article to the theologians. But none of their theories have become dogma.

It was the Reformation which caused the first dogmatic statements on what the Church of Christ is. When the Reformers found themselves excommunicated by the pope, they had to show that this condemnation did not exclude them from the Church which is confessed by the creed. The pertinent articles of the great confessions from Augsburg to Westminster are attempts to say in an official and binding way what, according to Holy Scripture, the Church is. With their imperfections and limitations, and despite obvious errors contained in some of them, they express some insights which even Rome had to accept, as was done in the Catechismus Romanus, published after the Council of Trent. However, what this catechetical handbook (for use by the priest in his exposition of the creed) says about the Church is not regarded as dogma, for Trent had not spoken on this matter.

It was not until 1870 that ecclesiology became an object of dogmatic decisions in the Roman church. A draft of a “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of Christ” was put before the First Vatican Council. Written opinions of the bishops were solicited and given. They yet remain important contributions to a Catholic ecclesiology. But the schema as a whole could not be discussed. Only a section of the doctrine of the Church, the dogma of the papacy, could be finalized and proclaimed at the last possible moment—on the eighteenth of July, the day before the outbreak of the Franco-German War—as the “First Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of Christ” (Pastor aeternus).

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Starting Point Of The Doctrine

It was not only lack of time, however, that made solution of the ecclesiological problem impossible at that point in history. The schema had met with the severest criticism by the most learned bishops. Their main objection was directed against the starting point of the proposed doctrine, the description of the Church as the mystical body of Christ. This was an innovation. If the Catechismus Romanus, in this case in harmony with the confessions of the Reformation, defined the Church from the meaning of the word ecclesia as “assembly, congregation, people of God,” it followed the theological tradition of the entire Church. The Greek fathers had always started from the meaning of the word ekklesia, which they found in their Greek Old Testament as “assembly, people of God.” The Latin fathers had followed their example. In Augustine’s theology the idea of the mystical body of Christ plays a great role. But wherever he defines the Church, he starts from the meaning “congregation.” Nowhere does he identify the visible Church with the body of Christ. The language of the liturgy corresponds to the usage of the theologians. The liturgy always represents an early stage of doctrine—the Roman Mass, for example, contains neither an invocation of Mary nor the doctrine of transubstantiation, and speaks in the solemn oration more than fifty times of the Church as the “family” or the “people” (plebs, populus) of God, while the word “body” occurs only once.

In 1870, A New Method

How then is it to be explained that the schema proposed in 1870 abandoned the old method and began the doctrine of the Church with the concept of the Church as the mystical body of Christ? This was the result of a development that had taken place in modern Catholicism. To the question “What is the church?,” Bossuet already had given the famous answer: “The Church is Jesus Christ, however Jesus Christ, spread abroad and communicated.” This idea was taken up by J. A. Möhler, whose books The Unity in the Church (1825) and Symbolics (1832) inaugurated the rediscovery of the Catholic concept of the Church after the Age of Enlightenment. Möhler, who influenced the Tractarians, such as Newman, as well as Russian thinkers like Chomjakow, developed his understanding of the Church as an organism in which the Spirit of Christ is embodied, under the influence both of German Protestant thinkers (Hegel and especially Schleiermacher) and of the sociology of Romanticism, which understood the great phenomena of the social life as living organisms. He established definitely the idea of the Church as “Christ living on in history,” or, as it was later put by the Anglicans, “the continuation of the Incarnation.” It was under his influence that by the middle of the century Catholic theologians began to accept that understanding of the Church as the mystical body of Christ which we find at the First Vatican Council. While rejected by most of the bishops who put in their written opinions, it became more and more accepted not only by modern Catholic theology (e.g., see Karl Adam, The Spirit of Catholicism), but also by Anglicans and many Protestants who under the influence of the ecumenical movement have adopted at least the terminology without realizing its meaning and sensing its perils.

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How dangerous this idea of the Church is becomes obvious from the encyclical Mystici Corporis, which Pius XII issued in 1943 and which was regarded as the first step toward the future solution of the ecclesiological problem. Its first part, which deals with “The Church as the Mystical Body of Christ,” describes the Church as a body, as the Body of Christ, and as the Mystical Body. As a body, the Church must be not only one and undivided, but also something concrete and visible. The word from Leo XIII’s Satis cognitum is quoted: “By the very fact of being a body the Church is visible.” Who belongs to this body of the Church? “Only those are to be accounted really members of the Church who have been regenerated in the waters of Baptism and profess the true faith and have not cut themselves off from the Structure of the Body by their own unhappy act or been severed therefrom, for very grave crimes, by the legitimate authority.” “Schism, heresy, or apostasy are such (sins) of their very nature that they sever a man from the Body of the Church; but not every sin, even the most grievous, is of such a kind.…”

This visible society is the body of Christ. Christ as the Head rules his body partly by invisible and extraordinary government, partly “visibly and ordinarily through His Vicar on earth and, in the dioceses, through the bishops.” “That Christ and His Vicar constitute only one Head was solemnly taught by Our Predecessor of immortal memory, Boniface VIII, in his apostolic letter Unam Sanctam.…” But the name “body of Christ” means more than that Christ is the Head; “it also means that He so upholds the Church, and so, after a certain manner, lives in the Church that she may be said to be another Christ.” As scriptural proof for this identity of Christ and the Church are adduced First Corinthians 12:12 and the words addressed by the Lord to Paul: “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?” The Church is called “mystical Body” to distinguish the social body of the Church from Christ’s physical body which is now in heaven and lies hidden beneath the eucharistic veils. The expression at the same time distinguishes the Church from any body of the natural order, whether physical or moral. The Church is a society of the supernatural order. “The Mystical Body of Christ is like Christ Himself … who is not complete if we consider Him only in His visible humanity … or … His invisible divinity, but is one from and in both natures” (quotation from Leo XIII, Satis cognitum). From this it follows that the Church itself is sinless—although this word is not used—even though among its members there exists “the lamentable tendency of individuals towards evil, a tendency which the divine Founder suffers to exist even in the higher members of His mystical Body for the testing of the virtue of both flock and pastors and for the greater merit of Christian faith in all.” The Church herself is holy. “She cannot be blamed if some of her members are sick or wounded. It is in their name that she prays daily to God: ‘Forgive us our trespasses,’ applying herself with motherly and valiant heart to their spiritual healing.”

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Union Yet Diversity

In a later chapter the encyclical calls to mind that the Apostle, “though he combines Christ and His mystical Body in a marvellous union, yet contrasts the one with the other, as Bridegroom with Bride.” This is said against a false understanding of the union of Christ and his members which, while attributing divine properties to human beings, makes Christ our Lord subject to error and human frailty. There is also a strong emphasis on the necessity of the sacrament of penance and of the constant petition for forgiveness of the venial sins. It would be emphasized today even more than in Mystici Corporis that all members of the Church, including the Vicar of Christ, need forgiveness. But the Church as such is sinless, as was Mary, who is the type of the Church. This follows from the doctrine of the Church as another Christ.

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There are other consequences. What is the place of ecclesiology in the system of dogmatics? Partly at least it would belong in Christology, where Aquinas deals with it (Summa Th., III, q. 8, “Of the Grace of Christ as the Head of the Church”). There is a remarkable tendency in modern Catholic dogmatics to deal with the doctrine of the Church in the introduction to “Fundamental Theology” in connection with “the sources of Revelation”; for example, in the Summa of the Spanish Jesuits the treatise “Of the Church of Christ,” which also contains the doctrine on tradition, is followed by the treatise “Of Holy Scripture.” Nowhere else in the four volumes is the Church treated. The practical reasons given by modern dogmaticians for this method reveal the final consequences of the modern concept of the Church as another Christ. If it is true not only that the Church is to interpret Holy Scripture with infallible authority, but also, as we are told today, that tradition is not a second source of revelation but rather the exercise of the function of interpreting the Scriptures by the Church, then the Church becomes, in the last analysis, a source of revelation. Not tradition, but rather the Church is the source of a dogma like that of the assumption of Mary. The attempt made by the present council to restore the authority of the Scriptures by subordinating tradition to them amounts actually to the elevation of the Church to a source, and perhaps the main source, of revelation. The title of Tavard’s book, Holy Writ or Holy Church, is characteristic, in a way which the author certainly did not have in mind, of the real situation of Christianity today.

Decision Too Momentous For Hurry

It is a decision of immeasurable importance which the Second Vatican Council will have to make in the “Second Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of Christ,” and we can only hope that it will not be made in a hurry. Will the council follow the lead of Mystici Corporis, or will it listen to the objections raised by learned and loyal Catholic theologians? Promising attempts are being made to overcome the traditional narrowness in defining the relation between the Roman church and the “schismatics” and “heretics,” who are now regarded as “separated brethren” because they have received the indelible character of children of God in their baptism and because their defection from the true Church was not an act of their own will and, consequently, not their personal sin. The broadmindedness with which today “baptism by desire” is ascribed to pagans of good will who live according to the natural light of reason seems to us, who have learned from our Reformers to take seriously the First Commandment, to abolish the biblical concept of the Church of Christ. Does not the lack of certainty about the borders of the Church indicate that any definition of the Church must be preceded by a thorough reexamination of traditional Catholic ecclesiology?

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Such reexamination should begin from the fact that so many bishops of the First Vatican Council rejected the doctrine of the Church which started from the concept of the body of Christ. St. Paul’s profound thoughts on the body of Christ—the one body in Christ, the body of Christ, the body whose head is Christ—defy any attempt to rationalize and systematize them. A false rationalization is this sentence: “By the very fact of being a body the Church is visible.” One of the roots of Paul’s doctrine of the Church as the body of Christ is certainly to be found in the Eucharist. Should not the concept of the sacramental body which is received by each communicant in its entirety shed light on the fact that the smallest congregation in one place is not less the body of Christ than is the sum total of all believers? If then the expression “body of Christ” hints at the deep mystery of the relationship between Christ and his Church but does not define it, the theologically legitimate way of defining the Church is to use the original meaning of ekklesia as the congregation of the believers, the people of God. Should not modern Catholic theology also in this doctrine return to a new biblical approach? And does not this biblical approach help us, in a better way than any sociology can, to understand the divine-human character of the Church?

The Church And The Last Things

The Church is the people of God “in these last days,” at the end of the world. The Holy Spirit was poured out at Pentecost “in the last days” (Acts 2:17). Hence the Church has its place in the Creeds of the Third Article, which deals with the last things: the Holy Spirit, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, the life everlasting. This is the place of ecclesiology in Christian dogmatics. In this sense Paul and the Epistle to the Hebrews have understood the Church as the people of God, freed from the bondage of the old aeon, on their way through the desert of this world into the promised land of the new aeon, the new Jerusalem where Christians have their citizenship (Phil. 3:20; Heb. 13:14; cf. Heb. 11–13 and 1 Cor. 10:1 ff.). This understanding of the Church alone can explain what the holiness of the Church is. It is the holiness of the people of God—sinful men, and yet accepted by God as his own, justified by faith in Christ. This is the Church which prays not only vicariously for some of its weak members, but for all its members and, therefore, for itself daily: “Forgive us our trespasses”—and which lives by this forgiveness.

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Is this understanding of the Church impossible in Roman Catholicism? We must leave it to our Catholic brethren to answer this question. But we want to point out that at least once a year the Roman liturgy shows this understanding of the Church. It is on Good Friday, when the Church stands under the cross of Christ and the Improperia are sung—the reproaches of God against his ungrateful people that has crucified its Saviour—based on Micah 6:3, 4 and other Old Testament passages: “My people, what have I done unto thee? and wherein have I wearied thee? Testify against me. For I brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.…” After each of the reproaches against the old people of God, the Church as the new Israel gives the answer in the Trisagion, sung in Latin and Greek: “Holy God, Holy Strong one, Holy Immortal one, have mercy upon us.” Here the Church identifies itself with the people that has crucified the Redeemer and lives by his merciful forgiveness.

Will Rome ever be able to return to this biblical concept of the Church? But perhaps we had better first ask ourselves whether we have kept it.

Hermann Sasse teaches at Immanuel Theological Seminary in Adelaide, Australia. He was formerly professor of church history at the University of Erlangen and active in the World Conference on Faith and Order.

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