The Church is an organic, visible and invisible, earthly and heavenly society forming one single reality.
By Deacon Frederick Bartels
2 January 2017
In his book, The Splendor of the Church, Henri de Lubac wrote of a dangerous dissociation often made about the Church. This error is rooted in the Protestant revolution which occurred in the early 16th century, and has, unfortunately, continued to the present among non-Catholic Christians. What is this dissociation? It’s a separation of the visible and invisible aspects of the Church. It’s the false notion that there are two separate churches: a temporal, visible, hierarchical church; and an invisible, entirely interior and spiritual church (de Lubac, 84). In keeping with this dissociation, the former is to be avoided, rejected even; the latter is to be given assent.
The former is often incorrectly viewed as a church of “‘human creation’ and no more. She is, after all, always and inevitably limited and infected with impurities” (Ibid). The visible Church is seen as burdened by a hierarchical bureaucracy, complicated by rigorous prohibitions and rules, and filled with man-made traditions. It is deemed as an organization of a strictly temporal nature, as a human institution and nothing more; as such it cannot be a truly spiritual community of God’s design. Viewed in this light, the visible and universal Church is perhaps looked on with some interest, but thought to be unnecessary in God’s plan of salvation.
The latter, on the other hand, is the invisible church which is viewed as the “theoretical common ground of all Christian communities and all good men. It alone would be divine” (Ibid). For example, John Calvin maintained that the church is “the company of the faithful whom God has ordained and elected to eternal life” which “can exist without visible appearance” (qtd. in de Lubac, 85). This kind of mindset broadly paints the Church as nothing more than an abstract, vague collection of believers in Jesus Christ. In this version of church, anyone who identifies as Christian is a member; all who do so are united spiritually together in Christ. There is no place nor need for an organized, visible structure and hierarchy. The pope, bishops, priests and deacons; the liturgy or rubrics or canon law; earthly authority—none of these are necessary according to this model.
The Origen of Dissociation
When we consider the Protestant revolution in its historical context and dynamic, it is apparent that 16th century Catholics who jettisoned the visible, hierarchically structured community of the Church, forming their own separate Christian communities and following their own rules, did so under the umbrella of sola scriptura (the Bible as the sole rule of faith)—something never taught by the Church. The Bible was insisted upon as providing everything necessary for the Christian as the certain, infallible guidepost for the life of faith. Following that, the visible and universal Church became irrelevant. Her authority was rejected; her hierarchy dismissed, sometimes with great contempt. The Bible replaced the visible Church. G.K. Chesterton wrote:
[R]ushing in to wreck a temple, overturning the altar and driving out the priest, [Protestants] found there certain sacred volumes inscribed ‘Psalms’ or ‘Gospels’; and (instead of throwing them on the fire with the rest) began to see them as infallible oracles rebuking all the other arrangements. If the sacred high altar was all wrong, why were the secondary sacred documents necessarily all right? If the priest had faked his Sacraments, why could he have not faked his Scriptures? (G. K. Chesterton, The Thing: Why I Am a Catholic, 20-21)
The point Chesterton is making, among others, is that it is logically inconsistent to wield the Bible as a weapon against the authority of the Church since it is only by that same authority that anyone can know with certainty that the Bible is the inspired word of God. Why? Precisely because it was the Catholic Church who formally canonized the scriptures which are presently contained in the Bible at the councils of Hippo (393) and Carthage (397), not, on the other hand, 16th century Protestants.
It is important to mention that there were failures on both sides prior to the rupture in the Church which occurred with Martin Luther and others. Both Catholics and those who would come to be called Protestants were at fault. There indeed were corrections needed in the Church, but the methods used by early Protestants were not in harmony with the unity for which Christ prayed (Jn 17:11). Also, there was involved a heavy political factor at the onset which viewed the Church as a chronic meddler in temporal affairs; as such, it had to be done away with. However, although the Church was in need of reform (and reformation in the Church had long been underway prior to the early 16th century), shattering her communion by dividing Christians was not the solution but rather, at its very inception, a catastrophic problem.
Once sola scriptura was adopted as the rule of faith, it became a governing rule of operation. Christians separated from the visible Church turned to the Bible for authority, not the visible Church historically founded by Christ on the rock of Peter which had manifested itself on Pentecost and lived through the centuries. That Church was rejected through the formation of new Christian communities—and very soon hundreds of them. The pope, priests, the sacrifice of the Mass—these became irrelevant to the new, invisible church.
Within these new communities separated from the visible and authoritative structure of the Church, serious doctrinal disagreements arose early on. Although the Bible was held up as the infallible guiding light, individual interpretation of the inspired word proved insufficient and divisive. The consequence would be a perpetual splintering of Christendom.
The Visible, Hierarchically Structured Church Is By Divine Mandate
The Church was never founded on Scripture but on the deeds and words of the incarnate Son of God himself. It is a matter of history that during his earthly life Jesus Christ instituted a visible, hierarchically ordered and structured Church. This Church, by divine mandate, was given leaders and authority at its genesis. We see this indicated scripturally in a number of places. The Church was initially founded on the leadership of St. Peter, who was given the keys to the kingdom of heaven and the powers of binding and loosing; Christ promised the gates of hell would not prevail against his Church (see Mt 16:17-19). That the Church has visible, recognizable authority conferred from On High is clear elsewhere in N.T. Scripture (see Mt 18:15-18; Lk 10:16; Acts 15:1-19; et al ).
We find narrated in Matthew 28:16-20 Jesus’ imperative command to his disciples: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.” It would be impossible for Christ’s disciples to fully carry out this command in their lifetime; in fact, it is still ongoing today. Each new generation is in need of receiving the saving truth of the Gospel. All men born today and on into the future require the sacraments which the Church confers on the faithful in order for them to receive life in abundance (Jn 10:10). This points to the necessity of apostolic succession in the Church: the handing on of authority through the sacrament of Orders promotes and sustains the continued transmission of divine revelation in its full purity to all generations. As such, the Church is apostolic: her Tradition today is the oral tradition preached by the apostles.
We see, then, that the Church was endowed originally with an organized and authoritative structure. Very soon a legislative body developed in accord with the growth of the Church throughout the nations. For example, St. Ignatius of Antioch wrote:
You must all follow the bishop as Jesus Christ follows the Father, and the presbytery as you would the apostles. Reverence the deacons as you would the command of God. Let no one do anything of concern to the Church without the bishop. . . . Wherever the bishop appears, let the people be there; just as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. (Letter to the Smyrnaeans, c. A.D. 105)
Some Dangers of Dissociation
Again, we have a situation today of a dissociation between the visible Church and a supposed invisible church. Why is this dangerous? Henri de Lubac offers a strong reply to those who adhere to the latter:
You are not only opening the door to general doctrinal anarchy, as Melanchthon was rapidly obliged to admit and to deplore; you are shutting out all understanding of the “eternal purpose” that God “realized in Christ Jesus our Lord”. You are denying all Scripture for the sake of human considerations. (The Splendor of the Church, 85)
An invisible only church, notes de Lubac, results in doctrinal confusion and loss. That is indeed highly self-evident in the tens-of-thousands of non-Catholic Christian communities who, at present, disagree among themselves on points of doctrine—although each operates on the principle of sola scriptura. There is no longer complete agreement on even the nature or necessity of Baptism. The sacrament of Eucharist is lost and misunderstood; Purgatory is very often denied; the reality of mortal sin and the potential loss of salvation is often rejected; an authentic scriptural understanding of faith and works is absent and/or the subject of division; etc. Apart from the divinely instituted visible and authoritative structure of the Church, doctrinal chaos is the result.
Henri de Lubac quotes Paschal Rapine: “if there is only one soul, there can only be one body,” and goes on to write, “Many divided bodies cannot constitute one single Church” (Ibid., 87).
Additionally, de Lubac observes that an invisible only church is not in accordance with Scripture, which is explained above. Said another way, an invisible only church is unbiblical. But what does he mean in stating that those who adhere to an invisible only church “are shutting out all understanding of the eternal purpose that God realized” in Jesus Christ?
In order to answer this question, we need to turn to the purpose of the Church. What purpose does the Church serve? Of primary importance is the salvation of men. The visible, hierarchically ordered and structured Church is the eternal plan of God through which men are sanctified and born into a new life of grace as adopted children of God in the Son. It is within the Church as a mother that, through the sacraments, Christ’s physical body is brought into being as men are made his members by the communication of his Spirit. The Church, then, is a saving institution, a divinely ordained society through which we come to partake in the divine nature of God and the life of eternal communion with the Father.
The Church is established by Christ as the “universal sacrament of salvation” (Lumen Gentium, 48), the visible instrument through which the invisible grace and Spirit of God is at work in the world. The Church, then, is the realization of the Father’s loving plan of salvation in his Son, in whom he would “raise men to a participation in the divine life” (LG 2; CCC 763 ff.). According to the will of the Father, “Christ inaugurated the Kingdom of heaven on earth and revealed to us the mystery of that kingdom. . . . The Church, or, in other words, the kingdom of Christ now present in mystery, grows visibly through the power of God in the world” (LG 3).
The divinely instituted and visible Church is the eternal purpose of God the Father realized in Jesus Christ.
Last, the Church is a mystery because she comes from God, who is mystery, and is guided by the Spirit of God, who is her life-principle as the human soul is the animating principle of the physical, human body. The Church is not only visible but also invisible. She is a living reality: an organic, visible and invisible, earthly and heavenly dwelling place in which men are made one with Christ through his Spirit, and thus come to share in eternal communion with God the Father. The earthly and heavenly Church form one single reality: the People of God. Apart from the Church, we cannot speak accurately, fully and authentically about God’s plan of salvation.
Quoting Fr. Louis Bouyer, de Lubac writes: “an invisible Church is the same thing as no Church at all”; without the hierarchy, which is her point of crystallization, her organizer, and her guide, “there can be no talk of the Church” (88).
An Argument from Human Nature
Scripture indicates that the visible, hierarchical structure of the Church, as well her spiritual authority, was established in its seed and beginning by Christ himself. We might discern a number of reasons for why God would plan for his Church to be founded and develop in this way. One very obvious reason is to counter confusion, misunderstanding, and loss of doctrine which has as its end effect a distortion or corruption of the divine revelation received in its fullness in the Person of Jesus Christ. In a word, salvation is at stake.
Consider for a moment how, when left to himself, it does not take long for man to muddle things, make very serious mistakes about who God really is, and corrupt the content of divine revelation. History proves out this danger in countless ways. If God had not founded a divinely guided, structured and ordered institution of infallible authority, one which could fully guard the integrity of the content of divine revelation in its fullness and transmit that content of faith in its full purity, the treasury of revealed truth would have become so extensively diluted and distorted over the centuries as to be perhaps unrecognizable. Such an effect is simply the consequences of man’s wounded human nature.
The preservation of divinely revealed truth in its full integrity and its continued transmission to future generations without mutilation requires an infallible Magisterium: a Spirit-guided, visible and hierarchical Church whose authority is derived from On High. “The task of interpreting the Word of God authentically has been entrusted solely to the Magisterium of the Church, that is, to the Pope and to the bishops in communion with him” (CCC 100). That the Magisterium alone is given the power to authentically interpret Scripture is not meant to stifle all reflection on the Word of God; rather, it is that God himself has put the safeguard of the Magisterium in place as a positive means of protecting the integrity of his revealed word. The authority of the Magisterium exists for the sake of humankind’s salvation. The Magisterium is the servant of the Word of God, not its master (CCC 86). It is really all about transmitting God’s truth to all people in its full purity. This is why The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us:
It is clear therefore that, in the supremely wise arrangement of God, sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture and the Magisterium of the Church are so connected and associated that one of them cannot stand without the others. Working together, each in its own way, under the action of the one Holy Spirit, they all contribute effectively to the salvation of souls. (CCC 95)
An Argument from Human Nature, Society, and the Pedagogy of God
When we consider human nature in the context of society, and the pedagogy of God found in the O.T., we can be helped to understand why Christ would historically found a definite and specific, ordered and hierarchical Church as a visible human and divine society.
O.T. Scripture narrates that God willed to gather a people together and make them holy by forming them unto himself in preparation for the arrival of his incarnate Son, Jesus Christ. The entire O.T. is about this particular story. God chose to gather the people Israel together and make them his people. He did this by forming them into a visible community with appointed leaders and progressively educating them according to his divine revelation, as one people, not as isolated and confused groups scattered about the planes of the earth. Such a divine plan is, of course, in harmony with human nature, which is a divinely created nature!
With the arrival of Jesus Christ and the subsequent divine institution of the Church, God again works to gather all people into a single visible community, a society of men in Christ: the People of God. This highly conspicuous society, visible for anyone to find and see, is governed by divinely appointed leaders whose authority is ordered toward the sanctification and edification of the sheepfold of Christ. Within the womb of the Church, men are educated by divine revelation as they hear the word of God, and granted a share in the divine nature through the communication of the Spirit of God in the reception of the sacraments. The Church raises up a society of men in Christ by making them members of his one body. Through the Church’s sacraments received in faith, this visible and united society is elevated to a participation in the divine life of God.
All of this is very reasonable on a natural level. Men need society; we learn best in groups and in association with others. The human person cannot survive in total isolation, but rather requires community, support and love from others to grow, thrive and attain to perfection. It is totally logical that God would choose to form his people together in the society of the Church in order to educate them with his words of truth, making them one and holy unto himself by his sacraments of life, as his adopted children in his Son and through his Spirit. Because the Church is a divinely instituted society of men who live under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and who form the one body of Christ, the Church can be said to be a divine and human society. Further, she can be said to be a perfect society because she is not subject to any earthly authority but only to the divine authority of Christ.
It is clear that entry into communion with the visible and invisible Church is God’s plan of salvation for the entire world. This plan, of course, includes organization, structure, and leadership. It includes the sanctifying activity of the Holy Spirit. It includes an authority derived from On High, which is best understood as a well-spring of indispensable faith and moral based information which forms men according to what is really true. It includes Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture. It includes the Eucharist which both signifies unity and brings it about as the faithful consume the body, blood, soul, and divinity of the risen and glorified Christ.
The Catholic life: it’s the fullness of human living in the heart of the unified, visible and invisible society of the universal Church. It’s a beautiful existence in the City of Truth in which men, as one body in Christ and in one Spirit, profess “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all” (Eph 4:5-6). It’s the life for which God has predestined you from eternity. It’s the plan of love God ordained for the sanctification, salvation, and eternal happiness of all people.
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Photo Credit: Joe Ravi.
Deacon Frederick Bartels is a member of the Catholic clergy who serves the Church in the diocese of Pueblo. He holds an MA in Theology and Educational Ministry and is a Catholic educator, public speaker, and evangelist who strives to infuse culture with the saving principles of the gospel. For more, visit YouTube, iTunes and Google Play.