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Epiphany : a theological introduction to Catholicism

by Aidan Nichols O.P.

Chapter 7: The Church
Part 2

Laity, Hierarchy, Primacy

The Church's Scriptures present the Christian people as a prophetic and royal priesthood. Peter hails the recipients of his first letter as

"a royal priesthood . . . that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light" (2:9).

This priesthood of all the faithful is established by the Son for the Father; as John remarks in Revelation:

"[He] has made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father" (Rev 1:6)

The royal priesthood which the laity are is for the Father's glory: that is, for the realization of his purpose.

The Fathers of the Church are unanimous in taking the origin of this priesthood to be Christ. The Christian, after all, is a sharer in the Christ (Heb 3:14). The human being assumed by the Son of God to be his very own human expression is the "Anointed One" (ho christos). He or she is divinely commissioned for a threefold office, at once prophetic, royal, and priestly. By incorporating all three functions in his own person, the incarnate Son reveals that he is the long-expected Messiah of Israel. He embraces and fulfills the three different kinds of messianic figure the prophet, the king, the priest found amongst the Old Testament people of God. Clearly, if Christians are sharers in Christ, they too must be in some way prophets, kings, priests.

The Lord does not only have a name, "Christ," that describes his messianic functions. He also has a proper name, "Jesus," which means "Savior" a name that points to the goal which the messianic functions serve. We are incorporated into Christ Jesus, our salvation, through baptism, which brings us forgiveness of sins and newness of life. Augustine reports how

"throughout the world, every day, you can see mothers hastening with their infants not toward the Christ simply speaking, the Anointed One, but toward Christ Jesus the one who is also the Savior."[20]

The body whose members we become in this way belongs to that head who is prophet, priest, and king. So it is through his mystical body, through the Church, that Christians enjoy their prophetic and royal priesthood.

So far we have not mentioned the Holy Spirit. Yet Irenaeus tells us that, if it is the Father who anoints and the Son who is anointed, then it is the Holy Spirit who is personally the anointing itself.

" Preaching at Caesarea on the coast of Palestine, Peter had told his hearers how God "anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit" (Acts 10:38),

while in Luke's Gospel Jesus' own sermon at the Nazareth synagogue began from the text,

"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has sent me to preach good news to the poor" (Luke 4:16ff.).

So too, the Christian's sharing in the Christ comes about through the work of the Spirit. John writes that

"You have been anointed by the Holy One, and you all know" (1 John 2:20):

the faithful are "theo-didacts," " taught by God, and their "sense" for the Christian realities is recognized by Catholic theologians as an important clue to the contents of Tradition.

The prophetic and royal priesthood is acquired sacramentally, in Christian initiation by baptism and confirmation. Baptism, the gateway to sacramental life, invests us with our priesthood. Confirmation "seals" our baptismal rebirth, strengthening and perfecting the life of grace we have received. It also makes us public representatives of the people of God, visible representatives of its prophetic, royal, and priestly offices. Catholics can never be private Christians, though our life is rooted in the interior mystery of baptismal rebirth. By baptism we die to this world order, and our life henceforth is "hidden with Christ in God." Yet, though the deepest roots of our new being lie far from view in the soil of the divine life, we must manifest a healthy Christian growth in the eyes of all the world. By confirmation we are mandated by the Church to teach, to "rule," and to sanctify for the salvation of the human race. By these sacraments of initiation, we become related to Jesus Christ, the mediator between God and humanity. Our very being is affected in such a way that all our future action is to be touched by this new relationship. Catholic theology calls this the "character" (mark) we acquire in baptism and confirmation. By this character, we are equipped for communion with God by (prophetic) understanding, (royal) ruling-in-serving, and (priestly) sanctification of the world. This character is, then, nothing other than our prophetic and royal priesthood itself.

The universal priesthood comes to its climax and fulfillment in the Eucharist. In the Eucharist, the faithful make a spiritual sacrifice of their own persons: when the ministerial priest, at the consecration, has brought about, through God's power, the real presence of the victim of Calvary, they co-offer Jesus Christ to the Father in the Holy Spirit. Then, in holy communion, they enter into union with him, now no longer humiliated, but, since his Good Friday sacrifice was accepted by the Father at the first Easter, in a condition of power, radiance, and glory. From that communion they draw the resources to exercise their priesthood in the workaday world.

By the baptismal character, all the good works of the laity are ordered in some way to worship, to the Eucharistic action which is the climax of the Christian life. For the act par excellence of Christian worship is the renewal of the sacrifice of the cross. The personal oblation of their bodies, to which Paul exhorts the faithful in Romans 12:1, is related by the Fathers to the obligations (for the laity in the world) or the counsels (for the lay religious) which follow from the royal priesthood. That priesthood, like that of Jesus Christ its source, is a "victim" priesthood, offering itself in worship of the Father for the salvation of the world, in a fashion which makes the Eucharist its most appropriate expression.

The first task of the laity we must mention is that of the prophetic office. In confirmation, the faithful accept the duty to defend the faith they professed by baptism. They must be concerned to know, proclaim, live, and defend the Christian message, the word of God. Our witness does not spring from our lips alone. When we imitate Christ, those about us see it, and they cannot fail to be impressed by the beauty of the faith. All lay persons are bound to present this spontaneous radiance to those around them.

"You are the light of the world. ... Neither do men light a lamp and put it under a measure. . . . Let your light shine before men, in order that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven" (Matt 5:14, 16).

Christians should desire that their very presence become a blessing for their family, neighborhood, workplace, and place of recreation.

In addition to such indirect proclaiming and persuading to the gospel, the royal priesthood is committed to its direct communication. We neglect the commission given us at our confirmation if we let slip, perhaps by silence, opportunities to make known even the least portion of God's revelation that he is love, that he has sent his Son, who has risen from the dead, and that his Spirit dwells among us. For this purpose, we must be as well-instructed as our possibilities allow. We must strive to grasp our faith as completely as possible, precisely so that we can hand it on to others.

Reading a book like this is one way! Another is thinking through the application of Catholic principles to the issues of our day, where, in a post-Renaissance, post-Reformation, post-Enlightenment society, truth and error are strangely commingled. The laity, after all, are educators, parents, and catechists and they should be (like, say, G. K. Chesterton) apologists. They can also outdo this author, and be better theologians!

By the royal office, we carry out various, analogically related, kinds of "ruling." We master the disorder of sin in our own persons, and exercise our spiritual kingship for the good of others. We do this by using whatever influence we may have in our spheres of life and work so as to unite human beings in free obedience to their head, Jesus Christ. The royal mission mandates us to spread the spirit of the gospel, expressed in Catholic values, to the society around us.

It is in the context of the royal office that a consideration of the role of the laity in the creation of a Christian politics properly belongs. Using their royal energies, the laity should seek to construct the foundations of a Christian civilization in this world, a civilization of which political ethics form a necessary part. Such a civilization will be at once for humanity and for God. As Jacques Maritain commented, speaking about the rise of that predominant civilization of the post-Renaissance West, whose weaknesses have produced such bitter fruits in the destructive ideologies of the modern period,

Man, forgetting that in the order of being and of goodness it is God who has the first initiative and who gives life to our freedom, has sought to exalt his own proper movement as creature to the dignity of the first absolute movement, and to attribute to his own created freedom the first initiative towards goodness. Thus his movement of ascent has necessarily been separated from that of grace, and this is why the age in question has been an age of dualism, of division, of disintegration, an age of humanism apart from the Incarnation, where the effort of progress must needs follow an inevitable course and itself contribute to the destruction of what is human. In short, we may say that the radical fault of anthropocentric humanism has been its anthropocentric quality, not its humanism. [22]

The temporal task of the Christian in the world is to work for a realization in social and cultural terms of the truths of the gospel. Although the gospel is primarily concerned with the things of eternal life, and transcends all sociology as it does all philosophy, nevertheless it gives us sovereign rules of conduct for our lives, and traces a very clear chart of moral behavior, to which any Christian civilization, in so far as it is worthy of the name, should tend to conform, according to the diverse conditions of history.

This is not meant to downplay the search for personal perfection. The royal office is exercised first over ourselves, over our thoughts and our passions. Asceticism is the first duty of the royal office: for only those ignorant of the world of personality can mistake what is essentially the fruit of love and generosity for an egoistic enterprise forgetful of the collective neighbor. What is needed at the corporate level is a theocentric and integral humanism, integral because it is the humanism of the incarnation: the rehabilitation of humanity, not over against God or without God but in God.

The royal office, evidently, is concerned with preparing God's kingdom. But there is a vital distinction to be made here if the laity (and indeed the clergy) are not to become "worldly" in a pejorative, rather than exemplary, sense. The kingdom of God constitutes the ultimate end prepared for by the movement of all history and in which it concludes. Toward this there converge, first, the history of the Church, the world of the ecclesial mystery, and, second, the history of the secular world, including, most importantly, the political city. But there is a difference in the two paths: the Church is already the commencement of the kingdom of God, its beginning in time. It is the "crucified kingdom" (Charles Journet) that in the end shall be revealed in glory whereas the history of the secular world will only come to its goal by means of a substantial mutation, described in the apocalyptic imagery of Scripture as its "conflagration," whereby in great travail it will be born again into the kingdom.[23]

In their priestly office, the faithful try to lead a holy life as the friends of God graciously redeemed in the blood of his Son. They practice Christian spirituality and share in the liturgy of the Church, which comes to its climax in the Eucharist, where we offer our souls and bodies to the Father, and, after the consecration of the holy gifts, co-offer the victim of Calvary glorified in the resurrection. Having received the power that Holy Communion gives, the laity are then called to go out and consecrate the world about them, baptizing its thought and culture in the life-giving waters of the gospel.

The baptism of culture is integral to the priestly office of the laity. What is culture? It consists of all those actions whereby people bring their gifts to perfection, whether as philosophers or scientists, artists or writers, social reformers or simply ordinary human beings concerned with the happy construction of human relations. The Christian must affirm the positive value of culture so defined, since it derives from God's command to "cultivate" the earth by sharing in his own creative action. Yet in a fallen world, culture is intrinsically ambiguous. In any case, the final transfiguration of the historical process the gift of the kingdom exceeds its capabilities. That this is so is only fully understood by Christian faith. Where the shadow of God's cross has fallen, and there alone, do people understand how deeply sin has engraved itself upon the created order. The flourishing of culture depends, therefore, on the Christian insistence that culture must fulfill its vocation eschatologically: by way of Christ's message of new life through death-to-self and by the descent of the Holy Spirit, the life-giver.

The mission of the laity is to use the charisms of the royal priesthood, received in baptism and confirmation, in order to make of culture in its myriad manifestations a place of epiphany a point from which God's glory shines out and converts the world in attracting it. Thus the cultural activities of the Christian laity are the expression of their universal priesthood. They are the efficacious calling-to-mind of the incarnation and atonement, whereby the divine Logos expressed itself in the world God so loved. They are also the efficacious calling down of the Holy Spirit to transform the world of matter into an icon of the heavenly kingdom. Scientists, philosophers, social reformers, and artists must be able to rediscover the charisms of the royal priesthood, and, each in their own field, as "priests" make their research a sacerdotal work, a "sacrament" transforming all forms of culture into acts of tacit worship, silently singing the name of God by means of science, thought, social action the "sacrament of the brother" or art. In its own way, culture joins with liturgy, echoes the cosmic liturgy, becomes doxology. In other words, to the and uttered by the ministerial priest during the Eucharistic Prayer there corresponds a whole variety of lay "consecrations" of culture (e.g., in an English context, the stone-carvings of Eric Gill, the homes and shops of Sue Ryder). It is only when the eye of faith has become blurred or lazy that such juxtapositions seem implausible. In reality, as Francis Thompson saw, Jacob's ladder can be raised at Charing Cross.

These notions offer a coherent and satisfying resolution of the unfinished debate lying behind Gaudium et spes, whose "optimism" was somewhat roughly handled by more "pessimistic" spirits at the extraordinary Roman synod of 1985. Is the watchword to be incarnation or eschatology? immersion in the world, or flight from it? This is a false dilemma." Christians are meant to affirm the world precisely in order to open it to paradise and eternity. It is this eschatological dimension of incarnational humanism that gives the gospel its bite and verve. Our service of the saeculum, the "secular," will simply smooth a little the path of the world unless we carry it through with our feet firmly planted in eternity. In this way, we release in people that longing for the true home of undying light with which their own dignity is so intimately involved. The question of the kingdom what is life finally for? what is its ultimate meaning? is already found within culture. It will not be suppressed.

The multiplicity of the charisms and missions of the faithful displays the wonderful variety of vocation in the Church. Speaking of the Church as a visible society, Balthasar observes:

"It is grace itself that assumes hierarchical and institutional forms in the Church in order the better to lay hold on man, who is of course a being bound by nature, structure and law." Yet he immediately goes on to add: "But it is also grace itself that takes shape in the most personal aspects of a believer's life through the charismatic mission of vocation in order to transform the unique talents and traits of the individual into what grace alone can envisage."[25]

Since the whole Church is a sacred order a "hierarchy" we must relate the place of the laity to that of priests and religious in an integrated view. The ministerial priest does not owe his specific place in the Church to the common prophetic and royal priesthood based on baptism, but to the sacrament of orders; he is configured to Christ as head of the Church, rather than representing the mystical body of the Church, the community. As the sacramental representative of Christ the head, the priest, in union with the bishops and the Pope, proclaims the Word with doctrinal authority; he leads the people of God in celebrating the sacraments of their salvation, playing the part of Christ in their worship; and he "pastors" them by seeing to it that the Church's canonical discipline the expression of her own sense of identity is realized in the community, and also that the community grows in the communion of charity which Church law is there to serve. The difference between the lay person and the ministerial priest lies in their different roles in the work of God the Son. The two priesthoods are distinguished in the apostolic foundation of the Church and thus in the Lord himself. First, the Twelve as symbolizing the whole people of God possess as their foundation the common priesthood of all the faithful, which is united to Christ in his offering to the Father and so to his high priesthood. Second, the Twelve as the original apostolic ministers or envoys of the Lord share in Christ's mission as Lord of his Church, sitting at the Father's hand, ever interceding for us and so are founders of the hierarchical or ministerial priesthood. Thus the Twelve are simultaneously, in nuce, the people of God and those sent into the world to form that people from the nations.

Religious do not owe their specific place in the Church to a sacramental difference from the laity, but to the vocation to respond by a special form of life to the Holy Spirit, as he brings to the Church some anticipation of the life of the kingdom of God. The life of religious is wholly centered on God, in communion with their brothers and sisters, without giving or being given in marriage (chastity), without self definition by possessions (poverty), or by choosing one's own goals (obedience). It is a foretaste of the spiritual fruits of the age to come. The difference between the lay person and the religious lies in the dif­ferent roles in the work of God the Holy Spirit.

These differences also make priest, religious, and lay person complementary. Christ as head (typified by the ministerial priest) and the Holy Spirit who rests on Christ (typified by the religious) need Christ's mystical body (typified by the lay person) for the will of the Father to be made effective in the world.

Over the integration of laity, priests, and religious there presides the bishop. He manifests his own place as chief ministerial priest of the local Church, bearing the fullness of the sacrament of orders, not least by unifying the work of the laity, priests, and religious, in relation to each other, as well as to what is happening in other local Churches within the communion of the single Catholic Church. The bishop carries out his ministry of unity first and foremost in personal ways (nothing can ever replace the personal touch), second by overseeing suitable organizational forms to serve unity. These should not replace spontaneous initiative (the "principle of subsidiarity") but help to render it coherent (the "principle of solidarity"). In practice this will mean informing, locating resources, putting people in contact with each other, discouraging needless reduplication of tasks, suggesting fresh initiatives to fit the needs of the Church's mission or apostolate and common life or ministry. It is vital to specifically ecclesial administration to avoid what has been termed "pathological synodalism": indefinite analysis and complexification, continual re­extending of time for discussion, excess of discourse over decisions, equivocations that enfeeble doctrine and spirituality, and the losing of time better given to evangelism.

But the bishop's position in serving the Church's horizontal or geographical communion is only one coordinate of his true situation. For there is also the matter of the apostolic succession which assures the vertical communion of the Church, guaranteeing her identity with the aboriginal Church of the apostles. The apostolic succession enables the bishop to carry out his task of uniting his Church here and now to the ensemble of the historic Catholic Church in all ages.

The analogue for communion with the apostles in the vertical dimension can only be, for the horizontal dimension, communion with the centrum unitatis: the Roman primate. It is to his special place in Catholicism that we must now turn. For the "Letter on Certain Aspects of the Church Understood As Communion" makes clear that while among the Eastern Orthodox communities, for instance, so many elements of the one Church exist that their own local Churches may be deemed true particular Churches, nonetheless their existence as such Churches is wounded because of their deprivation of that full communion with the universal Church which is represented and realized through the Petrine officeholder. As ministering to universal communion, the work of Peter's successor does not simply reach each particular Church from outside, but already belongs to its essence from within. Such a claim does not make sense geographically. It turns on the acceptance in faith of a fundamental mutual interiority, achieved mystically by God in Christ, between the universal Church and the Church particular. Defective understanding thereof accounts for the recrudescence of autocephalic and provincialist tendencies in some regions of the Catholic Church today.

The bishops always constitute the apostolic college redivivus, whether they are gathered together in one spot or spread out from Thailand to Tegucigalpa. But in their conciliar assembly the ecumenical council they are most visibly themselves, and, so gathered, constitute (along with the papal ex cathedra pronouncement of the Petrine ministry) an "extraordinary" or especially solemn form of the Church's teaching authority. The councils originated (beginning with the Montanist crisis of the third-century Church) in the need to come to a common decision about distortions of the gospel menacing the Church universal. Such a decision required the bishops, as the chief shepherds of the local Churches of the to compare and unify the traditions which had reached them from the apostolic age, so as to confirm the Church in a common order and to assist each other in sound leadership. A council's function is to order and form the Church's faith and life in a given age. A council gives counsel (concilium/consilium) in the service of the communion of the whole ecclesial body. The content of what a council considers and promulgates is always, in one sense, the same: it is attestation of the Word of God, and on the basis of that Word, the right order of the Church. The ecumenical councils (and their regional and diocesan analogues) serve the purification and unity of the Church on the foundation of the Word. Paradoxically, in Church history they have also been the occasion of numerous splits and schisms. That is because the "mystery of iniquity" of which the New Testament speaks is also at work in the Church, as the tares that break up the good wheat. Catholic fidelity to the teaching of the councils of the universal Church on the principle that these inherit the words of Jesus to the apostles, "He who hears you, hears me" continues the blood-flow of the Eucharistic heart of the Church toward the unity of human beings, in God, through Christ and his Spirit.

The relation between the conciliar institution and the Roman primacy (the two organs of the Church's unity in leadership) deserves clarification. Office in the Church, we may begin by noting, is of its nature collegial: it is not given individualistically but in such a way that it incorporates in a body. The Word of God is primarily, in the New Testament, a preached and heard Word, which takes the living form of witness. Though Tradition in its scriptural form is the measure of that witness for all subsequent ages, the written word cannot substitute for the living presence of Tradition in the person of the witness who takes responsibility for this word, and for its preservation. This is the task of the single bishop in the single Church: it carries with it no infallibility, but an onerous burden. It is when we move onto the level of the unitary proclamation of the Word by all the bishops in communion with the pope that the question of infallibility arises. In the normal life of the Church, when pope and bishops agree in teaching, the result of their concord is truth indefectible, the gospel articulated. But if the need is felt to bring forward some aspect of the doctrinal tradition in the special and express form of dogma, there are two means by which this can be done: the ecumenical council and the ex cathedra determination of the head of the college of bishops, the pope.

The First Vatican Council stigmatized as heretical a unilateral concentration on either the total episcopate or the papacy. On the one hand, it affirmed that the pope can of himself speak infallibly and does not stand under the censure of bishops gathered in council. There is no appeal from him to a council. On the other hand, it asserted that the bishops are not purely papally installed administrators: the episcopate is of divine right, which no pope can set aside, since it is the succession of the apostolic college and belongs therefore to the Christ-given formation of the Church. Council and pope cannot be set over against each other, but, in a relational unity, fill out and complement each other. On the one hand, only the defining judgment of the pope is juridically complete (that of the council without the pope is null). On the other hand, the word of the pope is not "judgment-ripe" (as the Germans say) unless it comes from the faith conviction of the whole Church, and thus of the many particular Churches with the bishops in their midst. There can be in the Church no dogma which is defined over against the conviction of the episcopate, or its greater part. The voice of the bishops without the pope is juridically incomplete, that of the pope without foundation in the preaching of the bishops is factually impossible.

A council is not a parliament. It does not represent the people of the Church but Christ from whom it receives its mission and consecration. Similarly, the pope is not simply an organ of the episcopate, but has a direct responsibility from the Lord to secure the unity of Christ's word and work among his people. And just as the papacy is not a monarchy in the worldly sense, for it is subordinated to Christ and necessarily referred to the episcopate, so the primacy and episcopate together are not an aristocracy (or oligarchy) in the worldly sense, since they belong within the living whole of the body of Christ. The Church is an order of ministries, among which the ministry of the Roman bishop in particular is key.

The governmental structure of the Catholic Church is unintelligible without an understanding of the place of the Roman bishop. A bishop is the chief ordained minister of a local Church. His task is to guard the faith and practice of that Church. "Faith" means doctrine, truths about Christianity. "Practice" means liturgy and ethical norms, the worship and moral standards that Christianity fosters. The Roman bishop differs from all other bishops by being guardian of the faith and practice not just of a local Church but of the universal Church. In this he does not displace the local bishops spread throughout the world but confirms, supplements, and sometimes corrects their efforts.

At the same time, the local bishops, whose particular Churches are themselves the Church in miniature, bring experience of those far­flung communities to the Petrine center, from where their concerns can be mediated to the rest of the Church universal. In fact, the particular Church and the universal Church interpenetrate in an unbreakable exchange, perichoresis, comparable to that of the Trinitarian persons in the life of God. In the Roman Rite, the Eucharist is celebrated "one with" (una cum) the pope as well as the local bishop, and this implies on the part of the local Church a real collaboration with the pope in the Church's daily life, and obedience to him both as guarantor of its unity and authoritative interpreter of that unity's demands. This una cum does not exhausta itself in bureaucratic and administrative structures, but also becomes, in the visit of the local bishop "to the threshold of the apostles" (scilicet, Peter and Paul, for each chief pastor must go to Rome at regular intervals) a personal encounter with the apostolic see's officeholder, the vicar of Peter, the one who continues the witness of Paul.

What then is the wider theological significance of the Petrine office for Catholics? In John 21, Christ tells Peter to "feed my lambs, shepherd, and feed my little sheep," the diminutive form probatia conveying a personal relation of affection. In return for his affirmation of love for Jesus, Peter receives from the master a personal bequest: a transfer of this loving relationship between the good shepherd and the members of the flock. Though the papacy is not a sacramental order it can be called a charismatic order: the charism of papal authority is conferred by a personal gift of grace through the direct action of the Holy Spirit which sets a seal of confirmation on the candidate for the papacy as a consequence of his election by procedures duly authorized by the Church. The papacy is not separate from the regular ministry which all bishops share, but it is unique in its mode of continuity and in the personal authority conferred by the charism of the papal office. The pope as spiritual father is, so to say, the "abbot" of the Catholic episcopate. The title of "the holy father," given to the pope by the Catholic faithful, is not, after all, a technical ecclesiastical term, but an expression of the experience of faith, putting into words the special relation between each member of the Church and the pope, the "universal pastor." What, then, of "bad popes," those who refuse cooperation with the grace of their ministry?

The Petrine office is both central and "eccentric." Certainly, this office was placed in the "holy" centre of the Church (hence the demand for a declaration of love from the first pope). From this centre, however, it does not simply reach out to the sinners who are displaced from it and thus "eccentric"; it is not only for them but rather with them (it is Peter, who denied the Lord, who is given office), in such a way that the personal guilt of the office-holder does not vitally affect the indefectibility of the office. Peter is simultaneously though not in the same respect justus et peccator, fallibilis et infallibilis. . . . This is the central "scandal" of Catholicism: that a sinner should claim an element of infallibility.[26]

Bad popes are, we trust, very much the exception, yet in all cases, Peter has to appear as an individual, and in this sense, over against (vis-à­vis) others, be they the people with whom he is in communion or the bishops with whom he forms a college. He does this not by domineering, however, but as a servant not detaching himself from communion or college, but rather strengthening them, freeing them to be themselves in the true liberty of the fullness of the gospel.

The Four Notes

Both interiorly and exteriorly, then, the Church puts forth her four essential marks: she is one, holy, catholic, apostolic. These are the foundational properties, dimensions, or "notes" willed by the Redeemer for the life of the community he created. They are still recognizable in the Catholica today.

The ultimate source of the Church's unity is the Holy Trinity, whose interpersonal communion she reflects on earth. The mediate sources of that unity lie in the missions of Son and Spirit: the Church is one through the universally reconciling work of the incarnate Word, while the Spirit of the Son (himself from the Father) is her inner principle of unity. The means whereby her unity is guarded and fostered, though themselves divinely founded, are human. After naming charity as the first of these the Catechism of the Catholic Church lists those other "bonds of union" which theological tradition (not least at the Second Vatican Council, and in its canonical stepchild, the code of canons of the Latin Church) has identified: unity in a single faith; unity in worship, notably through sharing the same sacraments; and unity in the social life of the Church governed as that is by the successors of the apostles of Jesus Christ. It is because the continuing identity of the apostolic college cannot be located without reference to its primatial. head, the successor of Peter, that communion with the Roman pope is essential to unity, that constitutive mark of the Church as Christ willed her to be.

That is not to say that the Church is meant to be a homogeneous. monolith. Diversity, though not a theological mark of the Church, has certainly always been one of her features: the sheer profusion of the gifts of God in revelation and salvation, as well as the differences between human individuals and groups, guarantees that. Once those differences are baptized into the mystery of a Church possessed of the incalculable riches of the revealing and saving Word, the result is the precious pluralism of the various particular Churches. (How much poorer the Church would be deprived of either its Eastern or its Western "lung"!) This is not to say, however, that a light-hearted cry of "Vive la difference" solves all problems. As the Catechism points out, sin can turn the good of diversity into the evil of heresy, apostasy, and schism; legitimate pluralism can degenerate (as indeed the history of post-conciliar Catholicism demonstrates) into anarchy. In the past this phenomenon has bequeathed the historic schisms which have ruptured the unity of Christendom to which "woundings of unity" the Catechism shows itself most sensitive. It echoes Unitatis redintegratio in finding outside the single Church's visible unity numerous elements of evangelical truth and apostolic order, such that the tragically separated Churches and ecclesial communities (the difference between the two turns on the presence or absence of a ministerial and thus sacramental life in the apostolic succession) can be instruments used by the Spirit of Christ for human salvation. At the same time, and once again in keeping with the conciliar decree, the Catechism does not treat these elements as autonomous and free-floating; rather, do they derive from the fullness of gracious truth Christ has given his holy Catholic Church, and coming from that source, carry a built-in gravitational pull back (or on!) toward the Church's unity.

Holiness is the second mark of the Church. Jesus Christ, whom the Gloria of the Western Mass salutes as "the only Holy One," has embraced her as his spouse, and the Church is necessarily affected by this unique contact with the infinite holiness of the divine Trinity, whose mediator Jesus is. Owing to her union with him, she is not only all­hallowed but all-hallowing, the agent of sanctification as well as its recipient. All her activities converge on human sanctification and the doxological praise of the God who has shared his holiness with humanity (as Sacrosanctum Concilium declares).

So far as her individual faithful are concerned, such is the war of sin with grace in our members that such holiness is far from complete in us as persons. Nonetheless each and every Christian is called to be perfect, and furnished, in the life of the Church, with all the necessary means for becoming so. The Catechism treats charity as the soul of holiness; as in Aquinas's theology of morals-under-grace, charity unifies the virtues in view of their common end, union through Christ with God in the Beatific Vision. Citing Therese of Lisieux's Histoire d'une âme: as the heart of the mystical body of Christ, charity is coextensive with the call of God to human destiny, despite the latter's innumerable concrete forms. And if, when contemplating the many counterforms that lovelessness can take, the faithful Christian is depressed at the thought of the tares that grow within Christ's field, the Catechism provides grounds for encouragement in rounding off its section on the Church's holiness with a mention of the canonized saints, and, at their center, the mother of God. Solemn canonization of those whose lives have shown forth heroic charity is a recognition by the Church of the power of the Spirit of holiness and a motive of hope for all believers. And in Mary, the Church's deepest nature is already radiantly apparent, for she is the panaghia, the all-holy Virgin.

This one, holy Church is also catholic. It is a theological common­place that catholicity may be understood of the Church either qualitatively as a statement about the integral nature of her faith and its capacity to meet human need or quantitatively, as an expression of her worldwide mission. The Catechism places its emphasis firmly on the first. What is unusual is the decision to treat the holistic kath'holon quality of the Church's hold on divine revelation, and thus healing and sanctifying power for human life, in such determinedly Christocentric terms. The Church is qualitatively catholic only because in her Christ is present. If the Church is "his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all" (Eph 1:22-23), then she must have received fully, totally, and so in a catholic fashion all the means of salvation the Redeemer has to give. In this sense, the Church was already catholic in unsurpassable fashion while still gathered in the cenacle, at the first Pentecost. The second sense of catholicity, quantitative or geographical catholicity, is only applied to her, by contrast, when, impelled by the Spirit, her apostles tumble out of the upper room onto the streets of Jerusalem, and go forth through Judaea and Samaria into all the world (as the Acts of the Apostles suggests, cutting off its narrative on the outskirts of that Rome to which all roads led).

The last mark of the Church is apostolicity. The Church is founded on the witness of the apostles to the crucified and risen Lord; she preserves, assisted by the Spirit, the sound word of the apostolic preaching, and she continues to be taught, sanctified, and governed by the apostles in the persons of their successors, the college of bishops under its Petrine head. The Catechism's treatment of apostolicity is dynamic as it must inevitably be, for the concept of apostleship is one of mandate for mission. The origin of all apostleship, all public representation, in the Church is the mission of the apostle par excellence, the God-man, from the Father: "As the Father has sent me, even so I send you" (John 20:21).

The perseverance of the Church in the apostolic tradition of faith and practice, as guarded by the succession of apostolic ministers, enables the revelation given definitively to the original apostles to be passed on by the whole Church, whether lay or ordained, in its integral purity and fullness. Apostolic faith and order serve, then, the wider apostolate of both clergy and laity: the diffusion of Christ's reign throughout the earth.

Of these four marks it is, we may say, the mark of holiness that signals most perspicuously the Church's rationale. For the unity which her catholic and apostolic being and mission would inaugurate is the unity of human beings with each other in God. Though the Church's holiness consists interiorly in her very nature as the bride of Christ, exteriorly and so publicly and therefore most persuasively it consists in the tangible holiness she shows in the lives of her saints. Denys the Carthusian, in his Commentary on the Song of Songs, had this to say on the text "Dark am I but beautiful, daughters of Zion":

The Church calls herself dark because there are many imperfect, frail and sickly people, as well as sinners in her. . . . Still, she herself describes herself as beautiful, since there are always many virtuous and holy people who take their place in her, and all those truly incorporated in her are embellished with love and the infused virtues and the gifts of the Holy Spirit [27]

Sinners are certainly in the Church, yet they do not embody the Church. Rather are they hospitalized there, with a view to being made well, and made saints.



20. Augustine, Against Julian 1.7.31.

21. Irenaeus, Against the Heretics 3.18.

22. J. Maritain, True Humanism (London, 1938) 19.

23. See C. Schönborn, "The Kingdom of God and the Heavenly-Earthly Church. The Church in Transition according to Lumen Gentium," in idem., From Death to Life. The Christian Journey (San Franciso, 1988) 65-98.

24. B. Besret, Incarnation ou eschatologie? Contribution à 1'histoire du vocabulaire religieux contemporain, 1935-1955 (Paris, 1974).

25. H. U. von Balthasar, The Theology of Karl Barth (San Francisco, 1992) 387.

26. H. U. von Balthasar, The Office of Peter and the Structure of the Church (San Francisco, 1986) 181. Translation slightly modified.

27. Denys the Carthusian, Enarration on Solomon's Song of Songs, in D. Dionysii Cartusiani, In Sacram Scripturam commentaria 7 (Montreuil-sur-Mer, 1898) 302.

Copyright ©; 1996 by The Order of St. Benedict, Inc., Collegeville, Minnesota. All rights reserved.

This version: 6th February 2008

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Fr Aidan Nichols

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