“I’m attending RCIA and might become a Catholic,” I told my parents.
They didn’t show any distress, but they did express some confusion. “I’m not sure why you’d do that,” they said, “You get to have all the liturgy and everything in the Anglican church.”
“I know,” I responded, “I would never disdain your Christian faith, I am where I am because of you, but I’m beginning to think that the Catholic Church might be the Church Jesus founded, and if so I should be in it.”
My parents expressed doubt about this, cautioning me, “You know, the church your dad grew up in said it was just like the early Church. Lots of churches claim that, but no one is exactly like the primitive Church. The Catholic Church has changed too.”
They were right, of course, there is no church today that is identical in every visible detail to the primitive Church, but that also wasn’t what I was saying. Yet, I found I could not quite articulate what it was that I meant. Catholics will often tell Protestants, “Our Church was founded by Jesus Christ, yours by Martin Luther/John Calvin/etc.” But what exactly is meant by this? What connects the Roman Catholic Church to the primitive Church? What makes our claim to be the Church Jesus founded any less absurd than the claims of churches like the one my father grew up in?
There are historical and doctrinal facts that might be pointed to – the apostolic succession, the greater likeness between Roman Catholicism and the early Church, St. Peter and the Pope, and any number of other specific details. However, in my experience these facts don’t move the average Protestant. I believe this is because there is a deeper underlying reality of which these historical facts are the manifestations and sacramental signs. Behind this discussion is a difference in fundamental worldview between the way Catholics understand the Church’s inner reality and the way in which modern Protestants tend to see it.1
I’d like to posit that Catholics tend to view the Church as an organism composed of a naturally related inner and outer reality, while Protestants tend to view their churches as artifacts independent of the real invisible Church. To explicate what I mean by this, I’m going to need to go into a little excursus about the Aristotelian understanding of an organism vs. an artifact.
The Organic Church
In Aristotelian philosophy, as I understand it, organisms are those things which have a natural unity given to them by a form or soul.2 For example, the human soul isn’t understood to simply be a ghost in the machine. Instead, the soul is the underlying reality from which the body arises, it provides both the plan of the body and its animating force.
A very rough analogy here is the way we understand DNA. From the moment of conception, the body has in its DNA the blueprint of how every aspect of the body will develop (all other things being equal). Neither DNA nor the data it encodes looks like a human being, and yet the physical development of a human being is a natural outworking of that data. The fact that I have arms and legs, that I am male, that I have a red beard, a round face, and a bald head are all determined to one extent or another by my DNA.
The analogy breaks down, of course. DNA is material while soul is immaterial, and I don’t think anyone but Richard Dawkins in his more ecstatic flights of poetic zeal would claim that DNA possesses consciousness or a will. The point is, like DNA, the Aristotelian soul acts like a stamp imprinting itself on matter, which thus develops according to the plan contained in the soul. Unlike DNA, the soul is also the force which continues to animate the body. Finally, the soul gives the body its unity. The soul is the reason my finger and my eye are part of the same lifeform. It is also the reason why I can be said to be the same being I was when I was two years old, even though the shape of my body has radically changed and probably every molecule in my body has been replaced.
On the Catholic understanding, the Church has an invisible nature that is much like the Aristotelian soul. Like that understanding of soul, it is not some invisible reality arbitrarily laid over the physical one. Rather, the physical reality is a natural extension of the spiritual one, in the same way that your body is a natural extension of your soul in Aristotelian thought. The “soul” of the Church on this model would correspond to the Holy Spirit.
More precisely, the Holy Spirit isn’t just the soul of the Church, he is the soul which makes the matter of the Church (e.g. its human members and institutions) into the body of Christ. This happens not only through the Spirit’s indwelling, but through a variety of processes in the Church (such as the sacraments, the continuing presence of the Scriptures as a living word, and the extraordinary Magisterium). To turn again to the Aristotelian soul concept, there are a variety of processes in the body that make it function (taking in nutrition, a beating heart, etc.). All of these are physical outworkings of the basic nature contained in the soul.
Thus, the Church in her members, her rites, her hierarchy, is not some accident or artifice connected to the inner nature of the Church only by correlation but an organic outworking of that inner reality (which is Christ through the Holy Spirit).3
The Church as Artifact
The artifact, in contrast to the organism, has no essential whole. It is something put together for a purpose that has no essential identity outside of the intention of the ones who put it together. Thus, for example, the various parts that go together to form my car do not arise from some inherent plan contained within it, but instead exist because the designers of that car put those pieces together so that it could function as transportation for me. The material specifications of the car are thus constrained only by what is useful or necessary to bring about said end. Artifacts like my car can decay and break, but they do not develop unless someone intentionally modifies them according to some new purpose (say modifying the engine to run more efficiently.) Finally, if my car ceases to function, it no longer properly exists as a car, and I can readily take out its parts and use them for different purposes (perhaps use the front tire as a planter…).
If I understand the Protestant viewpoint correctly (which I think I do because I once shared it), the Church has an inner and an outer reality that aren’t essentially connected. The inner reality of the Church is the invisible set of all those who are saved by personal faith in Jesus Christ. These individuals have the Holy Spirit and through the Holy Spirit direct personal access to Jesus. Of course, being invisible, there is no way to know for sure who is or isn’t a member of this set (though depending on the Protestant in question there may be more or less weight placed on human judgment regarding the individual believer’s “fruits” as signs of their membership in the Church).
Overlayed on top of this invisible reality is a visible reality of church organizations. This visible reality does not arise automatically from the inner reality, but is instead a humanly constructed artifact like my car. These churches are constructed by humans in response to the Gospel in order to serve a purpose – namely teaching and discipling people in order to make it possible for them to enter the invisible Church. These organizations also serve to help organize the social life of Christians. Because churches are artifacts with no essential connection to the inner reality of the Church, they can be set up or disbanded according to how well they are judged to be fulfilling the ends they were erected to fulfill.4
The True Church
Having laid the groundwork above, we can now turn to the idea of the true Church. For Protestants with the viewpoint I described above, churches arise from active human response to the Gospel. Many Protestants I know, especially of the Evangelical variety, would thus have a lot of difficulty with the idea of there being any true Church. Churches are artificial and functional organizations set up to teach doctrine and make disciples. Since, as Catholics and Protestants both readily acknowledge, humans are sinful and prone to error, no church set up by human beings could possibly be perfect in achieving these ends.
According to this understanding, there can thus be a multitude of true Christian churches. What is true about Christianity is the basic data of the gospel and the individual believer’s encounter with Christ through faith in him. As long as an institution functions to bring this about (undoubtedly with errors not pertinent to the core truths of the faith), it is a properly functioning church.
Since no organization perfectly accomplishes that end, it’s kind of senseless to talk about any church being “the true Church” founded by Jesus Christ. There isn’t even necessarily a right or wrong way to set up church government, as each arrangement (episcopal, presbyterian, congregational) has its advantages and disadvantages relative to the end they’re set up up to accomplish.
Some Protestants churches, of course, do claim to be the true Church. What these churches seem to be claiming is that they have read and understood Scripture with such clarity that they have been able to perfectly reconstruct the Church as Jesus would have wanted it. Their church is thus said to look exactly like the primitive Church. In the illustration above, they would be giving their members entirely good teaching and discipleship, while every other church would be giving bad teaching and discipleship. It would thus be only (or at least mostly only) members of their church who had a saving relationship with Jesus.
Put another way, they are saying that the visible church they have built perfectly maps onto the invisible Church. Anyone outside of that institution could thus automatically be judged to be lacking any relationship with Jesus and so be damned. It was, I think, this sort of claim that my parents were hearing me make when I said I thought the Catholic Church was the one founded by Jesus
In contrast, when the Catholic Church claims to be the true Church founded by Jesus Christ, it is not claiming to be visibly identical to the primitive Church in every detail. Rather, we are claiming that when Jesus founded his Church, he gave birth to a kind of organism whose soul was the Holy Spirit. As with any organism, the Church had natural physical manifestations of its inner reality (such as the episcopacy, the sacraments, orthodox doctrine, and Scripture).5 The physical realities would in fact develop, just as I have developed from what I was when I was two years old. Yet, despite certain outward changes, the inner reality of the Church guarantees continuity throughout time. Moreover, just as you can tell that I am the same person I was when I was two by the resemblance between me and my two-year-old self, you can tell that the Catholic Church is the Church which Jesus founded by the resemblance the modern Catholic Church shares with the primitive Church.6 To claim the Catholic Church is the Church Jesus founded is thus not to make the claim of the Fundamentalist Protestant church which claims to be the true Church. Such a church must, of necessity, be claiming to mechanically reconstruct some primitive societal arrangement perfectly from an explicit understanding of Scripture.
One crucial difference in this understanding is that it means the Catholic Church’s claim to be the true Church is not a claim that those who are visibly outside it are damned. On the Catholic understanding, the Protestant churches are in fact what they claim to be: man-made artifacts attempting to institute faithful teaching and discipleship, and they do in fact succeed in this, though imperfectly. The Holy Spirit is at work amongst the Protestant churches. Many Protestants have saving faith in Jesus (and many Catholics do not). All baptized Protestants are members of the true Church by baptism, though in imperfect communion with it, but their churches do not share the organic continuity with the Church Jesus founded that the Catholic Church has.
As I stressed in my first post on this blog, I have seen too much of the Holy Spirit at work outside of the Catholic Church to believe that my Protestant brothers and sisters are not Christian. I do not disparage the faith of the many devout Protestants I know who, like me, are doing their best to follow Jesus according to the faith they have received. As I said before, I firmly believe that my mother and many others who have gone before me in the hope of the Resurrection are with God in heaven.
But I also believe, as a Catholic, that Jesus Christ founded a Church possessed of both an inner nature and a visible reality which is organically connected to that nature. That community has a continuity in space and time that is itself both visible and invisible. That community has faithfully maintained the fullness of the Christian faith. And that community is the visible Church in communion with the Roman Catholic Pope.
1. I think most Anglo-Catholics share the view I’m describing as the Catholic view. I certainly did during my Anglo-Catholic days. I cannot speak to groups such as the Missouri-Synod Lutherans. Thus, when I talk about what Protestants think, you can qualify it as “The sort of Protestant I was and those who I knew growing up.”
Crucially, I don’t think that your average Catholic or Protestant parishioner has their respective understanding of the inner nature of the Church explicitly before their mind. Certainly, in my younger Evangelical days I really didn’t give any thought to ecclesiology at all. Rather, I think it is an implicit pattern of thought lying behind explicit things they say (such as the aforementioned claim by many Catholics that “Our Church is the Church Jesus founded”). Because it is an implicit matter of worldview, teasing out this understand has been rather difficult, and I still don’t think I have arrived at a definitive understanding, but I do have some thoughts I’d like to share.
2. I don’t count myself as any kind of expert on Aristotelian philosophy, so I very well might get some details wrong in this illustration, but I do not think such mistakes would affect the point I am trying to make.
3. This viewpoint is drawn from images of the Church in Scripture. The Church is an olive tree (Romans 11:13-26), the branches of the true vine (John 15:1-5), mother (Galatians 4:26, Revelation 12:17), a bride (Revelation 19:7, Ephesians 5:25-26) Above all, the image of the Church as Christ’s body is at the heart of this understanding of the Church (Ephesians 1:22-23, Colossians 1:16-20). There are also other images of the Church in Scripture, eg. the Church is God’s field and building (1 Corinthians 3:5-9). The Scriptures listed are not “proofs” but an indication of where Catholics draw their instincts from.
4. Another quick analogy that might be helpful for understanding this distinction is the difference in the ways pre-modern people are said to have viewed government versus the way most modern Westerners do.
In pre-modern times, the government was often seen as a kind of natural family. Just as the the biological family is a unit given by nature, with parents having certain authority over their children and children having certain rights from their parents, government naturally arose from the order of things. Many details might change, of course, just as nuclear families can be structured differently, but there was still a basic “scaffold” that was considered given. This viewpoint roughly parallels how Catholics still see the Church today.
In contrast, modern people tend, following such thinkers as Montesquieu and John Locke, to see the government as a kind of institutional machine set up by contract between individuals in order to maintain the natural rights of those individuals. It is thus an artificial construction that is unfortunately necessary to ensure the common good. The Protestant viewpoint often parallels this understanding. Churches are contractually set up in order to attain scriptural ends. Just as a government is subject to constant modification and even dissolution, churches can be set up or dissolved.
5. Don’t misunderstand me, Catholics would definitely claim that these physical realities were explicitly given by Jesus, but not necessarily in a rigid and mechanical manner.
6. Just as matter can poorly manifest the soul at times (e.g. physical defects), the matter of the Church (sinful humans) can poorly manifest her soul, obscuring her true nature. This is especially true with the mark of holiness, which is clearly manifest in her saints, but not always visible elsewhere.