Article 72 – Catechism of the Catholic Church Series
Paragraphs 811-822 Church is One
On a recent drive through Basking Ridge, I passed a non-denominational church called Church of the Good Shepherd with the words “A Church for all Peoples” written across the front facade. No doubt the name and words could depict every Catholic parish worldwide. Why? Because, although the Catholic Church can be described in various ways, and is above all else a mystery, one of the four marks of the Church is its oneness or unity making it all-embracing of all people who enjoy communion with one another under our one Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ.
This unity of belief and oneness of faith was discerned at the Council of Constantinople in 381 AD when the Church described herself as “one, holy, catholic and apostolic.” These four traits or marks of the Church are affirmed at every Sunday Mass when we pray the Creed or Profession of Faith, and in ancient times, served to distinguish her from heretical or false churches that emerged over time.
The beginning of this section of the Catechism discusses the four marks, asserting that “Christ…through the Holy Spirit, makes his Church one, holy, catholic, and apostolic” (ccc 811).
A few paragraphs later the Catechism provides a lengthy explanation about the unity or oneness of the Church, emphatically stating that “the Church is one because of her source…the Church is one because of her founder…(and) the Church is one because of her soul” (ccc 813). It continues: “There is one Father of the universe, one Logos of the universe, and also one Holy Spirit, everywhere one and the same” (ccc 813). Then, there is a curious statement…Quoting an early 3rd century theologian, St. Clement of Alexandria, the Catechism states: “there is also one virgin become mother, and I should like to call her ‘Church’” (ccc 813). The point being is that the Blessed Virgin Mary is likewise a sign of the unity or oneness of the Church. In theological jargon, this means that she is referred to as a “type” of the Church.
Next, there are lengthy explanations about the
“multiplicity of peoples and cultures gathered together” as well as “different gifts, offices, conditions, and ways of life” including “particular Churches [within the Catholic Church] that retain their own traditions” (ccc 814). In addition to the visible bonds of unity, including the profession of one faith, common celebration of divine worship and apostolic succession, it is charity that “binds everything together in perfect harmony” (ccc 815).
The remaining paragraphs in this section focus on the divisions, dissensions, wounds and overall disunity that occurred in the Church over the centuries, the Catechism being quick to assert that “often enough, men of both sides were to blame” for such “heresy, apostasy, and schism” (ccc 817) that caused disunity among Christians.
What is the solution to restore unity among non-Catholic or separated Christians? Prior to Vatican II, Church documents, including Pope Leo’s 1894 encyclical Praeclara Gratulationis Publicae and Pope Pius XI’s 1928 encyclical Mortalium Animos called for “heretics” and “schismatics” to return to the fold of the Catholic Church. The general tone of the Vatican II Decree on Ecumenism (Unitatis Redintegratio) and the entire Second Vatican Council is on the entire People of God, including “separated Christians,” becoming unified in Christ.
Why the change in language and how is it that separated or non-Catholic Christians can become unified in Christ without returning to the Catholic Church? The substance of the answer is found in Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium, chapter 1:8) partly quoted in the Catechism (ccc 816): “[The] Church, constituted and organized as a society in the present world, subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the bishops in communion with him. Nevertheless, many elements of sancti fication and of truth are found outside its visible confines. Since these are gifts belonging to the Church of Christ, they are forces impelling towards Catholic unity.” This passage from Lumen Gentium captures a perspective never considered in previous Church teaching. In using the word “subsists,”
the Council Fathers introduced the idea that the Church of Christ exists beyond the Catholic Church. They were quick to point out, however, that everything the Church of Christ is, is found in the Catholic Church.
Whereas pre-Vatican II treatises focused exclusively on the teaching about “no salvation outside the Catholic Church” (and therefore the necessity of returning to the fold of the Catholic Church), the new paradigm acknowledges circumstances by which salvation is “deemed possible outside the Catholic Church” because “many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside the visible confines of the Catholic Church” (ccc 819) in non-Catholic churches or “ecclesial communities.” These include “the written Word of God; the life of grace; faith, hope, and charity, with the other interior gifts of the Holy Spirit, as well as visible elements” (ccc 819). These non-Catholic churches or ecclesial communities become a means of salvation insofar as their “power derives from the fullness of grace and truth that Christ has entrusted to the Catholic Church” (ccc 819).
Finally, the Catechism acknowledges that unity among Christians is an ongoing task, and even Christ himself prayed, “that all may be one” ( Jn 17:21). In the end, we depend on divine providence because “the reconciliation of all Christians in the unity of the one and only Church of Christ — transcends human powers and gifts” (ccc 822). This theme is explored more thoroughly in Decree on Ecumenism.
Father Hillier earned his doctoral degree in Systematic Theology from Fordham University and is the assistant chancellor of the Diocese of Metuchen.