Let us examine the Church as we find it in the New Testament. What kind was it? Our Lord began by speaking of it as a kingdom that was at hand. “Do penance, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 4:17). When he sent the Twelve to preach to the Jews only he told them: “Going preach, saying: The kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 10:7). We must not consider these phrases “the kingdom of God” and “the kingdom of heaven” indiscriminately as referring directly and immediately to the Church. They have various shades of meaning, but they may be summed up by saying that they refer to God’s rule in our hearts, the principles that separate us from the kingdom of the devil, the world and the flesh, the rule of grace and the Church as a divine society through which we are certain of attaining Christ’s spirit and winning the kingdom of heaven after death. This kingdom would be transferred from the Jews to the Gentiles: “Therefore I say to you, that the kingdom of God shall be taken from you and shall be given to a nation yielding the fruits thereof” (Matt. 21:43). Christ’s Church was to replace the synagogue, which was an organized religious society. So we would expect the Church to be likewise an organized society. Many of our Lord’s parables make it clear that he was referring to the kingdom in this world and not only to the heaven of the future, for example, the parables of the sower, the wheat, the net, the leaven, and the mustard seed.
In the Gospels, Christ is described choosing his apostles, firstly Philip and Nathanael (John 1:43–51), then Peter and Andrew (Matt. 4:18–20), then James and John (Matt. 4:21–22) and then Matthew (Matt. 9.9). After these individual summonses there was a ceremonial official calling. . . .
Notice that this was done after a night spent in prayer, that these twelve were chosen from amongst the disciples, that Simon is named as specifically the first and his change of name is indicated, and that they are given special powers. Luke says that he named them apostles, that is, his agents, his ambassadors, his plenipotentiaries. He then gave them alone personal instruction for their preaching: “Apart, he explained all things to his disciples” (Mark 4:33, 34). Later on he told the apostles that they would understand his teaching by degrees. The Old Testament would not be done away with in the New but find its full explanation there (Matt. 13:52). . . .
The Church: Final Court of Appeal
We must think particularly of the significance of an incident related by Matthew:
If thy brother shall offend against thee, go, and rebuke him between him and thee alone. If he shall hear thee, thou shalt gain thy brother. And if he will not hear thee, take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may stand. And if he will not hear them, tell the Church. And if he will not hear the Church, let him be to thee as a heathen and a publican. (Matt. 18:15–17)
Those words “tell the Church” are important. We might translate even more accurately “appeal to the Church.” You cannot appeal to what you cannot see. Therefore any idea that the Church consists merely of those who make an act of faith in Christ, whose number is known to God alone, cannot be sustained in the light of this text. Moreover, the Church is a visible body with jurisdiction. You cannot appeal to the Church in case of a dispute if the Church has no power to make a decision. Our Lord is definite: Those who deliberately reject the authority of the Church must be cut off from communion. That is what a Jew would have understood by “let him be to thee as the heathen and publican.” There is no question here of the Church referred to being any other than the Church that Christ founded. This is a clear statement by our blessed Lord himself, God, of the authoritative power of his Church. Paul acted upon it in the case of the incestuous Corinthian (1 Cor. 5:1–8). Although he was absent he bade them carry out the sentence he had pronounced in his name and that of Christ. On this passage St. Thomas Aquinas wrote that the Corinthian “is thus separated from the society of the faithful, deprived of the sacraments and the suffrages of the Church, by all of which things a man is defended from the assaults of the devil.”
Christ’s Last Commission
Some important lessons follow from the consideration of the final commission of our blessed Lord:
All power is given to me in heaven and in earth. Going therefore teach ye all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you. And behold I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world. (Matt. 28:18)
Note first of all that Christ claims universal kingship. In the light of that see the force of therefore. It is because Christ is king that the apostles are going out to teach all nations. See then the significance of the fourfold all: “all power,” “all nations,” “all things,” and “all days.” There could hardly be a more cogent statement of the universality of the Church throughout all ages and throughout the world. Moreover it is a visible Church because only a visible Church can teach and be taught. There is, too, that final statement of our blessed Lord’s perpetual presence in his Church, something he had already emphasized several times in his discourse after the Last Supper. It follows that this Church must be one. The apostles are commissioned to teach divine truth, and that is indivisible, incapable of embracing contradictions:
I will ask the Father, and he shall give you another Paraclete, that he may abide with you forever. The spirit of truth . . . he shall abide with you, and shall be in you . . . He will teach you all things and bring all things to your mind, whatsoever I have said to you . . . He shall give testimony of me . . . He will teach you all truth. (John 14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7, 13).
Church, Not Churches
There is no mention in the New Testament nor any suggestion that Christ founded a plurality of churches. The parallels used to describe the Church reinforce the idea of strict unity. It is to be a household, a sheepfold, a flock. Our Lord declared specifically: “Other sheep I have that are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice, and there shall be one fold and one shepherd” (John 10:16). In this quotation the Greek refers both to one fold and to one flock. He had also given a warning against divisions: “Every kingdom divided against itself shall be made desolate, and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand” (Matt. 12:25). . . .
Then he asks for unity in the whole Christian community (John 17:1–23). What kind of unity is it? It is unity in truth and belief because Christ’s prayer is for unity amongst those who through the teaching of the apostles would come to believe in him. It is unity in faith or supernatural knowledge because the prayer refers to eternal life as “that they may know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent” (John 17:3). Moreover, the unity between Father and Son, to which Christ appeals as the model of the unity that is to exist in the Church, is a unity of knowledge: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). It is a unity in common life because it is to be like that there has been from all eternity between Father and Son—a unity so perfect, so close, so permanent, so spiritual, so intimate, so real that the comparison with life in the Godhead is valid. It is a unity of purpose so that the world may know the revealed truth that Jesus Christ is indeed God the Son, sent from the Father as the greatest proof of his love for men.
It seems justifiable also to read into the last words of our Lord’s prayer the implication that the unity that is its object will be so remarkable that through observing it men will come to recognize that the Church bears the hallmark of God, that is, was founded by God and endowed by him with the mark of a unity that is not only natural but supernatural.
Note that in his prayer Christ appealed to his oneness with the Father. He was expressing his divine will. Therefore he created that for which he prayed, as Augustine wrote. It is absurd to suggest that the perfect church does not yet exist, that the unity for which the God-Man prayed, invoking his Godhead, is a thing in the future. If you argue that that is so, you are at variance with the constant tradition of twenty centuries, and you strip Christ’s prayer of its clear meaning: that unity would always be a mark of the Church, a mark that was necessary to convince the world. It seems blasphemous to assert that thousands of years would elapse before the solemn prayer of the second Person of the Blessed Trinity to the first would be granted. Perfect unity—that is, unity under authority, unity in belief and truth, unity in divine life and worship—is an essential mark of the Church.