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Is There a “Mere Christianity”?

At one time our society was considered Christian. Traditional Christian moral standards used to be supported by public policy; those who openly violated them were shunned in one way or another. Today society appears rather to sanction, if not actually encourage, deviations from and even contempt for such standards; one need only consider what the mass media present as acceptable and desirable moral, especially sexual, behavior.

Things once regarded as shameful and immoral are considered “alternate lifestyles” and even something to brag about. In this moral climate, marriage has greatly suffered.

Births out of wedlock are at an all-time high for both whites and blacks, even though abortions too are near an all-time high-4,400 each day in the United States. Nearly one out of every two marriages fails, while two out of three remarriages fail. What Christ said should never be put asunder (Matt. 19:6, Mark 10:9) is becoming a rarity in the Western society that was originally brought to birth by the Church Christ founded.

No-fault divorce is bad enough, but no-fault abortion was simply unimaginable a generation ago. Abortion was rejected with horror by all the Christian centuries prior to our own, as it was rejected with horror by ancient Israel. It was only legalized for the first time in modern times (in 1920) by the ruthless totalitarian regime which emerged from the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. We can see what kind of regime our own society has come to resemble by legalizing abortion.

Over the past two decades abortion has been legalized, at least in some degree, in most of the countries of the formerly Christian West. No more striking example of a radical departure from basic Christianity can be cited or even imagined. Last year more than a million-and-a-half other American women had their babies killed prior to birth for reasons often trivial.

With the legalization of the elective killing of a significant portion of the next generation, we can surely no longer lay claim to being to a society that remains Christian in any important sense. We are living in the midst of a powerful, conscious, and determined new paganism or secularism, which does not even recognize its own moral degeneracy but rather proudly revels in it.

What should Christians do in the midst of this frankly immoral new society? How can Christians continue to maintain denominational differences, and carry on old denominational quarrels, in the face of the massive modern assault on virtually every basic Christian idea? How important are controversies about how many sacraments there are, whether Christ established a priestly ministry, whether it was limited to men, what Scripture ought to mean to Christians, whether devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary is legitimate, or which Christian communion, if any, constitutes the “true Church”-or whether there even is a “true Church”?

How can such questions continue to be important in the face of today’s all-out assault on the very idea that there is a God who made the world and who, through Jesus Christ, has revealed to mankind his intentions and purposes concerning that world?

How important are such “churchy” questions, in other words, when the whole world appears simply to have moved beyond them, seems totally uninterested in Christianity, if not actively hostile to it? If people today can ignore Christ -and his timeless words and warnings-as the majority of people today do ignore him, then they can certainly ignore Christians.

In this situation, how can Christians be so presumptuous as to imagine that their denominational divisions are of the slightest interest or importance to anybody today? It is not enough to say that divisions and denominations should never have existed among Christians in the first place; even Christ prayed that all of his followers would be one (cf. John 17:11). Who can remember how all the different branches, denominations, and sects got started or what particular quarrels resulted in the splits or schisms that produced the divided Christianity of today?

Since we are confronted as a practical matter with indifference, if not hostility, even to the most elementary Christian ideas, many Christians now urge, quite understandably, that the differences that separate Christian believers should henceforth be downplayed and that only those things which unite us should be emphasized. This has been an inevitable and mostly positive development in our current “culture wars,” where Catholics and Evangelicals, Orthodox Christians and Orthodox Jews, now find themselves working together in the political sphere in a way that would have been unheard of a generation ago.

But the phenomenon goes beyond the practical sphere. Believers, it is increasingly urged, should concentrate on the “essentials” on which all serious Christians agree, leaving aside the old disputes and the dry bones of contention; these, it is argued, can only lead to further divisions at a time when Christians can ill afford to be divided.

This was the position of one of the most widely read Christian writers and apologists of our time, the late English writer C. S. Lewis. In Mere Christianity Lewis declared that his primary aim was “to defend the belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times.”

Lewis presented himself as nothing but “a very ordinary layman of the Church of England.” He was far from ordinary, though; a generation after his death, he may be the most widely read Christian author of the century. Not only are all his own books in print, but every stray essay he ever wrote seems to have been gathered up and reprinted somewhere, while “of making many books” and articles about him there also seems to be “no end”: a virtual C. S. Lewis industry, in fact, has grown up to celebrate the man and his works.

This is to the good-mostly. Through his own books and the books about him, Lewis has brought many to the Christian faith and bolstered many others in the faith they already had. My own children were brought up on his Narnia tales and later enjoyed his “theological science fiction” as well; this naturally led some of them to his fine apologetical works. Many outstanding Christian leaders have publicly testified to the tremendous effect that Lewis and Mere Christianity have had upon their lives.

In short, Lewis has been a phenomenon-a phenomenon which demonstrates that behind the façade of today’s official agnosticism, secularism, worldliness, and outright immorality there still exist beliefs and spiritual yearnings of a more traditional kind.

Meanwhile, there are those who would argue that the phenomenal success of Lewis can be attributed, at least in part, to the fact that he refused to get into questions which are controversial among Christians themselves. Lewis resolutely declined to take sides on what he regarded as purely denominational questions. “You will not learn from me,” he wrote in Mere Christianity, “whether you ought to become an Anglican, a Methodist, a Presbyterian, or a Roman Catholic. This omission is intentional (even in the list I have just given the order is alphabetical).”

This fine impartiality toward the competing claims of various Christian positions has appealed to many. Mere Christianity remains a perennial Christian bestseller. It accords nicely with the modern ecumenical spirit which the power of modern monolithic agnosticism and secularism against Christianity has fostered and which even the Catholic Church, formerly so exclusive and apparently so unyielding in her own claims, seems finally to have endorsed, at least conditionally, at the Second Vatican Council.

From this standpoint, Lewis is merely one of the more famous and talented proponents of what has become the current outlook of serious modern Christians: Let’s minimize our differences, past and present, and concentrate on what we agree upon. Owing to his own great success, Lewis has been a major influence in winning over many other Christians to this point of view.

Without derogating Lewis’s talent and achievements, we must remind ourselves that he was not impartial. He remained an Anglican all his life, and this in itself meant taking a stand. It was only within the relatively loose and vague doctrinal atmosphere of Anglicanism, in fact, that Lewis was really able to limit his defense of Christianity to what he called “the belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times,” while avoiding most of the inevitable controversies that otherwise arise whenever Christian positions are debated and defended.

No matter how diligently he might try to avoid confrontation, any Catholic apologetical writer attempting to follow Lewis’s method would be confronted with demands that he justify papal authority or the Catholic Church’s “benighted” position against artificial contraception-if not the Church’s claim to be unable to ordain women. A host of other positions that the Catholic Church continues to maintain apparently against all reason and common sense could be cited.

Regardless of whatever irenical points a Catholic apologist might attempt to make in the manner of Lewis, he will inevitably be challenged by secularist and Evangelical alike to speak to the issues inescapably raised by the simple fact of the Catholic Church’s authority, which she claims is from God and which she has demonstrated that she is not afraid to use, even if it means sometimes contradicting the whole world.

Thus, attempting to stick merely to the agreed-upon “essentials” of Christianity, while avoiding points disputed or controverted among Christians themselves, is not even possible for a Catholic apologist, as it might not be for some other Christians equally sincere about the claims of their faith. Jesus Christ said that he came into the world to bear witness to the truth (John 18:37), and, to do justice to Christ’s position, the Christian apologist must bear witness to what he believes to be the truth. Most of the points historically disputed among Christians have involved questions of truth or falsity, and most of these questions still have to be decided before anyone can know what “essential” Christian belief is.

In fact, it is ultimately impossible to reduce Christianity to certain “basics” or “essentials” on which everybody can agree—what Lewis calls “mere Christianity”—for the simple reason that Christian revelation is composed of a too-complex set of truths to be reduced in this fashion. Moreover, Christianity is not “ours” to reduce. Christianity’s divine Founder established a very specific religion, with a very specific form and content, and it is that religion that all Christians are presumably obliged to profess and practice and preach, once they know what it is.

We can begin, of course, by explaining certain “basics” first, as we do in catechizing children, but we cannot limit ourselves to that. We must go beyond those basics to the fuller and more complex meaning of the entire Christian revelation. It is true Christianity, not mere Christianity, that we finally must try to identify and promote.

Virtually all of the schisms, heresies, divisions, and different denominations of historical Christianity have come about primarily as a result of disputes about what true Christianity is; there is hardly a storefront “gospel church” that does not consider itself to represent true Christianity. It is only too understandable, in fact, why a generous soul such as Lewis would be tempted to avoid the messy disputes of Christianity as it actually exists in the world and fall back upon an uncompromised “mere Christianity” instead.

But if Christianity is true in any sense—if it was indeed inaugurated by God himself coming among us in this world—and if it truly was intended by him to make available the sanctification and salvation of his creatures—then an authentic Christianity, a true Christianity, must still exist — what used to be unselfconsciously called “the one true Church.” Christians of an earlier day did not doubt there was such a thing; their typical disputes concerned where it might be located. Only today’s muddled thinking allows us to imagine that the identity of the one true Church, if any, doesn’t have to be determined any longer.

There is the additional uncomfortable fact that the modern world is unlikely to be converted by any stripped-down model of Christ’s requirements for sanctification and salvation, even if it is sincerely meant to be a streamlined version which bypasses sterile old quarrels and concentrates on the “essentials.”

The modern world is still going to confront the “hard sayings” (John 6:60) of Christianity, and today these inevitably include papal authority, sexual morality, birth control, non-ordination of women, and similar questions. Indeed, the whole question of revelation and the authenticity of Scripture must be included-how can these be maintained as authorities in the face of the supposed discoveries of modern science, for example?

All these questions are inescapable, no matter how uncomfortable they make many sincere Christians. Modern secularists and pagans will not allow them to be passed over in silence; many consider it an outrage that contraceptive or homosexual acts could be condemned by anybody on moral grounds. So we cannot escape acknowledging what true Christianity is obliged to hold on such matters.

The basic question of Christianity, of course, is and always has been: “What do you think of Christ? Whose Son is he?” (Matt. 22:42). When we have answered this question by affirming that Christ is “the Son of God” (Matt. 27:43) -and even “mere Christianity” agrees with this answer — we simply cannot stop there; we must go on to ask what Christ wanted Christianity to be, not what we might find it more convenient to defend.

Once we have put the question that way, it becomes clear from Scripture that Christ scarcely intended to limit himself to the foundation of “mere Christianity.” The one who said that “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6) and “because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth” (Rev. 3:16), was no “lowest-common-denominator” type of man, and Christianity has to he consonant with Christ if it is to be true Christianity.

“Mere Christianity” Not True Enough

Only one of the features of the true Christianity that was established by Jesus Christ can be examined here, but consideration of this one feature will be sufficient to demonstrate that “mere Christianity” could never be true Christianity. That single feature is the Church. Christ not only taught a body of beliefs. He also commanded his followers to do certain things, some of them in remembrance of him; these things were to be done within the community of those who came to believe in him and follow him. He himself established such an assembly: It was the Church.

This Church which Christ founded and to which his followers were to belong was not founded haphazardly along unspecified lines. Christ’s disciples were in no way left to organize themselves in any way they saw fit, provided only that they believed in him or-as some say today—”accepted” him as their “personal Savior.” No, the Church of Christ was organized along definite lines from the beginning.

The New Testament specifies not only that we must “repent and believe” (Mark 1:15), but specifies that we must also “repent and be baptized” (Acts 2:38). Christ not only enjoined on us a set of beliefs, but a set of actions, including, but not limited to, fulfilling in our lives the strict moral demands of the Gospels.

The mention of baptism immediately introduces another set of actions that Christ enjoined upon his followers; these were certain sacred actions-in the early Church they were often called “the mysteries.” Today they are called the sacraments. These were not vague and symbolic and unspecified actions; they were concrete and were intended to be carried out in specific ways. Christ made sure that his followers were gathered into an organized assembly or community because these sacramental actions had to be carried out by them in community.

When we consider not just baptism but the entire range of sacramental actions, we immediately see that, in the New Testament as in the Old Testament, a special group of men had to be set apart and ordained to carry out the sacred actions enjoined upon the community; this was the priesthood. There was no way for Christ’s followers to carry out his specific command to “do this in remembrance me” (1 Cor. 11:24) unless someone were given the power to do it. In spite of the clear testimony of the New Testament, many Christian denominations deny that the ordained priesthood is one of the “essentials” of Christianity.

Once in a radio debate with a Christian Fundamentalist I argued that we had to have a Church as well as a Bible because otherwise we would be unable to carry out all that Christ commanded. Christ said, in that tremendous sixth chapter of the Gospel according to John, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:53-54).

My question to the Fundamentalist was: “Where do you get ‘the flesh of the Son of man’—which Christ himself says you must eat in order to enjoy eternal life? You certainly cannot get it out of the pages of the Bible.” Fundamentalists, along with many in the Protestant tradition, sometimes appear to claim that Scripture is the only “essential” of Christianity.

I was arguing that in order to eat Christ’s body, we manifestly need a Church with a priesthood that has been given the power to confect Christ’s body sacramentally (as Christ himself did at the Last Supper, when he took bread, broke it, and gave it to his disciples); we have no other way of obtaining this “body of Christ.”

The reply of the Fundamentalist surprised me and might surprise others as well. He said, “Oh, you cannot take John 6 literally!” I did not have to pursue my argument further. The radio talk-show moderator made my point for me: “Do I hear aright? A Fundamentalist telling a Catholic that certain scriptural passages do not have to be taken literally? I never imagined I would hear such a thing.”

The point is that, in leaving us the inestimable gift of his own body in the Eucharist, Christ also necessarily established the Church in which that same Eucharist could be perpetuated by a priesthood set apart and ordained for that very purpose. The Catholic Church has held that not just the Eucharist but all of her seven sacraments were instituted by Christ himself and enjoined upon his followers. In the New Testament there is more evidence for the existence and practice of baptism and the Eucharist than there is for the existence and practice of, say, Christian marriage as a sacrament. But whether or not there is specific New Testament evidence for the sacraments in the early Church is not the important thing.

It is important that, from the beginning, the Church was a very definite kind of organization. It did not yet possess all of the familiar features and appearances of the modern Catholic Church; stained glass windows, Gothic arches, and gold monstrances were later refinements. But nothing in the life and practice of the primitive Church as depicted in the New Testament was at variance with or fundamentally inconsistent with the life and practices of the Church today. The early Church was constantly engaged, as the Church is today, in scrupulously carrying out those sacred actions enjoined by Christ himself which came to be called sacraments.

In the New Testament, the sacraments are not so clearly enumerated as, for apologetical reasons, we might wish they had been. These actions of the primitive Church are simply taken for granted by the New Testament authors as commonplace. One thing that immediately becomes clear from a careful reading of the New Testament is that Christ’s Church was a sacramental community-with appointed leaders who also enjoyed the powers of the priesthood conferred by Christ himself-dispensing sacraments to its members.

In spite of all this evidence from the New Testament, there are Christian denominations which deny that the sacraments are an essential part of Christianity. Or they reduce the number of the sacraments they consider essential. Or they deny the reality of the sacraments, claiming that they are merely “symbolical“—even though Christ specified that “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man . . . you have no life in you” (John 6:53) Christ said nothing resembling the phrase “unless you eat the bread which symbolizes my body.” What Christ manifestly said is that the Eucharist is one of the “essentials” of true Christianity.

There is no warrant in the New Testament, any more than in the subsequent tradition of the Church, for reducing the number of the sacraments, or for watering them down, or for belittling them—as too many professing Christian denominations have historically done, without seeming to realize that they have thereby tampered with something really “essential” in Christianity.

Nevertheless, from New Testament times on, there have been Christians who have preferred their own idea of what Christianity should be to the actual rites and practices handed down from apostolic times and carried on by the living Church throughout history.

Whenever disagreements about various beliefs and practices surfaced in the course of Christian history, a group might split off from the main Church to practice and promote its own ideas of what Christian belief and practice ought to be. In this way, over centuries, all the different denominations, sects, and groupings which we see today came about.

Today, within Protestantism, such divisions occur constantly, usually without any awareness that schism is occurring, since the consciousness of original unity under apostolic authority has been wholly lost.

Today’s lack of Christian unity, so much at variance with Christ’s own prayer, does not date from yesterday, nor did it result from superficial differences that can now be resolved by goodwill and warm feelings while we all concentrate on the “essentials” of some lowest-common-denominator of Christianity, “core Christianity,” as it has sometimes been called. There isn’t any “core Christianity” there is only “Christ’s Christianity.” Though it was cutting, it was a true reply that John Henry Newman once gave to a non-Catholic who had declared to him, “After all we all worship the same God.” “Yes,” Newman is supposed to have replied, “You in your way, and I in his.”

But this does not mean that Christians of different persuasions must not be respected; they must because of their Christian and human dignity. The question of what is true Christianity, Christ’s Christianity, nevertheless remains. Differences among Christian churches and denominations came about through deep-seated differences of belief, and in most cases, these differences remain. The only way they ultimately can be resolved is by acknowledging the truth of the matter.

From a human point of view, there were faults on both sides in the various splits and schisms that occurred. Pope John Paul II recently and rather dramatically has apologized for the wrongs on the Catholic side, as his predecessor Paul VI also did. But the moral blame on all sides does not mean that there never was a true Christian position all the while. To arrive at that true Christian position, therefore, we still have to ask: What were the truths that Christ taught? How did he intend that they should be carried on and taught to subsequent generations?

I have already pointed out how Christ established a Church, or organized assembly of his followers, possessing a priesthood of men set apart with the power to administer the sacraments to the faithful. Christ intended to perpetuate the things he wanted taught to his people through the same institution, the Church; the same priesthood commissioned to administer the sacraments was also commissioned to preach and teach the words Christ left behind-it was to the leaders of the Church as a whole that Christ committed this special teaching office.

This teaching office of the Church was already operating, in fact, before the New Testament was even written down; indeed the New Testament was written down by the Church-that is, by the apostles directly commissioned by Christ, or by disciples of theirs. whom they commissioned in their turn. What was written down in the New Testament was already being taught in the Church. And it was the Church which decided which of the writings of the early Christians were inspired and could be read in the churches and hence had to he scrupulously preserved and handed down. The entire New Testament is thus nothing else but the book of the Church.

Although we have been basing most of our observations on the Church on the evidence to be found in this same New Testament, we cannot even take the New Testament as the final word, inspired Scripture that it is, any more than we can get Christ’s body out of its pages; for there always remains the question of what a given text of the New Testament means. Many of the divisions throughout Christian history have hinged on questions of biblical interpretation.

For answers we must ultimately look to the teaching Church, guided by the Holy Spirit. Christ committed the transmission both of his words, through preaching and teaching, and of his divine life, through the sacraments, to the Church, to those leaders of the Church with whom he promised to remain “all days” (Matt. 28:20).

As we observe in the New Testament itself, the Church has never been without a definite group of appointed leaders: first, the apostles, designated by Christ, and, later, those whom the apostles designated in their turn, having been empowered by Christ to do so, the bishops. In other words, the true Church of Christ has always possessed a hierarchy. 

It was to the original hierarchy of the apostles that Christ said “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19), just as, practically in the same breath, he instructed them to administer the sacraments as well-“baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:20). And when he said that he would be with them “all days,” it was to those very same apostles that he was speaking.

The hierarchical, teaching Church that was also a priestly, sacramental Church-and which we already clearly discern at least outline form in the New Testament itself-has lasted in the world from that day to this and has come down to us as the Church which continues to possess a priesthood through which the words and sacraments of Christ are dispensed; and which is headed by an episcopacy, or college of bishops, in union with a supreme bishop, the Bishop of Rome.

Historically, other bodies broke away from this main body, even while continuing to call themselves Christian. Each time any such group went so far as to split off from the main body of Christ, the whole Church was grievously wounded thereby. Nevertheless, the Church herself lived on essentially unchanged (though wounded and scarred). The historical facts are clear: There always was a visible main body or mainstream tradition from which the splinter groups-heretics and schismatics-separated themselves.

Sometimes, as with the Arians of the fourth century A.D., it often seemed, at least temporarily, as if the schismatics themselves were in the mainstream; even many bishops went over to the Arians. At other times, as during the time of the Great Schism in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and, later, before and during the Protestant Reformation, the sins and excesses of some churchmen lent plausibility to those revolting against the Church and leaving the “mainstream.”

Yet even with all the splits and schisms that have occurred, we find that there always has been, and still is, a “mainstream” Church that, in spite of all difficulties, has come down to us in an unbroken line from the apostles-the Church founded by Jesus Christ. This Church still dispenses the same sacraments instituted by and still teaches the same doctrines given by Christ, even though the expression of these doctrines has been enormously developed over the centuries by the experience of the living Church guided by the Holy Spirit.

The Church in question is nothing else but the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church of which the Nicene Creed speaks-the Creed which has also been maintained for so many centuries and continues to be solemnly recited within the same Church on Sundays and Holy Days. There is only one organized body of Christians today that can plausibly lay claim to the titles which the Nicene Creed declares to be the true marks of the Church founded by Jesus Christ, and that Church is the universal communion headed in each local area by an overseer called a bishop who is nothing less than a successor to the original apostles-and who maintains communion with the earthly head of the worldwide Church, the successor of the Apostle Peter in Rome, the pope. This Church is, of course, the Christian community most commonly referred to today, as in the past, as “the Catholic Church.”

From “Mere” to “Full” Christianity

Because the Catholic Church is historically continuous with the Church founded by Christ upon the apostles and teaches the same doctrines and carries out the same functions as the Church depicted in the New Testament, we still have in the world a “true Christianity” as originally envisaged by Christ. Hence we cannot rest content with any “mere Christianity” such as Lewis proposes.

Lewis’s book of that name has been understandably, and even deservedly, popular among Christians of many different denominations because it articulates in such a graceful and persuasive manner some of the basic Christian beliefs. In a time of widespread doubt and indifference, if not active hostility to Christian beliefs, thoughtful Christians cannot but be grateful for the effective and eloquent way Lewis presents the case for Christian belief.

Up to a point, that is. We cannot, finally, accept Lewis’s conception of a “mere Christianity,” once we realize that Christ’s version of Christianity can still be found in the modern world in the visible Catholic Church in which bishops, successors of the apostles, in communion with the Bishop of Rome, Successor of Blessed Peter, continue to teach, rule, and sanctify by the direct commission of Christ himself.

The “sanctifying” role of the bishop, for example, is something Lewis ignores almost entirely; he touches upon the sacraments scarcely at all in his book, even though they were prominent features of the lives of the first Christians, as the New Testament abundantly testifies. Similarly, Lewis has little appreciation for the official teaching office of the Church-the magisterium.

This magisterium resides in the office of the pope and of the bishops in communion with him. Lewis is strong on Christian doctrine, contrary to today’s tendency to downgrade doctrine; but he seems to have no sense at all that the teaching of the pope and the bishops is what maintains doctrine in the Church.

At one point in Mere Christianity, Lewis remarks that “the only really adequate instrument for learning about God is the whole Christian community” (p. 144). This is clearly an inadequate statement of the case. Lewis appears to have no conception of the definitive teaching role which resides in the hierarchy of the Church, even though it is blindingly clear from Acts that the apostles definitively taught the faith in the early Church.

Considering that he misunderstood both the sacramental or sanctifying.aspect of the Church, as well as her essential teaching role, Lewis could not help but misstate the ruling or governing role which the hierarchy necessarily has to assume in the Church. Instead, we find the whole Church defined in Mere Christianity as “the whole body of Christians showing him to one another” (p. 163).

This definition is quite inadequate, especially when we consider that St. Paul, for example, called the Church such things as “the body of Christ” (1 Cor. 12:27), his “Bride,” (2 Cor 2:2), and his “Temple” (1 Cor. 3:16), and declared that “Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her” (Eph. 5:25). He spoke of “the Church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). Such language applied to the Church by the great apostle of the Gentiles establishes that the Church is far more important in the Christian scheme of things than is allowed for in Mere Christianity. 

It is true, of course, that Jesus himself rarely used the word “Church”—but it is equally true that the Church did not really come into her own until after the Ascension of Jesus and the Descent of the Holy Spirit upon her at Pentecost. Nevertheless, it is instructive to examine the two instances when Jesus himself did employ the word, as recorded in the New Testament. Both instances occur in the Gospel according to Matthew.

In Matthew 16:18, Jesus delivered himself of the famous declaration that upon the rock of Peter “I will build my Church and the powers of death shall not prevail against it.” In his only other use of the word “church” (in Matthew 18:17), Jesus counsels that disputes or grievances among his followers which cannot be resolved charitably among those directly involved should be referred to “the Church” if the offending party then “refuses to listen even to the Church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

If we carefully reflect on these two instances when Jesus used the word “Church,” we realize that in the first one he is describing his entire enterprise on behalf of humanity as nothing else but establishing his Church; the Church was precisely what he came into this world to “build.” In the second instance, he is saying unmistakably that this same Church is to be the final judge and arbiter of all disputed questions among his followers; those of his followers not able to abide by the judgment of this Church may be actually cast out from fellowship with his other followers.

Moreover, in both of these passages, Jesus goes on to make the same declaration to those whom he has appointed as leaders of this entity he has established, the Church: “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall he loosed in heaven” (Matt. 16:19, 18:18). The authorities of his Church, in other words, are thus commissioned and empowered by him, literally, to speak for heaven, here on earth.

In light of such teachings, we can scarcely hold that Jesus considered the Church to he unimportant. It is hard to imagine what else he could possibly have said to get his followers to understand how essential the Church is to the divine scheme of things. And if the Church herself is one of the “essentials” of “true Christianity,” it is hard to see how any “mere Christianity” which downplays the Church, if it does not omit it entirely, can claim to unite Christians in “essentials” on which they can all agree.

We see that a “mere Christianity” was surely not what Christ had in mind for those who would come to believe in him. Rather, Christ established a Church precisely to carry on in this world his words and works of sanctification and salvation. And the same Church Christ established is still carrying on the original commission Christ gave to it—today under the able leadership of the two-hundred-sixty-third and latest successor of the Apostle Peter, Pope John Paul II.

Mere Christianity, by comparison, is a pretty pale image of Christ’s intended Church. While it may be necessary, in our increasingly decadent civilization, to seek political allies on the basis of few shared of Christian beliefs-or even, as the Vatican dramatically demonstrated in the case of the 1994 International Population conference in Cairo, even on the basis of common theistic and moral beliefs with, for example, the Muslims-we cannot choose our religion on the same lowest-common-denominator basis.

Even though the idea of a mere Christianity has been promoted by a very sincere Christian who was also an enormously talented man, it remains his private idea of what Christianity is, rather than the living embodiment of what Christ wanted Christianity to be. Christ wanted and expected his Christianity to be embodied in a living Church. The Catholic Church represents that true Christianity.

Yet it would be a mistake to conclude that, because Catholics possess the great good fortune to belong to this Church of Christ in its fullness, they are in some way superior to those who do not share their good fortune. On the contrary, Catholics must realize that they are graced by Providence, and that they therefore have a grave responsibility to share their unmerited good fortune in every way possible-by the witness of both words and works-to demonstrate that there truly is something beyond “mere” Christianity.

In conclusion, let us look at three brief passages on the nature of true Christianity, delivered to the world by the living magisterium of the Church which Christ commissioned to teach in his name. Far from being the private opinion of one Christian, these excerpts represent the unified thought of the assembled bishops, successors to the apostles, together with the pope, successor to Peter, the Rock. They come from the Decree on Ecumenism of the Second Vatican Council with the Latin title Unitatis Redintegratio. 

The first of these teachings reaffirms the truth, still necessarily professed by all Catholics, that the visible Catholic Church of our own day is indeed the one true Church of Christ. The second teaching, however, makes it equally clear that those of our fellow Christians who do not enjoy full communion with this Catholic Church nevertheless do possess an eminent dignity and deserve respect as Christians. The third teaching makes it clear that we, the Catholics practicing their faith in the Church today, are the very ones who can most easily and effectively make the Church credible and attractive to others and thereby help communicate her abundant riches to the world.

  1.  It is through Christ’s Catholic Church alone, which is the universal help towards salvation, that the fullness of the means of salvation can be obtained It was the apostolic college alone, of which Peter is the head, that we believe Our Lord entrusted all the blessings of the New Covenant, in order to establish on earth the one Body of Christ into which all those should be fully incorporated who belong in any way to the People of God (U.R. 3).
  2. [In the centuries following the apostles] serious dissensions appeared and large communities became separated from full communion with the Catholic Church-for which, often enough, men of both sides were to blame. However, one cannot charge with the sin of separation those who at present are born into those communities and in them are brought up in the faith of Christ, and the Catholic Church accepts them with respect and affection as brothers . . . . [They] have been justified by faith in baptism and incorporated into Christ; they therefore have a right to be called Christians, and with good reason are accepted as brothers by the children of the Catholic Church (U.R. 3).
  3. Although the Catholic Church has been endowed with all divinely revealed truth and with all means of grace, yet its members fail to live by them with all the fervor that they should. As a result the radiance of the Church’s face shines less brightly in the eyes of our separated brethren and of the world at large, and the growth of God’s kingdom is retarded. Every Catholic must therefore aim at Christian perfection and, each according to his station, play his part, so that the Church, which bears in her own body the humility and dying of Jesus, may daily be more purified and renewed, against the day when Christ will present her to himself in all her glory without spot or wrinkle (U.R. 4).

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