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Dear visitors: This website from Catholic Answers, with all its many resources, is the world's largest source of explanations for Catholic beliefs and practices. A fully independent, lay-run, 501(c)(3) ministry that receives no funding from the institutional Church, we rely entirely on the generosity of everyday people like you to keep this website going with trustworthy , fresh, and relevant content. If everyone visiting this month gave just $1, would be fully funded for an entire year. Do you find helpful? Please make a gift today. Thank you. Wishing you a blessed Lenten season.

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The Consistency of Catholicism

Many non-Catholics—indeed, it could be argued, all Protestants—are cafeteria Christians, picking individual moral and theological viewpoints which happen to suit them. Often they are unaware that the different doctrines can be linked and unified. A non-Catholic Christian might hear Catholics talk about Catholic unity and think it means that Catholics all believe the same thing and are united in following the pope. But when a Catholic talks about unity its not just unity of faith and practice, but also the internal cohesion between all the different parts of Catholic belief. For Catholics, the different beliefs support and complement each other as the different parts of one body.

There are three particular areas that must be seen as a unity: Christology (what the Church teaches about the person of Jesus Christ), ecclesiology (what she teaches about the Church), and sacramental theology (what she teaches about the Eucharist). The “Body of Christ” is a three-fold but united concept—Incarnation, Church, and Eucharist are interrelated. To understand who Jesus really was, God has given us the Church and the sacraments. When our views on the person of Christ, the Church, and the Eucharist don’t support and reflect one another, heresy creeps in. Error in one area of belief soon infects the other areas.

So, for example, most Bible Christians uphold an orthodox Christology. They believe that Jesus really is the God-Man. But when it comes to sacramental theology, they say the bread and wine are merely natural things used to prompt our memory. Likewise, the visible church is a “human institution.” The Bible Christians’ view of the church and the sacrament match: Both are merely natural. But if you transfer what they believe about the church and the sacrament to the person of Christ, there is a clash. Apply their lack of supernatural qualities to Jesus Christ and you have Ebionism, an early heresy that denied the divinity of Christ and taught that he was merely human.

The traditional Lutheran subscribes to an orthodox view of Jesus Christ: that he is God and Man joined in a mysterious, hypostatic union. But the classic Lutheran view of the sacrament is consubstantiation—that the presence of Christ is “with or beside” the bread and wine. Luther’s view of the church is similar. He didn’t reject a visible church entirely, but thought it existed wherever the true gospel was proclaimed. In other words, like consubstantiation—the church exists “with or beside” the proclamation of the gospel. But use consubstantiation to explain the person of Christ and you end up in a heresy called Nestorianism. Nestorians taught that the divine and the human in Jesus remained separate, the divine Christ only coming “beside or with” the human Jesus.

Another non-Catholic view of the Eucharist is expressed as “Real Presence.” This mostly Anglican view seems very close to Catholic teaching. “Real Presence” is the position that the bread and wine are vehicles for a real spiritual presence of Christ. The bread and wine are not substantially transformed, but they become channels for the real presence of Christ. Likewise, for many Anglicans the church carries a real spiritual presence of Christ. The church is visible and identifiable, but the presence of Christ is never more than spiritual; the institution of the church is still only a human institution. But once again, if you use their ecclesiology and sacramental theology to explain the nature of Christ you end up with a Christological heresy—this time it is Apollinarianism. Apollinarius taught that Jesus Christ was human, but that the Divine Logos replaced his human spirit. In other words, Jesus Christ was a vehicle for divinity.

A fourth view on the sacraments and the church is called receptionism. Many Anglicans and Lutherans, as well as some Methodists and Presbyterians, hold receptionism. According to receptionism, the bread and wine “become” the body and blood of Christ only to those who receive them faithfully. Likewise, the church consists of all true believers who are gathered together in Christ’s name at a particular place and time. Receptionism is subjective and open-ended, and it is very popular today among Protestants, but when it is applied to Christology another heresy is revealed—Adoptionism, the view that Jesus took on, or adopted, divinity as and when it was needed.

A final view on the Eucharist and the Church is also popular among both Catholics and Protestants: Confused and disturbed by theological wrangling, they refuse to define what they really believe about the church or the sacraments. So they say, “I accept that the Church is ‘the Body of Christ’ and that the bread and wine are a ‘sharing in the body of Christ,’ but what that really means I’m not sure. I don’t want to go any further than the Scriptures do.” But when this form of well-meaning agnosticism is applied to Christology, we find another heresy. This time it is the Homoean heresy. When the Church of the third century was debating the nature of Christ, the Homoeans were those Christians who tried to avoid conflict by saying no more than, “the Son is like the Father—according to the Scriptures.”

In each one of these five views the ecclesiology and sacramental theology parallel each other, but they are not integrated with the professedly orthodox Christology. It is only the Catholic view that most fully expresses the unity between Christ, the Church, and the Eucharist. Of all the Christian concepts of Eucharist, the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation reflects most closely the mysterious relationship between the divine and human in Jesus. We believe that the Church is a visible, historical institution, but it is also the mystical Body of Christ. Its historical and physical reality is not separate from its identity as the Body of Christ. As God “subsists” in the historical Christ, so the Body of Christ “subsists” in the Catholic Church. Thus the church, as Vatican II teaches, is the “sacrament of salvation.”

But does it matter if a Christian holds an ecclesiology and a sacramental theology that don’t reflect their view of Christ? I would argue that it does. To have the fullest understanding of the God-Man Jesus Christ, it is vital to understand how the Church and the sacrament support and complement that full Christology. So a recent teaching document of the Catholic bishops of Britain and Ireland says, “No individual thread of Catholic doctrine can be fully understood in isolation from the total tapestry. Catholic faith in the Eucharist and Catholic faith in the Church are two essential dimensions of one and the same mystery of faith.” Furthermore, “this faith embraces the making present of Christ’s saving death and resurrection, the real presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, and the inseparable bond between the mystery of the Eucharist and the mystery of the Church.” In other words, a unified Christology, ecclesiology and sacramental theology are vital for the fullest expression and experience of Christ’s saving work.

Simply holding an orthodox view of the person of Christ is not enough to guarantee the fullest experience of his Incarnation. It is only as the mystery of Christ’s Incarnation, death, and Resurrection are applied in the Eucharist that the Body of Christ becomes most fully real to the Christian. Only as we affirm his real and substantial presence in the Eucharist can we fully affirm God’s real and substantial union with Jesus in the Incarnation. Similarly, only as one experiences Christ’s presence in the Church can one enter into the fullest understanding of Christ’s Incarnation in the world.

The necessary unity between Christ’s Incarnation, the Church, and the Eucharist is best expressed in the New Testament phrase “the Body of Christ.” Jesus first referred to the bread as his body at the Last Supper. It is no coincidence that Paul uses the same term for both the Eucharistic bread and the mystery of the Church. Paul echoes Jesus when he says the believer must “discern Christ’s body” in the bread of the Eucharist (1 Cor. 11:29). He also refers to the church as the “Body of Christ.” When he does so in 1 Corinthians 12, it might seem that he is only using this as an analogy to explain how Christians must all live in harmony. But in Ephesians 1:22–23, Paul says that God has appointed Christ head over all things for the Church which his body. He says the Church is “the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.” Then, in Ephesians 5:29–31, Paul calls the church the “bride of Christ.” Just as in marriage man and wife “become one flesh,” so Christ is one in a mystical union with the Church.

The summary of Paul’s understanding of the term “body of Christ” occurs in 1 Corinthians 10:16–17: “Is not the cup of thanksgiving which we bless a sharing in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread we break a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body for we all partake of the one bread.” So Paul teaches that full unity with Christ is intimately linked with sharing the “one bread” of his body. And union with the “one bread” of his body is also linked with a full communion with his Body, the Church.

Beyond Paul’s words, there are four main Scripture pictures that convey the mystical and integral unity between Jesus Christ, the Eucharist and the Church. The first picture is the Last Supper. Here Christ establishes the Eucharist in union with his apostles. That moment in time becomes an icon of the unity between Christ, his Church, and the Eucharist. As the whole nation of Israel resided in the twelve sons of Jacob, so the whole Church dwells in seed form within the twelve apostles. The apostles gathered in a fellowship meal with Christ comprise a picture of the Church in unity with her Lord.

Two other Scripture pictures complement the scene at the Last Supper. It is no mistake that the gospel writers set these other two scenes in the same upper room. The setting indicates a unity between the three scenes. The second scene occurs after Jesus has been crucified. Once again the apostles are gathered for a meal in the upper room. Suddenly two other disciples burst in. They have seen the Lord while on a journey to Emmaus. As they speak to the Twelve, the risen Lord appears. He shares their food, reassures them, and promises to clothe them with power from on high (Luke 24:33–49). Here as he did at the Last Supper, Christ becomes one with them as they share a meal.

In the third scene a few others join the apostles in the same upper room. Mary, the mother of the Church is also there. Under Peter’s leadership they have been meeting regularly for prayer—waiting for the promised gift of Christ’s presence. Suddenly there is a rushing wind and tongues of flame descend filling the apostles with Christ’s power to preach the gospel. The church is established, and we are told that the new Christians all devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the breaking of the bread, and to prayer.

In all three upper room stories the infant Church makes Christ’s presence real through the fellowship meal celebrated in unity. In each picture a different element of this threefold mystery of Christ’s body is emphasized. In the first—on the eve of his passion—the emphasis is on the unity between Christ’s body and blood and the bread and wine. In the second, the emphasis is scriptural and sacramental. It focuses on the risen Lord’s presence through Scripture and in the breaking of the bread. In the third, the focus is on the unity between Christ and his body, the Church.

A fourth Scripture picture confirms and validates the mystical interpretation of the first three Scripture pictures. In the Book of Revelation we see the marriage banquet of the Lamb in heaven. In the center of the worshiping multitude is the “lamb looking as if it had been slain.” On thrones around the Passover Lamb sit the twenty-four elders—the twelve apostles as Christ promised (Matt. 19:28) along with the twelve patriarchs of Israel (Rev. 4:4, 5:6). Together they stand for the whole people of God. Then the multitude of angels and saints and every creature in heaven and on earth falls down before the lamb singing, “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor glory and power for ever and ever.” Here Christ’s unity with his Church and the sacramental meal reaches its ultimate fulfillment: Christ the Lamb of God and Bread of Heaven is enthroned and worshiped by the Church led by the apostle elders.

Perhaps it seems like this insistence on a unified Christology, ecclesiology, and sacramental theology is theological nit-picking. It might seem like we Catholics are focusing on division when we ought to be concentrating on getting together with our fellow Christians. But an internal unity between these doctrines is essential because real outer unity can’t exist unless an inner unity of faith first exists. Doctrines that are dissonant within themselves cannot be the unifying force for a harmonious body of believers.

Because of this, and because all Catholic apologetics must be motivated by a passion for Christian unity, it is essential that our discussions of Eucharist and Church reflect back to what we believe about Christ himself. We should be encouraged that we share an orthodox understanding of our Lord’s incarnation with most non-Catholic Christians. It is from this point of agreement that we will most successfully move on to discuss sacraments and the church. If we can show the importance of an inner unity between Christ, the Church, and the Eucharist then we will help to move forward that unity for which Christ so passionately prayed.

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