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What Does Church Mean?

While perusing old editions of Christian histories in a Protestant used-book store, I could not resist eavesdropping on a conversation between two men. “Praise God! He finally joined the church,” one man said. “Amen,” said the other. What struck me most about this short discourse was that, while both men were Protestants, the same dialogue occurs between Catholics regularly, though quite often with a different connotation: “Praise God! He [referring to a Protestant] finally joined the Church [meaning the Catholic Church].”

The sweeping difference between the two meanings of the word church is, well, alarming, especially in light of Christ’s priestly prayer for unity in which he prayed “that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me” (John 17:21). The fact is that, no matter what one’s definition of “the Church” is, we all know that it is not “one” as Christ prayed. For most Catholics, I suspect, hearing such a dialogue is bittersweet; conversion to Christ is indeed cause for “Amen,” but until we all agree on what constitutes “the Church,” we have much to discuss and pray for.

The question of unity is not the concern of the Catholic Church alone; it is one that has occupied the minds of many good Protestant thinkers as well. In 1907 a gathering was held in Shanghai of all the Protestant denominations under the banner “Unum in Christo.” The meeting was to establish a union of all Protestant missionaries, for they understood then that the native Chinese would not accept a religion that professed so many different creeds. They were correct: China, for the most part, did not accept Christianity, and the reason expressed most was that a religion that is divided is “not a good religion.” This, the Protestant leaders in Shanghai agreed, was a good reason for unity.

Primacy of Peter

Few teachings of the Catholic Church have aroused more discomfort among non-Catholics and non-Christians as the Church’s claim that it is the only visible institution founded by Jesus Christ and that full unity with Christ’s Church is attained only in communion with the pope of Rome. Popes have maintained this belief since the founding of Christianity:

  • In his encyclical Mortualium Animos, Pope Pius XI writes that “no religion can be true save that which rests upon the revelation of God, a revelation begun from the very first, continued under the Old Law and brought to completion under Jesus Christ himself under the New” and that only “one sole Church was founded by Christ.” He exhorts Protestants to “draw nigh to the Apostolic See, set up in the city that Peter and Paul, princes of the apostles, consecrated by their blood.”
  • Likewise, Pope Pius XII asserts in Mystici Corporis Christi that they “walk in the path of dangerous error who believe that they can accept Christ as the head of the Church while not adhering loyally to his vicar on earth. They have taken away the visible head, broken the visible bonds of unity, and left the mystical body of the Redeemer so obscured and so maimed that those who are seeking the haven of eternal salvation can neither see it nor find it.”
  • Pope Paul VI stated in his Credo that “we believe in one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church, built by Jesus Christ on that rock which is Peter,” while recognizing “also the existence, outside the organism of the Church of Christ, of numerous elements of truth and sanctification.”
  • The belief is reiterated in the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium): “This Church, constituted and organized as a society in the present world, subsists (subsistit in) the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the bishops in communion with him.”
  • And perhaps no such statement drew more criticism than the unrelenting claim in the document Dominus Iesus that “the unicity of the Church founded by him must be firmly believed as a truth of Catholic faith. Just as there is one Christ, so there exists a single body of Christ, a single Bride of Christ: ‘a single Catholic and apostolic Church.’”

The chief theological principle running through all of these statements is the primacy of Peter and his position as the unifying leader of all Christendom. Few Catholic doctrines attract more critical attention than the primacy of Peter, and thus of his successor, the pope. But the scriptural and historical evidence in support of this belief is incontestable. Scriptural confirmation of Peter’s primacy begins with John 1:42, wherein Christ first meets him and says, “You are Simon, the son of John; you shall be called Cephas.” That is, Christ, who spoke to him in Aramaic, called Peter “Cephas” (or “Kepha”), which means “stone” or “rock.” Christ had a special distinction in mind for Peter: Why else would he have given him a name never used at that time? While the other apostles enjoy significant charisms (charismata), none are singled out as Peter repeatedly is:

  • Peter receives the first converts into the Church (Acts 2:41).
  • Peter imposes the first ecclesiastical punishment (Acts 5:1).
  • Peter performs the first miracle (Acts 3:1).
  • Peter makes the first official ecclesiastical visit (Acts 9:32).
  • Peter rendered the first dogmatic decision in the Church (Acts 15:7). It was Peter who, among the gathered apostles and presbyters, rendered the final decision regarding whether circumcision is necessary for salvation.

Beyond the apostolic age, the supremacy of Peter as the visible head of all Christians is attested by two millennia of historical data, which only the most revisionist historians contest. A few examples will suffice to underpin this statement. The third successor to Peter, Pope St. Clement, exercised his supreme authority to settle a dispute at Corinth during the first century after Christ’s death. The letters he wrote to Corinth from Rome were so revered that the great James Cardinal Gibbons notes that it was “customary to have them publicly read in their churches” a century later (Gibbons, The Faith of Our Fathers, TAN, 134). Why else would the Christians at Corinth appeal to the bishop of Rome unless he had jurisdiction over matters of faith?

  • In 190, Pope St. Victor I settled another dispute from Rome regarding when the Eastern Church should celebrate Easter. The Pope instructed them to celebrate Easter at the same time as in the West, and his instruction was universally obeyed.
  • When the patriarch of Alexandria erred on matters of doctrine in the third century, Pope St. Dionysius demanded clarification. The patriarch asserted his own orthodoxy in obedience to the pope of Rome.
  • St. Athanasius appealed to Pope Julius I.
  • St. Basil appealed to Pope Damasus.
  • St. John Chrysostom appealed to Pope Innocent I.
  • St. Cyril appealed to Pope Celestine.

The list could go on. The history of the Church during the fist millennium is one of mostly undisputed acceptance of the primacy of Peter in the person of the pope of Rome. But as the present successor to Peter, Benedict XVI, has noted, the Church and its call to unity under the primacy of Peter is disliked precisely “because she is an institution like many others, which as such restricts freedom” (Called to Communion, Ignatius, 134). The Catholic Church has remained firm in its teaching regarding its singular claim to being the Church founded by Christ, because it understands that the fullness of Christ’s message can be preserved and properly promulgated in the unity achieved only through obedience to the person of Peter. For as Fr. G. H. Joyce once said, “sternness is inseparable from love.”

Didn’t Vatican II Change All That?

While the Church cannot change its understanding of what constitutes “the Church” any more than it can admit more than one truth, it does teach that non-Catholic Christians share in the graces given to and dispensed from the Catholic Church. Here, we must take a small historical detour through the second session of Vatican II to clarify. On November 19, 1963, Archbishop Elchinger of Strasbourg delivered a speech that silenced the great Basilica of St. Peter. He asserted that “now the time has come to recognize with greater respect that there is also a partial truth” in the doctrines “taught by our separated brethren.” This speech in many ways set the tone of the Council’s discussion on ecumenism. The Council fathers acknowledged that, despite their long separation from the unity intended by Christ, the Protestant churches retained the Church’s resolve to preserve the doctrines given by Christ. As Fr. Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) wrote in his Theological Highlights of Vatican II, the schema on ecumenism was “a pastoral directive to Catholics to turn their attention to ecumenism,” that is, to reach out to separated brethren in hopes of bringing them back into full communion with the Church.

Discussion at the Council, as today, was most sensitive when addressing the problem of Church membership. In the end, the fathers chose to retain the scholastic formula that asserts that there are three requisites for full membership in the Church: 1) baptism; 2) profession of the same faith; and 3) acceptance of the headship of the bishop of Rome. They also kept the traditional Catholic belief that a non-Catholic Christian can, although in an imperfect way, belong to the Church by virtue of his desire to be a part of it (votum Ecclessiae), even if that “desire” is unconscious.

One of the conclusions of the sessions held in 1962 and 1963 was that separated brethren, as Ratzinger puts it, “exist not merely as individuals but in Christian communities that are given positive Christian status and ecclesial character” (Theological Highlights, 67). That brings up another question: What are “ecclesial communities”? Indeed, what are the differences between “the Church,” meaning the Catholic Church under the bishop of Rome, “Protestant churches,” “Orthodox churches,” and “local churches”?

Perhaps the best way to enter into this question is with the comments Edmund Schlink, a Protestant professor at the University of Heidelberg, made to the press on October 23, 1963. Schlink stated that while the “Roman Church” identified itself with the “one, holy, and apostolic Church” exclusively, Protestants held that they received graces from their own churches, that is, not as members of the Catholic Church. His general reaction to the Council’s schema on ecumenism was that it was simply another “effort aimed at absorption,” an effort he viewed as “merely a continuation of the Counter-Reformation.”

Admittedly, the Church wants all Christians who are not in perfect union with Rome to be “absorbed” into full communion, but what Schlink did not appear to understand was that the Church’s notion of “Church” is much more nuanced than his comments suggest. As Ratzinger points out in his response to these assertions, Schlink’s position excludes the possibility of there being any church that can be thus called “the Church” of Jesus Christ.

Plurality, not Pluralism

In a nutshell, Catholic theology holds that the multiplicity of separated churches must be absorbed by the one existing Catholic Church. As Fr. Ratzinger states, the Catholic Church “recognizes a plurality of churches. It has, however, a different meaning from the plurality of Professor Schlink” (Theological Highlights, 71). “Plurality” is quite different from the idea of “pluralism.” It is possible to refer to several “churches” while maintaining a correct understanding of “the Church.” First, we can talk about local churches. In the post-apostolic age, the Church Fathers refer to the church in Athens, in Rome, in Corinth, and so forth. Likewise, today we refer to the American church, the German church, the Chinese church, or the Latin American church. Indeed, wherever a local community with a bishop is gathered around the altar of the Lord, this, too, may be called a “church.” St. Ignatius of Antioch said, “Where the bishop is, there let the multitude of believers be; even as where Jesus is, there is the Catholic Church.”

We also can call each parish a “church,” for, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “the word ‘Church’ (Latin ecclesia, from the Greek ek-ka-lein, to ‘call out of’) means a convocation or an assembly” (CCC 751).

This plurality of churches exists within the structure of the one visible Church of God—they exist within “the Church,” unified by their connection and obedience to the pope. We belong to the mystical body of Christ, “Holy Mother Church,” and to it all Christians turn for spiritual food and guidance.

It remains to discuss more fully the Catholic Church’s view of its “separated brethren,” who, we may say, exist in Protestant “churches,” such as the Anglican, Orthodox, or Nestorian ecclesia, though we cannot yet admit that these are fully part of “the Church.” The Vatican II’s Decree on Ecumenism (Unitatis Redintegratio) states that even though “our separated brethren . . . are not blessed with that unity that Jesus Christ wished to bestow on all those who through him were born again into one body, and with him quickened to newness of life—that unity that Holy Scripture and the ancient Tradition of the Church proclaim,” nonetheless “large numbers have felt the impulse of this grace . . . for the restoration of unity among all Christians.” Obstacles, though, remain. Pope Pius XII wrote in “On the Unity of Human Society” (Summi Pontificatus) that, “cut off from the infallible teaching authority of the Church, not a few separated brethren have gone so far as to overthrow the central dogma of Christianity, the divinity of the Savior, and have hastened thereby the progress of spiritual decay.” But despite differences, the Church instructs Catholics to “cooperate in a brotherly spirit with their separated brethren . . . making before the nations a common profession of faith, insofar as their beliefs are common, in God and in Jesus Christ, and cooperating in social and in technical projects as well as in cultural and religious ones” (Ad Gentes). In short, the Church has not compromised its teachings but has nonetheless exhorted its children to reach out to and cooperate with non-Catholic Christians for the sake of Christ and his kingdom, the very kingdom that is the Church.

Until all Christians worship the same Triune God under the leader our Lord intended us to follow, the pope of Rome, our use of terms such as Church will intersect but not mean the same thing. Protestants will express gratitude when non-Christians (and sometimes Catholics) have “entered the church,” and Catholics will express gratitude when non-Christians (and sometimes Protestants) have “entered the Church.” Our Lord Jesus did not say to Peter, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my churches.” He said, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church ” (Matt. 16:18)—this much all Christians can agree about this passage. Our Savior also called his Church a sheepfold, asserting that “there shall be one flock, one shepherd” (John 10:16). The Catholic Church is now and forever the visible body of Christ, the visible sign of God’s kingdom on earth. St. John Chrystostom wonderfully reminded the Christians of his era that the Church shall always be seen: “It is an easier thing for the sun to be quenched than for the Church to be made invisible.”


“To it [the Church] belong all the saints: from Abel and Abraham and all the witnesses of hope whom the Old Testament tells us, through Mary, the Mother of the Lord, and the Lord’s apostles, through Thomas Becket and Thomas More all the way to Maximilian Kolbe, Edith Stein, and Pier Giorgio Frassati. The Church includes all the unknown and unnamed ‘whose faith is known to him alone,’ it embraces the men of all places and all times whose hearts stretch out in hope and love to Christ, the ‘author and finisher of faith,’ as the letter to the Hebrews calls him (12:2).” —Pope Benedict XVI, Called to Communion, 154

“Peter, who is called ‘the rock on which the Church should be built,’ who also obtained ‘the keys of the kingdom of heaven. . .’” —Tertullian, On the Prescription against the Heretics, 22 (c. A.D. 200)

“And Peter, on whom the Church of Christ is built, against which the gates of hell shall not prevail. . .” —Origen, Commentary on John, 5:3 (A.D. 232)

“By this Spirit Peter spake that blessed word, ‘Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ By this Spirit the rock of the Church was established.” —Hippolytus, Discourse on the Holy Theophany, 9 (ante A.D. 235)

“‘Thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build my Church.’ . . . It is on him that he builds the Church and to him that he entrusts the sheep to feed. And although he assigns a like power to all the apostles, yet he founded a single Chair, thus establishing by his own authority the source and hallmark of the (Church’s) oneness. . . . If a man does not fast to this oneness of Peter, does he still imagine that he still holds the faith? If he deserts the Chair of Peter upon whom the Church was built, has he still confidence that he is in the Church?” —Cyprian, De Unitate Ecclesiae (Primacy text), 4 (A.D. 251)

“We have considered that it ought be announced that although all the Catholic Churches spread abroad through the world comprise one bridal chamber of Christ, nevertheless, the holy Roman Church has been placed at the forefront not by conciliar decisions of other churches but has received the primacy by the evangelic voice of our Lord and Savior, who says: ‘You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.’ . . . The first see, therefore, is that of Peter the apostle, that of the Roman Church, which has neither the stain nor blemish nor anything like it.” —Pope Damasus, Decree of Damasus, 3 (A.D. 382)

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