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Christ to Catholicism


VI. The Church as a Visible Body

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

Before entering on a dogmatic examination of the Mystical Body, it is well to recall that the Church has given us the analytical principle by which the mysteries of faith can be understood, however dimly, by the aid of divine grace. In treating of the relation of faith and reason, the Vatican Council stated that although divine mysteries can never be comprehended by reason alone, nevertheless, when enlightened by faith, "reason attains some, and that a very fruitful understanding of mysteries, from the analogy of those things which it naturally knows." [1] Accordingly, though revealed truths like the Trinity, the Incarnation and the Mystical Body are beyond the capacity of the human mind to apprehend directly until the beatific vision, still by means of comparisons and similarities with known things in nature, we can penetrate ever more deeply into the mysteries of faith. The foundation for the comparison must be derived from Scripture and sound tradition, and the process should be guided by the Church's teaching, telling us how far the correlation may go. Within these limits, however, the method of analogy is not only useful but imperative for understanding and teaching the truths of revelation. The parables of the Gospel are applications of this principle: the kingdom of heaven is likened to a marriage feast, the mercy of God is similar to the love of a father for his prodigal son, sanctifying grace is described as a wedding garment, and the just man is like to a house that is built upon the rock.

The most fruitful analogy which Christian tradition uses for the Church is the human body; and all the insights we shall ever obtain on the Mystical Body finally depend on this basic similitude, which itself is an object of revelation and therefore guaranteed by the authority of God. In the degree to which this analogy is appreciated and its implications developed, the mystery of the Church becomes more intelligible, its elements more distinctive from other articles of the faith, and the more vital its influence in the spiritual life of the faithful.

Our principal guide in examining the Church as the Mystical Body is Pius XII, not only because he settled the question of their mutual identity, but because the sources to which he refers and the analysis he makes are the most comprehensive (and authoritative) in contemporary theology. As occasion requires, these sources will be examined and other authorities invoked to elucidate "a profound doctrine which some, through vain fear, look upon as something dangerous, and so they shrink from it as from the beautiful but forbidden fruit of paradise. But this is not so. Mysteries revealed by God cannot be harmful to man, nor should they remain as treasures hidden in a field, useless. They have been given from on high precisely to help the spiritual progress of those who study them in the spirit of piety." [2]

Three aspects of the Mystical Body will be analysed in as many chapters: the Church as an organic and visible Body, the relation of its Founder and Head to the Church as the Body of Christ, and the meaning of the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ.

The Catholic Church is a Body

The classic expositor of the Mystical Body is St. Paul, whose Epistles to the Romans, First Corinthians, Ephesians, and Colossians are the treasury of revelation on the subject. When urging the Romans to humility and concord, he tells them, "Just as in one body we have many members, yet all the members have not the same function, so we, the many, are one Body in Christ, but severally members one of another." [3] The Corinthians are exhorted to the practice of charity because "You are the Body of Christ, member for member.” [4] In his eulogy to the Ephesians on the dignity of Christ, he says that God "made all things subject under His feet, and Him He gave as Head over all the Church, which indeed is His Body, the fulness of Him who is wholly fulfilled in all.” [5] And to the Colossians in a similar vein, the Savior is described as "the Head of His Body, the Church; He, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He may have the first place." Consequently, Paul is happy in the sufferings he now endures, since "what is lacking of the sufferings of Christ I fill up in my flesh for His Body, which is the Church.” [6]

What did St. Paul mean when he described the Church as a body, and why did he use the term? On a proper understanding of this concept depends much of the intelligibility of the Mystical Body of Christ.

The primary notion that the Apostle wished to convey by the word "body" was of something material and sensibly perceptible, in contradistinction to spirit or soul which is immaterial and knowable only by the mind. However, Paul had a choice of two words he might have used and in fact, did use in other contexts: the terms sarx and soma, both of which may be called "body." But where sarx properly designates only the material or substance of a living body, soma means the living organism itself and connotes the skillful combination of its related parts. Whenever the Church is described as a Body in St. Paul, the term is always soma and never sarx. Behind the terminology is a wealth of dogmatic meaning.

Consequences of the Church's Bodily Character

Visible Perceptibility. If the Church is a Body, it follows that the society which Christ founded is perceptible to the senses, since the essence of a body as distinct from the spirit is precisely its sensibility, "Hence they err in a matter of divine truth," says Pius XII, "who imagine the Church to be invisible, intangible, something merely 'pneumatological' as they say, by which many Christian communities, though they differ from each other in their profession of faith, are united by an invisible bond." [7] Such would be the theory of all Protestant denominations, like the Methodists who describe their church as standing for "an inclusive Christianity," which "believes that the things that unite Christians are far more important than the things that divide. It has no exclusive doctrines, rites or ceremonies." [8]

Uniting in Multiplicity. Corollary to its being a body, the Church must have a multiplicity of discernible members, because, as with sensibility, the possession of parts is an essential feature of anything bodily. Yet the parts of a human body are not merely aggregated but intimately united to form a single substance.

Moreover, the various organs differ in their purpose and sublimity, and are closely integrated to collaborate for the benefit and partake in the sufferings of the whole being.

In like manner, the members of the Church are "linked together in such a way as to help one another. And as in the body when one member suffers, all the other members share its pain, and the healthy members come to the assistance of the ailing, so in the Church the individual members do not live for themselves alone, but also help their fellows, and all work in mutual collaboration for the common comfort and for the more perfect building up of the whole Body.” [9] This is the reason why those who belong to the Mystical Body are called "social members," and the Church herself a "Social Body." Its membership not only imposes a responsibility for the practice of the social virtues of justice and charity but by its very nature as a living organism there is, willing or unwilling, a flow of benefits or their deprivation from one part of the Body to the others.

Furthermore, just as a natural body is constituted of different organs with different functions arranged in due order, "so for this reason above all the Church is called a body, that it is constituted by the coalescence of structurally united parts, and has a variety of members that are reciprocally dependent.” [10] Another name for this stratified interdependence is the hierarchy, with its graded levels of orders and jurisdiction, of superiors and subjects, beginning with the Sovereign Pontiff and terminating in the simple laity.

At this point a caution is in place not to overlook those elements in the Church which are not technically members of the hierarchy, in the sense of having governing authority over the rest of the faithful. Everyone who belongs to the Church, no matter how lowly his rank or position, makes an active contribution to the whole Body and "under the impulse of God, can reach the heights of sanctity, which Jesus Christ has promised will never be wanting to the Church. [11] This apparent platitude is very significant in our own day, especially in a democratic society, when the laity in the Catholic Church are regarded as powers in the hands of tyrannous dominant clergy. "In a very real sense the Catholic Church is the clergy. In a congregational church the members can buy and sell the church's buildings as they choose, 'call' or dismiss the pastor, and even determine the institution's creed. They do all these things by majority vote if any issue is raised which shows a difference of opinion. In the Catholic system the people have none of these powers. The central structure of the Church is completely authoritarian, and the role of laymen is completely passive.” [12] To which the final answer is the will of Christ, who wanted His Church to be democratic, indeed, in offering to all its members the highest gifts of holiness, but juridically unequal, after the example of a human body, in having graded levels of visible authority.

Sustenance through the Sacraments. The Body which St. Paul identifies with the Church is a living entity, and like every organism requires suitable means to enter into life, to grow and mature and prosper according to its nature. "Similarly the Savior of mankind out of His infinite goodness has provided in a wonderful way for His Mystical Body, endowing it with the sacraments, so that, as though by an uninterrupted series of graces, its members should be sustained from birth to death, and that generous provision be made for the social needs of the Church." [13]

Leading this series of graces is the sacrament of baptism, called "the door of the Church" because it is the only way that a person can become an actual member of the Mystical Body on earth. As defined by the Council of Florence, which sought the reunion of the Orientals, "Holy baptism holds the first place among all the sacraments because it is the door of the spiritual life. By it we are made members of Christ and of His Body, the Church. And since through the first man death has come to all men, unless we are reborn of water and the Holy Spirit, we cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven." [14] However, though three kinds of baptism are possible: of water, blood, and desire, and all three confer sanctifying grace, only baptism of water incorporates into real membership in the Catholic Church, and gives a man the right to receive other sacraments.

Having entered the Church, a Christian is held by divine law to give profession of his belief in Christ, at no matter what cost and under penalty of eternal damnation: "Everyone who acknowledges Me before men, him will the Son of Man also acknowledge before the angels of God. But whoever disowns Me before men will be disowned before the angels of God.” [15] Since the injunction is universal and betimes may require extraordinary courage to fulfill, the faithful receive the sacrament of confirmation "by which they are given added strength to protect and defend the Church, their Mother, and the faith she has given them.” [16] To be noted is the two-fold effect of confirmation, each again with a double aspect. By this sacrament we are given special grace to safeguard not only our own virtue of faith but also the Church, from whom this faith is received. Moreover its function is not only negative, to shelter the faith and the Church as by preservation from evil, but to openly defend them against the hostile attacks of their enemies.

Similarly in the sacrament of penance, the benefit derived is both individual and social. Here "the Church offers her members a saving medicine when they have fallen into sin, not only to provide for their own health, but to remove from other members of the Mystical Body all danger of contagion, besides giving them an incentive and example for the practice of virtue.” [17] It is a safe estimate that the social purpose of the sacrament of penance is normally overlooked, although it is a logical consequence of the corporate nature of Christianity. As sin is removed from any one cell of the Mystical Body, the rest of the Church profits accordingly, much as the removal of a diseased organ benefits the whole person. What happens is not merely the checking of a bad influence, in this case the effects of sin, but the transmission of new vitality in the form of grace from one part of the Church's Body to the others.

The Eucharist is par excellence the sacrament of the Mystical Body. It is first of all a "marvelous symbol of the unity of the Church, if we consider how in the bread to be consecrated many grains go to form one whole,” [18] as illustrated in the liturgical prayer that has come down to us from the first century. Referring to the broken species on the altar, the priest would say, "As this broken Bread was scattered over the hills and then, when gathered became one mass, so may Thy Church be gathered from the ends of the earth into Thy Kingdom. For Thine is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ for evermore.” [19] Or in the words of the Council of Trent, "It was Christ's will that this sacrament should be a symbol of that one Body of which He is the Head.” [20] But more valuable than any symbolism, in the Eucharist is received the very Author of grace and the Head of the Mystical Body, "so that through Him we may receive the spirit of charity in which we are bidden to live no longer our own life but the life of Christ, and to love the Redeemer Himself in all the members of His social body.” [21] In a word, the Eucharist is the aliment of the Church, whereby Christ is nourishing Christ, Head to members and they in turn become more united with one another through Him.

Extreme Unction or the Anointing of the Sick is the sacrament of passage from the Mystical Body on earth to the Mystical Body in heaven. According to the Council of Trent, "Our merciful Redeemer prepared great helps in the other sacraments to enable Christians to keep themselves throughout life untouched by grievous spiritual harm, and likewise protected them at the end of life with the invincible strength of the sacrament of extreme unction…. For there is no time at which our adversary is more vehemently intent on using all the forces of his cunning to destroy us completely and, if possible, to disturb our trust in the divine Mercy then when he sees the end of life approaching us.” [22] There are two effects proper to extreme unction and both are related to the Mystical Body. Its primary function is to remove the vestiges of sin and strengthen the soul in its departure from this world, thus hastening and facilitating its entrance into the Church Triumphant, which is the Mystical Body in its consummation. A secondary effect is the remission of sins, venial and mortal if there are any, and the temporal punishment which is due to sin; thus restoring, if need be, life to a dead member of the Mystical Body and making possible (besides accelerating) his admission to heavenly glory.

Two sacraments of the New Law, matrimony and orders, were instituted by Christ to provide for the social needs of the Mystical Body. "Through matrimony, in which the contracting parties are ministers of grace to each other, provision is made for the external and duly regulated increase of Christian society, and, what is of greater importance, for the proper religious training of the children, without which the Mystical Body would be in grave danger.” [23] Viewed in this light, marriage takes on a new significance. Inasmuch as Catholics are not only men and women but they also belong to a supernatural society, the procreation of children for them means far more than merely conserving the human race and providing for its orderly development; it means the obligation to preserve and increase the membership in the Mystical Body. All the laws that nature has implanted in the two sexes to insure the welfare of mankind, are sublimated by grace in the faithful for the common benefit of Christ's Church. Where natural instinct makes the two sexes attractive to each other, grace provides for a similar attraction on a higher level so that children will not only be physically brought into the world but might also be spiritually reborn in baptism, educated in the faith and nurtured into vital cells of the Body of Christ. Hence the Church's solicitude for marriages within the faith, because she knows from experience how difficult it is for parents, who are physically able to maintain the human species, to do the same for the mystical species of God's kingdom if they are incompatible on religious grounds. For married Catholics, therefore, the command to increase and multiply is not only a precept of nature but revelation, of nature to cooperate with God in bringing human beings into the world, and of revelation to collaborate with the Holy Spirit in rearing citizens for the Mystical Body on earth and for the beatific vision after death. Correspondingly any interference by Catholics with the laws of procreation is doubly reprehensible, by refusing to cooperate with God in His function of creating souls, and by resisting His infinite love in its desire to prepare new souls for His kingdom.

By the sacrament of orders the Church is provided with the means for nourishing the life of the faithful, through the Mass and the sacraments, and, in a true sense, also with juridical power to govern by legitimate authority and proclaim the word of God. Except for the sacraments of baptism and matrimony which do not require ordination to be administered, all the others depend on the power of orders. The value of these sacraments for the Church's well-being is too evident to require further explanation. But the issue is less clear with regard to jurisdiction, i.e. the exercise of teaching and ruling authority, in its dependence on the sacrament of orders. In practical terms, does the authority which the pope and bishops exercise in the Church derive from their ordination and consecration, or is it something independent? Without going into speculative details, the answer lies in a simple distinction. As far as a single person is concerned, say, a bishop-elect, he may be invested with jurisdictional power before episcopal consecration. "But, if we consider not particular individuals but the whole Church, the power of jurisdiction requires the presence of the power of order necessarily and absolutely. Where there is no power of order at all there never has been, and there never could be, any jurisdiction. Scripture and tradition witness to this.” [24] It follows, therefore, that the sacrament of orders which Christ instituted at the Last Supper, when He proclaimed the unity of His Church, is the great instrument for the Church's sanctification through the Mass and the sacramental system, as well as the internal source for that authority in doctrine and discipline which keep the Mystical Body united as a visible society. One of the sad lessons of the Reformation is the ultimate effect that followed from the theory of a universal priesthood, in which orders were denied as a human invention. Within the lifetime of the original Reformers, the churches split into contradictory factions, and to this day are unable to check the proliferation. The disunity is not because there is no semblance of juridical structure; if anything, they are highly organized. But they have lost the supernatural principle of authority, which comes from the sacrament of orders.

Membership in the Mystical Body

According to the constant teaching of tradition, as expressed by Pius XII, "only those are to be actually included as members of the Church who have been baptized and profess the true faith, and who have not been so unfortunate as to separate themselves from the unity of the Body, or been excluded by legitimate authority for grave faults committed." For as St. Paul says, "we were all baptized into one Body, whether Jews or Gentiles, whether bond or free." Consequently, "those who are divided in faith or government cannot be living in the unity of such a Body, nor can they be living the life of its one Divine Spirit." [25]

However, except for a few passing references elsewhere in the Encyclical on the Mystical Body, the Pope does not expatiate on the subject of membership in the Catholic Church. Yet the matter is important and deserves to be fully treated in the present context. As our guide, we shall use the Code of Canon Law, quoting directly from its legislation and using other authorities like Bellarmine to clarify points of obscurity. It may help to appreciate the authority of the Code to know that when Benedict IV approved it, he declared that "We in the fullness of the Apostolic power which We possess, do, by this Our Constitution, promulgate the present Code (and) We decree that after this it should have the force of law for the universal Church." [26]

Four canons of the Codex Juris Canonici deal immediately with the conditions for membership in the true Church, and spell out in juridical detail the common teaching of dogmatic theology. In the following analysis, we shall take the canons in sequence but separate their contents under logical headings for the sake of greater clarity.

Incorporation in the Church through Baptism. As previously explained, the sacrament of baptism is indispensable for admission to the Mystical Body. Or, in the words of canon law, "through baptism, a human being is constituted a person in the Church of Christ, with all the rights and duties of Christians, unless, as regards rights, an obstacle stands in the way, which impairs the bond of ecclesiastical communion, or a censure imposed by the Church.” [27] Since the term "baptism" is used without qualification, it means simply baptism of water, because "ecclesiastical laws are to be understood according to the proper meaning of the words," [28] here the sacrament of baptism, validly administered by using natural water (pouring, sprinkling or immersion) and pronouncing the Trinitarian formula, with at least the implicit intention of carrying out the will of Christ.

To be constituted a "person" in the Church bears some explanation because nowhere in these canons does the word "member" appear. And although the two may be identified, still, where "member" is properly the correlative to a living organism, as part is correlative to whole, "person" is rather a juridical term which describes a human being as an individual unit in a larger society, here the Society founded by Christ. But more than just a unit in the society, "person" also means "the subject of duties and rights," and in the present setting, "of all the duties and rights of Christians." For it is of faith that all the obligations of a Christian are contracted by the reception of baptism, as defined by the Council of Trent: "If anyone says that those who are baptized are freed from all the precepts of Holy Church, which are either written or handed down, so that they are not obliged to observe them unless they spontaneously wish to submit to them, let him be anathema." [29]

Objectively, therefore, no exception or limitation is made in the duties incumbent on those who have once entered the Church by baptism. Consequently they are applicable also to those who have been baptized into a Protestant sect, unless, as in a few cases like the form of marriage, they are clearly exempt from the common obligations which are binding on all Christians.

On the other hand, there can be a limitation in the rights which a baptized person may enjoy. Since, as rights, they are properly connected with the person as an individual, they can be either not all acquired in the first place, or, once acquired, they can be lost, depending on whether or not a person places any obstacles "which impede communion with the Church."

These obstacles may be placed either before or after baptism. Before baptism, such an obstacle would be the absence of the true faith, as happens in the case of adults who knowingly and of set purpose are baptized into a heretical sect. However even in this instance, as long as the baptism was valid, at least one of the rights of a Christian is acquired, namely, the right to receive the other sacraments, "under proper conditions," which implies removal of the obstacle to which canon law refers.

Also subsequent to baptism, many, if not all, of the rights already received may be lost. This may happen either because a person has voluntarily withdrawn from Catholic unity through apostasy, heresy or schism; or because he has been removed from communion with the faithful by formal excommunication, or even because some minor censure, like suspension, has deprived him of the privileges which other Catholics in good standing may still enjoy.

Profession of the True Faith. Valid baptism, however, is not enough for actual membership in the Mystical Body. It is further necessary to believe and profess the true faith. This means that "All those things are to be believed with divine and Catholic faith which are contained in the word of God, written or handed down, and which the Church, either by a solemn judgment, or by her ordinary and universal teaching, proposes for belief as having been divinely revealed.” [30] Two obligations follow as a consequence: one external and the other known only to the person himself. Externally, in keeping with the Church's visible character, "the faithful are obliged to profess the faith of Christ as often as their silence, evasion, or manner of acting would implicitly amount to a denial of the faith, contempt of religion, an offence to God, or scandal to the neighbor.” [31] The implicit denial and contempt of religion are clear enough, meaning that if the circumstances allow only one option to those who witness my silence: either that I am denying my faith or that Catholicism is not objectively true, I must openly profess what I internally believe. The offense against God is described by St. Thomas in terms of supernatural charity. "The end of faith," he says, "should be referred to the end of charity, which is the love of God and the neighbor. And, therefore, when the honor of God or the benefit of the neighbor requires, a man cannot be satisfied with being (personally) united by faith to the Divine Truth, but he must confess his faith externally.” [32] Finally, I must give outward expression to my hidden convictions, if there is danger that others would be turned away from the faith by seeing the silence of a person who is supposed to believe.

Status of Baptized Non-Catholics. External profession of the true faith is therefore essential for membership in the Church. But equally important is internal belief. Hence, "Anyone who, after receiving baptism, while remaining nominally a Christian, obstinately denies or doubts any of the truths which must be believed with divine and Catholic faith, is a heretic," and as such does not actually belong to the Mystical Body. [33] The question arises whether baptized person here means only one who received the sacrament in the Catholic Church and subsequently lost his faith through heresy, or does it mean that anyone who has been validly baptized, whether in or outside the Catholic Church? Although canonists agree on the latter interpretation, a problem still remains on the status of sincere non-Catholics who in good faith do not accept the Catholic religion. They were baptized in a Protestant or dissident sect and inculpably believe what is objective heresy. Are they members of the Church or the Mystical Body?

Canon law does not directly touch the problem, which is dogmatic rather than legal, and is really not even a problem because theologians are agreed on excluding material heretics from actual membership in the Catholic Church. In view of the practical consequences of this position, it is worth seeing at least one sample of the documentary evidence on which the common teaching is based. The case in point regards the Anglicans who of all Protestant denominations are perhaps nearest to the doctrinal position of the Catholic faith. In 1896, Leo XIII officially declared their ordinations to the priesthood as "absolutely null and utterly void." Following this decision, the Pope addressed the Anglicans directly in a lengthy exhortation. "We appeal," he said, "to those who desire and seek with a sincere heart the possession of a hierarchy and of Orders. Perhaps until now, aiming at the greater perfection of Christian virtue, and searching more devoutly the Divine Scriptures, and redoubling the fervor of their prayers, they have, nevertheless, hesitated in doubt and anxiety to follow the voice of Christ, which so long has interiorly admonished them. Now they see clearly where He in His goodness invites them and wills them to come. In returning to His one only fold, they will obtain the blessings which they seek, and the consequent helps to salvation of which He has made the Church the dispenser… We wish to direct Our exhortation and Our desires in a special way to those who are ministers of religion in their respective communities. They are men who from their very office take precedence in learning and authority, and who have at heart the glory of God and the salvation of souls. Let them be the first in joyfully submitting to the divine call, and obey it, and furnish a glorious example to others. Assuredly with an exceeding great joy their Mother, the Church, will welcome them and will cherish with all her love and care those whom the strength of their generous souls has amid many trials and difficulties led back to her bosom." [34]

Analyzing the foregoing statement we find that although speaking to Anglicans who deny the Roman Primacy and are therefore heretical, he yet considers many (if not all) of them to be in good faith, for he says, "We appeal to those who desire and seek with a sincere heart the possession of a hierarchy and of Orders." He even credits their ministers of religion with honest sincerity, as men "who have at heart the glory of God and the salvation of souls." Moreover, he allows them the fruit of sincerity which is the grace of the Holy Spirit. They are, or may be, supernaturally justified, since they are described as "aiming at the greater perfection of Christian virtue," which presupposes the state of sanctifying grace. Besides being likely in the state of grace, they are also receiving actual and special helps from God, which the Pope calls "the voice of Christ, that so long has been interiorly admonishing them." Nevertheless, in spite of a sincere and good faith, in the grace of God and subject to His special assistance, the Anglicans are not actually members of the Catholic Church. The Pope does not say they are merely outside of Roman unity, which many Anglicans would have been willing to admit, but outside the one, true Church founded by Christ. For "in returning to His one true fold, they will obtain the blessings which they seek." Their Mother, the Church, "will welcome those whom the strength of their generous souls led back to her bosom." On a personal note, the Pontiff adds that, "We Ourselves in every lawful way shall continue to promote their reconciliation with the Church," thus climaxing the whole exhortation as a plea for the return of sincere Christians who are not actually incorporated into the Mystical Body of Christ.

The problem of salvation for these people is another question and will be treated in a later chapter. What is unquestionable, however, is their exclusion from actual participation in the benefits and privileges reserved for those who belong by profession and internal conviction to the Roman Catholic Church.

Schismatics Excluded from the Church. Canon Law defines a schismatic as "anyone who, after receiving baptism and while remaining nominally a Christian, rejects the authority of the Supreme Pontiff, or refuses communion with the members of the Church who are subject to him.” [35] Technically a schismatic differs from a heretic as one who sins against obedience or charity differs from a person who denies the faith. In the strict sense, a schismatic still admits the whole body of revelation but refuses to acknowledge the de facto authority of the Roman Pontiff or to share with the rest of the faithful in their practice of the Catholic religion. Since the Vatican definitions on papal authority, however, it is scarcely possible for a person to be only a schismatic without also being a heretic. And even before the Vatican Council, it was common knowledge that those who originally broke with the Church's unity for disciplinary reasons, before long ended by questioning certain articles of faith. An outstanding example is the so-called Eastern Orthodox Church, now split into a dozen or more factions. Beginning in the eleventh century as a rebellion against Roman autonomy, it now rejects the teaching of the Councils of Trent and Vatican, and widely professes doctrinal errors that are objective heresy; universally denying papal infallibility and, following the Protestant Reformers, commonly permitting remarriage after divorce between Christians.

Schismatics, like heretics, are not members of the Mystical Body, according to the evidence of tradition since patristic times. "Neither heretics nor schismatics," writes Augustine, "belong to the Catholic Church.” [36] Even "schism against episcopal authority separates a person from the Church," says St. Jerome. [37]

However, the same practical question arises as before, whether schismatics in good faith, though not in formal heresy, actually belong to the Catholic Church. They do not, and for the same reason, namely, that otherwise the visible unity of the Mystical Body of Christ would be equivalently denied, i.e., if persons who ostensibly are not professed Catholics could, in spite of appearance to the contrary, actually (and invisibly) belong to the one Catholic Church. A typical papal document which illustrates this exclusion is the Bull of Reunion of the Ruthenian schismatics in 1595, after one hundred and fifty years of separation from Rome. After referring to the schismatic bishops as his "Venerable Brethren," Clement VIII explained that "once their hearts were enlightened by the Holy Spirit, they began to reflect and seriously discuss the fact that they and the flock under their care were not members of the Body of Christ, which is the Church, for they were not united with the visible head of that Church, the sovereign Roman Pontiff, and therefore could not receive the influx of spiritual vitality nor grow in divine charity, as long as they were separated from him, on whom by God's will depends the whole Body." Consequently, "they decided to return to their own and the Mother of all the faithful, the Roman Church." [38] In his address of welcome, the Pope exclaimed, "Joy fills our hearts on account of your return to the Church, who lovingly accepts you once more among her sons.” [39] As with the Anglicans under Leo XIII, the Ruthenians were presumed to be in good faith in their schism; yet they were deprived of actual membership in the Mystical Body until their return to Catholic unity.

Excommunication from the Mystical Body. The canonical definition of excommunication is a generic concept, declaring it to be "a censure by which a person is excluded from the communion of the faithful," with certain effects that follow as a consequence. [40] Among these effects are deprivation of the right to receive or administer the sacraments, and loss of participation in the indulgences, suffrages and public prayers of the Church. There are degrees of excommunication, however, and not every degree implies complete separation from the Mystical Body, both internally and juridically. An excommunicated person may be toleratus (tolerated) or vitandus (to be avoided). No one is vitandus unless excommunicated personally (nominatim) by the Holy See and so declared publicly in a formal sentence or decree. It is commonly agreed that vitandi excommunicates cease to belong to the Catholic Church because, in the words of Pius XII, "they have been excluded by legitimate authority for grave faults committed."

Excommunications of this nature are comparatively rare. But when pronounced, there is no question about the intention to deprive a recalcitrant of membership in the Body ofChrist. The formulas describe the malcontents as "cut off, amputated, put outside the limits of the Church, removed by the sword of separation from the Body of the Church of God, excluded from participation of the whole of Christianity, segregated from the Body of Christ--the Church." In a fairly recent decree of major excommunication pronounced against two priests in central Europe, the Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office "by express command of Our Holy Father, Pope Pius XI, solemnly declares and proclaims that the aforesaid priests… are personally and by name punished with excommunication and completely put out of the bosom of the Holy Church of God." [41]

Although less pertinent than with heretics and schismatics, we may still ask whether a person who is excommunicated without grave moral guilt on his part, loses membership in the Mystical Body. Formerly it was believed that he did. Among the ancients, St. Augustine held that "Divine providence often allows even good men to be expelled from the assembly of Christians,” [42] which was understood by Bellarmine to mean expulsion from the visible Church of Christ. Present day teaching unanimously agrees that the excommunication does not take internal effect unless grave sin had been committed.

To clarify a possible obscurity, the term "communion with the Church" should be explained somewhat more fully. In general it means external participation in the Church's sacraments and ritual and internal sharing in the graces which flow from the Church's treasury to unite and benefit the individual faithful. Depending on the gravity of the excommunication, a person is deprived in more or less degree of the right to external participation and the privilege of internal, supernatural benefit. Where only a minor censure is imposed, as a corrective or punitive measure, the Catholic retains actual membership in the Mystical Body but loses, until the censure is lifted, certain rights and privileges which the rest of the faithful enjoy. But when major excommunication is pronounced, a man loses all the rights of external participation and all the benefits of grace that come to those who really belong to the Society founded by Christ. Consequently "membership in the Church" and "communion with the Church" are not simply identical, because there are degrees to communion, depending on the character of an ecclesiastical censure; and only when all communion ceases, either voluntarily as in heresy or schism, or involuntary as in complete excommunication, is actual membership automatically lost.

Chapter VI - References

  1. Denzinger, 1796.

  2. Pius XII, "Mystici Corporis Christi," Acta Apostolicae Sedis, vol. 35, p. 197.

  3. Romans, 12:5.

  4. I Corinthians 12:27.

  5. Ephesians 1:22-23.

  6. Colossians 1:18, 24.

  7. Mystici Corporis Christi, pp. 199-200.

  8. Charles C. Selecman, The Methodist Primer, Nashville, 1953, p. 36.

  9. Mystici Corporis Christi, p. 200.

  10. Ibid.

  11. Ibid., p. 201.

  12. Paul Blanshard, American Freedom and Catholic Power, Boston, 1950, p. 15.

  13. Mystici Corporis Christi, p. 201.

  14. Denzinger, 696.

  15. Luke 12:8.

  16. Mystici Corporis Christi, p. 201.

  17. Ibid., pp. 201-202.

  18. Ibid., p. 202.

  19. "Didache or The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles," Ancient Christian Writers, Westminster, Md., 1948, p.20.

  20. Denzinger, 875.

  21. Mystici Corporis Christi, p. 233.

  22. Denzinger, 907.

  23. Mystici Corporis Christi, p. 202.

  24. Charles Journet, The Church of the Word Incarnate, London, 1954, pp. 494-495.

  25. Mystici Corporis Christi, p. 203.

  26. Benedict XV, Apostolic Constitution "Proficentissima Mater Ecclesia," Codex Juris Canonici, Fribourg, 1920, pp. xxii-xxiii.

  27. Canon 87.

  28. Canon 18.

  29. Denzinger, 864.

  30. Canon 1323,parag. 1; also Denzinger, 1792.

  31. Canon 1325, parag. 1.

  32. St. Thomas, Summa Theologica, IIa IIae, q. 2, a. 2.

  33. Canon 1325, parag. 2.

  34. Leo XIII, Apostolic Letter, "Apostolicae Curae,"Acta Sanctae Sedis,vol. 29, pp. 202-203.

  35. Canon 1325, parag. 2.

  36. St. Augustine, "De Fide et Symbolo," MPL 40, 193.

  37. St. Jerome, "In Titum," MPL 26, 598.

  38. Clement VIII, "Magnus Dominus" (December 23, 1595), Bullarium Romanum, vol. X, p. 240.

  39. Ludwig von Pastor, History of the Popes, St. Louis, 1933, vol. 24, p. 135.

  40. Canon 2257.

  41. Acta Apostolicae Sedis, vol. 14 (1922), p. 593.

  42. St. Augustine, "De Vera Religione," MPL 34, 128.

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