"Let unity, the greatest good of all goods, be your preoccupation." - St. Ignatius of Antioch (Letter to St. Polycarp)

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Church and Jesus Are Inseparable, Says Pope Benedict

The article is here (General Audience, March 15, 2006). Why does this matter? Recently I had a conversation with a Protestant about Catholicism and the unity of the Church. She said, "I am not a member of any church. I have Jesus, and that's all that matters." I asked her why she attended church weekly. She replied, "Because we are not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together", referring to Hebrews 10:25. Notice the voluntaristic (i.e. stipulative) conception of that verse in relation to the rest of Scripture and theology. For her, if that verse were not in the Bible, we would not need to "go to church" at all. When I pointed out that Christ said "I will build my Church", she replied that Christ's Church is simply all those who have Jesus. She told me that she knows (by an internal witness in her spirit) that she has Jesus, and therefore that she is in Christ's Church. In her view, any institution is a man-made thing; God looks at the heart, not at whether we are a member of some institution.

This person means well, and is believing according to the best that she knows. But hers is a gnostic conception of the Church. It conceptually de-materializes the Church per se and treats the unity of the Church as something entirely formal, spiritual and immaterial. Conceiving of the Church in this gnostic way is similar to conceiving of marriage as an entirely spiritual union, whereas in fact marriage involves both spiritual and material union, because we are beings consisting both of matter and spirit.

In dialoguing with a person who holds a gnostic conception of the Church, we have to show that Christ founded a visible Church. We can do this by showing that schism is impossible if the Church is not visible, and yet schism is clearly forbidden in Scripture -- cf. 1 Corinthians 1:10. Scripture also enjoins unity among Christians; that would be nonsensical if ecclesial unity were complete merely by all Christians being Christian. (Those holding a gnostic conception of the Church typically have no conception of schism, or any way of showing whether they are or are not in schism.) We can also point to Scripture passages that show the importance of church discipline (e.g. St. Matthew 18:15ff), and obedience to ecclesial authority (e.g. Hebrews 13:17). Those two things do not fit into the gnostic conception of the Church. We can also show that the Church is a living body, and that bodies are material, not invisible. In addition, I think it is helpful to contrast Christianity with gnosticism in general, as I have tried to do here.

Once we have shown that Christ founded a visible Church, then it follows that this visible Church exists today, for Christ has promised to be with her always, even to the end of time, and that the gates of hell will not prevail against her. There must therefore be material continuity between the visible Church today and the Apostles – this is one of the four marks of the Church: 'apostolic', as in "We believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church". The gnostic (de-materialized) conception of apostolicity reduces apostolicity to something entirely formal, i.e. agreement with [one's own best judgment of] the Apostles' doctrine, as I have argued here and here and here. But the same reasons we used to refute gnosticism's de-materializing of the Church also show that apostolicity is through a material succession, that is, through a passing on of authority through the laying on of hands (notice the *matter* involved in that act). Because we are material beings, we need the material component of sacramental succession in order to be one Body. Otherwise, we could be united only around doctrines and practices, and wherever there were disagreements concerning doctrine or practice, nothing would hold the Body together. People would separate and follow whomever they thought was teaching the doctrine and practice that they believed to be best. And such fragmentation is precisely what we see in the historical outworking of Protestantism, where since the sixteenth century apostolicity has been conceptualized in this gnostic (de-materialized) manner.

There is only one institution that was founded by the incarnate Christ through His Apostles. None of the Protestant institutions is even a candidate, because they were all founded at least 1500 years later. Lutheranism was founded by Martin Luther in 1520. Presbyterianism was founded by John Knox in 1560; the Presbyterian Church in America was founded in 1973. The Baptists were founded by John Smyth around 1600. The Assemblies of God was founded early in the 20th century. These institutions were all indeed founded by mere men, and it is not by joining such an institution that one is incorporated into the visible Church. Only one institution was founded by the God-man. It is that institution to which we must be joined in order to be incorporated into the Church which Christ founded. When someone asks you to join their Protestant denomination, ask them if it is the one the incarnate Christ founded through His Apostles. Either they must embrace gnosticism (i.e. Christ founded an invisible Church), or they must reject all those institutions founded by mere men at least 1500 years after Christ.

Those persons who agree that Christ founded a visible Church, but deny that any present institution is it, are by that denial saying that the Church which Christ founded ceased to exist, and that Christ's promise regarding the indefectibility of the Church was false. Those persons who agree that Christ founded a visible Church, but deny that apostolicity is through sacramental succession from the Apostles, have not fully removed the gnosticism of early Protestantism from their theology.

If Christ did not found a visible Church, then it is trivially true that Christ and the Church are inseparable, for in that case what it means to be in the Church is simply to have Christ. So of course Christ and the Church are inseparable. When we come to understand that Christ founded a visible Church, and that to be joined to that Church is to have Christ, and to be cast out of that Church is to be cast away from Christ (cf. Matt 16:19, 18:18, John 20:23), then we see that the gnostic conception of the Church is not only false, it is deadly. It is no trivial or insignificant matter to be outside the ark when the floods come, and the ark, as we know, is a type of the Church. It is not enough to "know Jesus in one's heart", to think of Him as one's "Lord", to prophesy in His name, to drive out demons and perform many miracles. (cf. Matthew 7:22)

Jesus condemns gnosticism's de-materialized conception of salvation when He says, "Truly, truly I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God." (John 3:5), and "He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved." (Mark 16:16) "Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves." (John 6:53) St. Peter likewise crushes gnosticism when he says, "Repent, and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins" (Acts 2:38), and again, "baptism now saves you" (1 Peter 3:21). St. Paul likewise crushes gnosticism when he tells us that Christ cleansed the Church "by the washing of water with the word" (Eph 5:25) And Ananias speaks the same when he says, "Now why do you delay? Get up and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name." (Acts 22:16)

In each case, salvation is tied directly to matter. Where do we get this saving matter? From the Church, in the sacraments. There we find the water of life (i.e. baptism) and the Bread of life (i.e. Eucharist). This is what the Church fathers meant when they taught that "He cannot have God for his Father who does not have the Church for his Mother". And a mere invisible Church was not what they had in mind in those words; the notion that Christ founded an invisible Church was for them an expression of the gnostic heresy. And gnosticism to this day remains the principal heresy.

The gnosticism that denies that Christ founded a visible Church is a heresy. So is the gnosticism that denies that any existing institution is the Church which Christ founded, and claims rather that the visible Church is merely the plurality of believers and their children. Avoiding heresy is not as easy as using the right terms. Conceiving of the Church as invisible and non-institutional, while referring to it as visible, is simply gnosticism conjoined with semantic and conceptual confusion. Those who explicitly deny that Christ founded a visible Church are in a much better position to discover their gnosticism than are those who wrap up their gnosticism in sacramental (non-gnostic) language. May Christ, in this Epiphanytide, lead us to understand the full implications of His incarnation, His taking into His very being flesh from the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary. That is the antidote to gnosticism's rejection of matter's salvific role, and gnosticism's intrinsic incompatibility with full visible ecclesial unity.


code monkey said...

Excellent essay. Thank you.

Russ Rentler, M.D. said...

You have articulated what I have tried to say many times on my blog regarding the effects of gnosticism in de-sacramentalizing our faith and hence invalidating the tenets of Catholicism.
Thanks for the post, I am going to put a link to it on my blog. God bless. I found this via Ecumenicity.

Jeffrey Pinyan said...

Nicely written. I found this through Tiber Jumper's blog. It's about to get added to mine.

I'm halfway through reading Mystici Corporis Christi, where Pope Pius XII explains some of the misconceptions people have about the "(mystical) body of Christ" and the Church.

Joyful Catholic said...

As Japhy, I found this delightful blog on TJ's and will also add to my list of blogs. Very provocative post. I'd love to send to a Protestant friend, but she of late 'ignores' anything I try to send re: Catholicism. Why is it 'evangelizing' when Protestants want to "save" Catholics from the 'whore of Babylon' but it's "Proselitizing" when a Catholic wants a dear friend to just find and enter into the Fullness of the Truth found only in the Catholic Church?