church not Church…right?

The Christian Church is both visible and invisible. What does that mean? It means that there is both an unseen reality of the church, which unites us by our baptism to our Lord Jesus Christ and there is a very real, tangible dimension to the Church that Jesus established on earth. One topic that often comes up in the conversations that I am engaged in, or that I am a third party to, is that of the importance of a physical church. Many non-Catholic Christians find the claim that there was only one church established by Jesus, and that it still exists in one form today, problematic to say the least. This is the claim, however, that we Catholics make about our one, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. We need not be bashful of this assertion or water it down in an attempt to create a false sense of ecumenism. Our separated brothers and sisters deserve to know the truth, and we Catholics are bound to offer it to them.

Now, to be clear, I am not promoting some puritanical view of Catholicism, one that does not allow for fraternity or even dialogue with non-Catholics. What I am saying is that Catholics, like myself, need to do a better job of sharing the truth of our church in love, instead of simply seeking to compromise it. The reality of a physical church, and not merely an invisible unity (which I agree exists), is something we see in the scripture, tradition, and history of the Christian faith. 

I remember, before my conversion to the Catholic faith, that I oscillated back and forth between different Christian denominations. I was raised a Southern Baptist, attended a non-denominational church, moved to college and joined another Baptist church, then moved again and found another large non-denominational church. Though I was very particular about my own Baptist affiliation at first, I quickly began to grow indifferent about the variety of denominational lines after moving away from home to go to college. I hadn’t become any less Christian, but I began to grow weary of individual claims of being the “true church.” Wasn’t it enough to be Christian in a general sense and to forget about the seemingly “small minded issues” that threatened Christian integrity? As a Protestant I had to answer yes, but as I Catholic I must now say no. I recall one very distinct circumstance when I was still a Baptist and our youth group visited the Creation Museum in northern Kentucky. Upon passing a life size replica of the Protestant “reformer” Martin Luther, a young man from my church pointed out who the statue represented and that he was responsible for the eventual formation of the Protestant churches we see today. Quickly the boy was corrected and reminded, by the church pastor, that the Baptist church was the church that Jesus established in the New Testament. Now, I do not question the sincerity of this man’s statement for a minute, but it does raise an important point: there was only one Christian church in the first century. Though many may claim to be directly connected to said group, it is only the Catholic Church that can substantiate these claims. Consider just one quote of many from the earliest years of the church…

See that you all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as you would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is administered either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude of the people also be; even as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. —Letter to the Smyrnaeans, Ch 8

Upon reading this quote, we notice many peculiarities that connect what St. Ignatius of Antioch is telling us with a very specific Church which still functions in like manner today. First off, there is a tripartite hierarchy that includes a bishopric, episcopate (priesthood), and a deaconate to which the faithful are told to be obedient. Second, the Eucharist, or communion, requires the approval of a bishop or someone entrusted with the duty of overseeing it by the bishop. From this statement, and others made by St. Ignatius and other Church Fathers, we know that the Eucharist was not something that was taken lightly and was thought to be the very body and blood of our Lord, therefore it had to be administered properly by someone with the blessing of the bishop. Finally we have the title of the “Catholic Church” invoked. Though many point to the fact that he is writing at the beginning of the second century, the way in which he invokes the term signals the prior use of the title. The church was called Catholic from its earliest days! 

Upon studying Catholicism, I began to become acquainted with a Church that was not only spiritual, in a mystical sense, but very much incarnational. Like Jesus, the Catholic Church bears all the trappings of a physical entity which is characterized by very specific features. Chief amongst these characteristics are the sacraments. Baptism, the Eucharist, confession, and the other four sacraments are tangible means by which God bestows grace upon the faithful. On my journey, I learned that the Church teaches that the Eucharist, for example, is actually the body, blood, soul, and divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ. Either the Church is right on this point, and then all the world should become Catholic or else it is actively involved in gross idolatry. Reason does not permit us to have it both ways. If this is the case and we have to draw sharp delineations, then we cannot ignore the Catholic Church’s teachings and dispense with the reality of a physical church. Some may not agree with what the Catholic Church teaches, but they cannot attempt to overlook the incarnational nature of the Church in exchange for a purely disembodied one. I do not think that was Jesus’ intent when he prayed that we would all be one as he was one with his Father (John 17:21). Indeed, Jesus wants us to be united mystically as his body (1 Corinthians 12:27), but he also desired to set up a particular church with particular teachings which would lead the faithful to the fullness of truth. 

In short, Catholics need to be about the business of evangelizing! May love be the motivating force behind all we do as we spread the truth about Christ’s church established on St. Peter and the apostles. Let us thank God for the unity that currently exists between Christians of different traditions as we move forward to increase that unity and change our world. 

Peace be with you!


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