To the man who reads twentieth-century theological literature at all perceptively, it becomes more and more apparent that the central area of interest to the writers of our time is and has been the science of ecclesiology. And, within the area of the tractatus de ecclesia, there is one essential point which is and has been at issue. It is the teaching that the Roman Catholic Church, the religious organization over which the Bishop of Rome presides, is actually the one and only supernatural kingdom of God on earth, the one and only institution outside of which no one at all is saved, and outside of which there is no remission of sins. Around this dogma of the Catholic faith most of the discussion in twentieth-century theological literature has revolved.
Fundamentally questions in this field have been raised in three different ways. First of all some have tried to explain away the Catholic dogma that there is no salvation outside of the Catholic Church. One of the few good results that followed from the unfortunate debates centering around Father Feeney’s group at St. Benedict’s Center was the issuance of the Holy Office instruction Suprema haec sacra, dated Aug. 8, 1949, and published officially with its authorized English translation in the Oct., 1952, issue of The American Ecclesiastical Review.1 This document made it very clear to the men of our own time that the Church had by no means abandoned or modified the age old dogma to the effect that there is no salvation outside of the Catholic Church. As a matter of fact this Holy Office letter put the magisterium itself on record as asserting what had been, since the latter part of the sixteenth century, the teaching of the best theologians of the Church: the doctrine that the Catholic Church itself is definitely and actually necessary for the attainment of eternal salvation with the necessity of precept and with the necessity of means.
The second way in which the basic teaching that the Roman Catholic Church is the one and only kingdom of God on earth according to the dispensation of the New Testament has been denied in our era has been through the tactic of implying that, in one way or another, the Roman Catholic Church was not exactly identical with the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, or with the Communion of Saints, or with the Kingdom or the City of God. Substantially this move against the Church was repressed in the encyclical Mystici Corporis Christi, issued June 29, 1943, and again in the encyclical Humani generis, issued Aug. 12, 1950. These two documents insisted upon the fact that the Roman Catholic Church is exactly the same thing as the Mystical Body, and thus they made it clear to any student of theology that the other names of the Church also apply exactly and exclusively to the religious society over which the Bishop of Rome presides as visible head.
Most recently those who, mostly for reasons of false irenicism, wish to make it appear that the Roman Catholic Church is not quite the same thing as the supernatural kingdom of God outside of which there is no salvation have adopted a different tactic. They have concentrated their attention on the teaching about membership in the true Church, in such a way as to lead people to imagine that the members of the true Church include individuals who could not by any means be represented as members of the Roman Catholic Church. Usually this is done in a somewhat complicated fashion. A few days before the writing of this article, however, I received a letter from a very prominent professor of theology who protested against my book, The Catholic Church and Salvation, and against Father John King’s article “Salvation and the Church,”2 on the grounds that we “refuse membership to others than Roman Catholics.” This is the first time I have ever seen the full meaning of this position admitted by one of these men themselves. Apparently the writer of the letter, who is a brilliant and successful teacher of theology, did not realize the force of his own statement. He was admitting that according to his own judgment, the group which constitutes the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, the group which is the true Church of Jesus Christ, is definitely not identical with the society which is made up of Roman Catholics. Very clearly this man is not completely and vitally aware that the religious organization over which the Bishop of Rome presides, the society which we and the world know as the Roman Catholic Church, is actually the one and only supernatural kingdom of God on earth, outside of which there is no salvation.
This is a point of the utmost urgency for the priests and the seminarians of our own time. After all, the great mystery of God’s supernatural economy according to the dispensation of the New Testament is the outstanding truth that this visible society, this organization in which bad members are mingled with the good, is actually the one and only supernatural kingdom of God on earth. There are people who flinch at this truth, and some of them, unfortunately, are within the fold of the Catholic Church itself. It is obviously one of the truths most frequently attacked in our own time. It is a truth which we are most tempted to overlook or to pass over in order that we may make the teaching of the Catholic Church more acceptable to those who are not of the Catholic faith. In the actual situation in which we find ourselves, our fidelity to Our Lord would seem to be measurable by our insistence upon the divinity of His visible Church, the Roman Catholic Church, and by our refusal to modify the Catholic teaching and dogma to the effect that this visible society is the one and only kingdom of God on earth according to the economy of the New Testament.
Now what is precisely the teaching of the Church with reference to membership in the Church? Obviously the basic text of the magisterium with which we must be concerned is the statement in the encyclical Mystici Corporis Christi. To quote Pope Pius XII:
In Ecclesiae autem membris reapse ii soli annumerandi sunt, qui regenerationis lavacrum receperunt veramque fidem profitentur, neque a Corporis compage semet ipsos misere separarunt, vel ob gravissima admissa a legitima auctoritate seiuncti sunt.3
The NCWC translation of the Mystici Corporis Christi gives this version of the statement about membership in the Church or the Mystical Body of Christ.
Actually only those are to be 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.4
The one fairly serious imperfection of this rendering is to be found in the use of the term “unity” as a translation of the Latin “compage.” The Latin word carries the implication of a physical connection, of a visible principle of unity. Harper’s Latin Dictionary uses the English terms “joining together,” “connection,” “joint,” “structure,” and “embrace” as translations of the Latin “compages” or “compago.”5 Much the same explanation of the meaning of the term “compages” is to be found in Leverett’s Lexicon.6 In Harper’s Latin Dictionary the expression “compaginibus corporis” is rendered in English as “bodily structures.” Thus, in a more accurate translation of the Mystici Corporis Christi, the word “structure” might very well replace the term “unity” that was included in the NCWC version. Such a change would bring out the very evident inference that the Sovereign Pontiff who issued the Mystici Corporis Christi intended to say that baptized persons lose their membership in the true Church of Jesus Christ, not by any act against the forces or factors that tend to unify the Church, but only by acts which destroy within the people performing those acts those visible factors or tangible factors that go to make up the visible or outward or bodily (as distinct from the invisible or spiritual) bond of union within the true Church of Jesus Christ.
The outward or bodily bond of union, joining men to Our Lord and to each other in His Church, is made up of the baptismal profession of the true faith, the communion of the sacraments, and subjection to legitimate ecclesiastical pastors, and ultimately, of course, to the one Vicar of Christ on earth, the Roman Pontiff. The inward, or spiritual, or invisible bond of unity with and within the Church is to be found, according to St. Robert Bellarmine, in “the internal gifts of the Holy Ghost, faith, hope, charity, etc.”7 The first of these bonds of unity was the factor which St. Robert designated as the “body” within the Church in the famed second chapter of his De ecclesia militante. The other was the “soul” within the Church, according to the metaphor employed in that same chapter.
It was the contention of St. Robert and of the great ecclesiologists upon whom he depended that all and only those who are joined to Our Lord and to each other by the external or bodily bond of union within the Church are members or parts of the Church militant according to the dispensation of the New Testament. That was the meaning of his classical definition of the Church as “the assemblage (coetus) of men, bound together (colligatus) by the profession of the same Christian faith and by the communion of the same sacraments, under the rule of legitimate pastors, and especially of the one Vicar of Christ on earth, the Roman Pontiff.”8 For St. Robert and all the other great theologians who had followed the tradition of St. Augustine, it was of course quite apparent that the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church is actually held together and joined to Our Lord by the bonds of faith, hope. and charity. Such is the intimate nature of the Church as the one and only supernatural kingdom of God on earth according to the economy of the New Testament. Yet it was none the less obvious that, according to the teaching of God set forth in the sources of revelation, the supernatural kingdom of God on earth according to the dispensation of the New Testament is a society or an organization composed only of individuals who are united to Our Lord and to each other by the external bonds of unity. It was clear that a person remains a part or a member of this supernatural kingdom of God on earth as long as he retains these external bonds of unity, even if he should reject, not only charity, but even faith and hope themselves.
Now we come to the question: does the pronouncement about membership in the Church in the Mystici Corporis Christi simply repeat the teaching of St. Robert Bellarmine on this point?
First of all, it must be made clear that there was definitely one element in St. Robert’s teaching on membership in the Church which has been excluded by Pope Pius XII in the great encyclical letter. The Doctor of the Church taught very clearly, in the tenth chapter of his De ecclesia militante, that the baptismal character was not required for membership in the Church, but only a putative baptism.9 Quite clearly, since the issuance of the Mystici Corporis Christi, this particular part of St. Robert’s teaching is no longer acceptable as Catholic doctrine. Pope Pius XII insisted that the reception of baptism was requisite in order that a man might be numbered among the members of the Church.
It must be remembered, however, that St. Robert’s teaching about the sufficiency of putative baptism for membership in the Church did not form an essential part of his thesis. What made the teaching of the De ecclesia militante memorable in the history of Catholic theology was the fact that St. Robert insisted that all of the elements requisite for membership in the true Church of the New Testament were visible factors, because the Church militant of the New Testament is, according to the teaching and the decree of God Himself, “an assembly of men as visible and palpable as the assemblage of the Roman people, or the kingdom of France, or the republic of Venice.”10
Certainly the Mystici Corporis Christi statement about membership in the Church is quite in line with the teaching of the De ecclesia militante. According to Pope Pius XII, four factors alone are necessary in order that a man be counted as a member of the true Church. These are (1) the reception of baptism, and thus the possession of the baptismal character, (2) the profession of the true faith, which is, of course, the faith of the Catholic Church, (3) the fact that a person has not cut himself away from the structure or the fabric of the “Body,” which is, of course, the Church itself, and (4) the fact that a person has not been expelled from the membership of the Church by competent ecclesiastical authority.
It is the nature of the third of these four factors which, in the context of the encyclical, is not completely clear. Very definitely a person would cut himself off from the structure of the ecclesiastical Body if he entered into a state of public heresy or apostasy. But that condition had already been taken care of in the naming of the second of the factors which the Mystici Corporis Christi lists as requisite for membership in the true Church. Very definitely the “cutting away” mentioned in the third point of this statement might involve entrance into the state of schism. But it could, of course, imply that some act against the spiritual or invisible bond of unity within the Church might also cut a person away from membership in the Church. The text of the Mystici Corporis Christi is not, in itself, sufficiently clear on this point.
Yet, over the course of the years, it has become increasingly obvious that the common teaching of the Catholic theologians holds that people are members of the Church or parts of the Church only by the possession of these visible or palpable factors. The term “member of the Church” can legitimately be applied only to those baptized persons who have not frustrated the force of their baptismal characters by public heresy or apostasy, or by schism, and who have not been expelled from the Church by competent ecclesiastical authority. The theological demonstration that backs up this thesis is still and always will be the “proof from reason” which St. Robert Bellarmine alleged in support of his teaching in the De ecclesia militante.11 More effectively, perhaps, than any other writer in the history of the Catholic Church, St. Robert pointed to the fact that the basic Catholic claim, that the Church militant according to the dispensation of the New Testament is essentially a visible Church, involves and includes the teaching that membership in the Church is possessed by all and only the people who have those factors which go to make up the visible or external bond of unity within the Church of God.
That was the great point at issue between the Catholics and the heretics of the Reformation: whether the true Church of Jesus Christ according to the economy of the New Testament is or is not an organized society. It was and it still is the contention of the enemies of the Catholic Church that the true kingdom of God or the chosen people of the New Testament is not really a society or an organization at all, but that it is merely the sum-total of all the good people, or all the people in the state of grace, in the world. On the other hand, the Catholic Church, as the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, continues to bring out the truth which Our Lord taught in His parables of the kingdom—the fact that the Church or the kingdom of the New Testament is an organization, a social unit within which bad members will be mingled with the good until the end of time. The Church holds and must always continue to hold that it is a social unit composed of individuals whose membership depends, not upon the invisible or spiritual factors that go to make up the inward bond of unity with Our Lord in His kingdom, but entirely and exclusively on the visible or bodily factors that constitute the external bond of unity.
Let us understand this well. When we speak of a member of the Church (or, for that matter, of any other social unit), we mean one of the persons who goes to make up this gathering or group. After all, the true Church of Jesus Christ is a group of people now existing in this world. The people who compose or constitute or go to make up this group are the members of the Church. The membrum ecclesiae is the pars ecclesiae.
In the last analysis, the great proof of the fact that the Church militant of the New Testament is essentially a visible Church (that is to say, an organized society, rather than merely the sum-total of the people who possess certain spiritual gifts or goods) is to be found in the divine constitution of the Church militant itself. It is basic that the Church of the New Testament was so constituted by Our Lord that definite men were given responsibility for the spiritual welfare of their fellow members of the Church, and thus given definite jurisdictional authority over these others. It must be considered as axiomatic that only members of this kingdom of God on earth are given ecclesiastical authority over their fellow members. And, if membership were to depend in any way at all on the possession of an invisible factor, there would be no such thing as certainty about the right of any man to call himself a member of the Church, and a fortiori there would be no such thing as certitude about the right of any man to issue decrees binding in conscience on the members of the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ Our Lord.
Now it must be understood that the Church militant of the New Testament, as a supernatural entity, is not to be judged by ordinary human standards. Concretely, a man may pertain to this society or in some way or other be “within” it other than by membership in its ranks. In order to appreciate our question, and in order to realize the harm that has been done by careless and unscientific writing on membership in the Catholic Church, we must consider the other ways in which a man can be said to “belong” in some way to this organization.
(1) Every baptized person is a subject of the Catholic Church. in the sense that he has the baptismal character which, unless frustrated by some personal act of the man who possesses it, would automatically gather any man within the unity of membership of the true Church of Christ. Baptism belongs to the Church. It is always objectively a wrong thing for any baptized person not to be a member of the true Church. Thus in itself, the baptismal character constitutes a man as subject to the laws of the Catholic Church. It is true, of course, that ordinarily the Church makes no attempt to apply its own statutes to those who are baptized but who are nonmembers of the Church through no personal fault of their own. Yet, by the constitution of the supernatural order itself, the man who has the baptismal character remains and must remain one to whom the legislation of the true Church can apply.
At the same time, however, nothing can be more obvious than the fact that not every person who is baptized is a member of the Catholic Church. The true Church of Jesus Christ, which is His one supernatural kingdom and His Mystical Body in this world, is the religious organization which accepts Pope John XXIII as its visible head in this world. The theologian who claims that every baptized person is in some way a member of the Church cannot be speaking seriously, if he has any understanding of the meaning of the term “member” as it is used with reference to the Catholic Church. He should realize that the Mystical Body of Christ in this world is not a social unit made up of Catholics and members of heretical and schismatic groups.
If people who are members of heretical or schismatic groups are in any way members of the true Church of Jesus Christ, then the true Church is definitely not the social unit that accepts the Bishop of Rome as its visible head. If we are to sum this matter up in three statements, we would have to say:
(A) Every baptized person is a subject of the Catholic Church.
(B) Every baptized person should be, and would be, if the unifying force of his baptismal character were not thwarted by some personal and external but not necessarily sinful act, a member of the Catholic Church.
© Not every baptized person is a member of the Catholic Church.
(2) Far more involved is the case of that person who is not a member of the Catholic Church, but who is “within” the Church in such a way as to enjoy the life of sanctifying grace. It is absolutely imperative for the well being of contemporary theology that the situation of this individual be accurately analyzed.
It is one of the most frequently and insistently taught dogmas of the Catholic faith that outside of the Catholic Church no one at all is saved, that outside of this society there is neither salvation nor the remission of sins.12 According to the mechanics of the English language, one who is not “outside of” some physical or social entity must be said to be, in some way or other, “within” it. Hence it must be said that any non-member of the Catholic Church who has the remission of sins, which is to say the gift of sanctifying grace, or who dies in the state of grace so as to attain eternal salvation, must be or have died in some way “within” the Catholic Church in a status other than that of a member.
The Holy Office Letter Suprema haec sacra, summing up and stating in an authoritative manner what had always been the teaching of the sanior pars of the Church’s scholastic theologians, asserted that the non-member of the Catholic Church who thus attained to eternal salvation “within” it was joined to the Church voto et desiderio. The entire sentence is so important that it should be repeated here. The Holy Office wrote: “Quandoquidem ut quis aeternam obtineat salutem, non semper exigitur ut reapse Ecclesiae tamquam membrum incorporetur, sed id saltem requiritur, ut eidem voto et desiderio adhaereat.”13 And this teaching definitely must be seen in the light of the tremendously important explanation given in this same document: “Neque etiam putandum est quodcumque votum Ecclesiae ingrediendae sufficere ut homo salvetur. Requiritur enim ut votum quo quis ad Ecclesiam ordinetur, perfecta caritate informetur: nec votum implicitum effectum habere potest, nisi homo fidem habeat supernaturalem.”14
The encyclical Mystici Corporis Christi, with a less developed terminology, speaks of the possibility of non-members of the Church being ordered to the Church “inscio quodam desiderio ac voto.”15 The Suprema haec sacra interprets this passage of the Mystici Corporis Christi as showing that people in this condition, that is, those who are ordered to the Church by an unconscious intention or desire, are not excluded from the possibility of attaining to eternal salvation.
The Suprema haec sacra makes it completely clear that those who are in a position to be saved only by reason of the fact that they have at least an implicit intention or desire to enter the Church and to remain within it are not reapse or in reality members of the true Church. In other words, the social unit which is the supernatural kingdom of God in this world is not composed of people who intend or desire to enter it. As a matter of fact, if we look at the terminology carefully, we can easily see that a statement to the contrary involves a self-contradiction. It is impossible to desire to enter a social unit of which one is already a member or a part.
Since the publication of the Suprema haec sacra it is clearly contrary to Catholic doctrine to hold or to teach that, in order to be “within” the Church in such a way as to be able to attain eternal salvation, a person must be some kind of a member of the Church. The very force of the terminology employed in the Holy Office letter runs counter to such a claim. The Suprema haec sacra teaches unequivocally that a man may be saved without ever really (reapse) becoming a member of the Church. It is definitely a disservice to the cause of Catholic theology to insinuate that, in order to be saved, a man has to be in some way a member of the Church. But, by the same token, it is imperative that the difference between being in the Church as a member, and being “within” it by reason of a desire, a prayer, or an intention to enter this society be very well understood.
It seems to me that this distinction can best be understood when the Church is considered for what it is, an actively working society. Perhaps the best statement of this aspect of teaching about the Church is brought out in the encyclical Humanum genus, issued by Pope Leo XIII April 20, 1884. Here is the key passage from the ecclesiological portion of this great encyclical.
The race of man, after its miserable fall from God … separated into two diverse parts, of which the one steadfastly contends for truth and virtue, the other for those things which are contrary to virtue and to truth. The one is the kingdom of God on earth, the true Church of Jesus Christ, and those who desire from their heart to be united with it so as to gain salvation must of necessity serve God and His only-begotten Son with their whole mind and with an entire will. The other is the kingdom of Satan, in whose possession and control are all whosoever follow the fatal example of their leader and of our first parents, those who refuse to obey the divine and eternal law, and who have many aims of their own in contempt of God, and many aims also against God.
This twofold kingdom St. Augustine keenly discerned and described after the manner of two cities, contrary in their laws because striving for contrary objects; and with subtle brevity he expressed the efficient cause of each in these words: “Two loves formed two cities: the love of self, reaching even to contempt of God, an earthly city; and the love of God, reaching even to contempt of self, a heavenly one.” At every period of time each has been in conflict with the other, with a variety and multiplicity of weapons and of warfare, although not always with equal ardor and assault.16
The first key explanation in this passage is to be found in the statement: “Alterum Dei est in terris regnum, vera scilicet Iesu Christi Ecclesia, cui qui volunt ex animo et convenienter ad salutem adhaerescere, necesse est Deo et Unigenito Filio eius tota mente ac summa voluntate servire.”
It is quite obvious that, in the assertion. Pope Leo XIII was not speaking precisely about membership in the Church. He was describing the work necessary for any person who wished to “adhere” or to be joined to the Church in such a way as to obtain salvation “within” it. That work is the service of God, the work of religion, animated by charity, and obviously enlightened by true divine faith.
The Humanum genus describes the true Church of Jesus Christ as a social unit performing a definite work in this world, in the face of a perpetual opposition coming from the kingdom of Satan. The work of the kingdom of God is the work of the Church alone, because the Catholic Church alone is the true supernatural kingdom of God according to the dispensation of the New Testament. The one social unit performing that operation is the Church, but there are, in the mercies of God’s grace, persons who are not members of the Church working with the Church for the attainment of those objectives for which the Church alone, among all the social units in this world, really works and fights to achieve. The man who has a sincere votum or desiderium, enlightened by faith and animated by charity, to enter the true Church of Jesus Christ is thus one who actually intends to work for the objective of the Church. And a man’s intention to work for the glory of God through the salvation of souls in according to God the supernatural service of acknowledgement due to Him because of His supreme excellence and our complete dependence on Him is an intention of worshipping God. It is a religious intention which is manifested to God Himself in the act of prayer.
The prayer of the Catholic Church is expressed in the Pater noster, the formula of petition to God which was given to the disciples of Christ by Our Lord Himself. The great commentary on that prayer is the series of petitions which constitute the prayers of the Mass. The man who desires to be within the Church, and whose desire is such that it brings him “within” the true Church in such a way as to attain salvation “within” it, is one who intends and desires and prays for those objectives that are indicated in the text of the Pater noster and in the petitions of the Mass. And this remains true even though, through no fault of his own, the individual who is thus “within” the Church does not have a clear and explicit understanding of some of these individual objectives.
Prayer is the expression of an intention. And an intention is an effective act of the will. A man works in accordance and in line with his intention.
Thus it is apparent that the man who is not a member or a part of the Church, but who has a salvific intention or desire to enter it and to remain within it, is actually praying and working along with the Church for the objectives of Jesus Christ. In this way he is truly “within” the Church. And, since the work of the Church is accomplished in the face of serious and never-ending opposition, the non-member of the Church who has a salvific intention to join it is actually fighting for Our Lord “within” His company. He is actually serving God with his whole mind and his whole heart, and thus he is joined to the Church even in his status as a non-member of this society.
It is quite obvious that this condition can exist only as long as, for one reason or another, membership in the Church is impossible for this individual. When it becomes possible for a man to become a member of the Church, or when he becomes aware of the true status of the Catholic Church in the supernatural order, he can no longer work effectively for Our Lord except as a member of His Church.
Furthermore it must be remembered that it is possible for a member of the true and visible Church of Jesus Christ to be an unworthy member and to work against the objectives of the Church.
We can sum up the teaching on the differences between being “within” the Church as a member or part of the Church, and being “within” it in such a way as to be saved, even apart from membership, under these four points.
(1) It must be remembered that, in the economy of the New Testament, the supernatural kingdom of God or the true Church of Jesus Christ is a society, an organization. This, in the last analysis, is the center of the mystery of God’s dealings with His people in the dispensation of the New Testament. The great wonder of God’s mercy is not to be found merely in the fact that there is a chosen people, a supernatural kingdom of God of the New Dispensation, but in the fact that this people, this kingdom, has been constituted by God Himself as an organization or a society, in which bad members are mingled with the good until the end of time. Because it is so constituted, membership in this kingdom of God or Church of the New Testament is attained only by the possession of the factors which go to make up the visible or bodily bond of ecclesiastical unity. And because it is so constituted, some individuals with this company have responsibility for and authority over their fellow members, responsibility and authority given to them by Our Lord Himself.
(2) Although the Church is the only social unit on earth working for the objectives of Jesus Christ, there are individuals who, through the power of God’s grace, work for that same objective without being in any way members of the Church. These are the individuals who are “within” the Catholic Church by a salutary votum or desiderium. This votum or desiderium is salutary only when it is enlightened by true supernatural faith and motivated by true charity, and, obviously, only when it is impossible for the individual to be “within” the Church as a member. The individuals who are “within” the Church only by a salutary votum or desiderium pray and work, against fierce opposition, for the accomplishment of the purposes of the Incarnation.
The society which is the only true supernatural kingdom of God on earth in the dispensation of the New Testament is composed or made up of its members. The men and women who have a salutary votum or desiderium of entering the Church are “within” it insofar as they are working and fighting within it for the attainment of the objectives of Jesus Christ. Yet they are definitely not parts or members of this society.
(3) It is possible for individuals who are members of the Church to work for the objectives of Satan, the prince of this world. Thus we have the situation in which the Church, and the visible Catholic Church alone, must be recognized as the one supernatural kingdom of God on earth, working and fighting alone for the glory of the living God. And, at the same time, there are non-members of this society who work for this objective “within” the Church, and some members of the Church who work against that objective while still retaining their membership in this society.
(4) The baptismal character is the basic force incorporating a man as a member into the true Church of Jesus Christ in this world according to the dispensation of the New Testament. Yet it is quite obvious that not every baptized person is a Catholic. Very definitely the society which is the one and only supernatural kingdom of God in this world is not made up or composed of all baptized persons. The unifying force of the baptismal character can be and is frustrated by public heresy or apostasy, by schism, and by expulsion from the Church. To say or even to insinuate that all baptized people are members of the Church is to deny, at least by implication, the central dogma of ecclesiology, the divinely revealed teaching that tells us that the Roman Catholic Church, the religious society which recognizes and accepts the Bishop of Rome as its visible head, is actually the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ.
Now we come to another question frequently discussed in contemporary theological writing: the question as to whether or not there are degrees or kinds of membership within the true Church. There are some writers and teachers, especially in this country, who feel that people who are subjects of the Church by reason of their possession of the baptismal character and those who are “within” the Church by reason of a salutary votum or desiderium of entering it are to be designated as “incomplete” or as “virtual” or as “imperfect” members of the true Church. These individuals are under the impression that the statement in the Mystici Corporis Christi about those who alone are to be reckoned as members of the Church applies only to people whom they call “members in the strict sense.” They imagine that there are other kinds of membership. And they definitely seem convinced that, if they can manage in some way to justify the practice of calling some groups of people who are obviously not Roman Catholics “members” of the true Church, they will have done a service to the cause of ecclesiastical unity.
In order to achieve their purpose, they depict the teaching of the Mystici Corporis Christi on membership in the Church as relating only to members in the strict sense, or in the strictest sense of the term. In so doing they misrepresent the doctrine of this great encyclical letter. The document says, of those who possess the four characteristics it mentions as necessary for membership: “In Ecclesiae autem membris reapse ii soli annumerandi sunt.”17 Now “reapse” means “really” or “actually.” It cannot be said to mean “in the strict sense of the term.” According to the doctrine of the Mystici Corporis Christi there are none other than those who possess these four characteristics who can rightfully be counted or designated as members of the true Church of Jesus Christ. To say or to infer that there are others who can in any way be called real members of the Church, or that there are others to whom the term “member of the Church” can accurately be applied, is to contradict rather than to explain the clear teaching of the Mystici Corporis Christi.
Furthermore the practice of designating non-Catholics as “virtual” or as “incomplete” members of the Church involves a serious misuse of theological language. The importance of the thesis on membership in the Church rests on the fact that, according to the designs of God’s providence, the true and only Church militant of the New Testament is an organized society, a group composed of people who are recognizable as parts of this group on account of their possession of certain recognizable characteristics. The central mystery of the economy of the New Testament is the fact that the one and only supernatural kingdom of God is the congregatio fidelium or the collectio catholicorum.18 It is the truth that the group or assembly that constitutes the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ on earth is the society composed of the Catholics, the baptized people who profess the faith of the Roman Church, who are admitted to the sacramental life of the Church, and who live as subjects (in the religious order) to their proper ecclesiastical pastors, and ultimately to the Bishop of Rome. And, in the eyes of our own people and of non-Catholics, that mystery is beclouded by those who try to make men imagine that at least some non-Catholics are “incomplete” or “partial” or “virtual” members of the Church.
The member of the Church is the pars ecclesiae, one of those of whom the society which is the Mystical Body of Christ on earth is composed. It is not possible to be partially or incompletely or virtually a part of a society. One is either a part or not a part. a member or not a member. If he possesses some of the requisites for membership, but not all of them, then a man is not a member and should not be designated as such.
Finally there is one more way that is being used in our own times to obscure the fact that only Catholics are members of the true Church. It is a way with which St. Robert Bellarmine was quite familiar. In his De ecclesia militante he writes:
Melchior Cano says that catechumens can be saved because, although they are not of the Church (etsi non sunt de Ecclesia) which is properly called Christian, yet they are of the Church that includes all the faithful from Abel until the end of the world. But this does not seem to be satisfactory because, after the coming of Christ, there is no true Church except that which is properly called Christian. If, therefore, the catechumens are not of this, then they are not of any [true Church]. I answer therefore that the statement to the effect that no one is saved outside of the Church must be understood as applying to those who neither in reality nor by desire (de iis, qui neque re ipsa, nec desiderio) are of the Church, as the theologians commonly speak with reference to Baptism.19
It would appear that St. Robert erred in ascribing the teaching that a man can now belong to the Church considered in terms of its broad definition, while not belonging to the Church considered as the Church militant of the New Testament, to Melchior Cano. Yet the great Doctor of the Church was perfectly right in teaching that it is impossible now, since the advent of Jesus Christ, to belong to the Church other than by belonging to the only true Church of the New Testament, the society of the disciples of Jesus Christ, which is the Roman Catholic Church. And his warning is especially important for students of sacred theology in our own times.
There are those who imagine, in spite of the clear teaching of the Suprema haec sacra, that the dogma which teaches that no one at all can be saved outside of the Catholic Church means that a man has to be a member of the Church at the moment of his death in order to attain to the possession of the Beatific Vision. Because they realize that individuals who pass from this life without ever having become Catholics can attain to eternal salvation, they imagine themselves obliged to dream up some way in which some non-Catholics can be called members of the true Church. Thus they try to make themselves and others believe that a man can be a member of the Church considered as the redeemed human race, as redeemed human nature, or as some other types of spiritual reality, without enjoying membership in the juridical society known as the Catholic Church.
Ultimately the somewhat ingenious explanations of these men run afoul of the great truth which St. Robert alleged against the false theory that was being taught in his time. There is only one Church of Jesus Christ. The man who is not a member of the Roman Catholic Church is not a member of the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ. It is the great and paradoxical truth of God’s dispensation with men in the economy of the New Testament that the Mystical Body of His Son is an organized society. It is composed of its members. And the men who constitute this society, the kingdom of God described in the parables of the Gospels, are the men who are bound to Our Lord and to one another by the outward bonds of ecclesiastical unity. This society lives by faith and hope and charity. But, in God’s merciful design, it is a society made up of members who are members or parts of the Church by reason of the fact that they possess this outward bond of union. The true Church of Jesus Christ, according to the dispensation of the New Testament, is the visible Roman Catholic Church. And it is this one Church alone.
Joseph Clifford Fenton
- 1. AER, CXXVII, 4 (Oct., 1952), 307-15.
- 2. Father King’s “Salvation and the Church” appeared in AER, CXLIV, 3 (March, 1961), 180-201. The Catholic Church and Salvation was published by Newman at Westminster, Maryland, in 1958. An English edition was brought out last year by Sands of London.
- 3. AAS, XXXV (1943), 202. In the Gregorian University Press text, with notes by Sebastian Tromp, S.J., this is par. 21.
- 4. NCWC translation, par. 22.
- 5. Cf. Harper’s Latin Dictionary: A New Latin Dictionary Founded on the Translation of Freund’s Latin-German Lexicon. Edited by E. A. Andrews. Revised, enlarged, and in great part rewritten by Charlton T. Lewis and Charles Short (New York: American Book Co., 1907), ad loc.
- 6. Cf. A New and Copious Lexicon of the Latin Language, edited by F. P. Leverett (Boston, 1838), ad loc.
- 7. De ecclesia militante, c. 2.
- 8. Ibid.
- 9. Cf. ibid., c. 10.
- 10. Ibid., c. 2.
- 11. Cf. ibid., c. 10.
- 12. There are over twenty statements of this dogma in the documents in Denzinger’s Enchiridion symbolorum. Eight of such statements are studied in The Catholic Church and Salvation.
- 13. AER, CXXVII, 4 (Oct., 1952), 308.
- 14. Ibid., 309.
- 15. AAS, XXXV (1943), 243. This is par. 101 in Tromp’s edition of the text. The translation of this passage is in par. 103 of the NCWC translation.
- 16. The original Latin text of this passage is in Gasparri’s Codicis Iuris Canonici Fontes, III, 221 f. The English translation is from Wynne’s edition of The Great Encyclical Letters of Pope Leo XIII (New York: Benziger Brothers, 1903), p. 83.
- 17. AAS, XXXV (1943), 202; Tromp, par. 21; NCWC translation, par. 22.
- 18. These two formulae were considered as the standard definitions of the true Church during the earlier days of scholastic ecclesiology. Launoy wrote his famed letter to Gatinaeus in order to prove that St. Robert and St. Peter Canisius (and, incidentally, Dominic Bannez) had departed from the old theological tradition by the issuance of their own formulae. Actually, however, Launoy was much more gifted in the line of literary research than in the way of theological insight. The fidelis and the catholicus are, of course, members of the Catholic Church, recognizable as such. All St. Robert and the other great ecclesiologists did was to state explicitly what were the requisites for membership and to insert these requisites into their own definitions. Those who complain of a “narrow Bellarminian approach” as distinct from the old, traditional Catholic teaching about the Church imitate Launoy in his lack of understanding, even if they do not always exhibit anything like his erudition.
- 19. De ecclesia militante, c. 3.