An Ecclesiological Note

Perhaps the fundamental flaw of our ecclesiology is that we think the Church was founded. By that I mean, that Christ came, set up the Church, sent the Holy Spirit, and it’s all been moving onward, outward, and upward ever since. One points to the words of Our Savior – “thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” – and leaves the question at that. (Matt. 16:18). A somewhat more sophisticated version of this argument extends the Church’s life – her gestation, if you will – into the covenants of the Old Testament.

This kind of ecclesiology weds the Church to the vicissitudes of history, and the necessary fruit of this unhappy union is a Tradition that oscillates between mythopoetic antiquarianism and charismatic presentism. Tradition is either an ark to carry us across the sea of changes, or the constantly renewed speech-act of the Pope, or people, or Council, or some ill-defined combination of the three. And whether one reads this historical narrative in a traditionalist or a progressive key, one always ends up interpreting the story of the Church in the light of the past’s dying embers.

Icon of the Synaxis of All Saints. (Source)

But that is not the model of the Church we find in Scripture. The Church which is the Holy City, the New Jerusalem, the Redeemed Heaven and Earth, all this is the self-same Church that sojourns in history (Rev. 21:1-2). But in the Apocalypse we observe her at her true birth beyond time. It is in the culminating moment of all creaturely existence, in her final and lasting Union with God in His essence eternal, that the Church takes her true being. It is the bright light of that ageless day which illuminates history, and not the ever-dimming torches of chronological time. Indeed, history furnishes no light of its own, only dim reflections of God’s glory that we misunderstand in uncountable ways. In the words of the Apostle, “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” (1 Cor. 13:12).

In the same letter, he writes, “And when all things shall be subdued unto him, then shall the Son also himself be subject unto him that put all things under him, that God may be all in all.” (1 Cor. 15:28). Here we have an image of the eschaton – that redeemed dimension in which everything that is, is Christ, by the grace of participation in Him. The eschaton is thus non-different from both Christ and the Church. All souls participating in the eschaton likewise share in Christ’s singular mediation before the Father, albeit in ways proper to their scope. Humans are His Body, the Angels are His High Priestly garments, and the new heavens and the new earth are the temple. For the eschaton – the Wedding Feast of the Lamb – mediates God’s salvific action with creaturely, chronological reality (Rev. 19:9). It is like the upmost layer or outer shell of time, giving all creation its true shape. It is the blissful union by which God weds the cosmos.

A genuinely eschatological ecclesiology, an ecclesiology that takes apocalypse seriously, must demote any definition of Catholicity that relies too heavily upon the unstable facts of history. If the Church is, as the Apostle writes, “the pillar and ground of the truth,” then it must be rooted in a life that exists beyond the vicissitudes and fallibility of the creaturely world. (1 Tim. 3:15). However, this raises a question of knowledge with soteriological ramifications.

Too often we hear from Catholics (or Orthodox) in an apologetic mood that “We know we are in the True Church because we have Apostolic Succession.” No, you are in the Church because you are saved by the grace of Christ; your Judgment has already taken place beyond time, your eternal place in glory allotted, your soul blissfully united to the Lord – but you haven’t consciously arrived there yet. This is the mystery of Predestination, but not, as commonly misconceived, in a linear, chronologically anterior direction. Election does not happen before time, but above it – or rather, both before and after history. When St. Paul writes, “And whom he predestinated, them he also called. And whom he called, them he also justified. And whom he justified, them he also glorified,” he is fundamentally describing a single divine work in the eschaton. (Rom. 8:30). To be in the Church is to be a child of God. However, the grace of divine adoption is eschatological in both its root and in its orientation. Scripture says, “He that overcometh shall inherit all things; and I will be his God, and he shall be my son.” (Rev. 21:7). And elsewhere, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God Himself shall be with them, and be their God.” (Rev. 21:3). This image, which comes from one of the final visions of St. John, depicts the Church’s eschatological life, and not her earthly existence. Thus, only the Saints in Heaven are the Church, properly speaking; the damned have no part in Christ’s Body. Ultimately, there is no third category.

The True Church is thus, like God Himself, hidden. She abides in and beneath the purple trappings of worldly glory, but takes no part in it. The tendrils of grace that reach down from the supernal world move invisibly and invincibly to the hearts that are hers; they are as so many crooked and narrow paths up to the temple, lit by the lamp of Revelation. As the Psalmist sings, “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.” (Psalm 118/119: 105).

This is not to say that apostolic succession is unimportant. It has its uses, insofar as it preserves and passes on the saving truth of the Scriptures and Creeds, the threefold order of ministry, and the seven sacraments by which we receive certain graces. In this sense, it is a gift of God’s condescension to us mortals. But apostolic succession is not constitutive of the Church’s essence. Only final participation in the eternal life of Christ can do that.

Christ the Judge, mural in St. John’s Episcopal Church, Memphis, TN. Mural by John DeRosen. (Source)

Which brings me to a question I have been wrestling with lately: what is Catholicity? When we confess in the Nicene Creed that the Church is “Catholic,” what does that really mean? The common answers one usually hears on this point are either “communion with the Pope” or “possesses apostolic succession.” The first of these is an irrelevant, Ultramontane fable. The second simply confounds the question of Catholicity with the question of Apostolicity.

My own attempt at an answer would divide the question thus: we may speak of what Catholicity looks like, and we may speak of what Catholicity is. Catholicity looks like those things I have already mentioned: teaching the faith of the Scriptures and Creeds, prayerfully distributing the seven sacraments, and preserving the threefold ministry of bishops, priests, and deacons in apostolic succession. In what it seems to be, Catholicity means wholeness. But Catholicity is participation in the eschatological Church which is already united to Christ, that is, the whole body of the saved, whosoever and wheresoever they might be. In this sense of its utmost reality, Catholicity means universality. Thus, Catholicity means different things when applied to the Church visible and the Church invisible, with the latter taking priority.

The temporary Church visible and the everlasting Church invisible are never completely commensurate. But one can nevertheless “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” more confidently in a church with these elements, and where one can be reasonably sure that the priest is offering a true oblation to the Father. (Phil. 2:12). One can never truly be sure that one is a member of the Universal Church simply by virtue of the necessary historical features I have outlined. A Christian can still be damned, even if he is a churchgoer; surely, no Catholic who is paying attention could say otherwise. As we move through time, who can know whether any of us will prove to be Saints in that last and most surprising Day? “Watch and pray.” (Matt. 26:41). As M. Quesnel said of the two thieves at the Crucifixion, “Un se convertit à la mort, espérez; un seul, craignez.”

I said earlier that this issue is a question of knowledge with implications for our salvation. But that’s not quite true. One’s adherence to the True Church is not a question of knowledge, even with all the best historical or empirical evidence we can gather. It is, rather, a question of faith. Too many Catholics are uncomfortable with real faith. The over-exalted epistemic claims of our church means that far too often we treat our doctrines and even our own salvation as matters of knowable fact, and end up forgetting that “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (Heb. 11:1). Let us pray to receive the grace of rediscovering epistemic humility, for with it, faith will follow.

2 thoughts on “An Ecclesiological Note

  1. I really enjoyed this, thank you for a thought-provoking piece. I wonder if I could ask one follow up question? When you write ‘one can nevertheless “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” more confidently in a church with these elements’, could you say more about why you think that’s the case? I’ve started to think the reality is you could only work out your salvation confidently in a church where you consistently see holiness/self-sacrificing love/humility in other church members. If I see that my church has produced such people, I’m confident the Holy Spirit is working there. (I’m not very well educated theologically so please excuse any ignorance in the question- I really appreciate your writing and thought it would be interesting to hear more on that point 🙂 )

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  2. I’m a big fan of you bringing these sorts of ideas to discussion. Tyler Blanski’s book When Donkeys Talk really cracked me out of the “intellectual faith”/ascent to certain propositions way of being Christian that I was as a new Catholic convert but reading Pascal (under your influence) has really helped reorient me and the position of grace and faith as gifts from God and not things we can just will ourselves to having.

    I would be interested to know how the Church Fathers understood “Catholicity” and whether it was a synonym of “orthodox”.

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