Through the years, I have had the wonderful privilege of ministering to many adults who were preparing for baptism or reception into full communion with the Catholic Church. It has been my consistent experience that one of the key theological concepts that needs to be taught with care and clarity is the Catholic understanding of the Church. The theology of the Church (“ecclesiology”) is central to our teaching, our sacramental life, our pastoral outreach — and our relationship with the Lord.
Many Christian Americans who are members of non-Catholic communities think of themselves as belonging to “a church,” which is another way of saying, “this particular congregation.” They find nourishment and spiritual care by belonging to this community of people who gather to pray and worship God according to a certain religious tradition. For such Christians, then, “church” is understood primarily as “the congregation to which I belong at 4th and Vine.”
Catholics have literally a more “universal” approach to our understanding of the Church, and it has everything to do with the saving mission of Jesus Christ — which continues in the Church, her sacraments, her teaching, her pastoral care and her members themselves.
Jesus Christ is the center and the goal of all history, the one through whom all things were created; he has the unique role in the salvation of the whole world, and he alone is the key, the center and the purpose of the whole of human history. He alone is the savior, and there are not other “plans of salvation” in God’s sight that are equal, parallel or complementary to his.
This same truth applies to our teaching about the Church. According to Dominus Iesus (“On the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church”), a 2000 declaration from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, “The Lord Jesus, the only savior, did not only establish a simple community of disciples, but constituted the Church as a salvific [saving] mystery: He himself is in the Church, and the Church is in him. Therefore, the fullness of Christ’s salvific mystery belongs also to the Church, inseparably united to her Lord. Indeed, Jesus Christ continues his presence and his work of salvation in the Church and by means of the Church, which is his body” (No. 16).
The Church established by Christ exists fully in the Catholic Church; it was built on the foundation of the apostles and possesses the fullness of the means of salvation which the Lord willed — complete confession of faith, ordained ministry in apostolic succession and full sacramental life, especially the Eucharist. Many means to sanctification and elements of the Church can be found in other Christian communities that are not in full communion with the Catholic Church; but they still derive their effectiveness from the fullness of grace and truth entrusted to the Catholic Church.
Since the fullness of the Church established by Christ is found only in the Catholic Church, when people who have already been baptized in other Christian communities ask to become Catholic, we say that they are “received into full communion with the Catholic Church.” Their baptism already put them in a certain kind of communion with the Catholic Church, though it was imperfect. By embracing the Catholic Faith, they also embrace the full means of salvation, willed by the Lord himself.
Our communion with the Orthodox Churches is so profound that, as Blessed Paul VI once said, “it lacks little to attain the fullness that would permit a common celebration of the Lord’s Eucharist.” This is a hope that has inspired many of the efforts of St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis to strengthen our communion with the Orthodox with the ultimate goal of full communion. These popes have also strongly encouraged efforts toward deeper communion with Protestant communities, but such efforts are more complex, in part because many of those communities do not place emphasis on the Church herself, her nature and what she encompasses, particularly apostolic succession and the Eucharist.
The Church is our mother, and we are her sons and daughters. She is the heavenly Jerusalem, the “mother of our new birth,” Christ’s Virgin Bride, who gives birth to sons and daughters who are “born from above ... born of water and Spirit” (Jn 3:3, 5). It is in the Church that our heavenly Father nourishes and rears the children born anew through the death and resurrection of his Son. And in the Church, the risen Lord continues his mission of salvation. He himself is present and at work in the Church, through the power of the Holy Spirit.
So clearly did he understand the abiding presence and action of the Lord in the Church and her sacraments that St. Ambrose wrote in the fourth century, “You have shown yourself to me, Christ, face to face. It is in your sacraments that I meet you.” From earliest times, the Church has understood that what the Lord Jesus did in his earthly ministry he continues to do in the Church, especially in her sacraments.
Thus, the Catholic understanding of the theology of the Church is far-reaching. We believe that as he continues to abide in the Church, his body, the Lord ensures by the power of the Holy Spirit that his word is taught faithfully in its entirety so that we will have the full benefit of the truth — for he is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
The Sacrament of Marriage holds a special place in the Church’s understanding of herself, because as St. Paul wrote in Ephesians 5:32, it is a “great mystery” that refers to the marriage of Christ and the Church. Moreover, the family is understood as the “domestic Church,” where husbands and wives offer their family in discipleship to the Lord Jesus and pass on the Faith to their children. All of this is possible, because having been blessed by the Sacrament of Matrimony, their bond is assured by the very blood of the covenant of Jesus on the cross — a bond of complete and total love, total self-giving, total faithfulness and total dedication to our heavenly Father.
But what of our unity with other Christians? Pope Benedict XVI expressed it beautifully in his encyclical, Deus Caritas Est (“God is Love”): “Union with Christ is also union with all those to whom he gives himself. I cannot possess Christ just for myself; I can belong to him only in union with all those who have become, or will become, his own. Communion draws me out of myself toward him, and thus also toward unity with all Christians” (No. 14).
Archbishop J. Peter Sartain is the archbishop of Seattle.