JMC : The Catholic Religion / by Charles Coppens, S.J.

Constitution and Functions of the Church.

We have seen (n. 82) that the Church is a "society", that is an assembly of persons co-operating towards a common end by the use of common means.

Three kinds of societies are necessary for man: the family, whose purpose is the generation and education of children; the State, intended to secure the welfare on earth of an aggregation of families; and the Church, instituted by Christ to procure the supernatural happiness of His followers. Each of these societies is complete and independent within its own sphere, because able to attain its own end; and yet each of them will find its advantage in fostering the welfare of the other two. Thus parents teach their children respect for civil and ecclesiastical authority; the State protects the rights of the family and of the Church; the Church sanctifies the family, and urges the doctrine of St. Paul that every soul should be "subject to higher powers, because there is no power but from God" (Rom. XIII, 1-5).

When parents grossly and plainly violate their duty, the State can control them. In like manner the Church can curb the gross excesses of the State by solemn condemnation and spiritual punishments. But as long as these societies act properly each within its own sphere, they are supreme there, and accountable to God alone. No conflict can then arise between these societies.

95. In every society the members are to be directed to attain the end or purpose for which the society exists; there must be governors and governed. It is so with the Church; this is implied in the figures by which Christ designated her, namely of a kingdom, a city, a body, etc. (n. 82), and in the Acts and Epistles we constantly read of Bishops, priests and deacons. All the prominent sects of Protestants have some organization. The title of "Bishop" is used by the Church of England, by some Lutherans and by certain branches of Methodists: these Bishops rule a district containing many congregations. Presbyterian congregations elect representatives to a ruling assembly of "Elders", or each congregation has its own assembly separately. Nearly all Protestants however agree in regarding the office holders as merely servants of their constituents, and not as having authority over them.

This was far from being the view of the Apostles and the early Christians; for, as we have shown, (nn. 44,45), Christ had selected and commissioned the Apostles, and they commissioned and empowered their successors; as St. Paul expresses it: "The Holy Ghost hath placed you Bishops to rule the Church of God" (Acts XX, 28). This governing body in the Church is called the Hierarchy (hieros, sacred, archê, rule), and it is spoken of on every page of Church history. "I exhort you," writes St. Ignatius in the second century, "that you study to do all things in the unanimity of God, the Bishops holding the presidency in the place of God, and the Presbyters in the place of the Council of the Apostles" (Ad. Magn. n. 6).

96. Membership of the Church is obtained by means appointed by the Saviour: "He who believes and is baptized shall he saved" (Mark XVII. 6). Adults are capable of fulfilling both conditions; they must therefore "believe and be baptized". Baptism then, without acceptance of the doctrine is not enough to make them members of the Church. Infants cannot make an act of faith: therefore it is not required of them, and Baptism alone makes them members of the Church of Christ. This will hold, even if he who baptizes is not himself a Christian, provided he intends to confer the rite which Christ instituted, and confess it correctly; for it is to the rite properly conferred that the efficacy of the Sacrament is attached. By a parity of reasoning, if an adult is validly baptized, and accepts the doctrine of Christ as far as he can know it, though it is presented to him by a sect which he inculpably mistakes for the Church of Christ, he receives the sanctifying effects of the Sacrament, and thereby belongs to the soul of the Church. But not being outwardly in her communion, he is not a member of her body, and is therefore debarred from her other Sacraments. Thus also a person baptized in infancy, and afterwards inculpably severed from the body of the Church, continues to belong to her soul.

97. Total separation from the Church cannot be incurred except by an open and guilty rejection of her doctrines by heresy, or of her government by schism, or as the result of a sentence of excommunication. "Heresy" (hairesis, choice) is the sin of choosing one's tenets for oneself, so as pertinaciously to reject the teaching of the Church. "Schism" (n. 83) is a wilful rejection of obedience to the governing power of the Church, so as to sever oneself from her communion. "Excommunication" is a punishment inflicted by the external court of the Church on one guilty of a great crime. It is inflicted for the good of his soul or in vindication of the law; it deprives him of the reception of the Sacraments, and of a share in the public suffrages and in other spiritual privileges.

Some Protestants teach that all the predestined (361. II) and they alone, are members of the Church; and by the predestined they mean those who will eventually he saved. But it is evident from the language of the Holy Scripture that not all the members of the Church will be saved. St. Paul certainly considered himself a member of the Church, and yet did not think his own salvation secure (1 Cor. IX, 27); and St. John writes: "Look to yourselves that you lose not the things which you have wrought" (2 Jo. 9).

98. We must next consider the work which the Church is to perform. Theologians, guided by the Scriptures, distinguish a three-fold office in Christ; for He is a Prophet, Priest, and King. His Church was instituted to exercise these three functions; for as the Father had sent Him, so He sent her. As Christ is a "King", the Church is a perfect and independent society: she can make laws in spiritual things for all who by Baptism have become her subjects; she can judge them, and coerce the contumacious.

That site can do all this is unchangeable doctrine but the mode of doing it belongs to changeable discipline. Her Priestly function is exercised in virtue of the Sacrament of Order. Her function of teaching belongs to the Prophetic office. We have proved before (nn. 69-72) that, in the exercise of her teaching office, the Church was endowed by her Divine Founder with the privilege of infallibility. We must here explain the exact meaning of this endowment, the objects to which it extends, and the various ways in which it is exercised.

99. Infallibility means freedom from liability to error. As a body of believers, she cannot believe what is false; as a teaching body, -- and as such we consider her here, -- she cannot teach what is false. This immunity from liability to error is not due to any inspiration, by which the Holy Spirit might be supposed to dictate to her what she is habitually to teach or explicitly to define; she has never claimed such inspiration. Therefore she does not profess to teach new doctrines divinely revealed. But the infallibility of her teaching consists in the protection which the Holy Ghost continually exercises over her ministry, guarding her from teaching any erroneous doctrine, contradictory to what is contained in the deposit of the faith which was delivered to her by the Apostles.

Since every supreme tribunal can define the limits of its power, -- else it were not supreme, -- the Church can define the limits of her infallibility. She does so by the very exercise of the prerogative. Now we find in her history that she has exercised it with regard to the following objects: 1. The doctrines directly included in the deposit of revelation which she received from the Apostles; these doctrines may regard faith or morals; in fact this distinction is only made for the convenience of classification; 2. Those truths without which she could not properly preserve this deposit in its integrity; 3. Such conclusions from revealed doctrines as are required to explain those truths in their fulness and their practical applications. The last two classes may be said to pertain indirectly, or mediately, to the Apostolic deposit. To teach any truth involves, of course, the condemnation of errors opposed to it, and of writings in which these errors are contained. Thus the "Thalia" of the heretic Arius was condemned in the very first Ecumenical Council, A. D. 325.

The Church exercises her infallibility in various ways: 1. By her Bishops assembled in an Ecumenical Council (n. 112); 2. By tIme unanimous teaching of the Bishops dispersed through the world in union with the Pope; 3. By her Supreme Pomitiff when he defines a doctrine ex cathedra. He does so, as the Vatican Council teaches, "when, discharging the office of pastor and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of His supreme Apostolic power, he defines a doctrine of faith or morals to be held by the whole Church". (n. 108). Of course no one should imnagine that the teaching of the Church is to be limited to her infallible pronouncements.

100. But whether the Church utters explicit definitions, or simply performs her quotidianum magisterium, her daily office of instructing the faithful, she frequently judges of "Dogmatic Facts"; for instance, that such a person holds the office of Supreme Pontiff, that a certain Council is or is not Ecumenical, that certain systems of education are or are not injurious to faith and morals, that certain societies are immoral, that others are laudable, etc.; else she could not efficiently guide her members in matters necessary to salvation. In a stricter sense we call a "Dogmatic Fact" a pronouncement whereby the Church determines the true sense conveyed by certain words or writings. Thus in the fourth century she insisted on the word "consubstantial", and at Trent she defined the fitness of the term "Transubstantiation". Thus also when she condemned the five propositions of Jansenius, she declared that they were contained in his works. She must also be infallible in her canonization of Saints; for she proposes these for public honor to all her members; if they were not truly Saints, she would thus promote superstitious worship.

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