Rorate Caeli

Guest Op-Ed - Threefold unity in the Church: Strength against the temptations of the Devil

By Veronica A. Arntz

In his reflection on the Fourth Sunday after Easter, Dom Prosper Guéranger discusses man’s participation in the Church of Christ, which is made possible through grace. He writes, “The Holy Ghost tells us, in the sacred Volume, that a threefold cord is not easily broken (Ecc 4:12).

Now we have such a one; and it keeps us in the glorious unity of the Church: hierarchy, dogma, and sacraments, all contribute to make us one Body” (The Liturgical Year, Paschal Time-Book II, vol. VIII, 228). How is it that the Church is united in these three ways? Indeed, Christ has established His Church such that, if one of these is weakened or not present at all, then the whole Church in her human members becomes weak (1 Cor 12:26, RSV-2CE). To understand the unity that Christ desires for His Church, let us explore the threefold unity of hierarchy, dogma, and sacraments.           

The Church is established in a special hierarchy, a topic that I explored here when I looked at the first letter to Timothy. Christ has bestowed His priesthood on all the members of the Church, yet the ordained are given a special priesthood, which does not belong to the lay faithful. The priests are given the grace to act in persona Christi Capitis (in the Person of Christ the Head), meaning that they are given the grace to confect the seven sacraments of the Church for the sake of the lay faithful.

The bishops participate in the fullness of the priesthood, and priests enjoy the priesthood through the priesthood of the bishop. The lay faithful are likewise called to participate in Christ’s priesthood, but through offering their daily activities as sacrifices in union with Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross. Christ has established this wonderful hierarchy for a reason, because it reflects His whole created order; the entire universe is created in a hierarchy, even the angels in Heaven (Wis 8:1; 11:20; Heb 2:5-18). If the lay faithful attempt to be like the ordained priests, or the ordained priests try to be too much like the lay faithful, then there is a disruption of order within the Church. As St. Paul describes in his first letter to the Corinthians, each member has a particular role to play in the Body of Christ, and all the members cannot do the same things (1 Cor 12:12-31).
The second aspect of unity is dogma. The Church is united through the one teaching of Christ, because He gives Himself through His teaching, and as the Scriptures say, He is the same “yesterday, and today, and forever” (Heb 13:8). There ought not to be any division in the proclamation and preaching of the Church’s dogma—such division is considered heresy or schism.

The whole Church, meaning the whole hierarchy of the Church, is responsible for protecting and maintaining the dogmas of the Church, but the bishops and priests have a special role to play in defending the Church’s teachings. Because the bishops and priests publicly represent Christ here on earth, they are especially responsible for upholding His dogma. This is why it is a great scandal and shame when a bishop or priest preaches a saying that is contrary to the tradition of the Catholic Church. We must ask Our Lady to help us to remain faithful to Christ’s teachings, especially if we are ever publicly proclaiming them.
As Guéranger explains, we are also united through the sacraments, and this is the focus of his reflection. Christ has given us seven sacraments, as he explains, because of the sacred character of the number: seven marks the day of rest following the six days of creation; in Proverbs, Wisdom is said that he will build a house with seven pillars; there are seven branches on the candlestick of the tabernacle built by Moses; and in the Apocalypse, Christ is a Lamb with seven horns and seven eyes, and there is a Book next to him with seven seals (Ibid., 229).

The number seven has a particular sacral character, and it is meant to point us heavenward. There are likewise seven capital sins that can bring us away from God; for this reason, we stay especially close to the seven sacraments of Christ. As Guéranger explains, “We, therefore, who are resolved to make sure our election; who desire to possess the grace of our Risen Jesus in this life, and to enjoy his vision in the next; oh! let us reverence and love this merciful seven, these admirable sacraments! Under this sacred number he has included all the varied riches of his grace” (Ibid., 230).

The sacraments are the means given to us by Christ that we might enter into eternal glory, and be like the “great cloud of witnesses” before us, who remained faithful to Christ through the grace they received in the sacraments (Heb 12:1).
The sacraments are “seven sources of regeneration and life” (Ibid., 230). We live through the sacraments: we are brought from death to life in Baptism and Penance; we are strengthened by Confirmation, the Eucharist, and Extreme Unction; and the Church is secured ministry and increase through Holy Orders and Matrimony (Ibid., 230). If one of these sacraments is taken away, Guéranger explains, then the harmony within the Church is destroyed. Those within the Church must receive the doctrine of the sacraments to be considered members of that Church, and they must protect and defend these sacraments. The sacraments are truly the seven pillars of the Church, because without them, the members of the Church would be lost and would not be able to access God’s grace.
As St. Paul describes in his epistles, the unity that the members of the Church have with Christ has a sacramental character. The faithful are united to the one Lord through one Baptism (Eph 4:4-5). Without the grace of Baptism, which washes us clean from the stain of original sin, we would not be able to enter into the Church or salvation, as Christ Himself proclaims (Mark 16:16). Likewise, they are united in His Body through receiving the Eucharist, which is why they must ensure that they are worthily prepared to receive Him (1 Cor 11:23-34).

Those who are living in mortal sin cannot receive the perfect Body and Blood of Christ, because they do offense to Him and to the other members of the Body. Moreover, the Church is the Bride of Christ: she is united to Him as a wife is united to her husband (Eph 5:21-33). These images should remind us of the sacramental unity of the Church, which is brought to perfection in the unity of the hierarchy, dogma, and sacraments.
In our current times, the unity of the Church is under attack from all directions. Satan does not want the Church to be unified, because he knows the power of her strength against his attacks and against the temptations world. For this reason, he attacks the hierarchy: he assaults priests especially, but also the lay faithful, by leading all into temptations and sins of pride, lust, and greed.

He attacks the dogma of the Church by turning baptized Catholics and members of the ordained hierarchy against the teachings of Christ; we see this in a particular way in our own times with the issue of the divorced and “remarried” receiving Communion. Finally, he attacks the sacred nature of the sacraments.

He leads people who are unprepared to receive the Eucharist, and he encourages those celebrating the Sacred Rites to use their own language and not be truly reverent in the celebration. He attacks marriage and family life, and he discourages people from receiving the sacrament of Penance.

What we all need to realize is that we can only withstand the attacks of the devil through God’s grace, which is given in a particular way through the sacraments, but also through the hierarchy and dogmas of the Church. The unity of the Church is necessary to prevail against the devil, and we have Christ on our side, because He has already said that the gates of Hell shall never prevail against the Church (Matt 16:17-19).

Thus, let us enter more deeply into the unity of the Church through her hierarchy, dogma, and sacraments. Let us strengthen ourselves through frequent Confession and Communion, uniting ourselves to the hierarchy of the Church and forming ourselves in Christ’s teachings. In this way, we will remain united with Christ, and be strengthened against the snares of the devil, so that we can enter Heaven through the narrow gate (Matt 7:13).