Rorate Caeli

Don Pietro Leone: The Council and The Eclipse of God - PART VII : The Four Notes of the Church


In this installment, Don Pietro addresses the Council’s attack on the Four Notes of the Church.  Here he looks at the Church’s Oneness or Unity and explains how the Council attacked this Dogma in four ways.                                                                             F.R.





A.  The Four Notes of the Church


The Four Notes, or defining characteristics, of the Church are Her Oneness, Holiness, Catholicity and Apostolicity, infallibly professed in the Creed as follows: ‘I believe in one Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.’ We shall show how the Council casts doubt on each of these Notes in turn.


The Four Notes of the Church




Now the Catholic Church is One in two senses: in Her internal unity (Her unity ad intra), which is Her indivisibility; and in Her external unity (Her unity ad extra), that is to say in Her uniqueness, which consists in the fact that there is no church other than Her. Catholic teaching on the Church’s internal unity [1] may be expressed in simple terms as follows: it comprises a hierarchical, doctrinal, and sacramental unity, in other words the Church is the community of all those people subject to the Pope and to his Bishops, who share the same Faith and the same seven sacraments.



The Council opposes the doctrine of the Unity of the Church:


a)    by opposing the hierarchical, doctrinal, and sacramental unity of the Church;

b)   by suggesting that the true church is broader in extent than the Catholic Church;

c)    by suggesting that there are groups of persons in ‘Imperfect Communion’ with the Church;

d)   by suggesting that there is more than one church.



a) The Hierarchical, Doctrinal, and Sacramental Unity of the Church


In Section B of this chapter we have just seen how the Council erodes the doctrine of the Hierarchy of the Church. Now the erosion of this doctrine effectively erodes the doctrine of the Unity of the Church, since, as we have said above, the former doctrine comprises, or is a constitutive element, the skeleton as it were, of the latter. In simple terms, the Church is structured as a hierarchy: if the structure dissolves, then the Church Herself dissolves.


The Council opposes the doctrinal and sacramental unity of the Church by claiming that there are elements of ‘truth’ and ‘sanctification’ outside the Church. It hereby suggests that it is sufficient to possess such elements to be saved, so that in effect the real Church, according to them, would be broader in extent than the Catholic Church, and membership of it would not necessitate the possession of the totality of Truth and sacraments. We shall examine this theory in the immediately following subsection (b). 



      b) That the True Church is Broader in extent than the Catholic Church


      Historical Note [2]


In accordance with the Catholic doctrine outlined above, Pope Pius XII identifies the Church of Christ with the Catholic Church in the encyclical Mystici Corporis Christi; in Humani Generis he complains: ‘Some say they are not bound by the doctrine, explained in Our Encyclical Letter of a few years ago, and based on the Sources of Revelation, which teaches that the Mystical Body of Christ and the Roman Catholic Church are one and the same thing’; similarly the original draft of the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church stated that the Church, existing on earth as a structured society, is the Catholic Church.


‘The outlook for ecumenical understanding was black indeed’ commented the Anglican observer, archdeacon Pawley of the situation existing in the 1950’s, but after the Council (particularly the doctrine expressed in text (i) following), delightedly remarks that the Mystical Body of Christ and the Roman Catholic Church ‘are no longer being considered as exactly identical.’ The peritus Gregory Baum interprets the text as follows: ‘Instead of simply identifying the Church of Christ with the Catholic Church, the Constitution rather says more carefully that the Church of Christ ‘subsists in’ the Catholic Church. The body of Christ is present in the Catholic Church, but at the same time, without losing its historical and incarnate character, transcends it…’ The Anglican observer, Dr. John Moorman, quoting this interpretation with approval, writes: ‘the Council has, therefore admitted that the Church of Christ is something bigger than the Roman Catholic Church’.  



          Analysis of Texts


i) ‘…the unique Church of Christ, which in the Creed we profess to be one, holy, catholic, and apostolic… subsists (subsistit) in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the Bishops in  communion with him. Nevertheless, many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside its visible confines.’ (LG 8);


ii) ‘The elements… can exist outside the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church… [but] all of these… belong by right to the one Church of Christ’ (UR 3);


iii) ‘To it [the ‘People of God’] belong, or are related in different ways: the catholic faithful, others who believe in Christ, and finally all of humankind, called by God’s grace to salvation’ (LG 13).



To say that the Church of Christ ‘subsists’ in the Catholic Church - text (i), rather than that it is identical to it as has always been taught, suggests that it is not in fact identical to the Catholic Church, as indeed the commentators, just cited, have understood the phrase. To go on to say that many elements of sanctification and truth exist outside Her ‘visible confines’(in text i), or outside Her ‘visible boundaries’ (in text ii), suggests that there is a Church broader in extent than the Catholic Church. This is presumably that which is described in text (ii) as the ‘Church of Christ’ and which is conceived as containing within itself both the Catholic Church and non-Catholic Christians. The term ‘People of God’ mentioned in text (iii) equally insinuates, by its very ambiguity, that there is a Church broader in extent than the Catholic Church [3].


Now the claim that there is a true Church broader in extent than the Catholic Church [4] is false, since it opposes the dogma of the Unity of the Church. This dogma, as we have seen, defines the Church’s Unity in terms of Her members’ subjection to the Pope, their possession of the Faith, and of the seven sacraments. The members of the alleged broader church which is in question here would clearly not have any part in this threefold unity [5].



c)  That there are Groups of persons in ‘Imperfect Communion’ with the Church


i) [The non-Catholics are]‘brothers and sisters’… in…  ‘imperfect communion with the Catholic Church’…separated brothers and sisters’ (UR 3);


ii) ‘many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside its [the Catholic Church’s] visible confines.’ (LG 8, quoted above);


iii) ‘In ecumenical dialogue catholic theologians… should remember that in catholic doctrine there exists an order or “hierarchy” of truths, since they vary in their relation to the foundation of the Christian faith.’ (UR 11);


The Council’s claim that some groups stand in a relation of ‘imperfect union’ to the Church (text i) [6] seems to be made on the basis of the elements of ‘truth’ and ‘sanctification and of truth’ that they are purported to share with Her (text ii). We shall now therefore proceed to look in turn at the theory of degrees of participation in the Church, and then the theory of degrees of participation in Her means of ‘sanctification and truth’.



Degrees of Participation in the Church


The theory of imperfect communion with the Church is a theory that certain groups enjoy a degree of ontological, substantial union with the Church. And yet the Catholic Church is One: She constitutes an integral whole, an absolute. For this reason a person is either a member of the Church in a full, perfect sense, or not at all. This we can demonstrate from Catholic doctrine regarding entrance into, and departure from, the Church. If baptism is valid, then the baptized person becomes thereby a full member of the Church, and will depart from the Church only by formal schism, formal heresy, apostasy, or by death in mortal sin. At that point the person will completely cease to be a member of the Church: by baptism (s)he became member of the Church in a full sense; by any of the four occurrences listed above (s)he is no longer member of Her in any sense at all.


There is no such thing as imperfect, or partial, (ontological) communion with the Catholic Church. If the baptism is valid, then the person baptized becomes a full member of the (one and only Catholic) Church, whether indeed the one who baptizes is a Catholic priest, Catholic layman, Orthodox, Protestant, Buddhist, or atheist. If the baptism is valid, he will remain a full member of the Church, even in mortal sin. When he dies, if he is in mortal sin, he will depart from the Church; if he is not in mortal sin he will remain a full member of the Church: as part of the Church suffering in Purgatory or as part of the Church triumphant in Heaven.


If the person validly baptized belongs to an Orthodox or Protestant community he remains a full member of the (Catholic) Church as long as he does not formally embrace their schism or heresy, or fall into apostasy; if he does so, he will cease to be a member of the Church altogether. He will not be in ‘imperfect’ or partial communion with the Church, even if he might continue to frequent the sacraments and profess the true Catholic Faith or part of it, because his schism, heresy, or apostasy will have deprived him of membership of the Church. He will remain in a state of potentiality as to membership of the Church, and that is all.


The dogma of the unity of the Church entails Her integral wholeness, Her integrity, Her absoluteness. Her absoluteness is manifest in Her being the Mystical Body of Christ. Membership of a body is an absolute – one is either the member of a body or one is not: the foot of a body is a member of the body; a severed foot is not; no given thing can be the member of a body in an ‘imperfect’, or partial, sense [7].


In summary, then, it is impossible to be in ‘imperfect’ or partial communion with the Church. In regard to the status of schismatics and heretics, the Church teaches, rather, that those who are formally schismatic or heretical are not members of the Church at all, but that those who are materially so, are indeed members, even if only invisibly so.



Degrees of Participation in the means of Sanctification and in the Truth possessed by the Church


If there is no degree of participation in the Church (text i), then there is no degree of participation in Her means of sanctification and Truth either (text ii).


The first means of sanctification, in the sense of the initial sacrament and the ‘gate’, janua, for all the others, is baptism. If it is valid, as we have seen, it incorporates the subject baptized into full communion with the Church; a subject who is invalidly baptized, or not baptized, is not a member of the Church at all. Any-one validly baptized can enjoy further elements of sanctification in the form of the other sacraments unless he leaves the Church by formal heresy, schism, or apostasy.


As for the ‘elements of Truth’ (i.e. of the Faith), the subject must profess the whole Faith in order to enjoy communion with the Church. The Faith constitutes, namely, an indivisible unity of all its articles. If a subject formally denies even one dogma, he loses the Faith in its entirety. The beliefs which he may retain cannot be described as ‘elements of truth’ in any proper sense, inasmuch as by his heresy, they lose their supernatural character and become simply a collection of miscellaneous, natural beliefs deprived of salvific value. The profession of such beliefs can at most serve as a basis for reacquiring the Faith in the future: they constitute a mere potential for the Faith.




In short, just as the Church is a unity in the sense of an Absolute, so is Baptism and Faith: one  either possesses membership of the Church, Baptism, and Faith, or one does not. There is no degree of participation in the Church, nor in Baptism, nor in the Faith. There is: ‘one body and one spirit [in other words one Holy Spirit, soul of the one Church] … one faith, one baptism’ [8]. St. Cyprian writes similarly [9]: ‘God is one, and Christ is one, and His Church is one, and the Faith is one…’




In text (iii) an appeal is made to the concept of a ‘hierarchy of truths’, implying that:


     -         it is sufficient to profess certain articles of the Faith in order to be saved;

     -         the other articles are not necessary for salvation.


In reply, we have already shown how it is necessary to believe all ‘elements of Truth’, or articles of the Faith, in order to be saved. It follows that no distinction can be made between articles of Faith necessary to hold, and others not necessary to hold. The distinction in question corresponds to the Protestant heresy of ‘fundamental truths’. This heresy contradicts three Catholic dogmas, that:


   1.    the Faith is one, as we have shown above;

   2.    the Church is one, which unity encompasses the unity of Faith (see above);

   3.    he who denies even one article denies the authority of God in revealing the Faith altogether.


In regard to (3), Pope Pius XI states in Mortalium Animos (9): ‘…it is nowise licit to introduce that distinction… between those articles of faith which are fundamental and those which are not fundamental, as they say, as if the former are to be accepted by all, while the latter may be left to the free assent of the faithful; for the supernatural virtue of Faith has a formal cause, namely the authority of God revealing, and this is patient of no such distinction.’




The Council’s theories about degrees of membership in the Church and of Her means of sanctification and truth, seem to constitute a theory built upon the ecumenical principle of ‘what we have in common’. We shall return to this theory in our treatment of Ecumenism in the next chapter, noting in passing that it reveals itself on examination as a naturalizing, merely human way of thinking, treating the Church like a sort of club of which one can be a member in a sense that is full or less full, according to one’s credentials for membership.  



d)   That There is More than One Church


i) [The non-Catholic communities are]‘churches or ecclesiastical communities’ (LG 15);


ii) [The non-Catholic communities are]‘separated churches and ecclesial communities’ (the title and substance of UR chapter 3);


iii) ‘The Spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them [the churches or communities] as means of salvation…’ (UR 3).


If the first three claims that we have evaluated in subsections (a), (b), & (c) above oppose the internal unity of the Church, this fourth claim opposes Her external unity, that is to say Her uniqueness. As we expressed it above, her uniqueness signifies that there is no church other than Her. To describe communities of non-Catholic Christians as ‘churches’ - in texts (i) & (ii), albeit sometimes prefixed with the term ‘separated’ - is therefore to use the term ‘church’ in an improper manner. In the historical sketch at the beginning of the next chapter we shall see how this misnomer was already in use in the first half of the 20th century.


The Council is not however satisfied simply to call such communities ‘churches’ but, in text (iii), attributes to them a salvific role qua communities. Such communities qua communities are however, of course, formally schismatic and heretical and thus not salvific as such, but only in so far as they may validly administer the sacraments of the Catholic Church. We shall see in the historical sketch to come how this heterodox claim had already been proposed by Fr. Yves Congar OP as early as 1937.




In synthesis, the novel ecclesiology turns out to be inadequate in its opposition to the dogma that the Catholic Church is One. Apart from the false principle of naturalism that we have observed in subsections (a), (b), & (c), we suggest that it is the introduction of the false principle of degree, namely in the notion of partial communion, of elements of sanctification and truth, and of a hierarchy of truths, that is the aspect of this novel ecclesiology most hostile to the dogma of the Oneness of the Church.


We observe that the Note of Oneness is the most compendious of all the Notes, and at the same time that most opposed by the Council. We conclude the section with the following quotation from St. John Chrysostom: ‘For this is, if anything, the subversion of the Church, the being in divisions. This is the devil’s weapon, this turns all things upside down. For so long as the body is joined into one, he has no power to get an entrance, but it is from division that the offenses come’ [10].  


1.The First Vatican Council and Satis cognitum of Pope Leo XIII teach that the Church’s internal unity comprises a unity both of Faith and of Communion, the latter unity being a unity both hierarchical and liturgical; they also teach that the Pope is the ultimate guarantor, or principle, of this unity.

2. MD pjc pp.60-1, p.122

In the historical sketch with which we shall begin the next chapter, we shall see the background to such thinking: the search for union between Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox in Malines, Paris, and Germany; in the community of Chevetogne with its concept of a ‘Convergence towards Christ’, and with its desire to extend the concept of the Mystical Body to all Christian ‘churches’; the Protestant ‘World Council of Churches’ with its dream of a Panchristian ‘Ecumenical Church’ and a Panchristian ‘People of God’.  

or the claim of certain Protestants that the true Catholic Church is broader in extent than that which the Catholics themselves believe Her to be

We observe that the modification made to text (i) by the subsequent Declaration Dominus Jesus (16) namely that ‘the Church of Christ… exists fully only in the Catholic Church’ does not resolve the difficulty in question, since the Declaration, by its use of the adverb fully, suggests, just as the Council had suggested, that the Church of Christ is broader than the Catholic Church: that is to say in embracing not only Catholics who enjoy a full union with Her, but also members that do not enjoy a full, but only an incomplete, or imperfect, union with Her. We consider the question of ‘imperfect union’ as such in the immediately following subsection (c). 

6 which would serve to justify the theory outlined in subsection (a) that the true Church is broader in extent than the Catholic Church

7 One could argue that there is an exception to this doctrine in the case of a material Schismatic or Protestant, an exception, in other words, in the case of some-one who is validly baptized, but by a Schismatic or Protestant, and within a Schismatic or Protestant community. Such a person is said to belong to the ‘soul’ of the Church rather than Her body: to the ‘invisible’ rather than to the ‘visible’ Church. Such a person, according to this argument, would consequently enjoy only imperfect communion with the Church. We may reply that such a person, being validly baptized, in fact enjoys perfect communion with the Church in an ontological sense; he is in imperfect communion only in an epistemological sense, inasmuch as he is an invisible member of the Church. In other words he is indeed a full member of the Church, but is simply not known to be such.

Eph. 4. 4-5

de Unitate Ecclesiae, s.23

10 commentary on Romans, Homily 32