Catholic ecclesiology

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Saint Raphael Catholic Church (Springfield, Ohio) - stained glass, Upon this Rock, detail - St. Peter's Basilica.jpg
A stained glass window in a Catholic church depicting St. Peter's Basilica in Rome sitting "Upon this rock," a reference to Matthew 16:18. Most present-day Catholics interpret Jesus as saying he was building his church on the rock of the Apostle Peter and the succession of popes which claim Apostolic succession from him.
A 17th century illustration of Article VII: Of the Church from the Augsburg Confession, which states "one holy Church is to continue forever. The Church is the congregation of saints, in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered." Here the rock from Matthew 16:18 refers to the preaching and ministry of Jesus as the Christ, a view discussed at length in the 1537 Treatise . [1]

Catholic ecclesiology is the theological study of the Catholic Church, its nature, organization and its "distinctive place in the economy of salvation through Christ." [2] Such study shows a progressive development over time being further described in revelation or in philosophy. Here the focus is on the time leading into and since the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965).


Communitas Perfecta

The doctrine of Communitas Perfecta ("Perfect Community") or Societas Perfecta ("Perfect Society") teaches that the Church is a self-sufficient or independent society which already has all the necessary resources and conditions to achieve its overall goal (final end) of the universal salvation of all peoples. It has historically been used in order to best define Church-State relations. Its origins are in Aristotelian political philosophy, [3] although its adaptation to ecclesiology was done by the Scholastics. The doctrine was widely used in Neoscholastic circles before the Second Vatican Council. [4]

Body of Christ

This approach of Pius XII moved beyond the "perfect society" model to the "Mystical Body of Christ", a historical designation explained more fully in this document, identifying the Body of Christ with the Catholic Church in a way that would be repeated by the Second Vatican Council. [5] Lumen gentium , after mentioning "Christ, present to us in His Body, which is the Church" (14), goes on to speak of those who are fully incorporated (14), conjoined (15), and related (16) to the Church. This more expansive idea of the Church is developed in the second chapter of Lumen gentium on the "People of God". [6]

The council's decree on ecumenism, Unitatis redintegratio , declares that “The Spirit of Christ has not refrained from using [separated churches and communities] as a means of salvation” (para. 3). [7] This goes beyond the statement in Mystici corporis Christi that says of non-Catholics that “by an unconscious desire and longing they have a certain relationship with the Mystical Body of the Redeemer” (para. 103). Pius XII can be said to have popularized the notion of the Church as the Body of Christ, which was already present in the writings of Saint Paul in the New Testament. [8]

People of God

The second chapter of Lumen gentium is entitled "On the People of God". “People” avoids membership disputes: there are various ways of association; see "Body of Christ" above, which comes from this chapter. Since this chapter of Lumen gentium comes before Chapter 3 "On the Hierarchical Structure of the Church and in particular on the Episcopate", commentators note that it turns the focus from the hierarchy to the laity, declaring that the Holy Spirit "distributes special graces among the faithful of every rank. By these gifts He makes them fit and ready to undertake the various tasks and offices which contribute toward the renewal and building up of the Church" (12). [9]

This is described as a "welcoming judgment on a great mass of theoretical and practical experimentation clamoring for recognition… . The Church´s life does not flow down from Pope thru BB and clergy to a passive laity. It springs up from the grass-roots of the People of God, and the function of authority is co-ordination, authentication and, in exceptional cases, control.” [9]


Subsistence is the doctrine that the Church of Christ "subsists in" the Catholic Church.

Subsistit in is a term taken from Lumen gentium paragraph 8, and is intended to acknowledge that ecclesial elements of the Catholic Church can also be found elsewhere: [10]

This Church constituted and organized in the world as a society, subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him, although many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside its visible structure.

The theological commission has stated that "the elements which are mentioned concern not only individuals but their communities as well; in this fact precisely is located the foundation of the ecumenical movement." [10]

Those who insist that this is a development in the doctrine of the Church often remark that the Second Vatican Council did not say that the Church of Christ "is" the Catholic Church. [11] However, in another document promulgated on the same day (21 November 1964) as Lumen gentium, the Council did in fact refer to "the Holy Catholic Church, which is the Mystical Body of Christ" (Decree Orientalium ecclesiarum, 2). Here the traditional conventional expression "is" is used, whose clarity can be used to interpret the potential ambiguity of the phrase "subsists in". Then again, the council's decree on Ecumenism stated that "all who have been justified by faith in Baptism are members of Christ's body", [12] although presumably including only those who, in good faith, do not pose an obstacle ("obex") to the reality of the Sacrament through schism or heresy, as Saint Thomas Aquinas taught.

The Second Vatican Council also explicitly also states that the one true Church "is" the Catholic Church in its Decree on the Eastern Churches; thus the Council sees no essential difference, or at least views as compatible, the terms "is" and "subsists in". Claiming the identity of the Catholic Church with the body of Christ goes against the understanding presented by more liberal ecclesiologists, such as Yves Congar, George Tavard, Joseph A. Komonchak, and Francis A. Sullivan. [13]

Church Militant, Suffering, and Triumphant

These terms were not used to describe the Church either in the Baltimore Catechism of 1885 or in the Catechism of the Catholic Church of 1992. But the latter describes what is meant here when it says: "At the present time some of his disciples are pilgrims on earth. Others have died and are being purified, while still others are in glory." [14] The latter two are commemorated on All Souls' Day (November 2) and All Saints' Day (November 1). .

Criticism of Catholic ecclesiology

Eastern Orthodox

Roger Haight characterizes the difference in ecclesiologies as "the contrast between a pope with universal jurisdiction and a combination of patriarchal superstructure with an episcopal and synodal communion ecclesiology analogous to that found in Cyprian." [15]


According to the branch theory there are currently branches of the one Church of Christ, each holding the faith of the original undivided Church and maintaining the Apostolic Succession of its bishops. [16] While some limit this to three branches, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Anglican Communion churches, others include the Oriental Orthodox, Church of the East, Old Catholic, and Lutheran churches. [17] The Catholic Church has specifically condemned the Branch Theory.


Many Christian churches have nothing approximating the Catholic Sunday celebration of the Mass as sacrifice. This leads to a different understanding of the role of the minister within these churches. At the same time, the notion of the priesthood is evolving within the Catholic church, [18] even as the understanding of sacrifice faces development. [19] [20] [21]

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Second Vatican Council</span> Roman Catholic council (1962–1965)

The Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican, commonly known as the Second Vatican Council or Vatican II, was the 21st and most recent ecumenical council of the Catholic Church. The council met in Saint Peter's Basilica in Vatican City for four periods, each lasting between 8 and 12 weeks, in the autumn of each of the four years 1962 to 1965. Preparation for the council took three years, from the summer of 1959 to the autumn of 1962. The council was opened on 11 October 1962 by John XXIII, and was closed on 8 December 1965 by Paul VI.

<i>Dominus Iesus</i> Catholic document

Dominus Iesus is a declaration by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, approved in a plenary meeting of the Congregation and signed by its then prefect, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, and its then-secretary, Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone. The declaration was approved by Pope John Paul II and was published on August 6, 2000.

Lumen gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, is one of the principal documents of the Second Vatican Council. This dogmatic constitution was promulgated by Pope Paul VI on 21 November 1964, following approval by the assembled bishops by a vote of 2,151 to 5. As is customary with significant Roman Catholic Church documents, it is known by its incipit, "Lumen gentium", Latin for "Light of the Nations".

Unitatis redintegratio is the Second Vatican Council's decree on ecumenism. It was passed by a vote of 2,137 to 11 of the bishops assembled at the Council, and was promulgated by Pope Paul VI on 21 November 1964.

Full communion is a communion or relationship of full agreement among different Christian denominations or Christian individuals that share certain essential principles of Christian theology. Views vary among denominations on exactly what constitutes full communion, but typically when two or more denominations are in full communion it enables services and celebrations, such as the Eucharist, to be shared among congregants or clergy of any of them with the full approval of each.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Magisterium</span> Doctrinal authority of the Catholic Church

The magisterium of the Catholic Church is the church's authority or office to give authentic interpretation of the word of God, "whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition". According to the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church, the task of interpretation is vested uniquely in the Pope and the bishops, though the concept has a complex history of development. Scripture and Tradition "make up a single sacred deposit of the Word of God, which is entrusted to the Church", and the magisterium is not independent of this, since "all that it proposes for belief as being divinely revealed is derived from this single deposit of faith".

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Catholic Church</span> Major Christian church based in Rome

The Catholic Church, also known as the Roman Catholic Church, is the largest Christian church, with 1.378 billion baptized Catholics worldwide as of 2021. It is among the world's oldest and largest international institutions, and has played a prominent role in the history and development of Western civilization. The church consists of 24 sui iuris churches, including the Latin Church and 23 Eastern Catholic Churches, which comprise almost 3,500 dioceses and eparchies located around the world. The pope, who is the bishop of Rome, is the chief pastor of the church. The Diocese of Rome, known as the Holy See, is the central governing authority of the church. The administrative body of the Holy See, the Roman Curia, has its principal offices in Vatican City, a small independent city-state and enclave within the Italian capital city of Rome, of which the pope is head of state.

In Christian theology, ecclesiology is the study of the Church, the origins of Christianity, its relationship to Jesus, its role in salvation, its polity, its discipline, its eschatology, and its leadership.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Body of Christ</span> Biblical phrase

In Christian theology, the term Body of Christ has two main but separate meanings: it may refer to Jesus Christ's words over the bread at the celebration of the Jewish feast of Passover that "This is my body" in Luke 22:19–20, or it may refer to all individuals who are "in Christ" 1 Corinthians 12:12–14.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Roman Rite</span> Most widespread liturgical rite in the Roman Catholic Church

The Roman Rite is the most common ritual family for performing the ecclesiastical services of the Latin Church, the largest of the sui iuris particular churches that comprise the Catholic Church. The Roman Rite governs rites such as the Roman Mass and the Liturgy of the Hours as well as the manner in which sacraments and blessings are performed.

Ut unum sint is an encyclical by Pope John Paul II of 25 May 1995. It was one of 14 encyclicals issued by John Paul II. Cardinal Georges Cottier, Theologian emeritus of the Pontifical Household, was influential in drafting the encyclical.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Papal supremacy</span> Doctrine that the Pope has supreme power over the whole Church

Papal supremacy is the doctrine of the Catholic Church that the Pope, by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ, the visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and of the whole company of the faithful, and as pastor of the entire Catholic Church, has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered: that, in brief, "the Pope enjoys, by divine institution, supreme, full, immediate, and universal power in the care of souls."

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Catholic Church and ecumenism</span> Dialogue between the Catholic Church and other Christian denominations

The Catholic Church has engaged in the modern ecumenical movement especially since the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965) and the issuing of the decree Unitatis redintegratio and the declaration Dignitatis humanae. It was at the Council that the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity was created. Those outside of the Catholic Church were categorised as heretics or schismatics, but in many contexts today, to avoid offence, the euphemism "separated brethren" is used.

Subsistit in is a Latin phrase which appears in Lumen gentium, the document on the church from the Second Vatican Council of the Catholic Church. Since the council, the reason for use of the term "subsists in" rather than simply "is" has been disputed. Generally, those who see little or no change in church teaching in Vatican II insist on the equivalence of subsistit in and "is". Those who point to a new, ecumenical thrust in Vatican II insist that the term was introduced as a compromise after much discussion, and acknowledges new elements in the council's teaching.

Head of the Church is a title given in the New Testament to Jesus. In Catholic ecclesiology, Jesus Christ is called the invisible Head or the Heavenly Head, while the Pope is called the visible Head or the Earthly Head. Therefore, the Pope is often unofficially called the Vicar of Christ by the faithful.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Theological differences between the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church</span>

The Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church have been in a state of official schism from one another since the East–West Schism of 1054. This schism was caused by historical and language differences, and the ensuing theological differences between the Western and Eastern churches.

The expression "one true church" refers to an ecclesiological position asserting that Jesus gave his authority in the Great Commission solely to a particular visible Christian institutional church—what is commonly called a denomination. This view is maintained by the Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Oriental Orthodox communion, the Assyrian Church of the East, the Ancient Church of the East, the Christian Churches/Churches of Christ, the Churches of Christ, and the Lutheran Churches, as well as certain Baptists. Each of them maintains that their own specific institutional church (denomination) exclusively represents the one and only original church. The claim to the title of the "one true church" relates to the first of the Four Marks of the Church mentioned in the Nicene Creed: "one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church". As such, it also relates to claims of both catholicity and apostolic succession: asserting inheritance of the spiritual, ecclesiastical and sacramental authority and responsibility that Jesus Christ gave to the apostles.

Separated brethren is a term sometimes used by the Catholic Church and its clergy and members to refer to baptized members of other Christian traditions. The phrase is a translation of the Latin phrase fratres seiuncti. It is largely used as a polite euphemism in contexts where the terms "formal heretics" or "material heretics" might cause offense.

A particular church is an ecclesiastical community of followers headed by a bishop, as defined by Catholic canon law and ecclesiology. A liturgical rite, a collection of liturgies descending from shared historic or regional context, depends on the particular church the bishop belongs to. Thus the term "particular church" refers to an institution, and "liturgical rite" to its ritual practices.

The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to the Catholic Church:


  1. Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope, paragraph 22 Archived 2008-09-24 at the Wayback Machine and following
  2. Flinn, Frank K. (2007). Encyclopedia of Catholicism (Encyclopedia of World Religions). Facts on File. p. 247. ISBN   9780816054558.
  3. Aristotle, Politics, Bk. I, Ch. 1
  4. Leo XIII, "Immortale Dei", Human and Community Christlicher review, Freiburg (1945), pp. 571–602, paragraphs 852, 857.
  5. Duffy, Eamon (1997). Saints and Sinners. New Haven: Yale. ISBN   978-0300073324.
  6. Gaillardetz, Richard R. (2006). The Church in the Making: Lumen Gentium, Christus Dominus, Orientalium Ecclesiarum (Rediscovering Vatican II). ISBN   0809142767.
  7. Pelotte, Donald E (1976). John Courtney Murray: Theologian in conflict. Paulist. ISBN   978-0809102129.
  8. Stefon, Matt. "Mystical body of Christ". Encyclopedia Britannica.
  9. 1 2 Butler, Basil Christopher (1981). The Theology of Vatican II. Christian Classics. pp. 71, 76. ISBN   978-0870610622.
  10. 1 2 Gaillardetz, Richard R. (August 27, 2007). "The Church of Christ and the Churches: Is the Vatican retreating from ecumenism?". America Magazine.
  11. Hebblethwaite, Peter (July 1, 1993). Paul VI: The First Modern Pope . ISBN   080910461X.
  12. "Unitatis redintegratio (3)". Retrieved 2019-09-27.
  13. "The Church of Christ and the Churches: Is the Vatican retreating from ecumenism?". America Magazine. 2007-08-27. Retrieved 2019-09-27.
  14. Catechism of the Catholic Church (2nd ed.). Libreria Editrice Vaticana. 2019. Paragraph 954.
  15. Citation error. See inline comment how to fix. [ verification needed ]
  16. "Branch theory of the Church". The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Oxford University Press. 2005. ISBN   978-0-19-280290-3.
  17. See The Christian Faith: An Introduction to Dogmatic Theology, by Claude Beaufort Moss, SPCK, 1943, p. 279, available online at "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2012-04-26. Retrieved 2011-12-25.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  18. "Text of Pope's Letter to Pontifical Commission for Latin America". Zenit. 2016-04-27. Retrieved 2018-04-14.
  19. Daly, Robert J. (February 2003). "Sacrifice Unveiled or Sacrifice Revisited: Trinitarian and Liturgical Perspectives". Theological Studies. 64 (1): 24–42. doi:10.1177/004056390306400130. ISSN   0040-5639. S2CID   170816180.
  20. Brown, Raymond E. (1990). "Pauline Theology, 82, #73". New Jerome Biblical Commentary. Pearson. p. 1399. ISBN   0136149340.
  21. Kilmartin, Edward J. (1999). The Eucharist in the West, History and Theology. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1999. pp. 381f. ISBN   0814661726..