Society (Church as)
SOCIETY (CHURCH AS)
The term society has been in use to designate the Church throughout the history of Western Christian thought. However, it is only within the last two centuries that the term, with its corresponding systematic conceptualization, has found widespread favor and use in ecclesiology.
Patristic Era. Among the Fathers, St. Augustine often applied the term society to the Church. The term in St. Augustine, corresponding to his whole philosophical and religious spirit, has a strong emphasis on the interiority of the intrapersonal society involved, on the community of life being actually what it seems to be, and not merely fair seeming. The basic reason for this emphasis is his conviction that the Holy Spirit, who is "the society of the Father and of the Son" within the Trinity, is also the ground of the Church as a society:
… the society of the unity of the Church of God, outside of which there is no forgiveness of sins, is, as it were, the proper work of the Holy Spirit (the Father and the Son, to be sure, working together with Him), because the Holy Spirit Himself is in a certain sense the society of the Father and of the Son (Serm. 71.20.33; Patrologia Latina 38:463).
"The society by which we are made the one Body of God's only Son, is the Spirit's role" (ibid. 17.28; Patrologia Latina 38:461). "… no one can achieve eternal life and salvation apart from the society of Christ, which is realized in Him and with Him, when we are bathed in His Sacraments and incorporated into His members" (Pecc. merit. 3.11.19; Corpus scriptorum ecclesiasticorum latinorum, 60:145). Augustine asks, "How should the city of God … originate, develop, and attain its destiny, if the life of the saints were not a social life?" (Civ. 19.5; Corpus Christianorum. Series latina 48:669.) Even "the peace of the heavenly city," which is the glorious Church of heaven, is called "the perfectly ordered and harmonious society of those who find their joy in God and in one another in God" (ibid. 19.13; Corpus Christianorum. Series latina 48:679). Augustine's generic understanding of what a society is can be gathered from a phrase of the City of God: "… an assemblage of reasonable beings joined in society by their harmonious sharing in the object of their love" (ibid. 19.24; Corpus Christianorum. Series latina 48:695).
Medieval and Later Scholasticism. Notwithstanding Augustine's patronage, the term society was slow to become one of the abstract collective names commonly used to designate the Church. Rather these were in large measure derived from the name ecclesia, which the Fathers and the scholastics explained etymologically as God's "convocation" of His people, with the "congregation" of the faithful resulting from God's calling (see St. Isidore of Seville, De eccles. off. 1.1.2; Patrologia Latina 83:739–740).
The following are examples of the continuing, though relatively minor, use of the term society. St. Thomas Aquinas, who uses the term rather infrequently, says that the grace of the Eucharist is "the Mystical Body of Christ, which is the society of the saints" (Summa theologiae, 3a, 80.4), thus intimately linking the society or communion of the saints with the Eucharistic Communion. In an Augustinian phrase St. Thomas calls the heavenly Church "the well ordered society of those who enjoy the vision of God" (C. gent. 4.50); it is St. Thomas's view that citizenship in the city of God "will not be annulled in the future world but perfected" (In 3 sent. 33.1.4). For a similar use of the term society with respect to the heavenly Church, (see Summa theologiae, 1a2ae, 4.8; De carit. 2; De vit. spir. 2; In 1 Cor. 10. lect. 5; In 3 sent. 19.5.1). In St. Thomas the concept society emphasizes the community of life, the interdependence (the ordo ad invicem ) of those who share in the same common good (here the ordo ad Deum ).
Among the controversialists St. Robert Bellarmine uses the term society only rarely (see De eccl. mil. 5, 12). It is interesting to note that Bellarmine employs the concept society as an argument for the visibility of the church. "The Church is a society, not of angels or of souls, but of men" (De eccl. mil. 12). Hence, as a society made up of men, it must be structured visibly, with visible criteria for membership, so that its members can know who their fellows are.
Modern Era. The importance that the term and concept society have in the ecclesiology of the last two centuries can be judged by examining their use in Church documents and also in the unofficial, though historically important, two schemata on the Church prepared for Vatican I.
Pius IX's Syllabus errorum (Dec. 8, 1864) stresses that the Church is "a true and perfect society, wholly free" (H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum, 2919). Since the Syllabus was to set the guidelines for the theological commission in working up the preliminary drafts for Vatican I (see J. D. Mansi, Sacrorum Conciliorum nova et amplissima collectio, 49:621), the theme of the Church as "a true and perfect society, wholly free," not unexpectedly had a prominent place in the first schema on the Church, and also, in a lesser degree, in the second schema.
The first schema (ibid. 51:539–553) uses the term and concept society as its main theme. The Church is portrayed as "the society of salvation" (ch. 8), "the society of life" (ch. 9), the unique repository of Christ's light and grace, wholly competent within its own resources to achieve its mission, and totally independent of any tutelage of the state. Hence it is "a true and perfect society" (ch. 3). Although a visible human society, it belongs to an order wholly transcending the purely natural level, because the indwelling Holy Spirit is the ground of its unity and life. As a society it is a sign to the nations, discernible from other religious groupings that challenge its unique mission. It is a society that requires a harmonious coexistence with the state.
The anti-Protestant orientation of this development is clear. Over against the traditional Protestant theme of the invisible, or hidden, church, the schema teaches that the Christian religion is not un-churched, but divinely incorporated in a true society, which is not optional but the one peremptory means of salvation for all men. In the face of a more recent development in Protestant ecclesiology, dating from the 18th century, in which many Protestant theologians and jurists, often under the spirit of the Enlightenment, and using categories taken from the philosophy of society, presented the empiric national church as a man-made institution and conceded the state a hegemony over this church, the schema reacts with like categories, drawn from the philosophy of society, proposing, however, entirely opposite doctrines on the nature of the Church as a society.
The second revised schema (ibid. 53:308–317) was drawn up by Joseph Kleutgen, SJ, to meet the criticisms that the Fathers had made of the first schema. Responsive to their wishes, Kleutgen greatly curtailed in frequency and emphasis the use of the term society. However, despite this deemphasis, "it has been judged wholly advantageous," Kleutgen wrote in his covering report on the revised schema, "to state in the constitution in so many words that the Church is a true and perfect society" (ibid. 53:318). Moreover, "it is not alien to the Church's language to call the Church a society," for St. Augustine himself "often" (ibid. ) used the term of the Church.
Leo XIII, who was present at Vatican I, made repeated use of the theme society in several encyclicals dealing with the Church, both in itself and in its relation to the city of man. See, e.g., satis cognitum, June 29, 1896 [Acta Sanctae Sedis, 28 (1895–96) 724–725; see h. denz inger, Enchridion symbolorum 31 1959]. It is to be noted that the pope strongly emphasized the supernatural life of the Church as a society, and grounded its social life primarily in the "life of Jesus Christ [which] … nurtures and sustains each member, keeps them joined together and directed to the same end, amid all the variety of action of the single members"[ Sapientiae christianae, Jan. 10, 1890; Acta Sanctae Sedis, 22 (1889–90) 392].
The social theme is worked through the whole of Pius XII's encyclical mystici corporis (June 29, 1943). Phrases such as "social body," "social members," "social activity," and "society" occur with notable frequency. The following points of the encyclical deserve mention:
1. All social members of the Body "ought to serve in common Christ and His saving work" (i.e., the application of Christ's merits to men through the Church), "all 'who are saved and who save from One and through One"' (par. 57). In other words, the whole Church, acting jointly, is mater ecclesia (12, 43, 86).
2. In this work "the divine Savior with His social Body constitutes only one mystical person … the whole Christ" (67, cf. 78).
3. This common work and service is due primarily to an inward principle, "the divine Spirit who … fills and unites the whole Church" (60, cf. 68–69).
4. There is no radical dissociation, or even any uneasy precarious alliance, between a "society nurtured and formed by love," and a "juridic society"; on the contrary these two aspects "mutually complement and perfect each other" (63).
For the Church as a society of worship, see Pius XII, mediator dei [Nov. 20, 1947, Acta Apostolicae Sedis, 39 (1947) 538; Enchiridion symbolorum, 3841].
Conclusion. Vatican II's Lumen Gentium expressed an ecumenical position that emphasized simultaneously the visible and invisible dimensions of the Church: "the society equipped with hierarchical structures and the mystical body of Christ, the visible society and the spiritual community, the earthly church and the church endowed with heavenly riches, are not to be thought of as two realities. On the contrary, they form one complex reality comprising a human and a divine element" (8). The tendency to highlight one of these dimensions over the other underlies much contemporary ecclesiological debate. On the one hand lies the danger of reducing the Church to a merely psychological or sociological reality by underemphasizing its mystical and transcendent dimensions. On the other hand lies the danger of ignoring the historical and social dimensions of the Church in favor of a mystified or overly idealized view.
The Church considered as a society is like other societies in that it has certain structures and laws; unlike most other societies, however, its essential structures are believed to be of divine origin. Although the Church is to be distinguished from the kingdom of God in its fullness, Lumen Gentium says that "the church … is, on earth, the seed and the beginning of that kingdom" (5). Gaudium et Spes describes the role of the Church in the world, "to be a leaven, and, as it were, the soul of human society in its renewal by Christ and its transformation into the family of God" (40).
See Also: mystical body of christ; soul of the church; church, articles on.
Bibliography: n. monzel, Struktursoziologie und Kirchenbegriff (Bonn 1939). t. geppert, Teleologie der menschlichen Gemeinschaft (Münster 1955). a. rademacher, Die Kirche als Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft (Augsburg 1931). y. congar, "Peut-on définir l'Église?" Sainte Église (Paris 1963) 21–44. u. valeske, "Die Kirche als Gemeinschaft und als Gesellschaft," Votum Ecclesiae (Munich 1962) 115–127. d. m. doyle, "Henri de Lubac and the Roots of Communion Ecclesiology," Theological Studies 60:209–227. j. a. komonchak, "Ecclesiology and Social Theory: A Methodological Essay," The Thomist 45:262–283.
[f. x. lawlor/
d. m. doyle]
"Society (Church as)." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (March 25, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/society-church
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