Visibility of the Church

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Scripture clearly shows that the Church must appear visibly in the world. Yet Catholics and their separated brethren are split on the precise way in which the visibility of the Church is related to its essence as well as upon the precise nature of the elements that necessarily belong to the Church's visible side. To understand the gulf separating the two points of view it is necessary to investigate the extension of the visibility of the Church, its ultimate foundation, and its final perfection.

"The Church is visible because it is a Body" (H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum 3300). This affirmation of Pope Leo XIII reflects the scriptural designations of the Church as the "body of Christ" (1 Cor 12.27; Eph4.12), the "people of God" (Heb 4.9; 1 Pt 2.10), the "house of God" (Heb 10.21; cf. 1 Pt 4.17), the "city of the living God" (Heb 12.22; cf. Rv 3.12). It reflects, too, the constant mention in the m of visibly determinable local ChurchesChurches to which St. Paul wrote his various letters.

However, it is not the existence but the precise nature of this visibility that divides Catholic and Protestant. For most Protestants the Church is essentially invisible. Its visible elements are necessary for the presence and spread of the invisible Church but are not to be completely identified with it. The visible elements are not so united to the invisible elements that together they constitute but one Church in a manner analogous to the way that the invisible soul and the visible body constitute a single man.

In the Catholic concept, however, visibility belongs to the very essence of the Church. In the Church Christ does work through the Spirit (see soul of the church) to bind the members together in an invisible union through the possession of common supernatural virtues and gifts. But at the same time the Church also has a Christ-instituted visible side. In its teaching authority and ruling authority, in its discernible priestly office and sacramental ministry, in the whole Body of its membership that is identified by baptism and the acceptance of a common faith and a common ruling authority, Christ also works through the Holy Spirit. And the whole organismboth in its invisible and visible aspectsconstitutes but one Church. Thus, visibility is an essential component of the mystery of the Church, and the profession of belief in the Church made in the Creeds is a profession of belief in the Church in its total extension, visible and invisible.

The ultimate ground for the compenetration of the visible and invisible, the divine and the human, in the Church is the divine plan of salvation that culminates in Christ. Throughout the OT period the invisible God carried on His salvific purpose through visible men. In Christ (see jesus christ, articles on) this process reached its climax; in Him the divine became so immersed in the human and the visible that the acts of One who walked on earth in visible form became the cause of universal eternal salvation (see incarnation). It is this salvific work that is continued in the Church by a union of the divine power and visible human elements that is analogous to the union of the divine and human in Christ.

This does not mean that the visible element in the Church is now perfect as is the human element in Christ. Only on the last day (see parousia), when all creation will be utterly subjected to the rule of the Spirit and the definitive reign of God over things invisible and visible is establishedonly then will the visible element in the Church be perfect. Until then the Church's visible aspect will remain a blend of the imperfect and the perfect: imperfect in the prudential judgments of its leaders, in the lives of all its members; perfect (at least in a limited sense) in the efficacy of its Sacraments, in the infallibility of its teaching office. Through these latter perfect elements the Church points to and anticipates the perfection of the last days.

See Also: miracle, moral (the church); marks of the church; mystical body of christ; church, articles on.

Bibliography: j. b. walz, Die Sichtbarkeit der Kirche (Würzburg 1924). e. dublanchy, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant et al. (Paris 190350) 4.2:213845, Tables générales 1:111516. c. journet, L'Église du verbe incarné, 2 v. (2d ed. Bruges 195462) v. 2. b. c. butler, The Idea of the Church (Baltimore 1962). m. schmaus, Katholische Dogmatik, 5 v. in 8 (5th ed. Munich 195359; 6th ed. 1960) 3.1:391409, with full bibliog.

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