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 The Catholic and the Church - Mgsr. Fenton 
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New post The Catholic and the Church - Mgsr. Fenton
The Catholic and the Church
Msgr. Joseph Clifford Fenton, AER, November 1945.

There would seem to be grave need today in our country for accurate and clear instruction about the necessity and the quality of that love which Catholics owe to the true Church of Jesus Christ. The affection of a Catholic for his Church is far too valuable a reality to be neglected or merely taken for granted. The Catholic who fails to give an ungrudging devotion and loyalty to the Church ruins his own spiritual life and detracts from the corporate work of Christ in the society of His disciples. In order that our people may be preserved from the calamitous effects which follow upon the minimizing or withholding of love for the Church, some explicit teaching on this point is most expedient.

There is some danger that certain of our people may be lulled or beguiled into a state of remissness in their relations to the Church. From every side today highly skilled propagandists are bombarding us with pleas and demands that we attach ourselves enthusiastically to movements or societies working towards a better social, economic, or cultural order. Most of these ladies and gentlemen insist that the Church, together with other religious societies, can be of service in procuring the particular good towards which they are aiming. All too frequently we gain the impression that these publicists believe that working for their own objective is the best and essential function of the Church in modern society. It would not be too difficult for an ill-instructed Catholic to find his attitude towards the Church colored by such an erroneous concept of the Church’s position, and thus to consider the Church as in some manner possessing a claim on his loyalty inferior to that set forth by the movements for the brave new world.

Furthermore there are three tendencies in contemporary Catholic writing which work to palliate a kind of minimized loyalty to the true Church on the part of Catholics. The men who contribute towards these tendencies seem to be acting for the best motives, but their teaching is inexact and the final effects of their doctrines can hardly be other than the encouragement of a less perfect affection for the Church of God. All of these three objectionable tendencies introduce some new entity which is supposed to receive a share, and sometimes the lion’s share, of that love and loyalty which our Lord wills that Catholics should reserve for His Society. All of them betray a faulty understanding of the nature or the function of our Lord’s Church. Consequently a consideration of the erroneous theories from which these tendencies originate can show us a great deal about the nature of that affection which, as Catholics, we owe to the true Church.

(1) In all the field of Catholic letters, the most subtle influence against a whole-hearted devotion to the Church springs from the now discredited distinction between a visible and an invisible Church. It is perfectly true that Pope Pius XII, in his masterly encyclical Mystici Corporis, stigmatized this dichotomy as a funestus error.1 Nevertheless we must not forget that books, written before the appearance of the Mystici Corporis and containing, sometimes stressing, this distinction are still in circulation and still regarded, in some quarters at least, as prize examples of Catholic intellectualism. The “invisible Church” and the attitude towards the true Church which is motivated by the recognition of this ‘‘invisible Church” are still, and will be for some time, occasions of confusion for Catholic readers.

The “invisible Church” is conceived as an assemblage or community of good men and women in a state of grace, an assemblage which is supposed to extend beyond the confines of the visible Catholic Church.2 The invisible company is represented as in some way fused with or attached to the visible society, in such a way that the activity of the Church (and of other religious groups) is advantageous to the corporate life of the invisible assembly, while, at the same time, the life of the invisible society is expressed in and leads towards the visible Church, Most stressed by the men who taught the doctrine of the twofold Church, however, were two contentions. They insisted that the “invisible Church” was not coextensive with the visible Church and that it was more important than the latter. Thus Baron von Hugel stigmatized as ‘‘fanatics” those who ‘‘would declare the invisible to be coterminous and identical with the Visible,” and asserted that “the Invisible is the central – is the heart of religion.” He believed that “the Visible can so be taken as to choke the Invisible.”3 A prominent student of Von Hugel, Mr. Edward Ingram Watkin, speaking of the “ecclesiastical materialism” to which he is opposed, says that “Among Catholics it results in the body of the Church, the visible church, being preferred to the soul of the Church, the invisible communion of Saints.”4

As the theory of the “invisible Church” has been Popularized in English literature, then, it teaches definitely that the visible Church militant of the New Testament must take a decidedly inferior position with reference to another religious society. The Catholic is warned not to press his devotion to the visible Church to the point where that devotion can detract from a loyalty to a superior association. The more favored assemblage is conveniently invisible. Nevertheless it is presented as the community within which union with God and fellowship with our Lord are to be found. Compared with the affection which he is supposed to give this “invisible Church,” the love of the Catholic for the visible Church would be guarded and restrained.

The men who popularized this position either failed to see or failed to appreciate the true Catholic doctrine about association with our Lord. The basic ecclesiological question at issue between the Church and the heretical groups at the time of the Reformation was this: “Are men in the company of Christ by reason of the possession of spiritual gifts alone, or are they associated with Him through membership in a visible society within which He dwells?” The unequivocal Catholic answer was the assertion that we are with our Lord when we are in the visible company of the disciples, which He fashioned into a society around Him, and within which He continues to dwell. The Protestants thought that a man became a disciple or a follower of Christ through certain invisible graces. They considered the various religious societies formed among them as associations tending to further the common interests of those who were joined to our Lord through membership in the “invisible Church,” that is, through being connected with Him apart from any society in the strict sense of the term.

The Catholic answer was founded on a realization of our Lord’s own teaching and procedure. The group within which He lived and worked was not an amorphous gathering of well disposed people. It was the company of the disciples, men and women whom He had invited into His presence, and whom He formed, during the course of His public life, into a visible society. It was within the ranks of this community that He recognized His brothers, His sisters, and His mother. He promised this visible community, the society over which Peter was commissioned to preside as His vicar, that the gates of hell would not prevail against it. When, before the ascension, He declared that He would be with His followers all days, even to the consummation of the world, he addressed His words to the members of the visible society within which He dwells.

To the members of this society, He gave the special and unequivocal order to love one another. He had fashioned this group into the house or the family of God, and He commanded that the members of this family should so distinguish themselves by their affection, one for another, as to he readily recognizable as His followers. The mutual love and loyalty of Catholics was not in any way meant to prevent or to impede an affection of Catholics for those who are not of the true fold. On the other hand, this love was made obligatory. Catholics, the members of the house or family of God, are expected to love their non-Catholic brethren in such a way as to do everything possible to give these persons the blessings of association with our Lord which Catholics enjoy, as He wills that they should, within His Church.

As a result, according to our Lord’s own teaching, the visible Catholic Church does not appear as a kind of auxiliary to a more valuable invisible gathering. On the contrary, it is precisely the mystery of the Church that our Lord should deign to dwell within this visible organization. It is His will that men should live as His followers, joined to Him and partaking His life, when they dwell as loyal and upright members of the visible society within which He has presided since the day of its inception. The affection and loyalty which Christians owe to the house of God are due to this one visible society and to no other gathering.

(2) Another sort of teaching which tends to minimize the loyalty which Catholics are bound to give their Church is based, like the first, on a failure to appreciate the fundamental doctrine that the true Church of Christ is a visible society. The proponents of this teaching utilize a distinction between the Church as an “ideal” or as a “principle” as against the Church as an “historical reality” or as an “institution.” This doctrine would claim association with our Lord only for those acts of the Church which are immediately sacramental. They would separate the sort of activity which the Church performs in the offering of the Mass from the type of work done, for example, by the Pontifical Secretariate of State. They regard this second type of activity as “sectarian” and as in some way not demanding the loyal cooperation of Catholics since, according to them, it is a process by which the Church selfishly seeks her own material interests in the world.

We can only see the ineptitude of this doctrine when we realize that our Lord formed the company of the disciples, within which He dwells, and within which He wills that all men should be associated with Him, into a perfect society, independent of the state and of any other natural social body. The Church which He loves, the society whose members are expected to show one another a special, manifest, and supernatural affection, is an organization empowered to hold and administer property and to deal with the various mundane powers. Hence the love which our Lord commands for and within His Church demands a loyal and ungrudging co-operation with the work of the Church leaders in the actual government and direction of God’s kingdom on earth. Whatever steps the Church takes for its own wellbeing, for a better set of arrangements with temporal powers for instance, are made for the advancement of our Lord’s work in this world. The effectiveness of the corporate work of our Lord’s disciples on earth depends upon the affectionate loyalty with which the members of the Church co-operate in the activity directed by the leaders whom God has placed over His Church. Thus, any attempt to rationalize an antagonism on the part of Catholics towards the efforts of their spiritual leaders on the grounds that these efforts are being directed towards “institutional” or “sectarian,” as opposed to spiritual ends, constitutes an opposition to our Lord’s work in this world.

(3) The third tendency which tends to minimize a Catholic’s obligation of loyalty and affection towards the true Church comes from a radical misconception of the Church’s essential function. Actually, as the Vatican Council has taught us, the Church is in the world in order to carry on the salutary work of the redemption, the work of our Lord Himself.5 It seeks to bring men the forgiveness of sin and the life of grace which our Lord procured for them by His death. But, according to the commission it has received from God, it strives to bring these favors to men by bringing them into its own company. It recognizes the world outside of itself as corporately opposed to the will of Christ, and, since the first Christian Pentecost it has labored to save men by withdrawing them from “this perverse generation”6 which constitutes the city of man. This has been, and until the end of time will be, the procedure of Christ’s Church on earth. This is the work of Christ in the world.

In recent years there has been a growing tendency on the part of some Catholic publicists to teach that the attitude of the Church towards the world, and so, by inference, the work of the Church has been modified in our generation. These men have come to believe that today the work of Christ in the world consists preeminently in combating such errors as secularism and totalitarianism. These anti-religious doctrines are of course assailable on purely natural grounds, and they are objectionable, not only to Catholics, but also to many outside the fold. Consequently, according to this group of Catholic theorists, they can most effectively be attacked and destroyed, not by the Catholic Church acting as a unit, but rather by some quasi-religious confederation of men of good will, including both Catholics and non-Catholics. Thus they come to hold that the great work for Christ in the modern world is, for all practical purposes at least, done by an organization quite distinct from the society into which our Lord formed His disciples. In this way the Catholic Church would be compelled to be content with a share of the loyalty and affection which its children owe to the company which fights in this world for the cause of Christ.

The tendency to parcel out the work of Christ between the Catholic Church and other organizations is far more dangerous than the other two. It offers a perverted interpretation of actual fact, while the other two appeal to non-existent entities. The “invisible” Church of Christ in this world is a chimera. The
Church as an “institution” does not differ from the Church of the sacraments. There is, however, such a thing as a real association of Catholics with those not of the household of the faith for the accomplishment of social and economic good, and for the effective combatting of moral evil. Such associations are quite laudable and quite familiar, but it would be calamitously erroneous to believe that a society thus formed was competent to do our Lord’s work in the world.

The fundamental error on the part of those who contribute towards this third tendency to minimize a Catholic’s loyalty to his Church lies in their belief that the doctrine of the Church, or at least its policy, with reference to association with non-Catholics has changed during the past few years. It is a part of the mystery of the Church that the members of Christ’s Mystical Body live in the world, dwelling and associating with those not numbered among our Lord’s disciples, yet distinguished from their fellows by their membership in the house of God. Our Lord made it perfectly clear that He neither prayed nor wished that His followers should be taken out of the world.7 From the very beginning, the numbers [sic – should perhaps be “members”] of our Lord’s Church have been associated with non-Catholics in various states and in different lesser moral bodies. Catholics co-operated with non-Catholics for the wellbeing of the Roman Empire, while other Catholics worked with other non-Catholics for the benefit of Persia.

Sometimes these states and these lesser societies in which our Lord’s disciples were associated with those not of the fold were mutually antagonistic. Usually they professed devotion for justice and hostility to evil. The Catholics who have entered or who have lived in these various societies since the beginning of the Church have doubtless frequently considered them beneficent. They did not, however, make the mistake of believing that any other society shared with the Church its particular function of doing the work of Christ in the world.

It is important for us to remember that the position of the Church has not changed, and will not change. Its children still live and associate with those not of the fold. They are permitted to join, as indeed they must join, with those not of the true faith for the procurement of the benefits requisite to society. They live as citizens of diverse and sometimes mutually hostile states.

They are counted, along with non-Catholics, in various societies which are pledged to procure not only material, but also cultural and social benefits, and to combat the ills that threaten civilization itself. Yet, in the midst of all these shifting associations, the Church within which they dwell and which they love as Christ loved it stands firm. Our Lord lives and rules within it as He has since the day of its inception. Within that Church He commands, as He always has commanded, that its members love one another with a special and manifest affection. He works, and His members work with Him, to draw other men towards that Church in order that through it they may enjoy with us the benefits of association with Him. The world, in the midst of which His members dwell, is still arrayed against him. Yet, among His members, He is in the world.

The company of His followers, the one society that must fight to stay together against the hostile efforts of the city of man in order to continue the work of the redemption is, and always will be, the Catholic Church. To that Church, now as ever, the Catholic must give the affectionate allegiance due to the house of God. No other group in this world stands above it. No other society shares, or can share, its function as the company within which Christ lives and works.

Catholics, whom our Lord commands to love their Church, can fail in their loyalty towards it, not only through imagining some other group which is supposed to share in the Church’s prerogatives, but also by making one portion of the Church more important than the whole. Those who exalt the Church within their country, or their diocese, or their religious order, as in some way deserving of affection at the expense of the entire Catholic society tend only to divide the kingdom of God. So, in a much more blatant fashion, do those who indulge in the vagaries of anticlericalism, and those who, on the pretext of seeking greater perfection, look with disdain upon their fellow Catholics and upon the spiritual instructions utilized by their fellow Catholics. Men will not he harmed by movements such as these if they reflect upon the fact that Christ dwells, and wishes to be loved, in the Church Catholic which He formed and which He guides in the world.

The Catholic University of America, Washington, D. C.

1. AAS, XXXV (1943), 224.
2. Cf. Otto Karrer, Religions of Mankind (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1938), p. 262.
3. Cf. Essays and Addresses on the Philosophy of Religion (London and Toronto: J. M. Dent and Sons, Ltd.; New York: E. P. Dutton and Co., Inc. 1931), I, 231.
4. The Catholic Centre (London: Sheed and Ward, 1943), p. 139.
5. Cf. DB, 1821.
6. Cf. Acts, 2:40.
7. Cf. John, 17:15.

In Christ our King.
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