The Reformation and Beyond

The Protestant Reformers, led by Martin Luther, rejected papal authority, did not (at least initially) envisage a divided Christendom, and wanted to eradicate evils and bring the Church into line with NT faith and the scriptures. Luther, in his Large Catechism of 1529, wrote of the Church on earth as 'a little holy group and congregation of pure saints, under one head, Christ, called together by the Holy Spirit in one faith, one mind, and understanding, with manifold gifts, yet agreeing in love, without sects or schisms'. Believers are 'incorporated' into the Church 'by the Holy Spirit' through 'hearing and continuing to hear the Word of God'. The Holy Spirit 'abides with the holy congregation', 'brings us to Christ', and 'promotes sanctification, causing this congregation to grow daily and become strong in the faith and its fruits which the Spirit produces' (10. 3).

John Calvin, in his Institutes of Christian Religion, distinguished between the invisible Church of 'the elect of God' who are 'united in Christ' and live together 'in the same Spirit of God' and the visible Church whose members obey 'authority' and 'act as one flock' (4. 1. 2—3, 7). The Westminster Confession of 1646, the classic profession of Presbyterian faith, embodied much teaching from Calvin and later Calvinists: for instance, by upholding the distinction between the visible and the invisible Church:

The catholic or universal Church, which is invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect, gathered into one, under Christ the head; and is the spouse, the body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all. The visible Church, which is also catholic or universal under the gospel (not confined to one nation as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion, together with their children; and is the Kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ; the house and family of God, through which men are ordinarily saved and union with which is essential to their best growth and service. To this catholic and visible Church, Christ has given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints, in this life, to the end of the world [through Christ's own presence and that of the Spirit]. (25. 1—3)

As Luther did, Calvin and the Westminster Confession expressed a trinitarian understanding of the Church, something that was to mark the teaching of the Second Vatican Council (Lumen Gentium, 2-4; Ad Gentes, 2-4).

Some points made by the Reformers recall views held in earlier centuries: for instance, Luther's language about a 'little holy group and congregation of pure saints' brings to mind the Donatists in North Africa (Chs. 1 and 7 above) or the spiritual Church championed by John Wyclif and others. Calvin's 'invisible' gathering of 'the elect' more than hints at the teaching of John Huss about the Church being the 'aggregate of the predestined' (DH 1201; ND 808/1). Certain themes from the Reformers recur in the later centuries. Into the twentieth century some and even many Catholics wrongly identified the Church with the Kingdom, even if they did not endorse Presbyterian ideas of ecclesial government. But the Westminster Confession includes themes that were to flourish in the documents of Vatican II: for instance, the plurality of images for the Church (as spouse, body, house, and family); the origins of ministry in the will of Christ and not in the arrangements of his followers; and union with the Church that offers all the ordinary means for salvation.

Although it was called to clarify teaching and reform abuses, the Council of Trent (1545—63) did not deal with questions of the Church or the papacy, but took up other issues such as scripture, tradition, original sin, justification, and the sacraments (see Chs. 2, 6, and 7 above). After the Council ended, Pius V (pope 1566-72) issued the Roman Catechism (1566), the revised Breviary (1568), and the Missal (1570). The Catechism understands the Church to be an 'assembly', but insists that it is 'very unlike all other societies', since it has been called forth through 'the kindness and splendour of divine grace'. The Catechism brings up other biblical names for the Church: in particular, 'house', 'flock', and 'body'. It distinguishes between the 'Church triumphant', which already enjoys the glory of the risen Lord, and the 'Church militant', 'the society of all the faithful still dwelling on earth'. The latter is 'composed of two classes of persons, the good and the bad, both professing the same faith and partaking of the same sacraments, yet differing in their manner of life and morality'. The Catechism adds that there are 'three classes of persons excluded' from the one Church: (a) 'infidels' who never belonged to the Church, (b) 'heretics and schismatics' who have separated themselves, and (c) 'excommunicated persons' who 'have been cut off' by an official decision and do not belong 'until they repent'. Finally, the Catechism is the first official document to develop the four 'marks' or main characteristics of the Church: as one, holy, catholic, and apostolic (1. 9).

A few years later St Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621) articulated in his Controversies (1586-93) a vision of the Church that remained more or less standard among Catholics for well over two hundred years. His basic definition runs as follows: 'There is but one Church, not two, and this one and true Church is the assembly of those who are brought together by the profession of the one and same Christian faith and by participation in the same sacraments, under the authority of legitimate pastors and above all under that of the one Vicar of Christ on earth, the Roman Pontiff' (3. 2).

Bellarmine begins with the visible 'assembly (coetus) which has been 'brought together' by God's grace, and then adds the three elements that unite the assembly: the same faith, the same (seven) sacraments, and obedience to a legitimate authority that comes from Christ. 'One and the same' echoes through the definition like an antiphon: 'one Church', 'this one and true Church', 'one and the same Christian faith', 'the same sacraments', and 'the one Vicar of Christ'. This 'public' version of 'but one Church' rejected that of those Reformers who distinguished the visible and invisible Church and privileged the latter. Bellarmine represented the 'one and true Church' to be as visible as the Kingdom of France or the Republic of Venice. Public affiliation, rather than virtuous behaviour, made one a member of the 'assembly'. At least in this key definition, Bellarmine highlighted the human, structural, and public elements and had nothing to say about the role of the Holy Spirit in animating the life of the Church.

Subsequent Catholic theology maintained Bellarmine's model of the Church as a 'perfect society', a highly visible, hierarchical institution that could, at least partly, be compared with sovereign states. From the sixteenth to the nineteenth century various events (such as the French Revolution, its aftermath, and the European uprisings of 1848) and movements (such as Gallicanism) encouraged the centralizing of authority more and more in the Roman Pontiff. Spreading from France across Europe from the late seventeenth century, political and other leaders who shared Gallican ideas claimed considerable independence from the papacy, asserted the supreme authority of general councils, and promoted national churches at the expense of wider Christian unity. Popes, many bishops, and other Catholics resisted Gallican-inspired interference in the life of the Church in a way that recalled the investiture controversy of the Middle Ages (see Ch. 2 above).

What helped to change, at least in the long run, prevailing views of the Church was the publication in 1825 of Unity in the Church by Johann Adam Möhler (1796—1838), a young Catholic professor at the University of Tübingen. Rather than stressing the juridical, centralized institution, he highlighted the nature of the Church as a living organism, a communion animated and sanctified by the indwelling Holy Spirit. The Spirit is the life-giving principle, made visible in a particular way by the bishop for a diocese and the pope for the universal Church.

Thus far this chapter has traced various forces and ideas that, from NT times and through subsequent centuries, prepared the ground for the full flowering of Catholic teaching on the Church. That happened only from the second half of the nineteenth century. We turn now to the work of the First Vatican Council (1869—70).

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