What Makes a Church?

I was struck by the headlines: “Church sermons include time, place for congregants to get tattoos“.  There is “The Church of Euthanasia”, “The Church of Body Modification”, “The Church of Light”, “Church of Seven Planes”.  Then, there is the “1st Church of Christ” and down the street are the “2nd Church of Christ” and another few doors down, “The True Church of Christ”.

Isn’t it crazy!  It is estimated that there are over 335,000 churches in the United States alone and 67,000 Christian denominations in the world.   That is a lot to choose from.  From all of those “churches”, there has to be one Church that is the “Church” of churches, the One True Church.  To begin with, we have to narrow the topic a bit.  For those of us who believe in Christ all admit that Jesus Christ is “the only way to the Father”.

So back to my question – What makes a Church?  Can I go rent a store front on main street and start my own church?  And if I do, will it be a real church?  If I do everything according to state and federal regulations it will be a church.  But, will it really be a church?

William Cardina Levada, Prefect for the Congregation For the Doctrine of The Faith addressed this very question on June 29, 2007 in  a document entitled “Responses To Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of The Doctrine On The Church“.  The document doesn’t question what people of other faith backgrounds believe about their congregations, and it is not an attack on other faith bodies, but this document is to clarify what we as Catholics believe about The Church.

Since the Second Vatican Council, some people, even those within the Catholic Church have posed the question of what the Church is and if the Council Fathers took a new road, leaving behind what we previously believed about the Church.  In fact, Vatican II did not change, not did it intend to change the doctrine of the Church.  The intent of Vatican II was to “develop, deepen and explain” it more fully.  What we have is what we will always have.  We might come to a deeper understanding, but it will never change.  My prime example of change and Church doctrine is always the tomato.  A tomato is a tomato, no matter how you slice it.  The tomato on the vine is beautiful, it has a rich color and might even give off a rich fragrance.  The next step is picking it off the vine. Once we touch and maybe even give the tomato a gentle squeeze, we have an even deeper understanding of it. Next we cut it in half.  Now the aroma becomes much stronger and juices flow out from it.  The moment has come to bite into the tomato, are you drooling yet, and taste it.  Finally, you chew and swallow it and savor the taste.  That is how doctrine works.  The tomato that was on the vine and the tomato that I ate is the same tomato.  The only difference is that I have a much deeper understanding of the tomato than a person who never picked or at one.

As Catholics, we believe that Our Lord Jesus Christ only established and instituted one one Church on earth and we believe that Church to “subsist” in the Church which is “governed by the successor of Peter and the Bishops in communion with him.”  During Vatican II, the Church Fathers choose to use the term “Church” when relating to “the oriental Churches separated from full communion with the Catholic Church”.  We do this because they, like us “have true sacraments and above all – because of the apostolic succession – the priesthood and the Eucharist, by means of which they remain linked to us by very close bonds”.  We call them “sister Churches”.

At the same time, we do not use the same title of “Church” for  “those Christian Communities born out of the Reformation of the sixteenth century .”  “According to Catholic doctrine, these Communities do not enjoy apostolic succession in the sacrament of Orders, and are, therefore, deprived of a constitutive element of the Church.”  This can be seen most clearly in the recent decision of our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI in his invitation to those Anglicans that wish to enter full communion with the Catholic Church as a body.  All of their priests and bishops who would like to continue ministry as priests would need to be re-ordained.

So, to conclude, speaking in theological terms as the Church, we only recognize as a “Church” those Christian bodies that have Apostolic Succession and therefore valid sacraments.  All other Christian Communities are our brothers and sisters and we respect and love them for the good works that the Lord does through them and long for the day when all who believe in Christ will be one body, united around the successor of St. Peter who is the visible source of unity for Christ’s Church.

One thought on “What Makes a Church?

  1. Fr. Jay…SO well written. This was a pleasure to read and provides me with some very welcome background information as well as superb phrasing for use with my RCIA class. Thank you very much. May God bless you abundantly! Mark

Comments are closed.