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Is the Christian Church an institution or the body of all true believers?


Caitlin Bootsma - published on 04/03/13

A visible and mystical reality, the Church is the way through which God calls us to Heaven

When Christ established the Church and promised that the “gates of hell would not prevail against it,” he was referring not only to an institution, but to those of faith on Earth, in Purgatory and in Heaven (The Church Militant, Suffering and Triumphant, respectively). Lumen Gentium teaches us that the Church is both “a society structured with hierarchical organs and the mystical body of Christ; the visible society and the spiritual community; the earthly Church and the Church endowed with heavenly riches” (Catechism, 771).

The word “Church” means “convocation,” and it signifies those whom the Lord has called to be his own. Yet the Church is more than a group of people who have the same beliefs – she is a mystical reality. The Catechism reminds us that because the Church receives the Body of Christ, the People of God become the Body of Christ (Catechism, 777). We are united with Christ and to one another through the sacraments as one body. It is in this way that we can refer to the Church as a spiritual entity: The Body of Christ, the Bride of Christ, whose most perfect manifestation is in Heaven.

Theologian Henri de Lubac tells us that the Church “has two lives: one in time and the other in eternity” (The Splendor of the Church, 79). While there are two dimensions of the Church, there is only one Church, both here and in Heaven. We can properly say that not only the eternal, mystical reality of the Church, but also the Church as an institution is the vehicle through which the Lord grants us salvation. And while the Church on earth is only temporary, de Lubac tells us that “we ought, indeed, to love that very element in the Church which is transitory – but we out to love it as the one and only means, the indispensable organ, the providential instrument, and at the same time as ‘the pledge, the passing image, the promise of communion to come.’”

The Church is not only the Mystical Body of Christ, but also the hierarchical institution given to us to help us in our pilgrim journey on earth. This complexity is derived from the reality that the Church is not only human, but also divine. Indeed, we rightly call the earthly Church our Mother, precisely because she leads us to our eternal home in Heaven.

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