Reflections on Lumen Gentium, Part 14

14. This Sacred Council wishes to turn its attention firstly to the Catholic faithful. Basing itself upon Sacred Scripture and Tradition, it teaches that the Church, now sojourning on earth as an exile, is necessary for salvation. Christ, present to us in His Body, which is the Church, is the one Mediator and the unique way of salvation. In explicit terms He Himself affirmed the necessity of faith and baptism(124) and thereby affirmed also the necessity of the Church, for through baptism as through a door men and women enter the Church. Whosoever, therefore, knowing that the Catholic Church was made necessary by Christ, would refuse to enter or to remain in it, could not be saved.

They are fully incorporated in the society of the Church who, possessing the Spirit of Christ accept her entire system and all the means of salvation given to her, and are united with her as part of her visible bodily structure and through her with Christ, who rules her through the Supreme Pontiff and the bishops. The bonds which bind people to the Church in a visible way are profession of faith, the sacraments, and ecclesiastical government and communion. One is not saved, however, who, though part of the body of the Church, does not persevere in charity. He or she remains indeed in the bosom of the Church, but, as it were, only in a “bodily” manner and not “in his heart.”(12*) All the Church’s children should remember that their exalted status is to be attributed not to their own merits but to the special grace of Christ. If they fail moreover to respond to that grace in thought, word and deed, not only shall they not be saved but they will be the more severely judged.(13*)

Catechumens who, moved by the Holy Spirit, seek with explicit intention to be incorporated into the Church are by that very intention joined with her. With love and solicitude Mother Church already embraces them as her own.

124 Cf. Mk. 16:16; Jn. 3.5.

(12) Cfr. S. Augustinus, Bapt. c. Donat. V, 28, 39; PL 43, 197: Certe manifestum est, id quod dicitur, in Ecdesia intus et foris, in corde, non in corpore cogitandum. Cfr. ib., III, 19, 26: col. 152; V, 18, 24: col. 189; In Io. Tr. 61, 2: PL 35, 1800, et alibi saepe.

(13) Cfr. Lc. 12, 48: Omni autem, cui multum datum est, multum quaeretur ab eo. Cfr. etiam Mt. 5, 19-20; 7, 21-22; 25 41-46; Iac., 2, 14.


This is a critically important paragraph in a critically important document.

Perhaps the most pressing concern facing the Church of Christ today is a lack of understanding and, consequently, a crisis of faith in the Church herself and in the essential role the Church plays in the mystery of salvation. People often say that they like Jesus, or they believe in Jesus, but they lack faith in the Church, regard the Church as optional, or are even hostile to the Church.

What has caused this crisis of faith in the Church as a necessary institution in the life of the believer, as the instrument of God’s revelation in Christ, and as the font of grace for the sake of our salvation? Many young people are experiencing a lack of trust and commitment to traditional institutions in general. As such, many are choosing not to marry, fewer are joining the military, and employers are pulling their hair out over the pattern of younger employees to leave a job after only a few months. So, it’s not just the Church that is having this problem. But, there remains the serious and genuine concern that many people, young people in particular, but also older people and even Catholics who are regular participants in the life of the Church, to hold to some sort of disconnect between Christ and His Church. “I want Jesus, of course!” they seem to be saying. “I’ll take the Church to the degree it meets my needs.”

This disconnect is rooted, I believe, in a profound unawareness of what the Scriptures and the Catholic tradition have to say about the relationship between Christ and His Church. Many people think they know what Jesus is about, because of the cultural image of Jesus as meek and mild, nonjudgmental, and loving and accepting of everyone on their terms. On the other hand, they see the Church as cold, harsh, quick to judge and to offer her comforts only to those who first conform to her rules. When I was in college — yes, even way back then — a popular meme among young Catholics was that they were “Christian first, Catholic second,” as if the Catholic Church were merely one of many options among hundreds, or even thousands, of Christian denominations or, and I suspect this was closer to the truth, that the Church was great as long as it met my needs and taught what I believe about Jesus. The notion that there is some dichotomy between Christ and the Church was simply given. It never occurred to them that Christ, as the Head, and the Church, as His Body, are joined in an inseparable, mystical union, and that to separate the Head from His Body is to destroy the life of both. Because we are talking about Christ and His Church, of course, it is really impossible to manage such a separation, except in the personal, imaginative theology of any particular believer who has little understanding of the Christ-Church relationship. In reality, the two cannot be separated, so how far from the truth of Christ are those who insist they can be or are!

The Church is necessary for salvation. That is the revelation of God given to us in Christ, both by Scripture and Tradition. Why is the Church necessary for salvation? Because Christ is necessary for salvation, the one Mediator between God and humankind, and the Church is His Body. Because Christ has taught us that baptism is necessary for salvation, and the Church is the instrument through which Christ pours out His grace in the sacrament of Baptism, uniting us to Christ and to His Body, the Church. One cannot, knowing the truth of this revelation, reject it and still place his or her hope in Christ for salvation. One cannot reject what one knows to be true and remain in union with Him who is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6).

Who is part of the Church? The one who, infused with the Holy Spirit, embraces “her entire system and all the means of salvation given to her.” Christ built the Church on the rock of St. Peter, sending him and all the Apostles (a word which means “sent out”) into the world as the Father had sent Him (John 20:20b), to proclaim the Good News of salvation in Christ and to baptize. “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20a). Established on the rock of St. Peter and on the faith of the Apostles, the Church received the Holy Spirit and became an institution, like Christ Himself, both divine and human. Christ continues to rule His Church through the successors of St. Peter and the Apostles, the pope and those bishops in union with him.

What is it that binds all members of the Church together? Their faith in Christ, their participation in the sacramental life of the Church, and their faithfulness to that structure given the Church by Christ Himself and guided by the Holy Spirit in “government and communion.” No body, divine or human, can expect to survive on the whims of each and every particular believer, individually attempting to discern this snatch of truth and that snatch from among the rich deposit of faith given to us in Christ. This has led only to division in the Body of Christ and the multiplication of churches that remains a scandal to unbelievers, who see in the divisions within the Christian tradition proof of its lack of credibility. Christ would never leave us so at the mercy of the winds of culture, social movements, and political pressures. Only a Church that is both mother and teacher can secure for each individual believer confidence in God’s revelation to all.

Membership in the institutional Church, however, is no guarantee of salvation. The Council Fathers, turning to St. Augustine of Hippo (that most august Church Father!), confirm that merely having one’s name on a baptismal certificate and on the list of families receiving envelopes hardly secures for anyone a place among the saints glorious. One must “persevere in charity,” so that faith is as much or more a matter of the heart, and not only a matter of where you spend an hour of your day on Sunday mornings. Responding to the grace given in baptism, “in thought, word and deed,” is evidence of true faith, and that one has not “received the grace of God in vain” (2 Corinthians 6:1).

But, what of those who desire to be united to Christ in the Church but have not yet been baptized? The Church embraces these, too. Those who, sadly, suffer death while catechumens, studying the faith in preparation for baptism, are baptized with the baptism of desire. Those who, heroically, suffer martyrdom for Christ before being baptized for whatever reason and through no fault of their own, are baptized with the baptism of blood. There are three baptisms, then: the baptism of water, the baptism of desire, and the baptism of blood. The Church does not abandon those who desire Christ under any circumstances, but brings them eagerly through the door of grace to unite them with the One sent to save us all.

Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.



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