If the Church is one because it’s rooted in the oneness of the Trinity — as John 17 suggests — then the Church must still be one, even today.
This is not to deny the reality of Christian division. Rather, it is to make a claim about the essence of the Church. I’m talking about theological reality, which, undoubtedly, ought to convict believers mired in, accustomed to and even protective of their divisions. Jesus prayed to his Father that his believers would be one “just as we are” (Jn 17:11), the origin of the notion that the Church is the oneness of the disciples rooted in the oneness of the Trinity — in love, joy and glory.
Now if this is true, we should be able to detect this one Church beyond the New Testament. We should be able to trace the oneness that is the Church throughout history. Which is why we now turn to writings beyond Scripture, to those of the Church Fathers.
However, before turning to these patristic (patristic as in “of the Fathers”) sources, it’s first helpful to think a little about how best to explore Christianity — or the obverse, how not to explore it. One of the worst things to do when studying Christianity, for instance, is to read the Bible as if two millennia of Christian history didn’t happen. That ruins one’s understanding of Christianity instantly. It’s critical to grasp that the Christian faith is mediated not just scripturally, not just by means of individual enlightenment, but by a variety of means and in different ways — by history, art, culture, and so on. To explore the Christian and Catholic faith and the Church well at all, one must consider as broadly as possible all these various phenomena — the Tradition and traditions of the Church, movements and controversies, eras of trial and renewal. Only then can a person truly discover the Church; only then can one follow the biblical reality of the Church through history. “To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant,” St. John Henry Newman wrote (An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine I.5). This is what he was talking about — the need to widen the scope of one’s exploration of Christianity in order to discover Christianity genuinely. But, of course, as the quote from Newman suggests, be careful because it’ll make you a Catholic! The grace and knowledge of Jesus is something both spiritually immediate and mediated. That is, the Catholic faith is faith given to believers in the Holy Spirit, by the Scripture, but culturally too. Which is why things like tradition and history matter, because they, too, deliver the Faith.
So, back to our exploration. The one early Church — where is it? To find it, it’s best to assemble a small patristic anthology, a “florilegium” to use the old term. That is, where did the Fathers describe the Church as described in the New Testament, as oneness? One of the earliest places to look is in St. Clement of Rome’s First Letter to the Corinthians. St. Clement is usually listed fourth in the list of the bishops of Rome — a list beginning, of course, with St. Peter. Dying at the close of the first century, the letter bearing his name is all about the oneness of the Church. The letter begins lamenting “the odious and unholy breach of unity” (1 Clement 1). Writing to the Corinthians, as did Paul before him, he begs them to “get back to the state of tranquility which was set before us in the beginning.” In the same breath he invites readers to think of the peace of God, practicing forbearance so that their community may be one, without “any friction” (1 Clement 19). The letter calls the Corinthian community, beset by divisions and bad leadership, to struggle for oneness as set forth in the New Testament. Important for Jesus and for Paul, it remained important for St. Clement, too.
A century on we meet St. Irenaeus of Lyons. He was an early champion of Catholic belief — correct belief, orthodoxy — in an age of multiple rival accounts of Christianity, when what constituted genuine Christian teaching and belief was for many unclear. St. Irenaeus, in his day, helped Christians navigate those troubled waters, and one of the ways he did so was by reminding Christians what the Church was in its essence. He described the Church not merely in historical or organizational terms, but spiritually and organically. “Where the Church is, there is the Spirit of God,” he wrote. And “where the Spirit of God is, there is the Church.” Not just history or institution, St. Irenaeus sees the Church as something essentially spiritual. Like Paul, he uses bodily imagery. “Those,” he said, “who do not partake of Him, are neither nourished into life from the mother’s breasts, nor do they enjoy that most clear fountain which issues from the body of Christ” (Against Heresies 3.24.1). St. Irenaeus uses earthly, organic and sensual imagery to describe not only the Church’s nature but also what it means to belong to the Church. Believers belong to the Church, not as registered members of a club, but as children of one mother. We’re born to the Church. This image of Church as mother is ancient. Even Jesus used it at the end of Matthew’s Gospel when he said that he desired to gather Jerusalem like a mother hen (Mt 23:37). The point of such imagery is to emphasize that the Church is not like other institutions — merely manmade or functional. Instead, it’s an organic communion. Thus, how we relate to the Church is different — organically, sacramentally, not contractually. When we think about the Church, we must think primarily in these organic terms — body, bride, mother — otherwise we won’t understand the Church at all.
And if belonging to the Church is, in a sense, organic, then belonging is necessary. If to be a Christian, one must be born, then we must be born of some mother — mother Church, the body of Christ, to use these biblical images. It makes sense, too, that there is one mother of Christians. The logic of such imagery is that the bond of believers is like family, a bond that is not just biological but spiritual — yet always tangible and visible. This is how fathers like St. Cyprian of Carthage, an early bishop and martyr from the third century, can say the rather hard things he did. “He who has turned his back on the Church shall not come to the rewards of Christ: he is an alien, a worldling, an enemy,” he wrote. “You cannot have God for your Father if you have not the Church for your mother” (On the Unity of the Catholic Church 1.6).
Today, many find this offensive because it cuts at our modern sense of individualism, and that’s understandable. Yet a few things should be said in St. Cyprian’s defense. First, he was a martyr writing during brutal years of persecution when belonging to the Church was quite dangerous. That by itself— I’ve always thought — calls for respect. Christianity wasn’t a pastime for him as it is for many of us. Second, St. Cyprian was writing in a time, because of persecution, when many Christians forsook the Faith because they feared death. To avoid persecution, all Christians had to do was offer a little incense in honor of the Capitoline gods and be on their way, silencing for just a moment their professed absolute obedience to Christ. Christians flaked left and right, and the question of what to do with these “lapsed” believers tore the Church in two, literally. Persecution gave way to schism. And St. Cyprian — thinking people’s souls in jeopardy because of it simply did not share our carefree view of Christian division — had to put things in the starkest of terms: “You cannot have God for your Father if you have not the Church for your mother.” Yes, harsh, but if what we’ve said about the Church is true, what else could St. Cyprian have said? St. Cyprian is not speaking in institutional or bureaucratic terms or in modern terms of choice or affiliation but, like St. Irenaeus, organically. He’s not talking about institutional loyalty but about birth and life. People are mystically born into the Church; they don’t just join it, he believed. Thus, belonging to the Church is a life-and-death business, St. Cyprian assumed. One cannot renounce it and hope to survive, just as a child would not survive without the nurturing care of his or her mother. This may not be how a lot of people think about Christianity or the Church today, but it is the ancient way of thinking about it and nearer the biblical way, too. And, with some nuance, it’s also the Catholic way, even today.
In this small florilegium we move now, a few centuries on, to St. Augustine, the great fifth century bishop from northern Africa. Writing in his City of God, St. Augustine echoes the Letter to the Hebrews: the “immortal and blessed beings” in heaven — the angels — love us. They are compassionate toward us, for “their aim is for our immortality and blessedness.” And that’s because the angels “with us make one City of God.” They too belong to the Church. “Part of this City, the part which consists of us, is on pilgrimage; part of it, the part which consists of angels, helps us on our way” (City of God 10.17). Remember the Sanctus at Mass. Remember the Church cosmic. Again, we’re not talking about some mere human institution, some sociological happenstance, but the City of God — a body, a bride, a mother, one communion born in the Trinity.
But, of course, this oneness, this communion, will not be perfected in this life. This is not to say the reunion of Christians is impossible; rather, it’s to remember that the communion of the one Church will be perfected only in heaven. It’s to remember that ultimately this one Church we seek is God’s work and not ours. St. Augustine often thought of Christian communities in terms of Acts 4:32, that the Church was a people of one heart and one soul. He thought of monks and nuns that way, the priests who lived with him, and married couples, too. “Out of many souls there will arise a city of people with a single soul and a single heart turned to God,” he wrote. But, of course, the “perfection of our unity will come about after this pilgrimage” when, finally, “no longer will anyone be in conflict with anyone about anything” (The Excellence of Marriage 18.21). It’s a beautiful thought, really — the Church, an organic communion of peace, perfected ultimately in heaven. This is the Church, the body of Christ, the bride, mother. There are so many other images we’ve not even hinted at, yet the truth each image evokes is the same. The Church is no mere human institution, but a communion, the oneness of the Father and the Son in the Spirit. This is Catholic belief, what we believe.
Father Joshua J. Whitfield is pastor of St. Rita Catholic Community in Dallas and author of “The Crisis of Bad Preaching” (Ave Maria Press, $17.95) and other books. Read more from the series here.