Jacques Maritain Center : On the Church of Christ


The Personality of the Church

Short Preamble

I. In order to consider the question more closely, it is necessary for us, -- I apologize for it, but it will be brief, -- to have recourse to come philosophical notions. A correct metaphysical analysis of the created being shows us that everything in the world has a nature (or essence) and an existence, and that nature and existence belong to two different orders, in other words are intelligible data distinct in the thing as in the mind which conceives them. Napoleon had a nature which made him such and such a man among all; once dead, this nature no longer exists, but the historians do not tire of scrutinizing it. When we look at the things which face us, we see in them, at one and the same time, but as separable by death or destruction, on the one hand, in the line of essentiality, that which constitutes them such or such, and, on the other hand, in the line of existentiality, the fact that they are purely and simply.

The nature of a thing is that which this thing is, or that by which{1} it faces us with such or such properties, whereas its existence is for it the very fact of facing us or of being posited outside of nothingness. In order to be able to exercise this act (marvellous when one thinks of it a little) which consists in existing, it is necessary therefore that my nature (complete in its line of nature or of essentiality: what am I? -- "a man," and "such and such an individual man") be that of a subject{2} able to unfold that which it is in the world of existence and of action ("I exist" today, "I act" today): in other words, it is necessary that the First Cause, in producing my nature, has conferred on it, at the same time as the determinations which characterize it, an ultimate determination of another order, which, in constitution it, no longer only as nature, but as subject, has enabled it, I do not say only to receive, but to exercise existence, and to act its part in the midst of all the other beings emerged outside of nothingness.

2. This ultimate determination, this seal imprinted on the nature, which puts it in state of exercising existence as its first act, is that which one calls subsistence.{3} The word offends no doubt contemporary ears, as much as the word substance. I can do nothing about it. I remark only that to tell the truth it is a question here only of a matter of style. The vocabulary of the ancients had no fear (not enough perhaps) of pure abstraction. Modern philosophical vocabulary is as baroque as the ancient, but it prefers words which in some way provide an image. Instead of "subsistence," could we say "freeing actuation,"{4} -- which is demanded by every nature made in order to exist in itself, and puts the latter in state of reflecting in it, however little this may be, the infinite by itself of the First Clause? I shall continue for my part to say "subsistence."

And in every being endowed with intelligence and with liberty, in other words who possesses the privileges of spirit,{5} subsistence is the ontological foundation of personality, through which this being holds himself in hand, is a moral agent who posits free decisions according to a mode like no other, plays his role in the world with a visage, and an immortal visage, and with an immortal destiny, -- in short, is a universe to himself, whereas all the rest in the great universe of here below shows us only structures in interaction destined to perish one day with the earth. Each human being, however wretched a fellow he may be, is thus a person before other men and before God, and possesses the dignity of person.

The Church as Person

1. In telling us that the Church is the Body of which Christ is the Head, and that she is the Bride of Christ, "for whom he gave himself up to make her holy, purifying her in the bath of water by the power of the word, to present to himself a glorious church, holy and immaculate, without stain or wrinkle,"{6} and that "'. . . the two shall be made into one.' This is a great foreshadowing; I mean that it refers to Christ and the Church,"{7} St. Paul teaches us that this great human multitude which extends itself through the whole earth and traverses all the centuries has a personality in the proper sense of the term; he teaches us that the Church is a person: not a person endowed, in a wholly analogical sense, with a "moral personality," but truly a person, and that this is her essentially supernatural and absolutely unique privilege.

This follows from the very fact that she has received mission in order to propose to us the truths revealed by God, and in order to continue until the end of time the work of Christ on earth. If a people, -- the new people of God, -- has received such a mission, it is because it is not only a people or a multitude, but also a supernaturally constituted common person who subsists from generation to generation, and who in order to accomplish her mission believes as having but a single heart, speaks as having but a single voice, acts as having but a single will, while being constantly assisted, as He promised, by Christ, her Head and her Bridegroom.

2. This is indeed what St. Irenaeus tells us: "Having received this preaching [apostolic] and this faith . . . , the Church although disseminated in the entire world, keeps the deposit of it with a faithful care, as if really she had her habitation in a single house; and in these things she believes likewise, I mean as having but a single soul and a single heart; and it is with the same unity that she preaches them and teaches them and transmits them to the generations, as possessing but a single voice."{8}

This is why St. Thomas was able to say also: "The Lord's Prayer is uttered by the common person of the whole Church. If therefore someone who refuses to pardon those who have offended him recites the Lord's Prayer, he does not for all that tell a lie, although what he says is not true with respect to his own person: for this is true as to the person of the Church."{9}

It is this personality of the Church that we affirm implicitly each time that we declare: I believe in the Church, in the Church one and holy, catholic (in other words: universal) and apostolic.

The Church Considered in Her Unity and Her
Universality Has a Supernatural Personality
Which Transcends That of Her Members

1. No community of the merely natural order can be a person at the same time as a multitude of human beings. A nation subsists with the subsistence of all its individual citizens; it has a history, it has typical characteristics, common customs, it pursues a common end and has common interests: this history, these typical characteristics, these customs, this common end, these common interests are purely and simply those of its citizens, or of the great mass of them. And it has no divine mission, nor any promise of lasting always and of being constantly assisted by God.

It is altogether different with the Church. The Church has a double subsistence: a natural subsistence like every human community, -- that of the human persons who are her members:{10} if all Christians were exterminated there would no longer be a Church here on earth. And she has, insofar precisely as she is the whole one and universal, of the organized multitude of those who live with her life, a supernatural subsistence, which presupposes but transcends the natural subsistence of the individual persons who are her members.

2. It is clear, on the other hand, that subsistence and personality are, for the being which has them, something which informs it or perfects it intrinsically. Whence it follows that the supernatural subsistence and supernatural personality of the Church are of the created order as she is. However profound and however essential the differences between the two cases may be, she is a person (common or collective) as Peter or Paul is a person (individual).

How is this possible, when Peter and Paul are each an individual substance, whereas the Church is an immense multitude of human beings? Extraordinary paradox which marks the splendor of the mystery of the Church (supernatural mystery, mystery divinely revealed), -- the Church, while subsisting naturally with the subsistence of her innumerable individual members, possesses herself, supernaturally, insofar as she is the whole -- one and universal -- of this multitude, a personality, truly and ontologically (and not in a wholly analogical sense, in the fashion of that which the jurists call "collective persons" or "moral persons"), she is herself a person in the proper and primary sense of the word, a person who renders a worship to God, who proposes to us the truths revealed by Him, who sanctifies us by her sacraments, who speaks, who teaches, who acts.

3. Let us take up again for a moment our philosophical set of tools.

Considered in the line of essentiality, the Church has a soul, -- the grace of Christ, -- and a life, -- charity, -- which are a supernatural participation in the divine life, and a body, the vast and complex visible organism which began to take shape as early as the apostolic age and the time of the great charismas: "God," St. Paul says,{11} "has set up in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracle workers, healers, assistants, administrators, and those who speak in tongues" -- so that "through him [Christ the head] the whole body grows, and with the proper functioning of the members joined firmly together by each supporting ligament, builds itself up in love."{12} And according as they are moved by grace and charity, the members of this great organism are animated by its soul and live by its life.

Two points are to be noted here. In the first place, if grace must be regarded as the soul of the Church, it is because, as I shall explain in another chapter, the grace received by her is the plentitude of all the graces individually received, whereas distributed in all her "living" members, grace is given to each one only according to a measure more or less great but never full.

In the second place, unlike that which is the case for the body of each one of us, which its soul will leave at the instant of death and which will crumble to dust, the body of the Church is inseparable from her soul. Any member of the Church can lose grace and incur eternal death. This is impossible for the Church one and universal, who is for always the Body of Christ and the Bride of Christ. It is not only until the end of the world, it is for eternity that the body of the Church is vivified by grace and charity. There is already, and there will be eternally, a Church of glory composed of all the blessed, brought to the state of cosummated grace, and having as leader Christ without there being there need of the mediation of His vicar. And of the body of this Church of glory the angels are also a part.

Considered in the line of existentiality, it is in her body and her soul constituting together a single and indissoluble living being, it is jointly in her soul (the grace of Christ) and her body, that the Church has, insofar precisely as one and universal, a supernatural subsistence and a supernatural personality.

It is so by reason of the image of Christ which God sees in this multitude distributed over the whole earth and traversing all the centuries, as He sees it also in the multitude of the blessed.

4. Is this an original and more or less arbitrary view proposed by a poor philosopher-man? No; it follows clearly from what St. Paul has written. In order to convince oneself of its truth, it suffices to meditate at one and the same time, -- I say meditate, and not merely to bring together with a glance, -- the teaching of the apostle on the Church as mystical Body and Bride of Christ (on this I have already insisted), and his teaching on the Christian as new creature transformed into the image of Christ.

What does he tell us on this subject? "If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation,"{13} -- "a new man, one who grows in knowledge as he is formed anew in the image of his Creator."{14}

"The first man was of earth, formed from dust, the second is from heaven . . . . Just as we resemble the man from earth, so shall we bear the likeness of the man from heaven."{15} "Those whom he foreknew he predestined to share the image of his Son."{16} "All of us, gazing on the Lord's glory with unveiled faces, are being transformed from glory to glory into his very image . . . ."{17}

Where therefore and how do we become "a new creation," do we don "the likeness of the man from heaven," do we renew ourselves in the image of the Lord Jesus, and are we "transformed into this same image," unless in the Body of Christ and the Bride of Christ, and as members of His Church, living with the life of the latter? What St. Paul teaches us is that the image of Christ, of this man Who is God, is imprinted on His Church, that the Bride bears in her the image of the Bridegroom, or rather that she is herself this image, -- presented to the Bridegroom, pure and "resplendent" from the very beginning, and growing from age to age in her terrestrial dimensions as in her resemblance to the inexhaustible richness of the features of the infinitely Holy One.

Considered in her unity and universality, or insofar precisely as the invisible grace of Christ animates her vast human organism, the Church bears in her the image of Christ, and offers it to the gaze of God Who sees the invisible and discerns the grace at the bottom of hearts. Through this image the immense multitude of the members of the Church who live with her life is clothed with an individual configuration, so that by means of the individuality of the image of Christ it can receive a subsistence of its own as if it was an individual. The individuality of the image of Christ borne by the Church is an analogue of the individuality of the substantial nature possessed by each one of us; and just as in calling Peter or Paul to existence God confers on such and such an individual nature the subsistence which constitutes it subject or person., so also, in calling the Church of His Son to existence God confers on her, through this image which He sees in her, a subsistence which constitutes subject or person a multitudinous whole of human beings.

Such is the response suggested by St. Paul to the question which occupies us. It is by reason of the image of Christ, offered by her to the gaze of God, that the Church, according as she embraces in her universality all the members of her body who live with her life, possesses a subsistence and a personality as if she was a single human person: subsistence and personality which, like the soul of the Church and like the image of Christ which the Church bears in her, are of the essentially supernatural order, and make of the Church one and universal a person in whom is reflected "the Divine Being, the most universal and the most personal of all beings,"{18} and who transcends the personality of all the individuals who are her members.

An immense multitude, in space and in time, which has a personality in the proper sense of the word and constitutes really a person, -- is it necessary to be astonished at the apparently irreconcilable conflict of concepts with which we have to deal here? It is the case before which we find ourselves with all the mysteries of faith: a God perfectly one in His nature in three different Person, -- an incarnate divine Person Who has two natures, divine nature and human nature, so that insofar as human, He suffers an atrocious agony and dies on the Cross, -- a bread which we eat and which is in reality the Body of the glorious Christ . . . . Bearing there upon objects transcendent by essence, our concepts are surpassed and seem in irreconcilable conflict, and nevertheless they are joining together without any contradiction.

That the Church of Christ is an immense multitude supernaturally endowed with a personal subsistence and constituting supernaturally a single and unique person, it is simply the sign that she is a mystery of faith.

Attributes, like actions, "are of the subject," of the suppositum, which, in the beings endowed with a spiritual soul, is a person. Let us say therefore that it is the person of the Church who is one, holy, catholic and apostolic.

It is the person of the Church who proposed to us the truths of faith.

It is the person of the Church who is constantly assisted by Christ and by the Holy Spirit.

* * *

5. It is necessary to remark again that in order to receive subsistence and personality in the line of existentiality, this intelligible structure which one calls a nature must be complete or whole in its own order, in other words not lack there any essential element. If a man lacks an arm, this does not at all prevent him from being a human person. But if all five senses were lacking in him, or the cerebral cortex, he would not be a human person, supposing that he could then exist.

We have just seen that by a unique privilege which is the proper mark of the mystery of the Church, the latter, while being composed of a multitude in space and in time, has by virtue of the image of Christ which she bears in her, received from God, and in the proper sense of the word, a supernatural personality. She is a single and same person in Heaven and on earth.

It is fitting therefore to consider that which, in the case of the Church of Christ, follows from the metaphysical distinction between nature and person.

Let us think for example of "dissident" or "separated" Churches such as the Greco-Slavic Orthodox Churches. At first glance they appear as possessing all that which constitutes the nature of the Church. It is true that their profession of faith does not include any of the dogmas proclaimed after the second Council of Nicaea, held in 787. But as this profession of faith (I am not speaking of such or such Orthodox theologian) does not deny expressly the dogmas in question, this lack, however regrettable it may be, from which suffer in their nature of Churches of Christ the Churches of which I speak cannot prevent the seal of the supernatural personality of the Church from being imprinted on them.

On the side however of the vast and complex organism that is the body of the Church here on earth, is there nothing more serious lacking, as it seemed at first glance, in these Churches in their nature of Churches of Christ? They have everything (or nearly everything) of this nature, except that there is lacking in them the leader or the head of the Church in her state of earthly pilgrimage: the vicar of Jesus Christ, the successor of Peter. And the head is clearly an essential organ. Since their separation from Rome, their nature of Churches of Christ here on earth is a decapitated nature.

A philosopher is indeed forced to conclude: however holy they may be (and this they are extremely anxious to affirm, rightly so moreover), they are therefore not integrated in the person of the Church. They are communities of individuals organized among themselves, -- in the manner of a nation, of a people of an innumerable army -- and they possess like these typical characteristics (among which, in their case, the grace of Christ) by reason of which the name of "moral persons" can be analogically applied to hem. As long as they remain separated they do not bear the seal of the real and properly so-called personality conferred by God on His unique one, on the Bride of Christ, whom St. John saw as the Woman come down from Heaven, from God's home, and engaged here on earth in the struggle with the Dragon{19}. They are not the person herself of the Church under her earthly state.

I shall return to this subject in another chapter (Chapter X), in which, apropos of what one calls the elements of Church, I shall try to show that there is a virtual and invisible presence of the person of the Church in the dissident Christian confessions, and to a particularly eminent degree in the Orthodox Church and in the Anglican Church. I shall attempt also to discover the absolutely fundamental and universal element of Church by reason of which the person of the Church is virtually and invisibly present in the entire human race. The fact remains that among all the spiritual families of the world, the Roman Catholic Church, the Una, Sancta, Catholica, Apostolica of which the Vicar of Christ is the head on earth, alone bears here on earth the seal of the personality of the Church, in other words is the person of the Church under the peregrinal state in which she manifests herself visibly here on earth.

{1} "Id quo," in the Aristotelian vocabulary.

{2} "Id quod," in the Aristotelian vocabulary.

{3} For a technical discussion of the notion of subsistence, cf. The Degrees of Knowledge, Appendix IV. It is the second draft of this Appendix (new translation, pp. 434-444) which expresses on this point my definitive thought, and it is it which I have briefly summarized here.

{4} I mean by this an actuation by which a creatable is freed from the order of essentiality: as a picture once painted (nature) is freed from the easel, or from the order of factibility, when it is framed (subsistence) in order to be hung on the wall (existence). Imagery inevitably limping, for it has inevitably to do with things of sensible experience, which are all already existing.

{5} Whether it is a question of pure spirits or of men, composed of a spiritual and immortal soul and of a body which subsists with the subsistence of the soul.

Deprived of their body, without which human nature is not complete, the separated souls are not, ontologically, persons. But they keep their moral personality.

{6} Ephes. 5, 25-2 7.

{7} Ibid., 29-30.

{8} Adv. Haer., Bk. I, c. 10, 2. (Quoted by Father Humbert Clérissac, Le Mystère de l'Église, p. 49.)

{9} Sum. theol., II-II, q. 83, a. 16, ad 3.

{10} The personality of each is elevated in it in dignity by grace. Cf. the encyclical Mystici Corporis, p. 33; and Jean-Herv~ Nicolas, Les profondeurs de la grâce, Paris, Beauchesne, 1969, p. 310.

{11} I Cor. 12, 28. -- Cf. Rom. 12, 4-7.

{12} Ephes. 4, 15-16.

{13} II Cor. 5, 17.

{14} Col. 3, 10.

{15} I Cor. 15, 47-49.

{16} Rom. 8, 29.

{17} II Cor. 3, 18.

{18} Humbert Clérissac, Le Mystère de l'Église , 5th ed., Paris, Le Cerf, 1918, p. 43.

{19} Apoc. 12, 1-6; 21, 9.

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