Jacques Maritain Center : On the Church of Christ


The Church, Plenitude of Christ


1. The notion of pleroma (plentitude), such as one finds it in St. Paul and the Greek Fathers, has given rise to many discussions and studies. I shall be content with noting here that, from the moment that it is a question of spiritual plenitude, which is the case when the word is employed by the metaphysician or the theologian, all plenitude is overflowing.

That is indeed what St. Paul tells us. Christ is the plenitude of everything.{1} And His plenitude overflows onto the Church. The Church is the plenitude of Christ.{2}

"It is he who gave apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers in roles of service for the faithful to build up the body of Christ, till we become one in faith and in the knowledge of God's Son, and form that perfect man who is Christ come to full stature," eis metron hê likias tou plerômatos tou Christou.{3}

And thus this Perfect Man, which is the Church, will return to the plenitude of God, it "will attain to the fullness of God himself," which, in fact, has itself overflowed in the "whole" of creation (nature, grace and glory) of which Christ is the plenitude. Such is the admirable cycle of the overflowing plenitudes.

2. The Church is the plenitude of Christ. Impossible to indicate more strongly the character of supernatural mystery, of mystery of faith, which the Church bears in her very being.

That many Christians lose sight of this, and represent to themselves the Church as a mere natural community, a religious family merely constituted, like the other religious families here on earth, by the fact that it gathers together men professing identical beliefs, practising the same rites and living under the same moral climate, -- this is the sign that they have been very badly instructed, and that in saying "the Church" they pass entirely by the side of the object of which they speak.

The Church Is Full of Grace

1. I said, at the end of the first chapter: there are three who are holy and immaculate, although each in a different manner and by a different title: Christ, the Blessed Virgin, and the Church. It is necessary to say likewise: through the effusion of the divine plenitude into the bosom of the created universe, there are three Persons who, by very different titles, are each full of grace:

Christ, Whose human nature is created, but Whose Person is the Uncreated Word, the Son eternally begotten of the Father in the perfect trinitarian unity;

the Blessed Virgin, whose purely human person was immaculate from her conception, by reason of the foreseen merits of the Blessed One whom she was to bring into the world;

the Church, whose collective or multitudinous person has from God her supernatural subsistence by reason of the image of Christ which she bears in her, and whose soul and life are grace and charity.

Between these three persons there is no common measure. The first is divine; the second is human; the third is not an individual person; she embraces in her, -- in the unity of a single and same created subsistence supernaturally received, -- innumerable human beings who subsist and exist already each with their own individual subsistence and individual existence.

But would one not say that in these three Persons whose degree of being is so different, -- the Son incarnate, Mary his Mother, the Church his Bride, -- God has willed to see, in the bosom of the universe of creation, a kind of mysterious and sublime reply to that holy and inaccessible Trinity which, but in this case in absolute identity of uncreated nature and of uncreated life, is Himself in His perfect and infinitely transcendent Unity?

When Jesus lived on the earth, the grace of which He was full, and which was infinite in the supraconscious heaven of His soul, did not cease to grow in the here-below of His soul,{5} in proportion to His age, to His trials and to the acts of His heroic love.

In Mary, as long as she lived on the earth, the grace of which she was full did not cease either to grow, until the moment when the Virgin was led, soul and body, close to the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, in order to become the Queen of the Angels and of the Church of Heaven and of earth.

And in the Church who proceeds on earth while carrying the cross of Jesus, the grace of which she is full will not cease to grow until the last trials and until the end of time; then, when time will be no more, she will be completely gathered up in the universe of the blessed (where from year to year, in proportion as here below time advances, the multitude of her members entered into glory increases constantly). And it is from there that the heavenly Jerusalem will descend into the material universe transfigured.{6}

2. I wrote a few lines above that the person of the Church embraces in her innumerable human beings. In order to be more exact it is necessary to say that she embraces in her, -- in the unity of a single and same created subsistence supernaturally received (the same supernatural subsistence on earth and in Heaven), -- innumerable beings who are not only men, her members here on earth, but also the glorious separated souls, and the holy angels (I have already noted that they also are a part of the Church). For it is a single and same person of the Church who finds herself under the state of glory, where she sees, and under the state of "way" or of earthly pilgrimage, where she believes.

Plenitude of Christ, how would the Church not be full of grace? Holy, immaculate, resplendent, as St. Paul saw her, "indefectibly holy," as the second Council of the Vatican has said. This is true of the Church in her state of earthly pilgrimage as of the Church in her state of eternal glory.

But in her state of earthly pilgrimage, -- the one which occupies us at this moment, -- it is in members who (except for the Blessed Virgin when she lived among us) are all poor sinners that the person of the Church is full of grace. Such is the case, as we have seen in Chapter II, because the soul of the Church is sanctifying grace itself, her life is charity itself; her personality is the supernatural personality which is conferred on her by reason of the image of Christ imprinted in her, and which seals with a unity as perfect as if they formed a single individual substance her soul and the organism with the multiple joints designated her body, and which invests each of her members in the very measure in which the grace of Christ vivifies the being and the action of the latter, whereas all that which relates to evil and to sin withdraws itself from this supernatural personality. The frontier of the personality of the Church passes through the heart of each one. There where the Father does not see the image of His Son, sanctifying grace and charity, there the personality of the Church cannot be; in the measure in which this or that one of her members slips away from grace and from charity, in this same measure he slips away from the personality of the Church.

This means that the "dead" members of the Church are still members of her body by their Baptism, by their faith ("dead" itself), their Confirmation, and, if they have received it, the Sacrament of Holy Orders, and still worked, although only from without, by the influences, the appeals, the stimulations and irradiations with which the person of the Church surrounds them; but that, as long as they remain "dead," their inmost being, having slipped away from the grace of Christ, has ceased at the same stroke to be assumed by the personality of the Church. If a Pope lives in the state of mortal sin, he can be moved instrumentally by the person of the Church in the acts in which he exercises his mission of Pope, and do then an excellent work. But as long as he lives in sin, he is in his own inmost being neither vivified by the grace of Christ nor taken into possession by the personality of the Church.

In the kind of circular meditation in which we are engaged, we shall be led, in the following chapter, to take up-again, in order to try to extend them a little further, our reflections on the mystery of a person herself immaculate and of whom grace and sin dispute the members. This is the proper mystery of the Church of the earth. What was important to me here was to insist on the personality supernaturally received by the Church and which is a personality of grace.

An Iconographic Attempt

The images of the Church which abound in Holy Scripture are, as the second Council of the Vatican has noted, as varied as they are disparate, -- this is consistent with the symbolic genius which characterizes the language of the Old Testament, as also that of St. Paul and of St. John. And it would be entirely futile to seek to reconcile in a same representation images such as the Field of the Lord, His Vineyard, His Temple, the Mother of the living, the Fold, the heavenly Jerusalem, the Body of which Christ is the Head, the Bride whom He has chosen for Himself, -- images whose disparity testifies to the inexhaustible richness of the object designated.

The author of the present book is not however, alas, endowed with the genius of Israel. He is a philosopher bom in the Greco-Latin climate, and who, in order to better gasp the intelligibility of the concepts which he assembles, has always felt the need to subtend them, in his imagination, with some symbolic representation which satisfies somewhat the eyes. He has therefore endeavored to unite in a same image the two great symbols which St. Paul uses in speaking of the Church, that of mystical Body and that of Bride, and he has asked, in order to be able to present worthily this image, the help of his friend Jean Hugo.

One will find therefore, on a following page, an illustration which I would have desired in colors, and in which the woman with extended arms who represents the Church is surrounded completely with a great nimbus (which I imagine of gold) formed by the face of the Lord Jesus; which recalls to mind that of the human person of the Church Christ is the human -- divine Head, caput supra omnem Ecclesiam,{7} as St. Paul says in the Epistle to the Ephesians, -- He is the Head or the Leader of the Church, but "above her."

And it is the Church of here below, the Church in her state of earthly pilgrimage, which is thus represented. The woman who symbolizes her is crowned with thoms, in order to show that all through the ages and until the end of time she "completes" (as to the application, not as to the merits) "that which is lacking in the sufferings of the Savior." And her eyes shed tears, -- she is bathed in tears, -- which indicates that the immaculate Bride takes upon her, in imitation of Christ, the offences of her innumerable members, and does penance for them.

Her head is the symbol of the highest authority in the Church of the earth, the authority of the Vicar of Christ, bishop of Rome, with, immediately below him, the world episcopate.

Her feet are bare because she is poor, bloody because of the thorns in the midst of which she advances here on earth, vigorous nevertheless because God assists her and protects her on the way.

The Universality of the Church
Is a Mystery, As She Is

1. As we have seen in Chapter III, the Church has a double subsistence: on the one hand the natural subsistence of the multitude of her members taken one by one; on the other hand a mysterious subsistence, and one unique in its kind, coextensive with the grace diffused through her members, -- which she receives supernaturally from God because she bears imprinted in her the supremely one and individual image of the Word Incarnate. It is this subsistence, -- subsistence of grace, at once collective and endowed with an ontological unity which derives from that itself of Christ, -- which makes of the Church, unlike every other community, a person properly so called, supernaturally constituted, Body of Christ and Bride of Christ.

Concerning the universality of the Church, -- and to the extent (and this seems legitimate to me) that one ascribes the word ttuniversality" to the ensemble of the individual persons who compose this immense collectivity (it is their common faith which is her faith), -- it is necessary to say likewise that there is for the Church a double universality: on the one hand a numerical or statistical universality, which apostolic zeal would like to see embrace all men, but which, in actual fact, leaves outside of it extremely vast parts of the population of the earth. It is in another sense that the Church embraces all men, according as she envelops them all in her prayer and in her love, and also, as we shall see, according as one can believe her virtually and invisibly present in all. In point of fact, her numerical or statistical universality extends only to all the baptized who are members of her organic structure or of her body with the multiple joints. Such a kind of universality is that which a system of calculators capable of counting all the members belonging to any vast human community would disclose. One can call it "universality of number." It has no interest for us, it is not the universality of the Church in the fundamental sense of the word.

Let us recall that the Church is infallible in matter of faith insofar precisely as she is considered in her unity and her universality. If the universality of the Church was understood in the sense of universality of number, then it is the thought, expressed thanks to I know not what universal Gallup poll, of the communities distributed in the ensemble of the local churches which would furnish the criterion of that which is of faith. And it is in that which is believed, at the base, by the unanimity or by the greatest number of the members of these communities in the entire world that what the Church holds to be true and revealed by God would consist. In order to see the absurdity of such a conception it suffices to think of the crisis of Arianism, and of the remark of St. Jerome about the stupefaction of the world noticing that it had almost woke up Arian. In the course of the great religious tempest of the fourth century many of the local churches had, at one moment or another, passed to Arianism or to semi-Arianism, and the faith of the Church was saved only by saints of an admirable grandeur and of an invincible steadfastness, -- an Athanasius, a Hilary of Poitiers.

2. The universality of the Church in the fundamental sense of the word is that of all those of her members who are in the grace of Christ, and who do not hinder the assistance of His Spirit received by the person of the Church, -- and in which each can participate either directly if he is himself interiorly illuminated by the sensus fidei proper to the "holy people of God,"{8} or through the agency of the teaching and of the decisions of the Church if he adheres to them willingly. Such a universality is a universality of grace, as such invisible to our eyes. But it becomes evident to us each time that from above the ordinary or extraordinary magisterium causes our ears to hear the voice of the person of the Church, -- this by the Pope speaking ex cathedra, or by the ecumenical Councils bringing together in a single and same testimony, in union with the Pope, the episcopate of the entire world, or by the unity and the continuity through the centuries of the teaching everywhere given by the bishops. In each of the three cases which I have just mentioned, the unity and the universality of the person of the Church are sensibly manifested, and the Church considered in her unity and in her universality shows itself to us.

Thus therefore the universality of the Church is as mysterious as the Church herself. God alone knows its extensiveness, God alone knows who are those whom it embraces in act at each moment of history. To us others it becomes evident, as I have just said, only when the voice of the Church makes itself heard to us, in the sensibly manifested unity of the apostolic teaching, -- either by the ordinary magisterium in the course of the centuries, or by the decrees and definitions of the ecumenical Councils, or by the teaching of the Pope ex cathedra. Then it is the Church considered in her unity and her universality who speaks to us, and who speaks to us infallibly.

3. Have I not however recalled just now that at the time of the great crisis which followed the Council of Nicaea, held in 325 (it is normal that the great Councils be followed by great crises), a great number of bishops found themselves one day or the other on the side of Arianism or of semi-Arianism? What would therefore have happened if in the very middle of the crisis Pope Liberius had found a way to summon the same bishops (perhaps in the majority) to an ecumenical Council?

In my opinion the answer is very simple: it was in the midst of the worst confusion, and of a chaos of events in which rivalries, cowardices, coalitions of interests and ecclesiastical court flatteries intersected with the intrigues of the imperial court, the decisions without appeal, the threats and the violences of the Emperor, and with a wave of persecutions, and it was by weakness, fear or ambition that the bishops in question slipped into error. Well, supposing that in the very middle of the crisis all had been brought together in an ecumenical Council, the assistance of the Holy Spirit promised to the person of the Church would have for a moment swept away in them the miseries of the old Adam;' and the same bishops, illuminated by the Spirit of Christ, would have condemned solemnly Arianism and semi-Arianism, as did later, in 381, the Council of Constantinople.

{1} Ephes. I, 23. -- " . . . the fullness of him who fills the universe in all its parts." Cf. Ch. I, p. 3 and note 3.

{2} Ibid. -- "Et ipsum dedit caput supra omnem Ecclesiam, quae est Corpus ejus, et Plenitudo ejus."

{3} Ephes. 4, 11-13.

{4} Ibid., 3, 19.

{5} Cf. my book On the Grace and Humanity of Jesus, New York, Herder and Herder, 1969, pp. 47-87.

{6} Apoc. 21, 1 sq. -- Cf. Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, I, 6. This image of the Apocalypse applies already to the Church in pilgrimage, according as her personality is of the supernatural order.

{7} Ephes. I, 23. -- Let us follow here the Vulgate; it is St. Jerome who has most faithfully translated this passage.

{8} Cf. Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Ch. II, Sect. 12.

{9} The Council of Tyre, which in 335 condemned and deposed St. Athanasius, and the Council of Rimini (359), which under imperial pressure finally accepted an unacceptable formula of compromise and of conciliation with the Arians, were assemblies without ecumenical value or authentic authority, which drowned the voice of the Church instead of causing it to be heard. It is to a Council expressing the thought of the whole episcopate and endowed with an authentic authority, to an ecumenical Council (in the sense in which the notion has been lived and practiced from the very beginning and defined later) that the wholly gratuitous hypothesis advanced here alludes.

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