Jacques Maritain Center : On the Church of Christ


In Search of an Exact Language

An Error of Current Language

1. "Churchmen will never be the Church."{1} One knows it well and they know it well. They happen however sometimes to act or to seem to act as if they were the Church. And the manner in which current language employs the word "the Church" invites us to commit the same confusion. There is here, it seems to me, a point which it is important to consider closely.

When it is a question of any human society, let us say for example of a State or of a nation, language attributes readily to the society in question that which is done by its directing personnel. When an Ambassador of France pays a visit to the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the power to which he is accredited, he will say to him for example: "France cannot tolerate such an affront," or "France refuses to participate in such an agreement." France! It is not France; it is the French Foreign Office and the French government, and no one is mistaken about it. The language is inexact, but this inexactness -- "France" instead of "the directing personnel of France" -- is normal and without risk, because it is a question then of a collectivity, the French Nation, which has without doubt psychological traits and moral characteristics, but which has not itself a personality in the ontological or metaphysical sense of the word.

If on the contrary it is a question of a person, let us say of a very busy professor, and of the secretary in charge of his correspondence, it will not be rare that on his own initiative this secretary may reply to someone who requests an appointment: "Professor cannot receive you," and this reply can be erroneous, and be contrary to the wish of the professor himself, in the case for example in which the one who requests the appointment would have some information to provide him that would be useful to his work; whereas when the professor writes a report which his secretary reads to some academy, one is sure of having to do with the thought of the professor himself, and with views which he desires to communicate.

2. With regard now to the Church, who like a nation is a human collectivity, but who, unlike all other human collectivities, has received from God a supernatural personality, it has happened that for centuries one has acquired the habit of saying "a decision of the Church" or "an act of the Church" each time that her directing personnel posited an act or reached a decision.

It was thus because one followed the natural bent of language (as in the case of an ambassador who says "France" apropos of a decision of the French government), and also because this rendered the exercise of authority easier and gave more prestige to those who exercised it. But then the language employed was not only inexact in its formulation; the inexactness which it comprised was in itself dangerous and capable of leading into error. It ran the risk of causing one to forget that unlike all merely natural collectivities or societies the Church, Body of Christ, Bride of Christ, Plenitude of Christ, has her own life and her own personality which transcend the activities of her personnel and express themselves by the latter only when she herself employs them instrumentally, in short the inexactness of the language in question ran the risk of causing the mystery itself of the Church to be disregarded in actual fact.

It suffices to read a history of the Church or a manual of theology in order to see how frequently current usage attributes to "the Church" an act or a decision of her directing personnel, without distinguishing whether the latter has acted as proper cause or as agent instrumentally employed by the Church herself, by the person of the Church. This does not trouble at all the historians of the Church. But it seems to me that for a long time this has troubled quite a lot the theologians: having, at least vaguely and subconsciously, the idea that the acts and decisions of the personnel of the Church, even when the latter acted as proper cause, and therefore fallible, were acts and decisions "of the Church" herself and engaged her responsibility, did they not have a tendency, if not to excuse the mistakes and the errors committed by the personnel of the Church, at least to present them under the least unfavorable light possible, without declaring squarely that they were mistakes and errors rightly characterized, and sometimes very grave ones? It is perhaps for the same reason that of neither the populations which were victims of the violences of the Crusades, nor the elder people, the people of Jesus and of Mary, have those who have the responsibility of authority in the Church ever yet, to my knowledge, asked solemnly pardon for Christians for the evil of which the latter once rendered themselves guilty concerning them.

3. Today the situation has completely reversed itself. But one continues more than ever to make the confusion between the Church herself and her personnel; and, this time, it is in order to say that finally the Church recognizes that she errs, finally she confesses her fallibility, finally one can proclaim that she has not ceased to accumulate mistakes in the diverse epochs of her history; and that if Vatican II declared her indefectibly holy, in actual fact she is however constantly subject to error, even a sinner herself. In the final analysis she is a human society like the others, a merely human society to which the Holy Spirit gives a helping hand from time to time, above all by theologians endowed with prophetic charisma who erect themselves into a magisterium, -- a "scientific" magisterium, -- with which the sole true magisterium would be doubled.

The inexactness of language which one thus turns to account in order to impute to "the Church" the mistakes and the errors committed by her personnel is not only dangerous and capable of leading into error; it has become decidedly pernicious, because it vitiates thought by blinding it concerning that which the Church is in reality.

The Church, -- the one, holy, catholic and apostolic, -- the universal Church considered in her integrality is, as we have seen, a single and same person under two different states, -- peregrinating on earth and blessed in Heaven. And it is only, on the one hand in the whole sacramental order (in which the priest acts under the direct motion of God omnipotent, and at the same time, under another relation, as instrument also of the person of the Church), on the other hand when (owing to the fact that the high personnel of the Church teaches then, under an infallible assistance of the Holy Spirit, as instrumental agent of the person of the Church) the magisterium expresses itself with an absolute authority and in an irrevocable manner, -- in other words when the Pope "teaches alone (solemn magisterium not communicable to the Roman Congregations)," or "conjointly with the bishops assembled in General Council (solemn magisterium)," or "conjointly with the bishops dispersed through the world (ordinary magisterium)"{2} -- it is only in these diverse lines of activity that it is given to us in a determinately and perfectly manifest manner to see at work and to hear speak the person of the Church, the Church herself. And the latter, -- although composed here on earth of sinful members, as also of a personnel which holds from her its authority, but is fallible when it acts only as proper cause, -- the latter, I say, the Church herself, has for inamissible properties infallibility as also holiness.

This is what is disregarded today by many authors and orators more than ever sure of themselves, new scientifici doctores who, continuing to confuse in their language, like their ancestors, the person and the personnel, and victims, in a manner much more grave still than their ancestors, of this same confusion in their thought, have now passed to the opposite camp, in trying to ruin as much as they can Roman authority, -- which, as Jean Bréhal noted, is none other than the authority of the universal Church.

For whoever, today, wishes to keep truly in his mind the sense of the Church, and faith in the Church, I think that it has become a necessity to put decidedly an end, first and above all in his thought, but also in his language, to the confusion between person of the Church and personnel of the Church against which one has for so long a time badly defended oneself.

If it was not the act of Churchmen only, Popes and preachers (acting as proper causes), but the act of the Church herself, to have, in the Middle Ages, stirred up in the soul of Christians the zeal of the Holy War, while omitting to condemn the exactions and the plunderings of the Crusades; if at the same period it was not the princes and the Churchmen, but it was the Church herself who subjected the Jews to an odiously inhuman regime, if it was the Church herself who instituted the medieval Inquisition, and was responsible for the Spanish Inquisition, for all the decisions of the Roman Inquisition and of the Roman Congregations; if it was the Church herself who condemned Galileo; if it was the Church herself, though the trial was irregular, who sent Joan of Arc to the stake, at the risk of canonizing her afterwards; if it was to the Church herself that were imputable the court habits and the apparent solidarity with the powers of this world which masked the true visage of the Papacy at the times when it had itself a temporal sovereignty to be exercised;{3} if it was the Church herself who burned Savonarola and Giordano Bruno, and so well "questioned" Campanella that he escaped condemnation only by feigning madness; if it is the Church herself who did all this, then, yes, one can take pleasure in regarding her as a haughty and quite cruel old sovereign of past times, routinish also and pestering, enamored of her privileges and haunted by the concern for power or for the appearances of power, who wishes at any cost to be obeyed while making often faulty decisions and while giving often orders sullied with error, -- all these proud, futile judgments issuing from an absurd mistake and wronging unworthily her who in reality is the kingdom of God already begun among us.

To Correct Language As Much As Possible,
and, in Any Case, Thought

1. What is required in itself is to correct our language in order to render it exact, in other words to employ the words "the Church," "a decision of the Church," "an act of the Church," only when we are speaking of the person of the Church acting herself here on earth through the instrumentality of her ministers.

I think that in general this is not impossible, and that in the cases in which the personnel of the Church is not instrumental agent of the latter, one could, in order to designate that which it does then, employ other words than the word "the Church": one could say, for example, now "the ecclesiastical authority," now "the priesthood," now "the hierarchy," now "the Popes," or "such and such a Pope" (Pastor wrote a History of the Popes), now "the Roman Congregations" or "the Roman Curia," now "the Episcopate of such and such a country," now "the religious leaders," now "the high clergy," and so on, not to mention the word "the curés" dear to Péguy who put into it tenderness at the same time as some peasant mistrust.

The search for the proper word in such or such particular case would doubtless require a great effort of attention, and a permanent struggle against the facilities of language, but it would be worth the trouble of it.

I understand well that sometimes one would not succeed in breaking the old habits and a vocabulary consecrated by usage, and that for example one will say always "the Church and the State." The fact remains that the use of the word "the Church" there where what is involved is not the One, holy, catholic and apostolic in her universality, -- the Church herself or the person of the Church, -- but the personnel of the Church acting as proper cause, and therefore fallible, is an abuse of language likely to mislead the mind, and to which it is of major importance to strive to put an end.{4}

2. However it may be finally with vocabulary, and whatever may be the fate of the suggestion which I am making here as to language, and which I would like to shout from the housetops (but I know well that its justness will not prevent it from remaining futile), it is essentially important to maintain in thought the distinction between the Church herself, or the person of the Church, and the personnel of the latter.

The books entitled "History of the Church" speak to us much more of the personnel of the Church than of her person herself. The term "History of the Church" is nevertheless normal and justifiable in itself, since the Church of the earth is in time, and since she is the person of the Church under one of her two states, so that the latter finds herself always in the background of that which the works thus entitled tell us. It belongs to their authors and to their readers to have their minds on the alert, and to never forget in their thought the distinction between the Church herself and her personnel.

How the Person of the Church Is in Time

1. According as she is in the state of glory or of consummated grace the person of the Church is, as to the Beatific Vision, in eternity, and, as to the events which there also supervene, in that duration which one calls aevum or eviternity. According as she is in the peregrinal state she is in time, -- like us, with us on the earth.

In proportion as time advances, she progresses, through the new dogmatic definitions which the Councils and the Popes speaking ex cathedra promulgate, in the explicitation of the divine truth itself which she has the responsibility of proposing to us. She purifies herself, not as to the degree of her holiness, which found itself at the highest point at the time when the immaculate Virgin had taken John for son, time of the apostles and of the martyrs, but, -- while the number of her members succeeding each other from generation to generation grows unceasingly, -- as to the progress in them of the illumination by faith of the higher activities of reason, and of the diverse activities of human life, -- and also as to the progress and to the deepening, in the best among them (although all sinners in some manner) of the growth-in-awareness of the exigencies of the Gospel, and of the nature of the work to be accomplished here on earth by Christians.

It is true that at the same time the occasions of sinning assume new forms for men. In the Apostolic Age one supposed the Second Coming to be near. Can one not think that the latter is delayed from century to century by the penance which the Church does not cease to have to do for the sins of men?

2. The life of the Church on earth is of an order which transcends that of culture or of civilization, but it is in close contact and in constant exchange with the diverse cultures or civilizations which divide the world; and in passing through the diverse ages of culture it gives much to each and receives from it much.

In the Middle Ages the culture of the epoch made to the Church and to her personnel a precious gift with the critical study of the Greek philosophies and of the Arabian philosophies to be assimilated and transformed by theology. And it made to the Church and to her personnel a very bad gift with the idea, current then, that the means of force, and temporal sanctions, and physical constraint must be employed in the service of religion.

In modern times the culture of the epoch has made to the Church and to her personnel a very beautiful gift with its sense of the respect due to the researches of science and with its proclamation of the liberty of conscience; and it has made to the Church and to her personnel a very bad gift with its aberrant philosophies, and furthermore, these last years, with that infernal enterprise of dehumanization which claims to substitute calculators and electronic machines for the intelligence in the very domain of thought and of liberty: in order to compose a symphony for example or an architectural plan, or in order to compose works of religious sociology, -- why not manuals of pluralist theology? -- even in order to give on a card, to a girl or to a boy, the characteristics of the husband or of the wife to be chosen, even also, in certain convents, in order to make judgment concerning the value of a vocation. . . .

3. The person of the Church is there, before our eyes, manifestly at work, through the magisterium when it teaches infallibly. She is there, before our eyes, manifestly at work -- and in what a sublime manner! -- through the Sacrifice of the Mass, she is there through the Sacraments, through each Baptism, each absolution received, each communion in the Body and in the Blood of Christ. And she is there also, before our eyes, under an indeterminately and imperfectly manifest mode, through the grace and the charity which God gives invisibly when man does not slip away from it, and which are a participation in the soul and in the life of the Church, and which express themselves in a more or less clearly discernible manner by the acts which they cause to be posited. The person of the Church is there before our eyes, under an indeterminately and imperfectly manifest mode, each time that a good work accomplished, an act of justice or of mercy, a word which enlightens and comforts, emanates from a heart in which God dwells. The person of the Church is there before our eyes under an imperfectly manifest mode, each time that in everyday life, and to the extent that we can judge it, a member of the personnel of the Church, -- whether he acts, under a special impulse of the Holy Spirit, as instrument of the Church, or even whether he acts only as proper cause, -- performs well his ministry and uses well his authority.

Finally, even when one of the members of her personnel uses badly his juridical authority or his moral authority, the person of the Church is still there in a certain indirect manner, which does not at all render her responsible for that which he does in betraying her spirit (even, as in certain lucubrations of today, her faith itself), she is there in this sense that it is she who, by a Sacrament, invested him with the authority which he holds. Whence it comes that there is for us a duty of conscience to obey (except if it is an act forbidden by God which finds itself then prescribed) the prescriptions which are given to us by the personnel of the Church exercising regularly its juridical authority, even when, acting as proper cause, it happens to err in such or such occasion.

4. The essential point remains to be said, and I feel very unworthy to touch on it. If as Church of the earth the person of the Church is in time, it is above all in order to continue in it all along the ages -- she, the Body of Christ and the Bride of Christ -- the work of redemption which Christ accomplished once and for all upon the Cross. This is the great mystery of the coredemption. Until the end of time the Passion of the Lord continues here on earth in His martyrs, in His Saints, in His friends, even in the most imperfect of His friends, to the extent that they love Him truly. United by love to His sufferings and to His love, they form but one with Him in order to apply little by little, at each step of human history, the infinite merits of Jesus. Thus their sufferings are His sufferings, and their love is His love.

In Conclusion of This Book:
A Few Remarks Concerning It

1. I have an idea that this book will displease everybody, I mean all those who today have taken position either "on the right" or "on the left." (And this does not displease me, although I certainly did not have this intention in writing it.) It will displease some because of the primordial importance which I attach to the person of the Church, others because of the liberty with which I speak of her personnel.

And, however, of the personality with which God has supernaturally endowed His Church (and on which, in my opinion, the majority of theologians have not sufficiently insisted) one can say, in equivalent terms, what John of St. Thomas{5} said concerning another controverted point: although in the faithful people (let us not speak of the pseudosavants) many take no account of it or take little account of it speculative et in actu signato, in their speculative reflection and the manner in which they express themselves, no one however calls it in question in ipso exercitio et quasi practice, in the spontaneous movement of his thought and in actually lived practice.

And as to the personnel of the Church, each one notes readily, in passing, that, according to the saying quoted at the head of this chapter, "Churchmen will never be the Church." But when one comes to speculative reflection and to historical statements, one hesitates often to mark in a sufficiently firm manner the real bearing of this distinction, with respect in particular to the gravity of the risks to which, when they act as proper cause, Churchmen are exposed like each one of us; at a time, however, when concern for truth and attention itself to the sacred mystery of the Church should lead one to speak bluntly, in ignoring the veils of modest reverence with which the good traditional customs required that one shelter them, of the mistakes and of the errors which Churchmen, when they act as proper cause, can commit, and which in actual fact they have often committed, and which they commit at present for reasons exactly the opposite of those of long ago, -- and which are not mistakes and errors of the Church herself.

2. I have written these pages while working against the clock (at my age one is indeed obliged to do so). On such and such particular points it may be that they contain errors which I ask only to be corrected. But concerning the major themes upon which they are centered, -- the notion of the person of the Church, who is a single and same person in Heaven and on earth, and in whom are inherent holiness and infallibility; the distinction between the person of the Church and her personnel; the distinction between the personnel of the Church acting as instrumental cause of the latter (whose voice then it causes to be heard and through which she herself acts then) and the personnel of the Church acting as proper cause (then it is exposed to mistake and to error), -- concerning these diverse themes my convictions are absolutely firm: to the point that I venture to hope to have them shared by some, among those -- more numerous than one thinks, but of whom the mass media scarcely reveal to us the existence -- who in the midst of a tempest of widely diffused foolish ideas suffer much in their faith, and desire to have done with the demythization of dogmas and the secularization, or profanization, of a Christianity which our new doctors and spiritual guides would like to entrust into the hands of the sociologists, of the psychoanalysts, of the structuralists, of the Marcusists, of the phenomenologists, and of the pioneers of technocracy.

3. What I have tried to furnish here is the last testimony of an old solitary aided in his weakness by her who has always inspired his work.

As I wrote above, I have an idea that today it will displease many. But who knows? In fifty years one will find perhaps that all of this has been very poorly said, but, that after all, it was not so stupid.

{1} Ph. Dunand, art. "Jeanne d'Arc," Dict. d'Apol., col. 1251.

{2} Charles Journet, The Church of the Incarnate Word, Vol. I, p. 350. Cf. above, Ch. XI, pp. 147-148, and note 15 of Ch. VII.

{3} One hears it said often that in the time of temporal power certain Popes did not hesitate to employ spiritual means such as excommunication in political conflicts or wars with some adversary. I am anxious to note here that if we consider things closely history does not furnish any example of such an error; one observes on the contrary the extreme attention of the Popes to respect always the distinction between the two domains. The primacy accorded to the means of repression caused a great number of interdicts and of excommunications which one is entitled to judge excessive, but which has nothing to do with a diversion of spiritual arms for the benefit of temporal advantages.

On Popes Nicholas I (858-867) and John VIII, who symbolize the apogee of the Papacy in the High Middle Ages, cf. W. Ullemann, The Growth of Papal Government in the Middle Ages, 1962.

{4} Supposing that one will have resolved this pernicious ambiguity, the word "Church" will keep still, under other relations, an ambiguity which Jean Bréhal noted a long time ago, and which entails no disadvantage, for it does not run the risk of leading astray the mind. This word designates above all the universal Church in her proper mystery, which is object of our faith and on which so much insistence is placed in the present book. But it designates also such and such a "Church" (Catholic) of a given rite; and such and such a local "Church," "the Church of Lyons" for example; and such and such a dissident "Church," "the Anglican Church" for example.

In speaking in his own way of the ambiguity of the word "Church," Bréhal supposed even that the simplicity of Joan of Arc ran the risk of causing her to confuse "the Church" to which the judges of Rouen asked her to submit and "the Church" to which one goes every Sunday. But Bréhal nevertheless exaggerated a little.

{5} Curs. theol., II-II, q. 1, a. 7; disp. 2, a. 2, no 10 and 40; t. VII, pp. 233 and 248. Cf. Ch. Journet, op. cit., p. 344.

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