Roman Catholics and Evangelicals

The Church

Last updated Tue Mar 6 14:58:00 EST 2001

The Catholic word for things that are real but invisible is "mystical". The word literally means "hidden". The Protestant word is "spiritual".

The Church visible and invisible

We all believe in both the visible and the mystical or spiritual Body of Christ. Can there be members of the visible church which are who are not actually part of the mystical Body Of Christ? Can there be membership in Christ's mystical Body apart from affiliation with some part of the visible Church? Both Catholics and Protestants answer yes to both, but in varying degrees.

For Catholics, the institional Church is first. You start with a true Church, then true believers (members of Christ's mystical Body) can belong to it. The true visible Church is recognized by tracing its history back to the Apostles. While it is possible to be a true believer without visibly belonging to the true Church, the authenticity of individuals is judged by their relation to the Body of Christ - which includes the true visible Church.

Protestants cover the spectrum. While some have a similar view to Catholics, the other extreme sees the individual as first. You start with true believers, then they can get together to form a Church. The authenticity of a visible Church is judged by the authenticity of its members.

A middle view gives priority to both the visible and mystical Church. There are objective criterion by which a true visible Church can be recognized apart from the spiritual condition of its members.

The Church and Israel

There is also a question concerning the Church and Israel. Catholics and many Protestants hold that God's covenant with Israel was fulfilled in the Church. Jewish believers are incorporated into the Body of Christ which is the Church. The other view is that the promises to Israel will be literally fulfilled in Israel separately from the Church. In its most extreme dispensational form, the Church is a mere "parenthesis" is the history of Israel.

We believe in one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church

In the Nicene creed, both Catholics and Protestants say they believe in "one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church". But different things are meant by the words.

The Church is one

Protestants, even those who stress the visible Church, regard this as spiritual (mystical) unity. It is made visible by the love which we have one for another: "By this will all men know that you are my disciples.". This spiritual unity is wounded by wars and fightings among believers, but not by the presence of independent institutions.

Catholics regard the visible unity of the institutional Church as essential to Christianity (while still affirming the mystical unity of believers). The only institution which qualifies as representing this kind of visible unity is the Roman Catholic Church.

The Church is holy

Holy means set apart, special, different. Every Christian is holy. If we are not holy, we are not saved1. Catholics believe we are made holy be being incorporated into Christ's holy Body. Protestants who stress the invisible Church believe we are saved first as individuals and then these individuals constitute the Church. The Church is made holy by its members.

The Church is catholic

Protestants believe the Church is catholic - meaning universal for all people. Catholics believe this, but also claim that a particular Church, the Roman Catholic Church is the true visible catholic Church.

The Church is apostolic

For Catholics and Anglicans, apostolic means apostolic succession. The bishops were appointed by bishops who were ultimately appointed by the original Apostles. For most Protestants, apostolic means following in the teaching and mission of the Apostles - i.e. evangelical.

Heresy and Schism

Therefore heresy is a species of unbelief, belonging to those who profess the Christian faith, but corrupt its dogmas2. Heresy can be willful or arise from ignorance. Heresy pretends association with an institution or tradition while undermining the same.

Schism3 is the severing of ties to the institutional Church by a believer for doctrinal, political, or social reasons. From a Catholic perspective, all Protestants are schismatic. To communicate in sacris with schismatics, e.g., to receive the sacraments at the hands of their ministers, to assist at Divine Offices in their temples, is strictly forbidden to the faithful.

It is important to note that separation of institutions does not by itself constitute schism for Protestants. In any schism, there is the question of which side is the schismatic and which is the faithful. For Catholics, the answer is simple and obvious. For Protestants, it is often not so obvious. There is always the possibility that both sides have sinned.

While schism is a scandle to the unity of the Church (both visible and mystical) and punishable by excommunication, willful heresy is an active deception of those seeking after God. Creative Commons License
This work by Stuart David Gathman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

1. Fundamentals of the Faith, Peter Kreeft, Chap. 39
2. Summa Theologica, Question 2.2.11, Article 1, Thomas Aquinas
3. Catholic Encyclopedia, Schism