Whose Church Is It Anyway?

Understanding the origins of the various concepts and titles for the community of disciples.

In the Catholic tradition, the followers of Jesus are referred to as The Body of Christ, The People of God, The Faithful, The Flock, and the Church(ecclesia). These nomenclatures have been around for almost as long as the nomenclatures, The Way, and Christian. 

As used by Saint Paul in his letter to the Ephesians, The Body of Christ refers to all individuals who “heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit”  “are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit” are “joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love”.

And in his first letter to the Corinthians he writes rather extensively about  the unity and diversity in the Body:

“Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.  Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.

Now if the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be?  But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body.

 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other.  If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.

Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. 

Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.  And God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles?  Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret?  Now eagerly desire the greater gifts”

It wasn’t until much later that the Roman Catholic theologians use the term “Mystical Body of Christ” to stress the powerful manifestation of the divine authority of certain parts of the Body of Christ first made popular from Pius XII’s letter: Mystici Corporis Christi, in 1943. “The encyclical builds on a theological development in the 1920s and 1930s in Italy, France, Germany and England, which all re-discovered the Pauline concept of the Mystical Body of Christ. In 1936, Emile Mersch had warned of some false mysticism’s being advanced with regard to the mystical body, and his history of this topic was seen as influencing the encyclical On 18 January 1943, five months before the promulgation of Mystici corporis, Archbishop Conrad Gröber of Fribourg promulgated a letter in which he addressed the docetic tendencies of some mystical body theology (to separate the spiritual and the material elements in man). Timothy Gabrielli saw Pius’ emphasis on the church as a perfect society on earth as an attempt to save the mystical body theology, with its many theological, pastoral, and spiritual benefits, from the danger of docetism, broadly taken as the belief that Jesus only seemed to be human, and that his human form was an illusion.”

(So, a simple analogy used by Paul to express the unity of all who follow Jesus and how each is important becomes a theological Church doctrine that gives more power to the clergy and especially the Pope.)

“Yet the encyclical teaches that both laypeople and the leadership have a role to play in the Church. “Lay people are at the forefront of the Church, and have to be aware of ‘being the Church’, not just ‘belonging to the Church’.” (In other words, the laity are the workers and bear the burden of “being the Light to the World while at the same time, the Pope and bishops are responsible for providing leadership for all the faithful but don’t always practice what they preach since they lived an opulent life style for most of the Catholic Church’s history even up to the present. Pope Francis has tried to set an example of downsizing residences and other accouterments that reflect opulence and entitlement. Together, the letter states, “they are the Church and work for the good of the Church.”

In 1947, Pius XII later (threw a bone to the laity” issued the Apostolic Constitution Provida Mater Ecclesia, which allowed lay people to form their own secular communities, and establish them within a newly established Canon Law framework which incorporated the following as well.

NOW we get to the designation of Power: the Apostles and bishops

“The encyclical states that Christ, while still on earth, instructed by precept, counsel and warnings “in words that shall never pass away, and will be spirit and life” to all men of all times. He conferred a triple power on His Apostles and their successors, to teach, to govern, to lead men to holiness, making this power, defined by special ordinances, rights, and obligations, the fundamental law of the whole Church. God governs directly and guides personally the Church which He founded.” ( Really? As far as I can surmise, apostles [from apostolos ‘messenger’, from apostellein ‘send forth’] were those SENT to evangelize. They were NOT ordained by Jesus!)

Pius XII tried to justify his statement or proclamation by “quoting Proverbs 21:1 noting that God reigns within the minds and hearts of men, and bends and subjects their wills to His good pleasure, even when rebellious”. (What happened to Free Will and conscience?)

“Mystici corporis requests the faithful to love their Church and to always see Christ in her, especially in the old and sick members. They must accustom themselves to see Christ Himself in the Church. For it is Christ who lives in His Church, and through her, teaches, governs, and sanctifies; it is Christ also who manifests Himself differently in different members of His society.” (Finally a reference to Pauls, analogy!) It goes on:

He is carried across Vatican Square on the Sedia gestatoria, a portable throne carried by twelve footmen.

“If the faithful strive to live in a spirit of lively faith, they will not only pay due honor and reverence “to the more exalted members” (thus the justification of the use of such titles as “Monsignor”; “Excellency”, “Eminence” and “Holiness” when addressing the various ranks of hierarchy.) of this Mystical Body, especially those who according to Christ’s mandate will have to render an account of our souls, (Thus justifying the power of censure, ex-communication, and determining who is worthy of receiving the “Sacred Species” or “Holy Communion”, and in my opinion, misnamed as the “Eucharist”, a term that means “thanksgiving”. used as a tile for celebrating the Word of God in the Liturgy or work of the People of God.) but they will take to their hearts those members who are the object of our Savior’s special love: the weak, the wounded, and the sick who are in need of material or spiritual assistance; children whose innocence is so easily exposed to danger in these days; and finally the poor, of whom is recognized as the very person of Jesus Himself as a perfect model of love for the Church” 

(Two extremes are highlighted yet Pius ignores Jesus teaching: For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. Mt 23:12 It’s ironic that this line introduces Jesus’ condemnation of the haughty leaders of Judaism, the Pharisees, and Sadducees as hypocrites.)

“Finally, the encyclical is principally remembered for its statement that the Mystical Body is identical with the Roman Catholic Church, repeated by Pius XII in Humani Generis (1950) in response to dissension. According to Mystici Corporis, to be truly a member of the Mystical Body one must be a member of the Roman Catholic Church. Other Christians who erred in good faith could be unsuspectingly united to the Mystical Body by an unconscious desire and longing (inscio quodam desiderio ac voto). In 1947, Pius XII wrote the encyclical Mediator Dei which acknowledged that baptized Christians were members of the Mystical Body and participated in Christ’s priestly office.” 

“During the Second Vatican Council, Yves Congar argued that the term ecclesia (‘church’) concerned the people “called forth”, the People of God, those over whom God reigns. “Body of Christ” then would emphasize the special union with the risen Christ that came with the new covenant. Congar was later denounced by the Holy Office for describing the Church as essentially a community in the Spirit, a gathering of the faithful and NOT the holy Roman Catholic Church.”

“The Second Vatican Council would later define in Lumen Gentium that the Church subsists in the Catholic Church. Avery Dulles argues this to be “an expression deliberately chosen to allow for the ecclesial reality of other Christian communities”, implying that non-Catholic Christians are members of the Body of Christ, and thus of the Church.”

While the Holy Office or the Vatican wanted to hold onto its power, fame, and fortune, for me the guidance and discernment lie within my CONSCIENCE  informed by the Word of God or Sacred Scriptures. And while the Holy Office interprets “the Body of Christ” as a two-part entity with the head being more important than the rest of the body parts, I prefer to maintain Paul’s analogy of equal parts and Jesus’ exhortation that “the exalted shall be humbled”!


Portions in quotes are adapted from the Text which is available under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License;

To be continued

About Dr. Ernie Sherretta, D. Min.

Retired Director of Religious Education for the Catholic Church since 2014, granted a B.A. in Philosophy from St. Charles Seminary, an M.A. in Religious Studies from St. Charles Seminary, an M.A. in Counseling Psychology from Immaculata University, and a Doctor of Ministry from the Lutheran Theological Seminary. Spiritual Well-Being Counselor
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