The Visible Unity of the Church III – reconciling the Church’s teachings about her own unity with the current crisis

“Though they may be utter strangers to each other in the flesh, and divided in temporal position as far as men can be divided from their fellow-men, there will be found one and the self-same faith, one and the self-same rule of morals, the self-same sacraments, and the self-same belief respecting those sacraments; there will be found but one mind, one heart, and one voice, as regards all the doctrines and commandments of the Church. This is unity, and it is divine; it is no mere human coincidence or contrivance. The finger of God is here, reversing the confusion of Babel. It is the unity of God’s one Church throughout the universal globe; and it has been her unity through more than eighteen centuries and a half. It is a matter to be looked to, and a test to be applied, for the absence of such unity denotes the absence of God.”

The Visible Unity of the Catholic Church Maintained against Opposite Theories Vol I, M.J. Rhodes,1870[1]

“The Church of Christ – which not only subsists in the Catholic Church, but is exclusively the Catholic Church – is only obscured and eclipsed by a strange extravagant Church established in Rome, according to the vision of Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich.”

Carlo Maria Vigano, 1 September 2020[2]

This article is part of a trilogy.

Part I gives an overview of the meaning of the visible unity of the Church in her profession of faith, and the nature of the problem faced today.

Part II goes into greater detail, citing theologians and other sources to establish beyond any doubt the meaning of this teaching.

Part III offers an hypothesis to reconcile the teaching of the Church with the apparently contradictory facts of the crisis.

Originally published by LifeSiteNews as How can the Church’s teachings about her own unity be reconciled with the current crisis?[0] Reprinted with permission. Photo: Solar eclipse, 2008 (Source)

Apologia for the previous two articles

Some might disapprove of our exposition of the Church’s teaching on her unity of faith. They might say that events have proved this teaching wrong, exaggerated or misunderstood. They might say that it is time-bound to the early twentieth century, and based on outmoded notions of the Church taken from dusty old manuals, which we are free to reject. They might say that we should be silent in case we endanger people’s faith. Shouldn’t we cover the Church’s nakedness, like Shem and Japheth did to Noah?

To such ideas, we reply: we must believe and share the teaching of the Church in season and out of season. Sharing these ideas should not endanger faith, but rather clarify and strengthen it. 

Remaining silent is also dangerous: not everyone can ignore the apparent contradiction between the facts and the teaching. The absence of clear articulation of these issues has driven people to various extremes, including the catastrophic acceptance of modernist errors against the faith, and the loss of belief in God altogether. This is indeed the progression described by St Pius X in Pascendi:

[…] By how many roads Modernism leads to the annihilation of all religion. The first step in this direction was taken by Protestantism; the second is made by Modernism; the next will plunge headlong into atheism.[3]

Pope St Pius X

If the truth is dangerous, then at least it is less dangerous than error.

Hypothesis

Without the extensive exposition of the Church’s doctrine on her own unity of faith, it is difficult to understand the nature or extent of the problem of disunity. If we don’t understand the problem, we won’t understand the solution, or our pressing need for one. For this reason, the previous parts must be read before reading this, which could well be misunderstood if read in isolation.

As we demonstrated in both previous parts, the prayer of Christ (“That they all may be one” John 17.21) was, according to Church teaching, the efficacious cause of her own remarkable unity of faith and charity; and this prayer was not a mere wish or aspiration, but rather established an essential property of the Church.[4]

Given the dramatic division amongst those who call themselves Catholics, it is clear that we are faced with an enormous problem. The existence of this disunity is so clear, that even in 1985 Romano Amerio called it simply “the external fact.”[5] The problem is that this division in the profession of faith amongst persons claiming to be Catholic appears to contradict the Church’s own teaching.

A sports team can tolerate internal divisions with no effect on its continuing existence, or who are its members. But the divisions which we face, according to authoritative teaching established in previous articles, cannot and do not exist within the Catholic Church. The Church’s nature is, among other things, one of a society of men visibly professing the same faith. This is an essential definition of her nature and it cannot change. A substantial change in her constitution would be a defection, which would contradict several articles of faith, and forever undermine her reliability as a teacher. 

But this cannot be, for reasons established in the disciplines of apologetics, fundamental theology and ecclesiology.

Ultimately, there are two ways of seeing things:

Either we disregard the clear and constant teaching of the Church from her popes and theologians, and we accept that she universally misunderstood her nature for a period, or even for centuries – but this option impossible for those wishing to remain Catholics.

Or we recognise that the body of men – even of those appearing to hold authority – that flagrantly deny Catholic teaching are not Catholics, are not members of the Catholic Church.

Consequences

The second option means that there fewer Catholics than one may have previously thought. But this does not contradict any article of the faith, and it is simply the application of what Pius XII taught in Mystici corporis:

Actually only those are to be included as members of the Church who have been baptized and profess the true faith, and who have not been so unfortunate as to separate themselves from the unity of the Body, or been excluded by legitimate authority for grave faults committed.[6]

Pope Pius XII

Note that this is not a gnostic ‘church of the pure’ or the protestant idea of an ‘invisible church’ of the elect. It is the plain teaching of the authors cited throughout the previous parts. It is expressed succinctly by the great Cardinal Louis Billot:

[If] the unity of the profession of faith, which is dependent on the visible authority of the living magisterium, is the essential property by which Christ wanted His Church to be adorned forever, it follows clearly that those cannot be part of the Church who profess differently from what its magisterium teaches. For then there would be a division in the profession of faith, and division is contradictory to unity.[7]

Cardinal Louis Billot

The essence of the problem is that this body of non-Catholics are firmly considered to be in good standing by the institution based in the Vatican. The conclusion that follows from this is dramatic. Let us summarise it in the following way:

  1. The institution based in the Vatican is a body made up of a mix of Catholics and non-Catholics, lay and clerical, who are all firmly considered to be Catholics and in good standing with it (and it is therefore externally divided in its profession of faith).
  2. But the Catholic Church is the body of baptised men who externally profess the same true Faith (in other words, a body of Catholics, of men united in their profession of faith);
  3. Therefore, we cannot just say, without any qualification, that that institution taken as a whole is the Roman Catholic Church.

If this is a new idea, please re-read those points, taking note of what the conclusion does and does not say.

It does not say that the Church has defected, and it does not say that the Church has been suddenly and wholly swapped for a false sect, and it does not say that every single bishop in the whole world has lost office, and it does not say that everyone in good standing with that organisation is not a Catholic. It is not a claim that the Catholic Church has lost her visibility, or is some invisible, secret group of chosen gnostics who are superior to everyone else. We reject all of these claims. 

The Church is the visible body of the baptised, who profess the same Catholic faith, and who are governed by legitimate pastors. This body is evidently still in the world, shown in part by the fact that we are discussing the issue. Probably most people who are inclined to read a study like this will be members of that body, and will be visibly so. The Roman Catholic Church is still here, with her essential nature intact – this must be believed with certainty. But this body is eclipsed, in that another body of men are obscuring it, through their false claims to be Catholics. Many have rhetorically called this second body a “false church.” This whole hypothesis may seem far-fetched to some: but it seems more far-fetched to us to claim that the Church’s teaching is wrong or has been misunderstood for centuries.

During an eclipse, the sun remains in existence and visible – materially visible as an object; formally visible as a light through its corona; and distinctly visible as our sun itself, from other parts of space (and indeed elsewhere in the world). The temporary obscuration might make it difficult for a large group of individuals to locate or see it, but that does not affect its objective visibility – not does it change that the moon is objectively not the sun.

What this theory resolves

We will briefly discuss some ways in which this hypothesis resolves key problems.

The Church is visible – but visibly what? She is not just a materially visible organization like any other, but she is distinctly visible as the Church, and visibly one and united. Far from undermining her visibility, this theory defends it. Those who say that a disunited organization is the Catholic Church are essentially denying her visible unity by redefining both visibility and unity. They take the moon eclipsing the sun as one, single object; they redefine the sun to be a floating white ring.

The Roman Catholic Church must be united in her profession of faith: this means that those who are visibly disunited from this profession are not Catholics. This is a necessary conclusion: although the status of any individual is not relevant to the overall argument, namely an organization that is visibly disunited cannot be the Catholic Church. Such an institution could, however, be a merely material, ‘accidental’ grouping of a sect of non-Catholics and the part of the Church that remains materially connected to them, mistakenly taken by many as one body.[8] Once understood, we see that the unity of the Church is preserved, the necessary distinctions are clarified, and our Catholic faith is “renewed like the eagle’s.” (Ps 102.5) 

The unity of faith entails submission to the magisterium: but not to those putative authority figures that are not Catholics, and so have no teaching or governing authority because they do not hold office in the Catholic Church. If those who appear to hold office are (for example) denying the virgin birth, or the plain meaning of Holy Scripture, giving their blessing to sin, or rejecting or doubting other dogmas, then they are not members, and they do not and cannot hold offices in a body of which they are not members. This claim may need to be made good elsewhere, but suffice it to say that this is standard Catholic doctrine, and St. Robert Bellarmine says that it is the unanimous opinion of the Fathers, and cites the authority of Cyprian, Augustine, Ambrose, Jerome, Thomas Aquinas, Pope Celestine I and Pope Nicholas I.[9]

This also resolves the paradox that those who have remained Catholic are, by and large, not submissive to those putative authorities, and do not take the daily preaching of “the Church” as their proximate rule of faith. It also makes good the claims of some Catholics who are in supposedly “irregular canonical situations.” Being suspended or excommunicated by doubtful authorities has no intrinsic bearing on whether such groups are Catholics or not, nor on their duty to minister to souls. Just as the “material grouping” mentioned above is misleading, so are such merely material divisions between Catholics continuing to profess the true faith, whether they are “canonically regular” or otherwise.[10] All stand ready to submit to the living voice of the Church when she is clearly heard.

Finally, the external unity of faith is preserved as a motive for credibility of the Church’s claims, even if it is not currently easily observed. Our hypothesis contends that it is obscured, whereas alternatives entail that it has ceased, even if only temporarily. This is untenable for those who wish to remain Catholic.

The idea of the Catholic Church being eclipsed is not new. Although our case is based on doctrine, we cannot neglect to mention that various prophecies and apparitions that have touched on the idea of a “counterfeit church” – such as Anne Catherine Emmerich,[11] Our Lady of La Salette,[12] Padre Pio,[13] Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen,[14] Fr E. Sylvester Berry[15] and others. Further, many with public platforms have been using rhetoric about false or counterfeit churches for years. The respected Catholic speaker and writer Frank Sheed even felt the need to address the question by writing his book Is it the Same Church? in 1968.

It will be for others to develop just what qualifications might need to be made, and to present its further implications. The issue has already been dealt with in great detail by other writers.[16]

Objections

Some insist against this idea that there cannot be two churches, because there is only one Church. They say that we cannot talk of a “new church” or a “Bergoglian Church” because, in spite of being occupied by those betraying or twisting the faith, it has not been replaced with a new church.

Aside from wrongly limiting the problems to Francis’s reign, this is to mistake rhetorical terms as a dialectic affirmation that there really are two churches, which is not our hypothesis. Our hypothesis is simply this: there is the Church, and a false body of non-Catholics obscuring her.

Some critics have also said that there is only one Church, but which contains, in a fragmented sense, different theologies and philosophies. They allow us to talk of a Bergoglian theology, philosophy, morality and religion, but forbid us from referring to it as a new or Bergoglian church. 

Such a distinction does not do the work that its proponents suppose. It is not compatible with the various authorities cited: the Church has tolerated different methodologies in theology, but not different theologies (or indeed religions) in this sense. This is a clear admission of visible disunity – but this is impossible for the Catholic Church. In fact, this has more in common with the Anglican conception of a “broad church.” 

While our hypothesis is dramatic, it does not contradict any aspect of the faith and is indeed the only way key doctrines can be preserved.

Conclusions

In this series of articles we have considered just one aspect of the unity of faith, which is itself only one aspect of the Church’s unity. This is not to give the impression that, as long as someone professes the same Catholic faith, they are thereby a Catholic. Someone can also depart from the Catholic Church through schism or by excommunication. But even just this “aspect of an aspect” demonstrates the enormous problems caused by trying to claim that the institution discussed just is the Catholic Church, with no further qualifications.

How could it be that such a large chunk of the Catholic Church could break away, and yet still be taken by most of the world to remain a part of her? It is as if a sect of non-Catholics have progressively forced their way into sacrilegious pseudo-communion with the Catholic Church – or as if more and more have lost the faith and yet not been properly expelled by authority. How has it happened that the Church has not called them back to the faith, or forced them away and condemned them? How can it be that, while retaining perfect unity of faith amongst her true members, it appears (though impossible) that she is divided in that profession? This mystery is outside the scope of these articles and requires careful prayer and study. We shall address it in further essays.

In the meantime, we state again the beautiful passage of Pope Pius XII, which can never be repeated often enough:

Actually only those are to be included as members of the Church who have been baptized and profess the true faith, and who have not been so unfortunate as to separate themselves from the unity of the Body, or been excluded by legitimate authority for grave faults committed.[17]

Pope Pius XII

The hypothesis, that there really is a false body obscuring the Catholic Church and that this is not just rhetoric, may be really very shocking to some. It is, however, the only hypothesis that preserves the Church’s unity of faith – not to mention her credibility in teaching anything at all. 

Originally published by LifeSiteNews as How can the Church’s teachings about her own unity be reconciled with the current crisis?[0] Reprinted with permission.

This article is part of a trilogy.

Part I gives an overview of the meaning of the visible unity of the Church in her profession of faith, and the nature of the problem faced today.

Part II goes into greater detail, citing theologians and other sources to establish beyond any doubt the meaning of this teaching.

Part III offers an hypothesis to reconcile the teaching of the Church with the apparently contradictory facts of the crisis.

Don’t forget!

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[0] https://www.lifesitenews.com/opinion/how-can-the-churchs-teachings-about-her-own-unity-be-reconciled-with-the-crisis-we-see-around-us

[1] The Visible Unity of the Catholic Church Maintained against Opposite Theories Vol I, M.J. Rhodes,  1870. p 35

[2] https://www.lifesitenews.com/blogs/archbishop-vigano-we-will-remain-in-the-church-fight-the-modernists-who-undermine-the-faith

[3] Pascendi Dominici Gregis 39. https://www.papalencyclicals.net/Pius10/p10pasce.htm

[4] Satis cognitum 6, https://www.papalencyclicals.net/leo13/l13satis.htm, Mortalium animos 7.

[5] Romano Amerio, Iota Unum – A study of the changes in the Catholic Church in the XXth century, Sarto House, Kansas City MO, 1996. 143.

[6] Mystici corporis Christi 22. https://www.papalencyclicals.net/pius12/p12mysti.htm

[7] Thesis XI, §1. Translated by Fr Julian Larrabee from de Ecclesia, from a document provided by Mr John Lane.

[8] May 2021 clarification – not published on LifeSiteNews: By a ‘material grouping’, we mean a grouping of circumstance that does not constitute a true union of the component parts – for example, that of a person and his clothes, or indeed of the sun and the moon during an eclipse. We do not mean to say that there is some sort of partial communion between the Catholic Church and the true adherents of a counterfeit church obscuring her. However, we have called it a ‘material’ grouping because we do not wish to give the impression that particular individuals who profess the Catholic faith and yet still attend Mass under the auspices of a counterfeit hierarchy are ipso facto non-Catholics: and equally, we do not wish to give the impression that the Church is itself the hierarchy, rather than the body of baptised men, professing the Catholic faith and governed by legitimate pastors.

[9] St Robert Bellarmine, On the Roman Pontiff: In Five Books Second Edition, translated by Ryan Grant, Mediatrix Press 2017, pp 315-6.

[10] May 2021 clarification – not published on LifeSiteNews: To our mind, examples of “material divisions” may include things like being recognised or not by putative authorities (a possible material breach of unity of government) or having disagreements about religious matters which are not settled by the Church. Such divisions that may exist between various groups that continue to profess the true faith are at least comparable to those existing between the obediences in the Great Western Schism (1378-1417). In this period, it appeared that the Church’s unity of government had broken down. Salaverri gives an overview of three different perspectives on this, one of which holds that the schism between the obediences was merely material, and another clarifies further that it was an “apparent schism in the improper sense”, such that “the visibility of unity was obscured”, denies that it was destroyed. (1280). Salaverri’s own conclusion is that this was not a true schism, as “no one refused to submit to the Sovereign Pontiff, and in fact everyone was trying to find out who really was the legitimate Sovereign Pontiff, so that they could be obedient to him. Therefore there was not a voluntary separation from unity, but merely a disagreement concerning a question of fact, namely, whether this man or that man was the true Sovereign Pontiff. This controversy surely obscured the visibility of unity, but it by no means destroyed it, because it openly revealed the desire for unity common to all” (1281). While this applies readily to the division amongst true Catholics in terms of unity of government, the “desire for unity” is not a solution for the disunity of faith in the conciliar church – not least because there is very little evidence of such a desire existing. Salaverri also concludes that in spite of these material divisions “unity in faith and worship was evident”.

[11] Anne Catherine Emmerich “saw how […] another dark church arose in Rome.” https://www.lifesitenews.com/opinion/the-false-prophet-of-the-apocalypse

[12] “31. ‘The Church will be eclipsed, the world will be in consternation.” The secret given to Mélanie, translation by Ronald L. Conte Jr, from The Bible and the Future of the World, available at http://www.catholicplanet.com/future/lasalette-melanie.htm

[13] Fr Frank Unterhalt states that Padre Pio said the following to Fr Gabriel Amorth: “It is satan who has entered the womb of the Church, and within a short while, he will rule over a false church.” https://www.lifesitenews.com/opinion/the-false-prophet-of-the-apocalypse

[14] “It will have all the notes and characteristics of the Church, but in reverse and emptied of its divine content. There will be a mystical body of the antichrist, which will resemble in all its externals the Mystical Body of Christ.” Fulton J. Sheen, Communism and the Conscience of the West, Bobbs-Merril Company, Indianapolis, 1948. Accessed from: https://www.lifesitenews.com/opinion/the-false-prophet-of-the-apocalypse

[15] “The prophecies of the Apocalypse [book of Revelation] show that Satan will imitate the Church of Christ to deceive mankind; he will set up a church of Satan in opposition to the Church of Christ.” E. Sylvester Berry, The Church of Christ, B. Herder Book Co. London 1927. p 119

[16] Consider the issue debated in these texts:

Fr Jean-Michel Gleize: https://fsspx.news/en/content/23744 and https://fsspx.news/en/content/23757

Mr John Lane: http://strobertbellarmine.net/Archbishop_Lefebvre_and_the_Conciliar_Church.pdf

Bishop Bernard Tissier de Mallerais (2013): http://www.dominicansavrille.us/is-there-a-conciliar-church/

[17] Mystici corporis Christi 22.

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