The Catholic Church: A Perfect Society

In the new covenant, Our Lord establishes His Church, which is His Body. This Catholic Church is the ever-growing kingdom of heaven, the true fulfilment of the kingdom of David. It compromises the whole People of God and has the Davidic King, Jesus Christ, as its head.

A True Societas Perfecta

The Catholic Church, like the old kingdom of David, is a societas perfecta: a perfect society. Now, if you’ve stepped inside of a church, you may wonder, “really? perfect?” However, in this sense, it does not mean without flaw or issues. Instead, it means that the society has everything it needs for its purpose. So, for example, a civil society is perfect if it has what is needful for its purpose of establishing the common good: food, law enforcement, governance, etc. The Catholic Church, likewise, as what is needful by divine institution.

The Catholic Church has a clear and definite purpose. Jesus says to His apostles,

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that i have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.

Matthew 28:18-20

And Our Lord gave His Church the means to do that. First, His authority was given to the Apostles to govern the particular churches throughout the world. Second, He gave His Church sacraments to justify men and continue them in sanctification.

Structural Perfection

The Catholic Church, being a societas perfecta, like civil kingdoms, is made up of cells. In a civil society, the basic cell is the family. It is the cell, because it is a microscosm of the whole, where the father is king over his family for their good. However a family, on its own, cannot thrive. Therefore, families come together for their common good to form a society. This allow self-sufficiency of the whole. And when helpful, those families joined together into societies can form into a great society, such as nation. The same goes for the Catholic Church.

Jesus Christ says,

And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

Matt. 16:18-9

Jesus Christ Himself builds His Church. However, it is not an entirely unique reality. He had already begun to gather his ecclesia under the old covenant, which is shown when David prays: “The heavens will acknowledge your wonders, O Lord, indeed, your truth in an assembly [ἐκκλησία] of holy ones” (Ps. 88:6 LXX). This is why the Catholic Church of the new covenant is

built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone,

Eph. 2:20

This society is led by Jesus Christ who

is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church.

Col. 1:18

For management upon earth, He has given apostles to lead it, that is, those who are sent by Him with His full authority. As He says to the apostles: ““Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you” (John 20:20) This is why after declaring his establishment of the new covenant Church, He then gives governance (keys) to all the apostles (further discussed in BUT THE KEYS!), so that

whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

Matt. 18:18

This governance is a necessary part of the Church, since the Church, as long as it is a society on earth, needs leadership—under Christ the Head—for its mission, just like every human society. Therefore, this authority is passed on to the bishops. As St. Paul explains,

If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?

1 Tim. 3:1-5

Here, the focus is moved from the Catholic Church (of whom Christ alone is the head) to the particular church, which has a bishop for its head. The most basic cell of the societas perfecta that is the Catholic Church is the particular church: a bishop with his congregation. As St. Ignatius of Antioch exhorts:

For if I in this brief space of time, have enjoyed such fellowship with your bishop — I mean not of a mere human, but of a spiritual nature — how much more do I reckon you happy who are so joined to him as the Church is to Jesus Christ, and as Jesus Christ is to the Father, that so all things may agree in unity! Let no man deceive himself: if any one be not within the altar, he is deprived of the bread of God. For if the prayer of one or two possesses such power, how much more that of the bishop and the whole Church! He, therefore, that does not assemble with the Church, has even by this manifested his pride, and condemned himself. For it is written, “God resists the proud.” Let us be careful, then, not to set ourselves in opposition to the bishop, in order that we may be subject to God.

The Epistle of Ignatius to the Ephesians 5

It is so essential to be joined to the bishop not because the bishop is holy. Instead, in order to be joined to the head, you need to be part of the body. And it is impossible to be joined to the body without being a member in a cell of the body, that is, a particular church. It is this reality that elucidates the meaning of the communion of the Catholic Church.

The bishop, as head of his particular church, carries the obligation to keep the faith (which binds the communion together) and make important disciplinary and prudential decisions. This results in the difficult balancing act where no one can intervene in his church, yet he can leave the communion of the Church and would need to be replaced. For example, when Victor, the Bishop of Rome, tried to force a certain judgement about the date of Easter on the Asian bishops, they rebuked him for overstepping his bounds and trying to intervene in the churches not assigned to him. On the other end, while the eastern bishops at Constantinople Council II would not claim jurisdiction over Rome, when the Bishop of Rome Vigilius wavered in the faith, they struck him from the diptychs, the list of those in communion.

From this reality, grounded in Scripture and lived in the history of the Church, the reality of the Catholic Church itself becomes clearer. The Catholic Church is a communion of the particular churches who are established ultimately by and for union with Christ by faith (discussed more in Refusing Communion). This is manifested and strengthened when the particular church assembles for the Holy Eucharist where Communion is given. The reality of communion and not mere hierarchy or monarchy (though the bishop is certainly, in a sense, a monarch or high priest of his particular church) illustrates the true authority of a bishop over his particular church.

Vital Perfection

From this, the communion of the Church provides the perfect structure for the purpose of the Church. The bones are set and the sinews are in place in the body, so to say. However, what gives the body life? Indeed, it is said well that if the Church is the Body of Christ, it has the Holy Ghost as its soul. It was the Holy Ghost at Pentecost who gave what was necessary for the Gospel to be preached and hearts converted, that is, for men to be baptised and disciples to be made, taught, and strengthened. This is most excellently seen in the Sacraments and in repentance.

By faith, each Christian relies on the promises of Christ, not the the Holy Ghost is erratic and grace is random but that, if one wishes to follow the shepherd’s call, he finds Jesus Christ within His Church. For example, in Baptism, the Holy Ghost illumines the man and turns his heart to God. Man is really given faith (trust and rely upon a divinely revealed promise) that God justifies, renews, and illumines him in Baptism, for the Scriptures reveal “unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3) and promise that if you “repent and be baptized,” then “you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).

Likewise, man is given food for this journey which begins at Baptism. He can truly rely on Jesus’ promise in the Scriptures: “This is my body” (Matt. 26:26). It is really in the Eucharist that the Body of Christ is given by the Holy Ghost and the body of the Church is built up and strengthened. The Eucharist is the Sacrament where “you come together as a church” (1 Cor. 11:18).

Finally, to continue in this Christian life, marked by repentance, the Scriptures constantly witness to the promise that if a man repents, he is forgiven his sins. As the Lord promises, “if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sins and heal their land” (2 Chron. 7:14). As David prays, “the sacrifices of Gd are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Ps. 51:17) As the Wise Man teaches, “you have filled your sons with good hope, because you give repentance for sins” (Wis. 12:19). And as King Manasseh prays in repentance, “For you, O Lord, are the God of those who repent, and in me you will show forth your goodness; for, unworthy as I am, you will save me in your great mercy” (Prayer of Manasseh 13-14). And as Our Lord says, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Lk. 5:31-32). This repentance, given immediately by Christ to the repentant man, is central to the Christian life. Martin Luther, reflecting on Our Lord’s call to repentance, noted well that this inner repentance is the lifelong Christian vocation. This repentance is so central, yet so tempted, to the Christian that it also takes sacramental form in Absolution, given to the faithful in every Anglican Mass and privately when a penitent approaches a priest.

The Perfect Society

Here we see that just as a civil kingdom has everything it needs for its mission, so does the Church. The Catholic Church is a communion of particular churches in faith. It is given a purpose and the structures necessary for it. Our Lord also gave it the Holy Ghost with grace necessary for the structures to function. This lifeblood of the Catholic Church, found in each particular church, is given by means of promise, which is accessed through the Sacraments. It is clear that the Catholic Church is the perfected kingdom of David, a true societas perfecta.

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