Project Canterbury

Catholicism and Roman Catholicism

Three Addresses delivered in Grosvenor Chapel in Advent, 1922.

By Charles Gore.

London: Mowbray, 1922

I. Catholicism

"There is one body and one Spirit."—Eph. iv. 4.

I WISH in these addresses to distinguish Catholicism broadly from a special development of Catholicism which is rightly identified in history with the Roman Church; and I mean by Catholicism what is generally meant by the term in histories, and especially in histories of early Christianity, viz. that way of regarding Christianity which would see in it not merely or primarily a doctrine of salvation to be apprehended by individuals, but the establishment of a visible society as the one divinely constituted home of the great salvation, held together not only by the inward Spirit but also by certain manifest and external institutions. To-day I am to explain this idea of Christianity and to justify it as undoubtedly original and due to our Lord Himself.

We must, however, be careful in speaking of our Lord as having founded the Church. For, in fact, the Church is older than the Incarnation, and we shall never understand its origin until we understand this. S. Stephen gave us the right clue when he spoke of Moses as having been "in the Church in the wilderness:" for the birthday of the Church was at latest the redemption from Egypt and the Covenant of Sinai.

The word ecclesia, translated "church," was a common Greek word for an official assembly of any people, and is used in the Greek Bible to describe the "congregation" or "assembly" of Israel. But it tends to pass from the first sense of an assembly of the holy people to mean the holy people itself. So it is used by Stephen.

The divine purpose for the holy people of Israel was to find its fulfilment in the coming of the Messiah, which was to be the occasion of the establishment of a new and everlasting Covenant, of the general outpouring of the Spirit of God, of the resurrection of the dead, and of the recognition among all nations of the religion of Israel. These great promises are the theme of the prophets. But we find in the prophets one continuous lamentation over the faithlessness of Israel, and its failure to correspond with the divine purpose. Only a faithful remnant is, it appears, the real channel of the divine action. So it happened when the Christ appeared in the Person of Jesus of Nazareth—the Jewish nation as a whole rejected Him, and procured His crucifixion. Our Lord in the Gospels constantly recognizes that His people are, as a whole, rejecting Him, and with the same result as the old prophets anticipated: not that the holy people Israel was to cease to exist or become of no account, but that the faithful few, who are represented (as one may say) officially by the Twelve Apostles, have become the true Israel, the Church of the living God, now to be reconstituted on the basis of its new faith in Jesus as the Christ, and of the New Covenant which He was establishing in the blood of His self-sacrifice, and in the power of the Resurrection, and of the outpoured Spirit.

If you read the New Testament with open eyes afresh you will find in all its dominant thoughts—as that Jesus is the Christ, that the resurrection of Jesus is the pledge or first-fruits of the general resurrection, that the New Covenant's now established by His sacrifice, that the promised Spirit has been given, that " the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy," that in Jesus all nations are to find in Zion their mother, that though the Church be predominantly Gentile in origin, it none the less calls Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob "our fathers," and accepts the Old Testament Scriptures as its own—in all these familiar thoughts you will find the recognition that the Church of Jesus Christ is the true Israel, the ancient people of God, the royal and priestly race of the redeemed, the twelve tribes of the dispersion. That is the clue to the New Testament. But like the ancient people after the Captivity, or in an even deeper sense, it required re-founding. And our Lord is seen occupying Himself with that. In the parable of the faithless husbandmen He intimates that the controllers of the Vineyard are to be changed—the authority of the scribes and pharisees and priesthood is to pass to others. And those others are the Twelve. They are, in the parable of the Household, the new stewards whom the Lord has set over the house to give to His servants their portion of meat in due season. They are the princes of Israel, who are to find themselves sitting on twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes. Thus the great saying of our Lord to Peter is vindicated—as Dr. Hort interprets it—by being .in thorough accord with the somewhat dimmer but yet sufficiently distinct evidence of S. Mark and S. Luke. Our Lord, who shows elsewhere His profound sense of the need of a strong foundation for a spiritual fabric, appears in this passage as determined to find it in men, not in documents. But He sees in men generally a shifting sand on which He cannot build. Now, at last, as with a sigh of relief, He sees in Simon son of Jonah, in virtue of his confession of His Messiahship in trying circumstances, one who is capable of being solidified into rock-like consistency—something on which He can build. So He hails him: "Thou art Peter? [Rock-man], and on this rock I will build My Church," that is, My Israel—the Israel of the now acknowledged Messiah. And this Israel shall be, as the prophets always held, indestructible. "The gates of death shall not prevail against it." And He promises at some future date to constitute Peter the steward (or a steward) of the divine household: just as, in similar terms, the prophet Isaiah' had received commission to appoint Eliakim steward with the key of the House of David in the place of the worthless Shebna; and He promises also to give to Peter the authority—so familiar to the Jews—to bind or loose—that is, to interpret the divine law by way of prohibition (binding) or allowance (loosing), with a heavenly sanction. This means a restricted legislative authority—restricted, I say, because it implies a divine law to be interpreted, and it is only as interpreters of this law that those entrusted with authority must legislate: though in our Lord's case He laid down very few statutes and left the Church which He had refounded largely in the freedom of the Spirit to make its own necessary laws. It is similarly in accordance with the Gospels as a whole that, in the authentic appendix to S. John's Gospel, our Lord is represented as reestablishing Peter, after his denial, in his pastoral office—that is, in the Old Testament sense, in the office of Ruler, with the double duty of feeding and discipline.

These special dealings with Peter and promises to Peter are connected with our Lord's personal dealings with him; and, though he appears as the leader of the Apostles, it does not appear—though to this subject I must return—that any office or authority is given to him which is not shared equally by all the Apostles. Thus when our Lord" is represented as no longer promising but giving disciplinary and judicial authority to the Apostles—the authority to "remit" and "retain" sins (as by admitting into the Church in Baptism, or restoring men to it in absolution, or, on the other hand, by refusing admission or by excommunication)—the authority is given to all alike. "As my Father hath sent me, so send I you. . . . And he breathed on them and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost: whose soever sins ye forgive, they are forgiven unto them: whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained."


When I read the records of the first Church there does not seem to me to be any room for questioning the Catholic idea of the -Church. I am profoundly aware that the Catholic Church has been no more faithful to its charge than the Church which was the people of Israel alone, and that it has been at times not the instrument but the antagonist of the Spirit. To this melancholy subject I shall return. But if for the moment you can obliterate^ from your mind all questions of modern origin, as between Catholic and Protestant, and simply study the New Testament with fresh eyes, I do not see how you can doubt that there is, after Pentecost, no distinction at all between membership of Christ and membership of the Church. There is, for instance, in S. Paul no idea of a "justifying faith" which does not take effect in Baptism, whifch is baptism into Christ and also into His body, the Church. There is no idea of discipleship which does not involve membership and the obligations of membership: no justification anywhere for the notion that the thing of real importance is to believe in Jesus, and that membership of any earthly and visible society is a secondary matter. On the contrary, the whole stress of the New Testament is laid on the fact that the love of God can exist not otherwise than in the love of the brethren. In the primary obligation for one who would belong to Jesus to belong to the holy community, the sacred brotherhood, there was embodied the principle that man is essentially a social personality, and that his union with the true God could be no individual gift, but could be found only in community.

Human nature is a very disruptive thing. Human individualities are always running towards eccentricity. The very idea of a Catholic society, that is, a society in which men and women of all races and kinds, inhabiting many different places, should live as one body in actual fellowship, was, as S. Paul sees clearly enough, a very difficult idea. But it was actually realized, in spite of acute difficulties and occasional failures, in the undivided Church of the first centuries. Emphasis came to be laid in East and West on different ideals of Churchmanship. The original idea that the Church exists primarily to bear its moral witness, and to exhibit before men's eyes the new life of sonship and brotherhood, became, alas! in many ways obscured. Nevertheless, the Church did maintain for more than half its history, not perfectly but really and impressively, its unity. There was no doubt at all through all this long period, and, indeed, down to the sixteenth century, that membership of Christ must mean membership in the visible body, the Catholic Church. God would need, no doubt, to rectify the mistakes of the Church in dealing with individuals in His perfect justice. There might be people excommunicated from the Church who would prove to be really all the time the friends of Christ, approved by Him. Nevertheless, there had been no alteration of the Covenant. The Covenant was not with individuals but with the one visible Church.


For maintaining unity there were, specially, three links, the observance of which was of divine obligation:—

First, there was the holding of the common faith—the word of God—which in course of time was expressed in the Creeds, especially in what we call the Nicene Greed, and protected by certain decisions of General Councils, and for which the court of reference was the New Testament interpreting the Old. In the earliest days, before the New Testament books were written or before they were formed into a Canon, the authority lay with the Old Testament and "the tradition" which is frequently referred to in the New Testament, and which was the substance of "the Apostles' teaching." This was to hold the Church together in one common profession of truth.

Secondly, there were the Sacraments, especially Baptism, including Confirmation by the laying on of hands, and the Holy Communion in the Body and Blood of Christ, and Penance, that is the system of authoritative discipline, by which unworthy members were put out of communion, under penance, and absolved and re-admitted when they had shown their fitness. These ordinances rested on the authority of Christ Himself, expressed in His words uttered on earth, save that there is no evidence that Christ on earth instituted the rite of the laying on of hands, except the evidence that the Apostles practised it from the beginning as if there was no more doubt about its authority than about Baptism itself. That Christ did Himself re-establish the Jewish rite of Baptism, with a new meaning, and did institute the Sacrament of His Body and Blood, as the Gospels record, there is not, I think, any justification for doubting. Now what is the meaning of these Sacraments? You will reply that "they are outward and visible signs of an inward and spiritual grace given unto us, ordained by Christ Himself, as a means whereby we should receive the same spiritual grace and a pledge to assure us thereof." That is an excellent definition of a sacrament as a means of grace to the individual. But it leaves out of sight one very important and essential feature of these institutions, viz. that they were social ceremonies. Baptism was admission to the community. "By one Spirit were ye all baptized into one body." Confirmation was the imparting to the new members of the body, by one of its chief officers, of the full endowment of the Spirit which qualified them to play their special parts as members of the body. The Holy Communion, as its common name implies, was a sharing together of the divine gift, "seeing that we, who are many, are one bread, one body: for we all partake of the one bread."1 Penance and absolution, again, as we witness S. Paul administering and directing it in the Corinthian Church, was the recognition that grave sin was not only a private matter between God and the soul, but also an outrage upon the Church; and that the member who had thus outraged the Church needed the judgement and absolution of the Church as the instrument of the judgement and forgiveness of God.

The third link of connection in a scattered but continuous society was the institution of the Apostolic ministry in communion with which all members of the body must remain. This authoritative ministry is very apparent in the Acts and the Epistles in the persons of the Apostles, with the prophets and teachers and evangelists who were of their company, and (so far as it was not special to the first Apostles) it was propagated by being imparted in succession to others in different degrees by the laying on of hands. To be a member of the Church meant from the first to be in communion with its officers, and in submission to their proper authority.


Now there does not seem to me to be any room for doubting that this whole conception of the Church, as the sphere of the divine covenant of salvation, pervades the New Testament, and also is really due to our Lord Himself. I do not think that anything could ever have blinded men's eyes to this except the later corruptions of the Church and the confusions arising from widespread revolt against it. To such later events I must return. Now I say—simply look with fresh eyes at the original documents of the Church and its first history, and you must recognize that the Catholic interpretation of Christianity is the true one. The Church, you will see, is no invisible fellowship of the elect, save that part of the Church, the Head and the members who have departed this life in Christ, are in the unseen world. It is the visible, tangible body known to history: and there is no recognized membership of Christ save membership in this His earthly body.

There has pervaded the Protestant world a strange misconception of the meaning of a "spiritual" religion. It has been thought of as if a spiritual religion were something which subsisted only in the heart of the individual, and that it must be independent of "external ordinances." But such ideas are not scriptural. The most characteristic New Testament word to describe the nature of the Spirit's action and method is "communion," or "sharing together," the "fellowship of the Holy Ghost": and the chief sign of our possessing or being possessed by the Spirit is that we can live the common life, not of any self-chosen number of congenial souls, but of those whom membership in the Church has made our brethren—the brotherhood. And the meaning of spiritual in the New Testament is not immaterial or invisible, but that in which the Spirit rules.

It was the Pagan Greek idea that there was something low and evil in the material world. But the Bible pronounces the material world "very good." It refuses to find the root of sin in the body. The root of sin is in the will. The vilest sins are only the misuse by rebel wills of legitimate physical powers. The Bible has no horror of sex as such. It recognizes that God has entrusted the most marvellous of spiritual powers—the production of an immortal soul—to that very sexual function which is most liable to abuse by the passionate will. But the sinfulness lies in the will. Let but the will be right with God and all the physical nature will come right also. Thus God Himself, the Son, has been made flesh in Jesus Christ.

And He is still "coming in the flesh." And He is to redeem finally the whole creation, and to give to each man his spiritual body. It is in accordance with all this principle of the consecration of the material world that the Spirit of Christ should have embodiment in the Church. There is "one Body" as there is "one Spirit." The Kingdom of God, the spiritual society, is there embodied. This is the principle of the Sacraments. And if this carries with it, as it does, the consequence that at the last resort even a most unworthy man can be the channel of the greatest spiritual gifts, that is only a fresh expression of what lies deep in the whole creative method of God: for, as I have said, there is no spiritual gift so great given to man as (what is the foundation of all spiritual life) the production of a human soul, and that God entrusts and allows to sinners as to saints. In the Bible what is spiritual among men does not mean, then, what is not material or what is not visible. It means what is dominated by the Spirit. What is unspiritual means what is carnal or ruled from below by evil wills. And the believer in the Creed is quite true to the Bible when, after professing his faith in the Holy Spirit, he goes on, in the next breath, to say, "I believe in the Holy Catholic Church"—which, indeed, as S. Thomas Aquinas says, he can only do because the Holy Catholic Church is the organ and vessel of the Spirit. That is the divine idea.

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