The University of Mary defines its mission and identity as “Christian, Catholic, and Benedictine.” Its Christian Leadership Center, which I direct, is intended to foster relationships among a wide variety of Christians, from Catholics to Pentecostals, from Lutherans to Baptists.
But why? Why would a Roman Catholic University named after the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God, conceived immaculate, ever sinless, assumed body and soul into heaven, deliberately describe its identity as “Christian” first, then “Catholic, and Benedictine”? And why would it sponsor a Center dedicated to dialogue with Protestants and evangelicals?
The answer is that Catholics think other Christians are—wait for it—Christians. I’ve found a lot of otherwise informed Protestants are surprised to find that informed Catholics regard them as sisters and brothers in Christ. And Christ is the key, of course, to this question, as he is to all of theology, to all of creation, to all of existence.
There is one Church because there is one Christ. It is not as a certain Monty Python sketch would have it, in which the Pope calls Michelangelo to account for painting the Last Supper with three Christs— “The fat one balances the two skinny ones!” —to say nothing of the twenty-eight disciples and one kangaroo.
There is one Church because there is one Christ. It’s an ancient concept called “Christus Totus,” Latin for “the whole Christ.” It means that Christ comprises both Christ and the Church, head and members, head and body. Christ is us and we are Christ. The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks of this in paragraph 795:
Christ and his Church thus together make up the “whole Christ” (Christus totus). The Church is one with Christ. The saints are acutely aware of this unity:
Let us rejoice then and give thanks that we have become not only Christians, but Christ himself. Do you understand and grasp, brethren, God’s grace toward us? Marvel and rejoice: we have become Christ. For if he is the head, we are the members; he and we together are the whole man. . . . the fullness of Christ then is the head and the members. But what does “head and members” mean? Christ and the Church. [St. Augustine, In Jo. ev, 21, 8: PL 35, 1568]
Our redeemer has shown himself to be one person with the holy Church whom he has taken to himself. [Pope St. Gregory the Great, Moralia in Job, praef., 14: PL 75, 525A]
Head and members form as it were one and the same mystical person. [St. Thomas Aquinas, ST III.48.2]
A reply of St. Joan of Arc to her judges sums up the faith of the holy doctors and the good sense of the believer: “About Jesus Christ and the Church, I simply know they’re just one thing, and we shouldn’t complicate the matter.”
“Christus Totus” is more than ancient; it’s biblical. The idea comes from Ephesians, in which St. Paul writes: “ . . . Christ is the head of the Church, his body, and is himself its Savior. . . . For no man ever hates his own body, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the Church, because we are members of his body. ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This mystery is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the Church.”
It’s unfortunate that most folks only discuss Paul’s controversial words about husbands and wives in Ephesians 5, without expending the same energies on the passage’s profound Christo-ecclesiology: Christ and the Church are “one flesh” in the way husband and wife are sacramentally “one flesh.” It does not get much more intimate than that. He is us and we are him, he in eternity and we in time.
There is one Church because there is one Christ, and Christ and the Church are one. But how does one become one with Christ and thus the Church? St. Paul’s answer is the sacrament of baptism: “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body”; “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ”. Consider especially St. Paul’s words in Ephesians: “There is one body and one Spirit…one hope…one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all.”
“One baptism”: In Catholic thinking, any baptism performed rightly with water in the Triune Name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is valid. What this means for non-Catholics is that your baptisms count, in our eyes. You are (if Karl Rahner will excuse me) “anonymous Catholics.” As an eager and well-catechized Catholic friend insisted to me back when we were in college: “It’s our sacrament!”
I don’t mean that to sound aggressive. The point is that we consider you sisters and brothers, and not in some vague sentimental sense, but in a real, ontologically true, metaphysical, sacramental sense. Your own baptisms united you to Christ, as did ours, and therefore all of us—Roman, Lutheran, Baptist, whatever—have been baptized into the one Christ, who is the Church. We are already really and truly one in Christ.
This drives Catholic concerns for unity. We must realize on earth what’s already real in Christ in heaven. Christian Smith, a Notre Dame sociologist and recent convert to Catholicism, explains that for Catholics, present Christian divisions are like a human body chopped to bits: “Suppose I took your body and cut it down the middle into two parts, and then cut one of the parts into little bits. How healthy would you be?” He’s referring to the historic divisions of Christendom: The body of Christ was cleaved in the Great Schism in 1054, and then the Western half began to suffer severance into thousands of pieces beginning in the sixteenth century.
For us Catholics, then, ecumenism is an urgent necessity requiring radical reconstructive surgery as we attempt to mend the body of Christ which human sin has mutilated. Even as with Richard John Neuhaus I would confess that “The Catholic Church is the Church of Jesus Christ most fully and rightly ordered through time,” we Catholics repent of our sins wounding unity and ask you to walk with us as we journey ever deeper together into the Truth, who is Jesus Christ.
Leroy Huizenga is Director of the Christian Leadership Center at the University of Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota. This essay is an adaptation of a talk given at a recent meeting of the Christian Leadership Center’s ecumenical Convocation on Christian Unity.
Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, “The One True Church”
Catechism of the Catholic Church, 781-810, “The Church – People Of God, Body Of Christ, Temple Of The Holy Spirit”
Monty Python, The Penultimate Supper
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