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The Roman Catholic Church

John Courtney Murray, S.J.

Relatively few people today ask what the Catholic Church is, but a great many seem to be asking what the Catholic Church wants. Especially, what does it want in the temporal order of human society; what place does it want for itself in relation to the structures of the social order; what part does it want to play in the process of their reconstruction?


The two questions are, of course, intimately related; the answer to the second depends on the answer to the first. However, to answer the first question would be impossible in the space at my disposal-impossible, in a sense, in any amount of space. Her children know that the Catholic Church is a mystery in the strict theological sense of the. word. Her existence is not ultimately explainable in terms of human design and action; her total "idea" is not discoverable by sheer philosophical and historical research. The existence of the church hangs on a sovereignly free divine choice, whereby God gave to men this particular form for their religious life; and the "idea" of the church-what she intimately is-is possessed, as a secret, by God alone. When the Catholic says: "I believe . . . in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church," he has indeed evidence in the orders of philosophical truth and historical fact sufficient to let him know with certainty that his act of faith is reasonable; he can explain why he believes the church to be what it is. However, the church itself, the thing-out-there, which his act of faith touches, transcends the power of his reason to comprehend, and much more the resources of his rhetoric to explain; he cannot adequately explain what the church, in, which he believes, is.

Obviously, if the church were simply a social and juridical union, into which men had gathered themselves for their own reasons, and the structure of which they themselves had determined, one could quite adequately understand and explain what it is. One can, for instance, explain what the Catholic Association for International Peace is; one can, that is, explain the common idea and end, the common will and purpose that bind its members together into unity. And when one has explained the principle of a society's unity, one has explained what the society is.

But precisely in this regard the church escapes the comprehension of man. It is her unity that is her mystery. It is not explained by any human agreement among men to hold in common certain ideas, obey certain rules and officers, and work together towards some common ideal, as is the case with various voluntary associations. Nor is it explained by the profound exigencies for community living that are radicated in the social nature of man, as is the case with the natural institutions of the family and the state. The church's principle of unity, which makes her what she is, is found neither in the will of man r nor in his nature; it is a supernatural principle. Briefly, it is the Holy Spirit Himself, as given to the church, dwelling in her as in His temple, and by His presence and action making her the Body of Christ, whose members are united; not merely by the moral bond of love or by the juridical bond of law, but by the mystical bond of a common sharing in the one Holy Spirit. As the classic formula has it, the Holy Spirit is the "soul" of the church, the hidden, inner source of her life and unity, her very "is-ness." Pius XII put the matter this way:

Although the juridical elements, on which the order of the Church also rests, have their origin in her divine constitution as given by Christ and themselves contribute to the attainment of her celestial end, nevertheless, what lifts the Christian society to a level that transcends the whole order of nature is the Spirit of our Redeemer-the Spirit who, as the source of all graces, gifts, and charisms, is forever filling the Church in her inmost being, and energizing within her. To give an analogy: as the structure of our mortal body is indeed a marvelous work of the Creator, that nevertheless falls far short of the lofty dignity of our mind and soul, so the social structure of the Christian community, though it proclaims the wisdom of its divine Architect, is something of an essentially lower order in comparison with the spiritual gifts whereby it is endowed with life, and with their divine source (the Spirit).1

There is, therefore, a mystery in what the Catholic Church is. Towards acquiring some manner of intelligence of it, by exploring its content and dimensions, a whole theology of the Mystical Body has been developed in Catholic sources; but it cannot even be outlined were.


The answer to the second questionwhat the Catholic Church wants-involves no mystery; no part of it is hidden in the mind of God, much less in the secret councils of the hierarchy. And since it is the question more frequently ked (whoever seriously asks what the Catholic Church is has somehow already reached the answer in his heart), I shall take it up here; not, indeed, with the thought of giving a complete answerthe subject is too large. What follows is simply an introduction to the answer.

Perhaps one could most successfully approach the answer by considering the two things that the pastors of the church are in these days insistently saying to the laity. On the one hand, the laity are being taught that their Christian faith is a value in itself, to be lived for its own sake, independently of any repercussions it may have in the temporal order; on the other hand, they are being taught that their faith is also a value in the temporal order, and must have repercussions there, for the sake of the temporal order. They are being urged to seek simply and solely the kingdom of God in the heavens, and they are being urged to collaborate towards a Christian civilization on earth. It is impressed on them that it profits a man nothing to gain the whole world, if he lose his own soul; and it is likewise impressed on them that they must gain the whole world on peril of losing their souls. Their religious life is being given two orientations-towards God and His eternal city, and towards earth and the city of man. They are enjoined to work out their own salvation, keeping themselves immaculate from the world; and they are enjoined to immerse themselves in the world and work at its salvation. These two sets of injunctions are seemingly opposed; but their principle of synthesis is in the nature of Christian faith itself. And it is this synthesis of values in their faith that is the cardinal contemporary lesson of the church to her children.


The first part of the lesson has the primacy in importance. The basic tenet of the Catholic faith is, of course, the incarnation-the fact of the Word made flesh. The Word was God, the onlybegotten God, the Son; He became man, born of a virgin, one of us; He suffered, died, and rose again. And these resounding facts have one central significance-they have lifted the goal of human hopes. Not only is there now forgiveness of sins, but what the Gospels call "eternal life" is now given to man as his destiny; and it is put within his reach in that God through Christ has promised him the Holy Spirit, the "energy of the Most High," as an indwelling power, to heal his nature and lift his life to a new level and carry him through to his appointed end.

This hope of eternal life was a new thing. Aristotle's highest thought had set before man, as his sole possible end, a terrestrial beatitude-the felicity and peace of a virtuous life in the ordered human city. For the rest, man might indeed dream of playing the immortal, but his real horizons of hope were bounded by earth and time. In later ages, human reason, not without clarifications from Christianity, would teach that man was entitled by his spiritual nature to hope for a life beyond time, and a beatitude consisting in the possession of God through the possession of His creation, in whose myriad manifestations the soul, freed from the limitations of the body and sense, would know and love Him as in His images and in the effects of His power. No mean hope, this; but one infinitely inferior to the Christian hope, which is based not solely on a philosophy of human nature but on the fact of the resurrection of Christ. The eternal life now put within the reach of man by the Word made flesh is the possession of God as He is in Himself, in a vision face to face, without the distorting, darkening "glass" of creatures interposed. Made son of God and co-heir of Christ by baptism, the Christian is destined to possess the heritage proper to Christ the Son–to know and love the Father as the Son knows and loves Him, to be in God "as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee" (John 17: 21).

This eternal life, this union with the Father through Christ in the Spirit, is the "pearl" and the "treasure" (Matt. 13: 44-46). And such is its value that a man must sell all he has to purchase it. Compared with it, all the values of earth and time pale into shadows. The world is well lost, if this eternal life be gained. Beside it all other hopes lose their hold upon the heart. And if this hope be frustrated in the end, through man's negligence and sin, it does not matter what else he has achieved; he has lost everything, in that he himself, in his inmost self, is "lost."

This doctrine of the treasure and the pearl is necessarily in the foreground of the church's preaching. In a sense, she has nothing else to announce than this, the basic "good news"; she would cease to be herself were she to teach or enjoin anything not related to it. The highest thing, then, that she has to say about her faith is that it is "the beginning of eternal life," and as such, an end and value in itself, not to be perverted by subordination to any other end, even the end of peace and justice and love here on earth.


This is the primary doctrine of the church. What perhaps gets emphasis in the America of our day is its austerityan emphasis needed because the seductions of secularism, with its doctrine of the primacy of this-worldly material values, are so strong. Against them, the church insists that the pearl is not purchased save at the price of all a man has; eternal life is not won by those who have their hearts set on this world and on the things-even the beautiful things of time; the destiny of man is achieved only by the full discipline of unworldliness and otherworldliness. To this full discipline, to this "selling of all," the church urges her children. And to help them bear it, she counsels their participation in all the great movements that are stirring her contemporary life, in answer to the challenge of secularism-the Biblical, movement, the theological movement, the liturgical movement. The theme of the Bible, of theology, and of the liturgy is simply "eternal life." Diligent study of them will, therefore, so quicken the beckoning of this destiny, the "joy of the Lord," as to fortify Christians against the appeal of other invitations; it will make their Christian hope so triumphant in their hearts that they will heed St. John's injunction, "Love not the world and what the world has to offer" (I John 2: 15).

This, then, is the first thing that the church is saying today. There is need to recall it here; otherwise it is impossible to see in perspective what the church wants in the temporal order. Moreover, the message itself, although ancient, is precisely sharpened to the needs of the time. It is needed not only against secularism, but also against a more subtle temptation. So many, so grave, and so urgent are the problems of the temporal order that there is the temptation, felt principally by noble souls, wholly to immerse oneself in them, to the oblivion of "the, one thing necessary." There is the' temptation to identify the kingdom of God with a just social order, and then to seek first the justice of the latter, thinking that all else will be ours as well. There is the temptation to make the Christian faith itself simply a means to an earthly end -social change and progress toward an ideal of human brotherhood. All this would be to make the leaven simply part of the dough. And against all these temptations the doctrine of the pearl needs emphasis.


On the other hand, this doctrine, which teaches detachment from the world, cannot be made the pretext for disengagement from the world's problems. And here we come to the second major emphasis in the church's teaching today. Pius XI reserved some of his most scathing denunciations for what he called "social modernism." It is the appearance in the Christian camp of the nineteenth-century liberal thesis with regard to church and state, that derived from Kant and was condemned in the Syllabus. It maintained that "religion has nothing to do with politics," with the order and institutions of the earthly city; that religion is a "purely private matter"; that social, political, and economic processes are immune from regulation by the heteronomous norms of religion and ethics. The Christian "social modernist" would maintain that his faith should have its sole flowering in personal piety; that he must keep hi's own hands clean by refusing to grapple with the grimy machinery of society. (One remembers Peguy: "Kantianism has clean hands; but it has no hands.")

As affecting the Christian

This "social modernism" is an error on many counts; I shall signalize but two. The first is based on the fact that the regeneration of baptism, though it makes a man a "new creature" endowed with a new life, does not transfer him into a new world. He must live his new life in this same old world; as a man and a citizen he is involved in its institutions, and the life of the new man in him is conditioned by them. They can favor its growth or help to kill it; they can assist him to his destiny or turn him aside from it. Moreover, he has Dower over them. as they over him. All the institutions of this world are imperfect, unstable, capable of transformation, subject to free human action. Consequently, both by reason of their relation to his destiny and by reason of this relation to them, the Christian has the responsibility to see to the creation of conditions that will be favorable to his movement towards eternal life.

These favorable conditions are not indeed indispensably necessary; the Christian life can be lived to perfection in the inhuman conditions of a concentration camp. But it is so lived only by heroes; and the run of men are not heroic. The ordinary man needs the support of an environment whose institutions are shaped by the forces of justice and charity; otherwise he will fail to be ordinarily just and ordinarily charitable. Here, then, is the point of insertion of the church's will with regard to the social order. Institutions that violate justice and charity are a manner of institutionalized sin, and a force for personal sin. And sin is the church's enemyher only enemy, but everywhere her enemy, whether in the city as such or in the individual. Hence she enters the city as such-the political, social, or economic order-ratione peccati, by reason of the sin there found.

Much could be said about the historical development and exercise of this mission of the church in the temporal order ratione peccati. My point here, however, is simply to point out the contemporary application-the insistence on the responsibility and duty of such action by every single Christian. To say that the church has a mission in the temporal order is not to defend what is called "clericalism." It is simply to say that the virtualities of Christian faith are not exhausted by personal piety; they demand an attack on organized injustice in all its forms; they demand positive action to establish and secure such institutions in the temporal order as will be favorable to the growth of the seed of eternal life planted in baptism.

Against this reason for Christian concern with the temporal order it might be argued that it is "interested," it reveals no concern for the human as such, it regards the city and its good order as simply a means to a higher end. The objection does not, of course, destroy the validity o~ the reason, but it does bid us look beyond it for another.

As affecting society

This second reason is based on the fact, first, that human life is essentially a relationship between persons, and second, that the perfection of this relationship is precisely the end and purpose of the social order, with all its varied institutions. Society is a rational process, and its rationality consists essentially in its progress-never rectilinear, always interrupted by regressions-towards an ideal of human community, structured after the demands of social justice and the equality of man with man, and informed by the spirit of social charity and the solidarity of all men. Moreover, this rational process and its ideal goal is the object of a divine will. God wills not only the eternal salvation of man, but his perfection here on earth as,, man-the perfection of his intellect, the perfection of his power over the material world and its energies (including -atomic), the perfection of his social living. These things are ends and values in themselves, and not simply means. In the Christian scheme they are indeed only intermediate ends, being proper to earth and time; but nonetheless they are ends, and the very nature of man, makes them desirable.


My point is that Christian faith here enters to affirm and support and then enlarge these human desires for the "secular" end of perfect human community–domestic, national, international. Obviously, Christian faith asserts its own supernatural ideal of human unity. It asserts, too, that this ideal will never be achieved on earth; it will always be blocked by the disorganizing action of Satan, by the divisiveness of sin, by the never completely healed disorder in the nature of man that makes him strangely tend to chaos. However, though Christian faith sanctions no myth about the city of God as realizable on earth, it allies itself strongly with the human hope for unity in the city of man. And for no mere sentimental reason. The Greek Fathers taught that the process of realizing mankind's "given" unity made a new beginning, on a plane higher than nature, in the fact of the incarnation: in asserting His oneness with man, Christ asserted the oneness of all men in Him. Moreover, He died, as St. John says, that He might "gather into one God's scattered children" (John 11: 52) ; and when He had risen He sent from heaven His own Spirit to accomplish the fulfillment of the prayer in which He had summed up the redemptive significance of His mission, that "all may be one" (John 17 : 21) .

There is, then, in the Gospel an obsession with the idea of human unity, a passion for it. Initially, it is the passion for the unity of the church, that has consequently turned so fiercely-at times too fiercely, we may think-on the error or disobedience or schism which would divide it. But the resonances of this passion are necessarily felt also in the earthly city-again, at times too strongly, as when the political unity of the city was confused with the religious unity of the church, and the latter was promoted and defended by means proper to the defense of the former. But this was an accident of historical circumstances, an aberration induced by the exigencies of a particular phase in political development. What permanently remains, as an exigence of Christian faith itself, is the enlistment of the energies of faith in the perfecting of the city's own unity, under new and due respect for the city's presently achieved autonomy.

The church does not and cannot want her own unity, much less the structures that preserve it, to be reflected in the earthly city; the point has recently been emphatically made by Pius XII in a series of discourses to the Roman Rota, begun in 1945. But the church does want the city to have its own proper unity-its own juridical structure wherein the equal rights and freedoms of citizens will be safeguarded, and its own spirit of civic friendship whereby the high values of human living-together will be ensured. And to this end she is urging her children, as citizens, to employ the mystique of unity that is inherent in their faith. There is no more effective weapon against the divisive factors within the city: misunderstandings, jealousies, dissensions between classes, clashes of opposed egoisms, the conflict between ambitions for power-all the many forms that hostility and hate can take.


I suppose, then, that what the church ultimately wants in the temporal order is to see there reflected, in civic friendship, the spirit of charity that is the primary expression of her faith. She wants this for the sake of the city, as essential to its good; she wants it, too, as the necessary expression of her own faith. Here is the point of synthesis of the twin values in faith-its value for eternal life and its value for temporal life. Love of the city's common good, with the faith in goodness that it implies, is itself an inchoative form of the love of the true God who is Goodness itself; this is so, whatever the strenuously agnostic secularist may say. And if this be so, how shall Christian faith in Christ, the Son of God and one-time of citizen of earth, not be the dynamic principle of a great love of the city's common good?

Obviously, the love of God and neighbor is no substitute for political maturity or for the high technical competence required in organizing the economic life of man. The church never said it was. What she says is that without the mystique of charity, the technique of politics and economics will not be able to do more than tinker with the social machine; it cannot make it run. Again, charity is no substitute for social justice;.it does not itself regulate the relations between men as possessors-that is the proper work of justice. But unless the relations between men as persons are regulated-and this is the proper function of charity-their relations as possessors will always be snarled. There is no society, national or international, without civic friendship as its soul. And since the time when political liberalism went beyond its premises and committed the course of society to purely secular dynamics, nothing has happened to convince an intelligent man that society can be ensouled by civic friendship unless civic friendship itself have, as its own soul, the virtue of charity that springs from Christian faith.


I have therefore dealt rather in gen- eral with two things that the church wants in the temporal order. She wants her children, who are in the temporal, order, to seek solely the pearl of great price that is not formed in the shell of time, and the hidden treasure that is not found in the fields of earth. Paradoxically, they are to render their greatest service to the world by not serving the world; for only one who sells all he has on earth leaves the earth itself enriched by the bargain. And it has been well said that there are just enough saints in the world to keep it from flying completely apart. The church wants this situation to continue.

Secondly, at the same time that the church recalls her children from absorption in the temporal order, she demands their engagement in it, for two main reasons. We have not here a lasting city, but while the city does last, it must be made a city of justice and friendship-on the one hand, for the value that its order has in freeing man for the pursuit of his eternal destiny; and on the other hand, for the value that its order has in itself, as a realization, always imperfect indeed, of a rational ideal of human unity.

It may be said that this statement of what the church wants in the temporal order is very general, and somewhat eschatological. Well, I was only writing a preface. And, as a matter of fact, to a statement of what anyone at all wants in time, would not the best preface perhaps be a sketch of his eschatology?

1 Encyclical, Mystici Corporis (Washington: National Catholic Welfare Conference, 1943), p. 39.

Rev. John Courtney Murray, S.J., S.T.D., is professor of theology at Woodstock College, Woodstock, Maryland, and editor of the quarterly review "Theological Studies." He is a member of the Executive Committee of the American Catholic Theological Association and of the Executive Committee of the Catholic Commission for Intellectual and Cultural Affairs, and vice president of the Catholic Association for International Peace. He was. formerly associate editor of the Jesuit weekly "America," and is author of numerous articles in various periodicals.