This entry is meant for all those who are seeking the Church of Christ, His Bride, and are becoming frustrated over the large number of different Christian Churches and communities. I can understand how appealing it may be to simply suspend the search for the "one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church" thinking that the division caused by the various groups is one that is against God's Will. I agree that division in Christianity goes against the very Will of God, and every Christian ought to be seeking to do that which is willed by God. So what is one supposed to do?
Let us begin with the very words of Christ Jesus:
"And now I am not in the world, and these are in the world, and I come to thee. Holy Father, keep them in thy name whom thou has given me; that they may be one, as we also are." (John 17:11)
Jesus here declares that He will return to His Father in heaven, and then prays for the unity of Christians, for the unity of His Church. This prayer actually deserves a great deal of attention since Jesus also elaborates on the meaning of the unity He spoke of. He wants Christians to be one as He and the Father are one. This concept of unity stands at the very heart of ecclesiology. The Son is united to the Father in a real sense: these two persons are but one God along with the Holy Spirit. Wherefore, the unity proposed here is a real one that connects the one necessarily to the other. This unity is so perfect that Jesus said that "the Father is in me, and I in the Father" (John 10:38). Though distinct persons, one is in the other and vice-versa.
We can say that anyone seeking the Church of Christ is confronted with two main ideas:
a) that the Church of Christ is visible and that her unity is also visible
b) that the Church of Christ is invisible and that her unity also is invisible
The former idea is what is taught by Apostolic Churches (the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches), while the latter is the theory that developped following the protestant "reformation" (this idea is held by protestants including Anglicans).
Now, if we understand the Church to be the Body of Christ (Ephesians 4:12; Ephesians 5:23; Colossians 1:24; Colossians 1:18), then we must understand the unity to be visible, not invisible. The reason for this is that Christ had only one Body and His Body was visibly one. In a way we can say that the answer to the question about the correct ecclesiology is not given "by Jesus", but is Jesus Himself. In this sense, we must understand His claim of being the truth (John 14:6). He does not only speak truth, but He Himself is the truth.
St. Paul asked those who had caused troubles to the visible unity of the Church the following question:
"Is Christ divided?" (1 Corinthians 1:13)
And later declared:
"For as the body is one, and hath many members; and all the members of the body, whereas they are many, yet are one body, so also is Christ." (1 Corinthians 12:12)
So the Incarnation is the model for the Church. The Church must be understood as an extension of the Incarnation. Each individual Christian is part of one body - the Church - with each part being united to every other. There is not a single member that is not united to another. For this would mean that the body lost its organic unity. "So we being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another" (Romans 12:5).
The statement of every one member of the Church being member of another should be understood in relation to the statement that Jesus is in the Father and the Father in Him. Which ecclesiological teaching makes more sense? The one which postulates a real, visible unity in which every member of the Church is in communion with every other. Or is it the "invisible Church theory" whose members are not in communion with each other and wherein Christians may freely disagree on doctrinal matters, not being of "one mind"?
We already have the next keyword: communion. This is very important because the Church is a Eucharistic communion. The very unity of the Church as being the body of Christ Jesus is effected through the participation in the Mystery of Holy Communion. Hence St. Paul writes:
"The chalice of benediction, which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? And the bread, which we break, is it not the partaking of the body of the Lord? For we, being many, are, one bread, one body, all that partake of one bread." (1 Corinthians 10:16-17)
So by participating in the communion of the blood of Christ and the partaking of the one bread which is the body of the Lord, we Christians become one body, the body of Christ. If however a person denies that the consecrated bread and wine he partakes of are not the body and blood of the Lord Jesus Christ, then he - by his own error - condemns himself. And those who do not think that bread and wine need be validly consecrated to become the actual Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ will then have to accept that they are uniting themselves to nothing other than bread and wine - not to Christ Jesus.
At this point let us remember that those who have broken the line of Apostolic Succession are left without valid sacraments and thus are unable to participate in the Mystery of Holy Communion: this would exclude all protestants including Anglicans from this Divine Mystery.
And if then all protestants are excluded from this, is it still then reasonable to take into account their theory about the "invisibly united Church"?
It is because of this that the members of the Church must be in communion with each other, otherwise we would be left with a schism-riddled "invisible Church". That such a notion is wrong, one can demonstrate easily. Most Anglicans will admit that prior to 1054 a.D. the Catholic Church was visibly one (for some reason, they do not include Arians, Nestorians, Donatists, Montanists, Monophysites, etc. to their theory of the invisibly united Church). Then, after the schism between East and West and after the protestant "reformation", all of the sudden, the Church of Christ consists of members that are all part of the one Church, but who need not be in communion with each other, i.e. the one Church is made up of mutually exclusive members.
Is this possible? Such a theory can be examined well by using an analogy. Let us for instance take the state of Czechoslovakia. In the past there existed a state named Czechoslovakia. However, this state was then destroyed. Out of it became the two states of the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Does the state of Czechoslovakia still exist? No. Likewise, the case with the Empire of Austria-Hungary. After World War I, it no longer existed. What does this mean with regards to the Church? This means that if we claim that the Church was once visibly united and this unity ended, then we are left with a Church no longer existing. And this conclusion would certainly contradict the words of Him who cannot lie, since He promised to His Church that "the gates of hell shall not prevail against it" (Matthew 16:18).
One could raise an objection though, that Christianity is no longer united. This is true, but this is true also before the schism of 1054 which was not the first schism to divide Christianity. What then is the explanation? The explanation is simple: that the division does not affect the Church: schisms do not divide the Catholic Church, but schisms separate Christians (in the wider sense of the term) from the Church. If the Church herself is divided, then the gates of hell have overpowered her. Instead we must affirm that those who are not in communion with us, are not in communion with the Church of Christ either; they have left the communion of the Church. This is true of the Arian and the Nestorian, as it is true of the Albigensian and the Anglican, and it is also true of the Monophysite and the Eastern Orthodox and any other schismatic.
If one can agree with this, then one has already reduced the list of possible ways to only three groups: the Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Churches.
Since the Oriental Orthodox broke communion with the Patriarchal Sees of the Church, we can safely say that theirs is not the Church of Christ. Furthermore, Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians remained in communion with each other and faithful to the Ecumenical Councils of the Church after the Orientals had broken away from the union of the Church.
This now leaves us with two possibilities: the Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodoxy. Both Churches claim to have preserved the true faith and to be the "one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church" of Christ. So which is it? It may perhaps help to take a look at the tradition of the ancients when problems arose. What was the test to show that one was in communion with the Catholic Church? That either of these two is not in communion with the other is apparent: there is a schism. Thus, one of the two must be in grave error.
Let us recall the words of St. Cyprian:
"Do they think that Christ will be with them when they are gathered up, who are gathered outside the Church of Christ?...He is no martyr who is not in the Church....They cannot remain with God who will not be of one mind in the Church of God." (De catholicae ecclesiae unitate, 13-14 [C.S.E.L. III, 222])
So what was the test of communion? How could one know if one was actually in the Church of Christ? Ancient testimony points to the the Petrine See, that See of the Bishop of Rome. If one was in communion with this See, one was considered a Catholic; if not, one was considered to be a foreign body.
Thus St. Cyprian stated:
"And He says to him again after the resurrection, 'Feed My sheep.' It is on him that He builds the Church, and to him that He entrusts the sheep feed. And although He assigns a like power to all apostles, yet He founded a single Chair, thus establishing by His own authority the source and hallmark of the (Church's) oneness. No doubt the others were all that Peter was, but a primacy is given to Peter, and it is (thus) made clear that there is but one flock which is to be fed by all the apostles in common accord. If a man does not hold fast to this oneness of Peter, does he imagine that he still holds the faith? If he deserts the chair of Peter upon whom the Church was built, has he still confidence that he is in the Church? This unity firmly we should hold and maintain, especially we bishops, presiding in the Church, in order that we may approve the episcpate itself to be one and undivided." (The Unity of the Church, 4-5 [a.D. 251-256])
"After such things as these, moreover, they still dare - a false bishop having been apointed for them, by heretics - to set sail and to bear letters from schismatic and profane persons to the throne of Peter, and to the chief church whence priestly unity takes its source; and not to consider that these were the Romans whose faith was praised in the preaching of the apostle, to whom faithlessness could have no access." (To Cornelius, Epistle 54/59:14 [a.D. 252])
In like manner St. Optatus of Milevis wrote:
"You cannot deny that you know that the episcopal throne was set up by Peter in the city of Rome ... in which one throne the unity is kept by all, that the other apostles might not each set up his own, that he would be a schismatic and a sinner who should set up another against the one throne." (Opt. Mil. II, 2 [C.S.E.L.XXVI, p. 36])
It is because of this that the Catholic Church teaches in Vatican II's Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium the following:
"In order that the episcopate itself, however, might be one and undivided, He put Peter at the head of the other Apostles, and in him set up a lasting and visible source and foundation of the unity both of faith and of communion." (Lumen Gentium #18)
Pope Boniface I (481-422) taught:
"It is therefore certain that this Church [the Roman see] is to the Churches throughout the world as the head to its members. If anyone cut himself off from this Church, not being in union with her, he is outside the Christian religion." (Ep. XIV, episcopis per Thessaliam [PL XX, 777 B])
Because of this St. Ambrose wrote:
"He sent for the bishop, nor did he think any grace true save that of the true faith, so he asked whether he was in communion with the Catholic bishops, that is, with the Roman Church." (De excessu fratris sui Satyri, I, 47 [PL XVI, 1306])
That communion with the Holy See is the test for one's Catholicity is also expressed by St. Jerome who wrote a letter to Pope St. Damasus during the Meletian troubles at Antioch:
"I speak with the successor of the fisherman and the disciple of the cross. I, who follow none but Christ as first, am joined in communion with Your Holiness, that is with the See of Peter. On this rock I know that the Church was built. Whoever eats the lamb outside this house is profane. Whoever is not in the ark of Noah will perish when the deluge comes. I know nothing of Vitalis, I defy Meletius, I care nothing for Paulinus. Whoever does not gather with you scatters; for whoever does not belong to Christ is of Antichrist." (Ep XV, ad Damasum, 2 [PL XXII, 355-356])
When we consider that the Holy See was the fountain of unity and of all ecclesiastical authority, the words of St. Ambrose become easily understandable:
"Where Peter is, there is the Church; were the Church is, there is no death, but eternal life." (Enarr. in Ps. XL, no.30 [PL XIV, 1082])
All examples I have used come from the time before the schism between the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Christians. There are indeed many more examples, but the ones I cited should be enough to demonstrate what special role Rome has played in the life of the Church of Christ. Of the two remaining possibilities - the Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodoxy - only one is still in communion with the Petrine See of which St. Theodore of Studium declared:
"I witness now before God and men, they have torn themselves away from the Body of Christ, from the Supreme See (Rome), in which Christ placed the keys of the Faith, against which the gates of hell (I mean the mouth of heretics) have not prevailed, and never will until the Consummation, according to the promise of Him Who cannot lie. Let the blessed and Apostolic Paschal (Pope St. Paschal I) rejoice therefore, for he has fulfilled the work of Peter." (Theodore Bk. II. Ep. 63).
And I end this entry with a simple reminder:
Pope St. Agatho wrote the following in a letter to Emperor Constantinus Pogonatus (the first part is incorporated in the Acts of the 6th Ecumenical Council):
"Sancti quidem Doctores venerati atque secuti (Apostolicam Sedem); haeretici autem falsis criminationibus ac derogationum odiis insecuti."
"The holy Doctors have always held it (the Apostolic See) in reverence and clung to it; while heretics have ever persecuted it with their slanderous falsehoods and hateful calumnies." (Mansi, tom. xi. Col. 239)
May God enlighten the reader to find his way to His Church, the Catholic Church.