“Is the Church invisible?”

Is the Church invisible? Well…

(Alternate link, via Vimeo.)


Is the Church only invisible? Many believe that “extra Ecclesiam nulla salus“, the famous phrase of St. Cyprian in Latin, which translates to “outside the Church, there is no salvation”, means that the Church teaches that one must be within what’s called the “visible” Church in order to be saved. But this is untrue, of course.

St. Augustine realized this, writing in his 45th Tractate on the Gospel of John, “[H]ow many sheep are outside, how many wolves within! And how many sheep are inside, how many wolves without!” There, he cites verses on predestination and bluntly makes the point that one could be in the Church one day and excommunicated the next, just as Luke 8:13 hints!

Obviously, the Church concurs. The Catechism makes clear that all “[t]hose who die in God’s grace and friendship” will reach Heaven (CCC #1023).

Eastern Orthodox bishop Kallistos Ware sums it up: “While there is no division between a ‘visible’ and an ‘invisible Church’, yet there may be members of the Church who are not visibly such, but whose membership is known to God alone. If anyone is saved, he must in some sense be a member of the Church; in what sense, we cannot always say.”

Protestantism takes this invisibility to an extreme, however, citing Luke 17:20-21 and 2 Timothy 2:19. These passages are hardly proof against the visible Church, though, because the first simply references the so-called “end times” and the current reality of the kingdom of God, and the second just points out that, despite heresy being almost everywhere, “the firm foundation of God stands” and “the Lord knows those who are His”.

But what is Protestantism’s relationship to the Church, then? Well, Protestants are in imperfect communion with Her, having only ecclesial communities without all of the seven Sacraments. Still, they have the grace of baptism, and they, therefore, can be guided somewhat by the Holy Spirit. And since baptism originates with the Church, they are connected to Her.

However, doctrine is indeed important, and those who willfully reject it lacerate the Body of Christ, as the Council of Florence noted in 1440. In section 48 of Lumen Fidei, His Holiness’ first encyclical, Pope Francis says: “..inasmuch as the unity of faith is the unity of the Church, to subtract something from the faith is to subtract something from the veracity of communion.”

Practically speaking, then, Protestantism purports that Christ has many brides. The reality is that Protestants are hopelessly divided, in violation of 1 Corinthians 1:10-13, Ephesians 4:1-6, Philippians 2:1-2, and 1 Peter 3:8. So, for them, it really boils down to this: Is Christ unfaithful? If one thinks so, they blaspheme. If one knows otherwise, then they must recognize that He cannot have more than one Bride.

In short, to speak simply, the Church is visible, but Her true membership is not always so. And the uncertainty in this does not excuse an extreme, heretical view of ecclesiology.


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About Matthew Olson

Matthew Olson is a student in the Diocese of Little Rock.

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