When one considers or refers to the Catholic Church, one often intends to connote the Pope, Cardinals, Bishops, or Priests that comprise the hierarchy of the Church. This is entirely proper. It is also too restrictive to capture what the Church encompasses. A more comprehensive understanding of the Church involves perceiving it as a living body composed of members both on earth and in eternity. For this reason, and in following the teachings of the Bible, the Catholic Church is appropriately called the mystical body of Christ.
In this paper, I will endeavor to explain what it means to claim that the Catholic Chuch is the mystical body of Christ. To do so, I will begin by exploring what is known as the communion of saints. I will then examine how the mystical body is composed of three parts; the Church Triumphant, the Church Militant, and the Church Suffering.
The Communion Of Saints
The communion of saints is a term used to refer to the mystical bond uniting Catholics on Earth, in Purgatory, and in Heaven.
An inclusive definition of a saint is one who is (or has) conformed his will to the will of God. For this reason, Catholicism considers anyone in Heaven to be a saint. Still, some are considered more eminently than others. These more eminent souls are distinguished for their holiness and recognized by the Church. This process is known as canonization.
Since all Catholics are, or should be, voyaging toward Heaven, we are all united within this communion of saints. Saint Paul writes of this bond of Christians, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? No, in all these things, we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (See Romans 8:35-39).
This community of the faithful comprises what is known as the mystical body of Christ.
The Mystical Body
The scriptural basis for referring to the Catholic Church as the mystical body of Christ is derived from the writings of Saint Paul. In his Epistle to the Colossians, Paul refers to Christ as “The head of the body, the Church.” (Colossians 1:18). In 1 Corinthians 12:27, Paul suggests that Christians are now Christ’s body.
Just as a physical body is composed of various organs that serve different functions, the Catholic Church is formed by structurally united parts and various reciprocally dependent members.
In building upon the analogy of the Church as the body of Christ, Pope Pius XII wrote, “If we would define and describe the true Church of Jesus Christ – which is the one, holy, Catholic, apostolic Roman Church – we shall find nothing more noble, more sublime, or more divine than the expression ‘the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ’ – an expression that flows spontaneously from the repeated teaching of the sacred Scriptures and the holy Fathers.” (Mystici Corporis Christi, June 29, 1943).
The Church is called mystical because it is a mystery God has revealed to be true. Moreover, the Catholic Church is the Mystical Body of Christ because it is sacramental. The Church is the great sacrament of the New Law instituted by Christ to communicate invisible grace to the world. Moreover, since the concept of the mystical body cannot be understood apart from Christ, the Catholic Church is rightly understood to be the extension of the Incarnation.
In continuing the analogy of the Church as a body, it is possible to recognize three parts or divisions of that body.
The Church Triumphant
The first division is called the Church Triumphant. The term refers to those souls who have triumphed over their evil inclinations, the world’s seductions, and the evil spirit’s temptations and now see God “face to face,” as Saint Paul writes. (See 1 Corinthians 13:12).
Put differently, the Church Triumphant describes the Catholic Church as it is in Heaven. To be a member of the Church Triumphant is to reside in the Kingdom of God. It is the realm of the Holy Trinity, the angels and saints, and the abode of all those who have reached the fullness of salvation in Christ. These souls enjoy what is known as the beatific vision. It is the direct and immediate knowledge of God that can only be obtained in Heaven.
Placed in an eschatological framework, the Church Triumphant will include all of creation as well as those who have been conformed to Christ.
The Church Militant
The Church Militant is the part of the Church we are most familiar with. It is the Catholic Church as it exists on earth.
The Church, like a nation, must defend herself and the faith. It is the responsibility of Catholicism to illuminate and fight for the truth while working for the salvation of souls. For these reasons as well as for the fact that Catholics are engaged in the struggle against sin, temptation, and the devil, the earthly Church is called militant (Latin for one serving as a soldier).
The Church Suffering
The third division of the Mystical Body is referred to as the Church Suffering or Church Penitent.
The Church Suffering is composed of those faithful who have died in God’s grace and friendship but require additional purification to obtain the holiness needed for entrance into Heaven. Upon completion of the purification process, these souls will become members of the Church Triumphant in Heaven.
Catholicism asserts that the Church is the mystical body of Christ. While the mystical body must include the clergy, Catholicism also recognizes that Christ is the head of the body. Additionally, the mystical body consists of the faithful, whether they are “in the body” on earth, enduring the purification of Purgatory, or seeing God face to face in Heaven.