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Incorporation into the Church (Membership)
New Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 7. 2nd ed. Detroit, MI: Gale, 2003. p380-383.
Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale, COPYRIGHT 2006 Gale, COPYRIGHT 2007 Gale, Cengage Learning
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Page 380

INCORPORATION INTO THE CHURCH (MEMBERSHIP)

In any contemporary discussion on "belonging to the Church" the first point to be stressed is that VATICAN COUNCIL II's Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen gentium) advisedly dropped the terms "member" and "membership." The first schema of the ConstitutioPage 381  |  Top of Article de Ecclesia had, in keeping with Pius XII's 1943 encyclical, Mystici Corporis Christi, employed the terms. But in its final form Lumen gentium used instead "incorporation," a notion at once more precise and more flexible. The deliberate substitution is clear from a comparison of Lumen gentium, art. 14 with the 1962 schema, art. 9, and the 1963 schema, art. 8. Likewise, the idea of votum Ecclesiae (intention of the Church— Abbott) did not keep the meaning given to it (in line with the thought of St. Robert Bellarmine) during the discussions of Vatican Council I (J. D. Mansi, Sacrorum Conciliorum nova et amplissima collectio, 31 v. [Florence-Venice 1757–98] reprinted and continued by L. Petit and J. B. Martin, 53 v. in 60 [Paris 1889–1927; repr. Graz 1960– ] 53:311–312), in Mystici Corporis Christi, and in the Holy Office's letter to the archbishop of Boston regarding the "Feeney Case" (H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum, ed. A. Schönmetzer [32d ed. Freiburg 1963]3870). The expression votum Ecclesiae retained that "classical" meaning only in the passage on catechumens (Lumen gentium 14.3). The application of votum Ecclesiae to non-Catholics reflects an entirely different viewpoint (Lumen gentium 15.2; 8.2—ad unitatem catholicam impellunt, "these elements or gifts properly belonging to the Church of Christ possess an inner dynamism toward Catholic unity"[Abbott]).

The setting aside of the idea of membership in favor of that of incorporation has called for the development of a carefully nuanced vocabulary, consistent with Vatican II ECCLESIOLOGY. With regard to Catholics, Lumen gentium uses "being incorporated" (incorporatio), qualifying the term with the adverb "fully" (plene) and emphasizing that full incorporation requires the presence of the Holy Spirit (Lumen gentium 14.2). For non-Catholics and catechumens, the constitution speaks of their being linked (conjunctio) to the Church, again carefully stressing the role of the Holy Spirit in each case (Lumen gentium 14.3; 15.2). As for non-Christians the constitution uses "being related" (ordinantur), a term that suggests a dynamic relationship, an orientation toward the Church (Lumen gentium 16). Every shade of difference in meaning among these terms is important. But the terms acquire their full force only in the light of the most authoritative commentaries on them, the Decree on Ecumenism and the Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions. Then, supposing the nuances indicated, the richness of such expressions as the following becomes clear: "Churches and ecclesial communities" (Unitatis redintegratio 3.3; cf. Lumen gentium 15.1); "separated brethren" (brothers divided; Unitatis redintegratio 3.4); "separated Churches and ecclesial communities" (Unitatis redintegratio 3.4); "full communion"— "imperfect communion" (ibid. 3.1).

The Force of "Incorporation." Commentators on the conciliar texts have perhaps not paid enough attention to the fact that, although tightly linked, the terms "incorporation" (Lumen gentium) and communio (Unitatis redintegratio) are not synonymous. The main focus of "incorporation" is on individuals as such and although Lumen gentium (15) does make passing reference to the ecclesial standing of groups as such, that is not its primary emphasis. The main bearing of "communion," on the contrary, is on groups as such, in their relation to the Catholic Church and to each other. It is of some interest to point out that Lumen gentium (14.2; 14.1) uses the term communio to indicate union ("unity of communion"— Abbott) with the successor of St. Peter, but that in Unitatis redintegratio the term "communion" takes on the traditional sense of the koinonia, the fellowship, of the Churches (Unitatis redintegratio 3.4). In this respect, the Decree on Ecumenism is richer than the Constitution on the Church: it acknowledges a genuine salvific value in Churches and ecclesial communities as such (i.e., not merely in the ecclesial elements or vestiges existing in them).

Every ecclesial tradition affirms that incorporation in Christ involves a core element, known only by God, which consists in the presence within a person of the love of God poured forth by the Holy Spirit (Rom 5.5). This element is so important that without it there exists no full and complete incorporation, possessing every guarantee of authenticity (see Lumen gentium 14.2, a capital text on the point). This spiritual, interior incorporation often occurs before baptism (see St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae 3, 66.11 and 13 on baptism of desire and of blood) and at times even without any explicit knowledge of the mystery of Christ (Lumen gentium 16).

Here it should be stressed that when they speak formally of incorporation into the Church, most ecclesial traditions—even those that do not give prominence to the Sacraments—acknowledge that its accomplishment is normally through baptism. The gift of the Holy Spirit that is the inner mark of belonging to the Body of Christ is made ordinarily to those who seal their faith in Jesus Christ by baptism. Admittedly some Christian bodies born during or after the Reformation are silent on the point. The more ancient Christian traditions, however, are unanimous here, even though they may explain differently the connection between the sacramental rite and the inner incorporation or may not all recognize the validity of baptism administered in ways other than their own.

Every person baptized in a true BAPTISM belongs to the Body of Christ and therefore to the Church. One of the most important consequences of Vatican II ecclesiology is the break with Bellarmine's viewpoint, repeatedPage 382  |  Top of Article in Mystici Corporis Christi, which in fact limited true belonging to the Church to those baptized within the Catholic community. For Vatican II every genuine baptism truly brings incorporation into Christ and the Church. Even though divided, the Church is single (Unica Christi Ecclesia, Lumen gentium 8.1) and baptism brings entrance into the single (though divided) Church. This is the profound implication of the expression "the one single Baptism of the one single Church." Lumen gentium refrains from stating that the Church is the Catholic Church; it chooses rather to affirm that the "Church subsists in the Catholic Church" (subsistit in; Lumen gentium 8). The precise reason of this choice is to give recognition to the presence of genuinely ecclesial elements in the non-Catholic bodies that the document, further on, designates as "Churches or ecclesial Communities." (The 1964 schema of the Constitutio de Ecclesia has this: "loco 'est' 1.21, dicitur 'subsistit in' ut expressio melius concordet cum affirmatione de elementis ecclesialibus quae alibi adsunt.") The implication is that in these "Churches and ecclesial Communities" the Church (the single Church) is present. Therefore those who by baptism belong to these bodies and within them live in faithfulness to the Spirit, relying on the elements of genuinely evangelical life they find there (Lumen gentium 8.2; 15.1 & 2; Unitatis redintegratio 3), by that same belonging also belong to the single Church.

Given the viewpoint of the conciliar documents (which in their own way mark a return to Thomas Aquinas's insistence on the interiority of incorporation into Christ—Summa theologiae 3a, 8.3), it is extremely important to keep in mind that belonging to the single Church comes about in and through belonging to the "Churches and ecclesial Communities." These bear within them elements of sanctification and of truth that make it possible for the baptized to live according to the Gospel. Therefore the value of each "Church or ecclesial Community" as such is not set aside—treated, that is, as meaningless or purely incidental. Moreover, the council refuses to conceive the incorporation as though it were an unmediated action of the Holy Spirit, between the Spirit and each individual alone. However far from being what the Catholic Church regards as the true form of the Church, every ecclesial community is the locus of a genuine incorporation into the single Church. Acknowledgment of that fact is an implication of the idea of "incomplete communion"; the accent falls on "communion," the noun, rather than on "incomplete," the adjective, and clearly the term "communion" should not be taken to mean anything other than the "communion" that incorporation in Christ brings about (see Bertrams; Hamer; Kasper; Lanne; McDonnell; McGovern).

Incorporation through baptism means, then, incorporation into the single Church. The Church, however, exists now as divided, disunited. Lumen gentium and the other conciliar documents that explicate its ecclesiology, affirm that incorporation, while real, does not have the same completeness in all Churches and ecclesial communities. The documents add that incorporation has this fullness only in the Catholic Church (Lumen gentium 8.2 [subsistit in passage]; Unitatis redintegratio 3.5). To illustrate let us give an image: a graft can be made onto a living body, yet for some reason not receive all the vigor and strength of the body because of some defect or lack in the way the grafting onto the whole organism is done. In the belief of the Catholic Church the baptized person fully (plene) incorporated into the Church is the one who shares truly in the Eucharist (i.e., as one having charity), within a community whose bishop, ordained in the apostolic succession, is in communion with the bishop of Rome (except for the last part the Catholic Church is at one with the Orthodox Churches in this understanding).

Two Views of the Church. To grasp the meaning of this Catholic position, it is important to recall the difference between two views of the Church, the "Catholic" view—that of Roman Catholics, the Orthodox, and some Anglicans—and the Protestant one. The Protestant view considers the Church essentially in its invisible reality (its res in the Scholastics' vocabulary). It looks immediately at what God works in the heart "of all who love the Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity and whose names are known only to God" (Moss 2, 41). Thus, the focus is on the effect of grace and the mysterious bond existing here and now between the glorified Christ and each sincere believer. Such a reading of the reality of the Church, therefore, centers on realized sanctification, that is on the invisible communion of all who are in grace. Outward signs—the Sacraments, the institutional Church—have a value of mere instrumentality, no more. All those who confess Christ—and thereby may possibly be sanctified—have the possibility of existing within the ecclesial plenitude to the degree that charity is alive in them. It is impossible, therefore, to take institutional elements as the index of degrees of ecclesiology.

The Catholic view is altogether different. The reality of the Church must be seen as consisting at once and inseparably of what Christ works here and now within the faithful and of the institutional elements established from the outset by the apostolic community, the interpreter of Christ's will. From the day of Christ's resurrection to the day of his second coming the Church, taken in its total reality, is the Sacramentum salutis, i.e., the expression of all that salvation implies—not only the inner presence of grace, but also the channels of grace. These instruments also are saving gifts of God and constitutives of the manifestationPage 383  |  Top of Article of his grace. The Church received its identity at once from its inner, mysterious reality (its res) and from the visible means (the sacramentum) of which it is the bearer. For the Church is, in the present world, the Body of Christ, to be seen always as tightly bound to the Jesus of the Incarnation—the eternal Son of the Father, but also the One Sent to give to human beings along with the event of salvation the means for entering into that salvation.

Full Incorporation. This makes clear the meaning of the important statement of the Constitution on the Church: "They are fully incorporated into the society of the Church who, possessing the Spirit of Christ, accept her entire system and all the means of salvation given to her" (Lumen gentium 14.2). Full incorporation comes about where the spiritual reality (the possession of the Spirit of Christ) and the entirety of visible, essential elements are present. To be joined only to the visible institution without charity is not to be "in the heart of the Church" (ibid.); to possess charity without holding fast to the outward, institutional, and essential elements is not to belong totally to the reality of the Sacrament that the Church is. The two aspects of incorporation into the Church, the spiritual and the visible, are, as it were, interfused. Among the factors that together give the Church its outward manifestation, the institutional aspect is inseparable from the communal profession of faith and from sharing in the Sacraments, above all in the Eucharistic synaxis. The Eucharist is the unifying center in which come together, within the communio of the Body of Christ, the communion of the profession of faith and the communion with the apostolic ministry, whose centrum unitatis is the bishop of Rome. Incorporation achieves in the Eucharist its full measure.

This understanding of the incorporation in Christ and the Church allows for breaking away from the Counter-Reformation positions maintaining that there is no genuine belonging to the Church other than within the Catholic community, bound fast to the pope (Bellarminus, De conciliis 3, 2 [ed. Fevre 1870] v. 2. 316–318). That conception remained in the thought of Mystici Corporis; use of the term "membership" made difficult any sort of nuancing. But thanks to its ecclesiology—prepared by the renewal of patristic studies and the ecumenical dialogue—Vatican II was able to affirm at the same time that Churches or ecclesial communities separated from the Catholic Church are part of the single Church, and that nevertheless incorporation in Christ and His Church possesses within the Catholic Church the fullness that it does not have elsewhere.

Bibliography: W. BERTRAMS, "De gradibus communionis in doctrina Concilii Vaticani II," Gregorianum 47 (1966) 286–305. Y.-M. CONGAR, "What Belonging to the Church Has Come to Mean," Communio 4 (1977) 146–160. J. HAMER, "La terminologie écclésiologique de Vatican II et les ministères protestants," La Documentation Catholique 53 (1971) 625–628. W. KASPER, "Der ekklesiologische Charakter der nichtkatholischen Kirchen," Theologische Quartalschrift 145 (1965) 42–62. E. LANNE, "Le Mystère de l'Église et de son unité," Iréníkon 46 (1973) 298–342. K. MCDONNELL, "The Concept of Church in the Documents of Vatican II as Applied to Protestant Denominations," Lutherans and Catholics in Dialogue—IV, Eucharist and Ministry (Minneapolis 1970) 307–324. J. O. MCGOVERN, The Church in the Churches (Washington, D.C. 1968). C. B. MOSS, What Do We Mean by Reunion (London 1953).

[J. M. R. TILLARD/EDS.]

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition) 
"Incorporation into the Church (Membership)." New Catholic Encyclopedia, 2nd ed., vol. 7, Gale, 2003, pp. 380-383. Gale Virtual Reference Library, http%3A%2F%2Flink.galegroup.com%2Fapps%2Fdoc%2FCX3407705611%2FGVRL%3Fu%3Dclevnet_cpl%26sid%3DGVRL%26xid%3Dbcca74cc. Accessed 10 Dec. 2018.

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3407705611

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  • Baptism
    • incorporation into the Church,
      • 7: 381-382
  • Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen gentium) (Vatican Council II),
  • Full incorporation,
    • 7: 383
  • Incorporation into the Church (Membership),
    • 7: 380-383
  • Protestants and Protestantism
    • incorporation into the Church,
      • 7: 382