Invisible Catholic church?


This is the second thread in which I want to discuss Catholic concepts of the church. In reading many of the threads on CAF, I’m finding that the definition of the church on the part of Catholics is a bit slippery to grasp. I’ll begin by reading a thread that will mention how the Catholic church has over a billion members.

That’s fine until someone brings up doctrinal or moral failing on the part of some or all of these people. What follows is an assertion that these people sin but the church doesn’t or that the church doesn’t teach error-effectively redefining the church to exclude the laity since they don’t teach.

If someone else brings up examples of priests who have sinned or taught incorrectly, a further redefinition points out that they are not part of the teaching authority, shrinking the church to the Magesterium.

Next, someone pointing out sinful acts or incorrect teaching by a bishop is met again with the assertion that the church doesn’t sin or teach error and that among bishops only the successor of Peter is protected by the charism of infallibility, shrinking the church to the Pope.

If failings on the part of a Pope are noted, they are dismissed with the understanding that the Pope is human, that this wasn’t an instance where infallibility was being promulgated, etc. while the assertion that the church doesn’t sin or teach error is still made, effectively excluding the Pope.

Thus we’ve gone from a church of over a billion members currently on earth to zero members on earth in order to maintain the notion of a church without sin or error. This sounds suspiciously like an invisible church to me.

(Please note that I accept the notion that those members of the church who have died are now without sin and understand the truth-but to limit the church to just these individuals would still produce an invisible church on earth, and do serious violence to the usage of the word “church” in the Epistles.)

I know that in trying to condense this for the sake of brevity, it may sound glib, but I’m looking for an honest answer to the question:

What is the Catholic definition of the church, who is in it and if any of the members are currently alive on earth, how can it be without sin or error?


Your conclusion does not follow from your assertion… that’s like excluding everyone under the age of 18 from U.S. citizenship just because they’re not eligible to vote.

That’s like excluding those over the age of 18 who don’t exercise their right to vote (and their responsibility to cast an informed vote) from U.S. citizenship just because they don’t actually vote.

Now you’re excluding the folks who voted for the party not in power, or (depending on how far you take it) everyone but the President.

No U.S. citizens, then, either.

Just because I’m a member of some organization doesn’t mean I (and everyone else in it for that matter) has to be the CEO.


The Catholic definition of The Church is it has four chief marks. It is one, holy catholic, and apostolic.

You assume too much in your post.



To clarify, I wasn’t suggesting everyone was the CEO, just trying to get at the root of the idea of the church as currently being pure and without error. The arguments above aren’t mine, but rather what I’ve read on a number of threads at CAF (stretched out over a large number of posts usually) I included it to show why I find it perplexed and how it has made it difficult for me to understand what Catholics here mean by “the church”.

Could you please take a moment to answer the question I posed:

What is the Catholic definition of the church, who is in it and if any of the members are currently alive on earth, how can it be without sin or error?

Thanks :slight_smile:



Assuming is exactly what I am trying to avoid doing. Thank you for beginning to answer the first part of my question. I’ve read about the marks before. But what exactly are Catholics looking at when they look to see if those marks are there?

As well, how about the other parts of my question:

who is in it and if any of the members are currently alive on earth, how can it be without sin or error?

Thanks :slight_smile:


Have you taken a gander at the Catechism of the Catholic Church? That should give you some answers, but be aware that Catholics don’t have an “either/or” view of the Church so much as a “both/and”.

Perhaps this will help:

One: The Church professes its oneness in faith as is evidenced by one Lord, faith, and baptism. One God and Father of us all.

Holy: set apart and guided by the Holy Spirit

Catholic: possessing fullness of truth for all time and in all places. The Church has been Catholic since its beginning in that this fullness has always been a characteristic of it. Keep in mind that a local parish is as fully Catholic in this sense as is the Universal Church whose visible head is the Bishop of Rome. Catholic is not merely a jurisdictional or geographical term.

Apostolic: The Church is based on Apostolic Teaching but not simply in an abstract “my church teaches the bible” kind of way, but also in an incarnational manner through Apostolic Succession. There is a link between our present day bishops and the apostles in an unbroken chain of consecration by the laying on of hands.


There are both the invisible Church and the visible churches. The invisible Church is made up of all the people who are true believers in Jesus. The visible churches are the institutional bodies that contain members of the invisible Church. Some members of the invisible Church may not belong to any visible church.

Why must a distinction be made between the invisible Church and the visible churches? Simply because it is impossible for anyone on earth to point to anyone else on earth and say that they are a true believer and will be with Jesus in heaven. We can not know what someone truly believes; only God knows that. If we don’t know what a person believes we can’t be sure that any particular person is part of the invisible Church. We can tell who members of the visible churches are since they identify themselves as members of the Catholic Church, or various other churches. However if we go into any church building on a Sunday we can not point out one person we can guarantee is a true believer. If we can’t point out anyone who will be with Christ in heaven, how can we deny the invisible Church exists?

Augustine, for one recognized the distinction.

The second rule is about the twofold division of the body of the Lord; but this indeed is not a suitable name, for that is really no part of the body of Christ which will not be with Him in eternity. We ought, therefore, to say that the rule is about the true and the mixed body of the Lord, or the true and the counterfeit, or some such name; because, not to speak of eternity, hypocrites cannot even now be said to be in Him, although they seem to be in His Church.


Thanks for taking the time write this, it’s useful.

I have looked at the CCC. For the most part it seems clear, but yet what I read there isn’t what I’m reading in many of the discussions.

let me give you a couple of examples of what I’m reading in the CCC:

769 “The Church . . . will receive its perfection only in the glory of heaven,” at the time of Christ’s glorious return.

782 - Its destiny, finally, “is the Kingdom of God which has been begun by God himself on earth and which must be further extended until it has been brought to perfection by him at the end of time.”

This suggests to me that in one sense the church isn’t currently perfect-it will be perfect and God sees it as perfect because He knows the end from the beginning, but there is also a present imperfection.

Does this make sense?

I have one more quote I want your thoughts on, but I’d like to respond to what you wrote first.

The CCC speaks of overall unity in spite of rifts and wounds and imperfect unity among some believers-that’s not far from my view of it.

I’m on board with this as well-it just seems that many Catholics are using holy and “perfect” as synonyms. Do you think they refer to the same thing?

I’ll agree to the double sense of fullness and universal-the Bishop of Rome is where you and I part company on the definition.

I agree that the church is based on Apostolic teaching-succession as it is commonly described is something I’m agnostic about at this point.

The section of the CCC that is perplexing is

827 “Christ, ‘holy, innocent, and undefiled,’ knew nothing of sin, but came only to expiate the sins of the people. The Church, however, clasping sinners to her bosom, at once holy and always in need of purification, follows constantly the path of penance and renewal.” All members of the Church, including her ministers, must acknowledge that they are sinners. In everyone, the weeds of sin will still be mixed with the good wheat of the Gospel until the end of time. Hence the Church gathers sinners already caught up in Christ’s salvation but still on the way to holiness:

The Church is therefore holy, though having sinners in her midst, because she herself has no other life but the life of grace. If they live her life, her members are sanctified; if they move away from her life, they fall into sins and disorders that prevent the radiation of her sanctity. This is why she suffers and does penance for those offenses, of which she has the power to free her children through the blood of Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit.

The section on the church in the CCC starts by defining the church as the assembly of believers, later using the term “People of God”

In 827, it says that all these people should acknowledge they are sinners. In the part that follows the church becomes an abstract “she” that relates to the sinners who prior to this section were the church.

The definition of the church changes. :confused:


Perhaps the reason you are not getting a precise enough answer is because your question itself is not precise. One of the things you are muddying is the distinction between the Mystical Body of Christ, and it’s individual members and their roles.

Does the Catholic Church teach that the Church, as Christ’s body (as described by Jesus and St. Paul), is ontologically (in it’s being) perfect? Yes, it is, simply by the fact that it is Christ’s Body. To deny this is to reject the Bible’s description of the Church as Christ’s body, or that Christ is divinely perfect.

Does the Church recognize that individual members of that Body are sinners? Of course. But to deny that the Catholic Church is not Christ’s body because it’s members are sinners is to deny the existence of any Church --visible or invisible – since every Christian in the world is a sinner.

Does the Catholic Church claim infallibility for all it’s members? You know it doesn’t. She only claims it for the Pope (and the Bishops teaching in union with him) and then only under certain restrictive conditions. And she only can make that claim because Christ first promised it would be so.

Are the Popes themselves sinners? Of course-- the Church has never claimed otherwise. Does this mean that the Popes cannot speak infallibly?

NO! – and this is where non-Catholics who misunderstand the Church’s teaching on this make their mistake, so listen carefully. Infallibility of the type given to the Popes is a negative charism; that is, it only protects them from teaching error. It doesn’t mean they can’t make errors in math problems or World Cup winner predictions. It doesn’t mean they can reveal new teachings. It has nothing to do with being sinless, which would not be infallibility but impeccability, which the Church does not claim for the Popes.

How can anyone claim infallibilty without being sinless? Ask the writers of the Bible, who were all sinners, but were still used by God to transmit inspired text. Inspiration is a greater charism than infallibility, so if God can use sinful Bible writers, He can use a sinful Church.


All Baptized persons are members of the Church. Sinners are not excluded as members of the Church, the Catholic Church is made up of Saints and sinners. Lay, Clergy and Religious, those here and those who have gone on to Eternal life, excluding only those condemned to Hell. It’s also important to remember the distinction, we are not The Church, we are members of Christ’s Mystical Body, The Church. .


From Is the Church Visible or Invisible?

Certainly it was to a visible, authoritative body that Christ declared, addressing its first earthly leader, “I will entrust to you the keys of the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 16:19). What good would it have done to bestow the keys upon a Church so formless as to defy any effort to identify it? Then, too, Christ speaks of a visible Church when he recommends recourse to it for settling disputes among his followers: “Refer it to the Church” (Matt. 18:17). He tells his followers, who make us the Church on earth, that they are “the light of the world. A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and then put it under a bushel basket; it is set on a lampstand, where it gives light to all in the house” (Matt. 5:14-15; see also Luke 8:16,11:33).

Christ’s Church does have an invisible quality in that it is his Mystical Body on earth. But to understand the Church as having no visibility at all - and, as a consequence, no authority at all - conjures up a Church as tenuous as feathers in the wind. It’s almost as if Jesus, in setting up his Church, didn’t quite know what he was doing.

[O]nly a visible, authoritative Church could have set in place the pillars that would support Christian belief and practice through the ages. To those who cry “Prove it!” here are a few examples:

1. Codification of the Bible. The Bible did not codify itself, did not specify which books, among many, were to be seen as inspired. A visible, authoritative body, comprised of bishops, decided the content of the canon.

2. The worldwide councils. Christianity’s doctrinal parameters have been charted by the ecumenical councils, now numbering 21, each conducted under the authority of the visible, universal Church. Not once in those 21 sessions did an “invisible” group of bishops meet and deliberate.

3. The Lord’s day. The Christian Sunday replaced the Saturday sabbath of the Old Testament. The visible Church made this change.

4. Christmas and Easter. The Bible nowhere mentions the word “Christmas” or the date for Christmas. The celebration of Christmas on December 25 was a decision of the Church. (The feast didn’t arise all by itself.) Much the same can be said for Easter as a feast separate from the other Sundays which commemorate the Resurrection. It was a visible Church, headed by a definitely locatable pope, that settled the dates of observance for the two key feasts.

5. The calendar. It is Christ’s visible Church, its reach extending into the secular realm, which has given us the Gregorian calendar, named after Pope Gregory XIII.


Jesus did say he was going to build his Church, didn’t he (Matt. 16:18)? Isn’t “the church” spoken of often in Scripture (e.g., Eph.3:10, 5:21–32; Col.1:24; 1 Tim 2: 15)?
While we can agree that Christians share a significant spiritual bond, do you think this “invisible” union is all Jesus had in mind when he spoke of his church?
What about the time Jesus said if we have an unresolved grievance we should “tell it to the church” (Matt. 18: 17)? How’s that possible if the church is “invisible”? Didn’t his Church have to be something which could be found, and which had the authority to resolve disputes among its members? Notice, too, he said tell “*the *church”—only one.
Do you agree that the Church of the New Testament is the true Church—the one divinely founded, ordered, and guided by Christ?
If you wanted to join the New Testament Church, could you find it? Could you point out its leaders and learn its particular doctrines?
Doesn’t the New Testament Church have a visible structure, with bishops, presbyters, and deacons?
Do you think you would have been considered a member of the Church if you had followed different teachings and leaders not approved by the apostles, even though you professed belief in Christ?
If the Church of Scripture was a visible body unified in government, teaching, and worship, what is your basis for defining the Church in another way? How can you be faithful to Scripture and deny that the Church Christ founded has a visible structure and unified doctrine?
If you could belong to the New Testament Church, would you want to? To share not just a spiritual union but also the same leadership, doctrine, and worship with believers all over the world? Doesn’t that sound more like the unity Christ intended for us?
Is it possible that you’ve settled for the idea of the Church as this partial spiritual union because, based on your experience, you believe that’s all that is possible?
Sometimes people are bothered when Catholics say that Jesus has only one true Church, but how many churches did Jesus start?


Augustine also remarked that the Church “is called Catholic not only by her own members but even by all her enemies. For when heretics or the adherents of schisms talk about her … with strangers . . . they call her nothing else but Catholic. For they will not be understood unless they distinguish her by this name which the whole world employs in her regard.” [The True Religion 7:12, ca. A.D. 390]. Thus the fact that the Church is generally or universally (catholically) called “Catholic” forms part of its title to that name.


There is one Church and that is the invisible body of Christ. That is the Church Christ founded. At the beginning it may have been encompassed in the organization that was known as the Catholic Church but it did not remain so. It is now spread out over a number of church organizations.

Jesus prayed that the Church would be one. However I can see no place that He promised it would remain in one organization.

How can there be more than one organization containing the true body of Jesus when He prayed that they be one? Unfortunately the same way that God may want all people to be saved but know that they will not be because He has given us freewill.

That freewill means that not all will be saved even though God wants it. In the same way freewill means that the true Church would not necessarily remain in one organization even if Jesus wanted it to. By freewill, error and division entered the organized church. This could be seen happening even during the time of the Apostles as they wrote urging unity. They did this because they could see divisions even from the beginning. A specific example is given in Corinth where there were divisions into groups that claimed to follow each of Cephas, Paul and Apollos. Why would things get better once the Apostles were gone?


Bro. Rich and Fidelis,

Taking your dual mention of the term “Mystical Body of Christ” as a starting point, I looked up all 12 references to it in the Catechism and read the surrounding sections for context. (thank goodness for search engines) :slight_smile:

The references made it clear that there are some definite differences in how Catholics and some non-Catholics see the church.I’m going to make an analogy here to see if I’ve grasped it correctly-please let me know if I have.

It seems like the Mystical Body of Christ is like the spiritual equivalent of an incorporated company. Both have people, and leadership, and if I understand correctly, both have an aspect to them that exists regardless of the the state of the people. In the case of a corporation, there is an independent legal entity, that even if it laid off all its staff, would still exist. In the case of the Mystical Body of Christ there is the divine contribution to the church, that even if everyone were to apostatize and/or commit the grossest of mortal sins, would still be ontologically verifiable as the Mystical Body and possess the attributes of holiness and perfection.

Does that analogy capture a correct understanding of what you mean by the Mystical Body?




Good-I’m glad I didn’t do all that reading for naught. :slight_smile:

(I’m also happy the corporation analogy didn’t offend-it was really the only thing I could think of that came close to it)

Having said that, this is a significant difference from what many non-Catholics I know teach and believe about the church, which explains in part why discussions on here seem to go past each other.

That understanding is that the church is made up of people, with God acting on the church but with no ontological reality being created as a result of that action (carrying on the analogy, more of a limited liability partnership (LLP) amongst the believers if you will).

Perfection and unity are seen as the final state of the church, a certainty so strong that they are spoken of in the present tense in Scripture, a belief similar to G. E. Ladd’s hermeneutic of the Kingdom as “already and not yet”, but the present reality includes disunity and sin.

Given these differing views, it makes sense that we don’t make sense! :smiley:

Thanks for the help Bro. Rich :slight_smile:


Very well said. You might also add:

[Jesus said] I am the vine, and My Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit, He prunes it, that it may bear more fruit. You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you. Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you, unless you abide in Me. I am the vine you are the branches; he who abides in Me, and I in him, he bears much fruit; for apart from Me you can do nothing. if anyone does not abide in Me, he is thrown away as a branch, and dries up; and they gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned. If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it shall be done for you. By this is My Father glorified, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be My disciples. (John 15:1‑7)

As a body is one though it has many parts, and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body, so also Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons, and we were all given to drink of one Spirit.

Now the body is not a single part, but many. If a foot should say, “Because I am not a hand I do not belong to the body,” it does not for this reason belong any less to the body. Or if an ear should say, “Because I am not an eye I do not belong to the body,” it does not for this reason belong any less to the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God placed the parts, each one of them, in the body as he intended. If they were all one part, where would the body be? But as it is, there are many parts, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I do not need you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I do not need you.”

Indeed, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are all the more necessary, and those parts of the body that we consider less honorable we surround with greater honor, and our less presentable parts are treated with greater propriety, whereas our more presentable parts do not need this. But God has so constructed the body as to give greater honor to a part that is without it, so that there may be no division in the body, but that the parts may have the same concern for one another.
If (one) part suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part is honored, all the parts share its joy. Now you are Christ’s body, and individually parts of it. (1 Corinthians 12:12-27)

…Christ loved the church and handed himself over for her
to sanctify her, cleansing her by the bath of water with the word,
that he might present to himself the church in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. (Ephesians 5:25b-27)


But it does mean that statements about the organization need to include you, and not just the CEO.

However, the analogy still doesn’t favor you, because you admit that Popes can sin and err (they are protected from error under very specific circumstances, but not most of the time). Furthermore, you admit that the Church as an organization has issued erroneous statements and has endorsed sinful actions. At least, if you don’t admit this you are living in a fantasy world and are very ignorant of history. What Catholics mean by the Church when they say “the Church is free from sin and error” is not even “the hierarchical structure acting in an official capacity.” (I would argue that this is a very deficient definition of the Church, but I don’t need to, because clearly what you mean by “Church” is something more rarified and spiritualized even than this, rendering your analogies moot.)

Here’s how your analogy with the U.S. actually works: suppose some anti-American says “America is a decadent, materialistic country, and it used to be a slave-owning country,” and you say “no, that’s not true, because nothing in the Constitution as currently amended and interpreted endorses such actions,” would that be convincing? No more are the claims that the Church is free from sin and error. (I’m not saying that the “decadent, materialistic” charge is true–like most such broad charges against a large group of people, it’s partly true and partly false, but its truth and falsehood needs to be worked out empirically on the basis of what actual Americans are like, not on the basis of some idealized abstraction drawn from the most official level of American documents.)



It does seem that we’re spending quite a very long time in the tub, doesn’t it? :smiley:

It’s good to know that it will be worth it. :slight_smile:

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