“What is the church?” It’s a simple question with a by-no-means simple answer. Protestant ecclesiology is fairly simple: “The church is wherever there are two or three believers gathered in the name of Christ” or “The church is all true believers around the world”. In the Protestant account of things, the church is entirely invisible: it is not associated with any particular group or institution. In comparison to this simple and straightforward understanding, Catholic ecclesiology is a fascinating, complex topic.
The One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic Church
The four marks of the church enumerated by the Nicene creed are “One”, “Holy”, “Catholic” and “Apostolic”. This is a helpful starting point. In my understanding, the two most important marks are “One” and “Apostolic”.
To say that the church is “One” is a statement of numerical oneness: there are not two churches; there are not three churches; there is only one church. However to say that the church is “One” is not necessarily a statement of internal unity. I will return to this point later, but for now it suffices to say that not everyone who is in communion with the church fully agrees with and understands everything that the church teaches.
To say that the church is “Apostolic” is to say that the leadership of the church are able to trace a straight line of succession back through history via the laying on of hands all the way down to the Apostles and Jesus himself. A church must be led by a bishop, and this bishop must be able to trace his authority back through previous bishops all the way to the Apostles.
To say that the church is “Catholic” is to say that the church is universal: That is, the church is not tied down to any particular language or culture or ethnicity; everyone is welcome. It also implies that the church is the rightful owner of all truth, wherever it may be stumbled upon. Anything true and beautiful is universal, Catholic truth, even if such truth and beauty is found in non-Christian philosophies or other, totally different religions.
Now, there are some other “lesser” marks of the church which were not included in the Nicene creed, but are nevertheless considered important in Catholic ecclesiology: In addition to the four marks, the Church is also “Visible”, “Eucharistic” and “Monarchical”.
To say that the church is “Visible” is to say that it is possible to identify the church in a tangible, physical sense. How this plays out in the Catholic understanding is that any given diocese IS the one true church, provided that the bishop who governs that diocese has valid apostolic succession. There is only one single church in the entire world, however that one single church manifests all over the world in the form of the many and various dioceses. Now, there are many dioceses, but there are not many churches, there is only one. In any case, each and every diocese, headed by a bishop who has been validly ordained, represents a concrete manifestation in a particular place of the one true church.
To say that the Church is “Eucharistic” is merely an implication of the fact that the church is “Visible” and “Apostolic”: A bishop who has valid holy orders has the power and authority to consecrate bread and wine and transubstantiate them into the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. This Eucharist is God himself coming to us under a visible form. Christians gather around this visible, physically tangible presence of God. The Eucharist is a focal point of church unity; those who share in the lord’s supper together enjoy a profound spiritual communion with God and with each other; they become “one body of Christ, in Christ”. The Eucharist transforms the church from merely being an impersonal organisation and an impassionate institution, into being a lively community of faithful human individuals, united together in a profound love.
The final mark of the church is the mark of Monarchy, and this is the most contentious mark of all, representing a stumbling block to many, both Christian and non-Christian. To say that the church is “Monarchical” is to say that the church has a single, supreme leader. As before mentioned, at the level of a diocese, the supreme leader is the bishop or archbishop. However at the level of the entire, mystical body of Christ spread throughout the world, the supreme leader is the successor of Peter: the Catholic Pope.
Two Kinds of Schism
I mentioned before that the church being “One” does not imply strict unity. Within the church there are disagreements and dissensions. These disagreements and dissensions wound and damage the unity of the church, without totally destroying that unity. In recent years, the Catholic church has come to call this situation “partial communion”: within the church there has been a split between two parties, however this split does not represent a total destruction of unity between those two parties; they are still united, but imperfectly. This is indeed a schism, but it is a schism within the church: the two parties involved have not actually separated themselves from the one, holy, catholic, apostolic church.
There is, however, another sort of schism. This would be a schism of separation. Such a schism would be one in which the two parties involved disagree at such a fundamental level that one of the parties has actually separated itself from communion with the church entirely.
What would lead to these schisms coming about? In the case of the first kind of schism – that of a schism within the church – all that would be required is for the church in full communion with the Pope to declare an ecumenical dogma, and for the remainder of the church to refuse to assent to that dogma. Such a refusal to assent does not necessarily constitute an explicit, dogmatic rejection of the dogma in question, and therefore does not lead to a total cutting off from the one, true church. However such a refusal to assent does represent a division within the church, because there are people within the church who are not “on the same page” as the rest of the church. Such a schism can therefore be referred to as a schism of non-assent, and it represents a situation of “partial communion” between two parties: the communion has not been destroyed, but it has been wounded.
On the other hand, if the party not in full communion with the Pope were to come together and formulate their own dogmatic statements which flatly contradict the dogmas of the church in full communion with the Pope, the communion between the two parties would be entirely severed. This would not merely be an implicit or tentative rejection of Catholic dogma, it would instead represent a final and definitive rejection of the truth. Such a schism would lead to the actual separation of the dissenting party from the one true church. This would no longer be a schism within the church; it would be an actual separation of one church into two churches, one valid and one invalid. I call this a schism of dissent.
An Abolition of Authority
Remember that one of the marks of the church is that it is monarchical: It has a supreme leader, the successor of Peter, and you must be in at least partial communion with him in order to be said to be a member of the one true church. If you damage your communion with him, it’s not the end of the world, as this is a schism of non-assent and therefore does not exclude you from communion. But what happens if you completely destroy your communion?
I suspect that a community which were to fully and completely destroy its communion with the one true church – in such a way that there is not any communion remaining – would lose it’s authority to perform the sacraments. I suspect that such a community’s Eucharist would become invalid, and their holy orders would be nullified. The reason why is that they have completely cut themselves off from the head of the church. All sacramental power flows from Christ to the Pope to the bishops. To completely cut yourself off from the Pope is to completely cut yourself off from Christ.
The Great Schisms
Now lets apply all these reflections to the actual history of the church.
The first major schism was with the Church of the East, sometimes known as “The Nestorian church”. Was this schism a schism of non-assent, or was it a schism of dissent? From my reading of history, it seems to me that it was merely a schism of non-assent, because the church of the east never produced a counter dogma, and therefore at the institutional level the Church of the East never definitively denied any Catholic dogmas. And so the Church of the East did not therefore cut itself off entirely from the Pope. In this way, their sacraments remained valid, and their dioceses continued to represent visible manifestations of the one true church. This was a schism within the church.
The next big schism was with the group of churches who in the modern era are referred to as the “Oriental Orthodox” churches. From my reading of history, this too was a schism of non-assent. The Oriental Orthodox could not bring themselves to assent to the Christological statements of Chalcedon. Despite the fact that they disagreed with the dogmas, this disagreement was never expressed in final, dogmatic terms of their own. In this way, their sacraments remained valid, and their dioceses continued to represent visible manifestations of the one true church. This too was a schism within the church.
Next was the most famous schism of all: the East-West schism, sometimes referred to as “The Great Schism”. This was between the Eastern Orthodox and the Western Catholics. It’s actually hard to pin down exactly when and how this schism occurred; many dates are given, sometimes as early as 400AD, sometimes as late as 1800AD, the most common date given is 1058 but there is not unanimous agreement on this. The fact that it is so ambiguous when this schism actually occurred is quite a significant hint that this too was not a schism which lead to a total separation of communion. At no point did the east ever produce a counter dogma which contradicted the dogmas of the Western ecumenical councils, so this schism, if it ever actually happened, was also a schism of non-assent. The eastern sacraments remained valid, and their dioceses continued to represent visible manifestations of the one true church.
Things were different with the protestant reformation. During the protestant reformation, both apostolic succession and the Eucharist were abandoned. These are essential aspects of the one true church, and without them, unity is entirely severed. The protestants cannot even be said to be in partial communion. Their communion has been entirely abolished. There is still a sense in which we have communion with them, but it is a virtual communion based on a limited degree of shared belief, rather than the robust communion enjoyed by members of the one true church. Such a virtual communion is also shared with atheists and members of other religions. Everyone is connected to the church to a greater or lesser extent, but it is only those communities which possess the 7 marks of the church which can be said to enjoy a real communion.
Further solidifying the point is that the reformation schism was a schism of dissent: many of the reformation churches produced their own statements of faith, which explicitly and dogmatically bound members of those communities to a rejection of Catholic dogma. The situation is complicated by the fact that reformation churches do not even officially believe in in the concept of dogma, and so it is hard to say whether or not their rejection of Catholic dogmas constitutes a final, irreformable and irreconcilable rejection. It is therefore ambiguous whether or not these churches are in a schism of dissent or merely schism of non-assent. However their rejection of apostolic succession and the Eucharist is sufficient to entirely break down communion. Protestants are not members of the one true church.
In conclusion, The Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox and Church of the East together represent one single church. All of the dioceses of these institutions represent manifestations of the one true church in a particular place and for a particular culture. All of these institutions have valid sacraments, and gather around a valid Eucharist. These institutions are in a state of schism with each other, but this is a schism within the church, and does not represent a real split of one church into many churches. The schism is merely one of non-assent, and therefore does not represent a total break in communion. The communion has been wounded, and this is not an ideal situation, however the communion has not been wounded beyond a point where ecumenical repair is possible.
I want to re-emphasise the importance of being in at least partial communion with the successor of Peter: Without maintaining a level of communion with the successor of Peter, apostolic succession is nullified and the Eucharist is therefore invalidated. The Orthodox churches are all in partial communion with the Pope, and this is enough to ensure that their sacraments are valid, however if they were to finally, definitively and entirely break from communion they would lose this privilege. Exactly this has happened with the protestants, and it makes the task of reunification infinitely harder. Pray for unity!