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The Church: The Sacrament of Salvation Print E-mail
By David G. Bonagura, Jr.   
Monday, 05 April 2010

The Second Vatican Council’s constitution Lumen Gentium offers a number of images to describe the Church, but the Church as “The People of God” surpassed all others. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger wrote that the understanding of this image quickly degenerated as certain partisans recast it in political terms, pitting “the People” in a power struggle against the hierarchy for control of the Church. Associations ranging from We Are Church to the Voice of the Faithful have been founded on this myopic premise, and shallow slogans that champion “the People” as a church unto themselves still linger in parish hymnals and religious education programs.

The future pope explained that viewing the Church in this manner is the result of leaving out what is most essential – God: “what then remains is merely a dispute about power.” After the Council, the People of God properly conceived would have been much better served had theologians, pastors, and writers focused on the power of God to transform human beings – rather than on human beings’ power over each other.

Lumen Gentium certainly discusses what secular observers would call “power,” namely, the collegial relationship between the pope and the bishops, which is still a matter of no small controversy. But collegiality plays only a supporting role in the document, which, like the Church herself, has at its center one overriding focus: Jesus Christ. “Christ is the light of humanity,” begins the Constitution. The Church exists for the sole purpose of bringing Christ’s light to the world.

From this beginning, Lumen Gentium made a great contribution to ecclesiology in the very next sentence: by virtue of her relationship to Christ the Church herself “is in the nature of a sacrament – a sign and instrument, that is, of communion with God and of unity among all men.” Understanding the Church as sacrament readily presents the Church’s mission in light of her simultaneous vertical and horizontal orientations while stalling temptations to debate power structures.

The Church perpetuates Christ’s saving mission in the world. Like the seven liturgical sacraments, the Church is both a sign and an instrument of God’s grace. As sign the Church points the faithful, by her very constitution, toward communion with God and neighbor in this life and eternal union forever in the next. As instrument the Church makes communion with God possible by means of the gifts given to her by Christ: her doctrine, laws, and sacraments. The Church, then, is the sacrament of Christ: she makes His work of salvation visible and accessible to human beings.

Thus the Church functions analogously to the seven liturgical sacraments: she leads us to a share in God’s life and union with Christ. But the Church is not properly the “eighth” sacrament; rather theologians have called the Church the “fundamental” or “root” sacrament because the seven liturgical sacraments receive their power through the Church, which, rooted in the mystery of God, receives power from Christ. Each liturgical sacrament brings about a specific grace proper to its physical sign; the Church is the sign of Christ’s enduring presence in the world. In the words of theologian Scott Hahn, the Church is more than an institution that exists for the sake of performing sacraments; she is herself a sacramental institution that does what she is.

Lumen Gentium rightly calls the Church “the universal sacrament of salvation” since Christ, who “is continually active in the world,” leads all people to the Church so that He may “join them more closely to Himself.” Through the Holy Spirit, Christ’s mission of salvation “continues in the Church in which, through our faith, we learn the meaning of our earthly life, while we bring to term, with hope of future good, the task allotted to us in the world by the Father, and so work out our salvation.”

The current scandal is a constant reminder that Church members can rather effectively blunt the Church as a sign of salvation. It is one of the great mysteries of faith that, in the words of Cardinal Ratzinger, “God comes to men only through men.” But despite the failings and sins of bishops and laity alike, the Church remains Christ’s one and only instrument of salvation because she is not merely an association of “the People” gathered by their own initiative and will. She is instead the “ecclesia,” “the assembly called together” personally by God. This chosen assembly has a divine Founder who continues to direct the Church through the Spirit as her invisible Head. Christ, moreover, chose this assembly to dispense the fullness of grace – His teachings and sacraments – for all people. It is not surprising, then, that our greatest efforts to impede the plan of salvation, which all involve turning away from God and focusing on ourselves as “the People” who know best, have yet to succeed in eliminating the Church.

Cardinal Henri de Lubac wrote that “[i]f the world lost the Church, it would lose the Redemption too,” for she alone communicates God’s grace to us. Faith in the Church as the universal sacrament of salvation rests ultimately upon Christ, who continues to will that sinners carry out His mission to sinners. True power comes from God in the Church and the sacraments, visible signs that point our way back to him.

David G. Bonagura, Jr. is associate editor of The University Bookman. This is the ninth and final article in a series on the sacraments of the Church.

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