Why Do Catholics Speak So Often of “the Church” Instead of “Christ”?

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By Dr. Jeff Mirus, Culture Culture, Aug 21, 2018

In a recent discussion of the mission of CatholicCulture.org, an interesting question came up: Why do we have the word “Catholic” in our name, and not the word “Christ”? Similarly, one of the mission slogans I use frequently is to “enrich faith, strengthen the Church, and form Catholic culture”. Why do I include the terms “Church” and “Catholic”, and not the names “Christ” or “Jesus”?

The answer to this question actually marks a significant difference between Catholics and Protestants, who more frequently mention “the Lord Jesus”. Never mind for the moment that Protestants can hardly refer to “the Church”, since they do not have a “church”. While all Protestants are baptized Catholic, as Protestants they have no apostolicity, no succession in grace and orders, and no Christic unity of governance. The Orthodox can properly refer to themselves as “a church”; Protestant bodies are churches only in a more conventional sense. But such “churches” are not really churches, but sects or gatherings or communities or fellowships.

We might almost call them “prayer groups”. But there is a deeper issue.

Catholics recognize the Church AS Christ. The membership of the Church makes up Christ’s mystical body, and the Risen Christ is the Church’s head. The Church is sinful in her members, but she is both sinless and an infinite font of goodness and supernatural life in her institutional Christic essence—institutional in the same sense as the sacraments, that is, instituted by Christ to give grace. Just as we really and truly encounter Christ in each of the sacraments, so do we encounter Him constantly in the ultimate sacrament of His Church. Thus, the Catholic Church is not only one, holy, catholic and apostolic: She is Christ present in the world, present in what He has ordained to be His fullest mode until His Second Coming.

In other words, the Catholic Church is Our Lord and Savior’s preeminent presence here and now on this earth. This is a far greater presence, and a far more tangible one, than is found “wherever two or three are gathered in my name”. This does not mean it is wrong to speak of “Jesus” or “Christ” or “the Lord”, but it does mean that to do so apart from the Church or to the exclusion of the Church is a terrible impoverishment of His Presence.

This is true irrespective of the sins of the Church’s members. It is as true in the age of sex abuse as it was in all the great ages of doctrinal ferment, including our own, when priests and laity alike have agitated for shameful revisions of the Word of God, ultimately splintering away to do their own thing. And it was as true in the era of episcopal abuse of political power five hundred to a thousand years ago as it was in the age of itinerant Gnostic preachers two millennia ago, just after the Resurrection. The Body of Christ is certainly wounded and disfigured. But it remains His Body. There is no other.

I am grateful to R. R. Reno, the editor of First Things, for reminding me of this only the other day. (Indeed, this seems to be my day for being indebted to a particular issue of First Things. I already mentioned two articles in the August/September issue in the piece I posted earlier, The Managerial class: Top companies are usually our enemies.) In his essay on “Sacramental Realism” in the Public Square section, Reno notes that the Council of Trent made precisely this point about Christ’s presence in the Church in its sixteenth-century response to the Protestant Revolt:

Years ago, while studying the Council of Trent, the authoritative Catholic response to the Reformation, I came to see that the council mirrored back to Protestants their most potent charge, which is that Catholics rely on their own “works” rather than trusting in the promise of Christ. The fathers at Trent did not dispute the solus Christus premise of the Reformation. Instead, the Tridentine response chides Protestantism for limiting the power of God’s love. When Jesus says to his followers, “I will be with you until the end of the age,” he meant to be true to that promise. The visible Church and her sacramental system incarnate Christ anew.

As Reno says in conclusion: “This is why Catholics often use the word ‘Church’ where Protestants typically say ‘Christ’.”


Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.