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Swimming The Tiber

Written by Jeff Benson



In the history of Christendom there has always been a struggle for unity within local congregations in order that they might be able to form something greater than they could accomplish by themselves. Jesus in one of his final prayers asks that all believers “may be one”[1] and additionally notes that this is how “the world may believe that you have sent me”[2]. Historically the Catholic Church has sought to fulfill this prayer, by providing a single, unified body that is designed to work together as Christ intended. Throughout the centuries, the Catholic Church has been the epicenter of nearly every Christian writer, theologian, and missionary, and has provided a single source for theological teaching for the world. As a result of this, a significant portion of Christendom is in some form Catholic, and therefore is prone to much of the thought processes that Catholicism brings regarding contemporary eccliesology and practice.

Much of the Roman Catholic church asserts that Peter was the first pope and head of the church, and for the next several hundred years much of the church remained whole with itself. In light of history, it can be said that much of the church was unified until the reformations of Martin Luther and others. In the interest of unity, Holman states how “the last thing Luther wanted to do when he entered the Augustinian monastery at Erfurt in 1505 was to start a new church.[3]” Despite of the events that eventually led to the separation of the protestant and catholic churches, many churches strive to maintain order and unity within themselves. That being said, with the faithful adherence to tradition and an eccliastical structure designed to promote unity, much of the Roman Catholic church has remained unchanged for several centuries. Despite being placed under much controversy over the past several decades, this paper seeks to argue that in matters of structure and sacraments, the Catholic Church has held to a strong tradition that has remained mostly unchanged and will continue to influence the rest of their theology.



Within many churches, there is an order and structure of the people which seek to organize the congregation and the clergy to be able to most efficiently carry out what God has called them to do. In many protestant churches, this is either accomplished through a singular elder, plurality of elders, or (more rarely) by congregational decision. This system in it’s design is so that the body of Christ may be one, as Jesus prays in His High Priestly Prayer. In describing the church as a union of Christ’s body, Wood explains that “A eucharistic ecclesiology perfectly expresses the creedal marks of the church as one, holy, catholic, and apostolic,[4]”.

It is in these last four terms that much of catholic eccliesology can be summarized. While it has been spoken how unity (“one-ness”) has been applied to Catholic eccliesology, it is important to consider the other aspects of how the Church is contructed and ordered for the modern Catholic. According to Šajda, “The Roman Catholic Church understands herself as the true and visible mystical body of Christ.[5]” In spite of the controversy of papal succession, the core of catholic doctrine focuses on Jesus as one head of the church. As a result, the church is a holy ordinance established by Jesus when he spoke to Peter[6]. Therefore, the church herself is blessed specifically, similar to all other proper and orthodox churches, and is set apart for the specific will of God.

The third term that is being examined is the idea of a catholic church. By way of definition, Cairns defines catholic as “general, universal … used as early as the second century as a word to describe the orthodox Christian church.[7]” When defining as one unified church, the concept of  “catholic” became a shared term amongst churches that sought to unify themselves. Yet as it relates to the Roman Catholic church, this term implies how the members of the church are not in a state of unrest with one another. Rather, the term can also be used to imply that there is harmony in the structure that the church has set forth. In more recent days however, as Šajda explains, “instead of just being connected with the mystical body in an undefined way, can be in communion with “the one Church of Christ” to varying degrees, even in an almost complete one.[8]

Finally, the last term applied to the structure of the Roman Catholic Church is apostolic, which refers to the line of papal succession which extends from Peter to the most current pope. In applying this structure, there is a direct line of authority that is attributed to the leader of the church that directly ties him with Christ and allows the Pope to serve as both spiritual and functional head of the whole church. The church is then tasked with working in the lives of the people and discipling them to be more like Christ. This method of top-down leadership is what allows the church to become so expansive in that it allows the lower leadership to only need to do what the upper leadership has commanded. Additionally each level of leadership is for the most part in close contact with those they are given charge over. In this relationship a discipleship bond is formed and accountability is placed at every level of the leadership structure. Ultimately the goal of this type of system is to have each leader within the church hold responsible those directly above and below them in the chain of discipleship, and as a result of this the church is able to spread out rapidly since they are required to keep in contact with those in their charge.

It is herein where the similarities between historical and modern catholics begin to become apparent. It should be noted that throughout the above mentioned statements a crucial theme was the perseverance of tradition passed down from those who came before. Yet above all of these observations of the definition of Catholic eccliesology, it is important to note that this has not and should not be a struggle for the believer to recognize. Speaking to this subject, William Henn writes “It is not a question of either/or, but of both/and. It is not a matter of either Word or Sacrament, of either institution or event. One need not opt for either the faith of the believers or the official teaching of leaders, … either Scripture or tradition.”[9]

The sum of Catholic Eccliesology can be best explained in the above quote. For the modern catholic, there is no distinction between the scriptural understanding and the traditional understanding of something, for the tradition was born out of the desire to best comprehend Scripture. Therefore, when considering the eccliesology of the modern catholic church, there is little that has changed simply out of a desire to retain the traditional understanding of how Scripture instructs that a church should be operated. This is not to say that all catholic churches or by extension all churches of a catholic-like order are all similar in their goals and understanding. Yet as far as it can be said for the Catholic church, their desire to follow the Scriptures has manifested itself in the way that many might see a catholic mass operated today. After careful examination of this subject, it would appear that the largest hinderance many protestants have with regards to understanding the Roman Catholic church is based in a lack of knowledge in the thought process behind why certain actions have taken place in history. Furthermore, when such subjects are explained in peaceful and concise discourse, there is much that can be learned from those who are a part of the Roman Catholic Church.



In the matters of the sacraments of the Roman Catholic church, it is important to consider the bias that the reader is most likely approaching the subject with. “American Protestantism” Ann Taves writes “was influenced heavily by the more radical currents of the Reformation.”[10] Therefore, there are several aspects of these sacred sacraments that must be understood in order to engage with them in a proper way. Primarily, Taves further on notes that “Roman Catholic devotional practices which related to the Blessed Sacrament were neither simple nor spontaneous.”[11] In order to best view the practices of the modern Catholic Church, it should be noted that the practices done are utilized because they are believed to best represent the Scriptures and best honor Christ in their design.

Furthermore, it should be noted that much of the sacramental practices of the Catholic Church are designed not only to assist the believer as an individual, but permit the whole local assembly to focus on the body and blood of Jesus which is present in the bread and wine offered for the sacrament of communion. This can also be expanded to include the other important sacraments in the Catholic church, for they are all carefully and especially selected to assist the body of believers in focusing on the life, death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. However, despite best practices, it should be noted that there has not always been a complete unity across all churches with regards to the sacraments. Particulary in different countries, there have been slight alterations to the method of practice in order to best contextualize the message presented for the culture present. Nevertheless, there remains a unity amongst catholics to preseserve the tradition that has been set forth for them. Rather than attempting to find some new understanding hidden within the Eucharist (a modern practice which has led to several unorthodox views) the modern Catholic church accepts that there is a tradition of faith which is passed down from one generation to the next, and this continues to perpetuate the faith by imparting the same set of wisdom from one generation to the next.

In continuing with this discussion of the sacraments, it should be noted that the liturgy of the sacraments can extend into multiple outlets within the church. This even expands to the physical space that the church occupies, and could thus be described as a “theology of architecture”, or more commonly a “theology of place”. Platten makes note of this in his essay regarding the building of churches and their value. He writes that “sacramentality is an essential constituent of Christian worship and liturgical practice.”[12] In the case of Platten, that sacrament is the order and construction of the buildings which will become churches. Preserving the sacred-ness of a sacrament is what maintains the holiness of said sacrament, and further strengthens the bond which draws the believer closer to Christ.

Additionally, while there might be debate on the nature and number of sacraments present within the church, their inclusion is necessary to the proper worship of the people in the presence of a Holy God. It is said that there are three key components of an individual, his mind, body, and spirit. In the good and proper worship of God, all three of these parts are aligned such that they focus on the Divine. Therefore, the facilitation of that is practiced through the teaching of the sacraments, and their instruction to catholics of all ages and phases of life. They are the the broad teaching tool which seeks to demonstrate vital doctrines to all believers on a regular basis. It is in this context that the Holy Spirit chooses to operate, and in the proper practice of these sacraments the people are brought closer to the worship of God.

One additional sacrament that is nearly vital to the substance of catholic doctrine is the sacrament of penance. Writings on penance date back as early as Thomas Aquinas in Summa Theologiae and describe how it exists as both a virtue and a sacarament. While the text itself may be about six hundred years old, there are still fundamental truths regarding penance that are applicable. In relation to the topic, Maria Morrow writes regarding Aquinas’ work “As a virtue, penance is a species of justice, an act of the will choosing according to right reason in aiming to amend for offenses against God.”[13] It is a vital piece of the Christian life, according to Aquinas and others, that the Christian set aside time to reflect on their sins and recognize the full weight that they in fact do bear. This is not to say that modern protestants do not do the same, but rather that modern catholic theology embraces the practice as a sacrament of the Christian life.

At this point it should be clarified that there should be a distinction between virtue and sacrament in the mind of the Christian. While a virtue is something beneficial to all mankind, a sacrament is something held much more closely to the heart of an individual. They are the procedural steps that one takes in order that they may have a proper relationship with God. It should be noted however, that this does not directly imply a works-based salvation. Rather, this does imply that there are methods which are used to help propel the sanctification of an individual forward, and have the proof of several centuries worth of believers to lay claim to the act. Additionally, while there exists a distinction between virtue and sacrament, both do play a role in the other’s development. When one’s moral theology is properly based in Scriptural values, the difference between one’s morals and their virtues should be nearly indistinguishable, and it is in this that Aquinas reconciles both actions. While the modern theology may focus on moral decisions, it should be argued that Aquinas’ views of virtue and sacrament are a more proper venue to discuss matters of penance.


In observing the above views of catholic eccliesology and sacraments, one of the largest observations is the commitment to tradition that is felt by a majority of Catholics and that holding tradition is not merely for tradion itself, but rather to help draw the worhipper closer to the person and work of Jesus Christ. It is because of unity that these individuals have gathered together and hold strongly to the traditions of the past. Perhaps Susan Wood explains it best in saying “The unity of the church is not psychological, political, or a federation of the like-minded, but a sacramental and spiritual unity in Christ first established in baptism and then expressed, nourished, and brought to maturity in eucharistic communion.”[14] In the situations as described by Wood, the unity of the people is what continues to perpetuate the tradition, and it is in this spiritual unity that the people are able to flourish as a whole body.

It should be noted that in the research of this paper there has arisen some rather interesting continuities amongst the various authors. One such observation is that one of the greatest strengths that the Roman Catholic church has is that they lack the autonomy of protestant churches and therefore are not pre-occupied with much of the struggle that autonomous churches face. This extends further than churches that are even of the same denomination as one another, for in the case of the Roman Catholic church they are one larger body that is then broken up into smaller local bodies. Thus the ability to share resources becomes much easier, allowing for larger tasks to be undertaken. Additionally, the ability to share people, both within the regional assembly but also globally on the mission field, can be a great asset to the Roman Catholic church and has helped to fund some of the largest missional efforts in all of recorded history.

Furthermore, in matters of penance it should be brought up as an additional note that these sorts of sacraments that involve works of the believer are not instituted to suggest a works-based sanctification. The concepts behing the sacrament of penance and those like it are designed to involve the believer in properly grieving over their sin and seeking a steady path towards reconciliation with not only God but also the other members of the church that may have been harmed in the offence. There is a small amount of hesitancy in the modern protestant church regarding if such sacraments are equally valid in worship. Yet given the current understanding of proper penance both as an individual and as a local church assembly, there is great evidence to support that allowing the ability for believers to reconcile their sins can be healthy for the Christian life as well as the life of the church.



This article has sought to examine the particular fundamentals of Catholic eccliesology and sacramental worship, and determine whether or not there is a continuance of catholic practice or if there has instead been  a theological shift in the tradition of catholics that might alter how such fundamentals are viewed. In order to justify why such research is necessary, it is important to note how influential the catholic church has been throughout early and modern Christianity. In being some of the first churches established, the Roman Catholic church has a long tradition of maintaining order and influence in the history of several major world nations. Furthermore, the catholic church has also been the epicenter of many important theological doctrines and practices that helped to establish the early church as it began to spread across the nations of the world.

It was then observed how the high priestly prayer of Jesus found in Matthew 16 describes how the followers of Jesus are to be one with each other. In catholic theology this has translated into having a church that is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. This then influenced the contemporary structure of the catholic church, wherein the positions of leadership are staged strategically so that each local body might be connected to the larger work of the catholic church, and be able to help forward the cause of Christ. Where this does cause some question is the understanding of tradition in the landscape of catholic theology, since there is little distinction between scriptural understanding and traditional upbringing. Nevertheless, much of catholic practice in eccliesology is in order that the whole church might have a deeper spiritual unity amongst one another, and with Christ who is head of the church.

Following those observations, this paper examined a small sample of the sacraments practiced by catholics at various points in their lives. Most notably is the sacrament of the Eucharist, which serves a multi-fold purpose of helping the believer connect with not only the church, but also directly with Christ in understanding his sacrifice. It was also discussed how the sacrament of penance is fundamental doctrine in assisting with reconciliation amongst individuals as well as between an individual and the church body. These practices are observed as more important than mere tradition, since they are vital components to the spiritual life of the individual.

Overall, the matters of eccliesology and sacramental practice are to be respected elements of catholic faith, and simultaneously they ought to be continually recognized as equally valued members of the body of Christ. Despite there being some theological controversy amongst those in the catholic faith, there are foundational doctrines that can be agreed upon by both catholics and protestants, and should be emphasized in order to promote unity between the two divisions within Christendom. Furthermore, there is much that can be learned about preserving tradition from the works of the Catholic Church, and may assist in several modern churches in order to help bring about a more unified congregation. Nevertheless, both churches appear to have similar goals in mind which is to continue to honor God and keep His commandments. Though the practice may look a bit different, there are still foundational truths that should be embraced in order to help best advance the cause of Christ across the world.


[1] John 17:21 (English Standard Version)

[2] Ibid.

[3] David S. Dockery et al., Holman Bible Handbook. Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, (1992): 868.

[4] Susan K. Wood “Continuity and development in Roman Catholic ecclesiology.” Ecclesiology 7, no. 2 (2011 2011): 147-172.

[5] Peter Šajda. “Ecclesiology and mission: a Roman Catholic perspective.” International Review Of Mission 90, no. 359 (October 2001): 417-426.

[6] Matthew 16:18 (ESV)

[7] Alan Cairns, Dictionary of Theological Terms Belfast; Greenville, SC: Ambassador Emerald International, 2002, 78.

[8] Šajda, “Continuity and development in Roman Catholic ecclesiology,” 419.

[9] William Henn. “Catholics, ecclesiology and the ecumenical journey.” The Ecumenical Review 65, no. 3 (2013): 334

[10] Ann Taves. “Context and Meaning: Roman Catholic Devotion to the Blessed Sacrament in Mid-Nineteenth-Century America.” Church History 54, no. 4. 1985: 482-95.

[11] Taves, “Context and Meaning: Roman Catholic Devotion to the Blessed Sacrament in Mid-Nineteenth-Century America,” 483.

[12] Stephen Platten “Building Sacraments” Theology Vol 117, Issue 2, (2014):83 – 93

[13] Maria C. Morrow “Reconnecting Sacrament and Virtue: Penance in Thomas’s Summa Theologiae.” New Blackfriars 91, no. 1033 (May 2010): 304-320.

[14] Susan Wood, 153.



Cairns, Alan, Dictionary of Theological Terms Belfast; Greenville, SC: Ambassador Emerald International, 2002, 78.

Dockery, David S. et al., Holman Bible Handbook. Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, (1992): 868.

Henn, William. “Catholics, ecclesiology and the ecumenical journey.” The Ecumenical Review 65, no. 3 (October 2013): 334-337. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed March 8, 2017).

Morrow, Maria C. “Reconnecting Sacrament and Virtue: Penance in Thomas’s Summa Theologiae.” New Blackfriars 91, no. 1033 (May 2010): 304-320. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed March 8, 2017).

Platten, Stephen. “Building sacraments.” Theology 117, no. 2 (2014): 83-93. Accessed March 8, 2017 doi:10.1177/0040571×13512968.

Šajda, Peter. 2001. “Ecclesiology and mission: a Roman Catholic perspective.” International Review Of Mission 90, no. 359: 417-426. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed March 8, 2017).

Taves, Ann. “Context and meaning: Roman Catholic devotion to the blessed sacrament in mid-19th century America.” Church History 54, no. 4 (December 1985): 482-495. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed March 8, 2017).

Wood, Susan K. “Continuity and development in Roman Catholic ecclesiology.” Ecclesiology 7, 172.2 (2011 2011): 147-172. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed March 8, 2017).

One Comment

  • Ed Hopkins

    Interesting article. I appreciate the spirit of seeking unity across the Tiber divide. One correction–In your conclusion, second paragraph, the high priestly prayer is not in Matthew 16 but John 17, right?

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