A Social Religion by Frank Sheed

I have been finishing reading Theology and Sanity by Frank Sheed.  It has been a long chore because he is taking my mind to heights I did not realize we would ascend when first we set out.

The following is a section called “A Social Religion” which I found fascinating enough to post.  Why this section and not others probably more worthy?  Not a clue.  Perhaps because my old Protestant individualist thinking still holds sway in some areas and therefore this section impacted me particularly.  Whatever the reason, it seems a good reminder to Catholics in an individualistic religious culture.



Looking at man, almost the first thing we see about him is that he is not an isolated unit independent of others, but a social being bound to others both by needs which cannot be satisfied and by powers which must remain unused save in relation to other men.  It would be strange if God, having made man social, should ignore the fact in His own personal dealings with man.  To treat man as an isolated independent unit would be as monstrous in religion as it would be in any other department of human life.  It would be to treat man as what he is not.  But the one being who would not be likely to do that is God, who made man what he is, and made him so because that is what He wanted him to be.  A religion which should consist in an individual relation of each person directly to God would be no religion for man.  A social being requires a social religion.  Within that social religion the individual will have his own religious needs and experiences, but they will be within and not external to, or a substitute for, his approach to God and God’s approach to him in union with other men.

Individualist religious theories there have always been, even among Christians.  They have never been able to carry out the full logic of their individualist theory because their nature as men stood too solidly in their way.  Something in religion that have had to get from other men.  So the Bible Christian, despising the priesthood and minimizing the Church, has yet had to fall back upon the Bible, and the Bible, although it is given to us by God, is given through men, the men who under His inspiration wrote it.  A religion wherein the soul finds and maintains a relation with God with no dependence upon men is impossible, and what makes it impossible is the nature God gave man.  The only question then is whether religion shall do its very utmost to elude the social element in man’s nature, accepting only so much as it can by no possibility avoid; or whether it shall wholly accept and glory in the social element as something given by God, something therefore to be used to the uttermost in religion as in the rest of man’s life.  In giving man the religion of the Kingdom, God showed what His own answer is.

Christ did not leave His followers free at their discretion to form their own groups if it seemed good to them or to remain isolated if it seemed good to them.  He banded them into a society, a Church.

“He gave Himself for us, to ransom us from all our guilt, a people set apart for Himself.”

What the Jews had been, the Church now is.  We remember Moses’ words:

“This is the blood of the covenant.”

But now we have Christ’s words:

“This is My blood in the new covenant.”

There is a new covenant and a new people: not just millions of redeemed individuals: a people.  The brotherhood of every Christian with Christ involves the brotherhood of all Christians with one another.  His normal way of giving them His gifts of truth and life was to be through the society: in other words, the whole Christian life was not to be a solitary relation of each soul to Christ, but of each to all in Christ, this is what the Apostles’ Creed means by the Communion of Saints.  In solidarity with other men we fell in Adam and rose again with Christ; in the same solidarity we live the new life.

God can and does give this or that man what he individually needs.  But the great needs of the soul are not peculiar to the individual, but the same for all.  There is the need for the Life which Christ came that we might have more abundantly; and the need for Knowledge—knowledge of what God is and what man is, and of the goal of life and how we are to attain it.  It is through the society that God offers men the spiritual gifts by which these needs common to all are supplied.  The relation of Christians with one another is essential in their relation with Christ.  They are related to Him not one by one, but in virtue of their membership of His Kingdom.

–Frank Sheed, Theology and Sanity; chapter 21 Dispensing the Gifts, section 1


The Church: visible or invisible

It has been a while since I’ve posted anything so here is one hastily written.

One of the key disputes between Catholics and Protestants is the idea of the Church; what is it? Is it a visible, institutional Church? Or is it an invisible, non-institutional community of all Christians?

If there is only one institutional Church established by Christ Himself, then it means membership in that Church is necessary in order to be called “Christian” and membership is expected of us by Christ Himself. On the other hand, if the Church is not a specific church but rather an invisible entity, then simply by being a Christian one is a member of the Church and there is no need to be a member in a specific church. It hardly needs comment that Catholicism holds the former view while Protestantism holds the latter.

This is a serious issue and requires wrestling from anyone wishing to remain where they are or considering conversion. For my part, the view of the early church on this issue is very important and must be factored in. Here are two quotes from non-Catholic patristic scholars; a Lutheran and an Anglican respectively.

Jaroslav Pelikan from The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600)

“For both Ignatius and Cyprian, moreover, the bishop was the key to authentic unity, and schism was identified as party spirit in opposition to him. Therefore the efforts to superimpose upon the second or third centuries the distinction made by Augustinism and especially the Reformation between the visible and invisible churches have proved quite ineffectual, even in interpreting the thought of Origen, whose dichotomy between the heavenly and the earthly churches might seem to have tended in that direction; but on earth there was only one church, and it was finally inseparable from the sacramental, hierarchical institution.”

J.N.D. Kelly from Early Christian Doctrines

“What these early fathers were envisaging was almost always the empirical, visible society; they had little or no inkling of the distinction which was later to become important between a visible and an invisible Church.”

It seems a visible unity was very important to the early Christians, and a visible unity seems to demand an institutional church. A visible unity seemed to be very dear to Jesus too, in His prayer for the Church.

“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.” John 17:20-23

Within a couple verses, Jesus prays for Church unity three times and twice equates that unity with converting the world. Maybe the first step of evangelization is being part of a Church that is one, visible, and institutional.

“Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand.” Matthew 12:25

Short thoughts from Cardinal Ratzinger on modern Christian thought

RatzingerReportI’m currently reading, and am almost done with, The Ratzinger Report: An Exclusive Interview on the State of the Church. On August 15, 1984, journalist Vittorio Messori interviewed Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (who later became Pope Benedict XVI). This book is a compilation of that interview and discusses a lot of interesting things. Many of the topics go over my head, probably because I’m not Catholic and therefore not “in tune” with their way of thinking on certain issues (such as the seriousness Ratzinger has about liturgy).

One of the things I found interesting, and relevant to my situation, are Ratzinger’s thoughts on sola scriptura and ecclesiology.

Below is a transcript from the book. Anything in “quotes” is Ratzinger, whereas the rest is Messori. I hope my spelling and punctuation is correct. Keep in mind as well that there is a context to the conversation. I think what I have posted is enough context to get the point, but if you get confused it might be worth checking out the book yourself.


But why should Protestantism—which is undergoing a crisis no less than the Catholic Church—attract theologians and believers who, up to the Council, had remained faithful to the Roman Church?

“It is not easy to say. The following consideration suggests itself to me: Protestantism arose at the beginning of modern times, and thus it is much more closely related to the inner energies which produced the modern age than Catholicism is. It has acquired the form it has today largely in the confrontation with the great philosophical currents of the nineteenth century. It is wide open to modern thought, and, as well as constituting a threat to it, that constitutes both its opportunity and its danger. So it is that those Catholic theologians, particularly, for whom their inherited theology no longer means anything, imagine that here they will find a path already blazed for the fusing of faith and modern thought.”

What principles are involved here?

“Then as now the sola scriptura principles plays a key role. What today’s average Christian deduces from this principle is that faith comes from one’s individual perception, from intellectual application along with the contributions of experts, and a view such as this strikes him as more modern and more obvious than the Catholic position. Let us go deeper. Once this view has been adopted, the Catholic concept of the Church is automatically no longer tenable; a model of the Church must be sought elsewhere within the wide spectrum of the phenomenon of ‘Protestantism’.”

Ecclesiology then, as almost always, comes into the picture.

“Yes. For the modern man on the street, the most obvious concept of the Church is what technically one would call Congregationalist or Free Church. It implies that the Church is a changeable form depending upon how men organize what pertains to faith. Consequently one has to adapt as far as possible to the demands of the present moment. We have already mentioned this several times, but it is worthwhile returning to it: today many people can hardly understand any more that behind a human reality stands the mysterious divine reality. And as we know, this is the Catholic understanding of the Church, and it is far harder to accept than the one we have just outlined, which is not simply the Protestant understanding but one that has developed within the phenomenon of ‘Protestantism’.”