The Ecclesiology of the Catechism of Trent: Some Observations

by Eric J. Demeuse

In a rich and now classic work, Models of the Church 1 Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J., outlines six conceptual tools or ‘models’ prevalent today which serve to explain and explore the mystery of the Church—the Church as institution, mystical communion, sacrament, herald, servant, and community of disciples. None are sufficient in themselves, he notes (though some are indispensable). Rather they serve as heuristics—analogies of a sort—which illuminate certain, vital aspects of the Church and thereby prove mutually corrective. Several features of this work and its promising contribution to ecumenism will be examined in future posts here at The Regensburg Forum.

In the present post, however, I would like to examine one of the historical claims made by Dulles of ‘post-Tridentine ecclesiology,’ as he puts it. He associates this epoch (which for him extends into the early twentieth century) as dominated almost exclusively by the ‘institutional model’ of the Church. Catholic theology of the period, Dulles asserts, understood the Church as a static society, with the prominent image being that of the respublica. Though this model offered and continues to offer much in our understanding of the Ecclesia, Dulles laments that in early modernity it was concerned more with ‘maintaining the right relationships with pope and bishops’ and attended less ‘to God, to Christ, and to the Holy Spirit’ (36). The Church was overly juridical and excessively concerned with legalistic formalities ‘to the neglect of the spirit and of service’ (121). This characterization seems, after over 40 years, still to be the dominant one among both Catholics and Protestants.

While I make no statement on the validity of this claim on the scale Dulles suggests, I do think it fails to take into account certain, influential treatments of ecclesiology in post-Tridentine Catholicism. In this essay, I would like to offer a few observations on one such source, the Catechism of the Council of Trent.2

As John O’Malley asserts,3 the Council notably did not promulgate a decree De Ecclesia, probably due to the continued divergences between conciliarists and papalists which threatened the very existence of the council throughout. Nevertheless, the Catechism, commissioned by the Council and begun toward the end of its tenure, does offer a section on the Church in its exposition of Article IX of the Creed.

It should be noted that the Catechism is not an official decree of the Council and in no way bears the weight of such decrees. Nevertheless, the Council appointed a commission to work on the Catechism at least by January of 1563. Headed by Augustinian Cardinal Girolamo Seripando—who sympathized with aspects of Lutheran theology (see O’Malley, 104)—the committee contained clerics of diverse orders and nations. Still unfinished by the close of the Council, it was decided that the pope would complete the project, now under the guidance of Charles Borromeo. In late 1566, the Catechism was published, an arguably legitimate, albeit late, child of the Council. The influence of the ‘Roman Catechism’ persisted through the centuries, such that John Henry Newman wrote that ‘I rarely preach a sermon but I go to this beautiful and complete Catechism.’ 4

Though the bull convoking the Council first refers to the Church as the Christiana respublica, the Catechism uses this phrase but sparingly, and with a slightly different emphasis than that suggested by Dulles. This section of the Catechism begins by noting the original etymological meaning of ecclesia—a calling forth (from the verbal form in Greek)—adding that subsequent writers use it to signify an ‘assembly.’ Notably, Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, upon whom Dulles bases his critique of Tridentine Catholicism, begins his chapters On the Church Militant in an identical vein, writing that the Church is first ‘an evocation, or a body of those called out… because no man joins himself to this people by himself… but by the calling of God.’ 5

The Catechism proceeds to outline various usages of the term ecclesia in the Scriptures. One such usage associates the Church with the Christian society (respublica Christiana). The Catechism initially defines this society, however, not in terms of hierarchy, but as the ‘assemblies of the faithful; that is, of those who are called by faith to the light of truth and the knowledge of God, that, having forsaken the darkness of ignorance and error, they may worship the living and true God piously and holily, and serve Him from their whole heart. In a word, The Church, says St. Augustine, consists of the faithful dispersed throughout the world’ (Catechism, 97).

The Catechism further clarifies this ‘Christian society’ in the paragraph immediately following. ‘In the calling forth… we understand that the Church is very unlike all other societies. Other bodies rest on human reason and prudence, but the Church reposes on the wisdom and counsels of God who has called us inwardly by the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, who opens the hearts of men; and outwardly, through the labor and ministry of pastors and preachers’ (Catechism, 98). Note that the Catechism first speaks of the inward inspiration of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of the faithful, and only subsequently speaks of the outward ministry of pastors. Further, this ‘otherness’ constitutive of the respublica Christiana is nowhere articulated in terms of perfection or the ‘perfect society.’ Instead, the Catechism is emphatic and repetitive that ‘the Church… includes within her fold the good and the bad; and it was in this sense that St. Paul spoke of one body and one spirit’ (Catechism, 100), adding that although infidels, heretics, schismatics, and excommunicates are excluded from the Church, ‘with regard to the rest, however wicked and evil they may be, it is certain that they still belong to the Church’ (Catechism, 101). Rather than the ‘perfect society’ image often supposed of post-Tridentine theology (Dulles, 29), the Catechism seems to prefer the Augustinian image of the corpus permixtum—the mixed body.

The images of the ‘body’ and the respublica Christiana are not the only ones employed in the Catechism. It lists a number of biblical images for the Church—the House of God, a family, a flock, the spouse of Christ, a chaste virgin, marriage, and the people of God—images which Dulles associates with the other five ecclesial models. These images, coupled with the Old Testament types of the ark of Noah and the city of Jerusalem, present a plurality of analogies and models rather than a monolithic, institutional ecclesiology, as Dulles accuses of Counter-reformation Catholicism (120). The diversity of biblical images are nowhere reduced to a uniform framework or hierarchy but acknowledged as catechetical tools ‘replete with mysteries’ (Catechism, 98). As O’Malley notes, this section ‘anticipates the first and second chapters of [Vatican II’s] Lumen Gentium’ (265).

The Catechism proceeds to enumerate and explicate the four marks of the Church delineated in the Creed: the Church as one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. An exposition of the first should presently suffice, though I would note that the treatment of the latter three in no way departs from the tone and emphasis thus far exhibited.

The Church as ‘one’ is divided into two sections. First, the Catechism notes the unity of the Church preserved by its ‘one ruler and one governor, the invisible one, Christ’ as well as ‘the visible one, the Pope.’ It then goes on to defend the ‘visible Church’ and the Petrine office via patristic authority.

The Catechism adds to this, however, that unity also pertains to ‘one and the same Spirit who imparts grace to the faithful, as the soul communicates life to the members of the body’ (Catechism, 104). This impartation does not trickle down from the head. Rather, ‘as the human body consists of many members, animated by one soul, which gives sight to the eyes, hearing to the ears, and to the other senses the power of discharging their respective functions; so the mystical body of Christ, which is the Church, is composed of many faithful’ (Catechism, 104). The Catechism adds that ‘the unity of the Spirit, by which [the Church] is governed, brings it about that whatsoever has been given to the Church is held as a common possession (commune) by all her members’ (Catechism, 109). The Spirit directly infuses and ‘animates’ the members of the Church, and in this, coupled, of course, with institutional governance, consists the unity of the Church. The power of the Spirit is not constricted to a visible bureaucracy, but is a common possession of the faithful. The Catechism consistently maintains both the ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ dimensions of the Church.

One final observation. Toward the end of this section, the Catechism finely parses the words of the Creed: ‘With regard to the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, we not only believe them, but also believe in them. But here we make use of a different form of expression, professing to believe the holy, not in the holy Catholic Church. By this difference of expression we distinguish God, the author of all things, from His works’ (Catechism, 109). This sentiment is almost identically echoed in Karl Barth’s Dogmatics in Outline, which Dulles delineates under the ‘herald’ ecclesial model (Dulles, 70). The Catechism employs this distinction in order to emphasize the power of the Trinity as the true governing force of the Church, to which she must always remain faithful.

This brief survey of the Roman Catechism in no way proves exhaustive. Further, it makes no claim on the broader assertion of Dulles regarding the trajectory of post-Tridentine theology until the twentieth century. There is indeed a truth to his claim that the institutional model was prominent in the centuries after Trent. What my survey suggests, however, is that this institutional model may not have been as exclusive as Dulles proposes. As shown, in an early and influential document of this supposedly decadent era—a document commissioned by the Council of Trent and issued by Pope Pius V—the ecclesiology could only artificially be described as ‘institutional,’ ‘uniform,’ or excessively ‘hierarchical.’ Rather, the Catechism already contains many aspects indicative of Dulles’s five other ecclesial models, and thus proves more dynamic than usually suggested. My claim in no way refutes Dulles’s highly fruitful use of models in ecclesiology, nor his systematic argument for their complementarity and mutual dependence in expositing the mystery of the Church. These hold great promise for ecumenical dialogue. I only challenge an historical assertion Dulles makes which proves an obstacle for that ecumenical dialogue. If I am correct, and if my claim extends beyond the Catechism to other treatments of the Church in this period (to be explored in future posts, but also presented in Ulrich Lehner’s The Catholic Enlightenment and his forthcoming On the Road to Vatican II), it would only serve to buttress the late Cardinal’s impressive work. Further, it would contribute to the ressourcement of early-modern theology—both Catholic and Protestant—already underway in portions of the academy but still too little recognized.


1. First published in 1974. This article uses the expanded edition published by Image Books in 2014.

2. Translated by John A. McHugh, O.P., and Charles J. Callan, O.P. (Joseph F. Wagner, 1934).

3. John W. O’Malley, Trent: What Happened at the Council (Belknap, 2013).

4. ‘Introduction’ in The Catechism, xxxv. The historical context offered here can be found in the same.

5. Robert Bellarmine, On the Church Militant, trans. Ryan Grant (Mediatrix, 2016), p. 3.

2 thoughts on “The Ecclesiology of the Catechism of Trent: Some Observations

  1. A clarification: the description of the Church as a ‘perfect society’ can be used in two ways: ontologically (as in a ‘complete being,’ capable of meeting all the needs of all its members) and morally (a sinless society). I initially took Dulles to be referring to the moral sense of the phrase, though upon review he is likely referring the the ontological sense. Either way, the Catechism neither uses the phrase ‘perfect society’ nor describes the Church as either morally or ontologically ‘perfect.’ (thanks to Benoît-Dominique de la Soujeole’s Introduction to the Mystery of the Church, trans. Michael J. Miller (Washington DC: CUA Press, 2014), 232, for pointing out this distinction).

Leave a Reply to Matthew T. Gaetano Cancel reply