The Communion of Saints
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( communo sanctorum , a fellowship of, or with, the saints).
The doctrine expressed in the second clause of the ninth article in the received text of the Apostles' Creed : "I believe. . . the Holy Catholic Church, the Communion of Saints". This, probably the latest, addition to the old Roman Symbol is found in:
- the Gallican Liturgy of the seventh century (P.L., LXXII, 349, 597);
- in some letters of the Pseudo-Augustine (P. L., XXXIX, 2189, 2191, 2194), now credited to St. Caesarius of Arles (c. 543);
- in the "De Spiritu Sancto" (P. L., LXII, 11), ascribed to Faustus of Riez (c. 460);
- in the "Explanatio Symboli" (P. L., LII, 871) of Nicetas of Remesiana (c. 400); and
- in two documents of uncertain date, the "Fides Hieronymi", and an Armenian confession.
The communion of saints is the spiritual solidarity which binds together the faithful on earth, the souls in purgatory, and the saints in heaven in the organic unity of the same mystical body under Christ its head, and in a constant interchange of supernatural offices. The participants in that solidarity are called saints by reason of their destination and of their partaking of the fruits of the Redemption ( 1 Corinthians 1:2 &151; Greek Text). The damned are thus excluded from the communion of saints. The living, even if they do not belong to the body of the true Church, share in it according to the measure of their union with Christ and with the soul of the Church. St. Thomas teaches (III:8:4) that the angels, though not redeemed, enter the communion of saints because they come under Christ's power and receive of His gratia capitis . The solidarity itself implies a variety of inter-relations: within the Church Militant, not only the participation in the same faith, sacraments, and government, but also a mutual exchange of examples, prayers, merits, and satisfactions; between the Church on earth on the one hand, and purgatory and heaven on the other, suffrages, invocation, intercession, veneration. These connotations belong here only in so far as they integrate the transcendent idea of spiritual solidarity between all the children of God. Thus understood, the communion of saints, though formally defined only in its particular bearings (Council of Trent, Sess. XXV, decrees on purgatory; on the invocation, veneration, and relics of saints and of sacred images; on indulgences), is, nevertheless, dogma commonly taught and accepted in the Church. It is true that the Catechism of the Council of Trent (Pt. I, ch. x) seems at first sight to limit to the living the bearing of the phrase contained in the Creed, but by making the communion of saints an exponent and function, as it were, of the preceding clause, "the Holy Catholic Church ", it really extends to what it calls the Church's "constituent parts, one gone before, the other following every day"; the broad principle it enunciates thus: "every pious and holy action done by one belongs and is profitable to all, through charity which seeketh not her own".
In this vast Catholic conception rationalists see not only a late creation, but also an ill-disguised reversion to a lower religious type, a purely mechanical process of justification, the substitution of impersonal moral value in lieu of personal responsibility. Such statements are met best, by the presentation of the dogma in its Scriptural basis and its theological formulation. The first spare yet clear outline of the communion of saints is found in the "kingdom of God" of the Synoptics, not the individualistic creation of Harnack nor the purely eschatological conception of Loisy, but an organic whole ( Matthew 13:31 ), which embraces in the bonds of charity ( Matthew 22:39 ) all the children of God ( Matthew 19:28 ; Luke 20:36 ) on earth and in heaven ( Matthew 6:20 ), the angels themselves joining in that fraternity of souls ( Luke 15:10 ). One cannot read the parables of the kingdom ( Matthew 13 ) without perceiving its corporate nature and the continuity which links together the kingdom in our midst and the kingdom to come. The nature of that communion, called by St. John a fellowship with one another ("a fellowship with us"-- 1 John 1:3 ) because it is a fellowship with the Father, and with his Son", and compared by him to the organic and vital union of the vine and its branches ( John 15 ), stands out in bold relief in the Pauline conception of the mystical body. Repeatedly St. Paul speaks of the one body whose head is Christ ( Colossians 1:18 ), whose energizing principle is charity ( Ephesians 4:16 ), whose members are the saints, not only of this world, but also of the world to come ( Ephesians 1:20 ; Hebrews 12:22 ). In that communion there is no loss of individuality, yet such an interdependence that the saints are "members one of another" ( Romans 12:5 ), not only sharing the same blessings ( 1 Corinthians 12:13 ) and exchanging good offices (ibid., xii, 25) and prayers ( Ephesians 6:18 ), but also partaking of the same corporate life, for "the whole body . . . by what every joint supplieth . . . maketh increase . . . unto the edifying of itself in charity" ( Ephesians 4:16 ).
Recent well-known researches in Christian epigraphy have brought out clear and abundant proof of the principal manifestations of the communion of saints in the early Church. Similar evidence, is to be found in the Apostolic Fathers with an occasional allusion to the Pauline conception. For an attempt at the formulation of the dogma we have to come down to the Alexandrian School. Clement of Alexandria shows the "gnostic's" ultimate relations with the angels (Strom., VI, xii, 10) and the departed souls (ibid., VIII, xii, 78); and he all but formulates the thesaurus ecclesiae in his presentation of the vicarious martyrdom, not of Christ alone, but also of the Apostles and other martyrs (ibid., IV, xii, 87). Origen enlarges, almost to exaggeration, on the idea of vicarious martyrdom (Exhort. ad martyr., ch. 1) and of communion between man and angels (De orat., xxxi); and accounts for it by the unifying power of Christ's Redemption ), ut caelestibus terrena sociaret (In Levit., hom. iv) and the force of charity, stranger in heaven than upon earth (De orat., xi). With St. Basil and St. John Chrysostom the communion of saints has become an obvious tenet used as an answer to such popular objections as these: what, need of a communion with others? (Basil, Ep. cciii) another has sinned and I shall atone? (Chrysostom, Hom. i, de poenit.). St. John Damascene has only to collect the sayings of the Fathers in order to support the dogma of the invocation of the saints and the prayers for the dead .
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But the complete presentation of the dogma comes from the later Fathers. After the statements of Tertullian, speaking of "common hope, fear, joy, sorrow, and suffering" (De poenit., ix and x); of St. Cyprian, explicitly setting forth the communion of merits (De lapsis, xvii); of St. Hilary, giving the Eucharistic Communion as a means and symbol of the communion of saints (in Ps. lxiv, 14), we come to the teaching of Ambrose and St. Augustine. From the former, the thesaurus ecclesiae , the best practical test of the reunion of saints, receives a definite explanation (De poenit., I, xv; De officiis, I, xix). In the transcendent view of the Church taken by the latter (Enchir., lvi) the communion of saints, though never so called by him, is a necessity ; to the Civitas Dei must needs correspond the unitas caritatis (De unitate eccl., ii), which embraces in an effective union the saints and angels in heaven (Enarr. in Psalmos, XXXVI, iii, 4), the just on earth (De bapt., III, xvii), and in a lower degree, the sinners themselves, the putrida membra of the mystic body; only the declared heretics, schismatics, and apostates are excluded from the society, though not from the prayers, of the saints (Serm. cxxxvii). The Augustinian concept, though somewhat obscured in the catechetical expositions of the Creed by the Carlovingian and later theologians (P. L., XCIX, CI, CVIII, CX, CLII, CLXXXVI), takes its place in the medieval synthesis of Peter Lombard, St. Bonaventure, St. Thomas, etc.
Influenced no doubt by early writers like Yvo of Chartres (P. L., CLXII, 606l), Abelard (P. L. CLXXXIII, 630), and probably Alexander of Hales (III, Q. lxix, a, 1), St. Thomas (Expos. in symb. 10) reads in the neuter the phrase of the Creed, communio sanctorum (participation of spiritual goods), but apart from the point of grammar his conception of the dogma is thorough. General principle; the merits of Christ are communicated to all, and the merits of each one are communicated to the others (ibid.). The manner of participation: both objective and intentional, in radice operis, ex intentione facientis (Supp., 71:1) . The measure: the degree of charity (Expos. in symb., 10). The benefits communicated: not the sacraments alone but, the superabundant merits of Christ and the saints forming the thesaurus ecclesia (ibid. and Quodlib., II, Q. viii, a. 16). The participants: the three parts of the Church (Expos. in symb., 9); consequently the faithful on earth exchanging merits and satisfactions ( I-II:113:6, and Suppl., 13:2 ), the souls in purgatory profiting by the suffrages of the living and the intercession of the saints (Suppl., 71), the saints themselves receiving honour and giving intercession ( II-II:83:4, II-II:83:11, III:25:6 ), and also the angels, as noted above. Later Scholastics and post-Reformation theologians have added little to the Thomistic presentation of the dogma. They worked rather around than into it, defending such points as were attacked by heretics, showing the religious, ethical, and social value of the Catholic conception; and they introduced the distinction between the body and the soul of the Church, between actual membership and membership in desire, completing the theory of the relations between church membership and the communion of saints which had already been outlined by St. Optatus of Mileve and St. Augustine at the time of the Donatist controversy. One may regret the plan adopted by the Schoolmen afforded no comprehensive view of the whole dogma, bur rather scattered the various components of it through a vast synthesis. This accounts for the fact that a compact exposition of the communion of saints is to be sought less in the works of our standard theologians than in our catechetical, apologetic, pastoral, and even ascetic literature. It may also partly explain, without excusing them, the gross misrepresentations noticed above.
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In the Anglo-Saxon Church
That the Anglo-Saxons held the doctrine of the communion of saints may be judged from the following account given by Lingard in his "History and Antiquities of the Anglo-Saxon Church." They received the practice of venerating the saints, he says, together with the rudiments the Christian religion ; and they manifested their devotion to them both in public and private worship: in public, by celebrating the anniversaries of individual saints, and keeping annually the feast of All-Hallows as a solemnity of the first class; and in their private devotions , by observing the instructions to worship God and then to " pray, first to Saint Mary, and the holy apostles, and the holy martyrs, and all God's saints, that they would intercede for them to God ". In this way they learned to look up to the saints in heaven with feelings of confidence and affection, to consider them as friends and protectors, and to implore their aid in the hour of distress, with the hope that God would grant to the patron what he might otherwise refuse to the supplicant.
Like all other Christians, the Anglo-Saxons held in special veneration "the most holy mother of God, the perpetual virgin Saint Mary " (Beatissima Dei genitrix et perpetua virgo.-Bede, Hom. in Purif.). Her praises were sung by the Saxon poets; hymns in her honour were chanted in the public service; churches and altars were placed under her patronage; miraculous cures were ascribed to her; and four annual feasts were observed commemorating the principal events of her mortal life: her nativity, the Annunciation, her purification, and assumption. Next to the Blessed Virgin in the devotion was Saint Peter, whom Christ had chosen for the leader of the Apostles and to whom he had given the keys of the kingdom of Heaven , "with the chief exercise of judicial power in the Church, to the end that all might know that whosoever should separate himself from the unity of Peter's faith or of Peter's fellowship, that man could never attain absolution from the bonds of sin, nor admission through the gates of the heavenly kingdom " (Bede). These words of the Venerable Bede refer, it is true, to Peter's successors as well as to Peter himself, but they also evidence the veneration of Anglo-Saxons for the Prince of the Apostles, a veneration which they manifested in the number of churches dedicated to his memory, in the pilgrimages made to his tomb, and by the presents sent to the church in which his remains rested and to the bishop who sat in his chair. Particular honours were paid also to Saints Gregory and Augustine, to whom they were chiefly indebted for their knowledge of Christianity. They called Gregory their "foster-father in Christ" and themselves "his foster-children in baptism "; and spoke of Augustine as "the first to bring to them the doctrine of faith, the sacrament of baptism, and the knowledge of their heavenly country". While these saints were honoured by the whole people, each separate nation revered the memory of its own apostle. Thus Saint Aidan in Northumbria, Saint Birinus in Wessex, and Saint Felix in East Anglia were venerated as the protectors of the countries which had been the scenes of their labours. All the saints so far mentioned were of foreign extraction; but the Anglo-Saxons soon extended their devotion to men who had been born and educated among them and who by their virtues and zeal in propagating Christianity had merited the honours of sanctity.
This account of the devotion of the Anglo-Saxons to those whom they looked up to as their friends and protectors in heaven is necessarily brief, but it is amply sufficient to show that they believed and loved the doctrine of the communion of saints.
Sporadic errors against special points of the communion of saints are pointed out by the Synod of Gangra ( Mansi, II, 1103), St. Cyril of Jerusalem (P. G., XXXIII, 1116), St. Epiphanius (ibid., XLII, 504), Asteritis Amasensis (ibid., XL, 332), and St. Jerome (P. L., XXIII, 362). From the forty-second proposition condemned, and the twenty-ninth question asked, by Martin V at Constance ( Denzinger, nos. 518 and 573), we also know that Wyclif and Hus had gone far towards denying the dogma itself. But the communion of saints became a direct issue only at the time of the Reformation. The Lutheran churches, although commonly adopting the Apostles' Creed, still in their original confessions, either pass over in silence the communion of saints or explain it as the Church's "union with Jesus Christ in the one true faith " ( Luther's Small Catechism), or as "the congregation of saints and true believers" (Augsburg Confession, ibid., III, 12), carefully excluding, if not the memory, at least the invocation of the saints, because Scripture "propoundeth unto us one Christ, the Mediator, Propitiatory, High-Priest, and Intercessor" (ibid., III, 26). The Reformed churches generally maintain the Lutheran identification of the communion of saints with the body of believers but do not limit its meaning to that body. Calvin (Inst. chret., IV, 1, 3) insists that the phrase of the Creed is more than a definition of the Church ; it conveys the meaning of such a fellowship that whatever benefits God bestows upon the believers should mutually communicate to one another. That view is followed in the Heidelberg Catechism, emphasized in the Gallican Confession, wherein communion is made to mean the efforts of believers to mutually strengthen themselves in the fear of God. Zwingli in his articles admits an exchange of prayers between the faithful and hesitates to condemn prayers for the dead , rejecting only the saints' intercession as injurious to Christ. Both the Scotch and Second Helvetic Confessions bring together the Militant and the Triumphant Church, but whereas the former is silent on the signification of the fact, the latter says that they hold communion with each other: "nihilominus habent illae inter sese communionem, vel conjunctionem".
The double and often conflicting influence of Luther and Calvin, with a lingering memory of Catholic orthodoxy, is felt in the Anglican Confessions. On this point the Thirty-nine Articles are decidedly Lutheran, rejecting as they do "the Romish Doctrine concerning Purgatory, Pardons, Worshipping and Adoration as well of Images as of Relics, and also Invocation of Saints", because they see in it "a fond thing, vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God ". On the other hand, the Westminster Confession, while ignoring the Suffering and the Triumphant Church, goes beyond the Calvinistic view and falls little short of the Catholic doctrine with regard to the faithful on earth, who, it says, "being united to one another in love, have communion in each other's gifts and graces ". In the United States, the Methodist Articles of Religion, 1784, as well as the Reformed Episcopal Articles of Religion, 1875, follow the teachings of the Thirty-nine Articles, whereas the teaching of the Westminster Confession is adopted in the Philadelphia Baptist Confession, 1688, and in the Confession of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, 1829. Protestant theologians, just as Protestant confessions, waver between the Lutheran and the Calvinistic view.
The cause of the perversion by Protestants of the traditional concept of communion of saints is not to be found in the alleged lack of Scriptural and early Christian evidence in favour of that concept; well-informed Protestant writers have long since ceased to press that argument. Nor is there any force in the oft-repeated argument that the Catholic dogma detracts from Christ's mediatorship, for it is plain, as St. Thomas had already shown (Suppl., 72:2, ad 1) , that the ministerial mediatorship of the saints does not detract from, but only enhances, the magisterial mediatorship of Christ. Some writers have traced that perversion to the Protestant concept of the Church as an aggregation of souls and a multitude of units bound together by a community of faith and pursuit and by the ties of Christian sympathy, but in no way organized or interdependent as members of the same body. This explanation is defective because the Protestant concept of the Church is a fact parallel to, but in no way causative of, their view of the communion of saints. The true cause must be found elsewhere. As early as 1519, Luther, the better to defend his condemned theses on the papacy, used the clause of the Creed to show that the communion of saints, and not the papacy, was the Church : "non ut aligui somniant, credo ecclesiam esse praelatum . . . sed . . . communionem sanctorum". This was simply playing on the words of the Symbol. At that time Luther still held the traditional communion of saints, little dreaming that he would one day give it up. But he did give it up when he formulated his theory on justification. The substitution of the Protestant motto, "Christ for all and each one for himself". In place of the old axiom of Hugh of St. Victor, "Singula sint omnium et omina singulorum" (each for all and all for each--P. L., CLXXV. 416), is a logical outcome of their concept of justification; not an interior renovation of the soul, nor a veritable regeneration from a common Father, the second Adam, nor yet an incorporation with Christ, the head of the mystical body, but an essentially individualistic act of fiducial faith. In such a theology there is obviously no room for that reciprocal action of the saints, that corporate circulation of spiritual blessings through the members of the same family, that domesticity and saintly citizenship which lies at the very core of the Catholic communion of saints. Justification and the communion of saints go hand in hand. The efforts which are being made towards reviving in Protestantism the old and still cherished dogma of the communion of saints must remain futile unless the true doctrine of justification be also restored.
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