Sacred God, Sacred Church

The Catholic Church and the Hermeneutic of Mystery

In the religion of the Old Testament, Hebrew knowledge and experience of covenantal obligations inspired God’s people to treat his name as particularly sacred and holy, and to refer to it as the great, the only, and the glorious and terrible name. When God declared his name to Moses in Exodus 3, it had the power of an oath and a covenant.1 An oath was seen to harness the authority of God’s name and presupposed the elevation of a promise. Written Hebrew tradition refers in several places to the conditions relating to how and when the name of God could be pronounced. Whereas Ecclesiasticus 23:10 appears to prohibit only a careless use of the divine name, Leviticus 24:16 warns, “And he that blasphemeth the name of the Lord, dying let him die: all the multitude shall stone him, whether he be a native or a stranger.”

God’s holy name would be reserved for swearing oaths that triggered covenantal blessings. “It cannot be denied that the name of God — Jehovah or Yahweh — does not appear as often in the more recent canonical books of the Old Testament as in the older books.”2 The Fathers of the Church agreed with the rabbinic writers that God’s name is so sacred and holy that it is ineffable — inexpressible and unspeakable.3 It was spoken so sparingly that in modern times both Jews and Christians are uncertain of how to pronounce it.4 “It is difficult to determine the exact time when the ancient Hebrews began to give great reverence to the Divine name, but apparently after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple the name of God was no longer pronounced.”5 God’s name is a sacred mystery and so also is his temple.

It is an article of divine faith that the Son of God, Christ Jesus, founded a Church upon the Apostle Peter (cf. Matt 16). The Holy Spirit is the soul of Christ and of his Church, the New Covenant temple, the Catholic Church. In his Epistle to the Smyrnaeans, St. Ignatius of Antioch (d.107 A.D.) used the term “Catholic Church” to designate all followers of Jesus Christ. “The Church is a privileged place, a sacred arena within which we encounter something somehow transcendent to her.”6 The first chapter of Lumen Gentium, the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, proclaims and celebrates the Church as a mystery, while in chapters two and three it focuses on the people of God and on the Church’s hierarchical structure. “In any understanding of the Church, the word mystery is really the operative word and can’t be emphasized enough. She is a being whose point of origin, nature, and destiny, are hidden in the providence of God.”7

Only God truly knows all of the dimensions of the Church, and only God may reveal her essence and her vitality. In her heart and soul the Church remains an unsolvable puzzle, “enshrouded in a mystery not reducible to her parts — either lay people or hierarchy.”8 The primary business of the Church should not be about politics and dialog, but about the seeking of mystery, but this can occur only when the people of God and the Church’s hierarchical structure are seen as grounded in a hermeneutic of mystery.

In the Gospel of John, when Philip, speaking for the Apostles, asks Jesus to show them the Father, Jesus replies, “Have you been with me so long that you still do not know, I and the Father are one? He who sees me sees the Father.” Christ makes the invisible God visible. Christ, as the sacrament of the Father, is the foundation, the architect, and the form of all sacraments. “In a derivative way the Church is the sacrament of the Son of God. She doesn’t just represent the Son as an ambassador might represent his or her country, but rather, the Church makes the Son present, bringing about his person and salvific power in time and in history in the midst of men.”9 She is the beta point who presupposes Christ, her transcendent alpha point, and remains charged with bringing God to the world. Bossuet, the great seventeenth-century French bishop, proclaimed: “The Church is Jesus Christ spread abroad and communicated.”10 The Church summarily claims to be Christ’s Mystical Body, bride, and continued presence in the world. Seeing the Church as a manifestation of Christ, Henri de Lubac wrote, “It is a great mystery and a wonderful sacrament.”11

Isaiah wrote prophetically of the crucified Christ:

There is no beauty in him nor comeliness, and we have seen him, and there was no sightliness that we should be desirous of him. Despised, the most abject of men, a man of sorrows, acquainted with infirmity, and his look was as it were hidden and detested, whereupon we esteemed him not. We have thought him as it were a leper, as one struck by God and afflicted. (Is 53:2–4)

St. Paul says that, to the Jews, Christ is a scandal, and to the Greeks he is a fool and an absurdity (1 Cor 1:23). But in the light of faith he is God — the Son of the living God. “It was an obstacle from the very start; all who came to Christ were well aware of the startling paradox.”12 With Scripture verses Is 8:14, Rom 9:33, and 1 Pet 2:8 in mind, Henri de Lubac adds, “We are driven to say of the Church even more than of Christ, she is a stone of stumbling, a rock of offense, she is even more dense with contrast and paradox than is Christ.”13 The eternal Word became flesh and dwelt among us as a man, Jesus Christ, who is the Church (cf. Acts 9:4), who promises that the gates of hell will not prevail against it, who commands his disciples to be perfect like his Father is perfect, who then dies an appalling, bloody death, and regrettably the Church is full of people like us who are very imperfect. We see the progression of scandal, how it deepens and how it disturbs the mind, how it complicates the primordial religious equation which contains only two terms, God and Man. The awareness of a close, direct relationship with God is threatened as Christ and the Church are added to the equation. “If a sense of mystery and a purified and transformed vision is necessary to look upon Christ without being scandalized, how much more is it necessary when we are looking at the Church?”14

When Karl Barth (d. 1968) — whose picture appeared on the cover of Time magazine and who is often regarded as the greatest Protestant theologian of the twentieth century — pondered the Catholic Church and Roman Catholicism, he did not see Christ, but the anti-Christ.15 Barth believed with Luther and Calvin that there exists a state of absolute, infinite estrangement between God and man. Barth eloquently opposed the metaphysical Catholic doctrine of the Church as Christ. He took offense that the Church would consider herself a sign and an instrument of salvation, when mediation belonged to God alone. The Church’s claim inspired Barth to identify the Church with worldly Rome, and to see Rome as being one with the anti-Christ. Between God and Rome, said Barth, there could be no correspondence — no sameness or analogy of being — there could be only tension and opposition.16

Political factions also do not like to think of the Church as a mystery. When that word is applied to the nature of the Church, it effectively pulls the plug on those who would lobby the Church, reducing her to one or more narrow-minded political configurations. We see in the Church in the last fifty years a great attack on the mystery of the Church in the liturgy, where mystery is rejected in favor of pandering to the people; for example, Gregorian chant is replaced with syrupy hymns in the Mass.

“Familiarity breeds contempt” is an apt phrase coined by Chaucer. “At the Second Vatican Council a heightened sense of ecclesial consciousness took place and people started thinking about the Church in a more comprehensive and radical way than ever before.”17 Paradoxically, as the perceived dangers of the world, the flesh, and the devil have faded in the post-conciliar season, it is precisely the topic of the Church that has drawn the most suspicion. “We can savor the irony that, on the one hand, everyone is exhorted to think about the Church, and on the other hand, having thought deeply about the Church, suddenly everyone finds her suspect. Everyone is suddenly disposed to dismiss the Church, as if the more you think about the Church, the less you appreciate her.”18 The more the Church teaches, the less people want to learn from her.

When you move the Church as mystery into the pastoral order and the modern world, a different hermeneutic comes into play. The hermeneutic of mystery proposed by Lumen Gentium chapter one is replaced with the modern world’s hermeneutic of suspicion. The Holy Spirit is the mind of the Church. Yet after the Council, the Christological and Trinitarian foundation of the Church was overlooked in favor of its institutional aspect, which became the focus under the hermeneutic of suspicion, and the Catholic Church became virtually irrelevant in the mind of the modern world, demystified, dislocated from its dimension of mystery, reduced from a revelation to just another religion.

There is a misconception that the Church of Jesus Christ is somehow bigger than the Catholic Church.19 But reading Lumen Gentium #8 in the light of Orientalium Ecclesiarum #2, it becomes clear that the Catholic Church is both the “society structured with hierarchical organs” and the Mystical Body of Christ. There is a tendency to resort to the idea of a perfect Church, an invisible Church for saints alone, one without flesh and blood but only pure and undefiled spirit. Another tendency is for the Church to feel the need to radically renew herself by stripping off certain things and restoring other things in order to return to a pristine and initial version of herself. Many modern Bible scholars assume that the recovery of Christian origins is the recovery of the essence of Christianity.20 They assume that the infant Church is the best form of Christianity. The Church, in their view, had gone into a decline by the third century. Although we could do well by recovering some earlier practices, we should not assume that the earliest forms of Christianity should be used as a blueprint for Church reform. “Should we go back to nude adult baptism as it was done in the early Church, or restore the rigorous practice of reconciliation which included public confession and public penance, or give up adoration and the elevation of the host, two things not found in the early Church?”21

In summary, a paradox is at work, and in the last fifty years it leads to the Church being self-conscious and unsure of herself, and to judging herself with a hermeneutic of suspicion. “The Church is completely dependent on the mystery of Christ and yet if the appearance of the crucified Christ strikes any disinterested observer as scandalous and foolish, think how much more so the Church must appear to the eyes of even the most objective, detached observer. The sense of scandal is multiplied and intensified.”22 The roles of Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Church help provide real distinctions for seeing the Church as a mystery, and not merely as an institution. The primary talking points of the Church should be Trinitarian, Christocentric, and Marian. It is a Trinitarian heresy to separate the Church from Christ.

Mary is the model of the Church. She scarcely speaks a word in the New Testament, but when she does, it is directed toward her Son. Mary exists only to promote her Son, as does the Church. “Do whatever he tells you,” she says in Jn 2:5. Mary is the idea and symbol of the Church as spouse of Christ, and thus “Marian piety can only be ecclesial piety.”23 Like Mary, the Church is a window into Christ; when you gaze at the Church, you see Christ. Her sympathetic and transparent mission is entirely bestowed by him. At World Youth Day in 1993, Pope St. John Paul II was heard to say, “If you love Jesus, love the Church.”

Yet one is tempted to ask, why do people remain in the Church despite her paradoxical, scandalous, battered and bewildered appearance? People remain in the Church to save their souls, and because they believe the Church belongs to Christ, and because it remains a mystery which reveals Christ. “We cannot remain with him unless we remain with her, because she is his bride, his body, and not ours. Although the Church is barren and destitute, like the moon, this lunar landscape receives a bright light from which she derives her charm, beauty, and attraction.”24 St. Augustine concurred with St. Cyprian of Carthage, who in the third century said resolutely: “He cannot have God for father who has not the Church for mother.”25 People stay in the Church because it has the truth that sets them free from sin.

To conclude, perhaps the best reflection on the Church is provided by St. Joan of Arc, a simple believer who had common sense and strong faith. In an answer to her trial judges in one of the many interrogations, she replied: “It seems to me that it is all one, Christ and the Church, and that we ought not to make any difficulty of it.”26

  1. Scott Hahn, “Theology 602 / Theological Foundations,” Franciscan University of Steubenville Distance Learning, Lecture 13.
  2. Anthony Maas, “Jehovah (Yahweh),” The Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 8 (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910), retrieved 14 Sept. 2017 from
  3. Maas, “Jehovah (Yahweh).”
  4. Maas, “Jehovah (Yahweh).”
  5. Maas, “Jehovah (Yahweh).”
  6. Regis Martin, “Theology 214 / Theology of the Church,” Franciscan University of Steubenville Distance Learning, Lecture 19.
  7. Martin, Lecture 10.
  8. Martin, Lecture 10.
  9. Martin, Lecture 27.
  10. Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet, “Allocution aux nouvelles catholiques” (Oeuvres oratoires, ed. Lebarcq, 6:508), quoted in Henri de Lubac, The Splendor of the Church (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1999), 49.
  11. Lubac, 50.
  12. Lubac, 49.
  13. Lubac, 50.
  14. Martin, Lecture 19.
  15. Martin, Lecture 27.
  16. Martin, Lecture 27.
  17. Martin, Lecture 10.
  18. Martin, Lecture 10.
  19. James T. O’Connor, “The Church of Christ and the Catholic Church,” Catholic Trinity Communications, January 1984. Retrieved 22 Oct 2017 from
  20. Stephen Hildebrand, “Theology 213 / Theology of Christ,” Franciscan University of Steubenville Distance Learning, Lecture 3.
  21. Hildebrand, “Theology,” Lecture 4.
  22. Martin, Lecture 19.
  23. Hans Urs von Balthasar, Razing the Bastions, trans. Brian McNeil (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), 97.
  24. Martin, Lecture 10.
  25. William A. Jurgens, ed. and trans., The Faith of the Early Fathers, vol. 1 (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1970), 221.
  26. Willard Trask, ed. and trans., Joan of Arc in Her Own Words (New York: Turtle Point Press, 1996), 121.
J.T. Knox About J.T. Knox

J.T. Knox is retired from the IT division of the University of Wisconsin. He earned an M.A. Theology degree from Franciscan University, a B.S. in Computer Science from Wisconsin, and officiated division I college tennis for thirty-five years. He has been published in the Writers of Wisconsin short story anthology, Homiletic and Pastoral Review, Oremus Press, and The Latin Mass magazine.


  1. I endorse St.Joan of Arc thinking that It is one Christ and one Church and we are the ones who complicate things. It is because we, the faithful have not developed a strong faith consciousness. Our faith beliefs are not for the most part substantiated. We have not really accepted determinately Christ’s call to take up our cross and follow Him. We have not understood what true mortification and dying to self involves. As Jesus rightly says : ‘unless a grain of wheat falls and dies it remains but a grain of wheat.’

    However, I believe we , the members of the body of Christ , the Church , are truly seeking and learning more about their faith and how to put it into practice. The whole idea of the divine mercy devotion and concentration on the corporal and spiritual works of mercy is at the heart or turning point of the faithful in the right direction of learning how to be substantiated in the faith of the Church and it’s works of mercy.

    Thank you