The Church, what is it?

By: Tony Capobianco


Artistic attribution: Viviano Codazzi. Title: St. Peter’s Rome. Date: Circa 1630. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 100 years or less. {{PD-US}} 

The purpose of this life is to know, love, and serve God in order to be happy with Him in the next. To truly know, love, and serve God, one must be a living member of The Body of Christ. A man either lives within in The City of Man or within The City of God. A man is either inside the Ark of the Church or else he is outside of it. The City of God and the Ark of the Church are one in the same, The Holy Catholic Church. What is The Church? Where can this Church be found? Is the Church visible? Who are members of the Church? Who aren’t members of the Church? Are the unbaptized, members of The Mystical Body of Christ? What about heretics and secret heretics? Does the Church have marks by which it may be known? What are The Marks of The Church? Can the Church defect or err?

This series of articles will address these questions through proclaiming the teaching of St. Robert Bellarmine and The Magisterium of the Church. This series of articles will greatly rely upon and extensively quote from St. Robert Bellarmine’s magnum opus “De Controversiis Christianae Fidei Adversus Huius Temporis Haereticos”, which translated to English means, “On The Controversies Of The Christian Faith Against The Heretics Of This Time”. Particular focus will be given to St. Bellarmine’s “De Controversiis: Tomus II On The Church Vol. 1” translated from the original Latin to English by Ryan Grant. Saint Robert Bellarmine is a Doctor of The Church who was blessed with a photographic memory. He was a great scholar and theologian. Saint Bellarmine’s work “On The Church” is fundamentally important in properly understanding Catholic Ecclesiology.

What does the term “Church” mean? St. Bellarmine explains it as follows:

The name is Greek and is deduced from the word ekkaleo, which means I call out. Therefore, Church is an evocation, or a body of those called out. Moreover, the people of God is a body of those called out, because no man joins himself to this people by himself and by his own instinct, but any whosoever that come have been preceded by the calling of God. For the calling is the first benefit, which the saints receive from God, as the Apostle says in Romans, ‘He called them and justified them, and glorified those whom he had justified.’ The Apostle says often enough that Christians are called, in fact in nearly every epistle.

Moreover, three things must be noted on this term. 1.) The name of Church can be joined with another thing, and can be received on the side of the good and the bad. For the Psalms speak of the ‘Church of the malignant,’ and the ‘Church of the Saints’. Moreover, this term is placed absolutely, it is not understood unless it is about the Church of Christ, with the exception of one passage, that is Acts 19 where it says about the people of the heathen ‘For the Church was confused.’

2.) Mark with St. Augustine, ‘God stood in the synagogue of The gods,’ although the Church of the Old Testament and the New are the same, nevertheless the state of the New Testament Church is by far more excellent, thus, the names are also distinct, for the people of the Old Testament are properly called the Synagogue, that is the congregation; but the people of the New Testament is never called the Synagogue, but always the Church, that is the evocation. To be gathered is common among both men and beasts, but to be called out is proper to men. It is not related that the people of the Jews in the Old Testament are also everywhere the Church; for both the Synagogue and the Church are called in Hebrew by the word ‘congregation’ [e-dah] which we translate into Synagogue, and is said to be from [ya-ad] ‘to assign or gather’. Likewise, [qa-hal] that is ‘the Church,’ is said to come from ‘to gather’. Therefore there are two names, but they mean altogether the same thing.

3.) It also must be noted that in the same way as the city on the one hand means a body of men, on the other the place in which that body lives, so also the Church in the Scriptures means the body of the faithful, as it says in Romans 16: ‘All the Churches of Asia greet you.’ Now, all the faithful are gathered in that very citation, just as in Judith 6: ‘every people prayed through the whole night within the Church,’ although we now only mean the body of the faithful when we dispute on the Church.
— (Bellarmine and Grant. 2017. PP. 232-233.)

What is the Catholic teaching on what the Church is? St. Bellarmine says the following:

The Catholic teaching is that the Church is only one, not two, and that the body of men of the same Christian profession and of the same Sacraments gathered in communion is one and true, under the rule of legitimate pastors and especially of the one Vicar of Christ on Earth, the Roman Pontiff. From such a definition it can be clearly understood which men pertain to the Church and which do not. For there are three parts of this definition; the profession of the true faith, the communion of the Sacraments, and subjection to the legitimate pastor, the Roman Pontiff. By the reasoning of the first all infidels and those who have never entered the Church are excluded, such as Jews, Turks, and Pagans; then those who were in the Church but left, such as heretics and apostates. By the reasoning of the second part, all Catechumens and excommunicates are excluded, because they have not been admitted to the communion of the Sacraments, these are sent out; by reasoning of the third, all schismatics are excluded, that is those who have the faith and the Sacraments, but are not under the legitimate pastor, and therefore profess the faith and receive the Sacraments outside of the Church. Yet, all others, even the base, wicked and impious are included.

This is the difference between our teaching and all others, that all others require external virtues to constitute someone in the Church, and for that reason they make the Church invisible; but even though we believe all virtues (e.g. faith, hope, and charity and the rest), are discovered in the Church, still that someone could absolutely be called part of the true Church, on which the Scriptures speak, we do not think any internal virtue is required, but only the external profession of faith, as well as the communion of the Sacraments which is taken up in that sense. For the Church is a body of men that is just as visible and palpable as the body of the Roman people, or the Kingdom of France, or the Republic of Venice.

Furthermore, it must be noted with Augustine, that the Church is a living body in which there is a soul and body, and in the soul there are internal gifts of the Holy Spirit, namely Faith, Hope, and Charity, etc. The body is the external profession of faith as well as the communication of the Sacraments. From there it happens that some men are in the soul and body of the Church and furthermore are united to Christ the head inwardly and outwardly, and such are perfectly in the Church, since they are as living members in the body, although among them are also some who participate more or less in the life of the Church, and some even who might hold only the beginning of life like a sense but not a motion, just as those who only have faith without charity. Again, some might be in the soul of the Church and not in the body, such as Catechumens or the excommunicated if they might have faith and charity, which can happen. Then, some may be in the body, but not the soul, such as those who have no internal virtue, and still by hope, or by some temporal fear profess the faith and communicate in the Sacraments under the rule of their pastors, and such are like hairs or nails, or bad humors in the human body.

Therefore, our definition holds true in this last manner of being in the Church, because this at least is required, that one can be said to be apart of the visible Church. Therefore, it must in the proper order be proved that the following do not pertain to the Church: the unbaptized, heretics, apostates, excommunicates and schismatics. Next, that those who are not predestined do in fact pertain to the Church, along with the imperfect and also manifest sinners; then lastly, secret heretics, if they would have the Sacraments as well as the profession of the faith and subjection to the Church, etc.”
— (Bellarmine and Grant. 2017. PP. 237-239)

On The unbaptized and whether they are part of the Church, St. Bellarmine responds:

Paul certainly speaks about the unbaptized infidels when he says, ‘Why do you ask me to judge concerning those who are outside?’ He says generally in that passage that they are outside who did not give their names for Christ through Baptism, but followed some other religions.
— (Bellarmine and Grant. 2017. P. 240)

What about Catechumens, are they outside of the Church? St. Bellarmine answers:

Consequently, I respond that it is said outside the Church no man is saved, and this ought to be understood on those who are neither in fact nor in desire within the Church, just as all the Theologians commonly teach on Baptism. Moreover, if the Catechumens are not in the Church de facto, at least they are in the Church in desire, therefore they can be saved. This is not opposed to the similitude of the Ark of Noah (outside of which no man was saved), even if he were in it by desire since similitudes do not agree in all things. For that reason, 1 Peter 3 compares Baptism to the ark of Noah and still it is certain that some are saved without Baptism in fact.

But one might say, Augustine says that Catechumens are in the Church; it is true, but in the same place he separates them from the faithful. Therefore, he meant that they are in the Church not by act, but by potency, which he explains in the beginning of the 2nd book on the Creed, where he compares Catechumens to men who are conceived but not yet born.
— (Bellarmine and Grant. 2017. PP. 241-242)

Heretics and Apostates are outside of the Church. St. Bellarmine affirms this:

1.) Scripture shows this, since in 1 Timothy 1 : 19 it says that certain men are shipwrecked in regard to the faith. In that passage, it understands heretics by means of a metaphor of a shipwreck, after being broken from one part of the boat of the Church, after which they sink into the sea, which also is meant by the Lord’s parable of the net which is torn before the multitude. Besides, to Titus he says, ‘after a heretic has been given one or two corrections, knowing that he is subversive, who is of this sort, he has been condemned by his own judgement.’ There the Apostle commands the Bishop that he should avoid heretics, because certainly he would not command it if they were within the Church. For a shepherd ought not avoid those whom he has care of when they pertain to his own flock. And he adds the reason that such a pertinacious heretic is condemned by his own judgement, that is (as Jerome explains it), he has not been thrown out of the Church by excommunication, as many other sinners, but he cast himself out of the Church. Likewise, 1 John II says, ‘They went out from us, but they were not from among us,’ in other words, they went out from us because they were with us in the same Church but they were not from us according to divine election, as St. Augustine explains.

2.) This is proved from the 18th and 19th chapter of the Council of Nicaea, where heretics are said to be able to be received in the Church if they wish to return to it, although under certain conditions. In like manner, from the chapter Firmiter of the Lateran Council, on the Supreme Trinity and the Catholic Faith, where the Church is called the congregation of the faithful. It is certain that heretics are not in any manner among the faithful.

3.) From the Fathers, Irenaeus says that Polycarp converted many heretics to the Church, whence it follows that beforehand they had gone out from the Church. Tertullian says that when Marcion wanted to rejoin the Church, he received the same condition as the others that he had perverted, that he should be restored to the Church. Cyprian says, in an epistle to Jubaianum, that heretics, although they are outside the Church, still claim power of the Church for themselves after the fashion of apes who, although they are not men, nevertheless wish to appear as men.

Lastly, it happens that when the Church was a united multitude (for a certain people are either a kingdom, or one body) and this particular union consists in the profession of the one faith, the observance of the same laws and rights; no reason permits that we might say they are of the body of the Church who have altogether no union with it.
— (Bellarmine and Grant. 2017. PP. 243-244)

The following are excerpts from St. Bellarmine’s teachings on Secret Infidels and Secret Heretics relation to the Church:

Lastly, it remains to speak of secret infidels, i.e. those who have neither internal faith nor any Christian virtue, but nevertheless profess the Catholic Faith due to some temporal advantage and mix with the true faithful by the communion of the Sacraments.”

“We follow the manner of speaking of a great many authors who teach that they who are joined with the remaining faithful only by an external profession are true parts and even members of the Church but withered and dead.

1.) This opinion can be demonstrated from those words of John: ‘And now many have become Antichrists, they went out from us, but they were not from us; for if they were from us they would have remained with us.’ John speaks in this place on heretics, whom he calls Antichrists, and he says that before they went out, they were not from us, i.e. they were not Catholics in spirit and will but heretics and Antichrists, and still they went out from us because if they were not from us, in spirit and will, nevertheless they were by external profession; but after they betrayed themselves and broke out into open schism, they already ceased to be from us in every way.

And although at some time St. Augustine explained those words, ‘They were not from us,’ about predestination, still in his commentary on this passage, he explains they are about secret heretics. He speaks thus: ‘All heretics, all schismatics, went out from us, that is, they went out from the Church, but they would not have gone out if they were from us, namely, they went out from the Church, but they would not have gone out if they were from us. Before they went out, therefore, they were not from us, if before they went out they were not from us. Many are inside that did not go out, and yet they are Antichrists… And those who are inside are certainly in the body of our Lord Jesus Christ since he still takes care of his own body; but health will not be restored except in the resurrection of the dead; thus they are in the body of Christ in the same way as bad humors. For, when they are vomited then the body is relieved; thus even the wicked, when they go out, then the Church is relieved and when she vomits them out, and the body casts them out, she says these humors go out from me, but they were not from me. Why were they not from me? They were not cut from my flesh but pressed from my breast when they were present there.’ He explains it in the same way in other places.
— (Bellarmine and Grant. 2017. P.P. 293-294)

Were a Bishop or even the Supreme Pontiff suspected of being a secret heretic, would they retain jurisdiction and membership in the body of Christ? St. Bellarmine responds:

Moreover, right reason manifestly teaches the same thing: By what arrangement can it be devised or imagined that one might have jurisdiction and hence be the head of the Church, who is not a member of the Church? Whoever heard of a head which was not a member? Moreover it is certain, whatever one or another might think, a secret heretic, if he might be a Bishop, or even the Supreme Pontiff, does not lose jurisdiction, nor dignity, or the name of the head in the Church, until either he separates himself publicly from the Church, or being convicted of heresy is separated against his will; for this reason, Celestine and Nicholas say (loc. cit.) that a heretical Bishop, to the extent that he began to preach heresy, could bind and loose no one although without a doubt if he had already conceived the error, were it before he began to preach publicly, he could still bind and loose. The fact is likewise confirmed from the canon Audivimus, 24, q. 1, where we read: ‘But if he will have devised a new heresy in his heart, to the extent that he begins to preach such things, he can condemn no man.’ Besides, if it were the case that secret heretics could have no jurisdiction, every act that depends on jurisdiction would be rendered uncertain, which would disturb the universal Church in no small measure. Therefore, now if he who is not in the Church cannot have authority in the Church and a secret heretic can have it, and at some point really has authority in the Church, certainly a secret heretic can be in the Church.
— (Bellarmine and Grant. 2017. P. 295)

Is the Church Visible? St. Bellarmine undoubtedly affirms that the Church is visible:

First, that the true Church is visible can be proved from all the Scriptures where the Church is discovered. A visible congregation is always meant by the term Church. Calvin could not, and did not, advance even one passage where the term is attributed to an invisible congregation. Certainly, when it is said in Numbers, ‘Why did you lead the Church of the Lord into the wilderness?’ the Church is called that people who had gone out from Egypt. Thus in Kings, Scripture manifestly speaks on the visible Church, when it says, ‘The King turned his face and blessed every Church of Israel; for every Church of Israel stood.’ In Matthew 16: 18, ‘Upon this rock I will build my Church,’ by the name of rock one either understands Christ, or the confession of faith as heretics do, or Peter as we believe, the foundation of the Church is always something perceptible, as is clear, and consequently, the Church herself is perceptible, or visible. Even if now we see neither Christ nor Peter, still both had been put forth to be seen by corporeal senses, and now both are seen not in themselves but in a vicar, or in their successor, just as the King of Naples is not invisible when the king is away since he is seen in his viceroy. ‘Speak to the Church, if he will not hear the Church, etc.’

Certainly neither [foundation] can be saved if the Church were invisible, as Acts relates, ‘Attend to the whole flock over which the Holy Spirit has placed you as Bishops to rule the Church of God.’ How could they rule a Church that they did not know? ‘These being removed from the Church passed into Phoenicia,’ and in the same chapter, ‘When they came To Jerusalem, they were received by the Church.’ ‘Paul went up and greeted the Church.’ How do these agree with an invisible Church? Paul says that he persecuted the Church of God; but it is known whom he persecuted from Acts 9:2. Next, he says, ‘I write these things to you, son Timothy, that you know how you ought to live in the house of God, which is the Church of the living God, etc.’ But rightly he could not live in it unless he know what it might be.

Secondly, it is proven from other Scriptures where the Church is not named, but is clearly described. ‘He placed his tent in the sun.’ St. Augustine explains that he placed his Church in the open, just as the sun which cannot be completely hidden, so neither can the Church be hidden. Likewise in Isaiah 2:2, Daniel 2:35, and Micah 4:1, the Church is compared to a great and conspicuous mountain which can be in no wise hidden, according to the common exposition of Jerome on these citations, as well as Augustine. Likewise in Matthew, ‘A city placed on a hill cannot be hidden.’ Augustine explains that this is about the Church. Therefore, the gospel parables on the sand, the net and the sheepfold, the dinner party etc. all show that the true Church, which is the kingdom of heaven, is visible.
— (Bellarmine and Grant. 2017. P.P. 311-312)

In the fullness of time, Almighty God formed His Church into the Universal Ark of Salvation which is the fulfillment of His Will for His people and His Church. The One True Church, the Catholic Church is The Mystical Body of Christ. Just as Christ’s Body was visible here on earth during His incarnation, so too His Mystical Body, The Church is visible here on earth. When did this glorious transformation take place? In the great Papal Encyclical “Mystici  Corporis, The Mystical Body of Christ”, Pope Pius XII teaches the following: 

25. In the course of the present study, Venerable Brethren, we have thus far seen that the Church is so constituted that it may be likened to a body. We must now explain clearly and precisely why it is to be called not merely a body, but the Body of Jesus Christ. This follows from the fact that our Lord is the Founder, the Head, the Support and the Savior of this Mystical Body.

26. As We set out briefly to expound in what sense Christ founded His social Body, the following thought of Our predecessor of happy memory, Leo XIII, occurs to Vs at once: ‘The Church which, already conceived, came forth from the side of the second Adam in His sleep on the Cross, first showed Herself before the eyes of men on the great day of Pentecost.’ 23 For the Divine Redeemer began the building of the mystical temple of the Church when by His preaching He made known His precepts; He completed it when He hung glorified on the Cross; and He manifested and proclaimed it when He sent the Holy Ghost as Paraclete in visible form on His disciples.

27. For while fulfilling His office as preacher He chose Apostles, sending them as He had been sent by the Father 24 namely, as teachers, rulers, instruments of holiness in the assembly of the believers; He appointed their Chief and His Vicar on earth; 25 He made known to them all things whatsoever He had heard from His Father; 26 He also determined that through Baptism 27 those who should believe would be incorporated in the Body of the Church; and finally, when He came to the close of His life, He instituted at the Last Supper the wonderful Sacrifice and Sacrament of the Eucharist.

28. That He completed His work on the gibbet of the Cross is the unanimous teaching of the holy Fathers who assert that the Church was born from the side of our Savior on the Cross like a new Eve, mother of all the living. 28 ‘And it is now,’ says the great St. Ambrose, speaking of the pierced side of Christ, ‘that it is built, it is now that it is formed, it is now that is …. molded, it is now that it is created . . . Now it is that arises a spiritual house, a holy priesthood.’ 29 One who reverently examines this venerable teaching will easily discover the reasons on which it is based.

29. And first of all, by the death of our Redeemer, the New Testament took the place of the Old Law which had been abolished; then the Law of Christ together with its mysteries, enactments, institutions, and sacred rites was ratified for the whole world in the blood of Jesus Christ. For, while our Divine Savior was preaching in a restricted area — He was not sent but to the sheep that were lost of the house of Israel 30 -the Law and the Gospel were together inn force; 31 but on the gibbet of his death Jesus made void the Law with its decrees, 32 fastened the handwriting of the Old Testament to the Cross, 33 establishing the New Testament in His blood shed for the whole human race. 34 ‘To such an extent, then,’ says St. Leo the Great, speaking of the Cross of our Lord, ‘was there effected a transfer from the Law to the Gospel, from the Synagogue to the Church, from many sacrifices to one Victim, that, as our Lord expired, that mystical veil which shut off the innermost part of the temple and its sacred secret was rent violently from top to bottom.’ 35

30. On the Cross then the Old Law died, soon to be buried and to be a bearer of death, 36 in order to give way to the New Testament of which Christ had chosen the Apostles as qualified ministers; 37 and although He had been constituted the Head of the whole human family in the womb of the Blessed Virgin, it is by the power of the Cross that our Savior exercises fully the office itself of Head in His Church. ‘For it was through His triumph on the Cross,’ according to the teaching of the Angelic and Common Doctor, ‘that He won power and dominion over the gentiles’; 38 by that same victory He increased the immense treasure of graces, which, as He reigns in glory in heaven, He lavishes continually on His mortal members it was by His blood shed on the Cross that God’s anger was averted and that all the heavenly gifts, especially the spiritual graces of the New and Eternal Testament, could then flow from the fountains of our Savior for the salvation of men, of the faithful above all; it was on the tree of the Cross, finally, that He entered into possession of His Church, that is, of all the members of His Mystical Body; for they would not have been united to this Mystical Body through the waters of Baptism except by the salutary virtue of the Cross, by which they had been already brought under the complete sway of Christ.

31. But if our Savior, by His death, became, in the full and complete sense of the word, the Head of the Church, it was likewise through His blood that the Church was enriched with the fullest communication of the Holy Spirit, through which, from the time when the Son of man was lifted up and glorified on the Cross by His sufferings, she is divinely illumined. For then, as Augustine notes, 39 with the rending of the veil of the temple it happened that the dew of the Paraclete’s gifts, which heretofore had descended only on the fleece, that is on the people of Israel, fell copiously and abundantly (while the fleece remained dry and deserted) on the whole earth, that is on the Catholic Church, which is confined by no boundaries of race or territory. Just as at the first moment of the Incarnation the Son of the Eternal Father adorned with the fullness of the Holy Spirit the human nature which was substantially united to Him, that it might be a fitting instrument of the Divinity in the sanguinary work of the Redemption, so at the hour of His precious death He willed that His Church should be enriched with the abundant gifts of the Paraclete in order that in dispensing the divine fruits of the Redemption she migt be, for the Incarnate Word, a powerful instrument that would never fail. For both the juridical mission of the Church, and the power to teach, govern and administer the Sacraments, derive their supernatural efficacy and force of the building up of the body of Christ from the fact that Jesus Christ, hanging on the Cross, opened up to His Church the fountain of those divine gifts, which prevent her from ever teaching false doctrine and enable her to rule them for the salvation of their souls through divinely enlightened pastors and to bestow on them an abundance of heavenly graces.

32. If we consider closely all these mysteries of the Cross, those words of the Apostle are no longer obscure, in which he teaches the Ephesians that Christ by His blood made the Jews and Gentiles one ‘breaking down the middle wall of partition . . . in his flesh’ by which the two peoples were divided; and that He made the Old Law void ‘that he might make the two in himself into one new man,’ that is, the Church, and might reconcile both to God in one Body by the Cross. 40

33. The Church which He founded by His Blood, He strengthened on the day of Pentecost by a special power, given from heaven. For, having solemnly installed in his exalted office him whom He had already nominated as His Vicar, He had ascended into Heaven; and sitting now at the right hand of the Father He wished to make known and proclaim His Spouse through the visible coming of the Holy Spirit with the sound of a mighty wind and tongues of fire .41 For just as He Himself when He began to preach was made known by His Eternal Father through the Holy Spirit descending and remaining on Him in the form of a dove, 42 so likewise, as the Apostles were about to enter upon their ministry of preaching, Christ our Lord sent the Holy Spirit down from Heaven, to touch them with tongues of fire and to point out, as by the finger of God, the supernatural mission and office of the Church.
— (Pius XII. 1943. Mystici Corporis)

Due to the length of this article, part 2 will address St. Bellarmine’s teachings on The Marks of the Church. Who better to learn from than a Doctor of the Church? Learning the Faith from a Doctor of the Church is a safe, sure, and exemplary way to seek a more intimate understanding of Christ and His Church. It is for this reason that this article contains extensive quotes from St. Bellarmine. VirgoPotens.Org offers an enthusiastic thanks to Mr. Ryan Grant for his tremendous work in translating and publishing many of Saint Bellarmine’s works from the original Latin into English. May this article motivate people to buy the book from which most of the quotations in this article derive. A link to Mediatrix Press, which is the publisher for “On The Church” written by Robert Bellarmine with translation by Ryan Grant, is provided amongst the citations for this article. Purchasing books from and by Mediatrix Press will help support Mr. Grant as he continues to diligently work on the project of translating the works of St. Bellarmine.

The Authentic Traditional Catholic teachings of St. Bellarmine are of invaluable worth for souls and the Church. Clear and sound Catholic teaching is crucially important during the present age of diabolical disorientation. The best defense against the world, the flesh, and the Devil is to cultivate a knowledge of the True Faith and with the divine assistance of God’s grace, live out The True Faith. Doing so is like wearing a heavenly forged suit of armor, appropriate for soldiers of Christ.

Related articles:

Part 2 of this series on The Marks of the Church is found here:

1.) Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus Part 1

2.) Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus Part 2


1.) Bellarmine, Robert, and Ryan Grant. De Controversiis: Tomus II: On The Church. Mediatrix Press, 2017.

This book can be purchased from Mediatrix Press here:

2.) Pius XII. Papal Encyclical: Mystici Corporis, The Mystical Body of Christ, the Church. 1943.

This Papal encyclical can be read in it’s entirety here: