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The Catholic and the Church: Relationship? “Rule-lationship”? Or both?

The Gospel Reading for Sunday, May 15th, the Fifth Sunday of Easter, places together two words that many people think (or assume) are in direct opposition to one another: commandment and love.

• Acts 14:21-27
• Ps 145:8-9, 10-11, 12-13
• Rev 21:1-5a
• Jn 13:31-33a, 34-35

Among the criticisms I once had, as an Evangelical, was that Catholics were too concerned with “The Church.” They were so focused on the Church, I thought, that they had little time or energy for Jesus. Besides, I knew that having a saving, personal relationship with Jesus had little to do with the Church. The love of God, I believed, would only be hampered by the sort of laws and structures found within the impressive but worldly Catholic Church. Put simply, I thought that on one side was love and relationship, and on the other was law and, well, “rule-lationship.”

I eventually changed my mind for two basic reasons: my understanding of the Catholic Church was faulty, and my interpretation of what Scripture says about these issues was equally faulty. Instead of recoiling in horror, I can now appreciate the Catechism’s statement: “The Church is the goal of all things” (CCC 760). I now see that the Church is very much about love and law, relationship and structure.

This is apparent throughout the Acts of the Apostles, including today’s reading, which describes some of the work of Paul and Barnabas in Asia Minor. Luke takes pains to point out how the early Church grew and was governed. The gospel was proclaimed, disciples were made and then exhorted to persevere. Elders were appointed and ordained in each church. And, having returned to Antioch, the base for his missionary journeys, the Apostle to the Gentiles called together the local church to tell the Christians the news about their brothers and sisters in Christ. In this way Paul carried out, in basic ways, the three-fold duty of bishops, the successors of the apostles, who are to teach, govern and sanctify.

Paul spoke of the suffering that Christians will face in entering the kingdom of God. The rule of God requires the followers of Jesus to endure the trials and difficulties, even death, just as He willingly endured shame, torture, and death on a Cross before He would be glorified by the Father. Today’s Gospel places together two words that many people think (or assume) are in direct opposition to one another: commandment and love. We live in a culture that is enamored with the notion that love is about feeling and passion—after all, you have to follow your heart!—while commandments (or laws) are considered stifling and limiting, and certainly loveless.

Jesus says otherwise: “I give you a new commandment: love one another.” This is not, of course, the type of love found in many popular songs and television programs, but a commitment to putting others first, even to the point of physical death; it is a gift from the King and it is integral for the life of the Kingdom.

Thus, the greatest commandment, Jesus said elsewhere, is to love the Lord God with our entire heart, soul, and mind, and the second commandment is to love our neighbor as ourselves (Matt 22:37-40; CCC 2054-55). This love declares, “We belong to Christ, who died for the world.” And it is this love that holds together and animates the Church, the Mystical Body of Christ, which is the household of God.

In this way we can begin to appreciate the important relationship between the Church and the Kingdom. The Church is “ultimately one, holy, catholic, and apostolic in her deepest and ultimate identity,” the Catechism teaches, “because it is in her that ‘the Kingdom of heaven,’ the ‘Reign of God,’ already exists and will be fulfilled at the end of time” (CCC 865). The Kingdom was established in the person and work of Jesus and grows throughout time.

In the end, as the Book of Revelation describes today, the Kingdom is not an earthly reign, but the final triumph of Christ over the power of sin and Satan, culminating in an eternity spent in communion with the Triune God (cf., CCC 865), free of death, sorrow, and pain. In Christ, through the Church, all things are being made new.

(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in the May 6, 2007, issue of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)

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About Carl E. Olson 1197 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.


  1. One of the best things I learned in the two-year Catechetical School offered by the Archdiocese of Denver is that God gave us the Ten Commandments to teach us how to live in a way that would make us happy. Sinful behavior doesn’t make us happy. The Second Great Commandment given by Jesus, to love one another, doesn’t involve our emotions. it is, as St. Thomas Aquinas wrote, “unselfishly willing the best for the other.” We get all mixed up in feelings, when it’s the human will guided by God that matters.

  2. When asked an evangelical, non denominational Christian why they were hesitant to consider Catholicism their response was abhorrence to institutions.
    “Rule-lationship,” as you correctly identify, reduces to those irritable “rules” that Francis, our messianic pontiff has castigated [mostly] faithful Christians since he railed at bishops at the first synod on the family. Stonethrowers who pummel poor Christians when struggling in the concrete circumstances of life. As you well give account of the great Apostle Paul forming the dynamics of Church structure. That “bishops, the successors of the apostles, who are to teach, govern and sanctify”. Called to do exactly what Christ did when instituting the Mystical Body, Jesus’ mystical presence in the community of believers bound in love for one another, as he loved us, the Love-relational Church, the outcome of the Rule-relational Church.
    Sans Jesus’ greatest commandment, the pinnacle of rules, that we love each other as he loved us [as integral and manifest to the first expression, if we truly are to Love the Father with all our heart, mind, and strength] we dissipate into opinionated visions that never satisfy the revelation of the Father’s goodness manifest in Christ. Our love for each other reduces to convenience. Yes, the Catechism does confirm that the Final victory over Satan will belong to Christ. That “the Kingdom is not an earthly reign” has wide meaning. One is that insofar as an institution is established in this world, its efficacy is guaranteed solely in its stolid relationship with Christ, that its identity is not necessarily evident in its hierarchal, representative structure, rather in the faithful who remain loyal to its revealed heavenly structure in Christ. Manifest in Benedict’s hermeneutic, here in faith practice and revelation.

  3. In John 14 and John 15 Christ links love of Him with keeping His commandments. In 1 John 2:3-5:
    3 And by this we may be sure that we know him, if we keep his commandments. 4 He who says “I know him” but disobeys his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him; 5 but whoever keeps his word, in him truly love for God is perfected. By this we may be sure that we are in him: 6 he who says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.(RSVCE)
    Most of the letters to the churches in Revelation contained rebukes.

  4. It wasn’t just evangelicals who thought that Catholics focus on the Church. After several years of solid pre-Vatican II religion classes I remember thinking “Catholics have the Church, Protestants have Jesus.” Because Protestants focus on a personal relationship with Jesus and because the Church tried to avoid anything that seemed Protestant, it was alright to have a devotion to the Sacred Heart, but not a personal relationship with Jesus.

    • How could one be a member of the Body of Christ while not having a personal relationship with Him? This idea of the Body of Christ and the Church as members of it has been part of Church teaching since St. Paul wrote his epistles and since Augustine contemplated Scripture. Pope Pius XII made the teaching more clear in his encyclical of 1958. t

      From scripture Catholics have the teaching of Christ being the vine, we his branches; his abiding in us, we in Him; and last but not least, if we eat His flesh and drink His blood, we have His eternal life within us. How are these not all examples of a personal relationship? Was there ever a Church teaching which prohibited Catholics from reading the Bible so as not to hear God’s word? When Catholics pray, who do we speak and listen to if not to Jesus? Is prayer not another example of a personal relationship? When we receive the sacraments, whose gifts of grace are given and who receives? Are those not instances of relationship?

      Where did the Church ever teach that a personal relationship with Jesus was not ‘alright’?

      • Meiron, I wondered about that at the time, but the fear of anything that seemed Protestant was very strong back in the 50s and early 60s. It was much safer to read a good commentary of the Bible than to read the Bible itself. It wasn’t a “teaching”, but the attitude make itself known.

        • The ‘Canon’ of Holy Scripture was decided at the Councils of Hippo and Carthage in the fourth century, and confirmed by Popes Innocent I in A.D. 405 and Gelasius in A.D. 494—more than A MILLENNIUM before Martin Luther happened on the scene and offered his German translation.

          My understanding is that early reading of the Bible was not always encouraged (the population was also illiterate), and was DISCOURAGED especially as flawed Protestant versions came off the printing press (e.g., the omission of seven books of the Old Testament, etc.; Luther’s message of faith without works). The Wycliff (English) version was disapproved in the 14th century in light of his 45 theological propositions which were judged to be heretical, or erroneous or seditious (etc.). This caution (and often nanny “attitude”) toward the laity reading (unapproved versions of) the Bible was clearly set aside in 1945 by Pope Pius XII in “Divino Afflante Spiritu” (One the Promotion of Bible Studies).

          Actually, VERNACULAR VERSIONS of the Bible or its parts were available long before the Lutheran German, and were accessible in monasteries (usually chained to a desk, because preserved only in laboriously hand-copied editions).The most common vernacular version was the Old Latin, or Itala. Of the complete translations, a Gothic version is dated in the 4th century still near the same time that St. Jerome in the East translated the Vulgate from Greek to Latin (for those who did not speak Greek). A sampling of either partial or complete and mostly early translations are in Gaelic, Anglo-Saxon, Italian (1500), Cyrilic (9th century and which first required Sts. Cyril and Methodius to invent a Slavic written script), German (980) Armenian (4th and 13th century), Icelandic (1297), French (807 under Charlemagne, others in the 15t and early 16th centuries), Russian (New Testament, 10th century), Flemish (1210), Polish and Bohemian (six editions beginning in 1478), Italian (1471), Spanish (1478 and 1515), and Slavonick (early 16th century). Between the invention of printing and Luther’s extolled German version (1521), early complete German editions after 1462 were numerous, with 5 editions at Mentz, 15 at Augsburg, and others at Wittenburg, Nuremburg and Strasburg.

          The vast majority of other translations or copies NO LONGER EXIST due either to religious wars, invasions and the pillaging of the Reformation, all adding to a cumulative loss of monasteries, libraries and manuscripts. Over the centuries these self-inflicted European losses are said to rank alongside the historic devastation and looting of Constantinople by the rerouted Fourth Crusade in A.D. 1204.

        • Look at how many Protestant denominations there are. How many different versions there are of a personal Jesus, some in disagreement with each other. I am a long time participant in Catholic Bible study. In the ones that I’ve gone to a well versed presenter can bring the Bible to life. The Bible can most profitably be studied when it is presented in the full cultural context in which the books were written. The presenter can show the student the connections between the Old and New Testaments. You can learn far more in one hour of competent Bible study than you can doing it on your own. Christ gave a teaching on the Scriptures on the road to Emmaus. The road to Emmaus is a rebuke of the idea of sola scriptura. The Great Commission made teaching of all that Christ commanded a central mission of the Church.
          To me the acid test of a personal Jesus is whether that Jesus has real veto power over how the person lives their lives. Christ showed us the way in the Garden of Gethsemane. The early Christians followed in Christ’s footsteps through their martyrdom. The dissident wing of the Church appears to be the polar opposite of this, burning their incense to Caesar and capitulating to the world. Another generation of lapsi Catholics. What kind of evangelism is this?

  5. Expressed explicitly in respect to the Chair of Peter, we are to remain faithful to the Chair of Peter, which is instituted by Christ. Although, not in all instances to the person who occupies the Chair, when the occupant acts and speaks as a person. That may include his ordinary Magisterium, when they’re is both ambiguity and suggestion contrary to the faith. Whatever is not definitively and formally pronounced in his Magisterial capacity. An example is a doctrine contained in Fratelli Tutti that suggests inter denominational, interfaith brotherhood in a god who is not identified similarly in the varied use of symbols.
    Cardinal Camillo Ruini, a notable theologian, recommended a text, by Ratzinger, to the cardinals preparing for the Grand Synod on Synodality that countermands the recommended reading, Fratelli Tutti. Sandro Magister reports the Declaration of then prefect CDF Ratzinger is making the rounds. Extract:
    “It is assumed that the authentic truth about God is ultimately unattainable and that at the most the ineffable can be made present only with a variety of symbols. This renunciation of truth seems realistic and useful for peace among the religions in the world. And yet it is lethal for faith. In fact, faith loses its binding character and its seriousness, if everything is reduced to basically interchangeable symbols, capable of referring only from afar to the inaccessible mystery of the divine” (Dominus Jesus Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger Prefect CDF 2000). Friendship needless to say is fine, charitable. Although Christ came to cause division, in the sense to separate us from disbelief, unchristian behavior in the revelation of his goodness. It’s this form of unpronounced doctrine that requires us to step back from the impression that all religions are equal.

    • This reader supposes that it could be possible to appeal to “fraternity” as a theme found in all religions IF, at the same time, the implication of overall equivalence of religions is avoided, and if the equivalence of religious “belief” and “faith” (in the person of Christ) is avoided.

      And, IF the Islamic fraternity avoided the implication of hostility toward the Church—as in the parsed Islamic response to Benedict XVI’s “Regensburg Lecture” (2007) where 138 imams came together in their positive “Common Word between us and you”…

      NOT NOTICED was the complete expression: “O People of the Scripture! Come to a common word as between us and you: that we worship none but God and that we shall ascribe no partner unto Him, that we erect not, from among ourselves, lords and patrons other than Allah.” (Q 3:64). “No partner,” being the Islamic dismissal of the Trinitarian Christ, and “lords and patrons” being the Apostolic Succession and the priesthood. (The correct symmetry is NOT between the two scriptures as such; under Islam the “uncreated” Qur’an replaces the “eternal” and incarnate Son.)

      We can see and support Pope Francis appealing desperately to some baseline sense of “fraternity” lodged to some degree in every religion…The misstep, then, might be less one of intended equivalence or practical indifference than it is the lack of “intellectual clarity”—which should be a vocation for everyone.

      THIS vocation of INTELLECTUAL CLARITY—even more than wrap-around “synodality” — should be uppermost in the mind as we soon celebrate the 1700th anniversary of the Council of Nicaea (325 A.D.). The first ecumenical council, where everything pivoted on the PRECISION of one letter (!) in one word (!). The difference between the Second Person as “the same” or only as “similar” to the Father (the Greek: homoousios versus homoiousios).

      Unlike the buoyant clarity of Nicaea and recent decades, at this late hour the Barque of Peter is bored (both meanings) by termites, and drifts too much in the fluidity of Pope Francis.

      • What you say is true. As a layman teaching at a Catholic Seminary located in a remote area of W Malawi Reformed Dutch, Anglicans, Seventh Day Adventists [whose baptism like Mormons we don’t accept Malawi refused their entry] supported each other when in need. Often staying at our dorm en route in that hostile environment. Each respected the other each sought to be available to the needs of the other [it was an Adventist American MD and staff at a Canadian Seventh Day field Hospital in Zambia that helped me survive malaria]. There is hope for that interreligious fraternity insofar as we retain our identity, and a faith convinced in Christ’s desire to draw those who are not of our faith, his words, I have other sheep who are not of this fold. This we effect by honest example, commitment to Christ’s truth. What Fratelli Tutti seems to lack is that acknowledgment.

  6. Excellent article, Carl. Yes, “The Church is the goal of all things.”
    At the end of his sinless life that was totally obedient to the Father’s will, Jesus, from that cross proclaimed: “It is done.”
    Adam did not live in accordance with our Father’s will, and so he and his family were doomed. Jesus, having accomplished his mission, ushered in the New Covenant which contained the promises made through Jeremiah. However, Jesus did not come to redeem himself but to redeem humanity. So. he established a family – the Church – in which the members are mystically (not genetically) in union of our Lord. And because of this unique union, we have those blessings flowing through Jesus to us. (He is the Vine, we are the branches, the Father the vinedresser.)
    So, we see that the Church is the only thing Jesus established, and it was for a very good reason. One cannot separate Jesus from his Church. Nor can one be in communion with one and not with the other. Oh, and cannot be in communion with Jesus by rejecting or ignoring his Church. – (Sadly, some people do say that they belong to Jesus and not to a Church.)

  7. Pop quiz : When Jesus says “love one another”, he is
    A. Telling everyone to love everyone.
    B. Telling Christians to love everyone.
    C. Telling Christians to love their fellow Christians.
    D. Telling everyone to love Christians.
    I have been listening to Catholics talk about this for a long time (some of them with enough theology degrees to wallpaper their offices with), and I have yet to see any of them get this right.

    • More than any of the above, instead this: “This is my commandment, That ye love one another, as I have loved you” (John 15:12). The last part (“as I have loved you”) means not only in groups or inclusiveness, but in a graced manner beyond the reach of unaided or natural human capability. Beyond even universal fraternity.

  8. A word on Olson’s essential catechize [here a question to catechize is questioning of the faith] relationship with Jesus in contrast to commitment to an institution, the Church.
    We may love both. We may love the Church for myriad reasons, architectural, aesthetic beauty, a peaceful affirming haven. On a higher level a place to develop intimacy with Christ. Two of our greatest contemplatives Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila defined themselves, spiritually, and doctrinally as ‘daughters of the Church’. Both had the most intimate relationship with Jesus Christ.
    What the Catholic Church makes available to the faithful are the sacraments, all in which Jesus is present to us as the matter conveys and the form signifies. Of all the sacraments the Holy Eucharist is the center of our faith, and the sustenance that transforms us into Jesus’ likeness. The real presence of Christ given to us, consumed, loved is the most intimate miracle of God’s love for us. We wouldn’t have the Damien de Veusters, Jean Vianney’s, Maximilian Kolbe’s without.
    Christ’s fragrant oblation to the Father [the priest offers himself in a secondary like way] of his body, blood, soul, and divinity the sacrifice, prepares the banquet in which he gives his precious body and blood to us through which is conveyed his divine nature. Aquinas’ words of awe, a miracle of love. Sacraments and doctrine instill in the heart of the faithful recipient both knowledge of what pleases God, and what inflames within a most intimate relationship of love for him that translates into heroic virtue and love of others. Love of the Church, Christ’s Mystical Body is proved in our faith in his revelation, the Apostolic and perennial doctrines, the essence of what the Church is confirmed in true fidelity of love for him.

  9. Ignatius Press, in 1993, has Ratziner’s “The Meaning of Christian Brotherhood,” a work first published in 1958. Scott Hahn writes the Foreword, disclosing that Ratzinger here delivered: “Hard-hitting words, to be sure–especially when they first fell upon my Protestant ears. But they are no less loving, if indeed they are true. After a long-fought battle, with much study and prayer, I concluded that they were.” The Foreword ends with Hahn thanking God and his “dear brother, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger” that Hahn was received “into the Eucharistic brotherhood of God’s family, the Catholic Church.”

    The basic message is that ‘fraternal charity’ is perfected through brotherhood in Christ. Ratzinger posits that Catholics and Protestants “regard each other as sisters in the Lord…and individual Christians on both sides as brothers to each other.” IOW, the degree to which one is related “In Christ” (to Christ’s Eucharistic Body) distinguishes our degree of relationship with one another.

    We naturally give more allegiance to our family by blood than to our family by virtue of our living in the same country. The same idea would seem to apply to the strength of supernatural relationships.

  10. Our Lord uses the word ‘brothers’ at Matthew 25:39-40: “When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?” And the King will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”

    The ‘brothers’ of Jesus do not include all men, according to Jesus at Matthew 12:48-50.

    • This is correct, and I would add several small points:
      !. The “brethren” of Matthew 25 are also Christ’s “least ones” from the same passage. Both terms refer to his disciples, and not to poor or marginalized people in general (as is often assumed nowadays).
      2. A better translation of verse 40 would be “one of these my brethren, the least (or little) ones”. The word least is not a qualifier of the word brethren; no such prepositional phrase exists in the Greek.
      3. The Judge is judging the nations, not the church. He is judging the nations on the basis of how they have treated the church. I have come across exactly one Catholic who understands this; it was the poor guy who wrote the footnote to this passage in the second edition of the New American Bible. I’m sure he caught all kinds of flack from other Catholics who have never given five minutes to the study of the passage.

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