In his encyclical Immortale Dei, Pope Leo XIII echoed longstanding magisterial teaching when he described the Church as a perfect society (“societas perfecta”). That expression easily falls on deaf ears today. No one believes anyone in the Church is perfect. For as many saints, there are countless more sinners. But the English rendition of the Latin adjective “perfectus” leaves us with an etymological problem. A more fitting translation might read “complete” or “whole.” The Church is not perfect because her members are without sin. She is “perfect” because she is “a society chartered as of divine right, complete in nature and in title, to possess in itself and by itself, through the will of her Founder, all needful provision for its maintenance and action,” (Immortale Dei §10). Indeed, the Church has everything she needs to lead her faithful to salvation. This not only includes the sacramental life, but juridical structures as well, such as ecclesiastical tribunals to safeguard justice. Lacking such instruments, she would no longer be complete.
The volatile political environment in which Leo reigned urged him to defend the rights of the Church—both spiritual and temporal. Shortly after the loss of the Papal States in 1870, secular powers besieged the Church’s very foundation, fomenting distrust over her place in the world. Understandably, today’s ecclesial situation is markedly different than Leo’s. But the Church still withstands the assault of those who mock her institutions and her voice. Certainly, she is not full of perfect people (save Christ and the Virgin Mother of God). But she is complete.