In my 32 years of life, most of the serious doubts about my faith have arisen primarily from confusion about the Church’s teachings and from a immaturity regarding spiritual matters. The present crisis affecting the Church is something different. I have true hope in salvation, and I feel the grace of God working in my life attracting me to greater holiness. Even still, recent developments–the abuses and pervasive coverup program recently unveiled to the public, the obscene politicking including the calls from clergy for the Pope to resign, and the rank partisanship–have assaulted my spirit with their dissonance with what I believe the Catholic faith to be about.
There’s no way to escape it. One cannot merely put one’s head in the sand. The potential fallout almost certainly includes a restructuring of the current hierarchical structure of the Church, which has the appearance of being both central to its identity and contrary to its mission of evangelization. If one’s faith is dependent upon mere accoutrements to the Church of Christ, which subsists in the Catholic Church, then one may find oneself in deep despair as these changes rock the Church from the inside-out.
In order to avoid despair, I am continuing to discern between those aspects of my faith that are essential, those that are accidental, and those that run counter to Truth and Love. It’s an ongoing process that at times is too difficult for me to bear and has been the reason for one or two social media sabbaticals during the past year. It’s also revealed why I have such trouble empathizing with the experiences of some converts: one of the foundations of my faith, trust in my Church, is utterly sacrosanct. I confirm this trust every time I pray the Creed, but this trust is the very thing which these developments have called into question. I believe in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, but what does this mean?
In my discernment, I have learned to reject any attitude or belief which leads me to doubt the mystical reality of the Church today. First, we know from Scripture that Jesus himself has promised the Holy Spirit to guide us and to remind us of his teachings. Through Tradition, we come to believe in what was handed in full to the apostles. I dare not tempt the Spirit or Christ himself by suggesting that there is no institution existing today which is the true Church established by Christ.
This institutional Church is the means for our salvation, whose mission it is to convey the Sacraments of life-giving Baptism and Eucharist and to proclaim the Word of Christ. There is no salvation outside the Church because it is through the Church that we “hear” and have faith. (Romans 10:17) This is no mere metaphor.
One of the most foundational statements made by Vatican II can be found in Lumen Gentium. In that document, the Church confirms this “complex reality” of our institutional Church, which is at the same time body and spirit, human and divine.
Christ, the one Mediator, established and continually sustains here on earth His holy Church, the community of faith, hope and charity, as an entity with visible delineation through which He communicated truth and grace to all. But, the society structured with hierarchical organs and the Mystical Body of Christ, are not to be considered as two realities, nor are the visible assembly and the spiritual community, nor the earthly Church and the Church enriched with heavenly things; rather they form one complex reality which coalesces from a divine and a human element. For this reason, by no weak analogy, it is compared to the mystery of the incarnate Word. As the assumed nature inseparably united to Him, serves the divine Word as a living organ of salvation, so, in a similar way, does the visible social structure of the Church serve the Spirit of Christ, who vivifies it, in the building up of the body.
I had these thoughts in my mind as I went to Mass this past Sunday, August 26th. Ephesians 5 was the second reading and I was particularly drawn to this verse: “For no one hates his own flesh but rather nourishes and cherishes it, even as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body.” Often Ephesians 5 can induce anxieties about a falsely entitled patriarchy, but this time, by the grace of God, I saw the Scripture in a different light. This “incarnational Church,” by which we are to understand the people that make up the Church, is actively nourished via those same members, lay and clergy alike, in the Sacraments and in their ministries.
In my mind, there was no clearer argument against the temptation to quit the Church or stop going to Mass. Despite our sins and our failings, God does not hate the Church but continues to love it and nourish it, particularly in the Eucharist. The Church’s sins, no matter how great, will not prevent Jesus from continuing his work to unite all people to himself in love and truth. Therefore, we must continue to cling to Christ in the Church, corrupt clergy and all, if we want to work for the purification of the Church.
Also in my discernment, I have learned to reject any attitude or belief which leads me to distrust our bishops and the Pope when they speak authoritatively on matters of faith and morals. This is perhaps a harder teaching to accept. When I listen to my bishops and the Pope and assent to their teachings, it is on the basis of a certain trust. But how can I trust a bishop or a Pope that has proven himself to be of personally poor character and has made grave mistakes in his ministry?
First of all, it must be noted, that our Scriptures were written by sinful men, canonized by sinful men, and preached by sinful men and women. Our apostolic succession, the basis of Tradition and the Magisterium, is instantiated anew in generation after generation of sinful men. In fact, in one sense, my entire faith can be owed to the actions of other sinful men and women. Not to discourage anyone, but if our faith depended upon only the work of other sinful men and women, we would be lost. If that were the case, no teaching, no word, no action, could be deemed truly redemptive, the blind leading the blind.
To me, it is more encouraging to know that our God is a loving God, who has not abandoned us to sin but in fact sent his only Son to die for us. As a Catholic, I would find it horribly incongruent with this same God to simply let us figure it out for ourselves after his ascension. In some way, we must believe that God is working in the Church, and he does so precisely by his Spirit through the work of sinful men and women. He does so in the preachings of his bishops, who receive from their predecessors the fullness of Christ’s teaching.
The point is stronger when said in the negative: God will not allow the Church to be misled away from the truth of the faith by those who represent him. In 1 Corinthians 3, Paul points to this dynamic. Paul warns us that we must avoid the partisanship that can tear the Church apart but also honor the contributions, however small or great, of respective members of the Church as they build on the foundation laid by Christ. “Let no one boast in men,” Paul says. And perhaps no better words have been spoken on this current crisis. (But I’ll say a few more, anyway.)
I believe that the bishops and the Pope, however personally sinful, receive true help through the Spirit to speak authoritatively on faith and morals. At the same time, the Church also teaches that, through Baptism and Confirmation, the faithful receive the gifts of wisdom and understanding (among other gifts), which empower them to discern the truth themselves and cling to it. As Francis himself says, the Church ought to form consciences and not “replace them.”
The dynamic between clergy and laypeople has perhaps been understated in years past, but the present crisis, I believe, is opening up a new awareness, in harmony with the Church’s teachings, of how much laypeople can contribute to the Church’s work. In humility, we must accept that the truth of the maxim that “God will not allow his Church to be led into error” is often predicated on the contributions of lay faithful. While the bishops in synod will always have the final task of determining what is true and what is not, the Church does not limit discernment of truth to bishops.
Furthermore, Francis has indicated recently to the extent to which laypeople should have an increasing role in the management of the Church, even in the Vatican. Today, this takes on the character of an urgent call. The temptation to clericalism has a clear connection to the present abuses, which the greater involvement of lay faithful can most directly mitigate against. As any and all corrupt structures are revealed and uprooted in the Church, any proposed solution or replacement must not include merely more of the same clericalist dynamics.
When all is revealed in the very near future, as is my hope, be it through intense journalistic inquiry or personal revelation, we may find that our beloved bishops and perhaps even the Pope have been guilty of various sins, including those relating to sexual abuse and the abuse of power. What I hope I have provided here is some encouragement that, even when the Church is in chaos and at least some of its leaders are shown to be paragons of sinfulness, the Spirit is still working towards unity, preserving it always in love and truth.
This is not an easy teaching, but in the end our belief in “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church” has little to do with the work of men and women who have divided the Church, sinned gravely against the Church, excluded and discriminated against members of the Church, and denied the teachings of the Church. Our confession is based rather, instead, upon the work of God. We confess that the Church of Christ we are a part of, subsisting in the institutional Catholic Church, can be made more holy only by the increasing cooperation of lay and clergy with the God’s grace, and that it will be made perfect at the end of time.