Friday, January 8, 2010

So, You Want to Criticize the Catholic Church?

Excerpt from The Church Perfect by Dr. Jeff Mirus, January 8, 2010

The Bride and Body of Christ

There are several keys to understanding this essential identity which the Church possesses as a perfect society despite the sins of her members. These keys originated in the teachings of Christ; they were carried on by Tradition and outlined in the New Testament; they were developed by the Fathers and have been further articulated by the Magisterium. The two most powerful keys to this proper understanding were conveniently provided by St. Paul in a particularly blessed passage in his letter to the Ephesians:

Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. Even so husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. "For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh." This mystery is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. (5:15-32)

Let anyone who understands something about Christian marriage tremble at the unfathomable intimacy of this passage. Here St. Paul not only introduces marriage in the context of Christ’s love for the Church, but the Church in the context of marriage and Christ’s love for His own body. And here are our two keys to grasping the Church’s perfect identity, the Church as the bride of Christ and the Church as the body of Christ. In both senses, the Church is so fully and deeply joined to her Lord as husband and head that she is made supremely holy through her union with Him.

It has often been remarked, and not without wisdom, that the Church is a hospital for sinners. But here we see, at one and the same time, that she is the bride “without spot or wrinkle or any such thing” and she is even the very body of Christ. As bride she is enraptured for holiness by Christ’s sacrifice; as body she is created and extended through Christ’s own body and blood. Nor is this bridal and bodily identity just an identity of ideas. No, the flawless bride and the holy body of Christ is a real, objective, discernible organization, composed of institutional bone and muscle. The bone is her hierarchy, led infallibly (for all its human flaws) by the successor of Peter, who serves as Christ’s vicar until He comes again. The muscle is her membership, activities and works which—again, despite all the many sins, failures and miscues—imprint the image of Christ on a fallen world.

This bride, this body, is infused with the very life of God, coursing in her veins through her participation in the high priesthood of Jesus Christ, embodied in action by the sacraments, through which grace flows into the world. In fact, grace flows here so perfectly and completely that all attachment to Christ depends ultimately on the existence and mission of His Church. This is why a positive response to grace by any person under any circumstance tends toward unity with the Church; it also explains how connections with Christ’s body may be formed by men of good will everywhere, often beneath the level of juridical membership, but always in direct consequence of Christ’s mysterious action through His Church. Thus is every grace and good intimately dependent upon the Church, which by virtue of her supreme holiness has become the universal sacrament of salvation extended through time.

The Mind of the Church

The Church is also the repository of Revelation, of all that we know about God, about His ways with men, about His salvific plan, about what it means to conform ourselves spiritually and morally to Him. Moreover, as recorded in the deposit of Faith in both Scripture and Tradition, Christ imbued the Church with the Petrine power so that the brethren might be confirmed in faith and strengthened (Lk 22:32), and this power has been exercised now by the Church’s Magisterium for nearly two millennia. The result is a wealth of clear and specific teaching about reality, life and love which serves to express quite fully both what the Church is and what we must do—and must even become—to be worthy of her. This teaching, so fruitful in producing holiness, has indeed enabled many to become worthy of what the Church is. Those who become so are called saints.

But most of us are not worthy of the Church. It is this pervasive unworthiness that creates the Church’s human flaws. In the final analysis, it is we ourselves who open the Church to criticism. Recognizing this, we have a strong obligation to root all criticism in what is, in spite of ourselves, the Church’s own perfection. That perfection is expressed in what I earlier referred to as the Church’s internal account of herself, which is commonly called the “mind” of the Church. When we combine the Church’s doctrines with the witness of her Fathers, doctors and saints, who have given individual expression to her perfect fruitfulness in every time and place, we come into possession of this “mind”. It is formed by Scripture and Tradition, and all that the Church has officially taught, as this has been consistently extended and interpreted by those who, across the generations, have been most formed by her holiness. This mind of the Church is the complete standard for our own spiritual growth, and it is the sole criterion by which we may presume to judge what is or is not wrong with ourselves, as well as what is or is not “wrong with the Church”.

The Church is, or ought to be, everything to each of us: our consistent encounter with Christ, the source of our salvation, the font of grace, the theory and practice of holiness, a haven for all the living, and the rule for the ultimate judgment of all things. It is only by putting on the mind of the Church that we put on the mind of Christ. It is only by holding ourselves to the Church’s measure that we can tell where anyone, including anyone who exercises leadership in the Church, has fallen short. Indeed, it is against the Church’s perfection that her very imperfections must be measured and corrected. The bride-body of Christ must be our one standard, just as it is, in the end, our only hope.

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