Part I Our Sinful Church
One of the things that has confounded both Christians and non-Christians alike over the past 2,000 years is this. If the Church is truly the Body of Christ present in the world as she has continuously insisted, then how could that body exhibit such a shocking degree of sin and corruption within her members? Is it possible that the same Holy Spirit which first energized the Church on Pentecost and who ostensibly guides her very actions has fallen asleep at the switch? Yet continuing into the present day, a seemingly endless stream of scandal emanates from Ecclesial quarters, and I am referring to much more than sensational headlines about clerical sex abuse which may only represent that part of the iceberg floating above the water line.
Sixty years ago the Church was a (seemingly) highly disciplined organization standing in resolute opposition to the moral perils creeping into civil society. Priests, nuns, and ministers were generally above reproach and highly respected by every class of citizen from presidents to plumbers. Today, organized religion finds itself under intense scrutiny as well as being in sorry disarray. Even within the hierarchal Catholic communion various self-proclaimed Catholics openly deny key doctrines or vociferously support homosexual unions, abortion funding, etc. Protestant bodies continue to subdivide with reckless abandon. Meanwhile, at the parish level, the autocratic old-style clericalism seems to be alive and well. One may rightly ask how the Body of Christ came to be so conflicted and, at times, patently un-Christ-like.
In order to make any sense of these apparent contradictions one must first understand the essential nature of the Church, which is a divinely instituted and humanly administered body. Like Christ, her founder, the Church is the union of two distinct natures – one human and one divine. The Church is both a human institution and a divine mystical body – two independent and distinct natures which comprise a singular reality. Being made up of weak and sinful people, the institutional Church exhibits all of the good and bad traits that we all possess as humans. But, as with the Incarnation itself, if you focus too much on the individual parts you may well lose sight of the whole. During the early centuries of Christendom that is the very thing that led to the Arian and the Docetist heresies regarding the respective divinity or humanity of Christ.
Just so with the Church today. We must see the whole thing in context, not merely in its parts. It was the human, institutional side of the Church that provoked Martin Luther’s rebellion, for instance. The ensuing Protestant Reformation, whose 500th anniversary we will mark next year, was an understandable reaction against the manifest clerical abuses and general intransigence of Church authorities that had been building up for centuries. Simply stated, a significant faction of Christians became fed up with the avarice and hypocrisy of many Church leaders and responded by pulling away. But their dramatic act of protest ultimately exacerbated the initial problem by introducing further divisions into the one Body of Christ.
If the Church were ONLY a human institution, that action might have been a perfectly acceptable solution to the problem. (After all, that is essentially what our own American Revolution was about: un-redressed grievances with England.) But the Church is something more than a body politic. It is equally a mystical body which both images the Incarnation and manifests it to the world. Christ’s fully formed human nature and will is seamlessly united to his fully formed divine nature and will, and in that sense he is no ordinary man. In the same sense, his Church is no ordinary institution. It is both fully human and fully divine, not just as in a 50/50 ratio, but fully and wholly containing the nature of each.
The 16th century reformers erred in not realizing the fuller implications of this crucial mystery. The Church is simultaneously Christ’s own Mystical Body present in the world AND the political, institutional body come down to present times from the apostles, who were themselves as human as you and me. Nor were those 12 apostles bound together as a Church until after they had been infused with the Holy Spirit (which is Christ’s Spirit) at Pentecost. The Church was born of that mystical union of men and God without which no Church, but only a loose cohort of disparate individuals, would ever exist. And so, those two distinct natures, human and divine, co-exist and mingle in the Church side by side to this day.
So when the Church sins (because it is comprised of sinners) we are witnessing its human nature in action. But when the Church prays she is holy because she is infused with Christ’s own divine Spirit. How easy it is to forget this dual reality when the Church manifests her human, sinful face. At such moments it takes a tremendous faith to recognize that she is also animated by Christ, her redeemer. She may appear tattered, filthy, and bedraggled just as we do when we sin. Perhaps that is why all those reformers, joined by the skeptics of today, are so put off when they see the Church in her frail, shameful moments.
Reform is an essential and never-ending challenge that should impel the Church and all of her members to constantly strive to do better, which means to more perfectly image Christ. Reform is never “out of season” because the need is always there. But true reform does not mean the sort of division typified by the incessant splintering of the Body of Christ which has become a hallmark of Protestantism. Perhaps this phenomenon continues unabated because, in the Church’s wounded humanity, we are forced to recognize our own wounded, sinful souls and that becomes a bitter, unpleasant reflection of the self. Therefore, it may be easier to pull away from the mirror than to confront it. True reform, after all, requires a looking deeply inward, not a running away from the problem.
Part II Blessed are the Poor in Spirit
Of course, what everyone subconsciously hopes to find in the Church is perfection, but is such an expectation truly realistic? That would assume that we ourselves are perfect. The Church is made up of people like you and me so, short of perfection, a more realistic goal might be striving for a lively spirit of reform. Historically, the Protestant reformers aimed for perfection ~ and failed to achieve it, which explains why today there are literally thousands of different Protestant sects. Meanwhile, the Catholic Church belatedly heeded Luther’s cry for reform and, ever so slowly, began to turn itself around. The so-called Counter-Reformation reached its apex at the Council of Trent. But no reform movement lasts indefinitely because mutable human nature is what it is. If each new generation does not take up the work of reform then the old vices and bad habits will re-emerge, often with new names, but always bringing about the same old consequences.
Today, things are not much different. One of the areas most resistant to reform is the clerical establishment. And the one thing that has historically impeded genuine clerical regeneration more than any other is comfort: taking life easy, ennui, spiritual sloth ~ they all amount to the same thing. In fact, the modern machine culture proffers that subtle temptation to become overly comfortable even to the laity. In such an environment it becomes more essential than ever before for clerics to set an example of true poverty of spirit as did St. Francis of Assisi eight centuries ago. The last thing that today’s highly secularized culture needs to witness is a Catholic clergy living the “good life.” Yet, in this country at least, that is exactly the impression one gets. And while material comforts may not be overtly scandalous in the same sense as skimming off the collection plate, a life of comfort and ease may well become the root of other, greater evils.
What do I mean by that? Perhaps “sins of omission” might be a good place to start. Speaking the truth boldly, even when a sizeable portion of one’s congregation might resent it or even complain loudly to the bishop, requires real stamina. It’s just easier to punt on a difficult issue like contraception. Only a strong leader is willing to say things that his followers don’t especially care to hear. Yet the greatest crisis in the Church today seems to be one of failed moral leadership, exemplified by an all too common desire of pastors for popularity or the inordinate fear of criticism from secular quarters. I propose that such a mentality devolves from excessive attachments to creature comforts or even money. Many pastors today seem to be overly preoccupied with finances. “How is my homily going to affect the weekly collection?”
I would venture that the classic Franciscan spirit of poverty is now viewed with a quaint nostalgia by most of our clergy, and that number may even include many professed Franciscans. But if concern for the collection plate can even unconsciously influence the doctrinal content of one’s sermons, then the faithful are very likely not hearing what they need to hear. I personally knew one priest who was regularly and roundly criticized in my parish because he insisted on speaking about “sensitive” issues like abortion, contraception, and co-habitation in his homilies. He only lasted a few years before being removed. Neither, I am reasonably sure, will he ever have a parish of his own to administer because he is unwilling to “tailor” his comments to suit his listeners, i.e., this particular priest was costing his order money at the offertory by his frankness!
This serves as a perfect example of how clerical avarice ultimately leads to the watering down of true doctrine because of superiors who are too weak-kneed to stand behind a simple honest priest. It also illustrates how the human, institutionalized face of the Church sometimes competes against her mystical face. Interestingly enough, avarice is only one step removed from spiritual sloth in the hierarchy of capital sins, hardly a coincidence. On its other flank we find gluttony followed closely by lust. Can you see a pattern here? That is why avarice should always be regarded as a canary in the coal mine when discerning more serious problems in the clerical hierarchy. The antidote, of course, is found right in the Gospel of St. Matthew, chapter 5, verse 3. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
The Church needs reform in every age, just as we need constant reform in every phase of our personal lives. Regeneration may require different approaches in different periods, however. Today, much evidence suggests that any true poverty of spirit has taken a back seat in the Western Church. (Yet this is hardly the case in impoverished Africa, for example) Multi-million dollar endowment and capital campaigns have become all the rage in parishes and dioceses. Bishops seem more concerned about sheltering vast assets from potential liability claims even as diocesan bureaucracies continue to bloat their payrolls. Meanwhile, much of the true flock is starving to hear the truth ~ or at least see it lived out in the manner of a St. John Vianney or Mother Theresa of Calcutta.
The Church is still Christ’s Mystical Body and yet she can exhibit a shocking worldliness in another sense. We are again at a vital crossroads of reform even as the Church faces an increasingly hostile secular culture. The game-board has shifted surprisingly little from the 16th century it would seem. But embracing a Christlike spiritual poverty has always engendered spiritual growth and renewal within the Church. Now is the time to stop worrying about finances and start worrying more about souls. To paraphrase one early Christian martyr, “Prudence must direct one’s actions, otherwise even good deeds will be turned towards evil.” And while material goods are not in any way evil, per se, they must be rendered temperately and prudently; in a spirit of true detachment, lest avarice and its companion vices are allowed to sneak in the back door.
Avarice once led the Church into the snake-pit of the Reformation crisis, a disaster from which Christendom still has yet to recover. Today it once again induces many otherwise good prelates to remain strangely quiet in the face of grave moral challenges. It is not enough to simply preserve the truth, the Church is charged by her Lord with spreading it to the whole world. The Church is not a museum but the living, active Mystical Body of Christ. Even in her human sinfulness she must proclaim the living resurrected Christ to all mankind. Surely there are many who will charge her with hypocrisy and worse. Yet even if there be some ring of truth to their accusations, the Church is obliged to stumble forward because only she can give Christ to a hungering world.
Francis J. Pierson a.m.d.g.