What is the Church?

Is the Church to be understood like a great department of spiritual welfare? Is it where we go when we need the kind of nourishment that can’t be obtained elsewhere? This is now the time when we Catholics should know how to talk about Holy Mother Church when so many simply understand her as an institution and when she is so prone to being criticised.

Like government departments and the Health Service Executive, we recognise our dependence on these institutions but at the same time we are quite at liberty to say what is wrong with them and we frequently do. What then, makes the Catholic Church different?

The problem apparently lies with the word “institution.” The Church is of course an institution but if we think more about the Holy Spirit as being the animating principle, we will be less likely to think of her as just an institution. Perhaps if we lived in an entirely spiritual world we could do without institutions but because we are corporeal and we live in a world that has measurable dimensions, we do need structures and yes, institutions. Everything that is established is an institution, from the family to the local football club to yes, the Holy Roman Church.

That said, if the family and marriage were just institutions we would not get very far. There has to be an animating principle here as well; in the case of the family, that is the love and sense of responsibility that the members have for one another.

When it comes to the Church, the next problem seems to be the lack of acceptance of hierarchy. The rule of democracy is broadly understood as the equality of all people. While this might be the underlying ideology, in practice it often does not work that way. For instance, businesses that are set up for purposes of market success, are often open to various suggestions from employees as to how the organisation could benefit. It is doubtful if these kind of suggestions ever find their way to the boardroom but nevertheless, there is an effort made to show the workforce that their opinions matter, at least to some extent.

With regard to the Church, there is little understanding even among some Catholics of her being anything other than an institution. Nonetheless if we try to deal with this problem of identity, we must be careful not to try to describe the Church in secular terms as this will invariably fall far short of the mark.

It is not a secular establishment – the Church is the Bride or Christ, she is our Holy Mother and we should think of her and speak of her with the feminine pronoun. This is very confusing to those outside the fold!
Through the centuries, the Church has been described in many different ways, each of them valid, however limited in scope. One must be prepared to see the limitations of each definition and yet to give each the respect that is due. One comparison made is that the Church is like a large diamond one could walk around, observing its various facets.

While images are useful in pointing to a truth, they can only succeed if they have meaning to those they address. For instance, we have to admit that in today’s sophisticated climate, it is unlikely that many people will readily identify with images such as lambs and sheep, vines, grapes and leaven in bread.

We need at the same time to guard against the belief that there are ways of seeing the Church that change with time and that some outlive their usefulness.

Following the Second Vatican Council, the dominant model of the “Pilgrim Church” that emerged was that of the Church as the People of God and the Sacrament of Christ with the former being the most widely accepted. The document Lumen Gentium sought to open the Council with an exploration of the nature of the Church. This was vital, as her nature and mission is of such immense significance. She is entrusted with the sacred duty of uniting the whole of humanity in love and understanding. The original title “The Church Militant” was soon discarded leading to the adoption of a new tone for the whole ecclesiology of the Second Vatican Council. The title of the Council’s first document then became “The Mystery of the Church.”

In the years leading up to the First World War, the Church had been regarded in the main as an institution, rather like a extensive and cumbersome machine that directed it members in a hierarchical fashion. The doctrine of papal infallibility was supreme and this dominated all through the layers of the Church. The institution was understood almost like an army that operated with determination, marching towards it salvation. The faithful on earth were part of the Communion of Saints in union with the Blessed in heaven and the Holy Souls in Purgatory. At that time members of the Catholic Church thought of themselves as the “Church Militant,” struggling against the world, the flesh and the devil and living in the hope of gaining the kingdom of heaven.

Writing as Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Emeritus Benedict tells how this began to change in the inter-war period, approximately 1920-1940. The Church began to be described in terms of Christology with the official teaching of “The Mystical Body of Christ.” This doctrine is rooted in scripture and was the model best articulated by St. Paul in his First Letter to the Corinthians where he described the purposes of parts of the human body and the necessity for all of them.

It was at this point that Ratzinger explains that the Church began to be seen as much more than an institution.

It had become clear that it is an organic growth that has developed through the centuries and that continues today. It had become clear that through it, the mystery of the Incarnation remains present and contemporary. Christ marches on through the ages.

Other institutions do not have “organic growth.” They do not possess the animating principle that can bring about growth by their own nature, just as a seed grows into a flower and an infant grows into a man. In the Church, this principle is of course the presence of the Holy Spirit who is never absent and who fills the entire organism with his gifts.

It is doubtful that many Catholics apprehend the Church in terms such as those just described and it is debatable if the model of the “People of God” has served us well. While not exactly wrong in itself, it has led to some misunderstandings and misinterpretations, much of these apparent in the practice of the sacred liturgy.

What we need to recover is a more supernatural way of talking about the Church. Possibly as everyone understands how the human body is made up of parts, the understanding of the Holy Church as being the Mystical Body of Christ is the most illuminating. A body has to be hierarchical. Each part has its function but the parts are not of equal importance.

In 1943 Pope Pius XII wrote:

“If we would define and describe this true Church of Jesus Christ which is the One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic Roman Church – we shall find no expression more noble, more sublime, or more divine than the phrase which calls it “The Mystical Body of Jesus Christ.”

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