Accepting the Sinfulness of the Church
The Church is the flawless bride of Christ. He gave Himself up for her so 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” (Eph 5:25-27). But it is also true that the Church's sacred identity far exceeds the sum of the identities of her members. In fact, with the exception of Mary, the Church’s members are all sinners. In this sense, then, the Church is sinful.
In her members, the Church is not only sinful but disorganized, confused, weak, messy, and very frequently annoying. She is the home of those who possess a fallen and often highly disagreeable nature. This fact affects everything she does: her sacramental ministry, her liturgy, her teaching, her pastoral care. It goes without saying that it does not make much sense to be a Catholic without recognizing and accepting the Church’s perfection as the Bride of the Lamb. But it is also true that it is impossible to be a good Catholic without recognizing and accepting the myriad imperfections which necessarily impede her Divine work.
Ordinarily, as we undertake the spiritual life, God provides certain interior consolations to encourage us. Thus we may feel a sense of peace, light, joy, comfort, love or general spiritual well-being when we are at prayer. As we progress, these consolations are very frequently removed, lest we desire the consolations rather than the God who gives them. In a similar way, the Church (with varying degrees of success) tries to invest all of her pastoral work, and especially her sacramental ministry, with forms and methods that bring a certain satisfaction to both our minds and our senses, in the hope of stimulating greater interior union with God, whose saving work is represented by these forms and methods. This is particularly true of the liturgy, through which many of the Church’s members find delight in particular kinds of music, decorations, vestments, and ceremonies; particular architectural settings; or even particular habits of solemnity or relaxation on the part of different priests and congregations.
Ideally, when we experience this delight, it is a form of spiritual delectation—that is, the seemingly effortless and spontaneous enjoyment of spiritual things. Certainly the Church hopes that all of her activities will engender this spiritual delectation, though this is unlikely if only because of the wide variety of human tastes. But the point I wish to emphasize here is not the difficulty of providing spiritual delectation but the fact that, even when spiritual delectation is present, it has a very dangerous side. Perhaps a simple example will help to illustrate this danger. Just as we may be attracted to personal prayer because of the consolations it brings rather than because of the God who listens, so too we may take delight in a particular form of liturgy for primarily natural reasons, and this natural attraction may actually impede our penetration of the sacred mysteries and interfere with the true spiritual delight we ought to take in God Himself.
The Hurley Burley of Catholic Life
This can be true not only of something as obvious and specific as the liturgy, but of something as broad and varied as the whole of Catholic life. For example, a relaxed personality who naturally enjoys variety and surprise may find the crush of different kinds of souls behaving in different ways at Mass personally attractive, evocative of the Church’s universality. In the same way, he may find the many kinds of confusion he encounters among his fellow Catholics to be a sort of entertaining challenge, with each soul’s particular need providing a new opportunity. In other words, he will enjoy this sort of Catholic life, which neither disturbs his peace nor discomfits him in any way. While it is possible that such a person enjoys all this because he himself is not only relaxed but in fact lax (which he may or may not recognize), it is also possible that he enjoys it not because he doesn’t care for truth or worship, but because he finds the astonishing variety of human life both fascinating and a great chance for spiritual growth on all sides. If he thus rises to true spiritual delectation, it will lead him closer to God.
On the other hand, a more formal personality who loves organization, discipline and tradition, may much prefer a carefully-ordered liturgy and may take genuine delight in groups that possess remarkable unity of mind. It may certainly be the case that he delights in these things because he senses they represent a spiritual ideal, and so expects them to be most conducive to spiritual growth. If he thus rises to true spiritual delectation, it will bring him closer to God. But it is also possible that he likes these things largely because he finds them naturally pleasing. In fact, he may find the messiness of human variety somewhat annoying, and he may actively dislike dealing with any preferences or inadequacies different from his own (assuming he recognizes his own).
It is an axiom of spiritual growth that we must learn to know ourselves, and especially to know when we are really seeking ourselves instead of God. As expressed by the famous 16th century Benedictine spiritual writer Blosius (Louis of Blois), here is an applicable corollary: “For if by spiritual delectation you do principally seek yourself in these, your soul is not the chaste spouse of Christ, but the most base servant of sin” (A Mirror for Monks). In other words, insofar as what really draws us is our own natural delight in this or that aspect of Divine service, this or that aspect of the Catholic community, this or that means of human expression, or this or that use of our time, then our insistence upon having things ordered in the way we prefer is simply so much self-pampering, directed toward our own comfort and enjoyment.
One sign that this is the case is a prickly spirit. When we are easily upset if things are not the way we think they should be, or quickly annoyed by having to “put up” with what other people would like to do; when we cannot emotionally tolerate deviations from our vision of perfection, or we find ourselves being rude and dismissive to people who strike us as badly formed; when we grow frustrated with the least deviation from rules and rubrics, or find our spiritual peace and recollection evaporating as soon as our preferred atmosphere is disrupted: These are the symptoms of one who has corrupted spiritual delectation into self-love. We must also learn to catch ourselves when we find ourselves ignoring the substance of things to pontificate about the form, or elevating our own tastes into standards of judgement over others, or—in general—dousing the smoldering wick and crushing the bruised reed.
Here Comes Everybody
How did I transition from the sinfulness of the Church to spiritual delectation and its corruption by self-love? Easily. The Catholic Church is universal. It embraces every people and place, every age and culture. It welcomes the rich and the poor, the weak and the strong, and persons at every possible stage of spiritual growth. It is not a self-limiting club for those with a special background or a certain level of knowledge, nor is it a safe haven for those of the same culture or the same tastes. The Catholic Church is, in one famous phrase, the Church of “here comes everybody.” For this reason, in every different culture, period and place it will always reflect the problems, deficiencies, blindnesses and even sins that are most characteristic of that culture, that period and that place.
This means that those who share the predominant faults of their culture will always be a little too comfortable in the Church, while counter-cultural people—who for whatever reason resist the particular faults common to their culture—will find themselves always a little too uncomfortable. The danger the former group faces is that they will experience and respond to the call to growth and conversion only in very muted and accommodating ways. The danger of the latter group is that they will assume their own faults are insignificant and that if the Church would only emphasize their own particular spiritual preferences and virtues, she would thereby free herself from every deadly vice. Too often this counter-cultural group, which is always by definition a smaller group, will cast itself in the heroic role of keeper of the flame, disdaining the inferiority of everyone else, failing to realize that their own distaste for God’s other children is simply a symptom of another kind of sin.
None of this means that we should not spend time thinking about what is wrong in the Church or working hard to strengthen her against both the particular sins of her members and the general sins of the culture from which she draws them. But it does mean that we need to accept not only the spotlessness of the Church but also her perennial disorder, confusion, messiness and sin. We are not to look back to some golden age, nor forward to anything but the final coming of the Kingdom of God. Nor are we to countenance for even a single moment any plan of separation and exclusion. Instead, we are to recognize that we too are disordered, confused, messy and sinful, and so we must work for the Church’s good in solidarity with all of her other members.
Our sinful Church is imperfect and stupid and frustrating precisely because she is the locus of universal salvation for sinners. And she is the universal locus of salvation precisely because she is without spot or wrinkle or any such thing. She is at once sinful and holy, disfigured and without blemish. She is redeemed yet always suffering in anxious longing for her wedding feast. She is God’s chosen one and our own mother, the living and infintely lovely spouse of Jesus Christ.
An appeal from our founder, Dr. Jeffrey Mirus:
Dear reader: If you found the information on this page helpful in your pursuit of a better Catholic life, please support our work with a donation. Your donation will help us reach seven million Truth-seeking readers worldwide this year. Thank you!
Progress toward our January expenses ($19,744 to go):
All comments are moderated. To lighten our editing burden, only current donors are allowed to Sound Off. If you are a donor, log in to see the comment form; otherwise please support our work, and Sound Off!