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Smaller Church, Bigger Faith, 2: The Impact of Grace

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Apr 15, 2014

I suggested in the previous installment that the Church’s membership ought to consist not just of anybody who happens to have acquired the name of “Catholic” but of sinners who recognize the mission of the Church and fully accept the need for that mission in their own lives. At a minimum, I proposed, this recognition ought to include assent to the Church’s definitions of faith, acceptance of her moral teachings, and an intention to adhere to the precepts required for practicing Catholics. The main question, I concluded, was not whether this vision of the Church’s membership is legitimate and desirable, but how it is to be achieved.

Manifestly, however, this is not the norm among the Church’s members today, many of whom give little or no evidence of understanding and desiring her mission, or of recognizing her authority. Instead, too many maintain a sort of vague attachment to the Church on their own spiritual, doctrinal, moral and participatory terms. So there is a gap between the ideal and the real, and while the ideal is perfectly legitimate, it does not give us a ready-made tactic for closing that gap.

Can we imagine such a tactic ourselves? Perhaps, but it will be a cautious process. As a starting point, let us imagine a cycle of formal commitments, repeated at least annually, in which the Church asks her members to affirm their Faith or, if they are unwilling, to cease to call themselves Catholics. We do some of this already in the annual renewal of our baptismal promises, but surely this lacks practical clarity. For example, it remains fairly easy to claim to reject Satan while blissfully ignoring the Church’s judgment about where Satan stands on specific moral questions.

Perhaps the Church could make a point of enumerating at least the endemic cultural practices which always and intrinsically violate her teachings and so ensnare so many. One thinks, for example, of the redefinition of marriage, sex outside of marriage, contraception, and abortion. In our culture today, the sexual issues surely underlie the practical rejection of Catholicism.

The question, then, is this: Should those Catholics who cannot affirm the Church’s moral authority be regularly encouraged to exclude themselves? This would be one way of moving toward the ideal of what Church membership ought to mean.

The Catholic Sacraments

This question is actually closely related to the sacraments. The sacraments might seem like a red herring, but in fact they shed light on this question of the constant reevaluation of one’s ecclesial status. Have you ever wondered why the Church insists that it is perfectly acceptable to baptize infants, who are by definition incapable of making the kind of commitments we are discussing here? Have you ever wondered why First Communion and Confirmation are currently delayed in the West while in the East all three sacraments are currently given to infants at the same time?

There have been running battles over the ideal schedule for sacramental application down through history. These battles revolve around two important truths which the Church has always held in tension: The first is that it is a very good thing for someone to understand each sacrament and commit himself to that sacrament’s reality and power before receiving it. The second is that, while such commitment has the excellent result of maximizing our own appropriation of the sacramental graces, it is not actually essential, because the sacraments in any case communicate grace ex opere operato (“from the work worked”). That is, they do not depend on our devotion; they effect what they signify.

With or without a desirable understanding and commitment, sacramental grace pours itself into the soul, where it can be appropriated at will. If we do not have access to this grace, we may be weakened in our ability to respond to Our Lord’s invitation. But if we possess it, we may do little but trample it underfoot, like pearls before swine. All of us, in fact, do a good deal of trampling. But for all that, the sacraments give us much to draw on whenever we seek to turn toward God. This sacramental reality colors the whole question of selecting ourselves out of the Church.

But there is also something even deeper at work here, which bears directly upon our membership in the Church. It is true that we are well-advised to refrain from receiving the Eucharist when we are aware of serious sin. But if we fall into a mental temptation or even a mental sin of rebelling against something the Church teaches, should we then renounce our Baptism? This is what we are saying if we seek to remove ourselves from membership in the Church. For it is not our adherence to the Church’s mission, teachings, morals and precepts which makes us Catholics. It is the Sacrament of Baptism.

In and Out, In and Out

It seems, then, that deeper reflection raises significant problems with the idea of self-selection in and out of the Church. I grant that our intellects and wills ought to play important roles in our Catholicity. Nonetheless, it is not ultimately our own intellects and wills which make us Catholic, but Christ Himself through the Church’s sacramental ministry. Unlike other Christian denominations which conceive of membership in a purely voluntaristic way, the Catholic Church understands that her members are changed fundamentally in the order of grace. We are changed ontologically by baptism and the other sacraments, changed through a profound incarnational participation which affects the whole person, body and soul.

So we must ask ourselves whether, on balance, the path to a more vibrant ecclesial membership runs through a pattern of institutionalized self-selection. To the sacramental difficulty we could also add an inevitable confusion. When does a weakness become a doctrinal difficulty, or a difficulty become a doubt, or a doubt become a disagreement with the Church? Do we really want people to be in the position of selecting themselves in or out of the Church based on a confused assessment of what we might call the cognitive shape of their Catholic identity? Is that what we would advise our own children to do?

I have not examined here the question of those who, in a definite rejection of some aspect of what it means to be a member of the Church, actually battle the Church from within. These would be the last to select themselves out, and this raises the question of ecclesiastical judgment as a means of determining membership. I will hold that for another day, but today we find that the reality of grace—Christ’s own mysterious action in our lives, and especially that action as mediated through His Church—ought to make us slow to uproot ourselves from the Church as if we are so many weeds among the wheat.

Perhaps, then, we should also be slow to insist that our neighbors in the Church uproot themselves and cast themselves into the fire before the appointed time. So far, in fact, it seems that this quest for a more committed membership in the Church becomes more difficult as we go forward. But a good deal still lies ahead.


Previous in series: Smaller Church, Bigger Faith? The Problem of the New Evangelization
Next: Smaller Church, Bigger Faith, 3: Ecclesiastical Discipline

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Show 5 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: dowd9585 - Apr. 16, 2014 5:23 AM ET USA

    Seems to me that since Vatican II the Church has been in a headlong rush to align itself to the culture, a long process of DE-evangelization. They have succeeded magnificently. Now we are just like everybody else and everybody is happy. Pope Francis, it appears, seems to celebrate this idea.

  • Posted by: Baseballbuddy - Apr. 15, 2014 10:11 PM ET USA

    It seems to me that evangelization cannot be "achieved". In any business model, the source of low sales is the manager. Our "managers", the bishops know full well that if they actually taught the faith, it would initially alienate most of their flock and precipitate a huge drop in donations. A bishop who teaches the true faith would be seen as a source of disunity, a disrupter of the "peace", a troublemaker. He would be ostracized by the episcopal cartel. I am not afraid of the world or the humanist-style mentality; I am more afraid of those who do not love their flock enough to teach the truth.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Apr. 15, 2014 9:08 PM ET USA

    The Church exists for the salvation of souls, and salvation necessarily involves the will. As Bishop Sheen points out: "Grace makes no assault; revelation does not compel; the rich man who departs because he has great possessions is allowed to move on; those who cannot accept His word about the Bread of Life are allowed to leave... How little do those who accuse religion of being authoritarian understand that the only authority is love. No one is compelled." It's not that complicated.

  • Posted by: loumiamo7154 - Apr. 15, 2014 6:57 PM ET USA

    "Should ecclesiastical judgment be the means of determining membership in the Church?" Are u kidding us with this question? Isn't that the purpose of the Catechism, to let the laity know what the true faith is, so we may know whether we are staying/abiding in Christ, or merely indulging our own pride? What's needed is a general smackdown of the prelature, to get them to judge and enforce canon law, especially v. offending politicians, and things will start improving from there.

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Apr. 15, 2014 6:40 PM ET USA

    "So there is a gap between the ideal and the real, and while the ideal is perfectly legitimate, it does not give us a ready-made tactic for closing that gap..." Do you think that these things are so obscure? It is called "discipline..." It is called "accountability..." But those two things CANNOT HAPPEN among a people who live "disengaged" lives, with only a kind of "ceremonial" attachment every 7 days. Behold... the rich, arrogant Church of Laodicia..."I have everything that I need...!"

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