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The Church Perfect

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jan 08, 2010

Considering the frequent criticism of ecclesiastical persons on this web site, I think it essential to consider why the Church remains so important, so special and so beautiful despite the sins of her members. This need may be greater for some readers than for others; some of our correspondents have betrayed a deeper disaffection with Church leadership than has ever expressed. But all Catholics, at least, ought to recall that the only legitimate reason for criticizing contemporary bishops, priests, religious communities, Catholic agencies, politicians and theologians is that they fail to uphold the standards of the Church herself.

Please pay close attention to what I’m saying here: Considered in her members, their organizations and their activities, the Church is legitimately subject to criticism only when she differs from what she actually is, considered in her essence. This fundamental fact of Catholic life is unlike any other fact concerning any other organization in history, and it is extraordinarily instructive. It not only indicates the sole legitimate criterion for criticism of ecclesiastical persons and organizations; it also expresses the reality that the Church possesses a perfect identity, an identity which transcends the individual actions and even the general associational impact of her members.

Getting it Wrong

Despite (or often because of) the consistent effort of our writers to operate within this layered understanding of the Church, we not infrequently attract correspondents who rail against the Church for all the wrong reasons. The secular or liberal or modernist critique, for example, does not base itself on a standard of judgment drawn from the Church’s own perfection; rather it derives its standard from outside the Church, invariably from the dominant (and ever shifting) attitudes of the larger contemporary culture. On this reading, the Church is deeply flawed because she is not a democracy, or because she won’t accept moral conclusions reached by people struggling in the real world, or because she ignores contemporary ideas about human nature and human satisfaction, or because she passes judgment on contemporary trends and describes contemporary “virtues” as sins.

Similarly, a more individualistic or Protestant or even pentecostal critique draws its criteria from personal religious experience. Here the Church is charged with being hopelessly encrusted in the trappings of human power. She is insufficiently open to the Holy Spirit. She unjustly refuses to accept the wisdom of private religious experience and interpretation, and she self-servingly distrusts prophets and visionaries, including those who claim preternatural locutions and apparitions. Finally, even some common historical or traditional critiques are ultimately based on criteria extraneous to the Church herself, chiefly stemming from emotional, psychological or aesthetic attachments to the human arrangements of previous periods. By these lights, the Church is much too open to social, political and liturgical changes, which have caused her to distort her own doctrines; her modern style—that is, her praise of human goods and her reluctance to condemn human frailty—are necessarily evidence of a fundamental abandonment of her Lord.

This is not to say that an insight from contemporary thought, personal experience or human tradition cannot enable us to focus more easily on some aspect of the Church’s inner life that is being neglected. Indeed, as soon as some feature of the Church’s true inner life is properly identified and contrasted with a present behavior, the resulting criticism is as inevitable as it is just. But divorced from the Church’s own interior account of herself, all of these critiques—and many others like them, such as those stemming from ideology—are fundamentally wrong-headed. And why? Because none of them measure the performance of the Church in her members against the perfection of the Church in her essence.

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.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: koinonia - Jan. 16, 2010 11:12 AM ET USA

    While sentimental attachments to Tradition etc. among Catholics is understandable, the primary impetus is adherence to the eternal truths of the Church. If local liturgies do not offer to God His due worship, if heresies are being promulgated from the pulpit and souls are deprived of sanctifying grace by invalid, sacrilegious sacraments, there is no duty to participate. "I choose not to participate in the recession" is often heard today; the same can be said about modernist strongholds.

  • Posted by: unum - Jan. 11, 2010 10:29 AM ET USA

    I agree that the only legitimate reason for criticizing the contemporary clergy and staff of the Church is that they fail to uphold the standards of the Church herself. That said, when they fail to "teach as Jesus did", mixing political messages with moral messages based on Scripture and theology, they are not upholding the standards of the Church. Rather, they themselves are introducing standards that have nothing to do with the Church. Our political USCCB is a good example of this failure.

  • Posted by: Solzy2004 - Jan. 08, 2010 9:09 PM ET USA

    This entire article is so well-written I sent it to all my email groups. Great phrases throughout. "...the Church is legitimately subject to criticism only when she differs from what she actually is, considered in her essence." "...what we must do—and must even become—to be worthy of her..." "...a haven for all the living" and much more. Dr. Mirus, you will be as widely read as you deserve to be if you write shorter columns - I normally bypass you entirely 'cause of that but this was a revelation.

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Jan. 08, 2010 7:58 PM ET USA

    "The bride-body of Christ must be our one standard, just as it is, in the end, our only hope." I follow Jesus..., and to the extent that this Bride-body of Christ leads me there I follow... The "teachings" are not (and never were) an issue... It is the dysfunctional behaviors of this "bride-body" Gomer that upset me and confuse others... The intellectuals of the Church who "know better" need to stop hiding behind excessive verbage and speculation and get into the battle.

  • Posted by: - Jan. 08, 2010 7:26 PM ET USA

    Excellent article. So many Catholics think of their church as a democracy. How wrong they are. The errors being committed by Cardinals, Bishops and priests today cry out for correction, but alas, no corrections are forthcoming. However, their sins have no effect on the rest of us as long as we do not presume to judge them. Judgement will come, but not from us.A few years back I wouldn't have said this, but during my nightly rosary, I will pray for their repentance. They will need it.

  • Posted by: howland5905 - Jan. 08, 2010 7:06 PM ET USA

    Beautiful words that ring so true! Thank you for this. It is your devotion to the Church that attracted me to Catholic Culture some time ago. Yes, you shine a bright light on Her human imperfections, but you never seem to forget that She is still the Bride of Christ.