Catholic Culture News
Catholic Culture News

Death by Association: The Church Transcends Your Own Identity

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jan 14, 2014

One of the most significant perils within modern Catholicism is the tendency to regard the Church in an intensely individualistic way. In a rising crescendo over the past hundred years, we have seen one Catholic constituency after another subject the Church, her faith and her mission to personal and individual judgments. Modernist academics set the pattern, followed by those they trained in many religious communities and seminaries, followed ultimately by lay people, who were often encouraged to make such judgments by both the example and the counsel of their priests.

Moreover, we have seen this pattern from every ideological perspective, both on the left and the right, explained variously as the superior perception of modern culture, the illumination of reason by study, the personal inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and the proper appropriation of Tradition. It seems clear that all of these excuses simply mask the cultural trend of the past century, in which the last vestiges of respect for traditional authorities were swept away in favor of what can be described favorably as the emancipation of the individual or unfavorably as the triumph of fashion over stability.

This shift interests me because it all but eliminates the Church’s witness to any reality beyond ourselves. If we understand the Church as a mere association of believers, each of whom is ultimately responsible for his or her own faith and values, then meaning would seem to come only from the believers. While the need for some sort of government in the Church is generally recognized, this recognition is very often democratically pragmatic. Thus many think themselves no less Catholic when they ignore the Church’s government, because they regard faith as an individual set of quite independent beliefs. In practice at least, they hold that their own decision to associate with the Church constitutes their Catholicity. The sum total of Catholicism is whatever satisfaction they receive from their choice to associate with the Church.

Natural Associations

This attitude, which may affect all of us to some degree, is actually quite odd in that even purely natural associations have identities which transcend those of their individual members. Even people who see all authority as deriving from the individual recognize that organized entities have operations all their own. Let us consider some examples: Thus the State has a fuller set of claims and jurisdictions than any of the individuals who make it up, even taken collectively. The modern corporation is not confused with a collection of individuals, which is why it is considered a “legal person”. Even a mere club transcends its individual members, and can continue pursuing its purposes despite constant changes in membership.

All of these associations transcend the individuals who make them up. When we think carefully about them, we realize that they somehow possess natural corporate identities. They exist to pursue corporate purposes which go beyond the capabilities of the individual and which by their own nature establish a number of necessary preconditions for membership.

If we acknowledge the corporate identity of a State (even though its formation and recognition are little more than a matter of historical happenstance), or of a business (which commercial societies have no trouble distinguishing from the persons who work for it), or even of a club (which ceases to be itself only when its purposes change), then we must beware of mentally reducing the Church to the mere collectivity of her members, or even to a mere collectivity of her parishes and dioceses. The unique identity of the Church is certainly marked by at least the same higher-order character possessed by states and businesses and clubs. At a bare minimum, the Church is representative of something which transcends the specific individuals and even the specific local “assemblies” which give the Church her material presence in each locality.

The Associational Myth vs. Ancient Israel

Theologically, the modern preoccupation with associationalism began with Protestantism. Unfortunately, the Protestant principle that each person is called to discern God’s plan as plainly revealed in Scripture is based on an enormous myth. If you read the New Testament with any sort of awareness you will perceive immediately that it always presupposes a more complete tradition carried on in the community under the authority of apostles and bishops. Most of the books are actually letters to Christian communities which had already been established and catechized. The Gospels themselves state that they do not contain everything that Our Lord taught (e.g., Jn 21:25) and the letters repeatedly make reference to what has already been handed on to the communities in question (e.g., 1 Cor 15:1-3; 2 Cor 11:4; Gal 1:9). Nowhere in the New Testament do we detect any effort to write a comprehensive account of Christianity, either in its beliefs or its internal structures. These writings are almost exclusively anecdotal or ad hoc, addressed to particular questions and problems. Once again, everywhere in the NT text an existing Catholic community, already rooted in the living apostolic Tradition, is presupposed.

We are not, of course, dealing only with a Protestant myth, though that myth has had a powerful influence on our more secular contemporary mythology as well. For what we might call our modern democratic associational reductionism similarly fails to recognize the substantial reality of the Church in and of itself. Only the modern State, which tends to fill all vacuums, seems to escape the wholesale reduction of higher order entities to mere collections, and yet all modern states continuously masquerade as free associations, in which the voice of the people is the voice of God. In contrast to many presuppositions, however, the image we ought to have of the New Testament Church is not one assembled out of Christians who happen to come to the same conclusions about Scripture. Still less is the Christian Faith made up out of whole cloth by various groups which then combine to make a church as changeable as the winds of fashion.

To the contrary, the Church is always an institutional presence with a life of her own. She is in fact the very mediator of our faith. Her ministry is the sine qua non for possessing Faith in the first place, just as her presence in history is the sine qua non for being restored to God the Father through Jesus Christ. Before she can even begin to become a mere collection of individuals, the Church is already a Divinely-constituted body in Christ, a source of grace, the locus of salvation.

We get a foretaste of this corporate character in ancient Israel, which had a vibrant faith and trust in God precisely as a people—long before the immortality of the individual soul was even known. For the ancient Jews, it was the people as a whole that was blessed with the special protection of the true God; the people that received the law, the covenant, the promises; the people that would prosper through fidelity; the people that would endure against all odds and enjoy triumph with God in the end. Thus for the Jews under the Old Covenant, what was paramount was their membership in the chosen people. And the Catholic Church is a continuation of what God began under the Old Law. She has this same character, this same greatness compared with the individual believer, this same power to connect her members to the promises of God.

A Supernatural Identity

In the Church, however, this corporate identity, both as a natural institution and as the recipient of a supernatural promise, is accentuated and developed beyond any other body that has ever existed or ever will exist. The Church is at once the new Israel and the heavenly Jerusalem, through which many will come from the East and the West to find God (see Mt 8:11, Lk 13:29, Heb 12:22). This is why, in all of St. Paul’s discussions of faith, to be a member of the Church is synonymous with being joined to Christ. The point is especially evident in Romans. (For a comprehensive examination of salvation in St. Paul, see What Does It Mean to Be Saved?.)

Part of the reason for this identity between the Church and Christ Himself derives from the Church’s constitutional guarantees. Peter was made the rock upon which the Church was built, and given the power of the Keys to the Kingdom of Heaven, against which Hell would not prevail (Mt 16:18-19). Our Lord prayed for Peter’s faith that it might not fail, and commissioned him to confirm his brothers in the faith (Lk 22:31-32). To Peter and the apostles (and the bishops to whom they passed on their authority) was given the fullness of jurisdiction, so that whatever they would bind on earth would be bound in heaven (Mt 18:18). It is crystal clear from Scripture, logic, history and ecclesiology that this authority had to be and was in fact handed on (see, for example, The Primacy of Peter and Authority Both Apostolic and Petrine). And in fact this apostolic authority guaranteed the rule of faith to the entire community. Even Paul checked his preaching with the apostles in Jerusalem to be sure he had not gone astray (Gal 2:1-2)—he who had received knowledge of Christ through direct illumination!

But what we see in the nature of the Church is not merely the impact of her authority structure. The Church—precisely as Church—has a transcendent identity preeminently because she and Christ really are one in ways that individual believers cannot share on their own. Our Blessed Lord gave Himself up for the Church, that she might be presented to Him as a bride, without spot or wrinkle (Eph 5:25-27)—joined, as it were, two in one flesh. Moreover, because Our Lord ensured the continuing sanctification of the Church’s members through the sacraments, and especially the Eucharist, it is precisely as the Church that we are formed into the one body of Christ (1 Cor 10:16; 1 Cor 12:27; Eph 4:12; etc.). The Church always possesses an identity and a supernatural life of her own, independent and irrespective of the particular individual persons who count themselves among her members.

Our Faith Depends on the Church

This is why it is not possible to come to a full knowledge of and participation in Jesus Christ apart from the Church. It is true, of course, that the goods given by God to the Church for our salvation are now scattered partially beyond her visible borders—the Sacred Scriptures, some knowledge of Jesus here or there, modes of prayer and other traditional practices, even some of the sacraments are operative through various historical accidents beyond the Church’s borders. But their power derives only from that intense unity in Christ which is the Catholic Church, and that same power supernaturally impels all who experience it toward unity with the one Church. It is always through the ministry of the Church—that is, by the very action and mediation of Our Lord and Savior in his Mystical Body on earth—that we ultimately become our Father’s beloved daughters and sons. Without the identity of Christ in the Church, not only would the fullness of the means of salvation be lost, but all of these scattered fragments would wither and die.

How foolish we are, then, when we fail to recognize the dependency of both our faith and our salvation on the Church or, in what amounts to the same thing, when we act as if the Church derives her authority and mission from ourselves, as if she is essentially nothing if we have not chosen to associate ourselves with her. So many Catholics really do act as if their Faith is something independent that they bring to the Church. They imagine that they have claims upon life in Christ wholly independent of the claims of the Church and that the Church’s very utility depends on the personal satisfaction she provides. Yet in reality, it is the Church which mediates her Faith to us. It is the Church which mediates the full claim of Jesus Christ upon both our earthly lives and our eternal destinies.

Of course, it is not irrelevant that the Church has members. It is precisely her members that she joins into the body of Christ. But since this is the case, it behooves the members to humble themselves before her. It is not that they must passively tolerate either their own sins or the sinful actions of other members at any level of the Church. But they must humble themselves before the Church’s Divine authority and life-giving mission, and before the incomparable Presence of Christ within her. Moreover, this very humility is vital to the Church’s ability to encompass the sins of her members without the tremendous damage to her credibility that we would otherwise expect. For we all sin. Yet if we look eagerly to the Church to help us to become holy as the Church herself is holy, then even our sins constantly witness to the Church’s power to transform everything in Christ.

It is not so when we seek to impose our own will on the Church, pretending to determine faith or morals or jurisdiction or worship, bridling at her demands, taking offense at her sacred ministers, choosing to ignore her at will, following cultural trends rather than our rightful pastors, and in all taking the Catholic name by force to serve our own interests (see Mt 11:12). In such a state we undermine the mission of the Church, frustrate her Divine goodness, obscure her sacred witness, and exchange our birthright for a mess of pottage (Gn 25:33-34)—all the while snatching for ourselves a forbidden fruit so that we might be like gods (Gn 3:5). Under this purely associational illusion, we reveal a vain and wanton misery, even as we weaken and delay the sole and saving hope of all mankind.

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: mleiberton3126 - Jan. 16, 2014 2:10 PM ET USA

    Certain documents of VCII, specifically the Decree of the Apostolate of the Laity, perhaps helped propel such personal prudence on the part of the Church's individual members. Was there ever such recognition or empowerment afforded to laity in the past? Perhaps I am most guilty as charged, but I question why or how we might view all Church ministers as sacred at all times. Or have I misread??

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Jan. 16, 2014 10:19 AM ET USA

    To John J Plick: I would agree if I were writing for pagans; and I have advocated service-oriented apostolates as the key to a full proclamation of the Gospel. But Let us not create false dichotomies! It is precisely the mystery of the Church (which is not at all a merely conceptual construction, but a deep reality) that ensures our incorporation in Christ, and so is the source of our sacrificial love for our neighbors.

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Jan. 15, 2014 8:52 PM ET USA

    I would contend with that description. For what constitutes "reality" in this passing world to the pagan, the protestant and the needy Catholic...? Certainly not grandiose conceptual constructions of an ethereal Church, but practical acts of kindness and self-sacrifice.

  • Posted by: - Jan. 15, 2014 4:31 PM ET USA

    This is a great exposition of the reality of the Church at both the concrete and supernatural level as opposed to just being a global association of individuals sharing the same interests. This piece also correctly identifies how people want the Church to conform to their subjective viewpoints and experiences in terms of doctrine rather than humbly defer to Her Christ-given, 2000 year old wisdom.

  • Posted by: - Jan. 14, 2014 7:41 PM ET USA

    I've pretty much given up except to work with the old and dying. I don't think much will exist as PEW's identity observation notes. A true dark age is coming. Think of it. Catholics voted in Obama.

  • Posted by: spledant7672 - Jan. 14, 2014 7:31 PM ET USA

    Wow - that was a tour de force. I'm grateful for this help.