Thursday, 26 April 2012

A Church imperfect but valid

If the Church is full of the Holy Spirit, if it represents the very presence of Christ in our midst, why is it so shabby and awful so much of the time? The Church is not the kingdom of heaven. The Church is a process leading to the kingdom. It is a place – a community, a structure, evolving in time – in which each new generation of human beings are offered a great gift, and most of them squander it. Still, there are enough saints to keep the Church alive, and the sacraments remain valid even in the hands of unworthy ministers.

You can see the imperfections of the Church in the earliest times of all – reflected in the letters of Christ to the seven churches as set down in the Book of Revelation. This was the apostolic age, within a century of the death and resurrection of Christ, and yet the squabbling that had been evident even among his disciples while he was on earth is very evident.

There has been a lot of controversy recently about the alleged “mistakes” of the Second Vatican Council. Traditionalists claim that the Council of the 1960s was infected with Modernism, not only distorting the Catholic liturgy through its reforms, but even contradicting the infallible teachings of earlier popes by accepting religious freedom and democracy. I don’t want to enter into the details of that controversy here. We know that we can trust the basic teachings of the Church and rely on her sacraments, because the Holy Spirit lives in her. (This assurance is given by Christ, for example at Matthew 16:18 and John 16:13.) We know that she sometimes takes decades, or centuries, to get things right. In the meantime we have to pray, trust, and use our wits. To undermine our confidence in the presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church, as the traditionalists do, seems to me the work of the devil. Newman was right: doctrines develop, circumstances change, and our understanding evolves. New aspects and applications of the truth reveal themselves.

Vatican II is by no means the first Council after which some Catholics have concluded that the Tradition has been betrayed, nor will it be the last. There are often good reasons, good excuses, for thinking in this way. After the First Vatican Council it was the “Old Catholics” who broke away. The Orthodox believe that the Latin Church went off the rails more than a thousand years ago, and will trust only the first seven Councils. But right at the dawn of the Church, a similar principle was at work among the Jews who refused to accept Christ. And personally I think God respects this kind of loyalty, allowing some of his grace to continue to flow through bodies that have separated themselves from the main stem of the Church out of love for the Tradition they had grown up with.

And yet the fullness of life and truth and grace remains with Peter and his successors, and those who maintain the communion of the Church. We see that fullness revealed from time to time in the saints who continue to appear in the Church of Vatican II – saints like Mother Teresa, and Padre Pio, and many others, whose loyalty remained unbroken despite the turbulence of those years.

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