What is the Church and can we Trust it?

The present crisis in the Church is a crisis of the Church, that is, its members. Some have left or are leaving, and some remain but with little trust. And many are returning to the foundations of the faith and asking the simple but essential questions we all need to revisit, like, “what is the Church and can we trust it?”

The Church is too profound to be captured in a single image, but the word “church”  itself translates “to call out of“ and means “a convocation or an assembly. It designates the assemblies of the people, usually for a religious purpose” (Catechism). The Church is the people of God, as foreshadowed in the children of Israel, and now fully expressed as the Body of Christ. The Church is the sheepfold, the cultivated field, the building of God, of which Christ is the cornerstone.  She is mater et magistra – our mother and teacher – who cares for us.  She is also the Bride of the Christ: “It is she whom he unites to himself by an unbreakable alliance, and whom he constantly ‘nourishes and cherishes’” (Catechism).

The Church is not an inanimate institution, nor is she a clerical service organization; she is the community of believers who are incorporated into Christ through Baptism  When we say she is the people of God, we see that she is us – ordinary men and women trying to sanctify ourselves through our work; sinners in need of daily forgiveness. Moreover, the Church administers the sacraments, the visible signs that communicate an invisible grace, by which Christ gives supernatural life to men and heals their sins. Christ is truly present in the Holy Sacrament, and before this mystery of faith and love, Blessed Newman exclaims: “O my God, holiness becometh Thy House, and yet Thou dost make Thy abode in my breast. My Lord, my Saviour, to me Thou comest, hidden under the semblance of earthly things, yet in that very flesh and blood which Thou didst take from Mary.”

When we say she is our mother and teacher,  we see that she is the men and women the Holy Spirit has chosen to be a conduit for His words, words that never fail even when the voices speaking do.  In these uncertain times, when shepherds have failed to protect their sheep, many wonder if they can trust the Church. While individuals will fail, Christ has promised us that the Church will not fail. St. Matthew quotes our Lord as saying that He will build his Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it (16:19).  This indefectibility (inability to fail) He ensures especially to the Seat of Peter, the See of Rome: “Among the prerogatives conferred on His Church by Christ is the gift of indefectibility. By this term is signified, not merely that the Church will persist to the end of time, but further, that it will preserve unimpaired its essential characteristics” (1917 Catholic Encyclopedia).

Yet the history of the Church is replete with trial.  There have been times, in the fourth century for example, when there were more heretics than Christians in the Church.  She has endured schism, anti-popes, and the Reformation. But we have faith in Jesus’ promise: the gates of hell shall not prevail against her, because she is not merely a natural institution; she is a supernatural body, upheld by the arms of God. This indefectibility is not a promise that relies on one person or group of people, but to the Church as a whole. Popes and bishops can err, but the Church remains the pillar of the truth (1 Tim. 3:15).

Blessed John Henry Newman explains how secure is our faith in the Church: “In such texts [1 Tim. 3:15] the Faith committed to the Church is represented, not as a secret and difficult doctrine, but as clearly proclaimed, indefectibly maintained, and universally acknowledged. Whatever errors and corruptions there may be in the Church and in her children, so far, it may be argued, is clear, that the true Faith, the one way to heaven, the one message from the Saviour of sinners, the Revelation of the Gospel, will be plain and unequivocal, as the sun in the heavens, from first to last; so that whoever goes wrong within her pale, will have himself to blame wholly, not his defective light.” We must remember that the infallibility of the Church does not extend to its members or leaders; and only in very limited circumstances – as when a pope speaks together with all of tradition and the body of bishops to define a doctrine, do his words enjoy the privilege of infallibility.

For our faith in the Church to hold fast, it must be rooted in our faith in God through Christ.  He is the faithful One, and the Amen (Rev. 3:14) whose words are spirit and life, whose words we can fully trust. God will preserve his Church, but men and women will still commit evil.  Through this current great trial and absolute purification, He will do justice, bring healing, and prune and purify His Church, that she may be the spotless Bride He has called her to be.

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