The Church never fails because Christ never fails – but churchmen are another story
September 27, 2018 (LifeSiteNews) – It is when things are looking bleakest, humanly speaking, that the act of faith in God’s revelation is most valuable and saving.
When the Church is sailing along in splendor and sanctity, and when a culture is dominated by the Faith, one’s religious life can be carried along fairly effortlessly from cradle to tomb.
But then there are the times of crisis, when the surrounding culture turns against the Church, when the Church’s leaders become corrupt, when charity grows cold among the faithful. At such times it becomes harder to believe that the Church, in her inmost nature as the Mystical Body of Christ, is His immaculate Bride, spotless, sinless, totally united to Him—and that we need to remain a part of this Church if we want to be saved.
The Church that is our mother, perfect Bride of Christ, the heavenly Jerusalem (Gal 4:26, Heb 12:22, Rev 21:9–10), is the city we aspire someday to be permanent citizens of. The Church on earth, however, is made up of wheat and weeds, the good and the bad, the holy and the perverse—and lots of us who are straddling the fence in between. Echoing St. Augustine, the great theologian Emile Mersch observes:
The source of sin remains in the Church militant in general, for what baptism does in the individual, the death of Christ has done for the whole Mystical Body. The Church is made up of sinners; hence her great prayers are the prayers of sinners, “Forgive us our trespasses”; “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners.” Sin is in the Church, contagious and ineradicable, like the weeds in the field that are forever obstinately encroaching, and it will not be exterminated until the Church militant herself is no more, on the Last Day, the day of the harvest. The holiness of the Church is not less real for all that, but it is realistic holiness, the sanctity of the Church militant. The Church is holy by reason of what God has placed and wrought in it, but it is not holy because of what men contribute of their own resources or because of the activity they perform in it so far as that activity proceeds from them alone. (The Theology of the Mystical Body, 308)
Jacques Maritain makes an important distinction between the “person” of the Church and her “personnel,” which parallels Cardinal Journet’s distinction between “the Church” and “churchmen.”
On the one hand, the Church that Christ founded, the Church we belong to and in which we are saved, the una sancta—this is the one and only Church: the communion of orthodox and charity-filled believers with the Son of the living God, through the mysteries of the holy Eucharist and the other sacraments, kept alive in communities of apostolic succession. This Church can never fail, because Christ can never fail, nor will He fail those who are united to Him in the true faith, the hope of eternal life, and love for God and neighbor.
On the other hand, the human representatives of this Church, her temporary leaders on earth, who may be called “the Church” only in a limited sense, do falter and fail. They can fail their Lord; they can fail their people. They have received an objective office and the pledge of God’s help, but they must subjectively cooperate with God’s grace in order to fulfill their duties in a holy and God-pleasing manner. God alone is unchanging and unfaltering; until we attain heavenly beatitude, we are fickle, mutable, and in danger of corruption. All the more reason to cry out: “Save us, Lord, for we perish!”
However much they may wage war against everything that is sacred and true, no bishop, priest, deacon, or layman can take away from us the true faith, the hope of eternal life, and love for God and neighbor. These are God’s gifts to us in His holy Church. As Jesus says in his priestly prayer, the Father has given the disciples into His hands, and no one can take them away; when the Father draws a soul into the ambit of His Son, the world cannot stall or stop Him from doing so. Nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of Christ (Rom 8:35–39).
The unum necessarium, the one thing we need, is to sit at the feet of Christ, soak in His light and His truth, receive the gift of Himself, and give ourselves to Him in return. We know, or rather, we sincerely believe and hope, that in this way we are members of the one and only Church that exists in time, the one and only Church that exists in eternity. And there, in heaven, where alone the Church has her most perfect being, there is no reigning pope, no bishop, no sacraments, no temple (cf. Rev 21:22)—nothing but the King of Kings in His unspeakable beauty, followed, loved, and adored for all ages. That is the Mass we want to attend, and for its sake, we are willing to endure anything that the devil can sling at us, or better, that the Lord permits in His Providence.