We can still love the Church. We must love the Church.
Those who truly love the Lord Jesus will not fail to love the Mystical Body of which He is the Head, the Bride for whom He offered Himself up on the Cross. It would be ingratitude to Him if we refused His gift of the Church as Mother and Teacher. We are members of the Church, yet she is greater than we are, and is eminently worthy of our trust. The One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church will never let us down. She is “the household of God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15).
But surely, when we remember the sexual crimes of some of the clergy, we cannot love the Church. How is she to be trusted when so many of her bishops, even when not guilty of perversion themselves, have practised deception and covered up the evils of others? Surely we cannot love a Church led by bad shepherds.
But, no, we can and must love the Church. The wickedness of which we have heard so much in this last year is the work of churchmen, not of the Church herself. The visible, hierarchical Catholic Church remains immaculate in the beauty of holiness, and in the splendour of truth. She is holy because of Christ, her divine Head, and by the working of the Holy Spirit, who fills her with His grace, gifts and fruits.
Despite our own sins, and those of our pastors, the Church is holy in the sacred doctrine of her faith, and in her Sacraments, which impart the grace of Christ for the sanctification of our souls. She is holy in the saints in heaven, and above all in the Immaculate Mother of God, the Queen of All Saints. She is holy in the poor souls in purgatory, from whom the remains of sin are being burnt away. She is holy in the humble Catholics on earth who love Jesus and Mary, trust in God and not in themselves, who strive to keep the commandments, avoid the occasions of sin, pray without ceasing, and fight courageously against the world, the flesh and the Devil. When we say in the Apostles’ Creed that we believe in the Holy Catholic Church, we are not deceiving ourselves.
The Church’s integrity is undiminished even when one of her prelates departs from her faith and presents his own strange opinions as if they were orthodoxy. Think of those who fell into Arianism, of Nestorius in the See of Constantinople, or of Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury. The faith once delivered to the saints (Jude 3) remains invulnerable despite the depredations of the heretics. This or that cleric may lose his faith, and make himself a slave of the world, but the Church our Mother remains divinely free; she is a virgin, and keeps the faith pure and intact. Even when a pope falls into heresy, as Honorius I and John XXII apparently did, Peter’s voice still resounds with all its original clarity in the teaching of his orthodox predecessors, and indeed in all those bishops, priests and lay people who hold and foster the Catholic and Apostolic faith. Sacred Tradition is immortal by the gift of the risen Christ.
The Swiss Cardinal Charles Journet was one of the greatest theologians of the 20th century, but now is almost forgotten. He devoted his life to studying the mystery of the Church’s holiness, which he summarised in these words: “The Church is without sin, but not without sinners.”
Exercising a mind formed by St Thomas Aquinas, Journet helps us to see that the Catholic Church is neither eaten up with depravity, as Martin Luther thought, nor composed exclusively of the pure, as the Donatists imagined. She is the radiant city set on a hill (Matthew 5:14), but also the Kingdom from which evil-doers are not excluded till the Son of Man comes in glory (Matthew 13:42). Her sanctity is indestructible even here on earth, where without tiring she calls her children to deeper conversion and bolder spiritual combat. The Catholic Church embraces sinners, so that sinners may be transformed into saints. If we sinners refuse to be saints, and resist the Holy Spirit’s promptings, it is we who are at fault, not the Mother and Teacher who leads and feeds us.
Holy Church lavishes on us all the means of sanctification she has received from God. Our sins betray her and her divine Head and Saviour. Sinners remain members of the Church, despite their sins, when they still profess her faith, and because they retain in their souls the indelible characters of the Sacraments they have received. These are the hallmarks of their belonging to Christ, a connection that their sins contradict. The layman or priest in a state of unrepented mortal sin is living a lie.
“Let us love the Lord our God, let us love His Church,” said St Augustine in a sermon. “Hold on, then, dearly beloved, hold on, all of you with one heart and mind, to God our Father and the Church our Mother.” The adopted sons of God are those to whom the Church has given new birth in baptism. A love of God without love of the real visible Church is therefore an illusion.
Let us love the Lord our God, let us love His Church. We must love the Church for Our Lady’s sake, for Our Lady is the Church’s Mother, her supreme model and the perfect realisation of the Church as “without spot or wrinkle” (Ephesians 5:27). As Chesterton said of himself before his conversion, a true Catholic will never separate Mary and the Church in his mind. We can all of us be strengthened by the certainty of faith that in the end, over all wickedness and falsehood, her Immaculate Heart will triumph.
Fr John Saward is a senior research fellow of Blackfriars Hall, Oxford. He was formerly professor of the International Theological Institute at Gaming, Austria
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