If you have ever wanted summarily to sweep aside all those stupid people in the Church who stand between you and a satisfying spiritual experience, you can be very sure of two things. First, you are perfectly normal. Second, you need to think again about the sinfulness of the Church. Yes, the Church is the flawless bride of Christ. After all, he gave himself up for her so that "he might present the Church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish" (Eph 5:25-27). But it is also true that the Church’s sacred identity far exceeds the sum of the identities of her members, for with the exception of Mary, the Church’s members are all sinners.
In this sense, then, the Church is sinful, and in fact she must be so. Indeed, in her members the Church is not only sinful but disorganized, confused, weak, messy, and very frequently annoying. She is the home of those who possess a fallen and often highly disagreeable nature. This fact affects everything she does: her sacramental ministry, her liturgy, her teaching, her pastoral care. It also affects our own experiences when we participate in church events and functions of every conceivable kind. I suppose it goes without saying that it does not make much sense to be a Catholic without recognizing and accepting the Church’s perfection as the Bride of the Lamb. But it is also true that it is impossible to be a good Catholic without recognizing and accepting the myriad imperfections which necessarily impede her divine work.
One Body, Many (Wayward) Parts
It is easy to misunderstand this marriage of sanctity and sin which characterizes the Church, and so I intend to belabor the point. We rightly emphasize that the Church in herself is infinitely holy. We must never forget, especially in this Pauline year, the remarkable (and inspired) insights of the Apostle to the Gentiles who, in his rich theology of the Church’s relationship to Christ, alternately refers to the Church as Christ’s Bride and Christ’s Body. In this light, we are quite correct in understanding the Church not only as sinless but as an inexhaustible source of grace and virtue. But at the same time it is the individual members of the Church who, nourished by the Eucharist, constitute this Body of Christ—and each of those members has a remarkably large variety of faults and imperfections. For this reason, the Mystical Body of Christ is perennially disfigured by the sins of its members, just as the physical body of Christ was disfigured by the wounds of his Passion. Or, to return to the wedding analogy, the Bride’s many infidelities are all too real, even if they are ultimately always overcome, purified, and wiped away by the sacrificial love of her divine Husband.
Of course, while individual members of the Church can cut themselves off from their Savior, the Church as Church can never do so. The sins of the Church’s members are, from the point of view of the Church in all her dimensions, simply so many sufferings—crosses she bears in imitation of the Crucified. Paul also says of Christ that the Father "for our sake made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Cor 5:21). Just as Christ is always above and beyond sin even though he took on the sins of the whole world, so too is the Church always above and beyond sin despite all the sins of her members. But this sublime truth has two sides, and the other side still holds: Just as we can neither ignore nor escape the impact of sin in the life of Christ, so can we neither ignore nor escape the impact of sin in the life of his Church.
Now for many, the Church’s sinfulness makes it all too easy to avoid coming face to face with the need to grow in holiness. We have but to look around us to see examples of countless spiritual failures among bishops, priests, religious, and laity who seem to be more a part of the problem than they are part of the solution. I refer to those who, in major and even public ways, show no serious effort to accept and follow the Church’s teachings. For purposes of preliminary discussion only, we will make the fatal assumption that they are very much worse than ourselves. Well, if such persons truly recognized what the sinfulness of the Church means in themselves personally, they would be appalled by their participation in that sinfulness and they would be motivated to conversion. They would no more want to contribute to the Church’s sinfulness than to be one of the marks of the lash on the body of the beaten Christ. But such souls cannot be the primary topic here, because they have no more tendency to reject the Church’s sinfulness than they do to reform their own lives. No, the point here is to take a look at those who see the Church’s sinfulness all too clearly, and are tempted to reject it by making the Church into something other than it is.
Not Just for Our Enjoyment
This is a serious concern because any effort to reject the Church’s inevitable sinfulness, or to attempt to refashion the Church without it, constitutes a dangerous interference with Christ’s salvific mission. I do not mean we must not strive for holiness. Certainly we must strive for holiness in our own lives, and strive to assist others in growing closer to God as well. But to think and act as if the Church should not be sinful in her members, or that the Church may be purified by expelling sinners, or that the spiritual messiness inherent in all Church activities can be eliminated, or that we ourselves cannot be holy and happy until all this sinfulness and spiritual disorder is rooted out: All this is to mistake the nature of the Church on earth, which is not a community of saints but a community of sinners.
For a deeper insight into what it means for us spiritually to accept the sinfulness of the Church, let us look briefly at the development of the spiritual life. Ordinarily, as we undertake the spiritual life, God provides certain interior consolations to encourage us. Thus we may feel a sense of peace, light, joy, comfort, love, or general spiritual well-being when we are at prayer. As we progress, these consolations are very frequently removed, lest we desire the consolations rather than the God who gives them. In a similar way, the Church (with varying degrees of success) tries to invest all of her pastoral work, and especially her sacramental ministry, with forms and methods that bring a certain satisfaction to both our minds and our senses, in the hope of stimulating greater interior union with God, whose saving work is represented by these forms and methods. This is particularly true of the liturgy, through which many of the Church’s members find delight in particular kinds of music, decorations, vestments, and ceremonies; particular architectural settings; or even particular patterns of solemnity or relaxation on the part of different priests and congregations.
Ideally, when we experience this delight, it is a form of spiritual delectation—that is, the seemingly effortless and spontaneous enjoyment of spiritual things. Certainly the Church hopes that all of her activities will engender this spiritual delectation, though this is unlikely if only because of the wide variety of human tastes. But the point I wish to emphasize here is not only that the Church’s very human messiness impedes her ability to provide a consistent stream of spiritual consolations, but that such messiness—built into the Church by Christ from the first—has some very positive elements. For consolations and even spiritual delectations themselves have a very dangerous side. Perhaps a simple example will help to illustrate this danger. Just as we may be attracted to personal prayer because of the consolations it brings rather than because of the God who listens, so too we may take delight in a particular form of liturgy for primarily natural reasons, and this natural attraction may actually impede our penetration of the sacred mysteries and interfere with the true spiritual delight we ought to take in God himself. The same can be true of every aspect of Catholic life.
Two Poles of Error
Understood in a proper spiritual context, the perennial sinfulness of the Church carries with it not one but two significant dangers. The first is obvious. Consider a relaxed personality who naturally enjoys variety and surprise, and who finds the crush of different kinds of souls behaving in different ways at Mass personally attractive, evocative of the Church’s universality. He may also find the many kinds of confusion he encounters among his fellow Catholics to be a sort of entertaining challenge, with each soul’s particular need providing a new point of interest. Now it is certainly possible that he enjoys all this because he finds that the astonishing variety of human life provides innumerable opportunities for spiritual growth on all sides, and if he thus rises to true spiritual delectation, it will lead him closer to God. But it is also quite possible that such a person enjoys all this because he is not only relaxed but in fact lax (which he may or may not recognize), and so he finds truth, spiritual discipline, virtue, and even serious worship both bothersome and annoying. If so, he will enjoy this sort of Catholic life precisely because it neither disturbs his peace nor discomfits him in any way. The first and obvious danger, then, is that such a soul might take advantage of the Church’s sinfulness to hide from God.
But a second danger is more to our purpose. Again, let us take an example: Consider a more formal personality who loves organization, discipline, and tradition; who much prefers a carefully ordered liturgy; and who takes genuine delight in homogeneous groups, groups possessing remarkable unity of mind. Again, it may certainly be the case that he delights in these things because he senses they represent a spiritual ideal, and so expects them to be most conducive to spiritual growth. If he thus rises to true spiritual delectation, it will bring him closer to God. But in this case it is also very possible that he likes these things largely because he finds them naturally pleasing. In fact, he may find the messiness of human variety somewhat annoying, and he may actively dislike dealing with any preferences or inadequacies different from his own (assuming he recognizes his own). If so, such a person is in grave need of accepting the Church’s messiness and sinfulness in order to grow spiritually. In fact, he must learn to count himself among the sinners, and even to enjoy their company, before he can truly open himself to the real holiness of the Church, of which the things he enjoys are but a shadow. There is a monumental danger in thanking God that we are "not like other men" (Lk 18:11).
What Are We Really After?
It is an axiom of spiritual growth that we must learn to know ourselves, and especially to know when we are really seeking ourselves instead of God. Most of us will have no trouble seeing the shortcomings of others—all those who do not yet seem to be striving for perfection (but how can we know?), all those who are part of the obnoxious material and spiritual disorder we wish we could eliminate, all those (in other words) who are not like us. But if we look inside ourselves and don’t find weakness, disorder, and sin, there is something wrong with our vision. As expressed by the famous 16th-century Benedictine spiritual writer Blosius (Louis of Blois), here is an applicable maxim: "For if by spiritual delectation you do principally seek yourself in these, your soul is not the chaste spouse of Christ, but the most base servant of sin" (A Mirror for Monks). In other words, insofar as what really attracts us is our own natural delight in this or that aspect of divine service, this or that aspect of the Catholic community, this or that means of human expression, or this or that use of our time, then our insistence upon having things ordered in the way we prefer is simply so much self-pampering, directed toward our own comfort and enjoyment.
This applies all across the board; it is not limited to one group or another, one set of preferences or another. But perhaps the clearest sign of this problem is a prickly spirit. When we are easily upset if things are not the way we think they should be, or quickly annoyed by having to "put up" with what other people find satisfying or enjoyable; when we cannot emotionally tolerate deviations from our vision of perfection, or we find ourselves being rude and dismissive to people who strike us as either badly formed or far too narrow; when we grow frustrated with the least departure from rules and rubrics (or perhaps even with their meticulous observance), or find our spiritual peace and recollection evaporating as soon as our preferred atmosphere is disrupted: These are the symptoms of one who has corrupted spiritual delectation into self-love. We must also learn to catch ourselves when we find ourselves ignoring the substance of things to pontificate about the form, or elevating our own tastes into standards of judgment over others, or—in general—dousing the smoldering wick and crushing the bruised reed (cf. Mt 12:20).
Here Comes Everybody
How did I transition from the sinfulness of the Church to spiritual delectation and its corruption by self-love? Easily. The Catholic Church is universal. It embraces every people and place, every age and culture. It welcomes the rich and the poor, the weak and the strong, and persons at every possible stage of spiritual growth. It is not a self-limiting club for those with a special background or a certain level of knowledge, nor is it a safe haven for those of the same culture or the same tastes. The Catholic Church is, in one famous phrase, the Church of "here comes everybody." For this reason, in every different culture, period and place it will always reflect the problems, deficiencies, blindnesses, and even sins that are most characteristic of that culture, that period, and that place.
This means that those who share the predominant faults of their culture will always be a little too comfortable in the Church, while counter-cultural people—who for whatever reason resist the particular faults common to their culture—will find themselves always a little too uncomfortable. The danger the former group faces is that they will experience and respond to the call to growth and conversion only in very muted and accommodated ways. Again, we need not look far for the evidence. One way or another, this really applies to all of us. But the latter group does not consist of those who are obviously lax; rather, it comprises those who regard themselves as spiritually mature, well-disciplined, and true to the demands of faith. The danger of this group is that they will assume their own faults are insignificant and that if the Church would only emphasize their own particular spiritual preferences and virtues, she would thereby free herself from every deadly vice. Too often this counter-cultural group, which is always by definition a smaller group, will cast itself in the heroic role of keeper of the flame, disdaining the inferiority of everyone else, failing to realize that their own distaste for God’s other children is simply a symptom of another kind of sin.
Out of such misplaced zeal arises every feeling of dislike for "lesser" Catholics, every form of cliquishness, every plan to provide separate dispensations for the spiritually elite, and every provision to reduce the size and scope of the Church by excluding large numbers of those who simply don’t "measure up." The Church was not intended by Christ to be lofty and exclusive, or even lean and mean, because, as he put it so succinctly, "the righteous have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I came not to call the righteous, but sinners" (Mk 2:17).
None of this means that we should not spend time thinking about what is wrong in the Church or working hard to strengthen her against both the particular sins of her members and the general sins of the culture from which she draws them. But it does mean that we need to accept not only the spotlessness of the Church but also her perennial disorder, confusion, messiness, and sin. We are not to look back to some golden age, nor forward to anything but the final coming of the Kingdom of God. Nor are we to countenance for even a single moment any plan of separation and exclusion. Instead, we are to recognize that we too are disordered, confused, messy, and sinful, and so we must work for the Church’s good in solidarity with all of her other members. We must understand that there is no Catholic who is worthy of being a Catholic—and that includes us.
Our sinful Church is imperfect and stupid and frustrating precisely because she is the locus of universal salvation for sinners. And she is the universal locus of salvation precisely because she is without spot or wrinkle or any such thing. She is at once sinful and holy, disfigured and without blemish. She is both redeemed and betrothed, yet always longing anxiously for her wedding feast. She is a wounded body and an unfaithful bride. Yet what an incomparable gift she is: God’s chosen one and our own mother, this living, suffering, and infinitely lovely Church.
Do Not Destroy Him for Whom Christ Died
For do not tell me that this or that man is a runaway slave, or a robber or thief, or laden with countless faults, or that he is a mendicant and abject, or of low value and worthy of no account; but consider that for his sake the Christ died; and this suffices you for a ground for all solicitude. Consider what sort of person he must be, whom Christ valued at so high a price as not to have spared even his own blood. For neither, if a king had chosen to sacrifice himself on any one’s behalf, should we have sought out another demonstration of his being some one great and of deep interest to the king—I fancy not—for his death would suffice to show the love of him who had died towards him. But as it is not man, not angel, not archangel, but the Lord of the heavens himself, the only begotten Son of God himself having clothed himself with flesh, freely gave himself on our behalf. Shall we not do everything, and take every trouble, so that the men who have been thus valued may enjoy every solicitude at our hands? And what kind of defense shall we have? what allowance? This at least is the very thing by way of declaring which Paul also said, Do not by your meat destroy him for whose sake Christ died (Rom 14:15). For desiring to shame, and to bring to solicitude, and to persuade to care for their neighbors, those who despise their brethren, and look down upon them as being weak, instead of all else [Paul] set down the Master’s death.
—St. John Chrysostom, Concerning Lowliness of Mind
The Healthy Do Not Need a Physician
Acknowledge yourself feeble, acknowledge yourself man, acknowledge yourself a sinner; acknowledge that it is he that justifies, acknowledge that you are full of stains. Let the stain of your heart appear in your confession, and you shall belong to Christ’s flock. For the confession of sins invites the physician’s healing; as in sickness, he that says, I am well, seeks not the physician. Did not the Pharisee and the Publican go up to the temple? The one boasted of his sound estate, the other showed his wounds to the Physician. For the Pharisee said, I thank you, O God, that I am not as this publican. He gloried over the other. So then if that publican had been whole, the Pharisee would have grudged it him; for that he would not have had any one over whom to extol himself. In what state then had he come, who had this envious spirit? Surely he was not whole; and whereas he called himself whole, he went not down cured. But the other casting his eyes down to the ground, and not daring to lift them up unto heaven, smote his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner. And what says the Lord? Verily I say unto you, that the publican went down from the temple justified rather than the Pharisee.
—St. Augustine, Sermon 87 on the New Testament