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Why Fidelity to the Church?

This letter was written as a response to a “born-again Christian” who expressed his concern that Women for Faith & Family “idolize[s] the Catholic Church.” He warned against “misplaced faith” in the Church, saying faith should be in Jesus alone and Jesus needs no defense. He closed his letter with “Yours in Jesus, not in Mary.”

My dear Brother in Christ,

Thank you for your thoughtful letter. I deeply appreciate the spirit of Christian charity in which it was written. I am glad of your testimony of devotion to our Lord Jesus, and I welcome the opportunity it offers me to comment briefly on some of the important observations you make and questions you raise.

Of course, I agree most heartily with you that Christians should avoid putting anything of this world before God. To do so would be to transgress the First Commandment of the Old Testament and the “first and greatest commandment” of the New to love the Lord our God with all our hearts and minds and strength. It would be wrong to idolize any object or institution, including those we ordinarily regard as holy.

By “idolize” I mean putting the object (such as a Bible, which is a physical object containing God’s Word, or a representation of the cross, which is a physical sign of our Lord’s Crucifixion, or a church building, where we worship God) or institution (such as a prayer group) first in our lives. That is not to say these material or “worldly” things should not receive our deep respect and loyalty, insofar as we honor what they represent or, in the case of human institutions, how they help to accomplish Christ’s evangelical mission to the world.

If someone were to desecrate a Bible in my presence, I would feel obliged, as a Christian, to do whatever was in my power to defend the holy book (and I hope I would do this fearlessly, even if it involved risking my life). I would do this not because I idolize paper and leather and ink, but because the Bible is God’s Word. To me the Bible is not just so much paper.

Likewise, a church building—which is God’s house and which, when the Sacrament is reserved, actually contains the holy presence of Christ, his Body and Blood—is not simply bricks and mortar. It should not, therefore, be regarded as if it were just a meeting place like any other. What the material building of a Catholic church contains makes it what it truly is, a holy place, the dwelling place of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

But I think you were not talking about the material building when you suggested that “faith in the Catholic Church” may be misplaced faith. I think you mean the Church as a “human institution.”

I certainly would agree with you that to place one’s faith in any human institution would be a form of idolatry, however sincere. Because the Church, which Paul tells us is the “body of Christ,” is made up of human bodies with sinful human flaws, the Church is flawed also—but only to the extent that its members are afflicted with human sin.

The church is not merely a human institution. It is also a divine institution, if we believe what the Bible tells us. According to Scripture, the Church was instituted by Christ in order to bring his salvation to the world.

Matthew 16 tells us that Jesus deliberately commissioned his apostles (the men who had responded to his call) to establish the Church. Peter is mentioned specifically: “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church.” If we believe the Bible is true and is the infallible Word of God, we must take this statement of Christ seriously.

During Jesus’ last talk to his apostles, gathered in the upper room, he tells them, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide; so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you” (Matt. 15:16). He repeats this promise to his apostles in John 16:23.

Jesus asked the Father to “sanctify them [the apostles] in the truth; thy word is truth. As thou didst send me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be consecrated in truth” (John 17:17-19).

It is clear Jesus is praying for the apostles here, because he continues this way: “I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they may also be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me” (John 17:20-22). By his word, then, Jesus established the Church so that “those who believe” shall hear the truth.

At the beginning of Acts we learn that before Pentecost Peter led the eleven remaining apostles to select one of Jesus’ disciples “to become with us a witness to his resurrection” (Acts 1:22). Then, on Pentecost, Peter, having received the Holy Spirit, preached and prophesied to the Jews. Three thousand were baptized, “and they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42).

This is the Church which is the source of our strength and true liberty, not our oppressor. It is this Church which was instituted by Jesus, inspired by the Holy Spirit, and carried on through all these centuries by Christ’s chosen apostles and their many successors (including the current pope). It is Jesus’ teaching contained in the Bible, God’s divinely inspired Word to us, and the teaching of the apostles which form the body of doctrine which we must uphold, live by, and defend. The power to do this comes from Christ, the way, the truth, and the life.

It is this fellowship of Christians, bound by common faith in the one Lord, from which we seek to draw the courage to stand up for our faith. We bear one another’s burdens, give one another instruction, witness to, worship with, pray for, and encourage one another.

Even though, because of human sin, the Body of Christ has suffered divisions and disunity, and our witness as Christians suffers even now because of these divisions, it is clear from Scripture that this situation is not due to God’s will, but to man’s sin. Pride, selfishness, hardness of heart, unbelief, ignorance, and fear all destroy the unity which Jesus willed for his Church. It is not the Church which is at fault, since the Church is Jesus’ own, but we sinners, who make up the human part of the Church and who fall into error. If the Church suffers it is because we have failed.

I hope I have helped explain some things which the letter from Women for Faith & Family may not have made clear.

Faithfully yours in Christ,

Helen Hull Hitchcock

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