I am neither a theologian nor a philosopher. What am I doing then writing about the Catholic Church? The answer lies in a not so common experience: I grew up in a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses and my life was influenced for many years by their doctrines and the demands placed upon those who believe in them. By a special grace of God I discovered the Catholic Church and in time I felt moved to defend my newly acquired faith and to warn others about the consequences of joining fringe religious groups.
Going back to the time right before I left the Jehovah’s Witnesses religion I remember having a conversation with one of the elders. Back then I had been an unwilling witness to certain scandalous matter. The way this problem was resolved by the elders was at best questionable. I was so shocked that I quickly ceased to have any association with the Witnesses.
Some time later one of the elders came to visit me. He said that he was concerned about my absence. In our conversation the scandalous matter came up and this man could not show any arguments biblical or otherwise to justify the ways of his peers. Eventually he said: “God in His wisdom allows us to be obedient to an imperfect organization so our faith is made perfect by the imperfect men we have to obey”.
“Nice argument”, I agreed. The only problem with it was that if it were true then we should all be Catholics since the Catholics were here first. I told the Jehovah’s Witness elder this. However, at the time I did not have the faintest intention of becoming a Catholic. What I said was a simple quick argument to rebut the elder’s statement.
Well, the elder’s jaw dropped. Quickly recovering he told me: “You are already talking like an apostate”. He left shortly after. I was never to see him again. Seven years later I converted to Catholicism. It took me all those years to realize how important that conversation was.
A Fundamental Article of Faith Challenged
We Catholics profess our faith in the “One Holy Catholic Church”. The meaning of this phrase is rather obvious for any Catholic Christian. I am sure we could write a long treatise expounding on the implications of these four words. I do not intend to do that. One does not have to study much history to see that the Church has lasted twenty centuries in spite of having the humblest of origins. One cannot deny that she is still one in spite of having been put in peril both by external forces and internal power struggles. Likewise the universality implied in the word catholic is still evident; the Church is active all over the world from China to America and she is the spiritual home of men and women of all kinds.
One and catholic we can understand. However, it is the word holy that people of our time have a problem with. To some that adjective brings a sense of uneasiness. The list of people with justified and unjustified grievances against the Church is rather long. There is also the regrettable record of times past. Painful mistakes that even the Second Vatican Council had to admit. Recently Pope John Paul II asked forgiveness for the faults of the Church before the whole world. The history of the Church is so full of these awful memories that some of her enemies are willing to identify her with the woman in the scarlet dress depicted in St. John's book of Revelation. We Catholics disagree with that, of course. Yet that is a good example of the resistance that the Church has to face out there.
The One Catholic Church is sometimes an obstacle for many that would like to believe that somewhere there is a holy church of Christ. It is, so they say, because of her long history of internal struggles, and because she has sinned both by omission and commission, sometimes against the very ones she was supposed to hold, sustain and protect.
There are very few arguments one can use against this line of reasoning. My problem with this posture is its very origin. Behind the sad litany of accusations there is always bitterness. Bitterness that is similar to that of a lover that has found proof of indiscretion in his beloved. There is no hope for that bitter soul because it is no longer possible to bring back the original innocence of the beloved. “Oh, if it could only be like it was in the early days,” he exclaims.
The issue of holiness then requires a bit of understanding. Simply expressed we believe that the Church is holy not because her members are all perfect saints living in absolute sanctity. Even though, we do believe that God can make a person holy no matter what his or her original condition. However, in forming a Church composed of imperfect and sinful human beings God makes evident the curious paradox of His sanctity in the midst of the most evident imperfection. That is what we Catholics call grace, the ability of God to make a sacred vessel out of this lowly material that we are all made of. In a way the Church reminds us of the paradox of grace: we are not called because we are better than the rest. We are called because we are NOT better and therefore we can make the grace of God more evident.
When Jesus walked the earth He was harshly condemned by those who could see in Him the elements of holiness, the miracles, and the righteous life He lived. Why? Because those people who were condemning Jesus could not find in Jesus the element of righteous judgment. The judicial aspect of holiness was lacking in Jesus. Most scandalously Jesus seemed to enjoy the company of those condemned by society. Jesus attracted sinners and initiated them in the ways of holiness. In a way it is that very behavior that makes Jesus so appealing in the Gospels.
To explain this point I would like to use a very well known episode related in the gospel of John. A crowd brings an adulteress before Christ declaring: “Moses told us to stone women like this”. Imagine (it is only an example) that the woman represents the Church and the crowd represents those who condemn the Church. Jesus admits the fact that the Law condemns adultery in very harsh terms. However, Jesus decides to bring the attention of the crowd to what they all have in common: sin.
Jesus invites the crowd to look inward and perform some self-examination. This leads to a strange result. They leave the Teacher and the woman alone. In time Jesus pronounces His judgment: “Neither do I condemn you. Go in peace and sin no more.” Jesus has the authority to do that because He is greater than Moses and His choice is to highlight human sin by pointing at the role that divine grace has in solving the problem of sin.
Both the Church and her accusers have in common the element of sin. It is Jesus who brings sin to the forefront in order to graciously forgive it.
The Sacraments Make the Church Holy
Of course the Church is not represented by the adulteress. We only used this example to illustrate how Jesus deals with sin. There is a big difference between the adulteress and the Church and that is the mission of the Church and it is a holy mission. The Church is an imperfect vessel for a number of holy elements. Those elements we call the Sacraments. If the Sacraments were absent from the Church there would be nothing left to justify its existence. If the Sacraments had no Church to live in, it would be hard to imagine how they could be preserved and honored. The Sacraments are what make the Church a holy vessel. That is why Christianity could never be a mere philosophy that men can choose to live by without ever associating with the Church.
When someone insists in bitterly condemning the obvious imperfections of the Church, this bitterness reveals the kind of pride that can only come from self- righteousness. Self-righteousness does not need the consolation that comes from the Sacraments. Anyone can criticize and divide but, isn’t it better to build up?
So, does this mean that we are to accept every sinful act passively? No, we can take an active role in the fight between sin and holiness. We must remember that we are also an integral part of the Church. If we allow God to build holiness in ourselves, then we are helping to build holiness in the Church. It is remarkable how saints seem to surface in the history of the Church at times when the hierarchical authorities within her appear to have lost the way. We may not be a Church composed exclusively by saints, but we can affirm that God is graciously giving the Church the gift of holiness by making room for it in our own lives.