Why do we stay in the church?
It is no secret that this has been an agonizing summer for the church in the United States. Catholics across the country are still reeling from the disclosures of past sexual abuses committed by members of the clergy, as well as the catastrophic failure of many of the church’s leaders to protect the most vulnerable among us. And many people are asking why anyone would remain a Catholic in the face of these scandals. It is a fair question.
When I was first appointed editor in chief, I often said that the most important question we would face in the years ahead would concern ecclesiology, that field of theological reflection that seeks to answer the question, what is the church? I still think that today, mainly because someone’s answer to the question of whether to stay in the church will depend, in large measure, on what he or she thinks the church is.
For their part, the fathers at the Second Vatican Council answered the question this way: The church of Christ, “constituted and organized in the world as a society, subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the bishops in communion with him.” While there are “many elements of sanctification and of truth” in other communities outside of the church’s visible reality, “these elements, as gifts belonging to the church of Christ, are forces impelling toward Catholic unity.” In other words, while good things and good people can be found everywhere, there is something unique about the Catholic Church and its relationship with Jesus Christ.
I still think that today, mainly because someone’s answer to the question of whether to stay in the church will depend, in large measure, on what he or she thinks the church is.
Now all of that highfalutin language is not very helpful—unless you happen to believe it. Then it’s very helpful. I am one of those people who believe in faith that Jesus Christ founded a church and that it exists in a unique way, even today, in the Catholic Church; that the church is the visible, efficacious sign of the City of God and, as such, is aptly called a sacrament.
But sometimes it is even more important to remember what the church is not. Augustine of Hippo, the fifth-century saint who first described the two cities, the City of God and the City of Man, was drawing a distinction not between two visible organizations but between two invisible realities of the human heart. Put simply, those with evil hearts belong to the City of Man, while those with righteous hearts, said Augustine, belong to the City of God.
While the church is the visible sign of the City of God, the two, strictly speaking, are not the same thing. That is important because it means that the church visible counts among its members men and women who are righteous and men and women who are evildoers. This side of heaven, just who belongs to which city is something definitively known only to God. And whether you are a Catholic or even a priest or a bishop is no guarantee of residency in either. Thus, like all communities populated by human beings, the church involves both good and bad. Just as the good can be very good, sometimes the bad is very bad indeed; in fact, it can be downright evil.
I am one of those people who believe in faith that Jesus Christ founded a church and that it exists in a unique way, even today, in the Catholic Church.
One might ask, however, how the church can be a sacrament and holy when its members do such evil things. That is also a fair question. I find my answer by remembering that what is holy in a sacrament is not ultimately what I bring to it, but what God brings to it. When I am absolved in the sacrament of reconciliation, I don’t thereby cease to be a sinner. When I am strengthened by the sacrament of the Eucharist, I don’t thereby cease to be weak. When I was confirmed in my baptismal faith by the Holy Spirit, I did not thereby cease to have doubts.
Likewise, our holiness does not determine whether the church is holy. Why? Because we didn’t make it holy in the first place. Jesus Christ did that, and he is still doing it. That alone is what makes the church different from any other human association, whether it is a bowling league or a nation-state. Either that difference is real, or it is not. If it is real, then how could I ever leave? If it is not, then why would I ever stay? Why would I care?
In the end, despite my anger, my sorrow, my sinfulness and the sins of others, I stay because I do care. Why do I remain a priest? This summer reminded me of something my father, a retired firefighter, said to me after the 9/11 attacks: “Those firefighters who died in New York,” Dad said, “they died running into the building. When there’s a fire, Matty, and lives are at stake, somebody has to run into the building.”
I stay because the church, in all its glory and misery, is the building God has made our home on Earth. I remain a priest because somebody has to run into the building.