Communion of Saints and Sinners: Loving an imperfect church
The church is full of sinners. On this much pretty much everyone can agree. If one took the secular media’s typical presentation of the church as truth, one might even think that the church is full of nothing but sinners. Actually, that too is true. What is less apparent is that those in the church know this well; it is why we cling to this church.
One of the most popular and rich images of the church is that of the body of Christ. The Catholic Church is meant to be the visible sign of what is now otherwise unseen: the risen body of Jesus of Nazareth. And perhaps no scene in Scripture represents the confounding character of this church’s constitution better than that recorded in latter verses of the Gospel of Luke (23:33–43). Here we learn that Jesus was hung upon the cross not alone but with two criminals flanking him: one on his right, the other on his left. Reviled and exhausted, Jesus spent the last moments of his life between two justly condemned criminals, indistinguishable and interchangeable, at least until the 39th verse. For then the two are differentiated, as one rebukes and turns away from the so-called Messiah, while the other beseeches and turns toward him. In the middle of these two fundamental orientations hangs the body of Christ.
This is a pre-eminent image of the church. It is not a church of just the right or just the left. It is the church that holds together repentant sinners and unrepentant sinners, the latter of whom it hopes to convert by holding the whole communion together. In that communion all manner of sin is collected, all those shadowy effects of a world that does not know the light from which it comes and to which it is meant to go. We who cling together in this church do so not because we believe ourselves to be pure and just, but precisely because we know we are not.
We cling together because we know we are sick and in need of healing. This church is our hospital, for here, together, we receive the medicine to open up closed hearts and release us from the unclean spirits that seek to define us by what we can do, accumulate or dominate in this world, or what can define or dominate us. It sometimes seems that the masses gather around this hospital, yelling up to the windows to tell us just how sick we are. Yes, we know. That is why we are here.
Human and Divine
The French Dominican Yves Congar released a book in 1969 with a title that, if released today, might lead it to be either widely ignored or sharply lampooned: This Church That I Love. As one of the leading theological minds behind the Second Vatican Council, Congar used this little book as yet another opportunity to make known what the documents of Vatican II attest time and again: the Catholic Church is composed of both human and divine elements. As is all too obvious (especially now), this church is certainly not a purely divine institution, such as would unimpeachably exemplify a perfect society. But at the same time, this institution is not a purely human enterprise that establishes itself and sets its own mandate. It is both at once.
The church is human with all that is good about our humanity, but not without those parts of us that have been corrupted through pride, the lust for prestige, acts of violence and hidden malice. The church is also divine, for the love of God, which is God’s very being, touches us here to first heal the corruptions of our humanity and then elevate our humanity toward a relationship with God.
What Congar and others rediscovered at the council was that the church does not exist as an idea or in the imagination, but is in fact a living, breathing, beautiful and wounded body, whose very life is generated from the grace of God, though it is not yet fully what it is called to be. Though not the full realization of its divine calling, the church does not cease to call all persons and every people into its communion. In its head, Christ, who is fully human and fully divine, the church is to be, as the “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church” states in its very first paragraph, “a sacrament—a sign and instrument, that is, of communion with God and of the unity of the entire human race...so that all people...may achieve full unity in Christ.” If the sickness of the world is its inability to love genuinely, then the church is intended to be the place where we learn how to love, first in receiving the love of God in Christ and then in bonding ourselves to one another in acts of charity.
This is what the church is. And yet the sin of its members—all its members, though some more than others—keeps it from growing fully into what it is meant to be. In our own time, nothing has scourged the church so much as the sexual abuse of the most vulnerable of our members at the hands of those entrusted to be their shepherds and caretakers. The scandal of these acts of abuse, along with the failures of those in authority to intervene, stop and correct these abuses, gravely afflicted all involved, deeply scarring many: the victims by force, the perpetrators by will and the authorities by compliance. As for the causes of this odiousness, there is no shortage of opinions. It is, some say, due to the vow of celibacy, the unmarried clergy, an outmoded governance structure, the myth of papal infallibility, antiquated doctrine, unsophisticated magisterial instructions and on and on.
Of course, all of these things—even in their misrepresented and misunderstood forms—are interconnected in the life of the church, but not one of them is the source of the scandalous things in the church. The only source is sin. It is pride, the closure to love, the preference for self over others, the rejection of truth and the disregard for true beauty, the unwillingness to give in charity what one receives in love at the altar: this is the sin that rends the church. It is the darkness that the light has yet to dispel.
Ironically, this means that within the church itself exists the source of sickness and its healing. The very structure that is at times used to communicate corruption and harm is the same one that communicates healing and charity. This is because the divine that touches the human in the church seeks to transform the human into what it is meant to become: a communion of charity. The point of the church is not to gather people together to feed them individually for the sake of their separate spiritual journeys. The point of the church is to bond people together in the love of God so that they become what they receive.
This is what Henri de Lubac, S.J., reminded the church in recovering the dual meaning of the Eucharist as the mystical body of Christ (corpus mysticum): the Eucharist is both the gift of God that is bestowed upon the people and the gift of God that the people become. The Eucharist is never a private affair, because it is the gift of making a communion of the people who assemble—in all places at all times—through the very gift of God’s self to the world. God makes himself one with us in Christ so that we may become one with each other in him. The making of communion means healing all divisions, remedying all ailments and forgiving all sins.
The Church’s Mission
Often, segments of the secular media can seem divided regarding their own views of the church. Some outlets critique the church for its failures in holiness, chiding it for falling short of what the world must, implicitly at least, believe the church should be. Other outlets claim that the church is irrelevant, outdated, one of the last remaining relics of foregone and forlorn times. At one and the same time, critics of the church both explicitly reject the claim that the church makes and implicitly critique the church on the basis of the very claim that they reject. Perhaps therein lies our society’s fascination with the church at times like these: it both wants the church to be better than it is and does not want the church to be at all.
The real issue, though, is that the only way to truly see the church is to see it for the mystery it is. It is the inner union of divine and human elements that has yet to become fully what it already is most basically. It is hard to see this when one only critiques from the outside and refuses to step inside, even for a moment. The church is the communion of sinners—both repentant and unrepentant—that is also the communion of saints. It holds out hope for those who rebuke and turn away from the Messiah in its midst, it receives the confession of those who ask for his healing and it communicates the charity of those who have become one with others in the love of Christ.
The modern world wants the church to be a liberal democracy, an egalitarian society, a masterfully managed international organization, a philanthropic agency, a modern communications outlet and a perfect society, all while seeming to want it to go away altogether. The church is thus judged according to the criteria pertaining to these (and other) ideals. In the end, though, the church is measured according to a standard much deeper and much broader than these, one that is thoroughly transcendent. The church is the sign and instrument of the openness of the world to God, who came to the world definitively in Christ and now reaches out to the world through and with the church.
What is seen when the church gathers in communion at the Eucharist is a sign for the world of God’s singular desire: to draw us all together in the bonds of charity, of common will. This communion is also meant to bring about what it signifies, in reaching out in charity to all, in upholding the dignity of all, in offering healing and forgiveness to all, in seeking healing and forgiveness from all and in growing together in the love of God, who alone is the fulfillment of our deepest desires.
The church is not just an odd entity passing through the world, but precisely that which seeks to participate in the transformation of the world. Even when it is what it should be, the church’s speech and movements will seem strange to the world, for it is trying to lead the world beyond its own limits. And in what is the richest irony of all, God elects to work through and with ordinary, sinful human beings in this plan of salvation. For the plan is to save us together for each other, not separately for our lonesome selves. It is the communion of sinners that is the sign and instrument of this salvation.