Msgr. Charles Pope is currently a dean and pastor in the Archdiocese of Washington, DC, where he has served on the Priest Council, the College of Consultors, and the Priest Personnel Board. Along with publishing a daily blog at the Archdiocese of Washington website, he has written in pastoral journals, conducted numerous retreats for priests and lay faithful, and has also conducted weekly Bible studies in the U.S. Congress and the White House. He was named a Monsignor in 2005.
So many of the problems in the Church are rooted in a poor ecclesiology. Ecclesiology refers to how we understand the nature, mission and role of the Church. From a poor ecclesiology stems other problems such as understanding why and how the Church has authority to teach, to bind and loose, to forgive sin, to determine the books of the Bible, and the proper way to understand many Scriptural passages.
Another set of errors proceeding from a poor ecclesiology is the insistence (both in and out of the Church) that the Church needs to become more “relevant,” needs to reflect the views of the times and the members of the Church. Many protest, “Haven’t the bishops read the polls of their own flock? Why don’t they update their outdated teachings?”
But the Church does not exist to reflect the views of her members or the times. The Church exists to reflect the views of Jesus Christ, her founder, head and spouse. The Church exists to hand on, whole and entire, the Deposit of Faith given from the Lord and to proclaim that faith to an often scoffing and unbelieving world. Jesus himself was scoffed at and disbelieved, and many of his teachings were declared to be “hard sayings.” Finally he was crucified by this very world that many tell us to imitate.
It is not possible to detail every ecclesiological error of today in a short blog. But perhaps we can focus on where the problem of poor ecclesiology begins.
The problem begins with the fact that most see the Church as a “what” rather than a “who.” To many the Church is an abstraction, to others “it” is an institution. Very few see the Church as the Body of Christ, or as the Bride of Christ and our Mother.
But the fact is, the Church is the Body of Christ, Head and members together. The Church is the living, active, enduring presence of Jesus Christ in the world today. Jesus still walks this earth, he still preaches, teaches, heals, feeds, sanctifies and exhorts. He is recognized in the Breaking of the Bread and heard in the proclamation of his Holy Word. He presides at every liturgy through the priests configured to him in Holy Orders. He still teaches with authority in and through the Magisterium.
No need to seek Christ on some lonely mountaintop. He is as near as the closest Catholic Church where the faithful are gathered and the Liturgy and Sacraments are being faithfully celebrated.
Some will object that Christ cannot possibly be found among such sinners and hypocrites. To the contrary, Jesus was found in exactly such places in his public ministry. He kept strange company and was found among sinners, publicans and prostitutes. He called them to repentance. But he was found there.
So, objections aside, the Church is the Body of Christ. The Church is the living, active, enduring presence of Jesus Christ in the world today.
Therefore, to those who say they can have Christ without his Body, the Church, we must only respond: “No can do.” Too many today, due to a poor ecclesiology, say that they respect or even love Christ but do not have that same respect and love for the Church. This would be like someone saying to you, “I admire and respect you but I cannot stand your body. It is awful, ugly, smelly and terrible and I cannot stand to be in its presence; I will not abide it!” Surely you would and should take offense at such a strangely duplicitous stance. You would take offense because it is a false dichotomy. One cannot admire and respect you and at the same time detest your body.
It is the same with Christ. He and his body are one. To be sure, we his members in the Church militant are still imperfect in many ways. But no less does Christ love us. I love my hand despite its imperfections, calluses, scars and sore joints. It is my hand and I love it. Imperfect though it is, when united to my soul to my intellect and will, it does marvelous things: typing this article, playing the organ, bestowing absolution in confession, grace in blessings, and Jesus in Holy Communion. Not a perfect hand, but mine; and God’s through grace.
The Church is the Body of Christ. The Church is the living, active, enduring presence of Jesus Christ in the world today.
The Church is also the Bride of Christ. Scripture speaks of her as beautiful and descending from heaven to meet her groom. St. Paul extols her as the Bride who Christ loves so much that he hands himself over for her, to sanctify her. The Song of Songs and the Book of the Ruth beautifully prefigure and describe the relationship of Jesus and her as the pursuit of lovers.
Here too, those who reject the Church engage in a strange dichotomy of thinking they can do this and still claim to respect Christ. Imagine a friend saying to his friend, “I admire and respect you but your wife is awful, ugly and I will not abide her presence!” There is no true friendship that will abide such a detestable stance. And yet many speak to and of Christ and his Church this way.
Do they understand that they are doing this? Usually not. But that is the problem of a bad ecclesiology: false dichotomies and separating what God has joined: Christ from his Body, Christ from his Bride. The Church for them is an abstraction because they divide the Church from Christ. But Christ also becomes an abstraction without his Body and Bride the Church. Without the Church we would not hear Christ in his Word or receive his Sacraments. We would not experience or know him had not his Church, his active and enduring presence in the world, proclaimed him for centuries! Many who reject the Church read from the very Bible they would not have except for the Church.
Some wonder how the Church can be both Body and Bride of Christ. But have you not read: they are no longer two, they are one, and what God has joined together, let no one divide. But many DO divide what God has joined. Jesus' Body the Church and His Bride the Church are one, and we are not to divide what God has joined.
Because I am a member, the Church is not perfect. I will not tell you that I am not at times grieved by goings-on in the Church. Like any body, there are disease processes and cancerous qualities in the Church — yes, even in Christ’s Body — because of us, not him. But I love him. And as Bride I love the Church. She is Christ’s bride, and therefore my Mother. The Church is Christ in the World, and I love him.
There are many other errors that spring from a bad ecclesiology, but here is where they begin, in separating what God has joined: Christ from his Body, from his Bride. No can do. Christ is one with his Body, one with his Bride. One Christ, only one.
An intimate and tender love for the Church is the only proper response of a correct and true ecclesiology. To be far from the embrace of the Church is to be far from Christ. And we cannot claim to be near him, but far from the embrace of the Church. They are one, only one.