It is a favorite trope among the dissenters on the “pelvic left” to say, “The Church is larger than the flawed people who run it.

We need to shed these dogmas of a bygone past and blahblahblah.”

When people say things like this, I always have a strange vision enter my head of the body of Christ assuming the form of a gigantic crab. After all, crabs have the great luxury of shedding their skeleton every now and then and growing a whole new one that’s bigger, better and shinier. So when the “pelvic left” (or the “what’s so bad about torture when America does it?” right) in the Church urges me to outgrow the hierarchy and the magisterial office in favor of what is convenient to the needs of ideology X, I can only imagine that something like this is what they have in mind.

The problem, of course, is that the body of Christ is not the mystical body of a cosmic arthropod. It is the body of the Son of Man.

Now the hierarchy is the skeleton of the Church. Its job is to be rigid. It’s quite true that a man is more than his skeleton. But it’s equally true that he is never less than his skeleton. As a result, it is only in a very limited sense that we can say we are “larger than our skeleton” and only in an entirely illusory sense can we be rid of it. The simple truth is, if the rest of me doesn’t stay rather close to my skeleton, I will find that things get rather squishy and unmanageable fairly quickly.

Bishops, priests and deacons are not the totality of the body of Christ. But it does not follow that we can molt and get rid of them when the teaching of the Church becomes a nuisance to us. For though we are acutely aware that the Church is larger than the bishop and all of them are flawed, it is often less present to our minds that the Church is also larger than us laypeople and all of us are flawed too.

A friend of mine argues that all of human history can be summed up in two questions. The first is “What could it hurt?” The second: “How were we supposed to know?” Demonstrations of this abound in our history. Thirty years ago, the advocates of abortion on demand were predicting the great rosy dawn of the era of “wanted children in happy families.” What we got was the destruction of the family, a generation of survivor children and the imminent promise that the baby boomers who fought so hard to kill their young will find themselves being euthanized by the generation of children to whom they transmitted their values. How were they supposed to know?

More recently, the United States decided to plunge ahead into a completely optional war with Iraq, despite the overwhelming skepticism of virtually every bishop in the world (including the last two popes) about the possibility of squaring it with just war teaching. As Pope Benedict XVI so succinctly put it, “Pre-emptive war is not in the Catechism.”

No matter. We would be welcomed with flowers, the vice president assured us, and it was vital we go to war right this very second because Iraq was bristling with weapons of mass destruction and (when the weapons failed to materialize) only a heartless monster could turn away from the suffering of the Iraqi people. Now, three years down the road, as Iraq spirals into violence and civil war, we are beginning to hear from the enthusiasts who shouted down the Vatican that Muslims are basically irredeemable. So the new term arising from a growing number on the pro-war right is the “To Hell With Them” hawks.

This, being translated, means “After ignoring the teaching of the Church on just war doctrine, we would now like to ignore the Church on the responsibility we assumed for Iraq when we went to war. We will remain at war with terrorists, but we will give up the project of trying to help the country we destroyed get back on its feet. How were we supposed to know things would not go as we planned?”

These voices have not yet come to dominate on the right, but there are more of them every day.

St. Paul tells us that “the parts of the body which seem to be weaker are indispensable” (1 Corinthians 12:22). I begin to suspect that in not a few cases this refers, not to prostitutes, tax collectors and sinners, but to the most ignored class of Catholic there is: the ordained teacher. That may be why Christ made sure that the bishop would be the skeleton, not the shell of the Church — so we will never be rid of people him.

Mark Shea is senior content editor for