Why the Church? This Is Why...

The Catholic Church is the Bride and Body of Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit to become the matrix of a redeemed and renewed humanity.

“Christ the True Vine,” 15th century
“Christ the True Vine,” 15th century (photo: The Temple Gallery / Public Domain)

Unlike many societies in which membership is determined by blood — the purer the better — belonging to the Church is very much a matter of baptism and belief. A child’s rite of passage into the community of believers, for instance, does not require proof of kinship with people who look alike or whose skin color is the same. Christianity is not a tribal affair, admission to which depends on race or ethnicity. 

Nor must it meet Groucho Marx’s exacting idea of the perfect club, which is one that would never have someone like him as a member. Set the admissions bar too high and only saints will qualify, leaving the rest of us to weep and gnash our teeth in the dark. If the state of your neighbor’s soul is too sordid to abide sitting alongside him in the church pew, then by all means go and find a more perfect church, bearing in mind, of course, that the instant you do its perfection will have been diminished by your membership in it.

 “The Church is wounded,” St. Ambrose tells us, “not in herself but in us. Let us have a care, lest our sin should become the Church’s wound.”

The Catholic Church, in other words, is a most wonderfully promiscuous affair, asking only that you have a beating heart and a desire to see it immersed in the Blood of the Lamb.  To quote James Joyce’s acclaimed description, “Here comes everybody.”

Perhaps that is why the Church is uniquely situated — quite supernaturally, it would appear — to overcome all the enmity and division in the world. From all that accumulated corruption and sin, which follow upon the fact that we live in a fallen world, she has been blessedly spared. Why? Because, at the deepest level, she is the Bride and Body of Christ, empowered by his Spirit to become the matrix of a redeemed and renewed humanity. Placed in the midst of men, surrounded by so much suspect humanity, she is the chosen setting for their sanctification. “By virtue of the divine power received from her Founder,” Henri de Lubac reminds us in his great work of Ecclesiology, The Splendor of the Church, “the Church is an institution that endures; but even more than an institution, she is a life that is passed on. She sets the seal of unity on all the children of God whom she gathers together.”

Thanks to God’s gestational genius, therefore, she is the very womb of a world which God himself has been incubating for a long time and has now midwifed into historical being. To what end? To vanquish the sorrows that sunder us from fellowship with others equally afflicted. “Any historian,” notes de Lubac, “who retains the distinctively human hunger for communion with his fellow-men cannot help feeling continually the pathos of this situation. Yet that pathos leaves the Church out of account. And there, startlingly, is the wonderful phenomenon: a sudden closeness of those very men who seemed to have least in common and to be doomed, on every account, to irremediable separation.”

How does she do it? By offering to all a share in that universal communion in Christ that alone may bridge the myriad gaps among men. It is she, then, who carries the fire of that divine love intended to enflame an entire world into communion with God. It is she who dispenses the grace of God, cascading down into the world from those precincts of eternal felicity on which we all depend. 

If the ordinary aspirations of men include the search for fulfillment in human society, inasmuch as we are all social beings, then the completion of that search will necessarily include membership in that perfect society which is the Church. She alone answers the description laid down by St. Augustine back in the fifth century: “a gathering of reasonable beings united by the things for which they have a shared love.” 

It is Jesus Christ for whom we have that shared love. But for most of us, surely, the experience of that love will take place in the Church. That is because she exists only in relation to him, much as the moon exists only in relation to the sun, whose light and warmth reach into the things of earth. Put out or ignore the light of the Church, which is wholly borrowed from above, and in very short order Christ too shall fade away, becoming ever more distant and abstract.

 “All the members of the great ‘family of Christ,’” says de Lubac, “recognize one another and call to one another. This is the common ground for the illiterate and the philosopher…” Only the grace of Christ can succeed in harmonizing relations among rich and poor, learned and stupid, lovely and plain. Whether it be the monk in his cloister, the mother in her kitchen, the mechanic in his garage, or the student in his study — all are equally joined to Christ. And thus joined to the Church he fashioned from his broken body and spilt blood as he hung upon the Cross to die.

Christ, then, is the cement, the animating, energizing presence holding everything together, most especially those who would otherwise remain hopelessly disparate and divided. And if the world is coming unglued, going up in smoke, it is because we’ve divested it of Christ. St. Francis of Assisi used to say that it was only Christ whom he loved, not Christianity. But where does one find Christ apart from Christianity? “Don’t those who accept Jesus while rejecting his Church,” de Lubac asks, “know that in the last analysis they have the Church to thank for him? For us Jesus is living. But under which sandhill would perhaps not his name or memory, but his living influence, the effect of the Gospel and of faith in his divine person, lie buried, were if not for the continuity of his Church? Without the Church Christ would be bound to evaporate, crumble, become extinguished. And what then would mankind be, were Christ to have been taken from them?”

Pretty convicting, I’d say, and certainly impossible to improve upon. Long may we remain convicted by those words.