On Rebuilding the Catholic Church

COMMENTARY: To experience the grace of Jesus Christ, in other words, it is never enough to remain on the outside looking in.

Antoni Viladomat y Manalt, ‘Rebuild My Church’: Jesus Gives St. Francis the Indulgence of the Portiuncula, c. 1723
Antoni Viladomat y Manalt, ‘Rebuild My Church’: Jesus Gives St. Francis the Indulgence of the Portiuncula, c. 1723 (photo: Register Files)

While I am not a convert to Catholicism, and cannot therefore ascribe my faith to my colleague Scott Hahn (for whom, nevertheless, I have great affection and respect), if I had been one and wished to give an account of what possessed me to join, it would be no different from that of any honest cradle Catholic who chooses to remain. Namely, the realization that here alone are truth and salvation to be found.

“What else is there?” as Walker Percy used to say when asked why he became a Catholic. When forced to choose between, say, the Mystical Body of Christ and an ant hill — or between Christ and chaos — what other options can there be? Chesterton has a great line somewhere about the Church, which is that on the inside she is much larger than on the outside. And why is that? Because only on the inside are we going to find God, who in Jesus Christ has identified himself so intimately with his bride that he remains forever wedded to her. Could there be a gesture of divine-human solidarity greater than this? What other meaning is there to Saul’s Damascus Moment? When Jesus, having thrown him to the ground, demands to know, “Why are you persecuting me?” what alternative has he got? And isn’t it telling that, once blinded by the light of heaven, the poor fellow must make his way to Ananias in Jerusalem, where, under the guidance of human mediation, he will at last be baptized into the Body of Christ?

To experience the grace of Jesus Christ, in other words, it is never enough to remain on the outside looking in, as if one could possibly see into the soul of another by merely staring at the skin. The event of Christ will never reveal itself to those who, on hearing the summons, “Come and see,” refuse to follow along the path that leads to the heart of the mystery.

The Church, too, can only reveal herself to those who venture inside, seeing her exactly in the same way as one gazes upon a window made of stained glass. Not only will one espy no beauty on the outside, but the glass reveals its clarity and color, the radiance of its light only when — taking leave of the sidewalk amid the boredom and the dullness — one moves through the church door, seeing it all for the first time illumined from the angle of the artist. It is he, after all, who fashioned so lovely an ensemble of color and light in the first place — in order that, from the inside, one may be all at once struck by this arresting array upon which we stare in sheer stupefied amazement and delight.

Pray, do not be put off by the human disfigurations of sin that spoil the view. If God can write straight with crooked lines, he can certainly adorn his bride with beauties unspeakable.

I love how Flannery O’Connor put it in that wonderful letter she wrote to a friend who, hours after becoming Catholic, decides she has had quite enough, and so walks clean away, leaving all those sinners to their own devices. Flannery reminds her friend, “The Church is the only thing that is going to make the terrible world we are coming to endurable. And the only thing that makes the Church endurable is that she is somehow the Body of Christ and on this body we are fed.”

A perfect bullseye, I’d say.

And then, of course, there is the advice given to a bitter ex-Catholic in search of something better. By all means, he was advised, join a more perfect church, but do remember that the moment you join, its perfection will have been diminished by your membership in it. We are all sinners, which is why Christ gave us a Church — in order to help us stop sinning. And to lead us by the hand to heavenly glory.

Yes, but how does one set about rebuilding this Church when, by anyone’s reckoning, it has all fallen down and is everywhere in ruins? It rather depends on whom you ask.

If you put the question to someone like James Carroll, who, despite having left the Church years and years ago, feels perfectly free to instruct the rest of us on how to run it, the answer is pretty simple. Destroy it. Dismantle the structures which have proven themselves to be hopelessly corrupt, and start over. And while that would be a bit like leveling every library in the land because nobody’s reading the right books — the books, that is, approved by the likes of James Carroll — it does have the advantage of ensuring that people will soon lapse into illiteracy. Is that what we want?

Suppose, however, you want to get people reading again — what then? Suppose you actually prefer a Church that works, without having to first destroy it — what then?

Well, you might listen to someone like Cardinal Robert Sarah, who has really the most refreshingly Catholic views on the subject.

Not long ago, he found himself standing amid the ruins of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. The wreckage of the place reminded him, he said, of the state of the Church in the West, which, in order to rebuild, we have got first to overcome our fear and inhibition about telling the truth, the truth of God and ourselves in relation to him, that we seem so cravenly unwilling either to proclaim or to defend.

We have become, he says, “like arrows no longer aimed at God …” And so we are all fallen into the dust, our aspirations no longer at home in that Gothic world where men sought to pierce the heart of God. “The spires of the human spirit,” as he calls them, have become like the cathedral itself — “shattered and broken.” The fire that had ravaged Notre Dame, that hallowed symbol which for a thousand years stood in the heart of Paris, reminding us of what ultimately matters, is now engulfing the entire Christian West.

“You want to rebuild the Church?” he asks. “Then you must get down on your knees!” Only God can save us now. Adoration is how it is done. “You want to rebuild this beautiful cathedral that is the Catholic Church?” he asks again. “Get on your knees! A cathedral,” he continues, “is first of all a place where men can kneel … where God is present in the Most Holy Sacrament. The most urgent task (therefore) is to recover a sense of adoration!” The absence of which, he insists, “is the source of all the fires and crises that are rocking the world and the Church.”

This is not, thank heaven, a program or a blueprint for producing more structures. The Church does not need more structures. She does not need more machinery or managers to operate the machines. What she needs are mystics, saints, men and women who have fallen in love with God. Because it is the only finally satisfying love story in the universe.

Sanctity is the solution, therefore, and only the holy need apply — or those who long to become holy. Shouldn’t that be us?

Regis Martin, Ph.D., is a professor of theology and a faculty associate

with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio.