Sunday, July 29, 2018

Institution? Family? Thoughts on the Church

Venerable Fulton J Sheen, in his Your Life is Worth Living series, once said:

What do you think of when you first hear the word Church, an institution, an organization, a kind of an administrative body? It is the way we have too often presented the Church.

It’s a good point. Many people view the Church as as a means of organizing the Christian religion. A person who sees the Church as a positive thing thinks the organization cannot be questioned. A person who sees the Church as a negative thing thinks of the organization as interfering between the relationship between God and the individual or as an arbitrary rule maker.

Those views are understandable if a person sees the Church as a thing, then they will see that thing in either a positive or negative way, and everything that thing produces in the same way. The problem is, the Church is not a thing but a relationship: between God and man; between fellow men in relationship with God. If the Church is a relationship, a family, then the people within it are not overlords and minions but are members of a family.

As the future Pope Benedict XVI wrote in 1960, each one of us has a relationship with God only if we are part of His community:

In fact this word [“Our”] does have great importance, for only one man has the right to say “my Father” to God, and that is Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son. All other men must say “our Father”, for the Father is God for us only so long as we are part of the community of his children. For “me” he becomes a Father only through my being in the “we” of his children. The Christian prayer to the Father “is not the call of a soul that knows nothing outside God and itself”, but is bound to the community of brothers. Together with these brothers we make up the one Christ, in whom and through whom alone we are able to say “Father”, because only through Christ and in Christ are we his “children”.

(The Meaning of Christian Brotherhood, page 51)

When we grasp that truth, Our Lord’s admonition to love our brother takes on deeper meaning. If we hate our brother, we are not in communion with him, and therefore not in communion with God. But, if we continue to love our brothers, even if they do not love us, we remain in communion with God and each other.

The difference is like night and day. If we think of the Church as an institution, those who shepherd as rulers, and teachings as edicts, then it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking, “I will only listen if they act as I think good.” In those circumstances, we are deceived if we think we can serve God while rejecting an external institution. But if we see Church as a properly functioning family, then we can understand the authority of the Church like the authority of the family. Our parents do not cease to be our parents just because they make a decision we dislike. The parents can listen to our input, but the responsibility for seeking the good of the family and the final decision rests with them. So if we desire something harmful, the Church (acting in persona Christi) like the parents, must refuse. If we do not like our parents decision, that does not negate their authority. If we dislike a Church teaching, it does not negate Church authority.

Unfortunately, whenever the Church makes a decision we dislike, we immediately drop into “Church as institution” mode and seek an excuse that justifies disobedience. But when we remember Luke 10:16, rejecting the Church is rejecting Our Lord... it breaks the relationship with God and with a His community. So, though we may think we’re doing good in rebellion, we’re actually doing wrong.

Of course all analogies limp if taken too far. Yes, in literal families we have problems. Yes we can have dysfunctional families that cause harm. But we trust God that He will protect His family, the Church, from leading us astray. Yes, we will have heretics, incompetents, and predators that seek to misuse the Church for their own purposes. But we believe they will not prevail in leading the Church, under the visible headship of the Pope, astray.

This is why we must look at the Church as family and be concerned for our brethren in loving God. To look at it any other way damages the communion.

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