The quest for the perfect Church – and here I mean capital “C” Church, the mystical Body of Christ made perfect by His perfection – seems to be at something of an all-time high, Catholics and Protestants included. It has all the ferocity of the quest for the holy grail, and as much peril. I cannot help but feel a certain quizzicalness about the whole thing.
“You Catholics,” I hear at least eight dozen times a year, often from fellow Catholics, “you think you’ve already got it all. The one, true Church of Christ subsists in the Catholic Church. Good for you. Have you noticed what horrible people you are?”
It is true that we believe that we are not like other ecclesial communities – in fact, technically, we only consider ourselves and the Orthodox to be “Church” (in the restricted theological sense) at all – and it is true that we tend to be jerks anyway. Also, Catholics fight with each other all the time. It is not like with strains of Protestantism, where people get mad and leave. No: people stay, and throw rocks at one another. Those who want more reforms and those who want less all agree on one thing, and that is their resentment for each other. It is delightful.
Given this internal variance and strife, those on the outside (and inside) insist that the Catholic Church’s special claims about itself are hypocritical conceits. One, true Church, eh? Right – you people can’t even agree about the Mass, which you pray every day. That’s the equivalent of a food fight at every family meal. Some family you are!
But this critique doesn’t really grasp what it means to claim to be Christ’s singular Church. It demands perfection of the Church’s members, who are only imperfectly her members here on earth. It also looks for Catholicism’s singularity in the wrong place, associating it with behavior whereas the claim is really sacramental first. Not that there isn’t a point in this critique. Everyone should hope for sanctification, of course, and the fact that Catholics (Catholics like myself) are idiots is a perennial scandal that I don’t think we should ever grow comfortable with seeing. Nevertheless, we need to remember: perfection is being worked out in the Church’s members now, and her – the Church’s – perfection is to be found in Christ, and not herself.
The link between Christ and the Church is to be found in the sacraments, and these live because they are supported by Apostolic succession through the bishops. That makes Catholicism’s claims sacramental and historical. Sacramental because we encounter Christ objectively in the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, and in them we are affirmed, re-made, and perfected in Christ’s image as His Church. Historical because through the ages Catholicism sees in its bishops an unbroken succession from the Apostles until now (a claim that, by the way, the Orthodox also make for themselves and which Catholics agree the Orthodox do possess). The unique place of the pope, the caretaker of the universal Church, sets Catholicism apart from both Protestants and Orthodox for good or for ill. It intensifies the Catholic Church’s claims about itself by attributing a visible office to the Church’s universality, which – as best as I understand it – no one else claims about themselves in quite the same way.
Here, here in the sacramental and the historical, is the linchpin for all the talk about the one, true Church of Christ subsisting in the visible Catholic Church. It is not about whether I can find the perfect Church in my parish community. I certainly cannot, if I focus on the community alone. I have to focus instead on what the sacraments are working in that community, and ask myself whether I believe that these sacraments do what we say they do – whether Jesus is really, substantially present to us in them. And whether Jesus can really work through His imperfect bishops for the sake of perfecting us. Believing in one (the sacraments) means believing in the other (history), and vice versa.
It might seem like a ridiculous demand – and it is. Everyone wants the Eucharist, but no one wants the bishops. Well, for Catholics: too bad. You can’t love one and hate the other, because both teach us the proper shape of love. Love, Christian love, involves history and it involves sacrament, and both push us to love the people sitting next to us in the pew (which is, if you ask me, the hardest of all – because at least the bishop is far away). Trying to be choosy is like saying you love your neighbor and then stealing his food. It’s a contradiction, and a worse contradiction that simply being mean, because it claims for itself a moral and intellectual high ground that it doesn’t really possess.
Catholicism is accused of an absurd idealism: you say it works like that, but it doesn’t. In fact, the critique is more idealist than the accused. It’s much harsher and more realistic to want a difficult and messy relationship to history, than to do away with it as only imperfectly realized half-truths. It is a fanatic realism that keeps Catholicism insisting that it is uniquely Christ’s Bride, and this in the face of immense strife. It is a realism that insists, in the end, that the objectivity of perfection is in the hands of Jesus Christ and the Spirit that animates the Church, that Jesus really greets us in the sacraments and has made us His. A realism that insists that to believe this is more realistic than doubting that Christ can perfect us in our imperfections, and that the Church is simply fragmented forever.
Am I going to force you to agree with me on this? Absolutely not. It simply means that, when we seek perfection, we have to ask ourselves what perfection is, and whose.