Human Failings of the Divine Church

800px-Jean_Paul_Laurens_Le_Pape_Formose_et_Etienne_VII_1870

The Catholic Church is not a social club, a fraternal order, a political organization, or even a faith community.

It is a divine institution founded by Christ. Its most important task—the sacraments—are the work of the Holy Spirit. When we go to church, it is God we encounter at Mass and God who hears us in the confessional. And, in receiving the Eucharist, we become the Body of Christ Himself. Of course, the Church is still very much human—from the priests who administer the sacraments to the popes and ecumenical councils through whom the Holy Spirit speaks infallibly. In this mystical union of humanity and divinity, the Church is a living witness to the Incarnation.

But sometimes the human actions of the Church seem to obscure the divine. Most recently, for some Catholics, this was the sex abuse crisis, which shook the very foundations of their faith in the Church. It was a crisis so severe that some even lapsed in their faith.

When we turn to the history of the Church, we don’t have to look very hard to find other times when the egregious actions of priests, popes, and others were so serious that they seemed to call into question whether Catholicism represented the true Church—not unlike the sex abuse crisis.

It would have been very easy, for example, to leave the Church after the papacy of Stephen VI, who exhumed his predecessor and had his rotting remains put on a trial which ended with the deceased pope stripped of his vestments and tossed into the Tiber. Stephen himself met with a grisly end when he was strangled to death. Or perhaps the time to exit would have been after Pope Benedict IX sold his office to his successor and led such a notoriously dissolute lifestyle that one saint called him a “demon from hell in the disguise of a priest.”

Or maybe, were the Church merely human institution, it surely would have lost all credibility after Alexander VI, a Borgia pope who made the papal palace seem more like the Playboy Mansion. While Holy Father, Alexander VI fathered at least four children with a mistress. He named the brother of one mistress a cardinal, along with one of his sons, who was rumored to have held a Satyricon-style orgy in the papal palace.

But such human failings don’t discredit the truth of the Church. They prove it—because only an institution of God would be resilient enough to withstand such human depravity. Indeed, in the same century of Benedict IX, who reigned in the mid-1000s, we also saw Pope Gregory VII, who fostered a flowering of Eucharistic devotion still in bloom today. And certainly no human institution could have produced such titanic saints like Francis of Assisi and Dominic in the next century.

There is papal sin. Then there is widespread degeneracy. One of the worst moments in the history of the Church was the sacking of Constantinople in 1204—a three-day drunken rampage in which crusaders raped Orthodox nuns, killed priests, and desecrated church property. But the true Church prevailed nonetheless. How else to explain the beginnings of the rosary devotion and the theological genius of St. Thomas Aquinas later that century—not to mention the literary achievement of Dante early in the next?

Again: Who wouldn’t be embarrassed by the worldliness of the Borgia popes and the abuse of indulgences in the early 1500s? But if there were any doubts as to where the true Church was to be found in the sixteenth century, St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, and St. Ignatius of Loyola should have put them to rest.

For any institution to survive such extreme vicissitudes of vice and virtue over the course of two thousand years would be extraordinary. For an institution to not only endure, but to flourish is truly miraculous. Hilaire Belloc put it best when he described the Catholic Church as “an institute run with such knavish imbecility that if it were not the work of God it would not last a fortnight.”

But the hindsight of history will only get you so far. It certainly would have been less helpful to devout Catholics actually living during the sacking of Constantinople or the endless scandals of Stephen VI and Alexander VI. One can’t help but wonder what they were thinking or feeling. One thing is certain: such trying times surely demanded great faith for those who stuck it out.

To truly live in the moment is always a struggle. It is far easier to either nurse nostalgia over a glorious past or entertain flights of fancy to a better and brighter future. Only with faith is balance possible. Only with faith is it possible to understand that the actions of today fit in with the broader plan of Providence that encompasses all time.

One of the popular images for faith in our culture comes from a poem by Mary Stevenson. The poem tells of a dream in which the author is walking with God on the beach. Two sets of footprints are seen. But then there is only one. “Why, when I needed you most, you have not been there for me?” the dreamer asks. The Lord responds, “The times when you have seen only one set of footprints in the sand, is when I carried you.”

But the biblical image of faith is more violent and soul-wrenching than this. It is of Abraham on the mountain, his arm against the sky, about to plunge a sword into his son Isaac, whom God had promised to him as the first in a race of descendants as numerous as the stars. It is one thing to believe that God is working through your actions to bring about such an incredible plan for the future of humanity. It is entirely another to believe that God will bring about that plan when it seems directly contrary to everything you see. This Abraham did.

Sometimes God’s plan is apparent to us. It wasn’t in the midst of the chaos and confusion that immediately enveloped the Church after Vatican II. But then it became clear in the papacies of Blessed John Paul II and Benedict XVI. For John Paul II, the gospel of Jesus Christ was lived out in the fullness of its moral witness against a culture obsessed with sex and death. To this legacy, Benedict XVI added a critically necessary renewal of the Tridentine Mass. And he invited us to explore the heart of the faith with his Jesus of Nazareth series and his trilogy of encyclicals on the three theological virtues.

But now, in the wake of Benedict XVI’s sudden resignation, it’s not clear where God wants to take His Church. Our new pope, Francis, hints that we are the ones “obsessed” with abortion, contraception, and homosexuality and says that youth unemployment and elderly loneliness are now “the most urgent” problems. He doesn’t seem to have the deep appreciation for the Tridentine Mass that his predecessor had. And he’s opened Pandora’s box on a bunch of other vital issues like the authority of the conscience, the universal good, and evangelization.

It seems that the Church that G.K. Chesterton once described as a “chariot thundering through the ages” is about to swerve in a direction that has many conservatives sitting uncomfortably on the edge of their seats.

Unfortunately, some of them have reacted by rushing to the defense of Francis’ personal statements with a frenzied tenacity worthy of some new dogmatic pronouncement. Francis, we are told, has been the victim of mistranslations—as if an elderly atheist newspaper editor in Italy and the liberal Jesuit editors of America somehow were in collusion. Others have concocted torturous re-readings of the interviews that would make even a literary deconstructionist blush. You see, Francis didn’t really mean what he actually said, we are told, but instead something else entirely. Pull the wool back over your eyes, there’s nothing to see here.

Our faith is bound, not blind. Perhaps these conservatives need to be reminded that these two interviews were far from the ex cathedra heights of papal authority. They were not even the usual instruments of the ordinary magisterium, such as homilies or the Wednesday audiences.

At a minimum, Pope Francis, as the present occupant of the Chair of St. Peter, always deserves some modicum of respect no matter what. But we must also be constantly mindful of the distinction between the human and divine elements of the Church. With a pope who consistently makes confusing statements that even the Vatican spokesman has said are “imprecise” it seems we are in the midst of an all-too-human moment—one in which God is calling us to deepen our faith in what the Church really is. Outside the magisterium, Francis can say or do what he wants, but our faith reminds us that it is God who holds the reins to that thundering chariot.

image: ”Pope Formosus and Stephen VII” by Jean-Paul Laurens/Wikimedia Commons

Stephen Beale

By

Stephen Beale is a freelance writer based in Providence, Rhode Island. Raised as an evangelical Protestant, he is a convert to Catholicism. He is a former news editor at GoLocalProv.com and was a correspondent for the New Hampshire Union Leader, where he covered the 2008 presidential primary. He has appeared on Fox News, C-SPAN and the Today Show and his writing has been published in the Washington Times, Providence Journal, the National Catholic Register and on MSNBC.com and ABCNews.com. A native of Topsfield, Massachusetts, he graduated from Brown University in 2004 with a degree in classics and history. His areas of interest include Eastern Christianity, Marian and Eucharistic theology, medieval history, and the saints. He welcomes tips, suggestions, and any other feedback at bealenews at gmail dot com. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/StephenBeale1

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  • Proud Catholic

    You have addressed the issue of the 300 pound gorilla in the room.

  • Angelo Ocampo

    The Catholic Church is a hospital for sinners.

  • http://www.vivificat.org/ Teófilo de Jesús

    The eminent Catholic philosopher and apologist, Dr. Peter Kreeft, is more precise. Sin is mental illness; the Church is a mental hospital. ;-)

  • BillinJax

    All of us, and surely the best of us, are akin to David. But thank God Nathan is in our midst.

  • Michael P. Daniel

    It also goes more to your point in Pope Francis’ “imprecise” statements. He is still a human being regardless of what one believes about papal infallibility in the “Chair of St. Peter”. I think too often we forget that. And I say all this as a United Methodist pastor having been raised in the Roman Catholic Church. Even for all his “imprecise” comments, I find Pope Francis a breath of fresh air!

  • russ duteau

    Praise the Lord for your article. Too many of our conservative brothers and sisters have tried to re-word or interpret what Francis really has said. He does deserve the respect of his office, but we still have a need to point out errors in his doctrinal direction. Thanks for the courage to speak about these statements.

  • Michael J. Lichens

    As Flannery O’Connor said, “the only thing that makes the Church endurable is that it is somehow the body of Christ and that on this we are fed. It seems to be a fact that you have to suffer as much from the Church as for it but if you believe in the divinity of Christ you have to cherish the world at the same time that you struggle to endure it.”

    I often feel that way. However, I love this Church and it has literally saved my life.

  • Stmichael19

    24 Another parable He put forth to them, saying: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field; 25 but while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat and went his way. 26 But when the grain had sprouted and produced a crop, then the tares also appeared. 27 So the servants of the owner came and said to him, ‘Sir, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have tares?’ 28 He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The servants said to him, ‘Do you want us then to go and gather them up?’ 29 But he said, ‘No, lest while you gather up the tares you also uproot the wheat with them. 30 Let both grow together until the harvest, and at the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, “First gather together the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them, but gather the wheat into my barn.”’”

  • Sandra Lipari

    What errors?

  • QuoVadisAnima

    No, we don’t need to close our eyes in order to be Catholic – in fact, we need to open them. I did not become a saint the moment I reverted to the Catholic Church. It has been more than 2 decades since then and I am still constantly falling and back-sliding. I don’t blame the Church for failing to make me perfect; I blame myself. While there are many saints in our Church, relative to the number of Catholics there are painfully few. The Church provides us with the opportunity for sanctity but does not force it upon us.

    While I realize the sins by which so many have been scandalized are seriously depraved evil, I also realize that but for the grace of God there go I. I pray for all the Judases in our Church. I especially pray for their victims. But I never delude myself that becoming Catholic somehow sterilizes or sanitizes any of us – not even the pope – from sin. In fact, it has made me even more acutely aware of how weak we all really are and how desperately we need God’s redemption.

  • QuoVadisAnima

    Remember when it used to be standard charity to give people the Christian benefit of the doubt? Over the last few decades, I have been baffled by the faithful Catholics who seem to believe their role is to sit back and critique the popes while looking, almost eagerly, for signs of a Judas. I don’t believe that’s in God’s job description for the laity.

    I have seen numerous Catholics go astray in their efforts to take scandal from John Paul II, then Benedict XVI, and now Francis. Why are we so determined to find a “black” pope? I submit that it is because we have become a culture of cynics, determined not to be taken in by anybody. Cynicism is based on pride and suspicion. It lacks hope, trust or charity. It is clearly not a virtue and we should stop encouraging it.

  • PLPOttawa

    “I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that”
    By whom? The Magisterium? Obviously the Pope’s comments have not only caught the attention of lay Catholics but also by those in authority within the Vatican and Church.
    This is no time for a gullible and naïve Pope. There is a coming persecution of the Church that will just as severe or worse as those in the past and it is important that the Church remain faithful to its beliefs and teachings.

  • chrism

    I did read the full text, and still have concerns. My greatest concern is that the mortal wounds on the battlefield have not been caused by insignificant actions like smoking – in many, if not most, cases they are the result of the soul’s blood-loss *because of* these “3 bigs.” That being said, I think these wounded are being brought to the field hospital nearly unconscious because of their significant blood loss. It does no good to lecture them about being in the line of fire; rather we must speak the words of consolation – the love of Jesus Christ – much like an ER triage staff would do. Jesus alone is the Master Surgeon. I am hoping Pope Francis is wise beyond our understanding. People are listening – and many are drawn to his “full text.” Even those who “like” him (aka have no love for the Church) are acknowledging that Pope Francis is not making any changes to our moral codes. His tremendous love for our Blessed Mother is surely not an act – She will keep us all on track, and meanwhile we must pray for our holy father, the Vicar of Christ, and our holy Mother Church. I appreciate this article. Keep talking, keep praying and keep the Faith.

  • Baseballmomof8

    Thank you for your honesty regarding the pope and his rather strange interviews. We carry on, not because of a man, but because God Himself promised always to be with us.

  • Stephen Beale

    Dear Sir or Madam,

    Respectfully, I find your hermeneutics troubling. I’m a bit befuddled about how it is wrong for me to link comments about abortion and homosexuality in one paragraph with the “obsession” comment in the next paragraph, while you find it OK to link my sections on the medieval popes and Pope Francis, when they are separated by four paragraphs and clearly are in different contexts. In the case of Pope Francis’ interview, which I did read by the way, it’s clear from the context that when he is speaking about the obsession with a “disjointed multitude of doctrines” he is referring to abortion, homosexuality, and contraception which he had just mentioned. You will note, also, that I said Francis “hints” that we are obsessed with these issues. That is a far more fair and accurate reading of his interview than the one that you propose.

    Sincerely,
    Stephen Beale

  • russ duteau

    Sandra,

    Take you pick of Pope Francis’ quotes. These include an apparent jab at past Popes and Thomas Aquinas theology. These comments are mostly a tendency toward modernism.
    “Heads of the Church have often been narcissists, flattered and
    thrilled by their courtiers.’

    “The world is crisscrossed by roads that come closer together and move apart, but the important thing is that they lead towards the Good.”

    “Each of us has a vision of good and of evil. We have to encourage people to move towards what they think is Good.”

    “And I repeat it here. Everyone has his own idea of good and evil and must choose to follow the good and fight evil as he conceives them. That would be enough to make the world a better place.”

    “The most serious of the evils that afflict the world [!] these days are
    youth unemployment and the loneliness of the old. The old need care and companionship; the young need work and hope…This, to me, is the most urgent problem that the Church is facing.”

    “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods…. The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently.”

    “But the church has lived also times of decline in its ability to think. Unfortunately, I studied philosophy from textbooks that came from decadent or largely bankrupt Thomism. In thinking of the human being, therefore, the church should strive for genius and not for decadence.”

    “The Son of God became incarnate to instill in the souls of men the feeling of brotherhood. All are brothers and all children of God. Abba, as he called the Father.”

  • DG

    The Church’s most important task (the Divine Commission) includes preaching the Gospel as well as administering the sacraments.

  • DG

    Not everyone who is introduced to Christ likes Him. In fact, historically He had a lot of enemies. Even many of His own disciples left Him because they thought His teaching was nonsense. Eat His flesh? Carry your cross? “Get real” is a common reaction.
    And yet without these teachings, there is no true Gospel. There is no watered down version we can slip on people before getting to the harder parts.
    St. Paul preached Christ, and Him crucified. (And encountered much rejection for it.)

    Most people do, however, acknowledge natural law. So it is indeed entirely suitable to approach them at that level (abortion, contraception, homosexuality) when they are failing to live according to it. Especially, as in the case of abortion, when innocent human lives are at stake.

  • Stephen Beale

    Good point. I think when I used the word “task” I had in mind “activity” as opposed to speech. I would classify preaching the gospel as being more in the realm of “speech” than “activity.” But thanks for raising this issue. I hope my comment clarifies where I was coming from.

    Best,
    Stephen

  • Lisa

    I like your article. I have always held the view that it is foolish to leave the church because of the actions of the few who have been chosen to run it. They are only human and can choose to do the wrong things.That does not mean the teachings of the church are wrong. Pope Francis’s quotes are not always taken in its entirety by the media who like to sensationalise things. In all probability all he meant is there is more to the church’s teachings than abortion, homosexuality etc. At the end of the day, church is about Christ’s love and sacrifice for all mankind.But the media often focuses on the dogmas of the church with hardly any reference to Christ Himself who is the centre of our faith. If people have misunderstood Pope Francis and think the church now feels its OK to kill pre-born babies or go against the natural order of the sacrament of marriage, they are just going to turn away more bitter than ever.

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