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