What’s the point of the Catholic Church? Why do we need a Church, and why must it be Catholic? While seemingly a simple question, I’d actually argue it is quite profound. In this age of talk of “reform” within the Church, how we answer these questions will get to the heart of why reform is or isn’t necessary. The answers to these questions will also tell us a lot about how we see God, each other, and our purpose.
The First Vatican Council offers us the following about the purpose of the Church:
The eternal shepherd and guardian of our souls , in order to render permanent the saving work of redemption, determined to build a Church in which, as in the house of the living God, all the faithful should be linked by the bond of one faith and charity.
From this understanding, we know that a church was founded a) so God may be found and b) so that man can be saved. The Second Vatican Council’s Lumen Gentium agrees when it says the Church was founded “as an instrument for the redemption of all, and is sent forth into the whole world as the light of the world and the salt of the earth.”
I’d say that in many ways the Church struggles today because it has forgotten this message, or that message has been de-emphasized. Everything that is praiseworthy about Catholicism should have the knowing of Christ as its primary end. Do we have a beautiful liturgy? What good is it if we aren’t using that liturgy to make Christ known? Are the doctrines of the Church just a set of intellectual beliefs to be assented to, or are they how we come to know God? While fellowship is a nice goal, what good is fellowship not focused on Christ? What fellowship can I get through the life of the Church I can’t get elsewhere? Why can’t I get it elsewhere?
Having established why a Church is necessary, why must it be Catholic? We must point out that “Catholic Church” is not synonymous with the building down the street you worship at on Sundays. The Catholic Church is instead a collection of Churches, led by bishops, united in faith, in union with the Bishop of Rome, the successor to St. Peter, known as the Pope. Within these Churches there are a variety of forms of worship, devotion, and customs. All of these things exist to proclaim the one truth that has been proclaimed since the foundation of the Church at Pentecost. The Church is Catholic because it is universal.
Why is it universal? Throughout history, there have been movements which have had a large impact on humanity that were the result of one culture, empire, or person. Over time, these things fade. The staying power of the Catholic Church rests in the fact her message is for all people on earth, not just a select few. When we forget that reality, the Church suffers. While events such as the Reformation, the Great Schism with the Orthodox, and the crisis after the Second Vatican Council have many causes, it cannot be denied that one of those problems is Catholic leaders, from lay leader to priest to even pope, began to forget the universal nature of the Catholic Church. These problems have been and can only be overcome when we Catholics start appreciating that universal nature. Christ’s Church is greater than the cultures in the world, because He existed before them.
While these challenging days for Catholics provide us with many tribulations, they also provide us with many opportunities for renewal. In this Year of Mercy, God wishes to give us mercy so that, with the barrier of sin removed, we can know Him deeper. The first step to knowing God is being able to explain why we belong to the Catholic Church.