Every time I open my computer and go online, I find countless articles, blogs and Facebook comments questioning the Catholic Church about something. Maybe it’s mainstream media challenging the Church about its moral position regarding homosexuality, contraception or abortion. Maybe it’s Catholics pushing for the Church to change its stance toward women and the priesthood or homosexual marriage. Recently, Pope Francis has come under the spotlight a lot too, with both Catholics and non-Catholics speculating about what the new pope might “change” about Catholicism, and comparing whether his first actions as pope with the customs of the popes that preceded him. Since many of these topics are likely to keep coming up, I’d like to bring up a few aspects of the Catholic Church that are often forgotten, or misunderstood.
The Catholic Church upholds the truth; she doesn’t create it. Yes, the Church has dogma – different moral and theological teachings that do not change because they are seen as objective truth. The Church does not have the ability to create truth, but to affirm it, point to it and uphold it. When the Church promulgates a dogma about theological truth, such as the Immaculate Conception for example, the belief doesn’t become true because the Church said so; the Church elevates the belief to the level of dogma because the Church is completely confident, based on a combination of Scripture, Tradition, divine law, and/or natural law that it is true. The same is true of morality; an action doesn’t become wrong because the Church declares it to be a moral evil. The Church declares an action to be a moral evil only when it is absolutely confident that the action is, in fact, intrinsically evil, going against the order God established for creation in one way or another. The Catholic Church is not a dictator, wielding a heavy hand of arbitrary power; she is a guide, carefully protecting, safeguarding and illuminating the truth.
The Church is a Divine and human institution. I think the best way to understand this is in light of the words Jesus spoke to Peter in Mt. 16:18: “And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
Upon this rock I will build my church. This statement establishes the inseparable connection between the human and divine in the Church. It is JESUS’ Church, founded by the Lord himself; in this way, it is a Divine Institution. However, the Lord chose a flawed human being as the “rock” upon which he built his Church. As a result, the Church will be tied to human weakness. Yes, it is disappointing when people within the Church, including priests, bishops and even popes, fail and demonstrate human sinfulness, but that doesn’t change the nature of the Church, nor its identity as the sacrament of salvation. Jesus himself chose to work through man in spite of, or perhaps because of, his sinfulness. God’s ability to bring good out of evil and carry out his plan even when men, and men within the Church sin or demonstrate weakness, shows God’s power ever more clearly.
The gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. Here, after communicating his decision to found his Church with the help of man, God promises to protect its Church. Aware of man’s sinful nature and ability to choose evil over good, God affirms that, nevertheless, evil will not triumph. He doesn’t say evil won’t triumph because good things will continue outside of the Church he founds; he says that evil will not prevail against the Church. This reminds me of the parable of the weeds and the wheat; even in the Church there is a combination of good and evil, weeds and wheat. Much as we try, we will never be able to purify the weeds without ruining good wheat along with it. The Lord, on the last day, will separate the weeds from the wheat, but, in the meantime, we have his guarantee that even though evil attacks the Church, sometimes from within as well as from without, it will not prevail. We need to continue working on purifying the Church, beginning with purifying our own hearts, because the Church is called to represent God’s love, Word and plan to mankind. The perfect Church we sometimes wish for however – a Church free of all sin and scandal, will not occur, and is not what God intended, given that he freely chose to incorporate sinful humanity as an essential element of his Church and even as the head of his Church on earth. Remember that just minutes after calling Peter the “rock” of his Church, Jesus said to him, “Get behind me, Satan. You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.” The original word translated as “obstacle” actually referred to another type of rock, a stumbling stone. In the same conversation, Jesus thus called Peter a “rock” in two different senses, first establishing him as the foundational stone of the Church, and then, shortly afterwards, calling him a stumbling stone. Jesus was well aware that the instrument he chose to lead his Church could also get in the way, but that didn’t stop him from working with and through him. We should not look for a perfect Church, and should not be surprised when scandal rears its ugly head even from within, but should remember that Jesus was aware of this and chose to establish the Church with an intrinsically human dimension, affirming at the same time that evil will not prevail against the Church. Just as Peter, even after denying Christ, would turn and strengthen his brethren, so the Church, even after internal scandals, will move forward, strengthening humanity. I am not saying it is OK for Catholics, including priests or bishops to abuse others or commit any other sort of sin, or cover up for their sins; I am just saying that we shouldn’t be surprised when sinfulness surfaces within the Church, and the sins of individuals within the Church isn’t a reason to leave the Church, because the promises God attached to the Church, and the divine dimension of the Church are not contingent upon the men guiding the Church being perfect; they are contingent upon God’s own perfection, and he will not abandon the Church he promised to remain with until the end of time.
Whatever you hold bound on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you hold loosed on earth shall be loosed in heaven. With these words, Jesus is transferring a certain authority to Peter, head of his Church, promising Peter that the decisions made on this earth will be respected in heaven. When Jesus said this, the concept of the authority to bind and loose was not new; it had clear precedence on the Old Testament and Hebrew theology. In Hebrew theology, the power to bind and loose was understood as a divinely authorized legal authority bestowed upon a spiritual leader to prohibit or permit and excommunicate or reinstate. Jesus transferred this authority to Peter, the first head of the Church. The Catholic Church did not make up its own interpretation of this verse, but held to the definition of binding and loosing already established from Hebrew theology and Old Testament usage. An exegetical study of the terms used (asar and shera), not only by Christian sources, but by Jewish ones as well, clearly show that this phrase is not able to be interpreted in a variety of manners; it had a clearly established meaning. The concept of papal infallibility and the Church’s right to excommunicate members are part of this concept of binding and loosing. This phrase was directed directly to Peter and then passed on to his successors (the theology of papal succession is a different topic that cannot be addressed at length here). Again, we see the intrinsic link between the divine and the human in the Church; Jesus has divine authority, and has invested that authority on a human being.
*Note: While the concept of binding and loosing also includes the ability to forgive sins, in this sense, that ability was given only to Peter; granted, Peter then had the ability to exercise some of his authority through priests, but the sacramental ability of all priests to forgive sins through the sacrament of confession can be traced more explicitly to Jn 20:23, when Jesus, speaking to the group of disciples, said, “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.”
The Catholic Church condemns no one. The Church will not waver from her teachings, but her teachings do not make her bigoted, discriminatory or hateful, any more than Jesus was bigoted, discriminatory or hateful as he unveiled and abided by the truth even when it meant going against the grain and risking persecution even unto death. The Church respects individual freedom, and forces no one to share her beliefs, partake in her sacraments, or follow her moral teachings. Respect does not necessarily imply agreement. I can disagree with my spouse, my parents, my siblings or my friends over multiple issues without lessening the respect or love I have for them. The same is true of the Church; it can, and will disagree with societies, individuals or institutions that differ from what it firmly believes to be the truth, but this does not lessen its ability to respect or love each individual, regardless of their personal decisions and beliefs. Judgment, however, refers to establishing the guilt of individuals; this is left for God. Not every person that commits a moral evil will be condemned for it; the Church clearly teachers that guilt depends on not only the action, but also on the person’s knowledge and intention. Only God knows the heart, and therefore only God, with full knowledge of the individual’s mind, intention and actions can judge. The Church will continue, however, to uphold its own policies regarding who may or may not receive communion or call themselves a member of the Catholic Church. Receiving communion demonstrates full union with the Church. Someone that publicly expressed lack of agreement with the Church on matters of dogma, whether pertaining to morals or beliefs, is requested not to partake in communion, which would be misleading. Serious, public and persistent actions outside of the Church’s moral or theological teachings can lead to excommunication, a step the Church takes to clearly indicate that the said party is not reflecting the Church and differs from the Church in such grave matters that the person may not call themselves Catholic. Even in cases of excommunication, the Church is not judging or condemning the person’s soul; that is left to God who alone knows the person’s heart and intentions.
Truth is not determined by numbers. Repeating something over and over may sway public opinion, but it doesn’t make it true… Centuries ago, popular opinion held that the world was round, but that didn’t make it true. Popular opinion cannot change reality. Popular opinion can affect reputation, change culture and influence laws, but it can’t change basic truths. It would be very convenient if we could make things true by just thinking them over and over or saying them over and over, but we can’t. We might convince ourselves that it is true and we might convince others that it is true, but no number of people saying something is true can actually change reality. This is, perhaps, one of the weaknesses of democracy; if democracy is not founded on any absolute principles, then things that are not true can be repeated over and over again until enough people believe in them to act upon them, even though the underlying truth remains the same. The Catholic Church is aware of this, and does not allow her teachings to be changed when a new majority forms, because the Church is certain that her truths are unchanging ones, regardless of how many people believe them and how many people don’t. The Church will go to great lengths, pastorally, to reach out to society as it changes, and will keep reaching out no matter what happens, but it will not change its teachings because it believes that God is the ultimate truth and that he created the world with a certain nature and truth within it, and that truth must be preserved; since God is the author of truth, no number of men can change the truth no matter how hard they try.
The Church is neither ahead of the times, nor behind the times; it transcends time. Morality and truth are not subjective, changing realities. I’ve often heard the argument that the Church should change its moral teachings regarding contraception and homosexuality because these are issues facing society now that didn’t previously face society; the Church needs to adapt to keep up with the times and 21st century needs. This is a convenient, but false statement. Natural law, or the way God intended the world, and every element within it to behave and function doesn’t change with time, because it is part of our nature, implying that it is essential to our being, not an accidental element that can be changed one way or another. Furthermore, a glance at history shows that homosexuality and abortion were alive and well in the ancient Roman Empire. Jesus and his immediate followers did not live in a society immune from these issues. Nevertheless, Jesus clearly established a moral law prohibiting these behaviors. The early Christians were persecuted for their moral standards in ancient Rome, but they continued to abide by Divine and natural law. These moral issues are not new to the Church; they are not a new development that the Church has to adapt to; they are age old issues, and the Church’s morality has been firm regarding these matters from the beginning. If they did not arise sooner in this society, it is not because they are “new” developments helping humanity progress forward; it is because western cultures were initially founded on Christian principles, and therefore refrained from allowing actions held to be immoral by the teachings of the Church. The Church will continue to uphold the truth she has taught for ages, and will continue to abide by its moral law. It acknowledges individual freedom and therefore, forces no one to be part of the Church and follow its norms. Unfortunately, the Church doesn’t always receive the same respect in return. Many individuals and social action groups are not content with the fact that their freedom is respected; they are pushing for the Church to sanction their actions. This is something the Church cannot do if it is to remain true to its identity; it cannot change its beliefs to please society, because it does not exist to please society, but to uphold eternal truths, ultimately, the truth of salvation.
The Church is neither conservative nor liberal; it’s Catholic. The Church doesn’t govern its actions based on what has “always” been done, nor on the desire to change what has “always” been done. The Church governs its practices on the basis of moral and theological beliefs and principles. Current social and political divides draw lines based on conservatism vs. liberalism. The Church doesn’t fit into this mold, and this is one of the reasons why the Church never endorses a particular political party. The Church examines each platform and proposal on the basis of morality and the common good. It cans support certain efforts raised by one political party without agreeing with that party about everything, and vice versa. These dividing lines have sometimes been applied by Catholics themselves, who call themselves either “conservative” or “liberal” Catholics. Neither view is “more Catholic” than the other, because the Church isn’t conservative or liberal, but Catholic. There are times when the teachings of the Church will scandalize the conservatives by breaking with a given custom, and other times when they will aggravate the liberals by withstanding popular pressure to change various practices and teachings. The best way to understand the Church is by getting rid of the conservative/liberal labels and examining each action and teaching in light of its “Catholicity” – e.g. the extent to which it complies with Catholic teachings based on Scripture, Tradition and Magisterium.
The Church stands for equality: true equality.
We need to distinguish between equality and sameness. Briefly, in the eyes of the Church, all people are equal and must be treated equally. All people are equally children of God. We are equal in freedom, equal in dignity, and equal in love. We are all equally deserving of respect. We are equal. But we are not all the same. This can be seen even on the physical level. Men and women are different, even bodily speaking. People are different – some are tall and some are short; some have brown hair and some have red. None of these attributes mitigates equality, because equality resides in our dignity and nature, not these accidentals. On a deeper level different people have different qualities, different talents, and different interests. The Church fully recognizes equality; it does not however, believe that for equality to be obtained, all things must be the same; in fact, it is well aware that this is impossible. You cannot take something and make it the same as something it is not.
We are created equal but not born equal. The Church is also well aware of the toll of original sin. Pain and suffering, and many conditions in life are the result of original sin. Take the example of someone with a handicap; they were created equal and are still equal in terms of love, respect and dignity. Clearly, however, they have not been born “equal” to others in terms of their capacities. In these cases, the Church emphasizes the importance of equality even more, pointing to the suffering that comes as a result of original sin as a way for humanity to unite itself more to the cross of Jesus, but also stressing the importance of remembering the dignity of every human being and treating them with equal dignity, respect and love.
Jesus was countercultural. There were many times when Jesus had to go against the grain in society in order to uphold the truth, and he wasn’t afraid of doing so, even when he was crucified for it. The disciples and early Christians were also scoffed at and persecuted, even unto death, for their beliefs. If western society has, for a period of time, been favorable and supportive of Christian beliefs, it is something to be thankful for, but Christians should not be surprised when they start meeting resistance, scorn and persecution because their beliefs are now countercultural.
I hope and pray that the Lord continue to guide the Church, and the world, in the name of Jesus Christ, who is himself the unchanging Way, Truth and Life.