Many troubles today within the Church, and also among Christians in general, come down to a problem of mistaken or false ecclesiology. “Ecclesiology” refers to the nature of the Church. What is the Church? What is the fundamental mission of the Church? How essential is the Church in the life of every believer? What authority does the Church have in our life? Who has the authority in the Church to speak for Jesus Christ and teach in His name? What is the Church’s relationship to Holy Scripture and the sacred deposit of faith? Is there but one Church, or many? And so forth. These are questions dealt with in the branch of sacred theology known as ecclesiology.
Many people today, including many Catholics, have come to accept a badly flawed ecclesiology. Many see the Church simply as a human institution. The kind of cynicism and scorn commonly directed in our culture toward institutions is therefore also aimed at the Church. But while the Church does have institutional elements and human members, the Church is not a mere human institution.
The Catholic Church is the continuing presence of Jesus Christ in the world—it is the Body of Christ. And this is not just a figurative way of speaking about the Church. Sacred Scripture gives this description a real, quite literal though mystical (i.e., beyond our full sight) sense. The Catholic Church is both visible and spiritual. It is structured hierarchically, like any body, yet is Spirit-led. It has human members yet is also the divine presence of Christ in the world today. The Church, as the Body of Christ, teaches in His name, sanctifies with His grace and Sacraments, and leads with His authority. Jesus still walks this earth, preaches, heals, teaches, forgives, feeds, and summons us.
Because the Church is the Body of Christ—we His members, He the Head of the Body—there cannot be many “Churches” any more than there can be many “Christs.” Jesus has one Body. The Church is not some ethereal, invisible reality. Rather, like any body, it is visible and has identifying marks and attributes. As with a body that has parts, organs, and “members” with different functions, the Church has members. But not all members have the same function or role.
These descriptions set aside many popular misconceptions about the Church.
The Church is not a club made up of people who gather for some specific goal or purpose of their own. Such clubs are fine in their own way, and often have a noble purpose, but the Church exists to bring forth Jesus’ stated goals and purposes, to proclaim His vision, His way, and His truth.
The Church is not a political party. Political parties reflect human preferences and opinion, and are organized to carry forth human goals and projects. This is all well and good, but the Church transcends passing political views and goals, and cannot simply fit into the self-defined boxes of political parties and movements. The Body of Christ cannot be reduced to or perfectly defined by any specific political philosophy or party.
The Church exists to proclaim what Christ has taught, whether it is popular or not.
Now this point is critical and too easily forgotten today by many who issue insistent demands that the Church “update” her teachings and conform to current notions and mores. Many cry out, for example, “Doesn’t the Church leadership know that most Catholics reject its teaching on contraception, or the priesthood?”
Many, because of a flawed ecclesiology think that our failure to conform to modern notions is not only odd, but downright unjust, wrong, or even sinful. This is because of the mistaken idea that the Church is supposed to reflect the views of its members and represent them and what they think.
But the Church does not exist to reflect the views of its members, but rather the views and teachings of its head and founder, Jesus Christ. It is His teachings that are to unite the members of the body and be the principle of our unity. Jesus entrusted His teachings to His apostles, who handed them down to us in Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition.
On this point we must be clear. The defined doctrines, to include the moral teachings of the Church, are not going to change despite even the strident protests of the world. Because of the highly sexualized culture in which we live, most of the demands that we change center around issues of sexuality and the family. But no matter how many secular news reports you have read in the past year or so speculating that “a change in doctrine is being signaled” (whether about divorce and remarriage (as we approach the Synod on the Family in October), or homosexual acts, or sexual intercourse outside of marriage, or abortion, or women being priests, or euthanasia), be assured that these teachings cannot change. There are just some things that the Church cannot do, no matter how heavy the pressure to do so. These doctrinal teachings are not going to change because Jesus, who spoke through his apostles, is not going to change. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever. Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings (Heb 13:8-9).
Opinion polls are not the source of our teaching, Jesus is. And just as Jesus was rejected by many of His time, the Catholic Church, His body, is often destined to be a sign of contradiction in the world. The same gospel must be preached, in season or out of season.
A proper ecclesiology can save us from needless fears and also from the mistaken notion that the faith revealed by Christ can ever fundamentally change. Courage, the Cross, consistency, clarity, and charity—in all things, Christ! At the end of the day, even with the likes of me and you, that’s what the Church is: Christ. And though crucified, He rose and His truth will prevail.