The Shadows of the Church

13.04.2010

I am a Christian then a Catholic. I am Catholic because I am Christian. I know a lot of Christians from other churches, but for me the Church of Christ is about community, the kind of unity that happened in the beginning, with the first followers of Christ, who were transformed by and through him (and not only because of his teachings). This unity has to be visible and this is what the Catholic Church embodies.

The great Dominican friar Timothy Radcliffe, the only member of the English Province of the Dominicans to have held the office of Master of the Order of Preachers (from 1992 to 2001) since the Order’s foundation in 1216,[1] puts it like this:

I am not a Catholic because our Church is the best, or even because I like Catholicism. I do love much about my Church but there are aspects of it which I dislike. I am not a Catholic because of a consumer option for an ecclesiastical Waitrose rather than Tesco, but because I believe that it embodies something which is essential to the Christian witness to the Resurrection, visible unity.

When Jesus died, his community fell apart. He had been betrayed, denied, and most of his disciples fled. It was chiefly the women who accompanied him to the end. On Easter Day, he appeared to the disciples. This was more than the physical resuscitation of a dead corpse.

In him God triumphed over all that destroys community: sin, cowardice, lies, misunderstanding, suffering and death. The Resurrection was made visible to the world in the astonishing sight of a community reborn. These cowards and deniers were gathered together again. They were not a reputable bunch, and shamefaced at what they had done, but once again they were one. The unity of the Church is a sign that all the forces that fragment and scatter are defeated in Christ.

All Christians are one in the Body of Christ. I have deepest respect and affection for Christians from other Churches who nurture and inspire me. But this unity in Christ needs some visible embodiment. Christianity is not a vague spirituality but a religion of incarnation, in which the deepest truths take the physical and sometimes institutional form. Historically this unity has found its focus in Peter, the Rock in Matthew, Mark and Luke, and the shepherd of the flock in John’s gospel.

From the beginning and throughout history, Peter has often been a wobbly rock, a source of scandal, corrupt, and yet this is the one — and his successors — whose task is to hold us together so that we may witness to Christ’s defeat on Easter Day of sin’s power to divide. And so the Church is stuck with me whatever happens. We may be embarrassed to admit that we are Catholics, but Jesus kept shameful company from the beginning.[2]

Looking at the history of the Church I understand why many are drawn to other Christian denominations, to other religions, and even to atheism. Some influential members of the Church did not follow the Gospel. But why should we be surprised by this? Sin exists. We are all — all — in need of salvation. That is why the Church was founded by Jesus Christ. It is a place for sinners, the place where sinners may recognise themselves as such, repent, and find forgiveness, hope, and the joy of doing good — only some of its member do not do this. The Church is holy because in her, by being part of her, we find holiness, not because everybody in her is holy. In fact, the Church mirrors (perhaps it even intensifies) the struggles that we, humans, go through. The Church is not perfect. It is made of imperfect creatures with a divine mission defined and begun by Jesus.

In the second tale of the first volume of Boccacio’s The Decameron, Abraham, a Jew goes to Rome during the Borgia reign[3] to decide whether or not to convert to Christianity. Having seen the evil life of the pope and the curia, he returns to Paris and decides that he wants to be baptised. Read carefully what he says to his Christian friend, the merchant Giannotto di Civignì:

To the best of my judgment, your Pastor, and by consequence all that are about him devote all their zeal and ingenuity and subtlety to devise how best and most speedily they may bring the Christian religion to nought and banish it from the world. And because I see that what they so zealously endeavour does not come to pass, but that on the contrary your religion continually grows, and shines more and more clear, therein I seem to discern a very evident token that it, rather than any other, as being more true and holy than any other, has the Holy Spirit for its foundation and support.[4]

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[1] I have read and written about two of his books, What Is the Point of Being a Christian? (London: Burns & Oates, 2005) and Why Go to Church?: The Drama of the Eucharist (New York: Continuum, 2008).

[2] Timothy Radcliffe OP, “Should I Stay or Should I Go?: Clerical-Abuse Scandal”, The Tablet, 10 April 2010, http://www.thetablet.co.uk/article/14543, pars. 12-16.

[3] Not all of the Borgias were corrupt, by the way. Francis Borgia (1510-1572), great-grandson of Alexander VI (Rodrigo Borgia), courageously avoided the choices of his relatives. Loving father and husband, he became a Jesuit priest after the death of his wife, renouncing his aristocratic titles and then turning down the title of Cardinal, opting for a life as an itinerant preacher. He was declared a saint in 20 June 1670 by Clement X.

[4] Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron [1348-58], trans. James Macmullen Rigg (Gloucester: Dodo Press, 2005), p. 37.