Do we construct the Church in our own image?

Do we construct the Church in our own image?

Fr Ken Clark

I am constantly amazed by the number of people who are constructing, or have constructed, a God and a Church in their own image. Not for them the Magisterium, or what has been traditionally acknowledged as the teaching of the Church; rather, it is what is considered "acceptable" to themselves, and/or by society.

It all comes down to thinking of Jesus as a "nice guy", as someone who was a man of his time, and was influenced by the society around him.

Part of this thinking seems to be that Jesus is love, and being love personified he would never condemn, since if you love someone you "accept" them as they are and are content for them to remain as they are. No matter what your state in life, or what your spiritual condition, Jesus will love and "accept" you, regardless.

It seems as though people want Jesus, but they also want to come, and stay as they are; and if they cannot "stay as they are" then there must be something wrong with the Church, and its teachings. This is because Jesus is love and all-inclusive, and therefore would not insist on any change on the part of the individual.

Need to change

Part of this is true, as Jesus loves us unconditionally. No matter what state of life we are in he meets us where we are; but he is never content for us to remain as we are. There is always a sting in the tail of Christ's message: we have to change in order to meet his Holiness.

To the man at the pool in Bethesda he said, "Do not sin any more" (Jn 5:14); to the rich young man, "Go and sell all you own" (Mt 19:21); and to the woman taken in adultery, "I do not condemn you, sin no more" (Jn 8:11).

There are two ways. One is best expressed by Jesus who meets us where we are, confronting us with his holiness. In this confrontation we are invited to accept changes, be converted, and to sin no more – we are called to holiness.

In the other, we meet Christ who asks for conversion, and for us to "go and sin no more". But we ignore that command, stay in our sin, follow our own path, pick and choose which part of the teaching we follow and which we do not, so that holiness becomes unattainable.

Pope Leo XIII discussed this in 1888 when he said: "It would be impossible to avoid the conclusion that public and private morals differ much from the precepts of the Gospel, ... They call self-love liberty, and think themselves 'born free like a wild ass's colt'." ( Exeunte Iam Anno, 6)

In 1907, Pope St Pius X was deeply concerned with it. For him, it was the result of religious ignorance, united with so-called reformers who proposed changes to the very elements of Christian Doctrine.

"We allude ... to many who belong to the Catholic laity [and] to the ranks of the priesthood itself, who, ... imbued with the ... doctrines taught by the enemies of the Church, ... [profess] themselves as reformers of the Church [assailing] all that is most sacred in the work of Christ." ( Pascendi Dominici Gregi)

In a similar way St Pius X also deplored the lack of knowledge of things divine. For him, many ills within the Church, as with those outside the Church, could be laid at the feet of this "ignorance of the Divine": "They have no conception of the malice and baseness of sin; hence they show no anxiety to avoid sin or to renounce it" ( Acerbo Nimis).

What was true of the Church and of society in the 19th and 20th centuries is also true of the 21st, perhaps even more so. The words of St Pius X can just as easily apply to our society today, when even members of the Church look to the world, instead of to the Church. St John Paul II addressed this problem in his talk to the American Bishops in Los Angeles in 1987:

"It is sometimes reported that a large number of Catholics today do not adhere to the teaching of the Catholic Church on a number of questions, notably sexual and conjugal morality, divorce and remarriage.

"Some are reported as not accepting the clear position on abortion. It has to be noted that there is a tendency on the part of some Catholics to be selective in their adherence to the Church's moral teaching.

"It is sometimes claimed that dissent from the magisterium is totally compatible with being a 'good Catholic', and poses no obstacle to the reception of the Sacraments. This is a grave error that challenges the teaching of the Bishops in the United States and elsewhere."

"Cafeteria Catholics"

One common name for Catholics who are 'selective' in their adherence to the Church's moral teaching, is "cafeteria Catholics" For many, the Church and the world are not separate and apart, but muddled together. Today we have such nomenclatures as "Catholics for Choice", "Catholics for Abortion", "Nuns for Choice", "LGBT Catholics" and "Gay Catholics". The list of such organisations is long, with each and everyone opposed to the teaching of the Magisterium as codified in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Pope Benedict VI, when he was Cardinal Ratzinger, in a homily on 18 April 2005 stated:

"How many winds of doctrine have we known in recent decades, how many ideological currents, how many ways of thinking.

"The small boat of the thought of many Christians has often been tossed about by these waves - flung from one extreme to another: from Marxism to liberalism, even to libertinism; from collectivism to radical individualism; from atheism to a vague religious mysticism; from agnosticism to syncretism and so forth.

"Every day new sects spring up, and what St Paul says about human deception and the trickery that strives to entice people into error (cf. Eph 4: 14) comes true.

"Today, having a clear faith based on the Creed of the Church is often labelled as fundamentalism. Whereas relativism, that is, letting oneself be 'tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine', seems the only attitude that can cope with modern times.

"We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognise anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one's own ego and desires."

After Cardinal Ratzinger had become Pope Benedict XVI, in a speech to the clergy in Rome in 2012 he remarked:

"A serious problem for the Church today is the lack of knowledge of the faith, 'religious illiteracy' [so that] we are unable to grow, [and] unity is unable to grow.

"We ourselves must therefore recover this content, as a wealth of unity, not a packet of dogmas and orders but a unique reality which is revealed in its depths and beauty."

Essential vision

Today, the vision of these Popes, Leo XIII, St Pius X, St John Paul II, and Benedict XVI, of coming to know the Redeemer, within the Church, bringing people to holiness remains current and essential for us.

The Church is the instrument whereby the salvific mission of Christ is continued. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches:

"The sole Church of Christ [is that] which our Saviour, after his Resurrection, entrusted to Peter's pastoral care, commissioning him and the other apostles to extend and rule it ...

"This Church, constituted and organised as a society in the present world, subsists in ( subsistit in) the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the bishops in communion with him."

Pope Leo XIII in his encyclical Exeunte Iam Anno referred to the only way, the one that all Catholics should follow which leads to holiness, and Christ: "Now the whole essence of a Christian life is to reject the corruption of the world and to oppose constantly any indulgence in it".

We need to return to what St Pius X stressed as the absolute necessity of teaching the Catechism, the Church's own handbook, to all people within the Church.

Following on from St Pius X, St John Paul II promulgated a more substantive version of the Catechism, titled the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992) and Pope Benedict XVI in 2012 reinforced this catechetical teaching:

"We must do our utmost for a catechetical renewal, so that the faith may be known and in this way God may be known, Christ may be known, the truth may be known, so that unity may develop in truth."

We have to know our faith, it must become ingrained, and that faith must be transmitted.

There are at least two ways that have developed within the Church. The first is sure and certain, a clear pathway to God, and for this we have the lives of the saints as examples, the Church as called into being by Christ and the deposit of faith as set out in the Catechism, what some would call traditional or orthodox Catholicism.

The second is fluid, where nothing is certain. It involves becoming the sole arbiter of what is, and what is not of God. In this second way, individuals and collectives decide what is Godly, and what the faith should be like, picking and choosing without any recourse to the Magisterium or tradition.

Most liberal Protestant churches have travelled this path and are now in steep decline.

For orthodox Catholics, holiness can only come through an intimate relationship with Jesus Christ within his Church, through the sacraments, and in obedience to the teaching of the Church as expressed in the Catechism promulgated by St John Paul II.

St Paul's example

What are we to do? I think we must be like St Paul and be patient, endure, admonish when applicable, teach with authority, administer the sacraments as they are meant to be administered, be true to the precepts and teachings of the Church even if our personal predilections and preferences prompt us otherwise.

St Paul wrote: "Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry." (2 Tim 3:2-5)

Fr Ken Clark is a former Anglican priest and now a member of the Ordinariate of Our Lady of the Southern Cross, in Gippsland, Victoria.

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