By: Rev. Paul Scalia
To what shall I compare this generation? It is like children who sit in marketplaces and call to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, but you did not dance, we sang a dirge but you did not mourn.’ (Mt 11:16-17).
The Church always walks the same path as her divine Founder. Like Him she encounters those who accuse her of contradictory crimes and vices. They find her too worldly, and at the same time out of touch with “the real world.” They insist that she stay out of politics and condemn her for supposed silence on issues. In short, the world demands that the Church be human and then complains that she is not divine. Thus in a roundabout way the Church’s critics reveal the paradox of the Church: like our Lord, she is both human and divine.
That the Church is human is all too apparent. Of course, when most people talk about the Church being “human” they are referring to her failures (as if that is all it means to be human). But the human dimension of the Church continues in heaven, where there will be no failures. That the Church is human means primarily that she is built out of the living stones of individual human persons. She exists in the world in a human manner and through human means. She continues the presence of Christ by human words, actions and relationships.
Unfortunately, since our human nature is fallen and wounded, the Church’s human dimension also appears in weakness. This often scandalizes because we hope to find purity and strength in the Church but instead encounter quite the opposite. And yet, as much as we ought to find holiness in the Church, it is in another sense not surprising that we encounter weakness. The crowds in Jerusalem encountered human weakness in our Lord. Not, to be sure, moral weakness. But weakness nonetheless – the weakness of a man betrayed, beaten, scourged, and crucified. The crowds looked and, seeing the man of sorrows, in effect asked, “That? Is that God?” The Church always walks the path of her Founder. So people look upon the Body of Christ and, finding her laboring under human weakness, they ask, “That? Is that the Church of God?” Indeed she is – appearing in human nature and laboring under human weakness, as did her Lord. And just as our reaction to the suffering Lord should be one of pity and not outrage, so also we should respond to His Body, the Church suffering from the scandals of her members.
Our outrage at scandals and weakness in the Church comes from the fact that the Church is more than merely human – and we sense that to be true. She is, as we confess every Sunday, holy. This dimension of the Church is not as clear to us, just as Jesus’ divinity was veiled by His humanity. We call the Church “holy” because she bears God’s own life and grace. She teaches divine truths and administers the Sacraments of salvation. Her very soul is the Spirit of God.
In a sense, it should not surprise us that the Church suffers (and always has suffered) scandals. Not only because our Lord promised that it would happen (cf. Lk 17:1) but also because any human institution suffers them. What should surprise us is that the Church has survived her scandals. No other human institution could survive the scandals that the Church has seen. That she can survive them hints at the fact that she is more than merely human. Her weakness that endures testifies to something more than human at work within her. She is human, yes, with all the weakness that comes with that. But at once she is also divine, the Body of Christ.
Comfort with this paradox makes a heart truly Catholic. It enables one to trust in the Church as Christ’s voice and presence in the world – the very oracle of God, as Newman said. It likewise enables him to see scandals in the Church for what they are. He can see the horror of a scandal, and yet not stop trusting the Church. He knows the Church is at once divine…but also in need of reform. A person with such faith is not undone by scandals, because he knows the Church consists of weak human members (like himself). He knows that the Church is a pilgrim, en route to heaven, and always becoming more perfectly what she is.