Why the Church?

By: Fr. Paul Scalia

Many in our culture think of themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” Some will say as much explicitly.  Others hold that attitude silently.  The phrase expresses their ambivalence about and distrust for “organized religion.”  It seems an imposition on the soul, a restriction on what is intensely personal.  When applied to Christianity this mindset attempts to have Christ without His Church.  When applied to belief more generally, it tries to have faith without the Church.  The Pope addresses this phenomenon in Lumen Fidei – not head-on but in a more effective manner, simply in the course of describing faith.  “[T]he life of the believer becomes an ecclesial existence, a life lived in the Church…Faith is necessarily ecclesial” (Lumen Fidei 22).  This is not a polemic but simply an observation about faith itself.

But why? Why do we need the Church? If faith is so personal, then why this structure outside of us?

First, because we do not know what to believe without the Church.  Faith is to trust, indeed to entrust oneself to someone.  To know that Someone, we rely on what the Church holds in her “storehouse of memory” (46) and has handed down throughout the millennia.  The content of faith is not our own invention.  The Church entrusts to us the Creed and we, as children, receive what she gives us.  The Church brings us the truth about the God to Whom we entrust ourselves.  She provides both a firm foundation and a certain object for faith.

Without this gift from her storehouse, faith becomes a radically individualistic project.  Indeed, it ceases to be faith at all.  It becomes instead mere human opinion.  We soon have as many “faiths” as we have individuals – and no unity among them whatsoever.  “[A]part from this body, outside this unity of the Church in Christ, outside this Church…faith loses its ‘measure’; it no longer finds its equilibrium, the space needed to sustain itself” (22).

St_Peter's_Square,_Vatican_City_-_April_2007We likewise need the Church for the act of faith because “[i]t is impossible to believe on our own” (39).  And here Lumen Fidei makes an important observation.   We know that every message requires the appropriate medium.  A man does not propose marriage by evite, and an officer does not take an oath of office via email.  So it is with Christianity: “Faith, in fact, needs a setting in which it can be witnessed to and communicated, a means which is suitable and proportionate to what is communicated” (40, emphasis added).  Christian faith does not communicate merely an idea or a doctrine…not just a rule of life or a program of self-improvement.  We do not need a Church for those things.  A good app would suffice.

The Christian faith communicates a Person.  Something more is needed.  So He Himself established His community of believers not as a club or a society for the preservation of His life and teachings but as a Body, His Body.  The Church is the suitable and proportionate believing subject – “the bearer within history of the plenary gaze of Christ on the world” (as the Pope quotes Romano Guardini).  Faith is ecclesial – it requires the Church – not because of some decree or law, but because the very content and act of faith need that Body to bring us into contact with Christ Himself.

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