e-mail us


Looking past visible church to find the real church


It’s hard to escape complaints everywhere in the church that the bishops and Rome are excessively authoritative and too legalistic. Some believe that the windows opened by Vatican II are being closed.

Those frustrations are natural enough, but in the midst of them we can sometimes lose sight of the theological and mystical realities of the real church of Christ.

I recently reread an article on the Catholic church in the Catholic Encyclopedia by Jesuit theologian Fr. Francis X. Lawlor, my seminary professor. The classes, all in Latin, were conducted a decade before Vatican II. But they formed my mind to revere and love the church — not necessarily the organized church with all of its imperfections and disappointments, but the church established by Christ himself.

The reality of this invisible church is so great that no description of it can ever be complete. It is God’s handiwork; it is the fulfillment of all the prophecies made by God during the centuries prior to the incarnation.

The mystical church I venerate and love is, in the words of Vatican II, a unity in which all the faithful scattered throughout the world lead a common life in the Holy Spirit. The council said the church is the people of God, the body of the Lord and the temple of the Holy Spirit.

In Lawlor’s sophisticated and nuanced article, he notes that Protestantism and Jansenism placed such theological stress on the church that it became defined as the exclusive means of salvation. It did not develop a well-rounded ecclesiology and it became too clericalized.

When some Catholics express sharp disagreement with the leadership or attitudes of ecclesiastical officials, I always remember the old adage that we cannot hate something unless we first have loved it. But the frequency and the persistence of criticism, the rejection and even scorn of the church suggests to me that the critics may not understand or even know about the beauty and profundity of the mystical theology of the church. For them the church is the local pastor and bishop whose views on social and political issues may be contrary to theirs.

I speak often with faithful Catholics who are so embarrassed and annoyed with the opinions of some priests or others that they avoid their parishes. When I urge these Catholics to think of the majesty of the invisible church and not of its fallible ministers, I do not always get a responsive reply.

In the recent past I was pleased to preside at a liturgy for a group of some 30 young professional people. They were highly educated, articulate and destined to be leaders. They were highly critical of the local organized Catholic church. They had tried a number of parishes with not too much satisfaction. They were yearning to discover the real church, the mystical body of Christ.

This group did not really want to list their grievances with the several parishes and dioceses in which they had lived. But it was clear that for those who live in a society where the consent of the governed is accepted as fundamental, the lack of this feature in the church poses difficulties.

My homily and our discussion about the good sense of rising above the limitations of the visible church and looking at the invisible bride of Christ which is the real church seemed to give many a deeper faith and a new feeling of peace.

The visible church has in every era made serious mistakes. They include the Crusades and the Inquisition. Pope John Paul II in the past 20 years has apologized for an astonishing number of decisions the church has made through the centuries. There is now a book in English by an Italian author who has put together all of the many occasions when the present pontiff has admitted the mistakes of the church.

We fantasize about a church where all the priests and bishops have the angelic and mystical qualities of John the Evangelist. But Christ chose Peter who denied him, Thomas who doubted him and Judas who betrayed him. Three out of the 12 would not pass our minimum standards. God’s ways are not our ways, as the Bible tells us in dozens of places.

So, are you angry again at some official or some practice in the church? The depth of our discontent is an implicit manifestation of the profundity of our love for the church. But if you are not careful, your rage at the visible church can blind you to the unfathomable beauties of the entity by which, in God’s loving providence, the Holy Spirit at every moment seeks to inspire us to love God and to revere his church.

Listen to what Vatican II in Lumen Gentium says: “Christ loves the church as his bride. The church prays ... in order that the entire world may become the people of God, the body of the Lord and the temple of the Holy Spirit.”

“The church, embracing sinners in her bosom, is at the same time holy and always in need of being purified.”

It can be a grace to feel disappointed with the church. But it is also a grace to remember that the 2,500 bishops at Vatican II proclaimed that the church is always in need of purification.

Jesuit Fr. Robert Drinan is a professor at Georgetown University Law Center.

National Catholic Reporter, May 28, 1999