We Must Reform The Institutional Church When It Loses Its Way

We Must Reform The Institutional Church When It Loses Its Way January 31, 2023

Lawrence OP: Descent Of The Holy Spirit (from the Retablo Mayor of the old cathedral of Salamanca) / flickr

Jesus told us we are to be the salt of the earth, but warns  would could happens if we fail to live up to our obligations: “”You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trodden under foot by men” (Matt. 5:13 RSV). Salt helps preserve and protect food, keeping it from spoiling, that is, salt serves as a preservative. We are called to be the salt of the earth, to help preserve and protect it, and everything and everyone living on it. We are not expect to preserve the status quo, protecting society as it is with all its faults; rather, we are meant to preserve and protect the good in it. And as salt prevents spoilage, we are to prevent exploiters who abuse society and the common good from destroying it. This is expected not just for every particular believer, but for the church as a whole, which is why the institutional church is meant to live this out as a part of its mission.

It seems as if Christians are no longer are interested in being the salt of the earth. Why, then, are we surprised that fewer people are becoming interested in Christianity, or joining some institutional church? Why, moreover, are we surprised that so many Christians are losing faith, perhaps not in God, but in the institutional church and in their fellow Christians? Christians no longer are doing what is expected of them. Indeed, Christians, and the institutional churches they enter, have a long history of doing the exact opposite as they should,  that is, they have a long history helping exploiters rather than the poor and needy.

Scripture warned us that the institutional church is not exempt from judgment. We will be judged for our failures. We will be judged by society, not because we are like Christ, but because we are not; we will be judged because we have failed to promote and support what is good and true. We will be judged when we help those with privilege keep it so that they can exploit everyone else. We will be judged in this fashion so long as we are not acting the salt of the earth.  We have created the situation we find ourselves in today. We are being judged, ridiculed, and trampled upon because we fail to follow the preferential option for the poor and needy. Until we reform ourselves, until we find a way to restore the saltiness which we lost, we should not be surprised that those who fall in line with an institutional faith will diminish, and judged harshly, both by the world, but also by God. Those who do not fall in line with the institutional church when it supports and promotes such evil, will not be judged for following their conscience; indeed, as St. Augustine said, though they might seem to be unfaithful, they, not those in the institution, are often the ones who truly are faithful:

Often, too, divine providence permits even good men to be driven from the congregation of Christ by the turbulent seditions of carnal men. When for the sake of the peace of the Church they patiently endure that insult or injury, and attempt no novelties in the way of heresy or schism, they will teach men how God is to be served with a true disposition and with great and sincere charity. The intention of such men is to return when the tumult has subsided. But if that is not permitted because the storm continues or because a fiercer one might be stirred up by their return, they hold fast to their purpose to look to the good even of those responsible for the tumults and commotions that drove them out. They form no separate conventicles of their own, but defend to the death and assist by their testimony the faith which they know is preached in the Catholic Church. These the Father who seeth in secret crowns secretly. It appears that this is a rare kind of Christian, but examples are not lacking. Indeed there are more than can be believed.[1]

While, in Augustine’s day the institution had its problems, those problems only have become worse during the centuries which followed. Yes, there have been occasional reforms, some which have done some good, but such good has been limited and temporary; the institution eventually finds itself returning to its old ways (or worse), leading to the need for more, and greater, reforms to be put in place. Historically, institutional churches found themselves becoming complacent the evils which remained within them, which is why they often had to be confronted by those evils, and shown that they need to be reformed. Unless institutional churches want to stagnate and die, those reforms must also address the needs of the time in which those reforms are being enacted. Institutional churches need to accept that they will need to change, and not just look to the way things were done in the past and think they can remain the same, for all that will do is let all the evil inside fester. As long as the institutional church does not do this, many people will avoid its domain. Without reform, it will create the conditions for its own decline, which is what Martin Luther King Jr. feared would happen if it did not deal with the evils of our age, especially the evils helped and perpetuated by it:

But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.[2]

The church has taken on and followed its worst instincts. It has misapplied itself, using its preservative nature for the wrong things:

Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent–and often even vocal–sanction of things as they are.[3]

Once again, despite the disrepute the institutional church rightfully receives when it fails to get itself out of the mire of injustice,  this does not mean grace is not being offered within it. Certainly, God makes sure that, despite the deficiencies of those within it, it can be and still is a source of grace, and that grace itself can be and will be a source of its own reform, as Dorothy Day understood:

What I feel about the institutional church for instance. For me it is the place in the slum, in our neighborhood, where it is possible to be alone, to be silent, to wait on the Lord. The sacraments mean much to me. The daily bread we ask for is there. To sit in the presence of the Sun of Justice is healing, though I have to force myself to remain in fatigue and fullness and misery often. But the healing is there too. No matter how corrupt the Church may become, it carries within it the  seeds of its own regeneration. To read the lives of the saints has always helped me. We’ve had corrupt popes and bishops, down through the ages, but a St. Francis, a St. Benedict, a St. Vincent de Paul, a Charles de Foucauld will keep on reminding me of the primary of the spiritual. Peter Maurin used to tell us to study history through the lives of the saints. [4]

We must not assume that such grace is restricted to the institution itself.  We certainly must not think that grace can be restricted by clergy who wish to use such grace for their own empowerment at the expense of others; no one can gain control of grace in such a way as to prevent God from having avenues to share it to those in need. God is not bound by the sacraments.  While the grace shared with particular sacraments is often called by the name of the sacrament itself, we must not confuse this as meaning it can be received only by the performance of that sacrament in the institutional church. The grace which is offered in and through the sacraments is not controlled by the institutional church in such a way as to prevent others from receiving it in other ways. What is guaranteed is that those graces are found in and through the sacraments, and indeed, the sacraments become the normative exemplars of how such graces are to be found. And, it must also be understood, all Christians receive grace from Christ, and are meant, in their own way, to join in with the ministry of Christ, to serve as a priestly people in the world. All Christians, and not just ordained clergy, receive grace which they can and should share with others. Even those who are not Christian, who, in some way, have received grace, either directly or indirectly, can share that grace with others, which is what Vladimir Solovyov pointed out in his reflection on baptism:

According to the teaching of the Holy Church, the effect of Christ’s grace is not limited to church sacraments alone but has various forms. Consequently, my comparison of an unbelieving priests to an unbelieving historical actor has the following meaning:  as grace of one form (church-sacramental) also has its power in the unbelieving performer of the sacrament, so too grace of another form (moral-practical) can have its power in an unbelieving public actor. In both cases, grace does not act through faith: in the first it acts through the apostolic station of a holy servant for the spiritual good of people; and in the second, though the historical vocation of a societal actor for the practical good of the same people. However, it is possible to express my argument more directly and more forcefully by taking for an example the sacrament of holy baptism in place of the sacrament of holy offering. In actual fact, if a simple layman, or even a pagan, can perform of the sacrament of holy baptism according to need, then he can serve Christ all the more in the performance of His historical concern. [5]

While the institutional church is important, and the hierarchy found within it serves a purpose, the problem is we have become so focused on the hierarchy, and the powers they hold, our neglect to the greater reality of grace, both within and outside the church, has allowed all kinds of problems to emerge:

The spiritual and organic character of the Church was forgotten to a significant degree at a comparatively late time and was even obscured by the institutional and hierarchical principle: Hierarchy was advanced as the prius of the Church and the corresponding doctrine of revelation was interpreted in the light of this priority. [6]

It is important to recognize that the way the institutional church developed in history included an authentic engagement of the charisms given to it by Christ. Not everything found in its development needs to be seen as an error. However, it is clear that our focus upon the hierarchy and its leaders has made the institution lopsided, and so in and with its imbalance, the institution can and has often stumble.  Christ has given graces to all Christians, indeed, to all humanity. But the special graces given to Christians includes those which they need to follow Christ’s way in the world, to be a priestly people serving the world, helping to lift it up and make it greater instead of exploit it and use it for their every whim.  Making the particular kinds of graces given to ordained clergy the central focus in understanding the grace given to the church and how the church is to employ that grace has effectively limited the faithful and the way they can and should use the grace given to them. This can explain how and why so many of them have forgotten their role in the world to be the salt of the earth, because they have come to believe it is the special calling of a few, those within the ordained priesthood or with a special religious calling. To counteract this, we must remember that the special calling of the ordained hierarchy comes out of and from the general charism given to all Christians, and so must not be seen as something absolutely separate from it:

True, to organize this universal priesthood the New Testament Church too has an established structure, which has arisen in history in the form of different hierarchical levels, with the episcopate at the head. But this hierarchy arises only on the basis of the universal priesthood, in which Divine-humanity as the priesthood of Christ is expressed. The universal priesthood is the primus (the first condition) of the episcopate, not vice versa. [7]

This distortion helps feed the corruption of the institution itself. It is a distortion, because it is based upon an element of the truth, but then exaggerates that truth so as to ignore the greater, holistic truth. And this, then, brings about some evil, because evil always takes and uses some good in order to justify itself even as it use some particular good to distract others from the greater good. Once the greater good is no longer in focus, and ignored, evil then can eat away at it, destroying it as a parasite. Because there is some good that remains, as the hierarchy has a legitimate function and can and does serve, especially in the dispensation of special graces and in the protection of dogmatic teachings, we must not deny the value of the institutional church and the charisms given to it. Indeed, it is because it holds such value we should expect much from it and be greatly concerned when it fails to meet its obligations. We must not deny the corruption which takes place when the institutional church ignores much of the charisms and missions given to it, focusing on secondary and tertiary concerns, including and especially issues of power and control, rather than on service and grace.

The church needs once again to truly be a voice for the dispossessed. Once again, the church to show how its graces not only can help one person find salvation, but to bring people together as one, and be saved together. The church needs to serve as a sign showing that we are in this world together, and we will  journey through time together until we come to the eschatological judgment together, when we will see the outcome of history The church should help us all understand that when one of us suffers, we all suffer. Once we understand this, we can understand what it means for the faithful to be salt of the earth. We are not meant to preserve and protect privilege, and with it, the status quo; we are meant to share grace to the world, to help heal it from the injustices it has suffered, and then protect and preserve the good such grace produces. We are to bring everyone and everything together under the mantle of love. Justice, of course, is a precondition for this, which is why the church must speak out on issues of justice. The church must not act as if it is a charitable institution if it denies justice, for justice is necessary for the realization of charity. Until this is done, the institution will be constantly called in question, and we should not be surprised many might have to find their way outside of its domain.

[1] St. Augustine, “Of True Religion,” in Augustine: Earlier Writings. trans. John H.S. Burleigh (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1953), 231.

[2] Martin Luther King Jr., “From Birmingham Jail: April 1963,” in Reporting Civil Rights. Part One: American Journalism 1914- 1963 (New York: Library of America, 2003): 791.

[3] Martin Luther King Jr., “From Birmingham Jail: April 1963,” 791.

[4] Dorothy Day, “Letter to Karl Meyer. August 13, 1981” in All The Way To Heaven: The Selected Letters of Dorothy Day. Ed. Robert Ellsberg (New York: Image Books, 2010), 491-2.

[5] Vladimir Soloviev, The Karamazov Correspondence. Letters of Vladimir S. Soloviev. Trans. and ed. Vladimir Wozniuk (Boston: Academic Studies Press, 2019), 184 [Letter to  the Moscow Gazette, October 26, 1891].

[6] Sergius Bulgakov, Bride of the Lamb. Trans. Boris Jakim (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002), 263.

[7] Sergius Bulgakov, Bride of the Lamb, 280-281.


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