In college, I took a course called “Theology of the Church” and the professor made certain to cement a specific truth in my mind. He spoke frequently of how the Church is the spotless Bride of Christ, without blemish or error. Yet he spoke just as often about how the Church is stained and tarnished, filled with sin and weakness. Each Catholic must come to terms with this dichotomy if he or she desires to fully understand this living organism we call the Catholic Church.
The saints are beautiful models of following Christ and seeking holiness in the midst of a chaotic world. For most of the difficulties we face in life, we can turn to a specific saint who had similar struggles. There are saints who had difficult relationships with their parents or children, saints who were falsely accused, saints who had superiors who treated them unjustly, saints who lost loved ones, saints who experienced poverty, saints who struggled with drinking or drugs, saints who battled anger and violence, and saints who people thought were foolish or incapable.
Yet we know the Church is not merely comprised of saints. I belong to the Church and I am most definitely not a saint yet. So while it is easier to focus on the virtues and gifts of the saints, we also know we are a Church filled with sinners. We have sinners in the pews, in the choir, in the streets, at the altar, in the diocesan offices, in the Vatican, and in the chair of St. Peter. Each of us, on our journey to become the saints God desires, must fight our own battles as we acknowledge our sinfulness. The goal is not to make perfect masks that cover up our imperfections. Rather, we seek to let Christ into our deepest sins and allow Him to transform us.
It is with this knowledge of myself, as a sinner striving to be a saint, that I can recognize this reality within the Church herself. She is perfect: Christ instituted her, the Holy Spirit guides her, and the Father welcomes her members into Heaven, one by one. Yet she is us: flawed, broken, dragging our weary hearts to Calvary and to Heaven. All of the romantic notions I have about the Church and her beautiful, soul-shaking theology necessarily contrast painfully with the reality of the Church that I see around me. Reality is certainly not so romantic and not so obviously beautiful. Nonetheless, it is still the Church I love.
When we encounter scandal in the Church, it is helpful to remember this inherent dichotomy, one that existed from the beginning of the Church, yet one which will end when we are purified and in Heaven. While I love quite fiercely different humans within the Church, I also know that my love for the Church is not solely based on these humans. My spiritual director is wise and I find myself able to share the workings of my heart with him. My pastor leads me to a deeper understanding of how to encounter Christ in the daily moments. Yet even should these priests fail me, I would not stop loving the Church.
As a high school teacher, I have to try to answer questions about scandal and abuse to teenagers who are convinced that the Church is hypocritical. In some cases, the members of the Church are being hypocritical and seek to cover sin with a false veneer of holiness. Yet in every situation of scandal, I endeavor to teach my students about this strange organism, this human-divine being that stretches into Heaven, even as it stumbles about on Earth.
I want the Church to be holy, to live as Christ desires, and to embrace the mission of the salvation of the entire world. However, sin and scandal within the Church, even as it should be purified, shouldn’t shock me. Peter rejected Christ hours after promising to lay his life down for Him. Judas, a follower of Jesus for three years, betrays Jesus for forty pieces of silver. From nearly the beginning of humanity, sin has been a part of the story. All of this points to the reality that we need grace and that we are incapable of saving ourselves.
While we were yet helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Why, one will hardly die for a righteous man—though perhaps for a good man one will dare even to die. But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.
This spotless Bride, this gathering of flawed humanity, this Church: the Lord can use all for our salvation and the salvation of the entire world. We cannot resign ourselves to lives of sin and yet we cannot be too delicate that every scandal shakes our faith. The Lord knows what this Church is about. He instituted the Church, He loves her, and He is guiding her home, even if she seems to spend much time wandering in the desert like her ancestors. Let us seek to become the saints God created us to be and thus purify the entire Body of Christ.