A Platonic Church

Over at SDA to RC, Hugo asserts that the Catholic understanding of the church is platonic–it is an ideal, not realized on this earth. Thus, the church can’t be charged with any sins or errors. By definition, he says, it can do no wrong. If torture is wrong, then the church cannot have tortured.

Well, it did. Popes and councils approved it, and condemned and excommunicated those who opposed it.

You have a couple of ways out of this. Either you argue in a convoluted fashion that the torture they approved wasn’t torture, or wasn’t wrong, or you try to argue that the church is somehow something different than its members (as Hugo does) or you admit the fallacy of your premise.

I think the fallacy lies in the assertion that the platonic model accurately represents Catholic teaching on the church. Catholics affirm that the church, like Christ, is fully human as well as divine. See Lumen Gentium, for instance.

While Christ, holy, innocent and undefiled(81) knew nothing of sin,(82) but came to expiate only the sins of the people,(83) the Church, embracing in its bosom sinners, at the same time holy and always in need of being purified, always follows the way of penance and renewal. The Church, “like a stranger in a foreign land, presses forward amid the persecutions of the world and the consolations of God”(14*), announcing the cross and death of the Lord until He comes.”(84) By the power of the risen Lord it is given strength that it might, in patience and in love, overcome its sorrows and its challenges, both within itself and from without, and that it might reveal to the world, faithfully though darkly, the mystery of its Lord until, in the end, it will be manifested in full light.

Take note of the language–this Vatican 2 document uses the same language for the church that Luther used for the individual: “at the same time holy and always in need of being purified.”

If there’s one thing that Catholicism asserts clearly and unequivocally, it is that it is this visible church that is essential to salvation and is the Mystical Body of Christ. There’s not a dichotomy between the two. It grounds its ecclesiological realism in both Paul’s description of the church as the Body of Christ and in the promise to Peter that what is bound or loosed on earth is bound and loosed in heaven. It says this visible, earthly church is the “one, holy Catholic and apostolic church” “outside of which there is no salvation” (though that phrase has been understood differently at different periods of time).

You can’t then say this church is exempt from the earthly consequences of its actions, which are the actions of men. It authorized torture, and aggressive war, and execution. It persecuted men and women for preaching the pure gospel of Jesus Christ. It promoted commerce in sacred things. It encouraged contempt for Jews and stood by silent when people took its teachings to their logical conclusions. It created an overwhelmingly homosexual priesthood, with a culture of self-protection and clericalism, and turned a blind eye to sexual misconduct and abuse, punishing victims and their parents, while protecting and promoting offenders and those who covered up for them.

Some Catholics freely admit this and say, “Yeah, we messed up. God forgive us.” Others look for convoluted ways to pin the blame solely on individuals to keep the church pure and spotless. It doesn’t work.

3 thoughts on “A Platonic Church

  1. An interesting book to read on this question is Cardinal Biffi’s study of St Ambrose’s ecclesiology, “Casta Meretrix”. Biffi was writing in response to those who hold the Church responsible for the sins of some of her members in history, and explains the Catholic position – using Ambrosian terms – admirably.

  2. For those who don’t know any Latin, “Casta Meretrix” means “chaste whore.” It’s akin to the VC 2 term that the church is at once holy and sinful. Hans Urs von Balthasar also had an essay with this title, picking up on Ambrose’s term and showing how others through history, faithful Catholics all, affirmed that the Biblical image of a whore was applicable to the Roman church. See my review of von Balthasar’s essay here.

  3. Cardinal Biffi, however, opposes interpretations placed on the term casta meretrix, that emphasise that the Church is compared to a whore, arguing that Ambrose emphasises that she is chaste. She resembles a whore, he argues, only in that she distributes her favours with largesse; but in her heart she has been created chaste by God.
    Pope Paul VI wrote about this reality in his Credo of the People of God:
    “In the course of time the Lord Jesus forms His Church by means of the sacraments emanating from His plenitude. By these she makes her members participants in the Mystery of the Death and Resurrection of Christ, in the grace of the Holy Spirit who gives her life and movement. She is therefore holy, though she has sinners in her bosom, because she herself has no other life but the life of grace: it is by living by her life that her members are sanctified; it is by removing themselves from her life that they fall into sins and disorders that prevent the radiation of her sanctity.”
    That all of us have the capacity to act according to the sinful flesh and not according to the Holy Spirit, makes our participation in the Body of Christ dependent on a sound examination of conscience; when John Paul II admiited sins done ‘in the name of the Church’ he was referring to her constant need for renewal and the growth in holiness in her members. Many opposed his wish to confess in this way, but that is as the writer suggests a failure on their part to see that the actions done in the name of the Church will inevitably be seen as who she is by the world. We must indeed repent!

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