Sunday, May 18, 2008

What's the Church got to prove to you?

What makes the Catholic Church the Bride of Christ? What evidence does she--do we--have? Truth claims? An argument from history? Evidence of holy activity in the world? Proof that it's the only ecclesial body that makes sound claims of what defines or identifies the Church and meets those criteria?

Fr. Kimel has some words for the devil's advocates:

Yes, the Catholic Church should do better at making Christians, it should do better at evangelizing, it should do better at catechizing, it should do better at preaching the gospel, it should do better at worshipping God, it should do better in serving the poor and the oppressed, it should do better in every aspect of its life and ministry.

However, if the Church was doing better in all of these areas, or even just the one you have mentioned, would you be persuaded that the Catholic Church is the Church of Jesus Christ, as she claims to be? Of course not! Because performance neither proves nor disproves the claims of the Catholic Church. Ironically, your objection to the Catholic Church—viz., her poor, even sinful performance—is grounded in a works-righteousness understanding of the gospel. You are demanding that the Catholic Church justify herself as the Body of Christ by her works! But the Catholic Church is the Body of Christ only by grace and election!

Are you willing to apply the same criterion of performance to individual believers, to yourself? Are you willing to prove your regeneration in the Spirit by your works, by how well you are living the Christian faith, by how effectively you are proclaiming the gospel in word and deed? Jim, are you not in fact judging the Catholic Church by a standard you would never apply to yourself? What would you say to the nonbeliever who declares that Christianity cannot be true because there are so many bad Christians?

But your criterion of performance also fails for other reasons. For one thing, you are judging the Catholic Church on the basis of her performance in one geographical area in one period of time. But she has no doubt performed better (whether it be at catechesis or evangelism or whatever) in other places and in other times. Why not judge the Catholic Church at her best? Why not judge the Catholic Church by her saints?

I added the emphasis. Funny how even with sola fide in your corner, without having a didactic anchor, "knowing them by their fruits" ends up becoming a back door to Pelagianism.

If one sees fit to judge the Church this narrowly, why not more narrowly? Indeed, some do. Some make employment of women outside the home their litmus test, or the willingness to bless already-sexual homosexual partnerings, and every other concern is secondary, or disconsidered out of hand.

If you are looking at such a small piece of an ecclesial body's doctrine or practice, it's not really a church you're interested in. You want a social institution, of great or small caliber, to make you feel good with a grand gesture.

If you're looking to judge an ecclesial body on how it performs in these other areas--recruitment, training, social service, whatever--then you're also not interested in a church. You want a charitable organization, or a business.

Go ahead. See if you can rate the Catholic Church next to Welfare and Social Security, or against Kaplan and the public school system. See if any evaluation would even make sense and then get back to me.

As for simple skeptics:

[F]or 2,000 years the Catholic Church has been proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ and making disciples. How many saints must the Catholic Church produce to convince you? How many martyrs must lay down their lives? How many nations must she evangelize? How many churches must she build? How many baptisms must she administer? How many penitents must she absolve? How many Masses must she celebrate? How many religious orders must she establish? How many hospitals and schools must she found? How many hungry persons must she feed? How many homeless must she house? How many kings and despots must she confront in the name of Christ? And who stands today, pray tell me, more firmly and courageously against the culture of death, abortion, and sexual immorality than the Catholic Church?

If you insist on judging the Catholic Church by her works, then by all means do so, but do so across all categories of mission and ministry. Do not judge her just by your parish church in the year A.D. 2007 but judge her by her remarkable and glorious history that reaches back to the Apostles of Christ.

Yet are you truly in a position to judge her sanctity and sins, good works and failures? Why do you see only her weaknesses and not her strengths, her defeats and not her victories?

Go ahead. Take G.K. Chesterton's advice, and consider judging the Church on how good it has been, as well as on how badly it has failed in its mission. Condemning the Church because over history it has let a million poor people suffer in squalor and die alone in ditches and alleys is premature, to say the least, if you don't even know if the number of people the Church has succeeded in helping is on the order of dozens or of billions.

I wouldn't be satisfied with a statistical rationale if I were making that argument, but if I were bold enough to berate the Church for not living up to a higher standard than I hold anyone else to, I'd still be obliged to determine how well it performed against this new standard.