Humankind cannot know the full truth about God or about itself as God intended in isolation of the teaching of the Church.
By F. K. Bartels
1 December 2012
Christians of the first centuries said, “The world was created for the sake of the Church.” God created the world for the sake of communion with his divine life, a communion brought about by the “convocation” of men in Christ, and this “convocation” is the Church. The Church is the goal of all things, and God permitted such painful upheavals as the angels’ fall and man’s sin only as occasions and means for displaying all the power of his arm and the whole measure of the love he wanted to give the world: Just as God’s will is creation and is called “the world,” so his intention is the salvation of men, and it is called “the Church.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, article 760)
At the end of the Episcopal Conference of Frances’ ad limina (Latin for “at the threshold”) visit, Pope Benedict XVI spoke of the crucial importance of the New Evangelization. The Pope observed that “the Good News we must announce to mankind in all times and in all languages and cultures, may be summarized in these words: God, creator of mankind, in His son Jesus, has shown us His love for humanity. ‘God is love’ and pursues the happiness of His creation, of all His children.
“The pastoral constitution Gaudium et Spes asks key questions on human existence,” continued the Pope, “the meaning of life and death, evil, disease and suffering, all present in our world. It recalls that, in His paternal goodness, God brings answers to all these questions and that Christ founded His Church in order to bring those answers to all mankind. This is the reason why one of the gravest problems of our time is the ignorance of religion on the part of many men and women, also among the Catholic faithful.”
While Pope Benedict was speaking directly to the bishops of France, his perennial words do not apply only to Europe but are of universal value for the whole world. They are certainly relevant to the grave situation in the U.S. in which many millions of Christians, Catholic and otherwise, are lacking in catechesis, and therefore remain ignorant of religion and of an understanding of the nature and purpose of holy mother Church. Such a situation has serious consequences for individuals and society collectively.
The Church Is Necessary
In the first place, we need to understand the “why” of the Church. That is, why did Christ found the Church? He certainly did not found the Church on a whim, as some trivial but perhaps entertaining thing of personal preference in which we might want to consider taking part in order to boost social morale. On the contrary, the Church is necessary. What God has done and continues to do is of supreme importance.
The fact that Christ founded the Church on St. Peter, gave him the keys to the kingdom and the power to bind and loose (see Mt. 16:18-20), and promised to be with his Church “always, to the close of the age” (Mt. 28:20), ought to get our attention. That Jesus gave authority to his Church should very quickly erase any tendency one might have toward religious indifferentism (see Mt. 18:15 ff.).
In light of the fact that Christ gave authority to his Church and promised to be with her always, it becomes obvious that there is extant an authoritative, definite and specific Church, given by God the power to rule on faith and morals. The Church, then, cannot be reduced to the abstract. To say she consists of only and nothing more than a group of people who call themselves Christian, lacking a visible authoritative body (which we refer to as the Magisterium) and consequently living an existence of doctrinal limbo of sorts, is to deny the express teaching of Sacred Scripture.
Christians are to live as one body in one Spirit, one in Faith as children of the Church. It was Jesus Christ who prayed that “those who believe” in him through the teaching of the apostles “may all be one” (Jn 17:20-21). Also, St. Paul wrote in his letter to the Ephesians, “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all” (4:4-6).
Further, at the Last Supper Christ instituted the divine liturgy and the Eucharist, the center and summit of the Church’s life, when he took the bread into his hands, blessed it and broke it, gave it to his apostles and said, “This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me” (Lk 22:19). While people heavily influenced by the individualism of the age are often repulsed by the word “command,” it is nevertheless important to note that there is no prepositional phrase in Luke 22:19. Christ did not say, “Provided you approve, do this in remembrance of me.” “Do this” is a phrase which expresses an obligation, a command.
God’s word is not a passive reality, something which can be rejected or ignored without consequence. Everyone is called to enter into the womb of the Church, live out a sacramental life through the divine liturgy, and attain to spiritual perfection and holiness as children of the Church. God calls us not to the mediocre but to the great, the sublime, the unfathomable richness and beauty of life as members of the divine family.
Nevertheless, there is always the question, do I (we/society) need the Church? In contemporary Christendom, the notion that we need nothing but to know Jesus, read the Bible (sola scriptura; i.e., Scripture as the sole rule of faith) and pray is common. While the necessity of the Church is evident in what has been written above, it is also helpful to look at the Church from the human perspective. That is, what does the Church have to do with humanity and with living the life of a human being?
We Understand What It Means To Live As A Human Person Through The Church
As our Holy Father stated, our Lord and Savior founded the Church in order to, among other things, bring answers “to all mankind.” Those answers include the truth about the human person, of which, given the effects of Original Sin and the fall of mankind, we are in dire need. Due to the sin of grave disobedience committed by our first parents (please read CCC articles 385-412), human nature is wounded; i.e., we suffer from concupiscence (the tendency to sin), the human intellect is darkened, the will is weakened (akrasia), and we are deprived of sanctifying grace (sanctifying grace is infused into the soul by God via Baptism and the other sacraments of the Church; it is the gift of participation in God’s own supernatural life). That means humanity is in a position of urgent need of truth, fortitude, forgiveness, grace and salvation. God offers through the Church not only the answers to the many questions we have about ourselves, but also the definitive solutions to our most pressing needs.
Through the Church of Jesus Christ, we learn of our Savior and the salvation he offers to all; we hear the words of truth and receive the sacraments of life, and we come to know and understand our human story. To listen to the Church is, then, to listen to what God has said about the reality of the human person and the reality in which humanity lives. The full truth of the human person, our origin, purpose, desires and goals, how we are to live in right moral relationship to the Creator, our destiny and our end, what it means to be an authentic disciple of Jesus Christ—all of these and more—is revealed in their full light through the Catholic Church.
Humankind, then, cannot know the full truth about God or about itself as God intended in isolation of the teaching of the Church. The dictum Amor veritatis est amor Ecclesiae, “love of truth is love of the Church,” expresses the fact that we come to know the truth about ourselves, and the truth about Christ, which sets us free, through the Church. To willfully ignore or reject the teaching of the Church, is to be ignorant of the deposit of faith given by Christ to the apostles under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, which in turn is passed on to the Church by apostolic succession. Such a situation places one in ignorance of the “content of faith,” as Pope Benedict phrased it in speaking to the bishops of France:
One of the most formidable obstacles to our pastoral mission is ignorance of the content of faith. Indeed, this is a dual form of ignorance: the ignorance of Jesus Christ as a person and ignorance of the sublime nature of His teachings, of their universal and permanent value in the search for the meaning of life and happiness. (Benedict qtd. from Vatican Information Service)
Every single human person desires happiness. Ultimately, that is what being Catholic is about: it is about living the sacramental life of spiritual joy in the womb of the Church as a member of the divine family. In such a sublime life, we enter into the heaven of “now but not yet” as we are swept up into the very life of the Holy Trinity. There, in the arms of God, we are fitted with the best robe; a ring is placed on our hand and shoes on our feet (Lk 15:22). With great delight we sit in the shadow of the Beloved and taste his sweet fruit, for he has brought us into the banqueting house and covered us with his divine banner of gracious love (cf. Song of Solomon 2:3-4), that we may become one with his Body and share everlasting life with him.
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Photo Credit: By Vitold Muratov (Wiki Commons) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Deacon Frederick Bartels is a member of the Catholic clergy who serves the Church in the diocese of Pueblo. He holds an MA in Theology and Educational Ministry and is a Catholic educator, public speaker, and evangelist who strives to infuse culture with the saving principles of the gospel.