What is a Church for our times?

Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, former archbishop of Milan, died this past week, God rest his soul, and an Italian newspaper published a final interview in which Martini said the Church is “200 years out-of-date.” One can speculate what he meant by that—probably some sort of accommodation to “modern” life. The Church, I suspect, was “out-of-date” the day it was founded, if “out-of-date” refers to something that is not just like everything else about us.  The early Church found certain things in the Roman and Greek worlds it could accept and others it could not.

The Church has long taught that no new revelation can be expected after the death of the last Apostle. This is a sober thought in a world that longs for something “new” but refuses to look at the “newness” of the “good news.”

Basically, we were given everything we needed to know—or, better, that God wanted us to know—from the Church’s beginning. The task of the Church was primarily to keep in existence, essentially unchanged, the content of what was given over to her for safe-keeping. Logically, this understanding would make the Church a couple of thousand years out-of-date. The Church exists to tell us of our personal supernatural destiny and how it is to be achieved, in Christ, in whatever society or culture that it encounters. The Church is a “body,” the Body of Christ. Its members belong to one another because they achieve the same end by the proper means, if they will.

Catholics do have a notion of the “development” of doctrine, which means the Church does not change and that the ways it expresses itself might become clearer, provided  nothing substantial about what has been handed on is undermined or discarded. The Church, though including finite human persons, does not exist as the result of a human initiative and planning. Even when the Apostles were told to “go forth and teach all nations,” it was quite clear that they themselves had no great plan. But it was clear that the Lord did have one for them to carry out.

If we look at this “plan” today, we have to wonder what it was and is. We wonder if it was “successful,” if it achieved and is achieving what the Lord wanted of it. We sense the plan is still operative, still in full force. It will not go away. Certainly not all nations have been “taught,” or even properly contacted. Much opposition to the Church is found everywhere, in every time. Yet, we are loathe to maintain that the plan has failed. We suspect rather that a bigger plan was envisioned than any of those about which we had any idea. We hear of a plan “from the foundation of the world,” the very order that seems to be implicit in the notion of creation. The Holy Spirit, we are told, will be with us all days.

In a famous response to an objection in his Treatise on Law, Aquinas remarked that “although grace is more efficacious than nature, yet nature is more essential to man, and therefore more enduring” (I-II, 94, 6, ad 2). The general question was whether the “law of nature can be blotted out from the hearts of men.”  The objector thought that, since sin could blot out grace, it would even be more likely to blot out nature since grace is more efficacious than nature. Aquinas granted that sin could blot out grace if we let it, such is its risk. But it could not wholly blot out our nature or the principles of right and wrong. In effect, this response means, to our question, that sin does interfere with the efficacy of God’s grace, though it cannot avoid God’s making His own response to our sinful ways to bring good even out of them. Grace can more easily be rejected by the way we choose to live. Nature keeps reminding us that our actions can contradict and judge us when we live in disorder of soul.

Thus we cannot so easily rid ourselves of the issue of right and wrong in the way we live and speak. Even here, however, we can go a surprisingly long way to blot out natural law and reason. We can do this blotting out particularly through accepting customs and positive laws that are designed to measure our actions in pursuit of our happiness. In this context, the Church exists as a guarantee or remedy that the natural law itself retains its clarity and truth among us. We in fact live in a time when many of the basic principles of natural law are specifically rejected in positive civil laws and decrees in the name of a freedom to make ourselves to be what we want to be, whatever to the contrary God wants us to be. Given a choice between our own man-made conception of the human good and that of God’s understanding, we do well to follow the latter.

Benedict XVI pointed out in Spe Salvi that the alternate world we are constructing with our freedom, by rejecting secondary principles of natural law and grace, is a kind of this worldly parody on the end for which we were in fact created and to which we are pointed in our very being. There is one little hitch here. What we are ultimately invited to become is not something we can figure out by ourselves. We must receive what we are as a gift. Yet, on receiving it, we will be sure that it is really what we are intended to be even in our own particularity.

To maintain this gift status will be for many a denial of actual human nature. What is enduring in human nature is not only some sense of purpose or need for salvation in our being, but also the experiential realization that the human condition in any time and place manifests the same disorders in different configurations. This state, what Christians call our fallen condition, will often seem to be our essential nature. We will thus seek to incorporate sinfulness into our lives in such a way that it becomes what man is and is supposed to do.

The Church does not exist to deny this presence and abidingness of what we call original sin among us. It does exist to explain it and to provide a means whereby we might reach the purpose of our creation in spite of sin. This path was given to us in divine revelation. But this cannot be accomplished without our active participation in the means provided for us to deal with sin. These means exist through the Church. We often hear that the Church stresses “negative” things. The fact that it primarily emphasizes love, mercy, and forgiveness is often overlooked because the sinful side of our being is so graphic and upsetting of good order.

So, what is a Church “for our times”? Surely, it is a Church in which the same things given to the Apostles are still central, still taught, still preached, and still lived out in our daily lives. The Church is not a couple of centuries behind our times. Rather it is ahead of our times in the sense that eternity and eternal life are ahead of our times. In this sense, we are not ahead or behind any time. We are each given a certain amount of time during which we decide, through our actions and thoughts, how ultimately we want to be. We are given freedom to accomplish this purpose. This exercise of freedom is the one thing God will not interfere with, except in the sense of presenting to us a plan of salvation that best corresponds to what we are.

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About James V. Schall, S.J. 180 Articles
James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019) taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until retiring in 2012. He was the author of over thirty books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. His of his last books included On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018 (Ignatius Press, 2018) and The Politics of Heaven and Hell: Christian Themes from Classical, Medieval, and Modern Political Philosophy (Ignatius, 2020).