Our faith is in Jesus Christ, the “…the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by [Him].” (Jn. 14:6) The Church proclaims Jesus Christ and administers the Sacraments that are the rivers of God’s grace for the salvation of souls. The Church is one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic – with Mary as the sinless model of the Church. So we should never criticize Holy Mother Church because she is the indispensable instrument of our salvation.
The hierarchy is open to just criticism and correction because Peter is its model who, with his first recorded words to Jesus, admitted: “Depart from me for I am a sinful man.” So weak and sinful men rule the Church throughout history. But the authority of the Church’s hierarchy never stands alone. It is intimately connected to Jesus through Peter: “…thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Mt. 16:18).
When Jesus instructs us to “call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven” (Mt. 23:9), He provides the same template for the papacy and the Holy Father. God alone defines fatherhood, and a human father – physically and spiritually – must strive to participate in the holiness of the Father. Fathers who neglect their children abuse their fatherhood.
On the front door of Saint Peter Basilica in the Vatican, there is an engraving of Saint Peter lending his keys to his successors. The image captures a fundamental truth of the papacy. Peter alone is the Pope, and his successors participate in his papal authority. The Feast of the Chair of Saint Peter accentuates this image. Peter’s successors share in his teaching authority when they rule from his chair. But when they depart from the chair (promoting ambiguous teachings on marriage and human sexuality, for example), they relinquish – to some extent and for a time — their right to be called Holy Father even as they retain the office.
Just as Jesus uses parables to describe the Kingdom of God, it may be helpful to offer a few more metaphors to help us understand the splendor of the Church despite the failings of the hierarchy.
The Church is like a sturdy ship
A ship has a captain, crew, and passenger-cargo. An experienced captain knows how to navigate through calm and choppy waters. He tends to the needs of the crew and passengers. He delivers them safely to their destination. But some captains are emotionally damaged like Captain Queeg in The Cain Mutiny. Others are competent but mean, like Captain Bligh in The Mutiny on the Bounty. Regardless, crew and passengers rely on the captain for a safe return to port.
The pope and the crew form the hierarchy of the Church. The passengers are the laity. The port of safe-haven is heaven, and Jesus promises that the ship will make the destination. But there can be detours along the way, with mutinies and even a shipwreck or two requiring serious repairs. But Jesus always walks next to the boat on the tumultuous waters and guarantees our safe return provided we remain faithful.
The Church is like a baseball stadium
A baseball stadium houses a game. There are gates and seats for spectators. There are fans, players, managers, umpires, and rules of the game. There can be weak and bad managers. The umpires might be incompetent. The rules may be overlooked and violated. But these deficiencies do not change the nature of the game. Play ball!
The fans and the players comprise the laity. The managers and umpires are the Church’s hierarchy. The rules of the game that direct and control the action are Church doctrines and disciplines. Everything is directed to living our lives in Jesus. There can be violations of the rules, corrupt priests and bishops, even a pope that has departed from the Chair of Peter for a spell. But despite these obstacles, the nature of the game can never be changed: working out our salvation with God’s grace.
The Church is like a gardener’s water hose
A water hose delivers fresh water through the tubing that extends from the spigot to the garden. A gardener directs the spray of the water with the nozzle. At times he uses too much H20, or not enough. He may even misdirect the spray, or turn off the spigot through sloth, incompetence, or malice. But the water remains necessary for health and growth and is always pure.
The waters from the spigot are the teachings of Jesus (and Scriptures). The hose is the long Sacred Tradition of the Church. The flow of water is the refreshing Deposit of Faith and the Sacraments. The hose – representing Sacred Tradition — extends over many centuries without significant leaks or ruptures. The pope is the gardener in charge of the nozzle. His job (assisted by bishops and priests) is to direct the refreshing waters of Jesus – the living water – to the faithful.
The pope cannot pollute the pure waters of authentic Church teaching. But he may misdirect the spray, or even turn off the nozzle as he busies himself with his personal or political distractions. But with the passage of time and God’s grace, the rivers of God’s sanctifying waters are ultimately unimpeded and sufficient for our salvation.
These imperfect images may help us understand the reality of the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ, sustained and protected by Holy Spirit. But human reason also fortifies our confidence in the Church. Scriptures, Sacred Tradition, and the Church’s Magisterium form an iron triangle of logic that guards Revelation against error. The teaching of the clergy at all levels cannot depart from Scriptures and Tradition for long before the demands of reason bring them back into the sheepfold of Catholic orthodoxy. The logical principle of non-contradiction also guards our faith.
So rejoice always in the splendor of the Church, always and forever the saving spotless Bride of Christ.
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