The Catholic Church has aptly been described as a “strange divine sea.” Yes, the Bride of Christ involves everything (and everyone).
In approaching the Church, the struggle for the Western, secularized materialist, especially the American utilitarian type, is to realize that the visible things are not the totality of the Church. What we can see, taste, hear, smell, and touch are ornate enough, but they’re not even the best parts of what the Church is, and what she contains.
Put simply, the Church is not solely defined by the concrete things of this world. There is much more to the Catholic Church.
The reality of this “more” can be a powerful source of hope and consolation at any time, but especially in the midst of scandal, confusion, battles among Church leaders, and widespread uncertainty.
The Church, which Catholics know to be founded by Jesus Christ and guided by the Holy Spirit, is first and foremost a mystical, supernatural reality. Life here points to a life in eternity. God’s grace, which is his own life and power, is seen to exist in all things and to permeate through all state of affairs. The material world is complementary to the spiritual.
This co-existence of matter and spirit, the tangible and the transcendental, time and eternity, is what Catholic theology calls the incarnational or sacramental principle. It’s founded on the radical declaration that God became a man in Jesus Christ.
This fundamental principle encapsulates every part of life. It teaches us that invisible realities are approached through visible things. For the Catholic Christian, therefore, the sufferings, joys, triumphs, failures, and the others parts and panting of the rat race of life, point to something else, which gives value, meaning, and purpose to them.
And so, when there is evil, grave moral failure, a lack of virtuous leadership, cover-ups, and other such scandalous behavior, the believer – while shocked – is comforted with the perennial truth: This is not the sum total of my faith, or my Church, or the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Our Western materialism doesn’t like the sacramental worldview very much. It breeds a counter type of dualism, which is expressed in many ways and forms. In particular, in this situation, materialism whispers into our ear that the only things that really matter are, well, the things of matter.
And so, when there’s child sexual abuse by priests, corrupt or careerist bishops, and what seems to be an overall environment of laxity and darkness, the materialist tells us to abandon ship, flush it all, and move on to something else. The sacramental principle, however, reminds us of higher realities.
It exhorts us to see that fallen, even gravely, sinful things are the deviation, not the norm of the Church or the faith upon which it rests. It shows us the beauty in spite of the ugliness and calls us to perseverance.
Likewise, utilitarianism has a few things to say. In an approach akin to a type of neo-Donatism, utilitarianism tells us that if there’s evil in one place, the whole thing is corrupt. It wants us to believe that if there’s darkness, than light is impossible.
Utilitarianism pushes us. It argues that if we feel that we’re receiving nothing from the Church, or there appears to be no discernable good in the Church, or there’s just nothing to get here, then the best thing to do is pack your bags, dismiss the whole thing, and move on to where the getting is good.
But again, the sacramental principle discloses to us the things that are above. It points us to the way of the cross, reminds us of redemptive suffering for ourselves and others, and upholds for us the reason for sacrifice. Through the darkness, it unveils for us the immense light offered to us through the Church.
By guiding us in this way, the sacramental principle gives us a healthy forum to grieve and express righteous anger. It allows us this space by protecting us from materialism and utilitarianism and the despair that comes with them. The principle spares us from a downward spiral responding to evil with evil, or fire with fire, which only lead to desolation and more scorched souls.
And so, in the distress of our current crises, we should by angry, call out evil, demand accountability, and unequivocally expect justice. In this process, however, we cannot reduce the Church to only the things of this world, or its evils.
We are called, especially now, to use the full spiritual identity and power of the Church to fight against sin and reform her by God’s grace.