Some clichés, like some books, seem wise when we are young. Most of the D. H. Lawrence I admired when I was twenty sounds pretty silly to me now.
I remember embracing the cliché about the inferiority of institutional religion as opposed to personal “religiousness.” In those days, I bought the assumption that institutions necessarily corrupted the vision they originally served. Institutions, I thought, represented a dry husk needing to be separated from the living kernel.
I was encouraged in this deception by existentialist theologians like Paul Tillich. Tillich’s famous notion of the Protestant Principle employed St. Paul’s distinction between the letter and the spirit to interpret the history of the Church. In his view, the institutional Church inevitably kills the spirit of the Gospel with the letter of ecclesial regulation and clerical bureaucracy.
Hardly anyone reads Tillich anymore, but his arguments are always close at hand. A. N. Wilson, an English novelist who occasionally dabbles in religious commentary, produced a book that accuses St. Paul of corrupting the pure message of Jesus and replacing it with the institutional Church. It’s ironic that a Pauline passage ultimately finds its way around to maligning the author. St. Paul, however, was too inspired to simple-mindedly champion the myth of corrupt institutions.
It’s ironic, also, that amateur theologians like Wilson can reproduce bad arguments from thirty, even a hundred years ago and create a bestseller. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone starts hawking a book about “demythologizing” the Scriptures, as if Rudolf Bultmann had never lived!
Tillich’s complaint, like those who echo him, is really against the temporal nature of human existence. It suggests an impatience and ingratitude often mistaken for spiritual wisdom. The so-called words of wisdom go something like this: A vision suddenly discloses itself in time and necessarily fades into a corrupted shadow of itself. Therefore, time is too fluid to contain the certainty of truth — time and eternity are like oil and water; they cannot be mixed.
Dangerous nonsense! It’s like saying the family should not be an institution, that a parent’s task of child-rearing should be over at birth. Or like arguing the long and tedious task of raising a child will inevitably do downhill after the joy of birth. Beyond that, it’s like saying there can be no Incarnation, no Body of Christ, no Church.
The Church is the institution par excellence. The Church is the historical repository of the truth about God and man, the place where God and man share a real communion through the administration of the sacraments. The Church has been such an institution for nearly twenty centuries. Its ongoing vitalityy bears witness to the presence of the Spirit.
The Church as institution undergirds and informs all other institutions by providing the fundamental rationale for the necessity of institutions in the salvation of man.
Sadly and tragically, these days, the institutional quality of the Church stands out in sharp relief. The Church once enjoyed other institutional allies — other religions and Christian denominations, colleges and universities, the professions of law and medicine, and various international organizations. Now the Church stands alone for life, the primacy of the family, the objectivity of truth, the natural law, and God’s final sovereignty over man. In this sense, the Church has become the last institution on earth.
Some will say that I am overlooking the emerging coalition of Catholics and Christian evangelicals. I am not.
Evangelicals, however, even though they have allied together within powerful organizations (like Focus on the Family), are congenitally wary of religious institutions. For example, Southern Baptists, the world’s second largest Christian denomination, insist upon the autonomy of local congregations and reject the observance of a common creed.
The institutional character of our Church is grounded in the universal celebration of the Eucharist. Nothing could give clearer voice to a Catholic’s confidence in the fact of the Incarnation and the power of God to enter and to remain present in human history through his Church.
The Church does not need to be shorn from the kernel of the Gospel; St. Paul does not have to be cast aside in order to embrace Jesus.
The Church is the last institution because it continues to bear witness to the truth about human life.
Our creed and the teaching of the Magisterium have provided successive generations with a window on reality. Our witness can be loud and clear because through faith we are no longer prisoners of the dark recesses of our turbulent subjectivity. No longer prisoners, but bearers of the Gospel light.
This column originally appeared in the July 1997 issue of Crisis Magazine.