Literary Witness 9

Sin & the Church

By David Mills

“I think that the Church is the only thing that is going to make the terrible world we are coming to endurable,” wrote Flannery O’Connor. But then she added, “the only thing that makes the Church endurable is that it is somehow the body of Christ and that on this we are fed.”

All the writers we are looking at here, the converts as well as the born Catholics, wrote about the Church as she is without batting an eye, without a hint that there was anything abnormal about her sins, nothing anomalous to be explained, no horror or scandal that suggested the Church is not who she says she is.

The Church, that is, our Lord founded, as the visible, identifiable body that would carry his word and work through history. He promised us that the Church would do this till He returned. He did not promise us that it would always do it well.

What God began when Moses led the children of Israel out of Egypt — whining, grumbling, and sometimes rebelling — “continues today in the Church and is meant to continue that way,” wrote O’Connor. “And I believe all this is accomplished in the patience of Christ in history and not with select people but with ordinary ones — as ordinary as the vacillating children of Israel and the fishermen apostles.”

That is the Church God gave us. Jesus, wrote Ronald Knox, was “careful to explain that his kingdom is a slow growth, which you might compare to the action of a man who plants a mustard seed, or that of a woman who hides leaven in three measures of meal.” This body was also “the ‘remnant’ of which the prophets had spoken . . . a collection of persons, bound together by external marks of unity.”

And in that Church God gave us, “There is a paradox inherent in all her history,” Evelyn Waugh wrote. “The Church, designed in her nature to be universal, remains everywhere a minority. . . . [T]he Church has always been at grips with enemies inside or outside her body, has never enjoyed that serene rule her constitution expects, has repeatedly suffered disasters from which it seemed barely possible she would recover.”

But that is not the last word, as in the patience of Christ, God works out His will through human history and through men holy, wicked, and mediocre. “Vitality mysteriously waxes and wanes among the peoples. Again and again Christianity seems dying at its centre,” wrote Waugh. Yet, he continued, “always Providence has another people quietly maturing to relieve the decadent of their burden. . . . So the battle continues, one that can never be lost and may never be won until the Last Trump. No loss is impossible, no loss irretrievable, no loss — not Rome itself — mortal.”

He had “suffered grievously” from “stupid, tired, dimmed, and even bad priests,” J. R. R. Tolkien wrote, and understood how someone could easily be scandalized by the Church. But “The temptation to ‘unbelief’ (which really means rejection of Our Lord and His claims) is always there within us. Part of us longs to find an excuse for it outside us. The stronger the inner temptation the more readily and severely shall we be ‘scandalized’ by others.”

No matter the scandal, “this spectacle is alas! only what was to be expected: it began before the first Easter, and it does not affect faith at all — except that we may and should be deeply grieved. But we should grieve on our Lord’s behalf and for Him, associating ourselves with the scandalizers not with the saints, not crying out that we cannot ‘take’ Judas Iscariot, or even the absurd and cowardly Simon Peter, or the silly women like James’ mother, trying to push her sons.”

There lies our hope: that in His Church, the Lord works through sinners and makes them far more than they are by nature and by choice. We are not just a collection of the petty, vicious, greedy, foolish, cruel, lazy, and bigoted, but somehow the Body of Christ.

G. K. Chesterton saw all this keenly, and many years before he entered the Church wrote: “When Christ at a symbolic moment was establishing His great society, He chose for its corner-stone neither the brilliant Paul nor the mystic John, but a shuffler, a snob, a coward — in a word, a man. Peter. And upon this rock He has built His Church, and the gates of Hell have not prevailed against it.

“All the empires and the kingdoms have failed, because of this inherent and continual weakness, that they were founded by strong men and upon strong men. But this one thing, the historic Christian Church, was founded on a weak man, and for that reason it is indestructible. For no chain is stronger than its weakest link.”

David Mills is the author of Knowing the Real Jesus and Discovering Mary and writes a weblog for Patheos. He has served as the editor of Touchstone and executive editor of First Things. “Sin and the Church” appeared in the May/June issue of Lay Witness.

The quotations are found in: O’Connor, The Habit of Being, p. 90; O’Connor, Habit, p. 337; Knox, The Belief of Catholics, chapter 10; Waugh, “The American Epoch in the Catholic Church” in The Essays, Articles and Reviews of Evelyn Waugh; Tolkien, The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, letter of 1 December 1963, p. 338; Chesterton, Heretics.