There is a paradox at the heart of our Christian lives. We see it portrayed in the Old Testament. Israel is God’s Chosen People. Yet its people are often disobedient, unfaithful and they provoke God’s wrath. It is likewise with the Church. Membership of the Church is no guarantee of salvation, or indeed, even of good behaviour. It is hard to read very far in Catholic social media without coming across expressions of asperity about the Pope, the Bishops, the liturgy and, indeed, the Church itself. This is excused, as all who resort to such criticisms in whatever area of life excuse it, by concern for right-thinking and right practice, or, in Christian terms orthodoxy and orthopraxis. That the ideal exists only on paper, or in the imagination of the critics, or (which is the same thing) in an idealised version of some past “golden age”, is no bar to the critic. It reminds me of the old excuse for corporal punishment – it is necessary to inflict pain in order to stop the person being punished doing something worse. It seems as insufficient an instrument for Christian discourse as our fallen nature could contrive – hence no doubt its prevelance. The irony, in a Culture Wars context is indeed black. Where, I sometimes wonder, do its Christian critics think the idea of “cancelling” someone for their unorthodox views came from? Naturally, when ideas one holds oneself become targets for “cancellation,” one protests. For those doing the cancelling, nothing short of recantation and orthodxy and orthopraxis will do.
This paradox has been with the Church from its founding by Christ. The man to whom He entrusted His sheep loved them, as he loved Jesus, but that did not stop him being a deeply fallible human being, any more than it stopped him from bringing souls to Christ for salvation. St Paul was clearly a man who aroused strong opinions, and to judge from the tenor of his letters, he was hardly the easiest person to get on with. None of that stopped him being the most effective missionary in Christian history. His letters were kept and copied and circulated because they touched the early Church in so many of its concerns, practical as well as theological.
Perhaps we might learn something from St Paul here? We can see from his letters to the Corinthians that, to put it frankly, he considered some of them to be sinful and wayward and in danger of straying from the Way. But not once, in all his criticisms, does St Paul tell them that they do not belong to the real Church, composed of the faithful. They are, as he makes clear, desperately unworthy, and yet they are the ‘elect’ and they are ‘saints’ and members of the body of Christ.
St Paul looks forward, as does the whole Body of Christ, to the age to come, but he lived, as we live and as the whole Body of Christ lives, in a present where things are far from perfect – and chief among those things is us. The Church is one, even as we are sanctified by baptism, but that is in an echatalogical context; in this fallen world it is hard to see that in the divisions we have caused. Not all who are in the Church will be saved; not all who seem to be outside it will be lost. God alone is the Judge.
We have to live, as Paul’s Corinthians did, with the knowledge we fall short. But we know that what matters is not the falling, but the getting up again. Sometimes all I can say is “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” Sometimes I think it is all I need to say. Knowing you are actually the tax collector in the Synagogue has only one advantage, it stops you thanking God you are not like yourself, which may be the beginning of wisdom, in learning how to be more like Him.