September 2007 - Volume 12, Issue 2
In the seventh grade, I volunteered to debate a fellow classmate on the subject of congressional filibusters. Specifically, we were to argue whether the rules for "cloture" ("the closing or limitation of debate by calling for a vote") should be loosened so as to cut off filibusters more easily. Neither of us chose what position we were to defend; our positions were assigned by the teacher. My job was to defend the status quo.
I must have done a pretty good job! After all, the cloture rule (Senate Rule XXII) remains rigorous. It takes three-fifths of the Senate, or 60 votes, to limit debate in the Senate on any one measure to 30 hours. Fortytwo years after my grade school debate, the filibuster is alive and well!
Well, my position on cloture prevailed in the Senate but, in fact, I lost the debate. My opponent was better prepared than I was. Not only did he marshal more facts, he could also cite his sources and their relative authority. The turning point came when my classmate proceeded to challenge the sources for my position.
"Sez who?" he demanded. "Sez me!" was my utterly ineffectual reply. Thus was my cause lost.
But the lesson of that debate is not lost on me now as I reflect with you on the authority with which the Catholic Church speaks and teaches. We should ask ourselves: "By what authority does the Church teach?" "Who authorized the Church to teach, and from what sources does she draw her teaching?" Or, to put the question another way, "Is the Church just one competing voice among many in our culture?"
Unfortunately, many people think that the Church indeed is just one voice among many - and not a very credible voice at that! Many consider her teaching, especially her moral teaching, to be arbitrary and unreasonable.
When we are challenged to defend the Church's teaching, people in effect are asking us, "Sez who?"
In what follows, I hope to provide you with a more adequate answer than my retort of old, "Sez me!"
You may have read about a document issued in June by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith entitled "Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine on the Church." It reiterated the authority with which the Church speaks and teaches. Although this brief document merely summarized a number of previous teachings, particularly those of the Second Vatican Council, it created something of a stir. This was because it reminded us of a central truth about the Catholic Church that is sometimes forgotten or distorted; namely, that "the Church of Christ subsists in the Catholic Church."
This means that Christ permanently willed to establish only one Church as a visible and spiritual community, and that the fullness of what Christ willed is found only in the Catholic Church.
This Vatican document further taught that Christ endowed the Catholic Church with all the means of salvation which He Himself communicated and instituted during His mission on earth, in accordance with the Father's plan of salvation. This includes God's Word in its fullness transmitted to us through Scripture and Tradition. It also includes access, through the sacraments, to all Jesus said and did for our salvation. This also includes the presence and action of the Holy Spirit as the invisible but very real principle of the Church's life and mission.
To put it succinctly, Christ willed that the one, true Church would live on in the Catholic Church until His Kingdom is fully achieved.
In this ecumenical era, we may hesitate to speak of the Catholic Church as "the one, true Church." To modern ears this may sound smug and exclusive, un-open to other communities that profess the name of Jesus. In fact, the Church's teaching is carefully stated: the Church of Christ "subsists" in the Catholic Church.
Now, the verb "subsist" ("to have existence" or "hold true") is hardly a household word. It is used to indicate that Church of Christ lives most completely and fully in the Catholic Church, while at the same time to show that elements of "sanctification and truth" can be found in other Christian churches and communities, especially Baptism as well as the Scriptures and a number of shared teachings. In this way, the Church expresses not only her openness but also her commitment to work toward Christian unity, building on what is already shared.
However, such unity cannot be achieved by jettisoning any gift which Christ gave to His Church, such as the office of Saint Peter (the papacy); Apostolic Succession (the handing on of Apostolic preaching and authority from the Apostles to their successors, the bishops, through the laying on of hands); the seven Sacraments; and so forth.
In setting forth the principles of ecumenism, the Second Vatican Council taught that Christ endowed His Church with unity from the beginning, and this unity also "subsists" in the Catholic Church. But it also taught that we must pray for this unity to increase and that, in God's grace, we must work "to maintain, reinforce and perfect the unity Christ wills for [His Church]" (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, #820). The very gifts Christ has given to His Church and His gifts found outside the Church's structure should impel us to pray and work for the unity of all Christians.
This is a further challenge. Sometimes people are scandalized by the claim that the one true Church lives on in the Catholic Church. They point to all kinds of scandals that have marred her 2,000-year history, including the scandals of these present times. "How could this be the true Church of Christ?" they might ask - a question that should poignantly remind us of how our sinfulness can make it harder for people to hear and accept the Gospel of Christ. At the same time, we should remember that Christ founded a "visible and spiritual community" - a community made up of fallible, sinful human beings whom God in His mercy is forging into saints precisely through the ministry of His Church.
Salvation is a messy business! We need not look beyond the borders of our own conscience to know how true this is! For this reason, the Lord endowed His Church with holy gifts that are the means to holiness - especially His Word and the Sacraments, most especially the Eucharist, His very own Body and Blood.
So the long and the short of it is this: the Church came about in fulfillment of the Father's plan. It was instituted by Christ and, through the power of the Holy Spirit, continues His saving work in the world today. The Church speaks not her own message but the message she received from Christ. The Church bears witness to Christ and hands on His teaching, not to impose upon us but rather to invite us to open our hearts to the Savior and His love.
Filled with the overflowing love of the crucified Savior, the Church cannot fail to speak!
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