The famous apologist, Frank Sheed, once wrote that there was hardly a single Catholic teaching which he had not heard denied or contradicted at Mass. I would heartily agree. In this age of irreligiosity in both the world and the Church, the weekly and daily homilies are often periods of doctrinal, moral, and devotional confusion – accidental or intentional. Sometimes it is subtle and shrewd, but other times it is overt and stunningly absurd. At Mass this morning I heard the latter type. The priest said,
“The Church is not an end in itself; it is a means to an end.”
The concept of the Church that was revealed in these two statements and throughout the homily is shockingly temporal, utilitarian, and Protestant. As if the Church were merely a tool for making or fixing something else, to be discarded when the project was completed! Is she only a gadget – a sort of wrench or hammer? Is she comparable to a college course or a political campaign, which is meant to exist for a time, but then be terminated once its purposes have been served? Will the Church finally cease to exist, once the job is done?
The best way to answer these questions is to consider the purpose of the public ministry and atoning work of Our Lord. The reason Christ came was to glorify God and save souls. This was the ultimate two-fold purpose behind His every word and deed. His preaching revealed the way to heaven; his healings and exorcisms demonstrated that He was the divine Redeemer with authority over death and the devil; His execution upon the Cross comprised the price of human sin and the means of universal reconciliation with the Father; and His Resurrection and Ascension were the proof and completion of the entire divine scheme. From beginning to end, Christ came to die, that we might live. But exactly where will the saved live? All the saved will live in the Kingdom of God.
Now what is the relationship between the Kingdom of God (called the “Kingdom of Heaven” in the Gospel of Saint Matthew) and the Church? When Jesus first sent out His twelve young Apostles, He instructed them,
“And as you go, preach the message, ‘The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand (Mt. 10:7)'”.
In announcing Simon Peter’s future primacy in the Church, Jesus said,
“I will give you the keys of the Kingdom of heaven, and whatever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Mt. 16:19).
Both of these passages describe the Kingdom as something that is present here and now on earth. Saint Peter and his successors have supreme authority over it. In addition, Jesus warned repeatedly that there would be corruption and scandal within the Kingdom, under the metaphors of weeds among wheat, bad fish among good fish, and a man who is thrown out of a wedding feast because he is improperly dressed.
To draw the obvious conclusion: the Kingdom of the God, the Kingdom of Heaven, and the one true Church of Jesus Christ are one and the same. The Church is the Kingdom, but at its first stage of existence. If the purpose of Christ’s redeeming work is the establishment of the Kingdom of God, then it can equally be said that the purpose of Christ’s redeeming work is the establishment of His Church. The two statements are different ways of saying the same thing.
Commenting on the Lord’s Prayer, the Roman Catechism teaches,
“In this petition we ask God that the kingdom of Christ, that is, the Church, may be enlarged.”
Later, it says,
“In this kingdom of the Church, God has provided all those succors by which He defends the life of man, and accomplishes his eternal salvation.”
Expounding on this same topic, the Second Vatican Council fathers wrote,
“When Jesus, who had suffered the death of the cross for mankind, had risen, he appeared as the one constituted as Lord, Christ, and eternal priest, and he poured out on his disciples the Spirit promised by the Father. From this source, the Church, equipped with the gifts of its Founder and faithfully guarding his precepts of charity, humility, and self-sacrifice, receives the mission to proclaim and to spread among all peoples the kingdom of Christ and of God and to be on earth the initial budding forth of that kingdom. While it slowly grows, the Church strains toward the completed kingdom, and with all its strength, hopes and desires to be united in glory with its king” (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church/Lumen Gentium, #5).
The Church, then, is the beginning, the “budding forth,” of the Kingdom of God on earth. She is the Kingdom in its initial and most imperfect stage, the Church Militant still engaged in the battles between flesh and spirit. And one enters this Kingdom through Baptism. One day, it will be purged of all sinners and unbelievers by the judgment of God, and only then will it be perfected. Even now, that same identical Kingdom exists in heaven and is populated exclusively by the righteous, the saints, and is called the Church Triumphant. Both are the same Kingdom and the same Church, but at different stages of perfection. And it is concerning this futuristic purification and perfection of the Church that we pray, “Thy kingdom come”.
Now, to ask again and finally answer the original question: Is the Church only a means to an end? Is she meant by God to serve a purpose here and now, but, once that purpose has been served, to cease to exist?
The Church, as the Kingdom of God which Christ became incarnate and taught, suffered, died, rose, and ascended into heaven in order to establish, is not merely a means to an end. Rather, she is that place where man finds his ultimate purpose, the reason for his being, both here and hereafter. As the domain of all the saved and the final home of the elect who will enjoy the beatific vision and worship God for eternity, her permanent establishment is part and parcel of the very purpose of Christ’s salvific work. Hence, with the fulfillment of all things, the Church will finally enter the state of perfection and adoration…forever. Like the righteous angelic spirits and human souls that will fill her, she will never cease to exist.
I am not suggesting that merely possessing membership in the Church as a mundane society is an end in itself. Contemporary models of the Church as a social, cultural, political, and ethnic organization whose purposes and constitution are anything but transcendent – these directly contradict the standard set by Christ and have as their end, not the glorification of God and the salvation of souls, but merely current human interests as determined by the spirit of the times. Such a “Church” could easily be replaced by other secular institutions that engage in humanitarian and philanthropic activism. On the contrary, the Church has what no other institution has; namely, divine truth and grace. And she must weary herself night and day urgently dispensing these to all who would receive them. Thus, it is not mere membership in the Church that matters, but discipleship. Because every human being was made to know, love, and serve God here, and to enjoy Him forever hereafter, and because the Church is that domain where this two-fold purpose is reached and retained, so the Church, correctly understood, is far more than a means to an end. She will never pass away because her end is eternal; it is God Himself.
Are there elements within the Church that are temporary, that do serve as a “means to an end,” but that will one day cease to be? Certainly. These would include the many externals of her devotion, ministry, and government, including the sacraments, Scriptures, and all authority. For one day, the faithful will no longer need these because they will possess grace, truth, and God Himself directly and immediately as the the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of Heaven, the Church Triumphant. Thanks be to God!