Is the Church Only a Means to an End?

Saints in HeavenThe 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!

The Parable of Young Goodman Brown

Nathaniel HawthorneThe mid nineteenth-century writer, Nathaniel Hawthorne, composed many stories concerned with moral issues.  One particular short story that rises to the dignity of a parable is called, Young Goodman Brown.  The story begins with Goodman saying farewell to his beautiful and angelic wife of three months, Faith.  Her name is an important detail.  Apparently, Goodman must depart for one night on some mysterious deed that bears a degree of danger.  After leaving behind his beloved and their home in the village of Salem, Massachusetts, Goodman enters a dark forest in search of his unmentionable destination.  Although Hawthorne is slow to reveal its nature, it appears to be some sort of meeting in a field, and of an impious type.  Along the way, Goodman meets a man carrying a black snake-like staff who becomes his guide.  As one person after another appears along the same wooded way, and he meanwhile reflects more gravely on the nature of his deed, Goodman finds his resolve shaken and he begins to argue with his companion.  First he sees the pious woman who taught him the catechism.  Then he sees the minister, the deacon, and other highly regarded town elders as well.  It seems as if everyone that Goodman respects is attending the same shrouded affair.

When Goodman finally arrives, he finds a woodland gathering of Satan worshippers preparing to welcome and initiate several newcomers – among them, Goodman himself and his beloved wife, Faith!  Goodman appears to have been persuaded against his will to attend this meeting, and offers resistance, but in vain.  Regardless, he and Faith are carried through the ceremony until the moment of actual initiation.  As the two are about to be unwillingly baptized from a rock-hewn basin seemingly containing blood, Goodman shouts to his beloved, “Faith, Faith, look up to heaven and resist the wicked one!”

Immediately, Goodman awakens alone in the forest.  Hawthorne deliberately leaves the reader without an explanation.  Did the meeting really happen, or was it only a dream?  Was Faith received into that wicked congregation, to which all the other venerable towns folk belonged?  Was he, Goodman, received?   Hawthorne offers no clues to answer these tantalizing questions.  But the conclusion of the story finds Goodman wandering again through the streets of Salem with a very different view of its citizens – the catechist, the minister, the deacon, the elders, and even his once precious Faith herself.  Disgusted with their (supposed) extreme hypocrisy – the holy do-gooders who may actually be devil worshippers – Goodman withdraws from everyone and everything, including the Church, and dies a bitter and lonely old man.  He could no longer believe in the good, simply because others had betrayed it.  And even worse, these traitors maintained the veneer of virtue for the purpose of preserving their good reputations.

Oh, the parallels!  The Gospel reading for the Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time recounts our Lord’s Parable of the Wheat and Weeds.  It is found in the thirteenth chapter of Saint Matthew, which contains a total of seven parables specifically about the Kingdom of Heaven.  This Kingdom is neither this world in general nor heaven itself.  Rather, it is the Church in her infant and most imperfect stage.  Jesus said,

“The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field; but while men were asleep, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away.”

The fundamental point of this parable is not to state the obvious, that there will be evil – metaphorical “weeds” – in the world; rather, it is to warn the faithful that there will be evil in the Church.  Although the field represents the world in general, the all-important detail is that the weeds are wrapped around the wheat and look just like it.  They are in the immediate vicinity of the wheat and cannot be distinguished from it.  In other words, this is a parable, not about the Church in the world, but about the world in the Church.  Hence, it would be too risky to pull up the weeds, because the wheat would come up with them.  The only solution will come with the harvest at the end of the season, when everything will be pulled up at the same time.  Then the weeds will be thrown into a fire, and the wheat saved.

Our Lord actually gives such an interpretation at verses 40-43:

“Therefore, just as the weeds are gathered up and burnt with fire, so will it be at the end of the world.  The Son of Man will send forth his angles, and they will gather out of His kingdom all scandals and those who work iniquity, and cast them into the furnace of fire, where there will be the weeping and the gnashing of teeth.  Then the just will shine forth like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.”

What will be found within the Kingdom of God?  Scandals and iniquity.  This cannot be heaven proper, for nothing unclean can enter heaven.  It is the Kingdom in its first and most imperfect stage – the Church on earth.  And what will become of such sinners and unbelievers who are ostensibly in the Kingdom but not truly of the Kingdom?  In the end, they will be thrown into hell.  Only then, after the Day of Judgment, will the Church be perfected and free of all evil.  For now, the Church must always be striving to reform herself, but with the understanding that only God can achieve a perfect pruning.  Until that Day of days, the weeds will remain, threatening the Church, soiling her reputation, and obscuring her message and mission.

Jesus used other images to express the same teaching – the dragnet that contains both good and bad fish, the man at the wedding feast who neglected to wear the proper garment, and so on.  The message for the faithful of all eras is the same: prepare yourselves, for there will be extreme evil within the Church.  And when you witness it, do not doubt that this most imperfect institution is, in fact, the true Church, the one Kingdom of God founded by Christ that will never be forgotten by Him.

The parabolic value of the story of Young Goodman Brown is seen in the final paragraphs, in Goodman’s reaction to evil within the persons that he formerly respected, that he thought had merited his respect.  Overreacting, he withdrew from Salem’s religious and civil institutions because he believed their members were hypocrites.  He judged the Church exclusively by her human face.  However, behind an all-too human exterior lies her divine interior, and to abandon one is to abandon the other.  Goodman tragically overlooked this fact, and in doing so, he committed a blunder committed by many people today.

As has always been the case since the betrayal of Judas Iscariot, there is extreme evil within the Catholic Church.  Presently, evil is being welcomed, defended, and promoted even at the highest levels.  At the same time, good is being ridiculed, denied, and opposed, even at the highest levels.  I guess we’re right on schedule; it’s just as our Lord had warned.  But how will we react?  Will we leave the Church?  Will we throw up our arms in despair, conclude that Christ has abandoned His bride, and never again darken her vestibules?  Only a Goodman Brown would do such a thing.

Countless Catholics respond to Church scandals and corruption by leaving her once and for all.  As if the sins of the clergy could alter the fact that every human being needs for salvation precisely what the Church provides; namely, the truth and grace of Jesus Christ.

Let me be blunt.  If the pope, cardinals, bishops, priests, deacons, and all the laity are mortal sinners and unbelievers to the last soul, regardless, I have not a single reason to abandon the faith.  If the Church refuses to preach the Gospel, but preaches liberation theology and leftist politics instead, regardless, I have not a single reason to reject the Gospel.  And if the Church insists on giving Holy Communion to practicing homosexuals, LGTBQ activists, cohabitating adulterers, and pro-abortion politicians, still, I have not a single reason to question the veracity of the Real Presence; nor do I need the grace of the sacrament any less.

Christ forewarned us about the coming scandals within His Church for a good reason; namely, so that when they appeared in all of their horrid grotesqueness – both the heresy and the perversity – we would not then wrongly conclude that the divine was wholly absent, that the God who had solemnly promised to remain with His Church until the consummation of this world, had, after all, abandoned her to the devil.  And also, so that we would not doubt that, in spite of hypocrisy and duplicity, the Church is still the Kingdom of God on earth.

Young Goodman Brown made a foolish assessment; it was purely emotional and therefore irrational.  As a result, he followed for the remainder of his life a different and longer path that, nevertheless, led him back to that same sylvan congregation of occultists.  Just as they had turned from God, so, too, did he, though in a vastly different manner.  And in the end, they would all arrive at the same kingdom where there is only “the weeping and the gnashing of teeth”.

The same is true for those Catholics who, overreacting to scandals within the Church, and even using such evil as a convenient justification, abandon the Church and never again return, to the peril of their own salvation.  For what, morally speaking, is the difference between the person who remains in the Church and sins, and the person who leaves the Church because of the sins of others?  Both have fallen and placed themselves apart from the Kingdom of God.

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“Whoever, therefore, knowing that the Catholic Church was made necessary by Christ, would refuse to enter or to remain in it, could not be saved.”

– From the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) of the Second Vatican Council, #14