The Universality of the Catholic Church

(Translation of the dutch article of 08-11-2011)

The Common God of Christians

Jesus asked the question, “When the Son of Man comes will He find faith on the earth?”. He left the answer open, and that silence is significant for what faith really is. Faith is not based on legal guarantees, scientific findings or reasonably fixed prognosis, but is intimately linked to hope, trust and love: not material but spiritual realities. They have little meaning for a rational brain, despite the fact that they are the main forces that determine the history of man and the world. Faith is reminiscent of a small flower that pierces through the soil for the first time and works its way up from the subterranean darkness, to the invigorating warm sunlight. The plant has no certainty about its future, but it believes in it, finds its way and grows, driven by invisible primal forces that belong to the essence of life . . .

Such considerations are very beautiful and moving, and they teach us something about the essence of the faith that lives or slumbers in every human being, but they remain barren if we do not give it concrete content. The most fundamental form of belief, which lays the foundation for all our further life choices and decisions, is the one that determines our general view of the observable universe.  The first question that arises is: “Does all this just exist on its own, or is this the meaningful expression of an imperceptible reality?”.  The latter is the choice of faith that most people make, but that choice also needs to be fleshed out in more detail.

The interpretation given by Jews, Christians and Muslims (the “believers of the book” as they are called by Muslims) is very clear: there is only one God who has revealed himself to Adam and Eve, the Patriarchs and the Prophets. The interpretation of the Christian goes a huge step further: this God has united himself very concretely with humanity, at a historically ascertainable moment, around the year 1.  In Jesus He has shared the fate of man with us to show us the way to Him, and He has offered us the help of His Spirit in this. The resulting paradox of the Christian faith is that it does not divide God into three independent Beings, but that the Father, the Son and the Spirit are one. This mathematically incomprehensible belief for the human brain is the basic axiom of Christian faith: God’s substance transcends the limitations of our human reason. The Christian accepts the mystery of the Trinity of God, and Christians express this common belief in the sign of the cross.

The Church as the body of Christ

So the Christian has only one Lord, who is at the same time God’s Word becoming flesh and God himself, Creator who lived as a Creature. The Christian does not believe primarily in scriptures, such as the Bible, the Qur’an or the Torah, but in a Person: The Risen Son of Man. The Catholic Church consistently continues in this faith: it considers itself the unique body of Christ. From this identification flows logically its universality, which is reflected in its name. The ancient Greek word “katholikos” means universal. After all, there is only one Christ, and the community of the Catholic faithful is the continuation of his earthly presence after his resurrection. One and therefore universal: the Catholic Church cannot be anything else. Everything that divides her is completely contrary to her being herself.

The Unifying Leadership of the Pope

This essential universality is clearly expressed in the way in which the Catholic Church is composed and fulfils its mission. She has only one head, the successor of Peter. All bishops are united in spirit with the bishop of Rome, who has the final say in important matters of faith, as well as in the appointment of new bishops or their possible deposition in case their words or deeds are not in accordance with the continuous teaching of the Church. The pope’s unique place in Catholicism is the rock on which Christ established his Church. Anyone who doubts this or undermines the spiritual authority of the Pope can no longer consider himself an authentic Catholic or present himself as such in a fair way. After all, the spiritual leadership of the Pope is not an artificial invention of the Church herself, but certainly responds to the will of her Founder.

It is important to take a closer look at this. That Peter’s leadership was effective and willed by Jesus is confirmed in several gospel texts. Since Jesus himself was, of course, the Leader, it is clear that He did so with a view to the future coherence of his Church. There is a lot of confusion about the succession of Peter. It must be distinguished from the appointment as bishop. This is done through a continuous chain of laying on of hands dating back to the first apostles. However, the choice for a new primate or pope (= father) is made by a joint decision of the main bishops. The pope thus elected is then automatically appointed bishop of Rome and not vice versa; that appointment is a secondary ecclesiastical decision on historical grounds, which is not of fundamental importance. The Church obviously needs a permanent residence (Vatican City in Rome) for her leadership, just as every state needs a capital. Each coherent (religious) community or nation has a central figure (president, king, pope …) who has to make some decisions and guarantee unity. In the Anglican Church, that is even a secular leader, the British monarch(in). Ecumenical Christians of other persuasions are beginning to feel that need as well. Recently, evangelical bishop Ulrich Fischer called for recognition of the pope’s honorary primacy.

To a certain extent, our body parts have limited autonomy, but that cannot or should not lead to situations that contradict each other.  All parts of a body must respond to the same general purpose. One hemisphere of the brain cannot want or think something that contradicts the other hemisphere without leading to serious psychological problems or forms of schizophrenia. One leg cannot go in a different direction than the other, as this would result in serious body damage. In the same way, within the Church there is a reasonable margin for autonomous action, thinking and believing. But when parts of the Church formally contradict each other on crucial themes of the doctrine and praxis of the faith, things go profoundly wrong. If a person’s belief or way of life are in formal contradiction with official church doctrine and important papal statements about it, then his place is elsewhere, in another faith community, whether or not of his own making, but certainly not in the Catholic Church.

Importance of canon law

The Church is not a mixed bag held together by people who have acquired a stable status or function in it, but a community of believers who, united in doctrine, respond to Christ’s wish: “That they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you”. This will for unity was pursued from the beginning of Christianity and realized internally, among other things through councils that put an end to deviations of faith that were labeled as heresies. In order to promote this unity, the Church always emphasized the importance of uniform arrangements in many aspects of Catholic life, such as the liturgy, sacramental customs, appointments, etc. Canonical rules were enacted that resulted in what we now  call “canon law.”  Other Christian church communities could not accept this and went their own way, but they are all aware that this does not correspond to the will of Christ.

The common liturgy as a sign of universal communion

The key element par excellence in the pursuit of unity of the Catholic Church is undoubtedly the Mass. It commemorates how Christ identified himself with the suffering of mankind and donated his body for the forgiveness of sins. During the Sacrifice of the Mass, believers are invited to consume the body of Christ and thus to unite with Him on their part. The Sacrifice of the Mass is thus the celebration of the unification of believers in Christ. That is why the Church considers it all the more important that the Mass be celebrated in a universal way in which all believers everywhere in the world can participate, while they can easily follow the liturgical acts.

For many centuries there was therefore within the Roman Catholic Church mainly one liturgical language, Latin, in which the mass took place. This arrangement had the disadvantage that it was at the expense of the deepening of faith, because many believers did not understand the meaning of the prayers. It also made it difficult to strive for ecumenism, the renewed unification with other Christian communities. After the Second Vatican Council, therefore, the obligation to use Latin was abolished.  But fairly recently, at the request of a part of the faithful who consider the Latin rite in the so-called Tridentine Mass to be more respectful, the latter was reintroduced as an approved and fully-fledged possibility of celebrating mass. In addition, there are some other forms of mass celebration, including in the Eastern rite, which have traditionally remained accepted by the Catholic Church.

Precisely because the Church is universal and unifying, it is of particular importance that the accepted liturgies of the mass are determined by uniform arrangements, which lead to a well-recognizable rite, with a great symbolic value of faith. Priests who abandon this universality for the sake of self-righteousness or an uncontrolled need for originality not only sin against their promise of obedience, but break the unity and togetherness that characterizes the true Church of Christ. The result is that the faithful are offered a mass that leads to separation rather than unification. More than once the question can be asked whether this is still about a Mass in the Catholic sense of the word. Some masses in our parishes are more like a local creative group experience, for the benefit of a sect separated from Rome, led by an independently operating guru.

The role of priests

Naturally, the priests themselves also play a primordial role in building up the Church of Christ in togetherness and unity. Each and every one of them personifies Christ himself for the believing community. In each of them we should find more than a glimpse of Him. This happens especially when their attitude is characterized by humility, patience, and willingness to listen when it comes to the needs of their fellow human beings, and by decisiveness, authority, and clarity when it comes to the proclamation of faith. However, the attitude of some of our Catholic pastors is characterized by the reverse combination. Although they call themselves priests, they behave more like would-be social workers and their predicates are more reminiscent of political expositions full of populist statements and soporific generalities. Instead of showing their fellow men the spiritual ways that lead to God, they let them wander around in a world in which there is only material satisfaction of needs.

The reasons for the compulsory priestly celibacy

Another value that promotes unity in the life of the catholic Church, that of the priestly celibacy, is today rather controversial. In our oversexed environment, however, the voluntary and dignified celibacy of the clergy plays an important role as a healing, liberating and sanctifying sign. From a human point of view in times of priestly scarcity, it is understandable that a number of priests, who themselves remain faithful to their vows of celibacy, argue for the abolition of this condition attached to their ecclesiastical ministry. Nevertheless, from a realistic view of church history, one must come to the conclusion that this obligation has been very fruitful, so much so that one  can assume that it was inspired by the Holy Spirit himself. Compulsory celibacy for priests is, in the final analysis, one of the best ordinances ever of the Church leadership. Firstly, it is one of the best possible obstacles to banning non-purely motivated candidates. Equally important is the fact that a celibate is much more independent than a married person. Therefore, he is much more difficult to put under pressure by church-hostile forces and does not see himself faced with dilemmas between his family obligations and his mission as pastor of a church community. (*)

One can list other advantages associated with the use of celibates, such as avoiding forms of nepotism (unlawful favoring of relatives). The latter, moreover, was the main historical motive for the compulsory priestly celibacy. But this issue actually goes much further and deeper. A good priest is not only a representative of Christ, he incarnates Him to a certain extent. Therefore, an ideal priest is one who, like Him, “has made himself unmarried for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven.”  Both  women and men can make this decision. However, just as, according to God’s plan, only women can bear children and experience the greatness of motherhood, so only men in the service of their fellow men can incarnate Christ as priests, He who lived among us as an unmarried man. He is the Cornerstone of his Church and his priests are the keystones necessary to credibly  make the Church a harmoniously coherent universal whole and to keep it that way.

So let’s thank God for the good and faithful priests He sent us. Let’s pray that God’s Spirit inspires new priests again and again, as true prophets in their time. Let us also ask for forgiveness for the priests who “know better” and walk with another spirit: that of their time.

(*) There are, of course, many arguments against priestly celibacy. For example, it is claimed that this is the cause of the regrettable abuse scandals that plagued the Catholic Church. This can easily be refuted, because those scandals also occurred in other faith communities and other social sectors, without celibacy obligations. The largest percentage of abuses (65 to 85% according to Child Focus, among others) would happen within families.

An objective disadvantage, of course, is that the celibacy obligation reduces the number of priestly candidates. But this is also relative, because Western churches without that obligation also suffer from a shortage of candidate pastors.  So the real underlying reasons for this shortage lie elsewhere.


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