An Open Letter to the Editor, Cameroon Concord
Dear Mr. Editor,
Why I Still Believe In The Sinful Church
Maurice Ashley Agbaw-Ebai (AMDG).
Recently I met a Cameroonian Catholic who expressed great worry and doubt about the Church. He referenced an editorial he had read from your paper, and asked me: is God still at work in the Church? I read that editorial myself, but did not give it much thought, because there was much on my plate at the time. However, looking at the number of unprecedented hits that editorial has had, and the feeling of doubt about the Church that it has generated and will likely continue to do so, I seek to offer a response that I hope will be helpful in shaping our understanding of the failures of the members of the Church.
Firstly, some preliminary considerations. The hierarchy of the Church has the obligation to listen to the lay faithful. Catholicism is not a clerical club. The laity has the right and obligation to call the attention of the hierarchy to face the music, though it is advisable to do so respectfully. The crisis of priestly pedophilia in the Church has shown the damage that can plague the Church when you have a passive or an indifferent laity. As Newman once said, the Church will be a very awkward place without the laity! Thus, the question is certainly not that of priests opposed to lay voices. I think Vatican II has moved the Church pass a crippling clerical obscurantism of ecclesia life.
That said, it is helpful to recall that to say that the Church is sinful is to say what all Catholics say at the start of each mass, “I have sinned, through my fault, through my fault, through my most gracious fault.” It was Benedict XVI that said at the height of the sexual abuse scandal, “I am heading a sinful Church.” The reality is that the Church has been sinful from the time of the Acts of the Apostles to present. It will continue to be till the time when the Angel of the Apocalypse announces the completion of time, the end of history, when Jesus Christ will hand over the Church, his purified bride to the Father, so that God will be all in all (1 Cor. 15:28).
At the root of human sin is the greatest gift of creation, human freedom. Sometimes we wonder why God allows sin to flourish. Why does God also allow good and virtue to flourish? St. Augustine argues that without freedom, the human being cannot be held accountable for his or her actions. You cannot blame or praise one who is not free. It is precisely because we are free that we need to be held accountable for our actions.
The ordained need to be held accountable, precisely because of the gift of human freedom and the charisma of leadership bestowed on them. It can be abuse. It has been abused. It will be abuse. What is important is to remind ourselves of a distinction traceable to Augustine of Hippo and made more explicit by John Henry Newman: the difference between the holiness of the Church and the mystery of sin in her members. The objective realities of the Church are holy: her sacraments, her rites and rituals, her gospel message. Also, the Church will never be completely lacking in terms of holy persons who cooperate with the message of the gospel. There will always be holy persons in the Church. Consequently, we cannot let the failures and sins of some in the Church to cloud our conviction of God’s presence in the Church. God is in the Church, sinful as she might be. Precisely because the Church is sinful, the power and presence of God is all the more operative, for where sin abounded, grace abounded all the more (Rom. 5:20).
Also, we must remind ourselves that the Church is always on the way, always moving toward her eschatological fulfillment with Christ. The Church as it stands at this point in history is not the perfect one, the one that has already arrived. In the words of the Second Vatican Council, the Church is a piece of land to be cultivated (Lumen Gentium, 6). Every farmer knows that the process of cultivation could be uncertain and difficult, but such difficulties do not deter us from farming. If anything, the challenges of farming should motivate us to intensify our efforts because we are aware of the good that comes with the harvest season. So it ought to be with our attitude toward the Church. We are patient with her, working hard at our own call to holiness, trusting that each little step cultivates the farm of the Church, trusting in God’s power to bring home a good harvest.
It is advisable to keep in mind that to love the Church is to be ready to suffer from her. Every lover of the Church must go through a time of Calvary, of rejection and pain, of even utter meaninglessness. How can we say we love if we have no suffering to show? A lover who cannot suffer cannot love. Ratzinger said as much: the uniqueness of the Christian God is that he loves and suffers. A God who does not love and suffer is a god of mathematics. Such a God cannot save, for to save the human being entails love and suffering. A love that does not suffer is a hired love. To love and to suffer always accompany the reform of the Church, that beloved Mother, old, slow, sinful, and yet bearing in her the hope of humanity, the gospel of Jesus Christ, the One who gives life its decisive meaning. Yes, because of Christ and not in spite of Christ, I still believe in the sinful, miserable Church, because with all her sinfulness, Christ is her head and we are the body of Christ, and without Christ, I do not know how to understand myself. And without the Church I will not know Christ, and without Christ, I will be more selfish and wretched. I will not know how to understand myself. Hence, I continue to believe in the sinful Church because I can still find Christ in the sinfulness of the Church.