Keith Strohm observes, “Often as catholics, we substitute the Church for Jesus–as if they were completely interchangeable. But Jesus is not the Church. Rather, He is the Bridegroom who gives His life for His bride. It is through Jesus that the Church receives Her holiness…it is through Jesus that the Church is a channel of God’s life and love to the world. We are his Body, but the Body without a Head is simply a corpse” (The Gospel Is Scandalous, 6/3/14).
A reader of both of our blogs raised the question–is thinking that Jesus is different than the Church the road to Protestantism?
The answer according to Church teaching is clearly no.
The Church and Jesus Christ are not interchangeable, they are not synonyms for the exact same thing. As we read in the Catechism:
In Christian usage, the word “church” designates the liturgical assembly, but also the local community or the whole universal community of believers. These three meanings are inseparable. “The Church” is the People that God gathers in the whole world. She exists in local communities and is made real as a liturgical, above all a Eucharistic, assembly. She draws her life from the word and the Body of Christ and so herself becomes Christ’s Body (§752).
The Church and Jesus Christ are strongly related, connected and in complete unity, as the Church only exists through the Holy Spirit–but though they are one [as a bride/bridegroom, or a head/body], they are not the exact same thing.
Here’s the really important part though…there does seem to be a problem of some Catholics substituting the Church for Jesus Christ. And when this happens, it’s not the Church of the Catechism and Church teaching that gets substituted. This authentic Church is so much more than mere human organization. It’s hierarchical in that it includes sacred orders, not hierarchical in the earthly, business sense. It’s a mystical body of the communion of all believers throughout all time, not “those pesky bishops.” It’s the Body of Christ, with Jesus as Head, not the local pastor’s club.
If this real, true understanding of Church was being substituted, then we wouldn’t have much of a problem, since this authentic belief in Church is necessarily connected to Christ as Head, and is certainly a valid path to entering into personal relationship with Jesus as Lord and Savior.
However, when Catholics substitute the Church for Jesus, they tend to substitute a completely erroneous notion of “the church.” The “church” that gets substituted for Jesus is often understood as some sort of social club, affinity group, identity group, organization of people with like morals, civic organization, secular nonprofit charity, group to exclude those who “aren’t like us,” cultural catholicism, or those who “pay, pray, and obey,” etc.
And when these erroneous notions of “church” get substituted, recent history has shown that many people end up not embracing the authentic Catholic belief that our God desires a relationship with each of us, through His Son, Jesus Christ. As the Pew Forum on Religious Life reported, only 60% of Catholics believe God is a personal one, with whom they can have a relationship (see pg. 5).
The reader with the question offered this quote from Pope Francis:
It is an absurd dichotomy to love Christ without the Church; to listen to Christ, but not the Church; to be with Christ at the margins of the Church…One cannot do this. It is an absurd dichotomy.
And that’s exactly right. Pope Francis is talking about the Church as Catholicism truly teaches. We need not fear being “too Protestant” by talking about Jesus, for following Christ in all its fullness and truth is being the Body of Christ, the Church. Embracing Christ does not lead away from the Church. However, substituting a false idea of “church” as membership, club, or earthly institution can quickly become a distraction that gets in the way of Jesus Christ–and this is what we must guard against.