Unpacking the Problem of Substituting the Church for Jesus

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.

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2 thoughts on “Unpacking the Problem of Substituting the Church for Jesus

  1. Bridegroom and bride. It is a marriage. What happens in a marriage …..they become one. And the wedding banquet is the Eucharist. As Catholics we have the ultimate personal relationship with Jesus in partaking of the Sacraments. And where do we reside? In a city on the hill that can not be hidden. One that makes a clear distinction of the One True Church. And as the Catechism also says…..the Church is One with Christ. The Catechism even refers to those ‘outside’ of the Church. Jesus says many times in the Gospel to follow Him. Love requires obedience The fear is not about talking about Jesus too much. It is about neglecting to talk about His Church and His teachings enough. Also maybe neglecting the Mother of Christ and the Church? As Catholics whenever we are asked by protestants if we love Jesus our answer should be a resounding ‘yes and I love His Church too!’

    Don’t forget St. Joan…..”About Jesus Christ and the Church, I simply know they’re just one thing, and we shouldn’t complicate the matter.” 🙂

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  2. Very much so! I don’t think anyone would disagree with your statement, “As Catholics whenever we are asked by protestants if we love Jesus our answer should be a resounding ‘yes and I love His Church too!’” As I wrote above, Christ and the Church are one…yet just as a bride and bridegroom become one, they are not exactly the same. My husband and I are one in sacramental marriage, but we still have unique characteristics, we are one, and yet not one person–and this is how the Church teaches about the nature of the Church and Christ, unity and distinctiveness at the same time. There are different things to be taught about Jesus Christ and the Church in each of their distinctiveness.

    Joan of Arc’s quote rings true for those who “think with the Church” regarding what the Church actually is. We should be careful, however, not to transpose her thinking onto those who do not have a true, full, accurate understanding of what “Church” is. For those who think the church is, say, membership in an organization that they earn by going through certain rituals and living a good life, well then no–that’s not the Church that is one with Jesus Christ.

    With regards to talking about Jesus, Church, Mary, etc. enough, there will always be more praise to offer 🙂 and we’ll be singing those praises in eternal life. When it comes, however, to how we proclaim the message here on earth as evangelization or a pedagogy of catechesis, I believe our Church’s teaching on the “hierarchy of faith” is instructive (see here for a history of the term: http://www.ignatiusinsight.com/features2005/dbushman_hiertruths_sept05.asp). This websites shows a practical example: http://acmrcia.org/blog/5-foundational-truths-revelation. The Trinity comes before Jesus, which comes before the Paschal Mystery, which comes before the Church, as each of those great truths is the foundation for the ones that follow.

    Another way of thinking about it is within the context of how the Church speaks of evangelization (https://practicalevangelization.wordpress.com/2013/01/23/catechesis-within-evangelization-its-a-process/) showing how human needs connect to God and the initial proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ come before even the liturgy or sacraments. Now it’s not to say that’s how it happens in everyone’s life (it didn’t go in that order for me!) but nonetheless, it’s what the Church teaches as normative or guiding for us in evangelizing and catechizing.

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