Empires have come and gone, as have epochs - the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Romantic Age, and the Modern - but the Catholic Church has remained, and now it's arguably the Last Institution. The only certain bedrock in our culture is the natural law, and the Catholic Church is the only institution that believes in it. Those who rail against institutionalized religion have not thought seriously about the temporal nature of human existence. The passing of time does not destroy the wisdom of the past, rather it stores it away. A vision suddenly disclosing itself in time does not necessarily fade into a corrupted shadow of itself. Therefore, time may seem fluid, but it carries truth into the future. Time and eternity are not like oil and water - they cannot be mixed. That's where you will find the Catholic Church and all who are Her members.
WASHINGTON,DC (Catholic Online) - Some books that seemed wise when we were young look pretty silly from the perspective of 40-50 years. In my teens I devoured all of Ayn Rand, thinking of myself as profoundly philosophical, an individual who stood apart from the conforming masses. By age 15, when I had started reading the classics seriously - Hawthorne, Melville, Lawrence, Dickens, Shakespeare, Poe, and the Metaphysical poets, I realized that Rand was exactly what William F. Buckley called her, "a third-rate novelist."
At that same age, however, there was other silliness to embrace, the cliché about the inferiority of institutional religion as opposed to personal "religiousness" or "spirituality." Certain intellectual obstacles are inevitably put in the way of the education of a young adult, and the scorn toward "institutional religion" is one of the most predictable. My generation had its own best sellers such as Honest to God (1963), that led the altar call away from participation in a Christian denomination of any kind. By the time I reached seminary, Honest to God had been replaced by To a Dancing God (1970) by Sam Keen, who had the advantage of having a sense of humor. Prior to my walking the aisle of a Southern Baptist Church in 1969, I bought the assumption that institutions necessarily corrupted the vision they originally served. Institutions, I thought, represented a dry husk needing to be separated from the living kernel.
I found some intellectual justification for this attitude in existentialist theologians like Paul Tillich. Tillich's then famous notion of the Protestant Principle employed St. Paul's distinction between the letter and the spirit to interpret the history of the Church. In his view, the institutional Church inevitably kills the spirit of the Gospel with the letter of ecclesial regulation and clerical bureaucracy. The living kernel is surrounded, and hidden, by the thick, rough husk (This original version of this argument is found in the German philosopher Gotthold Lessing 1729-1781 with his image of an "ugly broad ditch" separating us from the time of Jesus and his disciples.)
Hardly anyone reads Tillich anymore, but his arguments are always close at hand. A. N. Wilson, an English novelist who entered the Catholic Church as an adult only to leave it shortly afterward, occasionally dabbled in religious commentary. Wilson produced a book that accuses St. Paul of corrupting the pure message of Jesus and replacing it with the institutional Church. The message of the Apostle Paul is often treated this way, especially among professional theologians. The alert reader may already see where this argument leads when applied to the Catholic Church.
The Catholic Church is the institution par excellence. The Church has institutionalized in Canon Law, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the Roman Rite, the authority of its Bishops and Holy Father, and its worldwide network of nunciatures, chanceries, parishes, colleges, hospitals, and schools. The Church claims to hold the "sacred deposit of the faith" (1Tim 6:20; 2Tim 1:12-14). The Church is a repository in history, time and space, of the truth about God and man, the place where we celebrate the Real Presence of God in this world. Nothing can be said to be more institutionalized than the Catholic Church: For nearly twenty centuries, the Church has claimed to be the sole repository of the truth about God, about human life, about existence itself.
Empires have come and gone, as have epochs - the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Romantic Age, and the Modern - but the Catholic Church has remained, and now it's arguably the Last Institution. The only certain bedrock in our culture is the natural law, and the Catholic Church is the only institution that believes in it.
Those who rail against institutionalized religion have not thought seriously about the temporal nature of human existence. The passing of time does not destroy the wisdom of the past, rather it stores it away. A vision suddenly disclosing itself in time does not necessarily fade into a corrupted shadow of itself. Therefore, time may seem fluid, but it carries truth into the future. Time and eternity are not like oil and water - they cannot be mixed. That's where you will find the Catholic Church and all who are Her members.
The Church, as institution, undergirds and informs the culture by providing the fundamental rationale for serving the common good of all, seeking authentic happiness, and hope for the salvation of all.
The Church once enjoyed other institutional allies - other religions and Christian denominations, colleges and universities, the professions of law and medicine, and various international organizations. Now the Church stands alone for life, the primacy of the family, the objectivity of truth, the natural law, and God's final sovereignty over man. It is in this sense, the Church has become the Last Institution.
Some will say that I am overlooking the emerging coalition of Catholics and Christian evangelicals. I am not. Evangelicals, however, even though they have allied together within powerful organizations, are congenitally wary of religious institutions. For example, Southern Baptists, the world's second largest Christian denomination, insist upon the autonomy of local congregations and reject the observance of a common creed.
The institutional character of the Catholic Church is grounded in the universal celebration of the Eucharist. Nothing could give clearer voice to a Catholic's confidence in the fact of the Incarnation and the power of God to enter and to remain present in human history through His Church. The Church is not a husk that must be shorn from the kernel of the Gospel; St. Paul does not have to be cast aside in order to embrace Jesus.
Because the Church is an institution there is hope for our culture: Present and future generations will have the opportunity to embrace reality rather than the postmodern fantasy of self-created and poly-gendered lives. Catholics, thus, bear a special burden in the present culture, their evangelism must take head-on the very things they fear most about secularity, its nihilism, banality, narcissism, carnality, violence, and hatred. Only those who are no longer prisoners of turbulent subjectivity can become bearers of the Gospel Light.
1. The Catholic Church is the last institution in our culture: Empires and epochs have passed, the Church remains.
2. There will always be arguments and screeds against "institutionalized religion" and especially the Catholic Church on the grounds they have ruined the purity of Jesus Christ's message.
3. Catholics can affirm the Church as an institution because they recognize that truth does not change from generation to generation, or from moment to moment: The Church contains union of time and eternity.
© Deal W. Hudson, Ph.D
Deal W. Hudson is president of the Morley Institute of Church and Culture, Senior Editor at Catholic Online, and former publisher and editor of Crisis Magazine.This column and subsequent contributions are an excerpt from a forthcoming book. Dr. Hudson's new radio show, Church and Culture, will begin broadcasting in February on the Ave Maria Radio Network.
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