“The Church is in history, but at the same time she transcends it. It is only “with the eyes of faith” that one can see her in her visible reality and at the same time in her spiritual reality as bearer of divine life.” (The Catechism of the Catholic Church #770).
There are three realities of the Church. First she has a visible ordered hierarchal structure, but she also has a spiritual reality as the Mystical body of Christ. Second the Church is a visible community and a spiritual community. This means that the members of the Church are united with each other in spiritual communion with Christ. Third, the Church is an earthly visible reality and yet contains imperfectly, the heavenly.
Yes the Church is an institution. As an institution it has a visible reality: Vatican City, Cathedrals, the Pope, Bishops, Priests, Deacons, pews full of sinners and a few saints. The Church has doctrines, dogmas and laws. The visible Church is important because, like the skeleton supports the body, it supports and points to the interior invisible spiritual reality of the Church.
But the Church is so much more than a visible institution. I am not in love with an institution. I am in love with the Church because the Church is Jesus Christ.
Jesus Christ is the true and proper head of the Church. The Church is the Mystical Body of Christ. The Church therefore is the universal sacrament of salvation. She is a sacrament because she is a sign and means to union with God the Holy Trinity and the entire body of Christ. That is why the Church is also a sacrament of the unity of the human race.
But the Body of Christ is comprised of fallen human beings who are inclined to sin. The Church is one, but the unity is fractured. The Church is Holy, but she is full of sinners who are capable of evil. This is a paradox that since the long lent of 2002 has been very painful for those of us sitting in the pews. It is even more painful for our faithful Bishops, Priests and Deacons who are tainted by ,as Pope Benedict said, “the filth in the Church”.
St. Cyrian said that faith is a “series of contradictions held to together by grace”. The theologian Henri de Lubac wrote:
“What a paradox indeed this Church of ours presents! How real a paradox! …. I am told that she is holy, yet I see her full of sinners. I am told of her mission to raise man above earthly cares, to remind him of his heavenly vocation, yet I see her endlessly busy with the temporal things of this earth, almost if she wished to install us permanently here.”
As the Church continues her journey to the heavenly Jerusalem, she will remain both holy and full of sinners.
Pope Benedict, as usual, put it very well on his recent trip to Portugal:
“The attacks on the Pope and the Church do not just come from outside, but the sufferings of the Church come precisely from within the Church, from the sin that is in the Church,” he said. “This has always been known, but today we see it in a really terrifying way: The greatest persecution of the Church does not come from external enemies, but is born from the sin in the Church.
“And the Church, therefore, has the profound need to learn penance again, to accept purification, to learn on one hand forgiveness, as well as the need for justice. Forgiveness does not replace justice.”
Still, the Pope confirmed that “the Lord is stronger than evil and the Virgin is, for us, the visible, maternal guarantee of the goodness of God, who is always the last word in history.”