[This post appeared originally on the Truth and Charity Forum as part of my Faith Objections series]
“Fortunately, the Westboro Baptist Church, famous for the “God hates fags” signs, really are outliers. But generally yes, this criticism of the Church is resoundingly true; there are hypocrites among us. Even in smaller settings, I myself and my friends have run into petty bureaucracy and slights in the offices of our own local churches.
So, how can I continue to believe when the lived examples of believers so often fall short? When I myself fall short as well?
What are we to do then with this beleaguered institution full of fallible people, especially the Catholic Church which claims infallibility?
Three reasons that undergird my continued Faith are these 1) Jesus came to heal sinners. 2) The Church has both divine and human elements, and we human elements err frequently, but are still guided by the divine. 3) At a basic level, at least we are hypocrites; we fall short, but we have an ideal to aspire to.
Jesus Came For Sinners
When the Pharisees take offense at Christ eating meals with tax-collectors, prostitutes and other sinners, He answers them: “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick; I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17). God sent His Son, Jesus, into the world precisely because we humans had screwed up; Christ is the remedy for the Fall of the human race in Adam and Eve. He came because we do sin, or perform misdeeds or hurtful actions, to use a more modern-friendly term, quite a bit. The entire role of Christ in the Incarnation is to draw us back to God because we can’t do it ourselves, though we do cooperate with our free will.
Hypocritical conduct is scandalous, and it turns people away from the Church, which is a true tragedy. Somehow though, Christ himself knew that sinners would be part of the Church. He taught, that there was a farmer, God, who sowed grain (the Church) in a field,
But when the grain had sprouted and produced a crop, then the tares also appeared. So the servants of the owner came and said to him, ‘Sir, did you not sow good seed in your field?… ‘Do you want us then to go and gather them up?’ But he said, ‘No, lest while you gather up the tares you also uproot the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest. (Matthew 13:26-30)”
This means that there will be sinners alongside saints always in the earthly Church. The reason given is that it would do more harm than good for everyone involved. It gives sinners more time to repent; it recognizes that everyone falls down sometimes; it recognizes that an unforgiving Church has no room for flesh-and-blood human realities; it gives members the opportunity to have compassion for one another in our shared fallenness.
St. Augustine, in the fifth century, preached on I John that,
“If you keep hold of Charity, you shall take offense neither in Christ nor in the Church, and you will desert neither Christ nor the Church… But we can see that in him who loves his brother there is no offense; for the lover of his brother endures all things for unity’s sake.”
Following St. Paul, Augustine understood the Church on earth as part of the Mystical Body of Christ and that the members are saved precisely because of their belonging to Christ, who atoned for our wrong doing. Augustine takes the reality of sin as a call to unity; he chastised schismatics in his lifetime. He means that if we love one another, we forgive offenses and remain a united whole in Christ; we are not meant to throw out the whole Church on account of sinners. Sinners will always be part of the Church on earth, and this is the set-up ordained by God’s providence, mysterious though it sometimes remains for us.
Divine and Human Elements
This is why the Catholic Church understands herself as having both a divine and human element; the humans err continually; the divine guidance does not. Christ Himself promised that the Holy Spirit would guide the Church forever (John 14:16). As Catholics, we understand this as certain teaching, divinely guided by the Holy Spirit to act through what we call the Magisterium, the teaching authority of the bishops united, led by the Bishop of Rome, the Pope. Accordingly, we hold that when the bishops, they who inherited the office of the apostles, teach unanimously on faith or morality, that that doctrine is infallible (though there are levels of authority within that as well).
Infallibility does not mean that the Pope or the bishops never sin (that would be impeccability) or that everything the Pope or bishops say is free of all error, personal animus, or beyond mere opinion. The Pope is still human, of course, and the standards of what constitutes an infallible teaching are quite high.
So when I say I believe the Church is infallible and partly divine, it means I believe that the official teachings of the Catholic Church are true. It does not mean that every single word out of the mouth of a Pope is divinely inspired or that I endorse every unessential opinion or interpretation that Catholics have, even if such an interpretation enjoys popularity. Bad actions and wrong opinions of the human members of the Church do not contradict our understanding of infallibility.
At Least We Are Hypocrites
At the end of the day, the moral standards Christians set for themselves, that Christ demands of us, create a high standard: giving alms to the poor, clothing the naked, visiting the sick, preaching the faith, loving our neighbor as ourselves, and even being “perfect” (Matt. 19:25). Only God’s grace can enable someone to carry this out, and it will only be known to God at the end of earthly lives. For all of us normal humans, daily sin is to be expected, which is why we daily pray “forgive us our sins” in the Our Father. But our standard still holds value: at least we have a standard to guide us, at least we are hypocrites and not trying to excuse our sin. Christian moral teaching reminds us that we do fall short, that we are meant to improve, grow and strive and especially to accept grace and our need of it. Our failures should keep us humble before God and before each other. Our failures reveal the goodness of God that is so far above all our shortcomings and yet invites us to life with Him if only we will seek it. [full article here]
Has the hypocrisy of someone else ever led you to doubt the goodness of the Faith? (I would have to say yes here). Did you leave the church? Did you stay? Why? If you aren’t a Christian, what impact has the example of believers had on your perception of the church?