“To Whom Does The Church Belong?”

A very good question, but one that Barney Zwartz does not help by giving us only two choices for the answer: “the people or the Pope?”

That is rather like asking “To whom do you belong? Yourself, or the State?” The answer is, of course, neither. Rather you belong to God, and thus render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s (“That’s just what Jesus said, sir!”, as the Life of Brian leper put it).

So, to whom does the Church belong? Jesus Christ. That is something which all Christians can agree upon. And to whom did Jesus Christ entrust the office of teaching, governing and sanctifying the Church which is always his and only his? To the Bishops in communion with the Successor of Peter (at least that is how the Catholic Church understands it – if you are not Catholic, you will no doubt have other ideas). The Church does not “belong” to said Bishops and Pope, of course, but the authority to “teach, govern and sanctify” his Church does.

So when the entire body of English speaking Bishops – after a very long and extensive consultation process (okay, they didn’t ask me or Dr Paul Collins or Fr Blogs, but they did ask everyone who had the duty of “teaching, governing and sanctifying” God’s Church) – determines what translatin we are to use of the Roman Missal in English speaking Church, that should be that, shouldn’t it?

Or is it that the noise makers really want answer the question “To whom does the Church belong?” with the answer that “It belongs to ME!”? Newsflash: it doesn’t. It belongs always, only and forever to Jesus Christ. Take up your complaint with him, rather than with your friendly neighbourhood religious journalist.

For more good commentary on this article, see Fr Nick’s peice on his blog here, and Kate’s comments here.

About Schütz

I am a PhD candidate & sessional academic at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne, Australia. After almost 10 years in ministry as a Lutheran pastor, I was received into the Catholic Church in 2003. I worked for the Archdiocese of Melbourne for 18 years in Ecumenism and Interfaith Relations. I have been editor of Gesher for the Council of Christians & Jews and am guest editor of the historical journal “Footprints”. I have a passion for pilgrimage and pioneered the MacKillop Woods Way.
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12 Responses to “To Whom Does The Church Belong?”

  1. Stephen K says:

    Actually, David, I don’t think the Church “belongs” to anybody, Jesus included. I think this is completely the wrong language. The church is. Simply. (Or at least so long as there are people who promote its collectiveness and act in its name.) Let’s accept Jesus founded the movement that was to become known as the church. “Belongingness” implies a kind of enforceable right of possession, which make sens when talking about human property and chattels, but not of a movement of wills and spirits. Jesus has never exercised any such enforcement rights, at least not outside the minds of those interiorly convinced he speaks to them in such a way. The only enforcers in church history have been, I’m afraid to say, very human prelates and officials who did do some very nasty things, that I can’t imagine Jesus very doing.

    I think, to take this one step further, that this is not only wrong language but language that encourages an immature attitude to the institution that can easily lead to the kind of misplaced loyalties that have suppressed scandals and crimes, and the kind of partisan identification with religious faith that can lead on to sectarian intolerance.

    • jules says:

      No, I think David is right. After all Jesus did say to St Peter – I will build my church on you, also fed – my sheep, feed my lambs. We are His- that is those who hear his voice!

    • Schütz says:

      Your comment helps me understand a lot about where you are coming from Stephen. I wonder if my reply will help you understand where I am coming from, and why the motto of this ‘ere blog is “Sentire Cum Ecclesia”. As Jules and Adam point out, there are verses in the Gospels where Jesus refers to “my Church” and “my sheep”, but add to this the Pauline images where the Church is described as “the body of Christ” or Johannine passages where the Church is described as “the Bride” of Christ, and you are not left with much doubt that the Church certainly, from the point of view of the New Testament authors, belongs to Christ.

      You see the Church is so much more than just a “movement” or an “institution” which Jesus “founded”. If that is all you see the Church as, and if you do not see any deeper relationship between the community of people we call “The Church” and said Founder, then it is no wonder that you cannot appreciate the depth of meaning behind the phrase “Sentire Cum Ecclesia”.

      • Stephen K says:

        Thanks, David, for your reply. You have moved onto other subjects and so my response to you may no longer be of interest. Nevertheless, in the interests of constructive dialogue should you perchance ever read it, I will make one.

        Please believe me when I say I do understand where you are coming from. You clearly have a sound Christian formation and have now embraced Catholicism “in toto”. You see the Catholic Church as the true church and the only church. That church is delineated by conformity-to-the-Popes-and-bishops-in-teaching-concert-with-them (as opposed, say, to the SSPX idea of conformity-with-traditions-of-doctrine). Your wish is to love what the Church does and as she does (I deliberately use the feminine pronoun); you wish to understand things as she does; and you wish to give a personal “fiat” in the manner of the Mary of the Angelus and the saints. You see in the Church – the great, vast, aggregate of fallible humans – a spiritual work of a personal God manifest in the God-man Jesus; you take on wholly Paul’s metaphor that the church, in its human imperfection, is a sign and extension of that “scandal”, “folly” and “stumbling block” that was the ignominious death on Calvary. Thus, you can assert that the Church “belongs” to Jesus in a sense that it is his work, and thus his, and you then would conclude that each and everyone professing to act for or in the interests of the Church should only do what is discerned as the heart and mind of Jesus, and that the only way to discern that is to contemplate on and assent to the teachings of its popes and councils.

        What I have described here is a particular form and mode of religious faith. I am not one of those who would protest or pretend that it does not reflect the “orthodox” or official self-understanding of the Catholic religion and its raison d’etre. Nor am I one of those who would consciously replace one dogmatism with another, more liberal one. I am, rather, one of those who once thought what you did, looking out over Rome and feeling enlarged by a sense of the Church-in-history-and-in-the-eschaton, but who now does not see what I perfectly understand you to think you are seeing. The fact that I do not feel this anymore is no impediment to me appreciating the depth of meaning behind “sentire cum ecclesia”.

        Having cleared the credentials-decks, so to speak, perhaps I may be permitted to expand a little on the point I was making. I said using the language of “belonging” was inappropriate. This is because the vernacular force of the term – in the popular mind – has the kind of proprietary, exclusivist connotation that I think has been – or has led to – the spiritual flaw in post-Reformation Catholicism.

        My mother only happened to relate to me the other day how, as a child, she once said to her Anglican uncle, who kept a portrait of his beloved departed wife above his bed, that “she isn’t in heaven because she wasn’t a Catholic”(!). And I remember how I, as a confused 5 year old, knocked the vegemite sandwich out of a little boy’s hand, saying “you’re a dirty Public!” (I was suitably roughed up by his older brother who came to his rescue!).

        What do these examples of childish Irish-Australian sectarianism have to do with the attempts by an erudite, articulate webmeister [who, not only demonstrates a theological facility and knowledge that appears superior to many of his Catholic table guests but has made an adult and courageous (and rational) decision to convert – something that the cradle Catholics cannot usually boast] to probe and examine a wide range of religious and theological themes?

        Why, simply this: the vast number of census Catholics – even those who attend TLMs – have any variety of combination of imprecise or inaccurate notions of what their religion is all about, or the implications of some of the teachings, and I strongly believe that it behoves the erudite to be careful with language that might foster self-satisfaction or superiority.

        Moreover, I went on to say that the Church was co-existent with the people who worked for it and in its name. Clearly I was talking of the experiential dimension, the Church-as-it-is-perceptible-in-history. Anything more is a matter for the individual’s adoption of a framework or filter of understanding. (Though it so happens that there may be millions who adopt the same framework/filter, the fact that there are also millions who adopt another means that the framework/filter is neither self-evident or compelling, and thus no more than a subjective assertion).

        In any case, even if a person accepts that the metaphor of the Church as the “mystical Body of Christ” is somehow ontologically objective, then it’s still inappropriate to speak of the Church as “belonging” to Jesus, for in that case, the Church IS Jesus.

        I accept you may disagree with any of my premises here. But that’s what my point was all about. No more, no less. I hope you now appreciate that I do understand you as much as you understand me.

  2. Matthias says:

    Barney and paul collins what a dynamic duo of theological lightweights

    • Schütz says:

      You have to ask why it is that Barney seems unable to find any other commentator on matters Catholic in Australia than Paul Collins. We surely need an Australian “John Allen Jnr”, who can give a balanced and informed commentary on ecclesiastical matters for the press.

  3. Jim Ryland says:

    I was blessed during my years as an undergraduate in the fact that my life intersected with that of an incredible priest. He was the rector of Our Savior’s collegiate parish where I served as organist and choirmaster. He also held the chair of theological studies at the university, so I was also his student.

    During one apologetics seminar he took a seat and invited the small class to step to the blackboard and diagram the church. We wrote, erased, drew boxes and lines, ending with something resembling a bowl of spaghetti prepared by a madman. I shall never forget his smile. He rose and said; “Ladies and gentlemen, when you have arrived at an accurate diagram for the Trinity… you will have your model for the church. Two of the entities are celestial, the Church Heavenly and the Church that is Earthly but spiritual. The third entity reflects Our Lord, fully divine but fully earthly as well. The ‘earthly’ part is quite human and, unlike Our Lord, given to well-meaning effort that often results in folly”.

    I suspect that the author of the article in question is totally ignorant of the first two entities and would choose to ignore them if reminded. It is only the very earthly portion of the third entity that interests him. The very human establishment and, of course, her assets.

  4. adam george says:

    This is a fascinating question, but I am inclined to say that it is indeed the Church of Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God. It is His and His alone. Not the Pope’s Church or the bishops’ Church or any cardinal, not matter how mighty he may be. And indeed the Lord did tell Peter “You are Peter and on this rock I will build MY CHURCH” Matt 16:18. So there you are. It is the Church of Jesus, it belongs to Him. It has always been that and there ought be no contraditction to the very Word of God.
    This is one of the major theological problems we have today in the very Church Jesus founded. There are liberal priests and laity who think and promote a Church of their own that is not of Christ. Yes, this is a fact.
    Indeed only recently three leading cardinals in Rome stated that ‘poor liturgy weakens faith’ and this has become a major problem over the last 3 decades. The eucharist is the very core of our faith and the weakening of this by ordained priests who often run ‘their own show’ and forget that they are meant to lead the Lord’s eucharist and not their own, has in fact lead to many faithful becoming disillusioned and who leave the Church or who turn to more traditional forms of worship.
    Is it any wonder there was a breakaway schism 20 years or so ago in Europe which resulted in 4/5 bishops and loads of new priests who celebrate a liturgy which seeks to bring the sacred back to the people?
    The theological reality is, many priests have lost that sacred ontological chrism that they were ordained with by their bishop. They have become secular, social men who have veered off into all sorts of social activity that has nothing to do with the very charism they were ordained with.
    The Church of Jesus Christ as incarnated in the Catholic faith is Christ’s – we belong to that faith handed down by tradition and centuries of faith and practice. It is not ours to betray and tamper with. The Anti-Christ is very real and true, more so than ever (cf. Benedict XVI’s new book with references to the AntiChrist).
    We will all die and be judged. A new generation will come and they too will be part of the Church of Christ. But it will still be Christ’s Church and not ours. It is not a club where the members make the rules and can just join up and pay and reap the club benefits. It is not a fan club that adores and worships it’s celebrities then abandons them after a few dizzy months or weeks and then closes down.
    Yes, this is the Church that is totally Christ’s. We deny that at our peril.
    The One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church is God’s gift for us to be part of for a short time, to prepare us for the Kingdom of God.
    Without true prayer, down on out knees in the silence that only God sees, will we understand the reality that is God, transcendent and eternal.
    We ought look to the late and Venerable John Paul II to see a man, a priest, a bishop who prostated himself before God so often in silence, praying humbly before the Lord for hours. Every minute we give to the Lord in silent prayer he will return to us in abundance. It’s all His to give us.

    • Schütz says:

      Indeed only recently three leading cardinals in Rome stated that ‘poor liturgy weakens faith’ and this has become a major problem over the last 3 decades

      Yes, Adam. Bob Dixon’s comment that the changes to the translation of the Mass will not make any noticable difference to the life of the Church is based only on the stated reason people have for leaving the Church (btw, I respect Bob’s expertise in these statistical matters – he knows what he is talking about when it comes to figures and their analysis). But – except in the early change over from Latin to English in which not a few stopped attending because of the change – in recent years, very few people would have been conscious enough of the deficiencies of the language of the liturgy to actually be able to cite is as the “reason they left”. Yet this does not mean that poor liturgy was not a cause for the lack of effective evangelisation and catechisation of the faithful over the last three or four decades. The “reason” people cite for leaving should not be confused with the “cause” of the ineffectiveness of the Church’s outreach and pastoral care. Few today would cite the poor standard of the liturgy as the former, but I rather suspect the three cardinals are right: it is at the heart of the latter.

      • Louise says:

        A recent, amateur study of psychology leads me to believe that one can hardly believe anything anyone else says at all! Particularly, such things as “why I left the Church.”

  5. John Nolan says:

    In the 1950s there were plenty of lapsed Catholics, but they didn’t lapse because the Mass was in Latin; in many cases they said that it was the one thing that they missed. But I know of plenty who drifted away because of the vernacular liturgy with its trite language and music, and sloppy celebration. It is difficult to take Sunday obligation seriously when the thing you are obliged to attend is irritating or even scandalous.

    Bishop Peter Elliott’s article is noteworthy in that he is quite explicit about the way the soon-to-be-superseded “translation” wilfully distorts the meaning of the original text. He cites specific instances, and it would be interesting to hear counter-arguments from defenders of the status quo, using the same examples.

  6. Lynne Newington says:

    David, I’m afraid it takes more than ‘good liturgy’ to strengthen one’s faith. By the time we reach adulthood we understand that our actions are based on our faith and if one can’t be instructed by the ‘basic’ inspired scriptures without any frills, we are never going to get it, Christian, Catholic and non-Catholic alike.

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