Daily Archives: August 8, 2010

Divine Substance and Changeable Accidents: an attempt to explain how the Church works.

Perishable building. Imperishable Truth. Source: wilfrid.com

In discussions about the Church and Her infallible Teaching a confusion frequently arises: how can this infallible Church so frequently commit errors? How is this infallibility and immutability to be reconciled with the obvious shortcomings and changes within the Church not only in the clergy’s behaviour, but even in the way the Church fulfills her task of evangelisation?

I will try to give here an answer in my own simple words, utterly un-theological and very much, well, pub-like. I invite everyone to bring in improving contributions, technical terms I have read but can’t locate now ;), and a general better precision of expression.

In my simple words, the answer to this apparent contradiction lies in recognising that the Church exists and operates simultaneously on different levels, whilst still remaining the One and Only Church. On a supernatural level, the Church exists without shortcomings.   This supernatural plane of existence is in my eyes the substance of the Church, that is: what she really is beyond her temporal manifestation and appearance.

Contrarily to the ecclesial communities, the Church does not originate from this world. As a result, besides being infallible She is imperishable and unchangeable in her essential traits, that is: indefectible.

On a different plane of operation of the same Church we have the Church militant, the Church we see in Her earthly operations: the Church which erects the buildings  and appoints the bishops, the Church of the politics and of the diplomacy, of the mistakes and sometimes of the outright crimes. This militant Church is exactly the same Church as the Church in Heaven and is therefore also supernatural, infallible (doctrinally) and indefectible, but in so far as she operates in this world, she experiences temporal changes which do not affect her substance, but are merely (and I quote Amerio here) “accidental changes to its being”.

As such, the Church militant functions according to the natural order in which she operates. In the same way as the consecrated wine is the accident of the substance that is the Real Presence, but will still become undrinkable if the laws of nature are allowed to operate on it, in the same way the militant Church will be subject to all the influences of the plane of reality in which it is called to operate without changing one jot in what she really is. The alcoholic priest can still validly administer the Sacraments, and the Sacraments are not changed by the priest becoming heretical.

The militant Church is run by men, with their own sinfulness; She will have church buildings subject to being bombed or to slowly decay without proper maintainance; She will go through phases of strenght or weakness; She will fulfil her task to go and make disciples of all the nations with various degrees of success; She will, in short, be subject to all those changes and imperfections and dangers and falls and rises which are the unavoidable mark of earthly existence. But with all this – being still the same and Only Church – she will keep all Her substantial traits intact. She will be infallible and indefectible even when plagued by corrupted priests, theological laziness, mediocre catechesis, and rampant heresy. 

In the middle, so to speak, of these two simultaneous planes of existence of the same and Only Church (the supernatural and the natural) operates the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit does not guide the clergy into being saintly stewards and all-round good chaps (as abundantly proven by 2000 years of Church history); He allows them to operate according to their own lights and their own choices, even if wicked, merely providing that the infallibility and indefectibility of the Church are preserved.

Importantly, this “protection” is extended only to the See of Rome. Individual priests and bishops or entire local churches can – as seen often in the past – stray. Seldom has the Church lived for long without any heretical tendency, overt or covert, brooding among the laity of within the clergy.

The militant Church “below” being the same Church “above”, there could be no change of even one of the essential traits of the Church without transforming the militant Church into something different, which would be tantamount to her destruction. Put in other words: whilst the militant Church will experience temporal changes which are merely accidental to what She is in her substance, she will never, ever experience essential changes, that is: changes that would let her become something different from what She is.

As a consequence, as long as the Church does not change her doctrinal substance (which she will never do, because of the Holy Ghost) She will be the same Church, and the Only Church, with her nature and claim unchanged, irrespective of the phases of corruption, stupidity, drunkenness or apparent advanced decay She may be experiencing.

This explains why the Church has gone through the most diverse phases, sometimes of great renewal and sometimes of great corruption, and why the people running her have been pretty much everything from very saintly men to very wicked ones, but She has always maintained her doctrinal integrity. She has never said, not even in times of great corruption, that henceforward divorce is okay, priestesses de rigueur, Transubstantiation a legend and Christ a frightfully nice chap who knew a lot about God.

No: the Church has always maintained what has been transmitted to Her, even through great schisms and heresy; even when these schisms came from within and have swept away a great number of bishops and local churches; even when her very existence could have appeared, to the poorly catechised eye, to be in danger.

This also explains why in the mind of the Catholic a frank and severe critic of the concrete working of the Church is never mixed with despair for Her destiny, or fear for Her survival or with the notion that the militant Church may, one day, undergo essential changes. 

Lastly, this having never changed her essential traits is at the same time proof of the Divine origin and nature of the Church: in the entire history of Humanity you won’t find another organisation which has lived so long, expanding all over the planet by remaining extremely centralised, and still keeping her doctrinal patrimony intact.

This was not short, and probably theologically not frightfully accurate either. Still, I do think that this is the gist of the matter. Improving comments and suggestions are extremely welcome.


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