Law and Church: in some minds these two realities do not harmonize; they rather seem contradictory.
The "law opposed to Church" idea is often an expression of the "law versus freedom" syndrome that we examined in earlier chapters. Some people, feeling that law is restrictive of freedom, hold that law has no place in the Church since it is an enemy of the freedom that Christians are meant to have as God's children (cf. Rom 8:22). We tried to analyze the faulty thinking behind this, showing that law is necessary for individuals and for societies precisely in order to protect personal freedom, to protect freedom in mutual relations, and to protect rights against the arbitrary use of office or power.
Others, seeking deeper theological ground for their objection, claim that Christ founded an essentially spiritual Church, and that all the institutional and juridical structures present in the Church are a later human introduction out of harmony with the intention of Christ and with the original nature of the Church he founded.
This is scarcely a matter to be settled according to personal preference, i.e according to the type of Church that each of us might want or prefer. It is rather to be clarified by trying to see what type of Church Christ actually wanted and actually instituted.
Those who defend the thesis that Jesus wished to set up a Church of a purely spiritual, non-institutional, non-juridical nature, immediately run into two major difficulties: a theological difficulty and an historical difficulty.
The theological difficulty
The theological difficulty is that a purely spiritual Church would be completely out of keeping with the pattern of God's plan for our salvation, the plan of the Incarnation.
The Redemption of man was not accomplished in an invisible manner. It could have been. God could have chosen other ways than the Incarnation in order to save mankind. He could have justified each soul by a totally hidden process, communicating grace to each one directly. But in fact God did not choose such a purely spiritual way of saving man. God came to earth to bring about our salvation. And his coming was not invisible. God who is Spirit, chose to manifest himself materially. He chose to vest himself in matter, in order to save us. He chose to become Man, taking on a bodily nature that is tangible, audible, real...
What was the scope of the Redemption he worked? He not only wished to free man from the power of sin and the devil. He also wished to give to man a new destiny: to call him to share in his divine Sonship through saving contact with his sacred Humanity.
He saved us by the merits of each one of his acts as Man-God, from his first baby wail in the manger to his last cry of agony on the Cross. But he also came to reveal himself; and to teach man by his words and example, and to sanctify them by his presence and power.
His self-revelation is already in operation during those thirty years of hidden life; and there is so much, so many lessons, for us to discover there. Nevertheless, his main self-revelation takes place in his public life, in the short space of less than three years. In those thirty months or so, he reveals himself more fully. He reveals himself as Lord of all creation, as Master of all mankind; as Divine Teacher, whose words are Truth and lead to Life; and as Divine Healer and Savior who cures, feeds, frees, forgives, and calls men from death to Life, with the power of God.
For those thirty months men were enabled to hear the voice of no mere prophet, but the voice of God himself speaking in human language about divine and human things. They were able to question him and listen to his answers. They could be touched, cured, fed, led by him. They had direct immediate physical contact with God made man....
That these immediate benefits could be received only by a few and over a short period of time was the necessary consequence of his having chosen one concrete physical body which, having moved among men, went up to heaven on Ascension Day. When God chose to dwell in the Human Body of Jesus Christ, a historical moment of encounter between man and God was realized. But God did not wish to limit this encounter to just one moment in history or to just a few privileged men. He intended the force and presence of his Incarnation to reach everyone everywhere. And so one sees the divine logic of his choosing to dwell in another Body - still his, but capable of becoming present in all places and all times: a Body that would still speak with his voice, still cure with his mercy, still feed with his flesh, still rule with his authority: the Mystical - though visible - Body of his Church.
The logic of the Church as the Body of Christ is then simply the logic of the Incarnation continued. It is the continued application of a broad and fundamental principle that permeates the whole mode of our salvation - the sacramental principle, i.e. God's use of material and natural realities as means of communicating spiritual and supernatural goods and achieving spiritual and supernatural ends.
The Church is in the line of the sacraments, just as both Church and sacraments are in the line of the Incarnation. The principle of the sacraments is the very principle of the Incarnation: visible reality expressing and communicating invisible grace. In a true sense, the Humanity of Christ is a Sacrament, indeed the first sacrament. And in the logic of God's plans, the Church too has the nature of a sacrament. It exists, visibly, tangibly, audibly, actively, so that all men of all times can have personal contact with the saving power of the God-Man.
The sacramentality of the Church is fundamental for understanding its visible or material nature. It is also a help for avoiding any 'scandal' at the defects which may appear in the organs that make up this Body of Christ; specifically in us men who are its members. Given our human nature, human defects are bound to appear. One should pray and work for their removal. It would be ideal if they were not there. Yet their presence does not necessarily render grace ineffectual or prevent its being communicated.
The sign used in a sacrament may not always signify as clearly as one would wish. The water used in Baptism is meant to signify cleansing; and therefore it itself should be clean. But God can use even dirty water as an instrument for bringing about the interior cleansing of souls. So the Church, a sign and an instrument. We see the visible people of the Church, and their defects. We do not see the invisible working of the Holy Spirit.
The incarnational or sacramental principle - spirit working through matter - carries with it an inherent likelihood of causing scandal, at least to "over-spiritual" persons. God knew that if He chose to work through the Humanity of Jesus Christ, some would take scandal. The likelihood of scandal is immeasurably greater when he chooses to work through our humanity.
The historical difficulty
The second difficulty that the proponents of an exclusively spiritual Church run into is the fact of what Jesus actually did. What contrasts, what surprises in our Savior's way of acting! To our human minds, it is full of mystery and paradox.
The hidden life of Jesus seems to have been characterized by peace and calm. His public life is filled with a pressing sense of urgency. There is an urgency in his actions (Lk 4:42-44; Mk 14:42), just as there is in his preaching and in his parables (Mt 24:42-44; Lk 14:21). He is acutely conscious of time (Mt 26:18; Jn 2:4; Jn 7:6; Jn 7:30; Jn 11:9; Jn 13:1) and resolutely sets himself to make good use of it (Lk 9:51; Jn 9:4; Jn 13:27).
And yet he is Lord of time, as he is Lord of space, as he is Lord of the entire world. As the Church sings on Holy Saturday: "All time belongs to him, and all the ages".
Christ has a lot to do, and yet he gave himself very little time to do it, He had a lot of ground to cover, and yet he did not move beyond one small corner of the Roman Empire.
He could have chosen to spend another thirty years, another sixty years, teaching, working miracles, forming his Apostles, bringing his word and his power to the ends of the earth. He was urgent to use his time; and yet he did not extend his time. He was urgent to go to other towns and places of Israel (Lk 4:43), yet he scarcely preached a word outside Israel.
His urgency is mysterious; and the mystery seems to deepen when we realize that it is an urgency to disappear from the visible scene Jn 16:7).
How much more logical and effective - to our human way of thinking - if he who died publicly on the Cross before the whole of Jerusalem, had risen with equal publicity. What an impact on the Jewish people, and on the whole world! What a confirmation of our faith! And yet his Resurrection was hidden to all but a chosen few. He could have risen in public triumph. He did not choose to do so.
What did he mean by saying that it is better for us if he goes (Jn 16:7)? We do not see it as that obvious. Surely it would have been better for us if he had stayed? How much more logical, to our minds, if he had not gone to heaven after a mere forty days, but had remained, with his risen and glorious body, as visible Head of the Church to the end of time. Our faith in him and our following of him would then be so much more concrete and so much easier.
He clearly has not wished our faith in him to be made easier in that way. He has wished it to be concrete indeed: faith in his real presence in his Church. But he has wished this faith to be subject to the particular difficulty that we are to believe in him present in his Church in and through, and even at times despite, those who make up this Church and especially those who rule it.
He left his new-born Church without his visible presence, but not headless and not without him. He, his power, his authority, his gifts, his grace, his worship, all remain in his Church; but remain in and through men.
To ensure the continuance of his work of salvation, Jesus did not choose pure spirits. He could have carried on his work through angels, as he had already used them to announce its initiation (Lk 1:11; 1:26; 2:9). After all, angels - being confirmed in grace - would have been much more reliable. One cannot imagine Gabriel carrying out his mission in a lax fashion, or rnning away from its responsibility (as did Jonah, for instance, or Demas: cf 2 Tim 4:10). Yet he did not choose angels. He chose men: unreliable, unconfirmed men. And again he did not choose geniuses. Paul was an exception; and he was to come later. From the start, Jesus chose very ordinary and very weak men. The defects of the Apostles are so visible through the pages of the Gospel. And yet they, those defective, vain, cowardly, fishermen and villagers of Galilee were to be the pillars of his Church and the rulers of his People.
Jesus called disciples to himself; and from among these he chose twelve (Mk 3:13-14) who were to carry on his mission (Jn 15:16). He endowed them with power: with his power and the power of the Holy Spirit:
- to teach his saving truth to all nations (Mt 28:19-20; Acts 1:8);
- to govern in his name (Mt 16:18-19; Mt 18:18; Lk 10:16);
- to cleanse souls and to pardon and nourish them, and to offer the Sacrifice of his Death and Resurrection (In 20:22-23; Lk 22:19; 1 Cor 11:23-27).
Therefore, the claim that the Church as an institution, and concretely the Church with its hierarchical structure, was not in the thought and the intention of the historical Jesus, is contradicted by what history in fact tells us about the actions and the express purpose and design of Jesus.
The life of the Church from the start has been the experience of the presence and action of Christ - within and despite the limitations and defects or sins of men. There are therefore two ways of contemplating the Church's past history or its present life. With faith, and then we will see or sense Christ's work, and rejoice. Or with human outlook alone, which will limit us to seeing men's work and men's defects; and then we may easily become discouraged or scandalized.
The early Church
Alongside the historical facts of what Christ actually did, we should place the historical evidence of the actions of his first followers immediately after the Ascension and Pentecost.
From the very first moment the Christians appear as an organized community, united not only in faith and baptism (Eph 4:5), but also in government and discipline. The early Church appears from the start as a juridical, hierarchical, structured body. It has its overseers and rulers (Act 20:28; 1 Pet 5:3; 1 Tim 3:2, etc.) and these act with a full sense of authority, conscious of their power to organize (Tit 1:5), to govern and give laws (Acts 1 5:23fr; I Cor 6:1; 1 Cor 7:12ff, etc.), to judge and even to punish (I Cor 4:18-21; 2 Cor 10:5-6; 2 Cor 13:10, etc.).
It is true that the bulk of positive church law developed after the time of Christ. This was inevitable, given the fact that positive law is meant to develop from life, to correspond to life, to keep abreast of life, to keep life in line with objective right and justice.
It was only as the society of the Church grew that the need for church law also emerged. Ecclesiastical laws appeared in response to concrete situations and needs, and marked out the basic structures and main lines of stress holding the fast expanding community together.
From the very start we see how law and administrative measures accompany the spread of the Gospel. The Acts of the Apostles give us examples of relatively minor points as well as or major matters. For instance the very living of the evangelical spirit of generosity soon gives rise to administrative problems. Spontaneous giving creates a fund. But once a fund exists it must be administered; and the administration in favor of the widows and poor becomes an especially time-consuming task. So deacons are appointed; and we get the first church administrators (Acts 6).
Someone has to be assigned to take Judas's place among the Apostles whom Jesus himself had chosen. One might well have expected a direct divine intervention, as happened in the choice of Paul. But no; Peter unhesitatingly involves the community in a human mode of choice. He reminds them how important this choice is. They pray that God will signify his preference; but they do not expect him to do so by any external miraculous sign. They go through an electoral process, and all accept the result as binding and as a sign that the Holy Spirit has chosen through their administrative action (Act 1:15-26).
As the community expands, problems requiring juridical solution keep emerging, especially when the Church, originally composed of Jews with Jewish ways, begins to admit Gentile converts, in fulfillment of its universal mission. This gives rise to the most noteworthy example of positive juridical action in the early Church: the Council of Jerusalem (A.D. 49-50), with its deliberations and its authoritative and binding decision to exempt pagan converts from a main requirement of the Jewish law (Acts 15).
In considering the growth of disciplinary and administrative legislation in the early Church, a main point to note is that the Apostles and elders, in exercising the function of lawgivers, clearly felt not only that they were fulfilling the mission given them by Christ, but that what they legislated came in fact from God as well as from them. It is enough to recall the striking words with which they announce the decisions reached at the Council of Jerusalem: "It has been decided by the Holy Spirit and by ourselves ...". (And it is worth emphasizing that the decisions may were speaking of were basically disciplinary decisions, however great their theological overtones.)
The principle of the Incarnation
History, then, shows us what theology would lead us to expect:that Jesus, in order to perpetuate his saving mission on earth, followed the pattern of the Incarnation by founding a Church: a divine and human society at one and the same time. A distinctive and unique society, therefore: a society composed of men - and of the Holy Spirit. A society with a supernatural end - men's salvation - but with a visible and tangible structure.
So if one asks whether the Church is meant to be charismatic or juridical, spiritual or hierarchical-institutional, the answer is: both. Just as a sacrament is both material and spiritual; and the spiritual, in God's design, must necessarily pass through the material.
"The society structured with hierarchical organs and the mystical body of Christ, the visible society and the spiritual community, the earthly Church and the Church endowed with heavenly riches, are not to be thought of as two realities. On the contrary, they form one complex reality which comes together from a human and a divine element. For this reason the Church is compared, not without significance, to the mystery of the incarnate Word. As the assumed nature, inseparably united to him, serves the Divine Word, as a living organ of salvation, so, in a somewhat similar way, does the social structure of the Church serve the Spirit of Christ who vivifies it, in the building up of the body" (LG 8).
It cannot be over-emphasized that this simply continues the very principle of the Incarnation. Christ is God materialized, in one point of time and space. And the Church is the work and action of Christ materialized, throughout space and time (AG 5). A materialized though spiritual God. And a material though spiritual Church.
Christ reaches us through the Church; and we must reach Christ through the Church. Whoever wants Christ without the Church, wants to take Christ on his own conditions; and only gets - at the most - "part" of Christ, part of his Truth, part of his Grace, part of his Will and Love. Whoever wants to take Christ on Christ's conditions must take Christ "as a Whole" in and through the Church. Then he is in a position to receive all that Christ gives.
To "pick and choose" in the Truth of Christ, as mediated in the doctrine of the Church, is the approach of heresy. To pick and choose in the Will of Christ - as mediated in the law and discipline of the Church - is the schismatic approach. The schismatic, it should be remembered, remains one in faith, and one in worship and sacraments; but not one in discipline. There he breaks communion. He wishes to adhere to Christ's Truth, but is not prepared to adhere to fundamental ecclesial expressions of his Will. He divides Christ.
Making the Church holier?
Christ is God and Man, his Church is divine and human. Jesus willed to have a body, a true human body. And so he willed to be subject to its needs and structures and limitations. He willed to be subject to the laws of the body's growth (Lk 5:22). He willed to have a mouth for speaking, but also for food and drink, legs for walking, hands for working at the carpenter's bench and, in the end, to be crucified.
So, in choosing to found a visible Church - also his Body, but with members that are men - he willed a Body structured in a certain way, a Body designed to spread and grow in a visible world, a Body with material as well as spiritual needs. A Body too with suffering members and disfigured members; and even atrophied and dead members who can still be recalled to life.
The Church is not a human body which we have to perfect. It is a divine body, made up of human members who indeed need perfecting. But the divine elements in the Church remain all holy. And they can make us holy if we maintain a holy attitude towards them.
The Mass is the Holy Mass - even if the celebrant is the greatest and most unrepentant sinner. We cannot make the Eucharist holier. We are made holier in offering and receiving it. And we can offer and receive it in a holier fashion: with more faith and love.
Just as the action of Christ sanctifying us in and through the sacraments is all holy, so his action of teaching and leading us through the Church's Magisterium is all holy. We cannot make the teaching of the Church holier. We can make our attitude towards it holier; we can listen to it in a holier fashion, in other words with more faith and gratitude, hearing Christ's voice and guidance in it: "Whoever listens to you listens to Me".
Continuing the parallel with the sacraments, we could add that while men cannot make the Eucharist more holy, they can develop liturgical celebrations that make the holiness and sanctifying efficacy of the Eucharist more - or less - evident. Similarly, men cannot make the Word of God, as received in Scripture and Tradition and taught by the living voice of Christ in the Magisterium, more holy; but they can, through sound theological investigation, make its saving efficacy and meaning more apparent, or, through unsound investigation or speculation, obscure its power for salvation.
Just as happens with the sacraments, the real nature of the Church can be discovered only by the eyes of faith; a merely human scrutiny - the eyes of reason alone - will never reveal its true identity.
Christ is present in the Church as he is present in the sacraments, hidden under human forms and actions. Each day at the altar, the priest - acting "in the person of Christ" (LG 10) - pronounces the words "This is my Body" over the host, and shows it to the people. Then those with faith rectify the judgment that what they see is just bread. No; it is Christ. And recognizing him, they adore.
"This is my Body", Christ repeats to us each day as he presents his Church to us. It is also a call to faith; a call to rectify our natural judgment so that, where human eyes see no more than doctrines, rites, decisions and laws - words and actions of men - our faith sees Christ.
The temptation to judge the Church and each aspect of its life in purely human terms will always be with us. It is perhaps especially with us in an age such as ours when trust in others seems to come hard to men. A great lover of the Church has written that we should not
"judge the Church in a human manner, without theological faith. We cannot consider only the greater or lesser merits of certain churchmen or of some Christians. To do this would be to limit ourselves to the surface of things. What is most important in the Church is not how we humans react but how God acts. This is what the Church is: Christ present in our midst, God coming towards men in order to save them, calling us with his revelation, sanctifying us with his grace, maintaining us with his constant help in the great and small battles of our daily life.... We might come to mistrust other men, and each one of us should mistrust himself and end each of his days with a mea culpa, an act of contrition that is profound and sincere. But we have no right to doubt God. And to doubt the Church, its divine origin and its effectiveness for our salvation through its doctrine and its sacraments, would be the same as doubting God himself; the same as not fully believing in the reality of the coming of the Holy Spirit".
To oppose the Holy Spirit and the institutional Church, to say that no institution can take the place of the living presence of the Holy Spirit, is to miss the point of the Incarnation principle. The institution is the living presence of the Holy Spirit; the audible, visible, tangible presence of the Spirit through whom Christ continues his work among us and in us. The Church is, if not the incarnation, then the materialization of the work of the Holy Spirit.
When we are tempted to judge the Church or to react humanly to church teaching or authority, it is helpful to stop and reflect: if I had lived in Palestine two thousand years ago, how would I have judged Jesus of Nazareth? If I had met Christ in the flesh, speaking blunt and at times uncomfortable truths at me, making uncompromising demands of me, how would I have reacted to him?
Would I have reacted like the crowds of simple folk who, we are told, were attracted to him precisely because of his authoritative way of putting things (cf. Mt 7:29)? Or would I have reacted like the scribes and Pharisees, who would not go along with a Jesus who was not prepared to go along with them?
How would I have reacted if I had met Jesus in the flesh? It is not such a hard question to answer because I meet him each day in the Church, telling me to believe his Truth in this, or to do his Will in that. In reacting to the Church, I am reacting to Jesus Christ.
Saul of Tarsus saw an institution which he did not like, which he opposed and wished to destroy; and then he discovered that the institution is Christ: "I am Jesus and you are persecuting me" (Acts 9:5).
Modern dissenters could learn a lot from Saul's experience. The position of Saul, if not exactly that of dissent, was certainly one of violent tension vis-à-vis the Church. No doubt he had not sufficiently pondered the question: what is this institution I am in tension with? But he was given an answer to that question: an answer that drove a shaft of light through his mind and heart bright enough to enlighten the theological reflection of the centuries about the essential nature of the Church: I am Jesus and you are persecuting Me. Jesus identifies himself with his Church. He speaks the same message to the dissenters of all ages: what you are in tension with is Me.
It is not sound ecclesiology therefore to oppose charismatic and hierarchical gifts. The Hierarchy itself is a charismatic gift. Hierarchy, infallibility, Magisterium .. . are not opposed to the working of the Spirit, but are tangible and concrete expressions of the Spirit's way of working.
The conciliar decree Ad Gentes on the Church's missionary activity has words that are very much to our point. Quoting Lumen gentium, it says, "through the ages the Holy Spirit makes the Church 'one in communion and service; and provides her with different hierarchic and charismatic gifts' (LG 4), giving life to ecclesiastical structures, being as it were their soul and inspiring in the hearts of the faithful that same spirit of mission which impelled Christ himself"(AG 4).
Passages truly worth noting. Lumen gentium sees hierarchical gifts on the one hand and charismatic gifts on the other, not in opposition to one another but proceeding from the one and same Spirit. Ad gentes sees the Holy Spirit precisely giving life to church structures. Therefore these structures are living, are brought alive by the Spirit, and are instruments of the operation of the Holy Spirit who watches over and maintains the work of Jesus Christ. "The Holy Spirit preserves unfailingly that form of government which was set up by Christ the Lord in his Church" (LG 27).
Was Jesus anti-law?
It is clear then that the Church is, by divine will, a visible society. And a visible society is necessarily a juridical society: a visible society necessarily has laws. Christ wished his Church to be truly visible. He wished it to be truly spiritual. What he did not wish is that it be lawless.
It is of course quite false to suggest that Jesus was in any way anti-law. On the contrary, he clearly presents himself in the Gospel as a law-giver and as someone on the side of the law. He explicitly defended the law ("Do not think that I have come to abolish the law": Mt 5:17). He clarified it (Mt 19:3-9). He perfected it (Mt 5:22, 28, 32, 34, etc.). He eventually surpassed the Old Covenant and replaced it with the New. But he ratified all the main commandments of the Old Law (ct. Mt 10: 19), at the same time as he legislated new laws and commandments (Jn 13:24; 14:15; 14:21).
Naturally when we say that the Church is a juridical society by divine will, we are not saying that Jesus gave the Church all its laws. No. He gave it some of its laws; but what he particularly gave it is its juridical nature. He gave the foundation, and gave the Church the right and duty to organize itself on that foundation; and promised that in organizing itself; it would enjoy special divine assistance (Mt 18:18).
In this Body of the Church, then, certain elements of the structure are foundational, i.e. have been put there by the Founder himself; with a specific shape and content, and are therefore permanent and unchanging (sacraments, papal primacy, episcopacy ...). Other elements are accidental; they have been introduced by men, and are left to men, to improve or disimprove, according to the measure of their wisdom and prudence or lack of it. And yet, even there, behind the possible or inevitable mistakes of men, Christ is still present, perhaps with the folly of the Cross, calling us to follow Him.
* * *
There is another aspect to this question that should be mentioned here, however briefly.
Some Christians today, even some priests, unconsciously "divide" Christ. They sincerely love the historical Christ. But they do not love the Church, failing to see that the Church is also Christ in history.
This is not just deficient ecclesiology; it is also deficient christology. It implies that Christ did not love us sufficiently to remain with us; that he has not been able to bridge the gap of time and place; that he is a remote and dwindling figure, progressively lost with the passage of the centuries.
Such a defective christology has its consequences. Lack of faith in Christ present in the Church leads inevitably to weakened faith in the historical Christ: his virginal conception and birth, his miracles, his Resurrection, his Divinity... It leads to weakened faith in his presence and action in the sacraments; and, of course, to weakened faith not only in Scripture, but also in Christ's presence and action in Tradition and in the Magisterium... One is left loving Christ at an ever-growing distance. His voice becomes harder to hear, his will harder to follow, his presence harder to find. He is no longer with us.
 Cf. the opening paragraph of Lumen gentium: "the Church, in Christ, is in the nature of sacrament - a sign and instrument, that is, of communion with God, and of unity among all men". And Ad gentes says that Jesus "founded his Church as the sacrament of salvation" (AG 5; cf. also LG 48; GS 42). The spiritual and the institutional aspects of the Church are harmonized, in Vatican II, in a thoroughly christocentric ecclesiology. The dialectical approach - of contrasting and opposing the material and the spiritual, the human and the divine - which characterizes much of Protestant thinking, is basically a failure to accept the full implications of the Incarnation.
 Though it is not strictly speaking from life but from justice, that it takes its norm.
 Stress or tension. For law always involves tension: the good tension of holding wayward man to the line and path of justice, and binding him to his fellow-men in the community.
 To see the 'institutional-juridical" as necessarily opposed to the 'spiritual- charismatic' is another example of that dualist tendency we commented on earlier, which makes some persons see opposition where a truer vision sees complementarity. Institutional and spiritual are no more necessarily opposed than are law and freedom, authority and conscience, common good and individual good.
 Josemaria Escriva, Christ is Psssing By, no. 131.
 And in certain cases coinciding in the same person or persons; e.g. the hierarchic and charismatic gift of infallibility.