What exactly is the relationship between the "one, holy, catholic and apostolic church" that we believe was founded by Our Lord Jesus Christ and the "institutional and visible" Roman Catholic Church that is now being governed by Pope John Paul II, his cardinals, and the rest of the hierarchy?
The Roman Catholic Church teaches the "infallibility," "indefectability," and "indestructibility" of the Church that Jesus founded. But does the word "Church" used in those doctrines mean the institutional, visible Church here on Earth, with all the faults, short-comings and failures of its leaders?
If not, then what else could it mean?
Put another way, is the humanly staffed organization controlled by the Pope in Rome and the bishops all over the world in communion with him identical and co-extensive with the "infallible," "indefectable," and "indestructible" Church of Jesus Christ?
A preliminary issue is whether the Roman Catholic Church encompasses the "Church Militant," the "Church Suffering," and the "Church Triumphant" or only encompasses the "Church Militant"?
We know that the Church is the Body of Christ and also the Bride of Christ and that the Pope, as Vicar of Christ, has the power to bind and to loose on Earth as well as in Heaven. But does that mean that the Roman Catholic Church, governed and taught by her hierarchy, extends beyond the "Church Militant" here on Earth to those in Purgatory and in Heaven?
If it is the humanly governed institution that is indeed protected under the three doctrines, then does that mean that the human governors and teachers cannot err, defect or be destroyed when acting for the Church?
It is Catholic doctrine that, although all us baptized - lay as well as ordained - are full and equal members of the Church, only certain members of the Church - namely, its ordained, all male, college of bishops - the episcopacy - actually possess the God-given authority over administration of the sacraments, over teaching Christian doctrine, and over governing the Faithful.
No one who is not a bishop may do any of these things, unless he or she has been given a mandate to do so by the bishops. Therefore, in reality, do the doctrines of the "infallibility," "indefectability," and "indestructibility" of the Church really mean that the Church's bishops are infallible, indefectable, and indestructible?
If they are collectively infallible, indefectable and indestructible, then is it impossible that the Church's hierarchy here on Earth might ever entirely apostasize or die out?
We know that in years past many individual bishops, even whole territorial churches, have apostasized or died out. But is it possible that some day there could be a worse calamity and all the living bishops of the institutional Church here on Earth take a wrong turn and teach errors of faith and morals? Or that all the living bishops could be killed in a great persecution, leaving the faithful without an episcopacy?
Or do the doctrines of the "indefectability" and "indestructibility" of the Roman Catholic Church mean that we are assured that God would never allow such a thing to happen?
Even if we believe that those three doctrines mean that it is an impossibility for all the living bishops ever to embrace heresy or die out, do the three doctrines also make it an impossibility that all of the living bishops might simply stop teaching one or more of the historic doctrines of the Church, with the inevitable effect that within a few decades almost none of the Faithful would any longer know, let alone believe, those doctrines?
Or are we also guaranteed that each generation of bishops will pass on, intact, all of the "deposit of faith" which they received from their predecessors?
The standard answer, of course, has always been that we are guaranteed that at least a remnant here on Earth will always remain orthodox.
But is it a certainty that the remnant must remain among the still living on Earth?
Could not all the reassuring promises of Jesus (that He will be with us until the end of time, that the Gates of Hell will not prevail against the Church, etc.) still be fulfilled even though the Catholic Faith should die out entirely here on Earth, because even then the Faith would certainly yet *remain* among the Church Suffering in Purgatory and the Church Triumphant in Heaven?
In other words, when Jesus asked "But yet the Son of man, when he cometh, shall he find, think you, faith on earth?" (Luke xviii: 8), was He asking his followers a real question, a question truly with two possible answers?
Clearly, if it is possible that we humans alive to-day, just as Adam and Eve at the very beginning of time, have within our power the ability to "blow it" all over again and to extinguish all over again sanctifying grace from the face of the Earth by our collectively allowing authentic Christianity to die out entirely everywhere on this planet, then we do indeed each bear an awesome responsibility to "keep the Faith."
With respect to the Church's particular mark of holiness, and with respect to the Church's three doctrines of its "infallibility," "indefectability," and "indestructibility," it is important to remember that we are talking of the Church and not of any or all of the many humans that comprise it, or govern it, here on Earth. The qualities of the "indefectability" and "indestructibility" of the Church are entirely independent of the sinfulness shared by all men, including all the hierarchy in the Church.
The grossest sinfullness, and dishonesty, of Popes, bishops and priests is, and always has been, irrelevant to the holiness, and truthfullness, of what the Church is and teaches - unless you think one of the things the Church has ever taught is that its leadership cannot sin or be dishonest. Neither the Church, nor any of its wicked popes and bishops, however, has ever taught that any wicked clergyman was not wicked, but good, or that any kind of wickedness was not wickedness, but goodness.
And if you think about it, by what right could any of us ever expect that our generation's clergy might be any less sinful than we ourselves or be any less sinful than the clergy of any past generation? On what grounds could anyone claim that clergy, by definition, must be holier than laity? And mindful that Jesus Himself, when choosing the first twelve priests and bishops, chose a betrayer, a denier, a doubter, and nine cowards who ran off and left Him in His time of greatest need, why should any of us be surprised that the Church that Jesus founded has, ever since, done no better in her picking priests and bishops?
William F. Buckley, Jr., once eloquently summed it all up:
But most important is to remember to detach the sinner from the faith. On that account, the Rev. Andrew Greeley once wrote, "The question is not whether the Catholic leadership is enlightened, but whether Catholicism is true. A whole College of Cardinals filled with psychopathic tyrants provides no answer one way or another to that question."
And then the killer of a closing line: "Search for the perfect church if you will; when you find it, join it, and realize that, on that day, it becomes something less than perfect."
The real issue troubling me, thererfore, is not whether the Church's leadership has been, or could ever be, sinless, to say nothing of foolish or stupid. I doubt that anyone has ever expected such a thing, let alone believed it. Instead, the issue for me is whether all these admittedly sin-ridden men ever could (or ever have) collectively lead the Church seriously astray, either by adhering to false doctrine or by neglecting to pass on true doctrine. And, if not, why not?
Let me give an extreme example. Could the hierarchy someday make abortion a sacramental? The very question is appalling. But if eminently civilized humans like the Canaanites could have made child sacrifice a religious ritual, why couldn't we? We know humans are not only capable of almost every evil, but also of rationalizing almost every evil. In our day, certain mainline Protestant denominations have even produced unofficial (so far) church rituals for women who have had abortions to help them move on with their lives. How can we be so sure that an all too human Catholic hierarchy would never adopt, or tolerate the adoption of, any similar such monstrosity?
For most non-Catholic Christians questions like these present no problem. These Christians simply differentiate the divine "invisible" Church that cannot go astray, but also cannot be positively identified by anyone at any given time, from the very human institutional Church that (they claim) not only can go astray, but many times has done so.
Roman Catholics, however, believe the institutional Church to be one and the same thing as the divine Church, the Body of Christ, and that therefore, when the Pope and the bishops in communion with him, teach Christian doctrine, we are assured not only that that Christ Himself is doing the teaching, but also that the Pope and the bishops in communion with him have never held back any of His teaching from us.
But are we correct in this? How can any fair observer believe that the institutional, visible Roman Catholic Church has not, ever in its 2,000 year history, by commission or by omission, either taught an error or failed to pass on a truth necessary for our salvation?