The apparent contradiction derives from the fact that the Church has an “inside” and an “outside”. The “inside” of the Church consists of those realities that make her what she is in God’s saving plan: the continuance of the Incarnation and of Pentecost, the Body of Christ living with His Spirit and so able to bring human beings to the Father. On the other hand, the Church has an “outside”: a public, social existence in human history. This “outside” must find expression through her liturgy, law, the culture in which she finds herself, because all of these – worship, government, making, thinking, doing – are necessary features of any human society here on earth, where we are in the condition of pilgrims on the journey to heaven.
As we have been painfully reminded, there will never be a perfect correspondence between the “inside” and “outside” of the Church. Instead, there is the promise of Christ that the reality of salvation will always be communicated through the Church no matter what human frailties afflict her in her earthly course. This does not mean that attention to the outward aspect of the Church is a waste of time: her liturgical forms, law, sacred art, theological life and practices are of vital importance.
From the perspective of those outside the Church, her public side is all that is seen. If that outward side is seriously distorted, then the inward reality will be obstructed in its’ outworking. To perceive the inwardness of the Church always requires God’s grace; if its outward expression is distorted people will need special grace. From the perspective of the Church’s members, corruptions of the Church’s self-expression in the world tend to negatively impact the way the faithful think of the theological glory within. If the Church as an observable body in human history is too ghastly, it becomes harder to maintain our dogmatic faith that she is, nevertheless, Christ’s own Body, and yes, still His Bride.
Fr. Ron Rolheiser, in his book: “The Holy Longing,” succinctly sums up this simultaneous “inside” and “outside” reality of the Church:
To be connected with the church is to be associated with scoundrels, warmongers, fakes, child-molesters, murderers, adulterers and hypocrites of every description.
It also, at the same time, identifies you with saints and the finest persons of heroic soul of every time, country, race, and gender.
To be a member of the church is to carry the mantle of both the worst sin and the finest heroism of soul because the church always looks exactly as it looked at the original crucifixion, God hung among thieves.
The Holy Spirit is the soul of the Church; Christ’s mission remains and the Church is His vehicle for it. May we cooperate with the Holy Spirit in manifesting the Church’s inner reality, as it deserves to be.
David J. Conrad