God’s protection of the Church despite sinfulness, corruption, and whatever might also go wrong

Affectionately referred to as “Trads,” the two-semester survey of Christian thought required by the Notre Dame theology major takes students all the way from the letters of St. Ignatius of Antioch to the documents of Vatican II. For many students, myself included, taking “Trads I” is a challenging academic experience, but its fruits are immediately apparent, as one takes in the beauty and profundity of the Church Fathers and other formative figures.

“Trads II” is notoriously different. Starting briefly with the thought of the Renaissance, the course then takes a quick dive into the toughest questions of Protestantism. Needless to say, its first weeks present a similarly challenging but less immediately satisfying process when compared to Trads I. Friends warned me ahead of time, and I started the class ready to engage critically and thoughtfully with the ideas of the Protestant reformers and their Catholic interlocutors.

On the one hand, seeing how seriously the reformers took what they saw to be the corruption of the Church at the time and how zealously they desired for the truth of the Gospel message to be shared has helped me to see more of the nuances that exist in Protestant-Catholic debate than I had previously.

On the other hand, however, in all of the wrestling with the ideas of the Reformation that I have done in the past weeks, I still do not find convincing views of the Church expressed by figures like John Calvin. Even in the face of extreme corruption and perversion of what the Catholic Church should actually look like, to leave the Church rather than to reform it from within seems to be an action stemming from a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature and purpose of the Church as it was instituted by Christ.

In a debate between Calvin and Cardinal Jacopo Sadoleto, Calvin imagines what someone on his side might say before the Lord on the Day of Judgment. He writes, “Though denounced as deserter of the Church, and threatened, I was in no respect deterred, or induced to proceed less firmly and boldly in opposing those who, in the character of pastors, wasted thy Church with a more than impious tyranny” (“Calvin’s Reply to Sadoleto,” p. 86).

For Calvin, the Church is something that can exist outside of the structure of the Apostles and their successors, and so when that structure becomes misguided or even antagonistic to the Gospel message, it is best to go elsewhere. This, however, is not the Church presented to us in Scripture, or the Church that we see present in the earliest Christian communities.

Perhaps my favorite reading assigned at Notre Dame so far has been an Advent homily written by New Testament scholar Fr. Raymond E. Brown, “The Genealogy of Jesus Christ,” which takes for its focus the genealogy presented in Matthew 1:1-17. Fr. Brown makes a rather startling claim: the genealogy “contains the essential theology of the Old and the New Testaments.”

Taking the reader through the genealogy, he first points to the patriarchs, in which case it was often true that God didn’t pick the “best” person as the heir to the promise. Moving on to the kings, he notes that after David, only two of the fourteen kings listed could be considered to have upheld the law. Finally, he emphasizes the unexpected role played by peculiar women in the genealogy, such as Tamar, the mother of children sired by her father-in-law Judah. He then notes the connection of this genealogy of Old Testament figures to those sinner-saints Peter and Paul who began the work of the Church, and how this mission extends to each of us today.

Brown’s conclusion is as relevant for today’s Church as it is for thinking about the Catholic Church in the Reformation. He writes:

“God did not hesitate to entrust to a monarchical institution an essential role in the story of His Son’s origins—an authoritative institution (at times authoritarian) which He guaranteed with promises lest it fail but which was frequently led by corrupt, venal, stupid, and ineffective leaders, as well as sometimes by saints. He has not hesitated to entrust the sequence of the story to a hierarchically structured church, guaranteed with promises, but not free from its own share of the corrupt, the venal, the stupid, and the ineffective.

“Those ‘Christians’ who proclaim that they believe in and love Jesus but cannot accept the church or the institution because it is far from perfect and sometimes a scandal have not understood the beginning of the story and consequently are not willing to face the challenge of the sequence.”

The beauty of the Catholic Church is that God has given it to us precisely because we are sinful, and because we could never do it alone. The institution of the Church is that great grace by which God has ensured that the means of our salvation, as wrought by Christ, is protected by the Holy Spirit throughout the ages, no matter how poorly we may run its organizational structure.

Corruption in the Church was not a good reason to leave the Church at the time of the Reformation, and it is not a good reason now. Corruption in the Church is a good reason for each Catholic, lay and clergy alike, to answer the universal call to holiness and work tirelessly to conform the institutional Church to the image of Christ. Brown writes that “the message of the genealogy is an enabling invitation,” and it truly is for each person, to help the Church fulfill her mission, not as an instrument of harm but as a stronghold of salvation. Whatever the challenges we face, Christ’s words are true, that against His Church “the powers of death shall not prevail” (Matthew 6:18).

Noelle Johnson is a junior studying theology and physics. You can contact her at njohns16@nd.edu.