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  • Writer's pictureMichael Martin

The Invisible Church

Glastonbury Abbey

The tragedy of the McCarrick Scandal—perhaps even greater than the reprehensible evidence of systematized abuse and the complicity if not indifference of a number of bishops and priests over his duplicitousness, not to mention their all-too-apparent hypocrisy—is that it calls the ontology of the Catholic Church itself, the Mother Church of all Christian denominations, into question. As I told a theologian friend, “It’s as if the Church is not the Church.” This, in fact, may be the question many of us have felt burning our tongues, but have been reluctant to speak aloud. Because if we call that into question, everything gets called into question.

Catholics, of course, often take refuge behind empty communications director statements such as “The bishops aren’t the Church” or “The Church is full of sinners,” as a way for everyone to share the blame. I’ve used such apologia myself. They’re bullshit. If the Holy Spirit, indeed, chooses the bishops, we have to admit that he’s doing a pretty lousy job in general (even though I’ve known some inspiring bishops). So, does the Holy Spirit choose bishops? From what I can tell, bishops are chosen by other bishops. It’s like academia or any other career: those who are willing to go along, get along. As a bishop told a priest I once knew (he is now deceased) concerning one of his colleagues elevated to the bishopric whom no one expected in such a position: “I picked him because he would do the least harm.”

This is what I mean by “calling everything into question.” But this is just one example.

But, for me at least, the McCarrick Scandal also calls into question the very notion of a Magisterium—why would anyone trust a body so willing to throw lambs to the wolves? And I don’t mean just going back to Vatican II, or Vatican I, or Trent, or even Lateran IV. And I have to wonder whether or not a good many of the so-called heretics over the ages were merely victims of some seriously vicious intermural politics, not to mention the railroading of Teilhard and de Lubac. Do you see? Suddenly, everything is suspect.

Of course, to raise such questions invites Excommunication, or, more practically, Holding-the-Sacraments-Hostage, a power only bishops possess.

But let me state clearly: I have no intention of leaving. Even though I would liturgically feel very much at home with my Orthodox brethren and have always thought of myself as 42% seventeenth-century Anglican, for better or worse, I intend to bloom where I was planted. Lately, of course, it’s been for worse.

Nevertheless, the Church, the real Church, may now be for the most part invisible. And probably always was.

I know many Traditionalists who would reprimand me and relate to me the now tired metaphors of The Church Militant and Triumphant. I don’t need them. I need the Invisible Church, the Church of Peter, Paul, and John, not marred by schism, not afraid of unity, not contaminated by the hypocrisy of a privileged boys’ club. I need the Church where exists, in the late Franz Wright’s words, “Blood, the real / blood” because “this / might be worth showing up for.”

All of my work has as its pillar and ground the reality of this Church.

All Christians, by virtue of their baptism, belong to this Church.

I’ll let the Holy Spirit work out the details.

Ecclesia quondam, Ecclesiaque Futurus

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