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What is the point of the Church?



This article is based on communications from a close friend. He introduces himself very adequately in the first section, so I will not say more on that matter. The rest of the article is an exploration of the proper role - or lack of it - of the organized Church in the life of someone who sincerely wants to follow Jesus. I have on occasion slightly edited his words, but do not believe that I have ever twisted his meaning or misrepresented his thought. If I have done, I'm sure he'll let me know!

Please note that when I use the word "Catholic" below, I do not generally wish to thereby exclude the "Orthodox" jurisdictions and traditions of the East. I accept the teaching of the recent Vatican Synod that the Ideal of the One Church of Christ particularly and authentically inheres in that sociological entity that owes explicit allegiance to the See of Rome, but that other sociological entities participate to greater or lesser degrees in this Form.

The Protagonist

To summarize where I'm coming from, I'm a scientist and a Christian (in my terms, despite what others may say!). I grew up thinking that evangelical doctrine was Christianity (in my experience in England, the only groups that have any energy to talk about what they believe are evangelicals). Hence I used to think that the words evangelicals and evangelize were pretty much synonymous, as only evangelicals (Lutheran types) seem to evangelize (share the "good news"), and that I had to put up with the things in it I didn't like if I wanted to be Christian. There was enough in Jesus that made me want to be a "follower" and put up with the rest.

Over the years I learnt (solely via your explanations and books you have suggested I read) that Catholic theology is both "nicer" and more reasonable - so much so, that it is hard now for me to sit through evangelical services - I guess my ears have become attuned to the underlying theology. Although I agree with Catholic theology as far as it relates to God and our status with God, I find that everything related to the role of the church just speaks to me of maintaining a powerful, hierarchical institution, interested in its own survival above all else, with as much soul as a multinational corporation - which might at least pay me a decent salary for my time!

The less evangelical protestant churches tend to be, frankly, boring, as I have found Catholic services I've attended (sorry, but even more so the Tridentine one, where everything was Latin, so I'm mumbling words I don't know, listening to strange chanting for an hour or so ...)  So for some time I've stopped attending church anywhere, and my thoughts are "does it matter at all?" and "what is the point of church?" and "why do churches make attendance obligatory for all believers?"

Any feedback or comments or answers to some of the questions I've raised are welcome. I would be interested in some sample responses of why people go to Church, and what they think they gain from participating.

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The Antagonist

I am a physicist by education. I was brought up a Methodist, but converted to Catholicism while an undergraduate at Cambridge University. I am of traditionalist leaning, a convinced adherent of the Old Latin Rite and a sceptic regarding most "New Order Catholicism". To find out more about me, please read my potted autobiography - and the rest of my >web site!

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Faith in Christ or Faith in the Church?

The view of Jesus I get from the Bible and from my (Protestant) upbringing I find very appealing and He is someone I want to follow. The view I have of the Catholic church is very different, and I have no desire to follow the Church. If at some point it seems the only way I can follow Jesus is to join a particular church, then I'll do what I have to, I suppose.
The problem here, as always is the phrase "The Church". I detest "The Contemporary Church" - both its leadership and its culture. Nevertheless, I know that the authority of the Church - the whole Church Community, not just its hierarchical leadership in isolation -  is prior (not superior) to that of the Scriptures.

The Church is not identifiable with any human organization. It is the Body of Christ, the Kingdom of God's friends. It exists perfectly in the Heart of God: there it is Holy and Spotless. It is only imperfectly realised in the human reality and organization that calls itself the Catholic and Roman Church.

I have faith in Jesus and God, but have no faith in the Church. For someone to say that my faith is only human rather than divine (whatever that means - our faith is our own, and is either true or false. As all true things are from God so is true faith.) is irrational and hubristic.
Faith is at root a gift from God and generally comes from an encounter with Him in the testimony and lives of others. Faith is not a "good work", something that we originate, own and are personally responsible for. It is certainly not something that one gets to by a dutiful  reading of the Bible.

It is easy for a conservative Catholic to argue: "Jesus couldn't possible inspire someone to have a real faith that did not involve a commitment to His Visible Body? Hence, it must be that anyone who professes faith in Jesus, but does not at least explicitly desire to belong to the Catholic Church cannot have a real faith!"

This argument is false. Faith isn't ever perfect. Whereas membership of the Catholic Church is an unavoidable consequence of a fully mature developed and authentic faith, it does not follow that only those who are visible members of the Catholic Church can have a real faith. We each perceive the object of faith imperfectly: as through a distorting and corroded mirror. We can only have ortho-doxa (true oppinion), at best, and "being in good faith" doesn't guarantee "accuracy of  faith". Hence the importance that is nowadays placed on the notions of "Baptism of Desire" and "Invincible Ignorance" - two commonly held Catholic beliefs that are as yet not defined and only really developed over the last few hundred years.

At the moment if I am to be told that my faith is meaningless and the choice is the church or nothing, I choose nothing!
Quite right too! On the other hand, the true definition of "The Catholic Church" is the Community of God's Friends: those who are "in good faith" and, more importantly, have charity! Faith and Hope and Charity are not, at root, things that you and I generate: they are all elicited by God's grace. They are God's work, not our's - and in the end they will lead anyone who is sincere (perhaps kicking and screaming) to the Catholic Church. The big problem in all this is that the Historical Church (the Catholic and Roman Jurisdiction) is a very imperfect realization of the Ideal Church.
The knowledge that any view I have of Jesus has been filtered by the Church, means it is less likely to be accurate, and more likely to be the view that is necessary to keep the church going.
Humanly speaking, yes: but, in faith I believe that Holy Spirit in fact acts through the Church to preserve the authentic message of Jesus. I entirely accept that this is something that I believe by choice and is an act of the will rather than something I can convincingly demonstrate by argument. Nevertheless, I think that it is a pretty serviceable hypothesis.
So I will hold onto my hope that I have a view of Jesus, who I would like to follow, that has been untainted by two thousand  years of human history in the church.
From where do you get this view, if not the Church? The view that we have of Jesus in the Gospels is itself derivative of the Church's viewpoint and agenda. How can you know that it is untainted?  How can you know that the view that you refer to isn't just your own wishful thinking?

What is the role of the Church supposed to be?

  1. What did Jesus mean by the word "church" when he said "upon this rock I build my church" when there was no such thing as a church beforehand?
  2. Is the church for God or for us?
  3. If church is supposed to be good for us, is there any point to going/joining in if it is not good for us?
  4. Is it's role to maintain a theology?
  5. Is it to distribute the sacraments, e.g. communion?
  1. What did Jesus mean by the word "church"?
  2. Is the church for God or for us?
  3. If church is supposed to be good for us, is there any point to going/joining in if it is not good for us?
  4. Is it's role to maintain a theology?
  5. Is it to distribute the sacraments, e.g. communion?

Some possible roles for the organized Church

I do have some sympathy for the idea that it is good to have someone/something with the final word on matters of orthodoxy, to stamp a "yes"/"no" as unlike science, there is often no experimental test (an analogy due to yourself).
This is, of course, crucial.
But why the rest of the paraphernalia? I guess I've found Catholic services I've been to rather tedious (even worse when in Latin) pretty much saying the same thing every week. Little interaction. Is this really how Jesus expects his followers to be spending their time? Maybe if it revitalizes you to go out and live the life of integrity, to seek justice, to stand up for your beliefs or to be more loving and caring - but if not, what's the point?
This is one of your core difficulties, it seems to me. One finds anything tedious which one doesn't see the point of, and when one sees the point then what was previously tedious becomes full of vitality. I know that much of my own response to the Old Latin Ritual is conditioned by what it stands for. I am not at all opposed to a more energetic or demonstrative style of worship, far from it! However, it seems to me that to start from a subjective experience of some form of worship is to put the cart before the horse.

I am sure that this is not an insoluble problem for you.  The issue has to be dealt with experientially I think. You have to first want it to work, perhaps. Some people are drawn to faith by the liturgy: for others this is the last step. We are all different. You will come to the Church - I expect - by a hard intellectual grind and battle: kicking and screaming all the way. Not the most pleasant experience for you, and not to be generally recommended: but if I am right, it will be your way and that makes it right for you.

I would say that Catholic worship has "revitalized" many folk "to go out and live the life of integrity, to seek justice, to stand up for" their "beliefs or to be more loving and caring".  Such folk are generally called "canonized saints". Obviously, other - very different - forms of religious observance may be thought to have had similar effects on other folk. My point is that one finds "new life" in one's personal encounter with TheyWhoIsLove. This happens primarily in the secret places of one's own heart. Worship is a corporate effort to nurture, manifest and make space for this process. Better: it is the response of the community to the vocation of God. Better still: it is the transcendent action of that vocation within the community.

Worship should not be viewed as performance: what we do towards God; still less entertainment: what we towards each other; or therapy: what we do for each other, but as sacramental: what God does towards us. Our response may be meagre. Perhaps reserve and understatement are called for, in order to emphasize the immediate action of God hidden within the Action of the Mass. Perhaps the austere Roman way is superior to the exuberance of the Goth, Byzantine and Copt.

More on this can be found here.

I do believe we all have a need for community. Even the loners, who I think become so out of despair of ever meeting someone they can or dare trust.
That is a very beautiful, though frightening, thought!
No Catholic church I've been to appears to be a community.
This is more or less my experience, too. Parishes vary from being factional and cliquey to down-right cold and hostile. The first parish that I attended in Harrow for a time was a bit better: but that was largely because I was involved in the charismatic prayer group there. Similarly, the parish I attended in Leigh-on-Sea: but that was because I got myself onto the Parish Council for a time and get involved in a (disappointing and perfunctory) Parish visitation/mission exercise.
Pharsea's Yahoo! group is the closest I have seen in the Catholic world. I assume monasteries are real communities, but have no experience of such.

I also believe we all have a need to worship something higher than ourselves. (Though I do find it hard to define exactly what I
mean by worship). I take a Platonic viewpoint, in thinking we all have some notion of the perfect form of anything - including being human - and when we do not see perfection, and certainly do not see it within ourselves, we wish to affirm that such a perfect form does exist somewhere. It is often misplaced onto other mere humans (being in-love, hero-worship and so on) which leads to disillusionment when flaws are found. It is good for an institution to direct such worship at the one true and only person worthy of such: Jesus.

This is very well said. I wish to add nothing.
Generally needs are there for good reasons (or evolution would weed them out, as why waste energy fulfilling useless needs). Our need to worship, and for me my longing that God should exist and be real, to me is evidence that God does exist. I believe this is related to one of the Ontological Arguments for the Existence of God, but am not sure.
I think this paragraph is a bit weak. However, it is not my business here to "snuff out the guttering wick", so I will simply give a link to criticism of such views that I have previously posted.
The group is stronger than the individual. If like-minded individuals join together with a common goal, then they can achieve much more than alone.
Agreed. Unfortunately, this requires wise leadership: or at least an open-ness to grassroots initiatives. Both are rare in the Catholic Church today.
When church does not form the community, then something else will play this role, with other objectives: for example corporations, whose goal is financial profit.
Agreed. This is more important than it sounds. It neatly leads on to the next points.
Is the goal of church to transform the world?
Assuredly yes! This is at least part of the point of the parables of: "the leaven in the dough" and "the salt" and "the city on a hill" and "the lamp that should not be hidden". The Kingdom of God is at hand and is supposed to be breaking out all over!
Is church necessary for this?
Yes. This is the defining vocation of the Church! This work will never be completed, but it is the business of the Church to work for Universal Justice and Peace: "Shalom".
To share the Gospel?
This is the same activity. Proclaiming the Gospel means campaigning for the establishment of the Kingdom.
Does this lead to the former?
Authentic evangelism necessarily results in the coming of the Kingdom. It changes people's lives.
Bring more people to heaven than without it?
Certainly to make the process easier and less painful. Whether the total number is increased is not for us to say.
Provide a refuge for the lonely/poor/downtrodden?
Certainly. This is part of the core business of the Kingdom. Jesus made that more than obvious at every turn.
Does participation in the Church make anyone think they are achieving more towards any of these goals than if they did not
There are two meanings to your question, which you are failing to distinguish. You confuse "participation in the Church" with "playing a formal role in the organized community".

As you are well aware, I generally avoid the latter: limiting my overtly Catholic activity to Sunday and Holiday Mass attendance. I suppose that the production, servicing and support of my WebSite is to a degree "participation in the Church" - but I doubt that many in the hierarchy would view it in that light: they'd like me to shut up and go away.

Whereas my membership of the Catholic Church should provide me with a network through which I could operate for the good of the whole, in fact I find that my membership of the Catholic Church acts to limit what I can do. Simply because I am sure that if I did much more than I do do, I would attract the attention and condemnation of the New Order hierarchy. Of course, there are some things that I could do in spite of this, that I fail to do: mostly out of sloth, I'm afraid to say.

Similarly, my involvement in the activity of the Catholic Church should be a cause of inspiration. Sadly it is not. It is in practice a cause for desperation.

On the other hand, my consciousness of being a Catholic, of being part of that historic spiritual tradition that goes back to the Fathers of the Church and its founding Apostles (I exclude Jesus from this list as being an altogether different category of person!) and before them on the one hand to Plato and Pythagorus and on the other to Elijah, Moses, Melchizidek, Abraham, Noah and Adam is a great inspiration and comfort to me.

More than this, being a Catholic means being a member of the Mystical Body of Christ and a friend of God. This gives me a basis for hope that it is worth-while doing things that seem pointless from a human perspective.

Some possible reasons for church attendance

  1. Holy Communion: "receiving Jesus" as often as possible. If this "intimacy with Jesus" is so amazing and the role of the church is to pass it out, as "whoever asks shall receive" then it is despicable that the church would ever withhold the sacrament from those who wish to receive it - so excommunication should never happen and non Catholics should be able to receive. The withholding of something that God has entrusted the Church with to pass out to the people, because those people do not toe the party line suggests the church cares more about maintaining its political power.
  2. Teaching: keep our thoughts from straying away from orthodoxy/remind us what we believe. This simply suggests to me that somebody who cares about theology should read the Catholic texts.
  3. The culture: help us to feel that those beliefs are OK and reasonable. I think this is related to community. Being among those who believe in similar things makes one more confident that it is OK. It affirms and makes one more courageous in ones beliefs. If so, then I think this is good.
  4. The people: provide companionship and even friendship with like-minded. Great, if this is true.
  5. Action: be able to channel our activities into something aligned with our goal and ready organized, so we achieve more than we could alone. Great, if this is true.
  6. Supporting the hierarchy: maintaining the financial and political power of the institution. For me, a reason not to go as I dislike hierarchies!
  7. Supporting God's institution: even if it does us or nobody else any good right now, over history it's survival is vital for human well-being, both in this world and in order for many to reach the hereafter. A good reason. A bit too long-term for most people, and if this is your only reason, your dedication is worthy of a Saint!
  1. Holy Communion
  2. Teaching
  3. The culture
  4. The people
  5. Action
  6. Supporting the hierarchy
  7. Supporting God's institution

Problems with authority

As a protestant, I am not sure what to make of transubstantiation.
You make this very obvious. Half the time you argue from the basis that Holy Communion is incredibly important and because of this should be available to all that desire to receive it. Half the time you argue that it is no more than the eating of common-place food and so does not require the agency of any ministerial priesthood.
Either that is Jesus they are holding up in front of people during the service or it is not. I don't think it is Jesus
Are you so sure about this? My many conversations with you suggest to me that you are not quite as sure about this as it would appear!
(and in fact every single Catholic I have asked this question to - I guess about a half dozen, not including my wife's immediate family who I am sure would give the same answer - have said, "no it is just a symbol ...")
Indeed. This shows you just how terrible the position within Catholicism is today. It shouldn't need to be said that any person who says"Holy Communion or the Blessed Sacrament is just a symbol" by that fact makes themselves a material heretic as it is a direct denial of:
  1. the infallible teaching of the Council of Trent
  2. the near universal teaching of the Fathers of the Church
  3. the direct statement of St Paul
  4. the direct statement of Jesus as recorded in John Ch 6 and
  5. the Synoptic Gospel accounts of the Last Supper!
I don't think it is true, but like a good novel, the actions of some characters in the novel - and those characters really do believe their actions are real - can still make you shudder. So, the whole process of transubstantiation - I can imagine it to be true, the way I can imagine a real live encounter with Jesus every week, which would seem a wonderful thing,
Exactly so. You understand what the point of  Holy Communion would be if only it were to be true. That's one thing that I don't have to explain to you! Note that the "Catholics" you have spoken to probably wouldn't agree with you on this!
unlike my experience of communion
You regularly put too much emphasis on subjective experience. Sometimes I find receiving HC to be deeply oving and inspiring, sometimes I find it a "non-event".  Neither experience proves anything at all.  Nor could it, even if I found it "a real wow!" every time.  Folks are very good at generating imaginary "religious experiences".  Thomas Aquinas gets this one spot on when he tells us that the sense impressions and subjective experience associated with the Blessed Sacrament is of no account or significance whatsoever.  All that matters is what Jesus said: "This IS my body. This IS my blood." We must simply believe what He says, seek to understand it and thank Our Loving and Ardent Lord for the great and precious gift of intimacy that He offers us as an eternal sign and pledge of his love for us.
-  seems like something  the church is  implanting in people's brains and then using as a control device.
Not a very good control device given all the loop-holes. Your criticism is much better directed at the sacrament of Penance, in this case I am sure that you are correct - but only under the practice of the sacrament that the Church brought in over the last few hundred years and that has now virtually died out.
It would have exactly the same effect as getting people a physical brain implant when young, and controlling the release of drug on a weekly basis, and telling them that if they do not agree with the church's policy they will get no more drug. The sad thing is the drug only works on the real believers, who the majority might say are fools for going along with the whole process, but are the ones I find I have most sympathy for as they are the ones who are most looking beyond this world to the next.
Up to a point, but I think you are confusing "real believers" with "those who tend to do what they are told without question". These are not at all the same sets of people! What you are describing here is an abuse of the sacrament, not its core reality or authentic purpose.

The Blessed Sacrament is of tremendous importance in the life of the Church

At the Last Supper, Jesus said privately to his Apostles: "This is My Body" and "This is My Blood" (not "this represents my body and my blood"). He had previously set the context for this startling announcement with extended, stark and uncompromising public teaching [Jn 6].

St Paul describes the Sacrament as being a PARTICIPATION in the Body and Blood of Christ. He bolsters this strong statement of Platonic theory with a clear practical warning that to receive the sacrament unworthily is to risk physical sickness and even death.

The early Fathers are mostly clear that the Eucharistic Elements are not just symbols: though their testimony is complicated by the fact that they are symbols (just not just symbols) and sometimes they talk about what they symbolize. They do not use the medieval Thomistic language of transubstantiation simply because they are generally Platonists not Aristotelians and such terminology would have been entirely foreign to them. The East has never adopted this language but has no less a developed view of the numinoscity and objective sanctity of the Blessed Sacrament than the West.

I suspect that I do not need to labour these points. If I must say more, please let me know. It would, in any case, I suspect be better for me to direct you to the work of those many other authors who have laboured long and eloquently on such themes.

From what I observe of the church, the idea of excommunication - or at least I have heard in the U.S.A. oof some bishops advocating withholding the sacraments from those whose political vote goes against Church teaching: well, to me it seems abominable to prevent someone from following what they believe to be as Jesus' command - or to prevent them from their "intimacy with God" which is how you phrase it - on the basis of power politics about moral issues. I am angry when I hear the church saying they will withhold it from real Catholics who vote to allow gay marriage etc. - the image in my head is from the
film "Priest" when the "priest" withheld communion from his lover. To me it seems a direct contradiction of Jesus' statement "ask and you will receive" and "I will not turn away anyone who comes to me". The idea that the Church really does have Jesus there and is preventing people coming and receiving Him is well, the most control mad uncaring and hypocritical action I can think of!
As you put this, you are correct. I am pretty sure that Jesus would have given Holy Communion to Judas at the Last Supper to Judas, if he hadn't left early. However, you are being too emotive and not analytical enough. For the moment, I shall presume that "excommunication" is a legitimate, equitable, fair, appropriate, reasonable and just penalty in some circumstance. I shall address this question later, following your train of thought.

Right and Wrong use of Excommunication

It is quite wrong for the hierarchy to use excommunication - still more "interdict", where all the saacraments are withdrawn from the population of an entire country in order to put the State under pressure - as a lever in "power politics", either wwith rulers or legislators. This hasn't stopped popes from doing exactly this in the past. I am not answerable for the actions of weak and vindictive men. Neither is it needful to excuse the misuse of a power for its legitimate exercise to be recognized.

I have written elsewhere about the tendency to abuse the sacrament of Penance.

As to whether excommunication is a valid response to "moral issues", it seems to me that it could well be. For example, I think that it would be quite proper for unrepentant pedophile priests and those Bishops who connived to conceal their activities - and decline to admit their fault and retire from office - to be excommunicated. Similarly the leaders and active membership of terrorist organizations such as the IRA, ETA and PLO. What should be done if some notoriously wicked person (e.g. Stalin or Hitler or whoever you like) presents himself for Holy Communion? If he is allowed to receive communion it would quite fairly be taken as a degree of approval or acquiescence in that person's carryings on. This is simply not right. It would be a cause of grave scandal.

In the last analysis, it would be legitimate for the hierarchy to insist that Catholic legislators voted in a particular way on a particular issue, under pain of excommunication: but this would generally be a most unwise and counter-productive course of action. It would open all Catholic politicians to the charge that they were mere puppets of the Vatican and would bring the Church into disrepute. Nevertheless, in a case of perceived extreme gravity (such as abortion, slavery, contraception, usury, divorce, euthanasia, cloning, or homogender marriage) the hierarchy might legitimately chose to accept this large political cost in order to maintain an objective and principled stance.

If the sacrament was so important, they would never withhold it form anyone, so I can only think that the Church does not see it really as that important for the recipient, but rather something it can use to maintain its power. (i.e. you have to do X because it is good for you, but if you disagree with us about other things, we will not let you take part in wonderful X). I reiterate this later, as it strikes a chord of anger in me
This anger is understandable. You are denied Catholic Communion while believing much Catholic doctrine and accepting much of the Catholic vocation. Many others are admitted to Catholic Communion by the New Order hierarchy while notoriously rejecting core elements of the Tradition; espousing indifferentist or Masonic beliefs; or schismatical and syncretistic practices.

The Catholic Church does not prevent anyone from receiving Holy Communion

The most that She can do is refuse to offer Communion to some (group) person(s) herself. Typically, anyone who is excommunicated has recourse to any number of other groupings: many of which have good claims to objectively valid orders.

Moreover, it is generally possible for anyone who cares to present themselves to receive Communion. If they do so they will almost inevitably be given Communion. Only if they are a notorious sinner will there be any chance of them being refused. The Catholic practice is this:

Some people are objectively not in communion with the Church. Others are in unrepented grave sin.

  • They should not receive communion.
  • They should be told this in no uncertain terms and
  • the reasons made clear to them, if necessary.
  • If a person believed by those in auhority to be in such a position presents themselves to receive communion, it will, however, be given to them because: unless it is judged that would be worse than In practice, the issue is really one's ability to receive Communion with the reasonable belief that the Diocesan Bishop would be content that one is doing so if he knew all that he might care to know about one's beliefs, lifestyle, morality and canonical circumstances. While I am not in any way excommunicate, I have serious doubts that many of the Bishops of England and Wales would be content with my theological outlook, lifestyle or moral outlook.

    These doubts do not trouble me greatly. On the whole I would have similar doubts about theirs.

    While Holy Communion is a great good for the individual, it is not their greatest good

    You try to argue that because something is a great good it should never be withheld, and yet in doing so you disclose exactly what the Catholic doctrine is, while somewhat misrepresenting it. The Church believes that a person's subjective beliefs, attitudes, values and lifestyle are much more important than external actions - even sacramental actions - that are, after all, only meant to inform, inspire and strengthen these characteristics of their life. While  it is true that the reception of a sacrament in good faith is an ordinary means of grace, St Paul warns that a person receiving Holy Communion unworthily risks further injury to themselves [1Cor 11:27-32].

    A Bishop has a personal responsibility before Almighty God to warn individuals and groups when he believes that they are going off the rails. In the last analysis this warning must become public and formal. If it is rejected, then the Bishop has little choice but to withdraw his responsibility of oversight. This is for the good of the individual(s) being admonished and for the rest of the community who - hopefully - are deterred from following a similar path.

    Of course, the Bishop might be mistaken in his judgement. This would be regrettable. It does not make his judgement any the less binding for the time being: subject to appeal to Primate, Patriarch or Pope. A pious respect for lawful authority is necessary if peace and good order is generally to be maintained. If some individual(s) happen to be wronged (as has - regretably - often been the case) they will not be denied grace by God. Rather their exclusion from the ordinary means of grace will certainly become for them an extra-ordinary means of grace, if only they patiently bear the burden that they unjustly suffer. It is quite proper for such (an) individual(s) to protest that the judgement made against them was mistaken, as long as they did not deny the legitimacy of the office of that authority which had condemned them.

    In particular, excommunication these days does not involve forbidding individuals from attending Catholic Mass (it did so in the past!) but only from physically receiving Communion. Hence it is generally a simple matter for anyone who is excommunicated to make a "spiritual communion" (similar to "Baptism of Desire") in the context of the community Eucharistic worship. This was in any case the common practice of 99% of orthodox laity in good standing on most Sundays throughout most of the Middle Ages in the West. It remains common practice among lay folk in the East to this day.

    Holy Communion has a sociological dimension

    Now while the Catholic Church is open to all comers (no prior qualifications, or attainment, or race or other personal characteristics are stipulated) She has a definite purpose and significance. It is simply impossible to belong to Her while not sharing that purpose and affirming that significance. It is for the hierarchy to determine, when necessary, who in fact adequately satisfies these criteria. To this purpose the Church has adopted a number of credal statements and oaths of allegiance.

    Manifestly, no-one can judge what is in the heart of another. All that the leadership of the Church can insist on is that those who wish to be formally associated with Her, represent Her in the world and speak on Her behalf, must make occasional public profession of faith and acceptance of jurisdiction, as is judged appropriate. Those that refuse to do so when required thereby exclude themselves from Her formal fellowship, though they may be in good faith and so invisibly still attached to Her.

    Those who so dissociate themselves from Her jurisdiction necessarily separate themselves from Her commonality and so from formal association with Her worship and all other details of Her corporate life. This necessarily includes the physical reception of Holy Communion. Communion is not just a transaction between an individual  (wo)man and God, but is also an expression of community belonging. The Holy Eucharist is a fellowship sacrifice as well as a propitiatory oblation and a sin offering. It involves, nourishes, expresses and envisages community bonds of fellowship. When an individual receives communion from the community altar, (s)he is asserting and claiming that (s)he has allegiance to and claims the protection of that community. If they do not in fact have such allegiance then their act is a lie and risks being a sacrilege.

    Any-one who believes they are right to dissent so far from the consensus of what they recognize as the Official Church that they find themselves excluded from Her worship must also believe that this corporation has itself deviated gravely from the Gospel. They should then feel no compunction in setting themselves up as a better alternative. If they are right, then they can be sure that either they will have in their number those with Apostolic Orders (as is assuredly the case of Old Catholic and Eastern Orthodox jurisdictions) and will be able to obtain the sacraments through the ministry of these persons: or failing that they must conclude that Apostolic Succession is superfluous to the life of the true Christian people (as indeed most protestant churches have done).

    In no case does it make sense to complain that one is deprived of Holy Communion, all that one is being deprived of is sociological association with certain persons who one doesn't really want to be associated with anyhow! This kind of complaint generally signifies an internal conflict. The individual in question half believes that they are themselves right and half believes that the Church hierarchy is right. Truly this is a sad torture to endure, but it generally resolves itself one way or the other in a reasonable period of time.

    The pros and cons of hierarchy

    I guess I have little-to-no respect for hierarchical institutions, and wonder if there is any chance that this would be the form God
    would choose to interact with the world and its people.
    I don't much like hierarchies, either. However, I simply can't conceive of any viable alternative.

    Jesus explicitly tells those who are first in the Church they they should conceive of their role as servants not as tyrants. Sometimes this is a pedagogical role, and sometimes this requires the use of sanctions. St Paul makes this clear in many places. Sometimes Christian leadership means "loosing chains", forgiving sins and opening locks; sometimes it means "binding bonds", retaining sins and locking doors. Always, authority must be exercised for what is genuinely perceived to be the objective benefit of those governed.

    Jesus himself appointed twelve intimates to be his "first line reports". He then appointed seventy others to be "middle management". The necessities of the human condition required Him to do this, following the example of Moses, that I have already referred to.

    I guess a lot of the church's actions to me seemed aimed at hurting the honest, and so encourage the majority to just pretend to go along with things and have no respect for the church's authority whatsoever. If the church only excommunicates those with integrity, what does that say to the rest?
    I agree that this is an unfortunate practical consequence of much of the misguided policy of the Church's leadership. On the other hand, some limits have to be set for what can be approved, what can be countenanced and what can be tolerated. Otherwise one has the "Anglican Dilemma" in which there is no notion of truth left!
    What right does someone who has never met me and lives thousands of miles away in a totally different environment have to make pronouncements as to how I should live my life. My view is first get to know me, and show me you are my friend. Then you have some right to question my behaviour.
    Agreed, except that some behaviours (actions in contexts) are manifestly vicious. One does not need to first become someone's friend in order to condemn their extortion, exploitation of the poor, fraud, pollution of the environment, sexual assault of infants, vilification of the Jews, adultery etc. etc. While some details about the circumstances of the actions will be required before judgement can be passed, it is not necessary that an equitable personal relationship be established.

    Of course, if one seeks to influence behaviour, rather than merely evaluate it as right or wrong, then what you say is correct without qualification. However, that is not the case that you put. You speak of a "right to question" rather than an "effectiveness in influencing".

    Jesus is primarily concerned to influence those whom came to Him in good faith. Hence He is called "The Friend of Sinners". However, this did not stop Him from condemning in the most certain and extreme terms those in authority whom He judged to be acting in bad faith.

    My contact with the Catholic church suggests it is more interested in members agreeing to abide by its rules than in what is good for those people.
    Unfortunately, I have to agree with you. This is a direct result of the Church having taken on-board Aristotelian metaphysics, anthropology and ethics. It is done in good faith, but is woefully misguided. The top level of the hierarchy generally believes that "its rules" are identical with "what is good for all people". Hence, for Pope JP-II and Cardinal Ratzinger there is no moral conflict here.
    In essence it wants to maintain its political, hierarchical power, allowing one person at the top to make a rule for everybody, rather than finding out in love what is best for each individual to do.
    Pope JP-II and Cardinal Ratzinger honestly believe that the approach that you favour is indistinguishable from moral anarchy. They sincerely believe that it will lead to the loss of all absolute ethical principles and the most grave harm both to society at large and to the individuals which constitute it.

    Personally, I am with you: as long as you agree with me that there do exist objective tests and measures of "what is good" apart from just "immediate gratification", "expedience", "local advantage" and "mutual consent" etc. etc. If this is denied, then the fears of the Vatican are entirely justified.

    The latter could never happen in a hierarchy, unless the person at the top gives up most to near all influence - just focusing on making sure the tier directly below are "good".
    As is often the case, when criticizing something you come up with exactly the answer to your own criticism.

    Hierarchies don't have to be authoritarian. Each layer could conceive of its role as keeping the layer beneath it from doing harm to the layer beneath it. I saw a moving drama at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2002, where a Scottish King argued that his job was to keep the barons in check, and to act as a champion of the common folk!

    The model here is that of the English Legal system, where those convicted in a lower court can appeal against their convictions to a higher one. Only recently has the prosecution started to gain similar rights of appeal against "lenient sentences".

    To reiterate, one person can not know everyone in an institution well enough to make decisions about how each person should behave.
    Agreed. This is one of the reasons for adopting a hierarchical structure. You confuse hierarchy with "top-down command economy". In a healthy hierarchy, information and influence can - and should - pass upwards as well as dowwnwards.
    It is possible that one priest may know the members of his congregation well enough, but even then, it seems unlikely.
    Indeed, hence the necessity for the ministry of the Deacon and of the minor orders.
    I think that blanket rules to cover everyone are generally bad.
    So do I.
    "Teach us how to think, not what to think."
    This is authetically "Platonic", in tune with the wisdom of Socrates. On the other hand, sometimes it is nice to have a few clues! It is too overwhelming a prospect for most mortals to face the task of figuring everything out for themselves from scratch!

    Some responses from other friends of mine to The Protagonist (Primon/Paul). Please note that these have been somewhat edited by The Antagonist. The originals were forwarded directly to Primon unchanged. Note that I do not agree with all the sentiments expressed below.

    Response I

    I am a Catholic Christian and am proud to be. I've had more negative contacts with christians in general that it caused me to go away from christianity and the catholic church, but I realized something. Just because there are bad apples out there, doesn't mean they represent the whole church, or even Christ for that matter. A few bad apples doesn't define the tree. One must remember that there is a gardener that will trim the tree and throw the branches that bear bad fruit into the fire. It's expected to see some bad people. But that doesn't make the Catholic Church bad. The Church is that tree Christ will trim, and just going away is saying in effect you wont wait on christ to trim the tree. I will be part of that tree because I know Christ will follow through.

    I go to mass because I experience something not of this world. To sit there and participate at mass and knowing this is how heaven worships. By just reading revelation you see the similar things. Then, to recieve Jesus Christ in the sacrament. That strength to go through anything. I recall the words of Christ who said that unless you eat the flesh and drink the blood of the son of man, you will not have life in you.

    Response II

    First Act: Faith, the Church, the hierarchy, obedience: Christianity is built on incredible claims; that some of us believe them means either that we are fools, or that there is a power that allows our reason to accept what is incredible. There is one, all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving God (who permits his creatures to suffer!); one Person of this God is the Father; another is referred to often first as Wisdom, but then is known as the Son of the Father, when Jesus is born; the birth of Jesus, the Word of God, Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, eternal, unchanging, undying, now in the Virgin Mary's womb assuming all humanity, so now mortal, weak, capable of suffering, is the astounding fact that embarrasses the Jews and the Muslims, and the Platonists for that matter, and separates us from them completely. Curtain.

    Second Act: Jesus claims he knows God and what God wants better than the professional God-knowers. He says: Love God above all things; and just like that, love each other. He says: You who are sad, really you are happy, you just don't know it yet. He remembers the words of his Mother Mary, "The poor He has filled with good things, the rich He has sent empty away." He performs Signs, healing the sick, giving sight to the blind, raising the dead. He says the Temple in Jerusalem is a hateful obstacle between God and His people. So the professional God-knowers have him killed. Curtain.

    Third Act: Jesus does not stay dead. But not only that, when he comes back alive, he is alive in that crazy incredible world that he used to talk about, not just in this ordinary one. This impresses his old pals a whole bunch. He hangs out with them a bit, but then leaves them, returning to his Father, not however without sending them the Holy Spirit. That way, the connexion always remains. Jesus' pals, some old, some new, now know what to start talking about, and dying for. Final curtain. Applause, curtain calls, roses.

    The people applauding and sending up roses are the Church. Some of Jesus' pals are out there with them, applauding with them, telling them things they remember. And outside, there are people who never got a chance to see this play, but it is clear they would have understood it, they would have loved it: they are Church too. Whether or not Jesus' pals get to talk with them, it does not matter so much; those people already understand, without knowing the whole story, they are Church too.

    Everyone in the world, everyone, considers how nothing is ever the same; how we ourselves are never the same; how plants flourish and fail; how puppies grow up into old dogs and die; how we move through periods of our life, one by one, gaining perhaps in some ways, weakening in so many others, until at last we die. The Church teaches: This reality - how we change, how we fail, how we die - is true, deal with it like mature rational people; but it is not all that reality is. Jesus is one with humanity, he is also one with God, the ever-living God. Do all you can to be one with Jesus, and you have made the connexion. Being one with him: believing what he said and did, how he died, how he rose again; loving his words, about loving. Eating his body, drinking his blood. Confessing him your personal savior. Whatever it takes.

    Bunch of toughs come in, real mean buggers, and start putting things "in order," as they say. Bishops, popes. Sometimes they are alright, but most of the time they just get in the way. They do not matter, walk around them if you can. If they have something good to offer, fine, you will notice that it is good, and take it. Otherwise, they remain just a bunch of toughs. Better to have as little to do with them as possible. You remember that scene at the beginning of the Jewish musical epic, "Fiddler on the Roof," when the characters in Anatevka are being introduced?  The yeshiva student asks the Rabbi, "Rabbi, is there a proper blessing for the Tsar?"  The Rabbi, an ancient, bent, white-bearded man, thinks, and says, "A proper blessing for the Tsar? 'O God, bless and keep the Tsar - far away from us!'" That strikes me as exactly the right attitude that Catholics should have toward their bishops and popes.

    Whom does the Christian obey? Nobody but God, and his/her conscience. No order or command of any sort must ever be followed by a Christian, without that Christian's complete wholehearted agreement that compliance is in accord with God's will, and with that Christian's conscience. In Christianity, there ought to be no such thing as servile obedience, the obedience of a slave to his master. There must always be a persuasion, an instruction, to the end that the Christian understands that what is commanded is clearly in accord with the will of God, and sees also that he/she fully, without being forced, agrees that that end is a good thing, and that that includes his/her own good. Unfortunately, throughout the history of the Church, hierarchs of one kind or another have stood up and commanded those under them socially, claiming they spoke In the Name of God, to perform difficult and unpleasant labors, to submit themselves to unjust punishments. They are simply liars, and the courageous among us will call them such, and will send them away.

    Attendance at the Mass is entering the great meeting ground between us and God. Anything can happen, it's OK, don't worry.

    Look, I love being Catholic, not because this is the only true religion (whatever that means), or even that this is the only true form of Christianity (whatever that means), but because this tradition truly (not always, but truly nevertheless) values wisdom, reason, the mind; also love, charity, the heart; and also beauty, art, music, all that pleases the eye, the ear, the other senses, the mind; more than any other tradition known to me. There are traditions within Hinduism and within Buddhism that are comparable, I agree, and I respect those traditions too, as much as I know them. And I feel in fact those traditions pour into the same truth that Catholicism pours into. But the fact is, I am from the Western Mediterranean, Catholic Christianity is my heritage, and so I am Catholic. Sorry, but biology is truth, culture is truth, at least a part of it. Sorry, I can only be so many people at once. And I believe the optimal number is one.

    Where in the world did you get the idea that the Mass is an exercise in enforcing compliance? Just because we perform actions at the same time, or say the same words at the same time, or sing the same hymns at the same time, does not mean we are slaves to some mind-controlling superpowerful agent. We see it, rather, as something like singing in a chorus, or like playing an instrument in an orchestra. We all do our part to make the sound complete; but it is completely up to us, nobody is forcing us, whether we stand up and sing.

    You say something about how boring the Mass was, that the same things were said Sunday after Sunday. Would you be surprised to know that lots and lots of Catholics feel the same way? And that at the same time, other Catholics do not feel that way at all? You say you are bored by the repetition of the same words and actions every Sunday. I say, not only do I find such repetition restful and beautiful, but also it is the heart of true liturgy. We require that repetition, that stability. Look, it does not matter how we feel at Mass. We do not go to Mass in order to feel good. That is important, so I shall repeat it: We do not go to Mass in order to feel good. If you are bored, tough. We are all bored, at one point or another.

    Mass is not a concert, it is not a performance, it is not a sound-and-light show, it is not Star Wars. It is Reality, the truth of Philanthropia, God's love for us. Maybe we are allowed to glimpse it - and that indeed happens to some of us, rarely - but that is only a special favor, for peeople in need. For the great majority of us, Mass is a mixed bag: moments of rest, moments of
    concentration, moments of toil, moments of boredom, moments of distraction. Many moments of distraction. And that is OK, God has no problem with that, nor do we. We do not go to Mass, once again, in order to serve our pleasure. We go to Mass, because we love God, and we trust that somehow this action of ours serves God's will in the world. And that is our great consolation and encouragement.

    OK, that is quite enough for now. I hope you will get back to me if you would like me to explain anything further. Be assured that, aside from loving and trusting God, I trust that He loves you in deciding whatever you decide. As for Stephen, yes he is a dear and I love him madly, but by all means you must get out and play the field a bit more. Liturgically, remember, it is only the people that matter, the people together, in the presence of God, not the language, not the prancings, not the vestments. Come here, come to New York, to Ascension Church. Father Duffell always makes a ritual of asking, at the end of Mass, "Is there anyone here for the first time?" How happy I would be, to be next to you then.

    "Does Catholicism and in particular the sacraments help one to be a kinder and wiser and in every way better person?"
    The question given here strikes me as remarkably Greek in tone. I already like you a great deal, and I especially admire you for asking questions like these. Nevertheless, it is doubtful that most Catholics, and most people considering requesting baptism, ask that kind of question. It is quite foreign to the world of the Gospels. "Repent ye!," preaches Jack the Dipper, "for the Kingdom of God is at hand." Christians want the world to end, sooner rather than later. That strong and urgent desire is what the Lord's Prayer expresses, our profound disappointment with the world, and our hope that God will come to end it all, mercifully remembering those who are on His side.

    So we establish a community, a koinonia, an assembly, an ekklesia, a Church, of people praying for the end times, and confident we can survive them by uniting ourselves to Jesus as our Master. So the entire point of the community is that there we are one with Jesus, our Master, our Savior, as we await the end for which we pray. Baptism, a most profound act of faith, gets us into that community. The Eucharist keeps us alive within it. If somehow the "merimnai," the cares of the world separate us from Jesus, Reconciliation is there to reunite us. We prepare ourselves to die as martyrs as we speak to others of what we believe: Confirmation keeps us strong in that resolve. Some of us die before the end times come: the Blessing of the Sick seeks their continuing in life with us here, and no less their continuing union with Jesus should they fall asleep.

    Matrimony and Holy Orders are treated nowadays something like the bestowal of parallel professional degrees. In fact they are particular arrangements for persons in the community, awaiting the end for which we pray: in the first place for people who are burning, as your Apostolic Namesake knows, while they wait; in the second for people who are called to stand up and lead the worship of the community when they assemble. They are not at all parallel; there is no reason why a person may not receive both sacraments. Also, they are matters strictly of the community, the Church. There is no reason whatsoever for the State to be involved.

    Your criteria, "kinder," etc., require further clarification. But let us do our best with what have got. (The Italians traditionally say that the best Italian is spoken by "lingua toscana in bocca romana," Tuscan tongue in a Roman mouth. Tre's sexy n'est-ce pas. I assume that means, Tuscan dialect, pronounced by a Roman. In this case we perhaps are dealing with lingua di Paolo in bocca di Stefano. But I could be wrong.)

    It should be made clear that classical Greek "virtue" and Christian "virtue" are not quite the same thing. There is a competitive, jockish quality to "arete," even when Aristotle directs it toward trying to get as much "eudaimonia," happiness, as possible, while living in a "polis," a Greek city-state. The Pauline word for faith, hope and charity, though these are called by Latin theologians the "theological virtues," is not "arete," but "charisma." That is, gift, favor, a thing bestowed on you by one who is more powerful than you. And the way you get "ta charismata" is not by athletic struggle and self-discipline, but by following the imperative "zeloute," at the end of 1 Cor. 12, "Covet earnestly." Covet? Yes, from the One who can give them to you, and wants to give them to you.

    "Kinder": Catholics have, to be sure, carried out countless atrocious injustices against innocent people in the name of their faith.  But on balance, I believe many many more Catholics have performed acts of kindness to many many more people, inspired by hearing the Gospel, and by following the example of our saints. Please know that that is a very difficult sentence for me to write, as I think on the conduct of the Spanish Catholics encountering my brothers and sisters the Native Americans. God save me, I hope what I wrote is correct.

    One of the very greatest questions in all history is why the Roman empire, the Mediterranean world, converted to Christianity. A most convincing part of the answer is that the urban populations in the 3rd and 4th centuries were genuinely favorably impressed by the charitable works of their Christian minorities.

    "Wiser": "does not compute, insufficient data," responds the monotone, annoyingly nasal computer on Jim Kirk's Enterprise. In my own experience in my country, we Catholics are in an intellectual ghetto. The Catholic school system was definitely a good thing for the children of immigrants from Catholic populations in Europe, especially Ireland and Germany, also Poland and Italy. But it was not until I went to a quite secular college, Columbia in NYC, that I met Jews and Protestants, and some others as well.  So if "wiser" refers to becoming experienced with the contents of the universe, and especially with the kinds of people on the earth, No, the Catholic Church is perhaps not the best place to look for such wisdom.

    On the other hand, there have always been a few Catholics who have thought deeply about things, not necessarily professional monks or religious or contemplatives or spiritualists or whatever, who most definitely deserve to be called wise. My feeling, though, is that they are not wise on account of knowing only what is in the Bible, the Patrologia Latina and the Summa Theologiae; no, they know a great amount of secular things, literature, the arts, science, philosophy. In fact, sort of a digression, God bless you and Stephen, who are scientists, and at the same time are interested in these matters. Believe you me, we profit immensely by your example, in an age when science and religion are supposedly mortal enemies.

    "In every way better": Whoa, that is way too high a bar to leap.  There is a commonplace in Eastern Orthodox literature, probably based on the tradition that when Moses came down from Sinai he needed to veil his face on account of its brilliance, that the monastic holy person becomes brilliant and beautiful. Saint Nicholas of Myra, aka Santa Claus, is traditionally a myrrhoblyte: The sarcophagus in which his body rests miraculously fills with precious perfume, which is collected in phials and given to pilgrims.

    How nice. Tre's doux. Another Greek monk spoke about the way it really is for the great majority of us. When asked what it was like to be a monk, he said, "Oh, we fall to the ground, and we get up again. And we fall to the ground, and we get up again.  And we fall to the ground, and we get up again."

    "Does belonging to the Church help in the transformation of society in the direction of fairness, equity and justice?"
    Again, we have a problem with an ambiguous term, this time "belonging to the Church." If that just means having your head counted as formally self-identifyingly a Catholic, then the answer to the question is "absolutely not". That is because the Church is outwardly in the hands of narrow-minded self-righteous bigots, popes, bishops, some but by no means all priests, many many of the laity, and the rich well-connected laity at that; and these folks are not at all interested in transforming society in the direction of fairness, equity and justice.

    Just to be clear and fair, I mean by the last three terms - and I assume so do you - fairness, equity, justice, regarding historically oppressed, subjugated, marginalized groups, such as women, homosexuals and, thank God now to a lesser extent, but the matter has hardly disappeared, people of color. On the other hand, I want you very much to know that for many of us, it is indeed precisely because we are Catholic Christians that we care about these matters, and that we do what we can to transform society in the direction that he suggests. That is why I was so enfuriated at the several Catholic bishops who sought to excommunicate John Kerry, and in principle all Catholics who intended to vote for him or for any pro-abortion-rights politician, or who favored the pro-abortion-rights position.

    I hope you find this helpful.  I ask you to pray for me and Michael and Little White, and all the animals.

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