The acts of the Church

Some Catholic-Jewish meeting was in the news years ago. It was the usual grovelfest: Catholics apologizing and cursing themselves for their unprovoked and unmitigated antisemitism, followed by Jews pronouncing this “not good enough” and demanding more aggressive repudiations of past generations and current doctrine. The Jews were particularly incensed by the Catholic claim that while individual Catholics, including clergy and popes, are sinners (indeed, abominably wicked), the Church herself is holy and sinless. Of course, both sides took the absolute sinlessness of the Jews, both individual and collective, for granted. The whole thing was depressingly predictable, but it raised an interesting question: can the Church sin?

The question has several aspects. First, we must distinguish acts attributable to individual Catholics from corporate acts of the Church. Among the latter, one might ask whether all or some can properly be called acts of Jesus Christ, since the Church is His body. Second, one must distinguish the question of whether a corporation such as the Church can behave unjustly from the question of whether it can sin, since the latter usually relates to the state of someone’s immortal soul. Furthermore, the case may be special for the Church, since while other corporations are persons only by legal fiction, the Church is a genuine spiritual reality that transcends her members.

First consider the Church’s supreme acts, her sacraments and liturgy. These are the ordinary means by which grace is communicated and by which God is suitably honored; as supernatural acts, we say that God Himself accomplishes these acts through us–or, better, that He enables us to participate in His accomplishment of these acts. This is most clearly true of the Eucharist, which is Christ’s own sacrifice made present for our participation. The sacraments being God’s actions more than ours, no Catholic would admit to any fault with them.

We speak otherwise of the Church’s teaching actions. Even when we say that a certain teaching is infallible, we mean that God has constrained the Church so that she has not taught error in faith or morals, but we do not say that the words of the Pope (even when speaking ex cathedra) or an Ecumenical Council are the words of Jesus Christ. They may be incomplete or unclear; we can only be certain that they are not heretical. They do not receive the veneration we give to the Bible, which writing alone is said to be “the word of the Lord”. (This may address a Protestant worry that, because Catholics have a living Magisterium, the Bible itself is rendered obsolete for us. It is no more so than a detailed third-party report of the affairs of a beloved but faraway parent or child replaces an actual letter from him or her to you. Encyclicals, catechisms, and creeds give us important information about God, but the books of the Bible are His letters to us.)

Since no one doubts that Catholics at all levels can and do sin, there’s no need to talk about that. The acts of ecclesiastical courts–e.g. granting or refusing to grant an annulment, a determination of guilt or innocence of heresy by the Inquisition–could be considered acts of the Church rather than of individual judges, but I don’t think anyone has suggested that these are not sometimes incorrect or unjust. No legal system will always get it right. More serious is the question of universal policy, which is clearly an act of the corporate Church rather than of individual Churchmen. Can Church policies be not only foolish but unjust? Interestingly, from listening to their complaints, it seems that both liberal and traditionalist Catholics agree that Church policies can be unjust, although of course they disagree about which policies deserve the label. I am not aware of anyone arguing the opposite position–that policies of the corporate Church are never unjust, but at worse imprudent–although I often have been reminded of our duty to obey unjust ecclesiastic orders, this being an exercise of the Church’s authority, not her infallibility. (The usual provisos on authority apply.)

When a person freely and knowingly behaves unjustly, that person sins. Can an organization sin? Decades ago, the idea of “structures of sin” was popular with social justice Catholics, but I think this is a confusion. Sin, as opposed to wrongdoing, refers to a spiritual state, and it dilutes its meaning to attribute it to non-persons. Thus, unbaptized infants are said to have original sin, because although they bear no fault, their spiritual state is not one of grace. Organizations are different. Can Microsoft sin? Can Microsoft act so as to destroy the life of grace within it? The question is obviously silly, since the idea of Microsoft being in a state of grace is meaningless. The Church, on the other hand, can be said to be in a state of grace, in the sense of being a repository of God’s supernatural gifts and that these constitute a common good of all her members. However, being “in a state of grace” in this sense belongs to the Church’s essence, and she could not cease living her supernatural life without ceasing to exist, leaving only a worldly counterfeit (a spiritual corpse), and surely the indefectibility of the Church promises at least that this will not happen.

Jewish-Catholic dialogue doesn’t seem to be happening in any prominent way anymore–perhaps we Catholics are now too powerless and unimportant to be worth humiliating. It is nevertheless worth repeating that nothing good can come from it, and there is no point in our subjecting ourselves to it.

20 thoughts on “The acts of the Church

  1. Thanks Bonald. In light of the discussions that have been going on here at the Orthosphere lately I would say this post is like storming the gates of Mordor. I don’t remember when or where (most likely at Throne and Altar), but something you said in either a post or comment years ago slapped my face with the cold water of truth by reminding me that there is no “invisible church.” And strictly speaking, there are no “churches” either. There is the Church.

    It is nevertheless worth repeating that nothing good can come from [Catholic/Jewish dialogue], and there is no point in our subjecting ourselves to it.

    You’ve been listening to/reading EMJ?

    • I’ve been reading a book about Dietrich von Hildebrand’s opposition to the Third Reich, and its pretty clear that despite DvH’s impeccable credentials he would roundly condemn Jones’ views. Jones is a lot like Fr. James Martin in that he will play footsie with heretical ideas but then cover himself by qualifying his beliefs. Fr. Martin will say he believes homosexual acts to be sinful in an extremely loose, heavily qualified sense (like its never a mortal sin for gays to engage in sodomy because they all have reduced culpability due to genetic tendencies). Fr. Martin will then go to pride parades. Jones will say that Jews are a sinister, destructive group responsible for the collapse of Christendom, then cover himself by stating that the problem with Jews is cultural/religious, not racial–even when the sinister Jews in question are secular Jews from bourgeois Central European backgrounds and their ideologies have plenty of gentile antecedents . Jones will then go on podcasts with Neo-Nazis and people like Kevin MacDonald. DvH seems to directly call out people like this in some of his writings. I could see someone like Jones (or Bp. Williamson) thinking “even though his racial ideas are a bit wacky, at least Hitler is doing something about the evil Jews who singlehandedly created Marxism and sexual libertinism”. Jones is pretty clear in his public statements that its his view that even if pogroms were immoral, the Jews on the receiving end kind of had it coming. That’s not the kind of moral calculus the Church uses.

      The whole “inter-faith dialogue” and ecumenism business is kind of a joke to begin with, but I don’t see any reason why the Church couldn’t engage in evangelization aimed at Jews in the same way groups like Catholic Answers try to convert Protestants, Mormons, Muslims, etc. I think the generation of churchmen that lived through the war were spooked by the extent of the Holocaust and over-reacted, resulting in statements from various Popes that Catholics shouldn’t evangelize Jews.

      • Even though Jones has argued extensively and often against biological determinism in general, and against it in particular with respect to Jews and whatever DNA they each respectively hold, we can conclude that he is *really* *for* it. No, I take him at his word on this topic, which he has spent much time in asserting and defending, often in formal debate against those who *do* actually subscribe to biological determinism in some form or another.

        Jones has often referred to the 1890 publication of La Civilta Cattolica on the subject of the Jewish Question. The premise there (as summarized by Jones…I have not yet gotten to reading it myself) was that the nation that forsakes the Catholic faith as its guide is bound to end up being ruled by the Jews. Do you suppose the writers and editors of LCC only had in mind “observant”/Orthodox Jews?

        What is wrong with talking about Group A’s bad behavior fomenting bad behavior in Group B committed against Group A? If I say that Group A could have avoided persecution by Group B by behaving better it’s not fair to say that I’m saying Group B is justified in its behavior. It’s complex, but it’s two different questions.

        But then Jones has the disadvantage of talking about the JQ in the year 2022. It’s the post-Hitler therefore because of Hitler concept. If one talks of the Jews in any unfavorable light these days he must be scrutinized in light of Hitler’s actions and ideas. And of course if one can be associated in any way with Hitler the case is closed and the discussion is over because bad person.

      • I’ve watched Jones debate this question and read his Jewish Revolutionary Sprit (no book on earth so badly needed an editor). He doesn’t really engage with his interlocutors in those debates, or they with him, because Jew is for Jones a theological category defined by what he calls “rejection of Logos.” Every Christian has to take this seriously but it is only loosely connected to the secular JQ. The intense Jewish hostility to outgroups precedes their rejection of Logos, as all classical authors and the Old Testament attest. As you say, the topic is extremely dangerous and Jones has been brave to face it more or less head on. But I think he gets into arguments with people with whom he as no real quarrel.

      • I agree that Jones and his interlocutors are often hampered in their debates by lack of agreement beforehand on framework, yes particularly the definition of Jew. Jones inevitably plows on however, and the result is a less than satisfactory debate in some respects, though I am almost always glad to have listened to Jones speak, and almost always come away feeling edified in some way.

        I don’t think there is any conflict, or at least not necessarily so, between the theological category Jones recognizes, and the historical, pre-Christian recognition of perennial outgroup tendencies in Jews. One of Jones’ constant themes is the great change that took place at the foot of the Cross, where the Jews’ rejection of Logos Incarnate was confirmed. The Jewish tendency to resist assimilation transcends both time periods, but whereas it worked toward a preservation of the purity of God’s covenant before the Cross, it works with a great intensity toward the opposite after the Cross, toward the subversion of human culture that would otherwise help point to God’s created order in man’s flourishing.

      • If the Jews were just clannish, I don’t think we’d have much problem with them. In fact, I’m probably not alone among reactionaries in being positively inclined toward Orthodox Jews, whom I tend to class along with groups like the Amish as “resisting modernity in their own way”. We’re also indifferent to the Israelis; if they’re being rough toward people they see as competitors or threats, that’s hardly a historical anomaly and no reason not to regard Zionists like any other kind of nationalists. It’s the secular Jews who are the problem, and precisely because of their world-healing, light-shining, social-justicing, self-righteous implacable hostility toward my own people’s traditional way of life. I think it’s actually Kevin MacDonald, as useful as he is in some ways, who consistently misstates the Jewish problem and focuses attention on the least troublesome kinds of Jews.

    • Anti-Semites like Jones on the one hand and MacDonald/Neo-Nazis on the other distort this history in almost the exactly same way, so the comparison is apt. They will say all leftist movements with Jewish overrepresentation were in-fact controlled by a conspiracy of Jews (a subconscious one in MacDonald’s case), using these movements for ulterior political ends. Not only does this thinking pin all of leftism of various shades on Jews, it totally writes out left-wing gentiles from history, like they don’t matter or were just pawns. Marxism becomes a “Jewish” movement, when in-fact almost all of Marx’s influences (Young Hegelians, Feuerbach, Gracchus Babeuf, early socialists, Saint-Simon, Anglo economics) were gentile, and Marx came out of basically the same intellectual milieu as famous non-Jew Richard Wagner. Jews are singularly responsible for mass immigration when 89 of 92 Catholic House members and all Catholic Senators voted for the 1965 immigration act, and the Catholic Church aggressively promotes mass immigration. Feminism and “free love” is the exclusively the fault of Jews like Marcuse and Reich, who were proceeded by several decades by de Sade, Shelley, Blake, Wagner, JS Mill, and countless WASP suffragettes (a serious Catholic thinker like Augusto del Noce can denounce Reich without making a giant thing out of his Jewish background). Both Jones and MacDonald will leave out the fact that Jews are overrepresented in basically all “white collar” fields, including entirely apolitical ones, as well as the mainstream right and non-anti-Semitic extreme right groups like American Renaissance (even the LaRouche movement may have had a glut of Jews at one point, see David P. Goldman, though their inner workers are shady)

      Jones will actually go further than MacDonald in some regards, because even leftist movements without significant Jewish involvement somehow have a “Jewish spirit”. Both denounce Jews for largely ahistorical reasons–they are essentially engaging in libel, cherry picking facts and presenting them outside of historical context.

      Even if Jones denies Nazi racism, this is a distinction without a difference. Jews to him have been such a horrifically evil and harmful group that can they can never be redeemed. Jones will allow for an individual Jew to convert to Catholicism, but obviously this will never happen en masse; so as long as Jews continue to exist, they are the enemy of mankind and all that is good and holy. As a group, they can never be like Muslims (who Jones constantly praises) or Protestants, or the Shinto Japanese, or any other non-Catholic group, they are the evil Satanic enemy out to rule the world and destroy civilization. So in effect, the difference between Jones and the Nazi line is a very thin one. The thinking found in La Civita Cattolica in the 1890s is exactly what Hildebrand criticizes as leading to a moral weakness against Nazism. Unlike the editors of that magazine, Jones has the benefit of hindsight, and should know better. Hitler is gone, but Hitlerists continue to exist on the fringes, and Jones knowingly gives them moral assistance.

      • Well, I don’t really know what to say to this. It appears that you’re not letting the man (Jones) speak for himself, but instead are telling me what he *really* means in spite of what he actually says. I guess you’d have to take it up with him.
        The Jews simply are a unique group both historically and theologically. It is not the Mohammedans, Shinto, etc. who were first privileged to have God made flesh walk among them, but the Jews. Of all people they are the ones who *should* have accepted Christ. It is in the context of this privilege that their rejection of Christ in putting Him to death is so serious and perdures against them to this day.
        Such that to identify today as a Jew cannot be done without at least some reference (to a greater or lesser degree of individual culpability, granted) to a rejection of Christ, the Logos Incarnate. Therefore the natural starting point for the Jew is one of revolt against order, both moral and otherwise. That has consequences (no, I don’t mean “gas chambers” are an understandable reaction), and not to recognize this as a Christian is naive and dangerous to your faith.

  2. Thanks for this, Bonald; clear as glass, as usual, and so quite helpful.

    Can an organization sin? Decades ago, the idea of “structures of sin” was popular with social justice Catholics, but I think this is a confusion. Sin, as opposed to wrongdoing, refers to a spiritual state, and it dilutes its meaning to attribute it to non-persons.

    An organization can sin only if it is also a person (lots of organizations are not persons, although many more are persons than we might at first be disposed to think). The USA is a person. She can sin. The Church is a person. But she cannot sin, because she is the Body of God. That is what distinguishes the person of the Church from all other social persons – which after all is just to say, all persons.

    • This is begging the question. If the Church sins, then she is not the Body of Christ. I presume this is why she is under so much pressure to confess to sin, since the Church confessing means either (a) Christ is a sinner or (b) the Church is not Christ.

      • If the Church sins, then she is not the Body of Christ.

        Exactly, yes. So, if the Church *is* the Body of Christ, then she *can’t* sin, period full stop (even though all her ministers can of course – and usually do – sin a lot (how could it be otherwise, for an imperfect and partiscient creature who is also catastrophically devastated in his moral equipment by the Fall?)).

        The question being begged then would be whether the Church sins *in fact.* The Church being at her essence, and so properly, a Teacher, a Preacher and a Priest (rather than a farmer, a brewer, a nurse, or a fortiori a governor, e.g. (the Church can engage in all sorts of ancillary activities, that all sorts of other organizations might also undertake, but it is her teaching office that distinguishes her from the other brewers, farmers – aye, and governors – out there; so that if she were to abandon brewing, she would still be the Church, just as any other brewer who abandoned brewing would still be himself)) – Matthew 28:19, Mark 16:15, Luke 24:47 – that question narrows down to whether the Church has ever taught doctrine contrary to the doctrine she has ever taught.

        The critics of the Church routinely accuse her of controverting her principles – or principles they think *should* be hers. Certainly her ministers have indeed often praught heresy; they are at it again right now, as ever. But I have not seen that the Magisterium has ever contradicted the Magisterium. I have been seen rather only instances wherein the Magisterium is still discussing some recondite aspect of the doctrine that the Church has always taught.

  3. “[O]ther corporations are persons only by legal fiction…”
    If “person” has its ordinary meaning of “a rights-and-duty-bearing unit,” then, in the words of A V Dicey, “When a body of twenty, or two thousand, or two hundred thousand men bind themselves together to act in a particular way for some common purpose, they create a body, which by no fiction of law, but by the very nature of things, differs from the individuals of whom it is constituted.”
    Suppose a tradesman supplies goods to a club, a college, a commercial company, a local authority on credit, who is bound, morally bound, to pay him? Does each of the members owe him an aliquot share and, if so, what members? Those who were members when the order was placed? The current members? No one thinks like that.
    The truth is (and everyone in practice recognises) that such bodies are ultimate and unanalysable moral units: as ultimate and unanalysable, I mean, as a man or woman.

  4. I wonder if “structures of sin” provided the template for “structural racism.” Given the way our cultural winds blow, it was probably the other way round. I hate these dialogues between the Church and the Jews for the same reason I would hate to watch the Dallas Cowboys play our local high school football team. It is always a massacre because the local high school football team plays to lose. The simple, obvious and only answer is that the Church is no more or less anti-semitic than Christ. Which is quite a bit.

    • The problem I see that “anti-Semitic Catholics” (E. Michael Jones, Bp. Williamson, etc.) focus on ahistorical political canards borrowed from Neo-Nazis–Jews tend to be overrepresented in left-wing political and intellectual movements, hence all of these movements are controlled by a Jewish conspiracy, and the Jews in these movements cynically use left-wing ideology to further Jewish ethno-nationalist ends. This stuff is mostly BS mixed with half-truths. What “anti-Semitic Catholics” really should focus on is criticisms of the rabbinical Jewish religion, including Modern Orthodox Judaism, in an effort to evangelize to these groups. Usually all one hears from Catholics about Orthodox Jews is that “well, at least they have great family values”.

    • @Tomas de Torquemada

      Knowing that God loves them because of the Patriarch’s and keeping his promise to preserve their distinctive group(Romans 11). But not sparing them from discipline and hardship.

      Entire generations of Jews have already been condemned to eternal punishment since Jesus’ day. But God is determined to have representatives from every surviving tribe. And there is always a remnant of believing Jews.

      The Messianic Jews are a good example.

      All Jews in the end will worship God and be Righteous. Because they will be the only survivors once God purifies them as a people.

      • @Tomas de Torquemada

        Read the Prophets. They are all about the return of Jews to the Homeland and how God will make them Righteous after their rebellion and punishment.

        Romans 11 is a repudiation of replacement Theology.

  5. That’s another excellent post.

    But you may want to explain the difference among theologically traditionalist Catholics, theologically conservative ones, and theologically liberal ones. Some traditionalist Catholics are politically left-wing or libertarian. In the Catholic Church’s sense of the phrase, liberal Catholics include George Tyrrell and Félicité Robert de La Mennais who were modernists in Pope St. Pius X’s sense. Those two men wanted the Church to update her theology and her liturgy to keep up with the times. Though I won’t judge Pope Benedict XVI’s intentions, I suggest he’s in that group., too. If you’re a huge fan of Archbishop Lefebvre, which I am, you don’t want to offend people when you remind us that he thought the Church had no enemies worse than the liberal Catholics.

    In our context, ‘liberal” and “traditionalist” are ambiguous.

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