On the indestructibility of the Church

What explains the apparent lack of political sanity among Catholics?  Where is the survival instinct?  For liberal Catholics, the answer is easy:  Catholicism isn’t their tribe, and they’re wrecking it in obedience to their true object of loyalty.  Orthodox Catholics, on the other hand, believe the Church is indestructible, in which case she may be confronted with sinners and heretics but never by a true existential enemy.  They thus resemble in political ineptness the Gnostics, as described by Voegelin, who forget the contingency of their social order’s existence, retreat into an essentialist dream world, and respond to exterior threats with ineffectual virtue-signaling.  Now, orthodox Catholics do realize that the Church’s destruction is a logical possibility, but it is not considered a real possibility because Jesus Christ has supposedly promised that it will not happen, and thus will presumably act to make sure it doesn’t happen.

Catholics who believe this can point out how limited this promise really is.  It may happen that Catholicism will be wiped out from whole continents and never return.  It may be that 99.99% of the laity and all but one bishop will apostasize.  It may be that even those Catholics that remain shall despise all past generations of Catholics and shall devote all their energies into showing their enthusiasm for democracy, the Founding Fathers, and the Muslim settlement of Europe, just so long as the one bishop maintains an embarrassed formal adherence to orthodoxy.  In other words, like the Sibyl whom Apollo cursed to continue aging but never die, survival might not take the form any of us would recognize or want.

This confidence, such as it is, is based on the doctrine of the Church’s “indefectibility”.  Indestructibility is one aspect of this; the other is that the Church will not alter any of its essential characteristics between now and the Second Coming.  Nearly all of the discussion I have found on this doctrine focuses on the second point, which has been an issue of contention when Protestants or others claim that the Church has altered fundamentally from its pure, Apostolic beginnings.  Our interest is in the first claim, because existence is not an essential property of the Church (or of any other being except God).  Much rests on this assurance.

In principle, the Church is a fragile organization.  If the historical truths she teaches were forgotten, they might never be recovered.  Even if the belief system of Catholicism were preserved for future discoverers, if the Apostolic succession were broken, it could never be recovered, and the sacraments (except baptism and marriage) would be lost with it.  Historically, Catholicism seems to be a fragile religion; it has nearly always been imposed from the top down by a converted king or conquering army, and it cannot long maintain the loyalty of its people unless it is an established Church.  It is not a popular religion that inspires loyalty in its adherents, as do Islam, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Judaism.

The claim, though, is that Christ will preserve His Church.  Not only the Church in Heaven and Purgatory, but also on Earth.

Biblical citations in favor:

Matthew 16:18   And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.

Matthew 28:20  and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.

Against:

Luke 18:8  And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?

The Bible itself hardly warrants strong confidence.  The first citation is pretty flimsy because Jesus’ worlds must be read in an unnatural way.  Hell’s “gates” would be for defense or imprisonment, not attack.  The natural reading is that Hell will be unable to hold those souls that Jesus, acting through or on behalf of His Church, decides to liberate (the patriarchs in Limbo, or souls predestined to baptism, perhaps).  The second passage is stronger evidence.  It presumes that Jesus refers to the Church and not just the Apostles present, and it presumes an interpretation of “end of the age”, but these are natural readings.  However, we should be humbled that the Church has not been given stronger assurance than the King David’s monarchy, nor than Jesus’ contemporaries who seemed to be promised they would live to see the Second Coming; God delights in fulfilling His promises in unanticipated senses.

Catholics are fortunately not limited to the bare words of the Bible.  The Church’s presumption of her own indefectibility, the fact that she reads the scriptural evidence in this way, is itself strong evidence in its favor.  Even here, though, we should be wary, because the Church’s focus seems to be on her inability to suffer “essential” corruption, not her indestructibility per se.  Therefore, this doctrine may be open to re-specification development (perhaps a combined respecification/agnosticizing:  backing up from X1 to X).  Following my own guidelines, if I do think this would be a valid development, I shouldn’t say so, and I certainly shouldn’t argue for it.

Imagine, as a thought experiment, that the Church is not indestructible.  This could be true even if the Church’s doctrines are true, God is omnipotent, and the Church’s sacraments are effective.  If the Church can cease to exist, then, given a long enough expanse of time, it almost certainly will cease to exist.  The Church will die, meaning the collective “we” will cease to exist.  Whether this happens in 1000 years, in 200 years, or in 50 years, though, may depend on our actions and those of the enemy.  To think this way is to think politically.

34 Responses

  1. What an amazing coincidence that these two posts were written so close in time! (It’s even closer than it seems, because I actually wrote this about a week ago but hadn’t gotten around to publishing it till now.)

  2. Have you read A Canticle for Leibowitz? I loved the book, in part because at least for me it provided much needed perspective on the Church’s indestructibility — in particular how little that really means.

  3. Your body can go through a lot of pain without dying. Eternal consequences are at stake for millions with the church.

    Just the fact that the church can survive, shoot I could survive a gunshot wound I still will go way out of my way to not get one.

  4. Our choices matter, and echo through eternity. That ought to inspire naked terror when truly understood.

  5. Our choices matter, and echo through eternity. That ought to inspire naked terror when truly understood.

    So the Good News is that life, properly understood, is absolutely terrifying? That can’t be right.

  6. @Andrew E: Alan Roebuck had a post over on the Orthosphere explaining this, though I don’t know if I could find it (I just tried and failed). In a society where people are acutely conscious of their sin, its consequences, and the need for repentance, the Good News actually appears to be good news. All you have to do is be baptized! All you have to do is go to Confession! Incredible!

    In a society like ours where nobody perceives that they sin, that their sin has consequences, or that they have a need for repentance, the Good News is going to appear to be very bad news indeed.

  7. Psalm 111 says “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom”

    The fear of the lord is one of the seven gifts of the holy spirit. Etc.

    You can, of course, ignore all the dribbly nonsense from modern Catholics about how fear of the Lord isn’t about fearing that He is going to send us down to Hell to burn for all eternity on a spit. That’s exactly what it’s about.

  8. @Bonald,
    head-in-the-sandism must be in the air.

  9. Hi DrBill,

    When one considers the likelihood that most of the human race ends up in hell, the Gospel is in fact very Bad News, isn’t it? Does that ever bother you? It sometimes bothers me.

  10. @Bonald – “When one considers the likelihood that most of the human race ends up in hell, the Gospel is in fact very Bad News, isn’t it? Does that ever bother you? It sometimes bothers me.”

    I think it *should* bother you – in the sense that the Gospel being indeed good news is primary data around which all Christian doctrine, theology and philosophy must be organised.

    If you do Not perceive the Gospels as Good news, then you Must be misunderstanding it.

    If your philosophy/ Theology leads to the conclusion that the Gospels are Bad news, then there is something wrong with the Philosophy/ Theology.

    You absolutely need to challenge your basic assumptions, and work on your philosophical understanding, until you Do regard the Gospel as Good News.

  11. The Good News makes no sense without the Bad News of original sin. All were lost, now many will be saved. The “All were lost” part is very embarrasing these days (“Adam and Eve, really?”), for obvious reasons. But many is better than no one, no?

  12. First try to imagine something even more awful. Then the Gospel doesn’t seem so bad.

  13. According to Maistre and Bloy, our reality is even worse than anything we can imagine. When a woman is killed and mutilated by muslims fanatics, it’s also because of your sins. And my sins. That moment of grace you felt many years ago? It was the prayer of a little child many centuries before you were even born that made it possible. It’s the communion of the saints. We are all members of the same body. Everything we do has repercussions across time and space. Do you know how many saints have suffered and prayed for your conversion? Think of all the blood and tears shed to get you out of Satan grasp.

    Now, this is terrifying.

  14. Todor, why is such connectedness through time and space so terrifying? Contemplating that gives me a warm feeling of meaning and purpose.

  15. I am with Bruce Charlton here. We have no way to estimate likelihood of a person going to hell and statements like “the likelihood that most of the human race ends up in hell,” can not be made. We do not have the required information to make such estimates.
    You can not even say of a nation of pagans that they are likely to end up in hell.

  16. @vishmehr24 – St. Augustine would strongly disagree. He would say, for example, that we know *only* baptized people can go to Heaven.

  17. My understanding is he took this pretty literally and wasn’t arguing that maybe all unbaptized pagans had implicitly the desire to be baptized. It does seem pretty pessimistic about the situation though.

  18. @Bonald: No, I regard the Gospel as Good News, and I agree with Todor above, basically. “You’re a bunch of disgusting sinners who deserve nasty punishment” is old news. It’s there in the Old Testament. It’s there, all around us, easily seen—it’s hard to even sort-of believe in Natural Law and hold that this is hard to see. The Good News is the get out of jail free card. Natural Law doesn’t say we have to get a get out of jail free card.

    That, during life, you or I would have been happier had we never received either the old news or the Good News doesn’t seem especially material to me. The old news is still reality. We would have surely burned had we not heard the Good News.

    That, nowadays, one tends to find out about the old news after and because one finds out about the Good News is a distressing consequence of the fact that our society worships Satan.

  19. To sum up, good vs. bad news is relative to prior beliefs. One could say that, in the modern world, what we’re preaching is Bad News. We wish that Christianity wasn’t true, that there were no life after this one, but what matters is what’s actually true and conforming to that reality.

    Then again, it depends on your priorities. Christianity is a utilitarian nightmare–unimaginable suffering outweighs happiness by infinity times a large population difference. If one cares about human happiness, any other reality would be preferable. On the other hand, Christianity makes life much more meaningful.

  20. The good news is based on that we know in our hearts this world is imperfect and broken, and even the best men have failings and temptations to sin – we can never find the perfection we desire here. The good news is that the world is saved and this is all repaired through Christ. God loves us more than we can imagine, and we are to love Him and each other. Everything else is secondary.

  21. Well, the Good News must come first. God couldn’t have revealed the bad news to the Jews without driving them to despair, because the central message of Christ is that the Law doesn’t save. We must take the antidote, get on the Ark, look at the bronze snake, get baptized, eat the flesh and drink the blood of Christ. We must do something to escape death.

    But now, we are being told that God can do anything, so if He feels like it, He can say: “Meh, that guys is alright. Sure, he doesn’t believe in Christ, but what the heck. You’re in you lucky bastard.” Not exactly my kind of cosmic mystery, but what do I know.

  22. @Bonald: Not how I would have said it, but yes. You are implicitly assuming that happiness is the same thing as hedonic utility in the second para.

  23. Very different from our regular way of “selling” the faith.

    “Christianity is like global warming. It’s not that we want it to be true…”

  24. You would rather it be true that there is no life after death, that life is . meaningless and that everything we do is pointless with no lasting consequences to our actions? Not me.

  25. Nathan,
    St Augustine might disagree but what does the Church teach now?

  26. Christianity is Good News. Not depending on our prior beliefs, but just compared with what we experience in nature. Sickness, disease, tragedy, our own failures and imperfections and flaws, and then death, and then forgetting.

    Moderns can see Christianity as bad things because they have organized their society and their own pysches to engage in massive denial of reality.

    Christianity is Good News because it lets you stop living lies, but still be happy and fulfilled.

  27. @Adam – I think there is a very pessimistic “dark Catholicism” that is easy to fall into, and can be supported by various saying of saints, etc. where life is *not good news* in any fashion, and that the only point of our presence here is to endure suffering in the hope that if we do everything just right we wont have to endure suffering eternally in Hell (i.e. don’t unknowingly fall into mortal sin, accidentally die in mortal sin, voluntarily endure great physical suffering, and manage to just do everything right by God’s grace/predestination).

  28. If I am suffering from full-blown leprosAIDS, the news of a cure is good news, indeed.

    If I am suffering from incipient leprosAIDS and don’t yet know it, the news that I have leprosAIDS is going to be terrible, and the news of a cure may be small comfort, indeed.

    Our Lord said “blessed are the poor” for a reason.

  29. […] of which, sets the stage for considerations of the indestructibility of the Church. Bonald shows, convincingly, that even if the promise of the indestructibility and indefectability […]

  30. **Adam – I think there is a very pessimistic “dark Catholicism” that is easy to fall into, and can be supported by various saying of saints, etc. where life is *not good news* in any fashion, and that the only point of our presence here is to endure suffering in the hope that if we do everything just right we wont have to endure suffering eternally in Hell**

    That is not my point at all. It’s not Catholicism that can make one gloomy about life in general. I’m not even Catholic. It’s life in general. It’s death, and the void, its a clear-eyed view of oneself. The good news of Christianity is that (1) there is no end and (2) we are not endlessly stuck with our imperfections and evils. Without either one, reality is horrible.

  31. “Canticle for Leibowitz” is a masterpiece and “Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman ” is the Zen refinement of it. Catholicism is the culture (“cult”) of Western civilization, but Zen is the refinement and maturation of monotheism, as Thomas Merton (Fr. Louis) the Trappist understood but didn’t live long enough to finally profess. I believe the anthropomorphic “God”, be it trinitarian or otherwise, will eventually wither and “die” save as a cultural construct that defies the metaphysical reality that quantum physics continues to approach. That said, the Catholic position serves to maintain the importance of the transcendent with respect to naturalistic/materialistic secular nihilistic reduction that is a regression to a primitive barbarism that renders human existence utterly meaningless.

  32. Bit late to the party, but I was reading the Good v. Bad News comments and this seemed relevant:

    http://www.barnhardt.biz/2016/07/14/repost-by-request-truth-is-beautiful-even-when-it-reveals-something-so-hideous-you-can-barely-stand-to-look-at-it/

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