Questions Answered – March 2019

What Is the Institutional Church?

Question: I hear a lot about the “institutional church.” It seems to be a phrase trotted out by people who want to see the moral law changed or to question authority. What is the “institutional church”?

Answer: The term institutional Church may be used in two ways. The first is the secular idea that the Church is a “business.” In other words the Church would be a business corporation which, like many businesses, tempts those who exercise power and wealth to judge the mission of the Church as to what they can gain from it. They would not be that interested in the spiritual meaning of the mission of the Church. Rather, they would be interested in a bureaucratic model run by committees which are more concerned with furthering power and position, rather than the proper common good. This would be to portray something totally secular in religious clothes.

Career advancement with ecclesiastical titles is more important than pastoring the flock. Priests and bishops spend an inordinate amount of time pursuing career goals of the next position in the hierarchy. The human face of the Church is imperfect because, though Christ instituted the Church, it is a pilgrim in this world. One cannot reduce the effectiveness of the Church to what would merely further the existence of the bureaucracy. Once an elaborate bureaucracy is established, its own existence becomes itss primary goal. It is this tendency which encourages Christians to either reform the bureaucracy or demolish it.

In another sense the term is often used to distinguish both the hierarchy and the laity and the outward governing body of the Church from the so-called spiritual or charismatic Church which affects the inward holiness of the members of the Church. In a more extreme sense, it can be used to distinguish it from a sort of gnostic church based on a knowledge which transcends dogmatic expression and hierarchical evaluation. As your question reflects, some people also use it to express abstract Church pronouncements and distinguish them from the individual conscience in morality.

In the last context, this institutional Church would be distinguished from other religions only in its cultural expression. This is related to a contemporary explanation of the Church that the Catholic Church in its institutional structure would just be one representation of a more universal and higher religious sense which in other cultures could be expressed in a different institutional way. For example, in Japan the institutional expression of this higher sense would be Buddhism because of the culture, whereas in Europe, it would be the Catholic Church. The teaching of the popes, for example, would reflect European culture but, both regarding other cultures and even the individual in European culture, the general teaching authority would only be guidelines or recommendations. Obviously, this interpretation does not conform to either Catholic doctrine or the teaching of the Christ.

It would seem important to clarify the Catholic understanding of the place of the institutional Church. The People of God, a term dear to the Council Fathers at Vatican II, emphasizes the role of God the Father in the Church, which is a true society but one that is different than any ordinary human society. This understanding is to set the society of the Church off from other religious bodies. But it is incomplete without the participation of Christ and the Spirit in the mystery of the Church. Once the character of the society of the Church has been delineated vis-à-vis other religions, then the nature of the inner structure of the Church must be delineated. Many tried to make the image of the People of God the only image for the Church in Vatican II. However, this is not the sole image of the Church. It must be completed by the images of the Mystical Body of Christ and the Temple of the Holy Spirit. These images are addressed in the rest of Lumen Gentium. The Mystical Body of Christ is specified in all its various forms and offices in chapter three on the hierarchy, and chapter four on the laity. The Temple of the Holy Spirit is examined in the remaining four chapters under the aspect of the Act of the Church, which completes its Being. This Act is the Holiness of the Members, the reason the structure of the Church exists.

Since the Church is a supernatural society, Christ must divinely institute it. Since it is based on a communion of life between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the authority of the Church must reflect this communion of life and be divinely instituted itself. The nature of that authority must necessarily differ from that of a merely human society; it must be a hierarchy of the service of grace in the members. “[This is] the communion (communio, koinonia) of the People of God as it is fostered in the Church by the vocation and ministry of the bishops, which are likewise a form of service (diakonia) to the community. It is significant that the Council Fathers placed the chapter on the hierarchy immediately after the chapter on the People of God, so as to bring out the fact of the organic link between them” (John Paul II, Sources of Renewal, 147).

The concept of the institutional Church would then properly express the Mystical Body of Christ. This puts the hierarchical and visible sacramental nature in relief, as the body is visible and the various parts contribute to the perfection of the whole but in a different way. The head is different than the heart or the feet. In an even more complete sense, the true understanding of the institutional Church would be oriented to forming and nourishing the presence of the Holy Spirit in the Christian through holiness, which is contained in the image of the Temple of the Holy Spirit. As to your question, then, the term “the People of God” identifies the Church as the special society of God the Father in relation to other churches or religions. The Mystical Body of Christ identifies the institutional Church composed of various offices and charisms in that body, and the Temple of the Holy Spirit is the purpose for which such an institution exists, the holiness of the members in helping them to heaven. The hierarchy has the function in that body of clarifying the truth the Church has always taught to all the members of the Church, regardless of culture. Conscience must be formed according to this teaching if it does reflect the constant teaching of the Church and not against it.


What Is Indifference?

Question: Please explain the sin of indifference.

Answer: I have never heard this term in any formal sense used in Catholic moral theology, so I looked it up online and found this description:

Indifference means that we have an attitude that either something doesn’t matter or that disparate things are essentially the same.

Indifference can manifest itself in the false idea that because God is merciful we can sin without consequence

Indifference can also manifest itself in a resignation that because bad things happen, then we are not obligated to resist evil or do good.

Indifference of religion is the false notion that most or all religions are essentially the same and none contains more truth than another.1

In my own analysis, then, I would like to take each one in order.

First, indifference can lead to an indifference regarding sin. It is very true that one of the primary attributes of God is his mercy. Jesus manifests this on numerous occasions regarding the conversion of sinners. Yet Jesus does not show indifference to the necessity of a change of life in those to whom he shows mercy. He does not tell Zacchaeus to enjoy the profits from his illicit tax collecting. He does not tell the woman caught in adultery that she can continue to live in her adulterous union. The mercy of Christ is not a justification for the sinner to continue in their sin, nor does it justify their sin. The merciful Christ tells the truth in identifying their sin and then admonishes them to sin no more.

The second example of the sin of indifference is merely accepting evil with no attempt to resist it. One of the primary emotions which supports resistance to evil is anger. Yet for generations Western culture has suggested that one should never show anger or perhaps even experience it as a negative emotion. Christians often have the idea that all anger is sinful. Yet this is not what is stated in Scripture. “Do not let the sun go down on your anger” (Eph 4:26). “Be angry and do not sin” (Eph 4:26). There is also the example of Christ, who was very angry on several occasions. He did not lose his temper, but showed a reasonable and just anger when he reacted to the burden the leadership of Israel was placing on the ordinary believer in their interpretation of the Law. This is a perfect example of institution vs. discipleship — human accretions that opposed or weakened divine law. The same is true in his expulsion of the money changers from the Temple. Yet in contemporary society people are easily victimized by evil, not outraged in the least at the abortion of millions of innocent children, and cannot experience any sort of realistic resistance to evil, even in their own lives. Attempts are made to make the moral law impossible to fulfill, even with grace. This is certainly a sin of indifference.

The third example of this sin respects the truth. In the Enlightenment, there was a theory of religion which for various reasons proclaimed that all religions were equally valid when it came to expressing religious truth. As long as a religion stimulated a feeling of dependence on some ultimate higher power and led to benevolence towards others, dogmas really did not matter. The Enlightenment, in fact, taught a religion without dogma. All religions were really worshiping the same God — even atheists, because in their denial of a higher power they were making judgments about ultimate truths.

Though this is illogical, it led to the mentality that religion was largely a matter of sentiment and the foe of creedal statements. In contemporary terms, this could perhaps be expressed in statements like one does not believe in abstract principles but only in persons. Faith is not an affirmation of teachings, like the articles of the Creed, but a relationship with a person. The question never seems to be asked if these creedal statements in fact express the person to whom one wishes to relate accurately. If they do not, then the personal relationship would be with something created by the believer’s imagination and not someone real. This is known as the heresy of “indifferentism” because the creedal statements which diversify one religion from another are really indifferent regarding the truth. Freemasonry is a practical of example of this attitude. Freemasonry is actually a religion in itself, though it does not represent itself as such. This is why it is condemned by the Church, as is this example of the sin of indifference.

  1. Fr. Charles Grodin, “The Sin of Indifference,” Catholic Answers,
Fr. Brian Mullady, OP About Fr. Brian Mullady, OP

Fr. Brian T. Mullady, OP, entered the Dominican Order in 1966 and was ordained in 1972. He has been a parish priest, high school teacher, retreat master, mission preacher, and university professor. He has had seven series on EWTN and is the author of two books and numerous articles, including his regular column in HPR, “Questions Answered.”

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