It occurred to me this morning-- though not for the first time-- that one of the biggest differences between Catholics and non-Catholics (whether Christian or non-Christian) is the ecclesial view of the Church taken by Catholics. (I've written and re-written that sentence, aware that 'an ecclesial view of the Church' seems like a tautology, equivalent to 'a churchy view of the church'. But I've decided it does make sense after all.)
I think this might be a profitable subject to discuss, since I honestly think that many non-believers and non-Catholics of good will simply don't understand where the Catholic is coming from on this matter.
What strikes me as interesting is that this ecclesial nature of the Church is viewed in such contrasting ways. Non-Catholics (and, indeed, many professed Catholics) see church discipline, church hierarchy, church history and church property as being so many necessary evils, or even unnecessary evils. Most Catholics, on the other hand, tend to see them as a positive good.
When discussing this matter, Catholics often use theological terms to defend and explain their outlook. They point out that Christianity is incarnational-- it is not 'spiritual' in the sense of being entirely otherworldly. Christ became man, he wore clothes and ate food and had friends and a family. Christianity is not concerned solely with immaterial things-- its aim is to sanctify and redeem human life in its totality. Christianity is not simply an 'idea', but a living thing with a body as well as a soul. It is not cause for scandal that the Church has property and administrative structures and so on. (Our Lord himself showed a willingness to 'requisition' what he needed for his mission, whether it was a donkey or a room for the Last Supper.)
The Church is also considered, in Catholic theology, to be the mystical body of Christ. A text often quoted in this regard is Christ's admonition to St. Paul on the road to Damascus; not "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute my Church?", but "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?". It is not just a man-made institution reaching out to the Divine. It is itself a divinely-ordained institution.
But, aside from theology, this can be understood in purely human terms. Catholics feel the same way about the Church as most people feel about their family, their nation or their club. It's a simple matter of affection, of loyalty, of participation. The Church is not simply an instrument, a piece of machinery. It doesn't get in the way of devotion. If somebody is Catholic in spite of the Church, they are (I think) approaching their faith in entirely the wrong spirit, in a spirit that will keep holding them back.
Of course, this doesn't preclude criticism of developments within the Church, or frustration with it. But when one's attitude towards the Church is entirely hostile and resentful, or mostly hostile and resentful, or even very often hostile and resentful-- well, how would such an attitude affect a marriage, a family, or a friendship?
Catholics tend to identify with the Church, rather than seeing the Church as 'it' or 'them'. The Church is not simply the necessary intermediary between you and God. You are the Church-- part of it, anyway.
I think this is what non-Catholics miss when they criticize the splendour of the Church, or of bishops, or of the Pope. The purpose of this splendour is not to aggrandize us but to praise God and to beautify his Church.
Should the Church be humble? I think this is a complicated question. Should the individual members of the Church be humble, from the newest convert to the Pope himself? Of course. Should Catholics own up to the sins of Catholics in the past, and apologize for them? Of course. Should the Church be humble about its claim to bear a revelation from God? Surely not. Christ himself said that the gates of Hell would not prevail against his Church, that the Holy Spirit would lead it into all truth. If we believe that, it seems inappropriate to be tentative or hesitant about the Church's authoritative teachings, which quite literally come from God. Besides, what criteria could we judge them against?
Nor do I think Catholics should refrain from glorying in the achievements of the Church-- its role in building European civilization, its missionary accomplishments, its martyrs and saints. "But he that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord." (2 Corinthians, 10:17.) Since we believe that the Church is guided by the Holy Spirit, we are celebrating the power of God rather than human power.
Another thing that I think outsiders fail to appreciate about Catholicism, and its ecclesial nature, is the importance of solidarity in Catholicism. Aloofness is contrary to its spirit. The love of God should be inseparable from the love of others, especially one's brothers and sisters in Christ. Narcissism is exhausting. (I say this as a practiced narcissist.) It's a blessed relief to 'get over ourselves' and practice docility, receptiveness and gratitude. It's part of the rest from weariness and burdens that Christ promises us.
Those who call for radical reform in the Church don't seem to appreciate the importance of this solidarity-- especially the fact that it is solidarity through time as well as space. We want to say the same prayers, practice the same devotions, follow the same pilgrimages, be subject to the same discipline, and celebrate the same festivals as previous generations of Catholics. This doesn't meant that the Church doesn't develop through time, but development tends to be through addition, rather than subtraction, or change of what already exists.
I love to think of how many Masses are celebrated around the world every day, how many rosaries are recited, and so forth. I don't feel a need to apologize on behalf of my fellow Catholics. I feel rather a sense of privilege to be part of it all.
"When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them." Soon, the disciples were scattered all over the world-- but I like to think of that Upper Room assembly as something that was never really left behind.