Venerable Fulton J. Sheen once wrote, “The Church knows after 1900 years’ experience that any institution which suits the spirit of any age will be a widow in the next one” (War and Guilt, OSV Press, 1941, pp. 138-139).
This is a clear admonition to the many who demand that the Church update her teachings, particularly (1) her moral doctrines, and (2) the dogma that salvation is exclusively through Jesus Christ. Some say that the Catholic Church is hopelessly out-of-date and irrelevant. Some point out that even her own members disagree with a large number of her teachings. But the role of the Church is not to reflect the age or even the views of her members; it is to represent the teachings of her head and founder, Jesus Christ. The Church cannot love or admire the world if she is to remain the Bride of Christ. Scripture says,
You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore, whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God (James 4:4).
Much is made of the declining numbers in the Catholic Church. The loss over the past fifty years has been staggering. Today, fewer than one fourth of Catholics attend Mass each week. But if the Church were to become the world, the number of Catholics would go to zero. Mainline Protestant denominations have tried just this method—giving the world what it wants—and their services are far emptier than our Masses. Some of them are in so steep a decline that it is hard to imagine them even existing in twenty years except on paper or in tiny pockets.
As Sheen notes, the Catholic Church brings two millennia of experience to this modern problem. That experience says, in effect, “This too shall pass.” In the age of the Church, empires have risen and fallen, nations come and gone, heresies have flourished then decayed, enemies have advanced and then retreated; but we are still here preaching the same gospel. Where is Caesar now? Where is Napoleon now? Where is the Soviet Union now? They are all gone. So shall it be with the scoffers and deceivers of this age. When this present foolishness has passed, the Church will still be here, preaching, teaching, and celebrating the sacraments.
The teachings of Scripture stretch back some 5,000 years to the earliest writings. They have perdured for a reason: they are true, and they work to bring us the greatest fulfillment possible in this world. These time-tested truths wait patiently while trends and popular notions pass away like mist at dawn.
In Sheen’s time he spoke of the Church knowing this truth, which implies that this was widely understood by Catholics of his era. Sadly, that is less true today, when many in the Church—right up to the highest levels in the hierarchy—have tried to adapt, compromise, and even discard ancient, tested doctrines in favor of worldly preferences, errors, and trendy notions. Many people today, even within the Church, need to rediscover Sheen’s maxim.
Yes, the Church is a bride, not a widow.