Does the Holy Spirit still guide the Church?

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In a recent podcast I argued that the involvement of the Catholic Church in the ecumenical movement has been a failure and should be abandoned. A listener concluded that I apparently do not believe that the Holy Spirit guides the Church.

This accusation is frequently leveled against those who are prepared to criticize the hierarchy of the Church (or even those who simply point out that the Church is currently in a major crisis). After all, if God the Holy Spirit guides the Church, then major decisions made by the hierarchy, such as the Church’s involvement in ecumenism, must be under the direction of God Himself. Who are we to question him?

At the opposite extreme, but with the same underlying premiseare those who conclude from the problems of the Church today that the Holy Spirit is not guiding the Church. This can degenerate into a rejection of Catholicism and even a rejection of the existence of God. If God really exists, and He really guides the Church, then things wouldn’t be such a mess, would they?

While it is true that the Church teaches that the Holy Spirit guides the Church, there are a number of problems with the extrapolations I mentioned above. He misunderstands what this orientation entails and what it allows or does not allow to happen within the Church.

As always, a study of history can help us understand our current situation. As we live in times of crisis, we are not the first Catholics to do so. In fact, one could say that the Church has still been in a state of crisis, because the Church is still under attack from the forces of darkness. But there are certain times when this crisis has reached alarming levels.

In the 4th century, the majority of bishops professed heretics. They accepted the Arian heresy, which taught that Jesus was not the eternal, divine Son of God. And when I say “majority”, I am not exaggerating: almost every bishop was Arian or at least silent or sympathetic to heresy. There were persecutions against faithful Catholics such as Saint Athanasius aided and abetted by the Arian bishops. Was the leading of the Holy Spirit behind these persecutions?

By the 10th century, the papacy had fallen on hard times, in an age often referred to as “pornocracy.” Popes indulged in the worst forms of corruption and personal depravity, and the papacy was the pawn of powerful aristocratic families. Did the Holy Spirit guide the corrupt families who ruled through the Chair of St. Peter?

In the late Middle Ages, several men claimed to be pope, which caused confusion and scandal throughout Christendom. Often the papacy was controlled by powerful political forces; the papacy itself was more of a political function than a spiritual one. The scandals emanating from Rome became so substantial that millions of Europeans rejected the entire institution of the papacy during the Protestant Reformation. Did the Holy Spirit guide the Church to transform the papacy into a scandalously run political office with at one point three separate claimants to the papal throne?

Nor do we need to look so far back to take stock. At the start of the 21st century, the scandal of sexual abuse by priests burst into the public eye, revealing that thousands of priests had abused young people – mainly boys – and that hundreds of bishops had covered up their misdeeds, ignoring victims’ calls for justice. Did the Holy Spirit guide these bishops to cover up sins in order to “protect” the Church?

Even this cursory glance at the Church’s past clearly shows that while the Holy Spirit guides the Church, He does it with a light touch. It allows sinful men to corrupt the institutions of the Church, to proclaim heresy, and to degrade the testimony of the Church to near silence. The guidance of the Holy Spirit is just that—guidance; the Church is not a puppet through which the Holy Spirit controls all the strings. Such a configuration would violate one of God’s greatest gifts to mankind, free will.

Then how Is the Holy Spirit guides the Church? Instead of controlling it, He influences each member individually, and particularly (but not exclusively) each member of the hierarchy. This influence can be either accepted or rejected by each individual. If many people accept it, the Church will have good times, with growth and shining examples of holiness. But if most people do not accept the leading of the Holy Spirit, then we have times like the Arian crisis or today’s crisis.

What about Our Lord’s promise that the gates of Hell will not prevail against the Church (Mt. 16:18)? Many take this to mean that the Holy Spirit will protect the Church – and especially the hierarchy united with the Pope – from any major disaster, otherwise the gates of Hell will prevail. But again, as history has shown, our Church leaders can get Catholics to at least knock on the gates of Hell.

Our Lord’s promise is a minimum guarantee, not a maximum prediction. The Holy Spirit will guard the Church as a means of holiness to the world. The apostolic succession will not be broken and the sacraments will be available, but not necessarily worldwide. Entire countries might be lost to the Church for a time, but the Church will not cease to exist, and she will still offer grace and salvation to many. Hell will not pass through its gates and overwhelm the Church.

We see that, even in the darkest days of the Church, the Holy Spirit always guided her, although it may be difficult to see with human eyes. During the Arian Crisis, Saint Athanasius and countless lay Catholics upheld the Orthodox Catholic faith. In the 10th century, the Church was still spreading the gospel in areas like Hungary and Russia. During the Protestant Reformation, the Catholic Counter-Reformation (the real Reform) produced giant saints like Saint Teresa of Avila, Saint Philip Neri and Saint Ignatius of Loyola to lead the way.

And today we still sense the guidance of the Holy Spirit, even as we recognize the deep corruption, malfeasance, and incompetence that exist at all levels of the Church hierarchy. We see it in living saints like Joan Andrew Bell, who has fought for unborn children for decades, inspiring so many others to do the same. We see it in good shepherds like Bishop Athanasius Schneider and Bishop Joseph Strickland, who proclaim the gospel without excuses and in the face of strong resistance, even from their Episcopal colleagues. We see it in the anonymous Catholic student who refuses to follow the culture, saving herself for marriage and motherhood.

This is how the Holy Spirit guides the Church: through individuals responding to His call. His advice does not mean that every Church program or institution is foolproof or even a good idea. This means that no matter how sinful we are, the Church always offers us the means of grace and salvation, if we choose to accept them.

It may be believed that Church leaders make significant mistakes and always recognize the leading of the Holy Spirit in the Church. For often this guidance comes in the form of a “still, small voice” (1 Kings 19:12) among individual Catholics who respond in faith. While the misdeeds and errors of the hierarchy dominate the headlines, the Holy Spirit continues to quietly guide the Church, making her the means of holiness and salvation for all.

[Photo Credit: Vatican Media]

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