If a conversation is flagging there is always one subject that is guaranteed to bring it back to life, and that’s the question of the Church’s involvement in politics. It’s a particularly crucial question in countries where the government is oppressive and the Church sees it has a duty to raise up the oppressed and to offer them dignity. But it’s also a question that faces the Church in the so-called ‘free’ countries of our world. Very often in proclaiming the Gospel the Church crosses the path of political debate and comes into conflict with politicians.
Now this particular dilemma is as old as religion itself. Religion is basically concerned with the life of the Spirit, whereas politics is concerned with the life of the body. The thing is that they cannot be fully separated, nor can they be fully reconciled.
The Sadducees who came into conflict with Our Lord were a group of Jewish leaders with a particular political point of view. They were the conservative class of landowners and merchants who believed in stability and in peaceful collaboration with the Romans who had invaded and occupied Palestine. This policy brought them into conflict with the Pharisees whose whole life was taken up with the worship of God. The Pharisees believed in the resurrection of the body whereas the Sadducees didn’t, and so their views on life in the next world coloured their views on life in this world.
Now, the Church cannot escape the same dilemma. There is no doubt that the Church’s ultimate and primary concern is with the next world. But when the Church struggles to provide bread for a hungry person it is with a view to raising up that person to the dignity of being with Christ. And to achieve this the Church has to make ‘political’ decisions; and she has to ‘compromise’. The Church has her gaze fixed firmly on heaven certainly, but she lives in this world and just cannot avoid politics.
And yet there are certain qualities that the Church can never compromise. These are the signs of her genuineness and they are called the ‘Marks of the Church’ and we acknowledge them in the Creed when we profess: “I believe in One, Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church”.
The Church is one because she has one life: the life of the Holy Trinity: the life of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. In this world the Church can spare no effort until perfect unity is achieved and seen to be achieved. This is a oneness that is as perfect as the unity that exists between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
The Church is holy. This means that everything the Church does and speaks leads people infallibly to God. All the actions that the Church performs in the Sacraments, and all the words she speaks in proclaiming the word of God and in her teaching, move people heavenwards.
The Church is catholic: and this means that she leads all men and women, without distinction of race, class or colour, in every age of time into the life of the Holy Trinity.
The Church is apostolic. This means that she bases her life on the practice and the teaching of the Apostles, with whom there is an unbroken succession among the bishops in union with the Bishop of Rome. We call it the Apostolic Succession.
And so, these are the ‘marks’ of the Church that must remain evident for all to see. The Church’s primary struggle and concern is to preserve them and to make them more and more evident until they are fully revealed in the light that shines in heaven itself.
And this is the point about the Marks of the Church that we acknowledge in the Creed. They endure. Like Our Lord’s questioners in today’s gospel we are curious about what the next life will be like. The example developed in the gospel to the point of absurdity gives Our Lord an opportunity to explain. Heaven is not going to be like life in this world with a few more agreeable extras added in. It will be utterly different. For example, marriage, which is needed in this world for the propagation of the human race, will be irrelevant in the next life. In heaven, there will be only one relationship and it will be the relationship between Father and child.
So, life for us will be changed. But the Church, in her essential qualities will never change. She will always be one, holy, catholic and apostolic. In our efforts to establish God’s kingdom these are the Marks of the Church that we are to keep ever in our minds and hearts. Because these are the hallmarks of the Church over which there can be no compromise.