Here's a simple truth that I've learned over the years: A poor understanding of the meaning of "church" inevitably leads to a skewed understanding of many issues.
Take, for example, the matter of excommunication.
Many people, including quite a few Catholics, think excommunication is simply a way for the Church to control, coerce and otherwise bully people. It is, they believe, an exercise of power meant to further increase that power, which is possessed by a privileged few. Some insist excommunication is contrary to the teaching and spirit of Jesus; after all, wasn't he all about love, mercy and forgiveness? Today's Gospel reading helps set the record straight, even though the term "excommunication" doesn't appear.
We cannot rightly appreciate the purpose and nature of Church authority unless we understand that the Church is not a club, a political party or a merely human institution. The Church was founded by Christ, states the Catechism of the Catholic Church, for one ultimate purpose: "for the sake of communion with [God's] divine life." The Church "is the goal of all things" (No. 760). As the Body of Christ, the Church exists to redeem man, to guide him into holiness and to transform him, by the power of the Holy Spirit, into a child of God.
Today's reading from Matthew 18 contains the second of only two uses of the word ecclesia, or "church," found in the Gospels. The word "church" is uttered in the context of apostolic authority. Here, the context is that of resolving conflicts within the Church. Jesus provides some practical directives about how Christians should approach someone who has sinned against him. The offender is not just anyone, but a brother in Christ, and the response is to take place within the family and household of God, the Church.
If those attempts fail, the matter should come before the Church. The possibility of losing communion with the Church is meant to awaken the sinner to the serious straits he is navigating in spiritual blindness. Christ "threatens the one punishment," observed St. John Chrysostom, "to prevent the other from happening." Better to suffer temporal punishment than eternal separation from God. "Thus, by fearing both the rejection from the Church and the threat of being bound in heaven, he may become better behaved."
The Catechism sums it up: "Reconciliation with the Church is inseparable from reconciliation with God" (No. 1445). If we believe the Church was founded by Christ and has been granted his authority, we should appreciate that she works to keep us in right relationship with him. Yes, excommunication is a severe penalty, but it is a medicinal penalty meant to cure us from what might destroy our souls.
Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.