Pope Francis and “Mother Church”

When I hear the phrase "Holy Mother Church" used by others it is normally in such a way as to communicate mockery or irony. This is true of everyone from "militant" atheists such as Christopher Hitchens (RIP) and Richard Dawkins, to certain more confrontational protestant and evangelical apologists who view the Catholic Church's claim to fullness of truth as arrogant. Yet I've also encountered this usage among various stripes of "progressive" Catholics, who tend to use the phrase as a way of dismissing theological and liturgical viewpoints which are not in accord with their understanding of the "Spirit" of the Second Vatican Council. I'm not entirely unsympathetic to the progressive distaste for the phrase. If used poorly, the term "Holy Mother Church" communicates a saccharine image of the Church as a clingy, domineering "Mommy" towards whom Christians are meant to have absolute, simple obedience in all matters. (This is not to dismiss obedience, of course, but is merely to say that true obedience engages the mind and the heart and not only the will.)


But rejecting the image of "Holy Mother Church" out-of-hand would be a mistake. The phrase is not only deeply rooted in our tradition but is also full of theological richness. Saint Augustine in Sermon 46 "On Pastors," for instance, states that "Christians who are spread over all the world have one mother, the Church." Futhermore, "[t]he Church is the mother of all, and everywhere the shepherd in her seeks those who are astray, strengthens those who are weak, cares for the sick and puts the broken together again." And so on. (I recommend reading the whole thing.) And the understanding of Church as "Mother" may give insight into why we continue today to refer to pastors as "Father" such-and-such. Since I was a child I remember being told that priests are, in a sense, "married to the Church."


One could take these images too far, and those Catholics of a more progressive bent are probably most sensitive to this risk. I also presume that these same Catholics would hope for a rebuff from the present Pope of such language as inappropriate to these times, when Christians everywhere are supposed to be "adults in the faith" and not to simply parrot the Church's teachings in a childish manner. Yet Pope Francis has great affection for the language of the Church as "Mother." As part of his general audience on Wednesdays, the Pope has been giving his catecheses on the Church since June 18, 2014. Where he speaks most strongly of Mother Church is in the audiences of September 3 and 10.


In the September 3 address, the reality of Mother Church appears within a discussion on the nature of salvation: that it is a communal process and not an "individualist" salvation. In this and other addresses Pope Francis talks negatively of "laboratory Christians," by which I think he means Christians "grown" in isolated, sterile circumstances. In his June 25 address, he states: "[Y]ou cannot love God outside of the Church; you cannot be in communion with God without being so in the Church." Francis is also keen to emphasize that "Church" does not only point to her clergy but to the Church as a whole, a point found in his June 18 address as well. In turn, we are all responsible for receiving the faith from Mother Church, but we are also called to transmit this faith through "mothering" others into the Church. Finally, particularly strong in this address is the parallel drawn between Mary, Mother of God and of the Church, and the Church as Mother: "[T]he motherhood of the Church is established in precise continuity with that of Mary, as her continuation in history." Wow! If anybody needs a boost to their Marian devotion, look no further!


Pope Francis continues with his September 10 address. This address focuses primarily on the Church as Mother of Mercy, which is consistent with the strong parallels he draws between Mary and the Church. He goes through some of the corporal works of mercy, noting that the Church teaches these by example. I particularly appreciated his comments on visiting those who are in prison. During this semester I have been visiting those at the jail and pen-paling with a prison inmate. This apostolate has been eye-opening and has matured me spiritually in a way that is not attainable only through prayer and study. When discussing common reactions to the imprisoned, his response is spot on: "[E]ach of us is capable of doing the same thing that that man or that woman in prison did." There is a real need, as members of the Church, to remember our own sinfulness.

I invite readers to continue reading Pope Franics' catecheses on the Church. Hopefully, his theological thinking will suffuse the Synod on the Family in all of its considerations.