Institutional Confidence and the Meaning of Holy Week

If Gallup Polls are to be believed, Americans are losing faith in the institutions which have made our country great for a long time. Only a couple of institutions – including, interestingly, the military and police – have been spared the precipitous drop in public confidence since the 1970s. Public schools – you know, the places where most people send their children every day – were trusted “quite a lot/a great deal” by 58% of Americans in 1973. Today, that number is 30%. Congress was trusted by 42% of Americans in 1972; now, 9% trust Congress to that degree.

It may be tempting to grasp at facile explanations for this: Watergate in the 1970s, Savings and Loan Scandals in the 1980s, Donald Trump and hyper-partisanship today. But the pattern is too consistent for such solutions – and too widespread. Congress, government, financial institutions, schools, news media – Americans just don’t trust each other like they used to. (There is another argument to be made that Americans even 40 years ago trusted their institutions in surprisingly low numbers. Is distrust of others just a general tendency of Americans? Archbishop Chaput’s book Strangers in a Strange Land hints at this. But I digress.)

Look at the latest Pro Publica exposé of “What Hospitals Waste.” The Medical Establishment often gets a free pass in these conversations. But if we waste – according to the National Academy of Medicine – upwards of $750 billion dollars a year in the U.S. health care industry, is this not another institution which demands a skeptical glance? And what other practices in this sector do they not want people to know about? (That’s $750 billion. With a “b.” In case you’re wondering, that’s more than the U.S. Department of Defense annual budget.)

My point, however, is not about the incompetence and mismanagement which have led to decreased trust from Americans. We can talk all day about the failures of American institutions. In that conversation, of course, we can talk about what Gallup calls “the Church” (trusted by 65% of people in 1973, but now only 41%). Of course, what Gallup means by “the Church” is organized religion, represented as it is by various entities. Our Church – the Catholic Church – has plenty of failures to add to the list: abuse scandals, financial impropriety, the gossip and pettiness of her members. Yes, our failures as men and women are legion, and there is no real benefit to pretending otherwise.

But, the Catholic Church is not simply a sociological entity. Sociologists can and do – rightly! – study the Church. But if they are being honest, the tools of the sociologist (and what is a pollster, really, besides that?) can only examine one aspect of the Church – her visible side. Her members. But the Church is more than this. The Church is not a group of like-minded people who decided to get together on Sundays to talk about Jesus. Instead, the Church is the Body of Christ, founded by her divine Lord in order to be his eschatological people waiting in expectation of the full manifestation of the Reign of God. The Church, like Christ, is both human and divine. Studying the Church purely from the perspective of her membership would be like claiming to know everything about Jesus Christ by giving him a physical.

This week, we commemorate several “founding moments” of the Church. In the Chrism Mass – traditionally celebrated on Holy Thursday morning – the local Church gathers with the bishop in the cathedral to commemorate the priesthood. Of course, there is the priesthood of the baptized, which is celebrated at this Mass through the participation of the faithful. But there is also the ministerial priesthood, men chosen and sent by Christ to carry on his mission of leading the Church as head and spouse in the same way that he chose 12 flawed men to be his Apostles. Then on Holy Thursday evening, the Church recalls the handing over of the Eucharist, a perpetual memorial of the eternal covenant between God and his people. On Good Friday, Christians gather around the world to recall the Passion narrative, reflecting on the Gospel of John’s description of blood and water coming from the side of Christ. In that moment, say the Church Fathers, the Church was born. The blood and water symbolize the sacraments, the foundation of the new creation taken from the side of Christ just as God created Eve from the side of Adam.

Christ’s death inaugurated this new creation, the people called out of natural time by the Lord himself to be co-heirs to eternity. Of course, we still move about in normal space and time (with all our limitations and weaknesses), but nevertheless, we Christians are adopted children of God, and we must never forget this exalted identity. This is the beauty of the Easter Vigil: in the darkness of Saturday Night, while the great world spins, thousands of people will be initiated into this Church which Christ founded. Will all of their human flaws suddenly be taken away? I doubt it – I’ve been in the seminary for five years and I still have mine.

Still, while the Church has imperfect members and must constantly seek reform, we have to look a bit more deeply.

If all we see are the failures in other institutions (and especially people), we are probably being too critical; if all we see are the sins of the Church’s members (a real temptation), then we are being unwitting heretics! Instead, we might want to pay attention this week to what God has done for us in Christ – and continues to do, in and through the Church which he established.


For further reading:

The Gospel according to John, Chapter 19

International Theological Commission Document, Select Themes in Ecclesiology,

Gallup’s Historical Trends on Public Institutions

Pro Publica, “What Hospitals Waste”