I have just been re-reading Frank Sheed’s Theology and Sanity (1993, rev. ed, Ignatius Press) and came across a passage that seems to me to capture some of what makes the Church, as the mystical Body of Christ, such a unique phenomenon. Sheed does this by illustrating (in his typically pithy and precise manner) the inadequacies of two rival attempts to provide for mankind’s needs – Protestantism and Secularism:
Protestantism, we say, opted for the soul and largely ignored the body, or at least made no provision for it. It ruled out asceticism, most of the sacraments, and all the sacramentals. It produced a religion for the soul only, which would have been well enough had man been a soul only, but was no religion for man. With the onrush of Secularism, the ignored element had its revenge. Secularism concentrated on the body, ignoring the spirit as completely as Protestantism ignored the body. Its aims are primarily the body’s good, comfort and security, on the general assumption that, if man does happen to have a soul, it too will be satisfied by improved material conditions. The result is the starvation of the spirit.
Again, the emphasis of Protestantism was on the relation of the individual soul to God, any cooperation of man being regarded as an intrusion. There is a truth in this, but it is not the whole truth. There is an element in man beyond the reach of his fellows, something incommunicable which must have its own unshared relation with God, but that element is not the whole of man; and the effort to build the whole of religion upon it as if it were, means ultimately that even it does not reach its fullest achievement…There is the same revenge of the ignored element here as earlier. Secularism came, betting everything upon the social order as against the human person. We see this at its logical extreme in Communism and Nazism, where the collective is everything and the individual has literally no meaning and certainly no destiny apart from it. But though in these two the tendency has gone furthest, the same tendency runs through all modern sociology. The only home left for personality is the Church. Only for the Church is everyone someone.
The only thing I would add to this, is the fact that the Protestant cultures of the West have now played out that spirit of individualism to its logical conclusion, with the mainline churches throwing away any commitment to authority or tradition that may have survived the Reformation, and are (sometimes actively, often unconsciously) in collusion with the dominant secular ideology. So we in the West now live in a culture that is both individualist and collectivist – personal decision making is based on subjective whims, and public policy on the grounds of a materialist utilitarianism! I wonder what the history books will say about us a hundred years from now…