Chiesa santa, or Chiesa di santi?

Many are surprised by the affirmation of the Creed that the Church is holy, while the faults and sins of her members, including those of her captains, are clearly visible. To understand the meaning of this expression, it is useful to go back in history, from its patristic origins to the documents of the last Council.

Philip Goyret-October 13, 2022-Reading time: 9 minutes

Testo originale del articolo in inglese qui

Almeno fino dal terzo secolo dell'era cristiana - intorno a quel periodo risalgono le prime versioni completo dei simboli della fede - noi battezzati professiamola nostra fede nella Chiesa, quando diciamo: "Credo nello Spirito Santo, la santa Chiesa cattolica ..." (Credo Apostolico), oppure "Credo la Chiesa, una, santa, cattolica e apostolica" (Credo Niceno-Costantinopolitano). Infatti, sebbene non sia Dio (perché è una realtà creata), è il suo strumento, uno strumento soprannaturale, e in questo senso è l'oggetto della nostra fede. The priests of the Church have taken this into account, when they have spoken to us as of the mysterium lunae, that reflects alone, without producing it, the only light, the one that comes from Christ, the "sun of the sun".

The reality of sin

We are particularly interested now in the claim of the sanctity of the Church, since, for many, it seems to contrast with a reality marked by abominable sins such as the sexual abuse of minors, or those of conscience, or those of authority, or by serious financial dysfunctions that collapse even the highest levels of church governance. We can add to this a long series of "historical sins", such as the connivance with schiavitu, the consensus to religious wars, the ingrained convictions of the Inquisition, anti-Giudaism (not identifiable with anti-Semitism), etc. Can we really speak of "holy Church" in a coherent way? Or are we simply transcending for inertia a formula eredited from history?

A position, assumed by various theologians since the sixteenth century, tends to distance itself from the "holy Church", using the adjective "sinful" applied to the Church. In this way the Church would be called as it should be, taking into account the responsibility of its own failures. It has been tried to bring back the expression "sinful Church" to patristics, more precisely by means of the formula meretrix casteIn fact, it is about only one Father of the Church, Saint Ambrose of Milan (In Lucam III, 23), when he speaks of Raab, the prostitute of Gericus, using her as a figure of the Church (as other ecclesiastical writers also do): ma il santo vescovo di Milano lo fa in senso positivo, dicendo con il crudo linguaggio di quel tempo che la fede chastamente conservata (non corrotta) è diffusa tra tutti i popoli (che simboleggiano tutti coloro che godono dei favori della prostituta,).

Without entering now in this controversial patristic question, we must instead ask ourselves if the position just exposed is legitimate. Let us keep in mind that the judges are severely condemned in the Bible, at the end of the Old Testament, and Yahweh exhorts us not to judge from appearances. When the prophet Samuele tries to identify who should be anointed as the future king David, the Lord warns him: "Do not keep his appearance or how tall he is in stature, because I have excluded him. God does not guard as man does; for man sees appearances, but God sees the heart" (1Sa 16:7).

The great question, insomma, would be: given the lack of sanctity in the Church, should we save the sanctity of the Church? The key to the answer, according to the logic of the quoted biblical text, is in the word "point of view". If we judge from what we see, the answer points to the denial of sanctity. But this means to proceed by "appearances", while the right thing is to keep "the heart". And what is the heart of the Church? Which is the Church behind the appearances?

Cosa è la Chiesa?

Where the waters divide. Seen with the eyes of the world, the Church is a religious organization, it is the Vatican curia, it is a power structure, or rather, it is a humanitarian initiative in favor of education, health, peace, help to the poor, etc.

Seen through the eyes of faith, in the Church these activities and forms of existence are not clear, but they are not conceived as fundamental, the ecclesiastic is not identified with the ecclesial. The Church was already the Church at Pentecost, when those forms and those activities did not yet exist. It "does not exist primarily where it is organized, where it is reformed or governed, but lives in those who simply believe and receive in it the gift of faith that is life for them", as Ratzinger affirms in his Introduction to Christianity. The same text itself reminds us that the Church's sanctity is "consists in the power with which God operates the sanctity in him, within the human sinfulness". Ancor di più: essa ".it is an expression of God's love that does not allow itself to be bound by man's incapacity, but is always good, continually assumes him as a sinner, transforms him, sanctifies him and loves him.".

In a very deep sense, we can (and we must) affirm, definitively, that the sanctity of the Church is not that of men, but that of God. In this direction, we say that it is holy because it sanctifies always, also by means of independent ministers, by means of the Gospel and the sacraments. As Henri de Lubac says in one of his best works, Meditazione sulla Chiesa (Meditation on the Church), "its doctrine is always pure, and the source of its sacraments is always alive.".

The Church is holy because she is none other than God himself who sanctifies men in Christ and through his Spirit. Without fail, it is radiant in its sacraments, with which it proposes evangelical counsels, and in its gifts and charisms, with which it promotes a multitude of martyrs, martyrs, martyrs, martyrs and confessors (Pius XII, Mystici Corporis). It is the sanctity of the Church that we can call "objective": that which characterizes it as a "body", not as a simple gesture of faithful (Congar, Santa Chiesa). We add that it nourishes its faithful; in faith, which it always preserves uncontaminated; the Church is holy also because it continually strives to attain sanctity.

La Chiesa dei puri

Ma un altro problema concorre su questa questione, indicata quasi ironicamente nell'Introduzione al cristianesimo: quella del "sogno umano di un mondo guarito e non contaminato dal male, (che) presenta la Chiesa come qualcosa che non si mescola al peccato". This "dream", that of the "Church of the pure ones", is born and reigns continuously in history in various forms: montanisti, novaziani, donatisti (primo millennio), catari, albigesi, hussiti, giansenisti (secondo millennio) e altri ancora hanno in comune di concepire la Chiesa come un'istituzione formata esclusivamente da "cristiani incontaminati", "eletti e puri", i "perfetti" che non cadono mai, i "predestinati". Thus, when in fact one perceives in the Church the existence of sin, it follows that this, the Catholic Church, is not the true Church, the "holy Church" of the Symbol of Faith.

At the base of this is the mistake of thinking of today's Church applying the categories of Sunday, of the eschatological Church, identifying in the western history the holy Church with the Church of the saints.
It is clear that, while we are still in the harvest, the grain grows as the zizzania grows, and it was Jesus himself who, in the famous parable, showed how the zizzania should be eliminated only at the end of time. For this reason Saint Ambrose spoke of the Church using also, and prevalently (also in the above-mentioned work), the expression immaculata ex maculatisletterally, "that without macchia, formed by the macchiati". Only later on, in the evening, it will be immaculata ex immaculatis!

The contemporary magisterium has taken this idea back to Vatican II, saying that "the Church includes sinners in her bosom". These belong to the Church and it is thanks to this belonging that they can be purified from their sins. De Lubac, always in the same work, says clearly that the Church is still and will remain until the end a disorganized community: there is the grain still stuck in the mule, an ark containing pure and unclean animals, a ship full of cattivi passeggeri, and all that seems always on the point of bringing it to the shipwreck.

At the same time, it is important to realize that the sinner does not belong to the Church for his sin, but for the holy reality that he still preserves in his soul, mainly the sacramental character of the sacrament of baptism. This is the meaning of the expression "communion of saints", which the Symbol of the Apostles applies to the Church: not because it is composed only of saints, but because it is the reality of holiness, ontological or moral, that makes it such. It is communion in the holiness of persons and in holy things.

Having clarified these essential points, it is now opportune to add an important clarification. We have said, and we confirm, that the Church is holy without the sanctity of its members. But this does not prevent us from affirming the existence of a link between sanctity and the diffusion of sanctity, both on a personal and institutional level. The means of sanctification of the Church are per se infallible, and they make a holy reality, regardless of the moral quality of the instruments. But the subjective reception of grace in the souls of those who are the object of the mission of the Church depends also on the sanctity of the ministers, whether ordained or not, as well as on the good reputation of the institutional aspect of the Church.

Ministri degni

An example can help you to understand. The Eucharist is always a sacramental presence of the Paschal Mystery and, as such, has an unsurpassable capacity for redemptive power. However, a Eucharistic celebration presided by a priest who is publicly indigent will produce fruits of sanctity only in those faithful who, deeply formed in their faith, know that the effects of communion are independent of the moral situation of the celebrant minister. But for many others this celebration will not bring them closer to God, because they do not see consistency between the life of the celebrant and the celebrated Mass. There will also be others who will escape for the peace. As the Decree states Presbyterorum ordinis of the Second Vatican Council (no. 12), "sebbene la grazia di Dio possa compiere l'opera della salvezza, anche per mezzo di ministri indegni, tuttavia Dio preferisce, per diritto ordinario, manifestare le sue sue meraviglie mediante coloro che, resi più docili all'impulso e alla guida dello Spirito Santo, mediante la loro intima unione con Cristo e la loro santità di vita, possono dire con l'apostolo: "Io non vivo più, è Cristo che vive in me"." (Gal 2:20).

In this perspective, the words spoken in October 1985 by St. John Paul II to the European youth, in view of the new evangelization of Europe, acquire a particular fervor: "The new evangelization of Europe is a new evangelization of Europe".We need archbishops of the Vangelo who are experts of humanity, who have a deep knowledge of the heart of today's man, who participates in the joys and hopes, the anxieties and pains, and at the same time is contemplative and in love with God. For this we need new saints. The great evangelizers of Europe are the saints. We must pray the Lord to increase the spirit of holiness in the Church and send us new saints to evangelize today's world.".

What happens in the single case just described also happens with respect to the Church as an institution. If the Holy Spirit is preached, and then an embezzlement is discovered in a diocese, that preaching, even if solidly grounded in the Gospel, will have little effect. Many who will listen to it will say "apply to yourself that teaching, before preaching it to others.". E questo può accadere anche quando quella "misappropriation of fundsi" is committed without malice aforethought, through simple ignorance or naivety.

The Second Vatican Council

In the context of this problem, the integral text of the passage of the Second Vatican Council, already cited, is more appropriate: "The Church contains sinners in her bosom, and being at the same time holy and always in need of purification, she continually advances along the path of penitence and renewal."(Lumen Gentium 8). It is possible to add other words of the same Council, addressed not only to the Catholic Church, which state: "Finally, all of them examine their loyalty to the will of Christ in the Church and, as it is necessary, they courageously undertake the work of renewal and reformation."(Unitatis redintegratio 4). This allows us to contemplate the framework in all its dimensions: purification, reformation, renewal: concepts which, strictly speaking, are not synonymous.

In fact, "purification" often refers more directly to single persons.
The sinners still belong to the Church (if they have been tortured), but they must be purified. The "reform" has a more markedly institutional aspect; moreover, it is not a question of any kind of improvement, but of "returning to the original form" and, from there, renewing it for the future.

Keep in mind that, although the visible aspect "divinely instituted" is immutable, the human-institutional aspect is mutable and perfect. This is a human-institutional aspect that has lost its original evangelical meaning along the way.

The moral situation of the Church in the sixteenth century, and in particular of the episcopate, needed to be reformed, and this was the reform that came about at the Council of Trent. Finally, the "renewal", which per se does not presuppose a morally negative structural situation: it is simply an attempt to apply an updating so that evangelization can effectively interest a society in continuous evolution. It is enough to compare the current Catechism of the Catholic Church with a Catechism of the beginning of the XX century to realize the importance of the renewal. The last modification of Book VI of the Code of Canon Law can be thought of as a welcome renewal.

Continuous conversion 

Two last aspects before concluding these reflections. The first of the just cited Second Vatican Council's testimonies speaks of a purification that will "always" be completed (not all translations respect the Latin original). semper).

One can think of something similar in terms of reform and renewal, which should be updated without spending excessive periods of time. It is not a matter of always changing things, but of constantly "polishing" what is seen and what is not seen. If the Council of Trent had "purified" the Church earlier (perhaps a century earlier), we would probably be spared "the other reform", the Protestant one, with all the negative effects that the divisions in the Church entailed.

Finally, it is important not to lose sight of the fact that purification, reform and renewal must be combined together. Many do not understand the importance of the latter. If a good reform or renewal is proposed (for example, the recent one of the Roman Curia; or first, the liturgical reform), but there is no purification of the people, the results will be insignificant. It is not enough to change the structures: it is necessary to convert people. And this "conversion of the people" does not refer exclusively to their moral-spiritual situation, but also, from a different perspective, to their professional training, their ability to relate to others, to the transversal competencies so much appreciated today in the world of business, etc.

For some it would be scandalous, triumphalistic and contradictory the statement of Vatican II (Lumen gentium 39) according to which the Church is "immancabilmente santa" (it cannot not be holy). In reality it would be this and much worse still, if it were composed only of men and by the initiative of men.
Il testo sacro ci dice, invece, che "Christ loved the Church and gave himself for her, to sanctify her. He purified it with the battle of water and speech, because he wanted for himself a splendid Church, without blemish or wrinkles and without blemish, but holy and immaculate."(Eph. 5:25-27). He is holy because Christ has sanctified him, and even though countless heartless men without heart have risen to make him holy, he will never cease to be holy. Returning to De Lubac, we can say with him: "It is an illusion to believe in a 'Church of Saints': there is only one 'Holy Church'". But precisely because it is holy, the Church needs saints to fulfill its mission.

The authorPhilip Goyret

Professor of Ecclesiology at the University of the Holy Cross.

In collaboration with
Do you want independent, truthful and relevant news?

Dear reader, Omnes reports with rigor and depth on religious news. We do a research work that allows the reader to acquire criteria on the events and stories that happen in the Catholic sphere and the Church. We have star signatures and correspondents in Rome who help us to make the background information stand out from the media noise, with ideological distance and independence.

We need you to face the new challenges of a changing media landscape and a reality that demands reflection, we need your support.

In collaboration with
La Brújula Newsletter Leave us your email and receive every week the latest news curated with a catholic point of view.