A holy Church, or a Church of saints?

Many are surprised by the statement in the Creed that the Church is holy, when the defects and sins of her members, including those of her leaders, are quite visible. To understand well the scope of this expression, it is useful to turn to history, from its patristic origins to the documents of the last Council. 

Philip Goyret-September 23, 2022-Reading time: 9 minutes

Translation of the article into Italian

At least since the third century of the Christian era - the first complete versions of the symbols of faith date back to that time - the baptized confess our faith in the Church, when we say: "I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Holy Catholic Church..." (Apostolic Creed), or "I believe in the Church, which is a holy, catholic and apostolic one." (Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed). Indeed, although she is not God (for she is a created reality), she is his instrument, a supernatural instrument, and in this sense she is the object of our faith. The Fathers of the Church gave due account of this when they spoke of her as the mysterium lunaeThe only light that comes from Christ, the "sun of suns", which only reflects, without producing it, the only light, the one that comes from Christ, the "sun of suns". 

The reality of sin

We are particularly interested now in the affirmation of the sanctity of the Church, insofar as, for many, it seems to contrast with a reality tainted by abominable sins such as the sexual abuse of minors, or those of conscience, or those of authority, or by severe financial dysfunctions that affect even the highest levels of ecclesiastical government. We could add to this a long line of "historical sins", such as the coexistence with slavery, the consensus regarding religious wars, the unjust condemnations carried out by the Inquisition, anti-Judaism (not identifiable with anti-Semitism), etc. Can we really speak of the "Holy Church" in a coherent way? Or are we simply dragging along by inertia a formula inherited from history?

One position, taken up since the 1960s among various theologians, tends to distance itself from the "holy Church," using the adjective "sinful" as applied to the Church. In this way, the Church would be called accordingly, taking into account the responsibility of her faults. Attempts have been made to trace the expression "sinful Church" back to patristic times, more specifically through the formula meretrix castealthough it is actually only one Father of the Church, St. Ambrose of Milan (In Lucam III, 23), when he speaks about Rahab, the harlot of Jericho, using her as a figure of the Church (as other ecclesiastical writers also did): but the holy bishop of Milan does it in a positive sense, saying that the faith chastely preserved (not corrupted) is spread among all peoples (symbolized by all those who enjoy the favors of the harlot, using the bloody language of that time).

Without entering now into this debated patristic question, it is worth asking ourselves if the position just exposed is legitimate. Let us keep in mind that rash judgments are severely condemned in the Bible, as early as the Old Testament, and Yahweh exhorts us not to judge by appearances. When the prophet Samuel tries to identify whom he should anoint as the future king David, the Lord warns him: "Take no notice of his appearance or how tall his stature is, for I have discarded him. God does not look as man looks; for man sees the appearance, but God sees the heart." (1Sa 16:7). 

The big question, in short, would be: seen the faults of holiness in the Church, should I discard the holiness of the Church? The key to the answer, following the logic of the biblical text cited, is in the word "seen". If we judge by what we see, the answer points to denial. But that entails proceeding according to "appearances", whereas the right thing to do is to look at "the heart". And what is the heart of the Church? What is the Church behind the appearances?

What is the Church?

This is where the waters divide. Looked at with worldly eyes, the Church is a religious organization, it is the Vatican curia, it is a power structure, or even, more benignly, it is a humanitarian initiative in favor of education, health, peace, aid to the poor, etc. 

Seen through the eyes of faith, these activities and forms of existence are not excluded in the Church, but they are not conceived of as fundamental, and the ecclesiastical is not identified with the ecclesial. The Church was already Church at Pentecost, when these forms and activities did not yet exist. She "it does not exist primarily where it is organized, where it is reformed or governed, but in those who simply believe and receive in it the gift of faith which for them is life".as Ratzinger states in his Introduction to Christianity. Specifically on the sanctity of the Church, the same text reminds us that she "consists in the power by which God works holiness in it, within human sinfulness.". Even more: she "is an expression of God's love that does not allow itself to be overcome by man's inability, but is always good to him, continually assumes him as a sinner, transforms him, sanctifies him and loves him".

In a very profound sense, we can (and must) say, in short, that the holiness of the Church is not that of men, but that of God. In this sense, we say that she is holy because she always sanctifies, even through unworthy ministers, through the Gospel and the sacraments. As Henri de Lubac says in one of his best works, 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 sanctifying men in Christ and by his Spirit. She shines without blemish in her sacraments, with which she nourishes her faithful; in the faith, which she always preserves uncontaminated; in the evangelical counsels she proposes, and in the gifts and charisms, with which she promotes multitudes of martyrs, virgins and confessors (Pius XII, Mystici Corporis). It is the holiness of the Church that we can call "objective": that which characterizes it as a "body", not as a simple juxtaposition of the faithful (Congar, Holy Church). Let us add that the Church is holy also because she continually exhorts to attain holiness.

The Church of the Pure

However, there is another problem, almost ironically indicated in Introduction to Christianitythe one of the "human dream of a world healed and uncontaminated by evil, (which) presents the Church as unmixed with sin.". This "dream", that of the "Church of the pure", is continually born and reborn throughout history in various forms: Montanists, Novatians, Donatists (first millennium), Cathars, Albigensians, Hussites, Jansenists (second millennium) and others still, have in common to conceive the Church as an institution formed exclusively by "uncontaminated Christians", "chosen and pure", the "perfect" who never fall, the "predestined". Thus, when the existence of sin is in fact perceived in the Church, it is concluded that this is not the true Church, the "holy Church" of the Symbol of faith. 

Here lies the mistake of thinking of the Church of today by applying the categories of tomorrow, of the eschatological Church, identifying in today's history the holy Church with the Church of the saints. It is forgotten that, while we are still on pilgrimage, the wheat grows mixed with the weeds, and it was Jesus himself who, in the well-known parable, explained how the weeds will have to be eliminated only at the end of time. This is why St. Ambrose spoke of the Church using also, and prevalently (also in the same work already cited), the expression immaculata ex maculatisliterally "the spotless one, formed by spotted ones".Only later, in the hereafter, she will be immaculata ex immaculatis!

The contemporary magisterium has reaffirmed this idea in Vatican II, saying that "the Church encloses sinners in her own bosom".. These belong to the Church and it is precisely thanks to this belonging that they can be purified of their sins. De Lubac, always in the same work, graciously says that "the Church is here below and will continue to be to the end an unruly community: wheat still among the chaff, an ark containing pure and impure animals, a ship full of bad passengers, who seem to be always on the point of taking her to the shipwreck."

At the same time, it is important to perceive that the sinner does not belong to the Church by reason of his sin, but because of the holy realities that he still retains in his soul, principally the sacramental character of baptism. This is the meaning of the expression "communion of saints".The Apostles' Symbol applies to the Church: not because it is composed only of saints, but because it is the reality of holiness, ontological or moral, that shapes it as such. It is communion between the holiness of persons and in holy things.

Having clarified these essential points, we must now add an important clarification. We have said, and we confirm it, that the Church is holy independently of the holiness of its members. But this does not prevent us from affirming the existence of a link between holiness and the spread of holiness, both at the personal and institutional levels. The means of sanctification of the Church are in themselves infallible, and make her a holy reality, independently of the moral quality of the instruments. But the subjective reception of grace in the souls of those who are the object of the Church's mission also depends on the holiness of the ministers, ordained and non-ordained, as well as on the good standing of the institutional aspect of the Church.

Worthy ministers

An example can help us to understand this. The Eucharist is always the sacramental presence of the paschal mystery and, as such, possesses an inexhaustible capacity for redemptive power. Even so, a Eucharistic celebration presided over by a publicly unworthy priest will produce fruits of holiness only in those faithful who, deeply formed in their faith, know that the effects of communion are independent of the moral situation of the celebrating minister. But for many others, such a celebration will not bring them closer to God, because they see no coherence between the life of the celebrant and the mystery celebrated. There will be others who will even flee in fright. As the Decree says Presbyterorum ordinis of the Second Vatican Council (n. 12), "although the grace of God can accomplish the work of salvation also through unworthy ministers, nevertheless, God prefers, by ordinary law, to manifest his wonders through those who, made more docile to the impulse and guidance of the Holy Spirit, by their intimate union with Christ and their holiness of life, can say with the apostle: 'It is no longer I who live, it is Christ who lives in me'" (1 Corinthians 5:17). (Gal. 2:20)."

In this perspective, the words addressed in October 1985 by St. John Paul II to the European bishops, in view of the new evangelization of Europe, take on a special force: "We need heralds of the Gospel who are experts in humanity, who know in depth the heart of today's man, who participate in the joys and hopes, in the anguish and sadness, and at the same time are contemplatives in love with God. For this we need new saints. The great evangelizers of Europe were the saints. We must pray to 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 individual case just described also happens with respect to the Church as an institution. If honesty is preached, and then it is discovered that in a diocese there is embezzlement of funds, that preaching, even if it is solidly based on the Gospel, will have little effect. Many who hear it will say "apply that teaching to yourself before preaching it to us". And this can also happen when this "misappropriation of funds" has taken place without malicious intent, out of simple ignorance or naivety.

The Second Vatican Council

In the context of this issue, the full text of the passage in the Vatican Council IIalready mentioned: "The Church encloses sinners in her own bosom, and being at the same time holy and always in need of purification, she continually advances along the path of penance and renewal." (Lumen Gentium 8). We can add other words of the same Council, addressed not only to the Catholic Church, which say: "Finally, all examine their fidelity to the will of Christ in relation to the Church and, as they should, undertake with courage the work of renewal and reformation." (Unitatis Redintegratio 4). This allows us to contemplate the picture in all its dimensions: purification, reform, renewal: concepts that, strictly speaking, are not synonymous.

Indeed, "purification" usually refers more directly to individual persons. Sinners still belong to the Church (if they are baptized), but they must be purified. Reformation" has a more markedly institutional aspect; moreover, it is not a matter of just any improvement, but of "taking up the original form" and, from there, relaunching it into the future. 

It should be noted that, although the visible "divinely instituted" aspect is immutable, the human-institutional aspect is changeable and perfectible. Thus we speak of a human-institutional aspect that, strada facendolost its original evangelical meaning. 

The moral situation of the Church in the 16th century, and most particularly of the episcopate, was in need of reform, and it was this that was implemented at the Council of Trent. Finally, "renewal," which does not presuppose in itself a morally negative structural situation: it is simply an attempt to implement a update so that evangelization can have an effective impact on a society that is constantly evolving. It is enough to compare the current Catechism of the Catholic Church with a catechism of the beginning of the 20th century to realize the importance of renewal. The latest modification of Book VI of the Code of Canon Law can be seen as a healthy renewal.

Continuous conversion

Two last points before closing these reflections. The first of the Vatican II texts just cited speaks of a purification that must be carried out "always" (not all Spanish translations respect the Latin original). semper). 

We can think something similar with respect to reform and renovation, which should be updated without allowing excessive periods of time to pass. It is not a matter of always changing things, but of constantly "cleaning" what is seen and what is not seen. If the Council of Trent had "cleansed" the Church earlier (perhaps a century earlier), we would probably have been spared the "other reformation", the Protestant one, with all the negative effects of the divisions in the Church.

Finally, it is important not to lose sight of the fact that purification, reformation and renewal must go hand in hand. Many do not understand the importance of the latter. If a good reform or renewal is designed (for example, the recent reform of the Roman Curia; or before that, the liturgical reform), but there is no purification of persons, the results will be insignificant. It is not enough to change structures: people must be converted. And this "conversion of persons" does not refer exclusively to their moral-spiritual situation, but also, albeit from another perspective, to their professional training, to their relational skills, to the soft skills so much appreciated today in the business world, etc. 

For some, the affirmation of Vatican II (Lumen Gentium 39) about the Church "unfailingly holy" (she cannot but be a saint) would be scandalous, triumphalist and contradictory. In reality, it would be that and much worse things still, if it were composed only of men and on the initiative of men. The sacred text tells us, on the other hand, that "Christ loved the Church and gave himself for her, that he might sanctify her. He purified her by the baptism of water and the word, because he wanted for himself a Church resplendent, without spot or wrinkle or any blemish, but holy and spotless." (Eph. 5:25-27). She is holy because Christ sanctified her, and even if countless heartless soulless men rise up to stain her, she 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 she is holy, the Church needs saints to fulfill her mission.

The authorPhilip Goyret

Professor of Ecclesiology at the University of the Holy Cross.

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