Believing in One Holy Church and living in a sinful one

Julia’s recent post calling for an ecclesiology which can account for fallibility engendered much discussion and raised some important questions. Since I am both on vacation and preparing for comprehensives, I didn’t see the post until it was too late to fruitfully comment. I hope now to offer a few brief remarks which might suggest an approach but which will necessarily be insufficient in themselves.

  1. Belief in the holiness of the Church is part of the creed we profess every week. What does it mean that the holiness of the Church is an object of faith? I think it suggests two things: 1) Since “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Heb 11:1), it is fair to surmise that to profess faith in a holy Church implies that we ought not expect to experience the Church as holy.  So, in what sense is the Church holy? To what does this statement of the creed refer? 2) In professing the holiness of the Church we refer not primarily to the pilgrim church on earth but to the eschatological Church. As the author of Hebrews writes: You have approached Mount Zion and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and countless angels in festal gathering,and the assembly of the firstborn enrolled in heaven,and God the judge of all, and the spirits of the just made perfect,and Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and the sprinkled blood that speaks more eloquentlythan that of Abel.” (Heb 12:22-24)In the celebration of the Eucharist we participate in the heavenly gathering of the eschatological Church. This heavenly gathering of all the nations around the Lamb who was slain is the Church properly speaking. This is the Church we profess to be holy. Each church on earth is only church in a derivative sense while remaining truly and really the Church. We profess the holiness of the eschatological Church because the sinfulness of the church on earth might lead us question whether the head of this body is truly Christ.
  2. The above is an important distinction, one which is often forgotten in Western theology, but it doesn’t really get to the heart of Julia’s concerns. The eucharistic and liturgical insights of the letter to Hebrews can again offer a way forward. While the Eucharistic celebration does indeed incorporate us in the future gathering of the Church of all times and places, it also points back to the Body sacrificed on the Cross. An adequate ecclesiology, therefore, ought not to speak triumphally of the chuch as glorious, perfect, and holy, but rather, it ought to reflect man as Christ reveals him on the cross. The Passion reveals the worst of humanity in Judas’ betrayal, Peter’s denial, the Apostles’ flee, the Sanhedrin’s jealous need to rid the world of the Just Man. In view of this, the proper response to the cross is penance and thanksgiving. The church on earth ought to be “better” than the world in view of the grace available to her members and the Spirit which guides her, but she remains a pilgrim people, a people on the way to holiness, a corpus admixtum. Because of our sinfulness the church cannot bear witness to Christ by proclaiming her own holiness. Such claims will only come across as hypocritical, as Julia rightly points out. Rather, the church bears witness to Christ by her repentance. This is a cruciform ecclesiology which embraces both the persecution of the world and the sin of her members and in doing so points to the freedom which comes from the Lamb who wants to gather us in to the kingdom of the Father.
  3. I think that a eucharistic ecclesiology, or ecclesiology of communion, as re-introduced by the Second Vatican Council, rightly understood, has all the elements necessary to answer Julia’s questions. Further, I think Pope Benedict might have similar things in mind. Recently one of L’Osservatore Romano’s top contributors, feminist Catholic historian Lucetta Scaraffia, in an interview whose main theme seemed to be the anger of women in the church over the misogyny of much of the hierarchy, explained the pope’s perspective as follows:

The pope “is very alone and has a very difficult papacy because all the problems which were hidden have now come to light… problems which took root in the Church 30 or 50 years ago,” she said.
Benedict was accused of being too slow to react to the sex abuse scandal, but he has launched an inquiry to get to the bottom of the leaks scandal.
“He has the courage to see things as they are,” she said.
“We have always covered scandals up, he lets them come to light. Many people believe it is better to hide things. He says the Church is not protected by silence,” she added.
“He thinks that, for purification, there needs to be shame.” (H/T: Whispers)

An ecclesiology which accounts for fallibility is one that so believes in the holiness of the eschatological Church that it willingly confronts sin and scandal, embraces shame and repentance out of love for the victorious Lamb who was slain. What is needed is an increase in faith in the holiness so that more of us ( and more of the hierarchy) may be able to confront and expose the past and present sins of this pilgrim people.

Note: I will attempt to approve and reply to comments quickly, but I remain out of town with only intermittent internet access.

  • http://turmarion.wordpress.com turmarion

    Excellent, excellent post! Kudos!

  • http://branemrys.blogspot.com Brandon Watson

    This is the Church we profess to be holy. Each church on earth is only church in a derivative sense while remaining truly and really the Church. We profess the holiness of the eschatological Church because the sinfulness of the church on earth might lead us question whether the head of this body is truly Christ.

    This requires drawing a line between invisible church and visible church in a way that I don’t think fits well with Catholic ecclesiology. This church here, and there, and everywhere throughout the world, is the Church, in a non-derivative sense, wherever Christ is — because wherever there is union with Christ, that just is the Church, no derivativeness about it. I think also that this overlooks the fact that the holiness of the Church is not just found in glory but in grace, and in the salvation and purification of sinners — that, in fact, the holiness of the Church just is the holiness of Christ and his Spirit, and wherever they are, there is holiness, and they are with us. And this shows that we do, in fact, experience the Church as holy here and now: in the recovery of the lost, in the repentance of the penitent, in the sacraments, and so forth. It is for this reason, and not merely out of belief of the holiness of the eschatological church, that repentance is absolutely essential. A holiness that is not found even with sinners is a holiness that does not save.

    “Holiness begins from Christ; and Christ is its cause. For no act conducive to salvation can be performed unless it proceeds from Him as from its supernatural source. ‘Without me,’ He says, ‘you can do nothing.’ If we grieve and do penance for our sins if, with filial fear and hope, we turn again to God, it is because He is leading us. Grace and glory flow from His inexhaustible fulness. Our Savior is continually pouring out His gifts of counsel, fortitude, fear and piety, especially on the leading members of His Body, so that the whole Body may grow ever more and more in holiness and integrity of life. When the Sacraments of the Church are administered by external rite, it is He who produces their effect in souls. He nourishes the redeemed with His own flesh and blood and thus calms the turbulent passions of the soul; He gives increase of grace and prepares future glory for souls and bodies.” [Pius XII, Mystici Corporis Christi 51]

    • http://giftofself.blogspot.com/ Joshua B

      Brandon,

      Thanks for reading and taking the time respond. You might be right. The sentences of mine you quote lack the nuance to correctly convey the relationship between the visible and the invisible church.

      By “derivative” I meant the following: each church on earth derives it churchness synchronically (from its bishop being a member of the college of bishops in communion with the pope) diachronically (from its bishop having authentic apostolic succession) and eschatologically (from eucharistically participating in the Church victorious).

      Also, if we use the biblical sense of “holy” as meaning set apart, then just as the OT People of God remained holy while stumbling and grumbling against the Lord so too does the pilgrim church. De Lubac, master of paradox and one of the more influential minds behind Lumen Gentium and Ratzinger’s ecclesiology, would have no problem juxtaposing the image of the church as the spotless Bride with the image of the church as harlot. The tension between the two, he would say, is fruitful and maintains the aspect of church as mystery.

      • http://branemrys.blogspot.com Brandon Watson

        The comparison with Israel makes a lot of sense, and suggests perhaps that we should think of it in terms of progress and regress (backsliding, in the sense in which Israel had a problem with backsliding) in incorporation — not in the sense that sinners are not part of the Body but that they can be, so to speak, parts of the Body going either the right way or the wrong way in the general consolidation of the Church. This might allow the saving of most of your suggestion, just in a form that has to do with direction to and away from Christ as Head rather than using class-labels. I.e., the eschatological Church as the Church at the center of a slow whirlpool, so to speak, where everything is going toward the center, and the pilgrim church as those of us bounding around in the turbulence between Center and circumference, but tending in general toward the center. Holiness then is the centripetal tendency that makes the Church what it is (and thus the Church, as such, is holy) even though throughout the pilgrim Church (1) there is the centrifugal tendency of sin and (2) even the centripetal tendency is not straight in but round and round. (But perhaps that’s taking the metaphor too far!)

  • http://agellius.wordpress.com Agellius

    This sounds like a way of accounting for the peccability of the Church rather than her fallibility.

  • http://chrysologus.blogspot.com Chrysologus

    Keeping in mind that the Church is bigger than just the “pilgrim Church on earth” is theologically helpful, though it often confuses people. Thus it is difficult for people to understand how the Church is holy when its members, clergy and laity alike, are sinners. Likewise it is difficult for people to understand how the Church can be said to maintain a true doctrine when bishops during a certain period of history seem to routinely contradict it or be ignorant of it (thus the previous post about religious freedom, which does not seem to be a doctrine of the Church at all points in history). The Vatican document We Remember got into this problem because it quoted JPII saying: “In the Christian world—I do not say on the part of the Church as such—erroneous and unjust interpretations of the New Testament regarding the Jewish people and their alleged culpability have circulated for too long, engendering feelings of hostility towards this people.” On the surface, it looks as if he is saying that the popes and bishops were not the ones who interpreted the NT in a way hostile to Jews, but actually that’s not what he meant. “The Christian world” is just a synonym for “pilgrim Church on earth.” I actually think this is a fine distinction (though one that depends upon believing that there is such a thing as the Church triumphant). The real problem, to me, is how people continue to use the word Church as a synonym for hierarchy. When we realize how much bigger the Church is, then it becomes easier to see where its holiness can be found.

    Perhaps it should also be added that the Church has no holiness of its own, as the moon has no light of its own. The Church can only reflect the holiness of Jesus, the Sun of Righteousness.

  • Rat-biter

    “And this shows that we do, in fact, experience the Church as holy here and now: in the recovery of the lost, in the repentance of the penitent, in the sacraments, and so forth. It is for this reason, and not merely out of belief of the holiness of the eschatological church, that repentance is absolutely essential. A holiness that is not found even with sinners is a holiness that does not save.”

    ## But this takes no account of the “satanicity” of the Church – let alone its too often hideously anti-Christian behaviour. What went on in Fascist Croatia from 1941 to 1944 had no similarity to the acts of Christ, but was well worthy of a puppet of Berlin.

    To look only at the good in the CC is woefully inadequate. Would we say to a leper, that least his eyes were in great shape ? That would be monstrous behaviour. A Church that is wilfully blind to its inner rottenness & so, to its potential to ruin its members, is a Typhoid Mary among Churches.

    • http://branemrys.blogspot.com Brandon Watson

      None of this follows at all, and precisely the point is that none of this follows: identifying holiness in the Church does not require overlooking sin, and recognizing sin doesn’t involve excluding holiness. This is simply an obvious category mistake, like your comparison of it to the eyes of a leper, which shows a failure to recognize that holiness is not just another thing human beings do. Holiness is not moral perfection but divine action, including the divine action by which sinners, even horrible sinners, are saved; and Jesus healed lepers. Claiming that any of this requires being “wilfully blind to inner rottenness” is simply a failure to understand what is meant in calling something holy, and especially a failure to understand that the most natural mode in which holiness is found among human beings — and what you are calling “satanicity”, which is in some ways an accurate enough name for it, could also just as easily be called ‘humanity’ given how widespread it is — is repentance. An understanding of holiness that cannot see that God’s holiness comes among human beings to save even the most abject sinners is an intrinsically anti-Christian conception of holiness; it is a denial of the possibility of Christ himself.

      What most people mean when they talk about this subject, of course, is precisely that: they don’t want to consider human beings as damning themselves with a damnation from which they must be rescuedd by divine holiness, but instead want to stew in a vague self-righteous condemnation of large groups of people without considering them as actual human beings. In reality, of course, while individuals here and there might perhaps act for no reason but inexplicable perverse depravity, but bad and evil behaviors among a large number of people always admit of an explanation in terms of human weakness and social pressures; what really separates them from us is generally nothing more than accidents of birth, upbringing, and career. We are the inner rottenness of the Church, the latent disease. But this is precisely why a failure to recognize a holiness that saves is pernicious: such incidents do not show that Christ does not work his holiness in the Church, they merely show our extraordinary need for him to do so.

      • Rat-biter

        “Holiness is not moral perfection but divine action”

        ## I’ve said that often enough, if not here. I learned that from Frank Sheed, though I forget the book. To be precise, it is both. I want to go by the NT says – & it emphasises holiness of life. To forget what the Bible says and to substitute the ideas of uninspired men is not a good idea.

        “Claiming that any of this requires being “wilfully blind to inner rottenness” is simply a failure to understand what is meant in calling something holy, and especially a failure to understand that the most natural mode in which holiness is found among human beings — and what you are calling “satanicity”, which is in some ways an accurate enough name for it, could also just as easily be called ‘humanity’ given how widespread it is — is repentance.”

        ## This is going to be difficult, because if I mention any of the horrors that I could (since they are evidence not of the action of Christ but of other agents altogether), you will accuse me of dragging up past horrors which one might hope had been forgiven by God, if not by man. If OTOH I do not mention them, I’ll be accused of trolling, or of failing to back up my accusations. So: am I to risk looking like a troll, a slanderer, or a liar – or even all three ? You choose.

        You want me to believe the Church is holy. OK. Some problems:

        1.What then prevents the USSR with its impressive body-count (Robert Conquest suggested a toll of 60 million under Stalin) being called holy ? If horrible crimes are compatible with holiness, the CC is not alone in being holy – other authorities which have committed unspeakable things can also qualify, and none of us would be any the wiser.

        2. Your position makes holiness unethical. It has to be believed in because it is asserted as a mark of the Church, as a theological reality. That there is very often no evidence for it in how people live, is apparently not an objection to asserting its presence in the Church. Holiness does not affect how people live – nonetheless, the CC is holy.

        3. There is however a wealth of counter-evidence against the proposition that the CC is holy. I mentioned the events in Croatia during WW2. Try telling a Serb that the CC is holy if you want to be knocked down. As Karl Keating says in one of his books, Catholics know a good deal against the Church. It is depressing & sickening to think of the horrors the CC has done, & it darkens the heart. These things promote the Kingdom of Satan, not that of Christ, & that is no different from making what should be holy & gracious, into an ante0-chamber to Hell. I resent thos hugely, because it is a crime against the Church, & a denial of the character of that befits it. It is to make Christ into a servant of the devil.

        4. This holiness-without-evidence-to-be-that–must-asserted-purely-because-it-is-a-dogma bears no relation to NT holiness, which was holiness that bore good fruit, not evil fruit. But you ask me to believe that the CC is holy despite the impressive abundance of bad fruit. This is worlds away from the NT picture. Holy people act holily, in a Christ-like way – they do not harm their fellow men, but love their neighbour as themselves. No need to tell me that holiness is of several kinds, not all of them ethical – Christian holiness is by its very nature ethical, and it displays the Righteousness of God, of which it is a manifestation. Where was this ethical holiness when the CC preferred to subordinate the well-being of minors to its good reputation ? And how was that not a decision in favour, not of the Kingdom of God, but in favour of hypocrisy ? What does it profit the CC if it wins or retains good reputation among men, but loses the right priorities ? Now we are in a Church that is despised even by life-long Catholics. Do you seriously expect me – or anyone else – to believe that St.Paul, who was horrified & mortified to hear of a single incestuous union in the Corinthian church, would regard the accumulated horrors done by the CC as compatible with Christian holiness & the Christian way of life ?

        5. Many things are Divine actions. Are we to suppose that because God acts, it follows that He does not make moral requirements ? Faith in Christ requires holy living evidenced by the fruit of the Holy Ghost, otherwise something is deeply wrong. But the “management” in the CC require, for membership in it, not the grace of God, but adherence to doctrines that have nothing to do with goldly living in Christ. And if one fails to adhere to a single dogma, however unimportant, one is not a Catholic. But ill-treatment of others is no big deal. And when people leave, they just fall off the radar – the CC does not need its members, except as sources of cash. The Good Shepherd had a slightly different approach.

        You say that I err by regarding the holiness of the Church as a human achievement:

        1.I regard all holiness as the gift of Christ Alone, Who is Alone Holy. I believe most firmly that it is totally & absolutely gratuituous. That it is utterly gratuitous & unelicited by anything in creation, does not mean that it does not have observable effects, let alone that it should not have such have such effects. If there is no evidence of its presence, & a vast weight of evidence to suggest it is not present, what is one to do ? I’ll believe the CC as an institution is holy when I see reason to think so.

        2. The objection would carry more weight if apologists did not use the holiness of the Church as exactly that: something for which the CC deserves credit. If apologists thought it was God’s gift, & not an achievement of the CC, they would treat it as a gift to the CC, instead of using it as a cudgel to lam Protestants over the head with, because of the absence (so some apologists appear to think) of Christ’s holiness among Protestants. But no – that is not their tone.

        By “satanicity” – & I should have explained what I meant, so I apologise for not doing so – I was not talking about human wickedness. I would said that, had I meant it. What was meant was the influence & power of the devil in the CC. The CC is supposed to be the Kingdom of, or a beginning of the Kingdom of, Christ. But instead of being His Kingdom, with His mind, His priorities, His mission, His methods, His tone, His attitudes, it appears all too often as though Satan is the Victor over Christ, & as though it is the Kingdom & power & will & purpose of the devil that is gloriously triumphant in the CC. No excuse should be needed for thinking in the apocalyptic terms Jesus did. I believe that the devil, though utterly defeated, is active in the world and in the Church. And the devil is not human.

  • Rat-biter

    Correction:

    for:

    Do you seriously expect me – or anyone else – to believe that St.Paul, who was horrified & mortified to hear of a single incestuous union in the Corinthian church, would regard the accumulated horrors done by the CC as compatible with Christian holiness & the Christian way of life ?

    read:

    Do you seriously expect me – or anyone else – to believe that St.Paul, who was horrified & mortified to hear of a single incestuous union in the Corinthian church, would regard the accumulated horrors done by the CC as compatible with Christian holiness & the Christian way of life ? It would be better to be to believe in no Christ & no God at all, than to believe that He is no longer Good & Holy, but a God Who rejoices in the wickedness of His servants. Because that is what in effect you are asking me to believe. I would rather believe the CC came from the pit of Hell, than pervert the Christian doctrine of God so as to make it subservient to belief in a Church that has authority to release itself from the duty of living holily that God might glorified by its manifesting His Holiness. It has, & can have, no such authority, but is subject to Christ. And if the CC rebels against its Divine King & Lord, He will be its Judge, & will shatter it, as He will all rebel against Him.