Believing in One Holy Church and living in a sinful one

Believing in One Holy Church and living in a sinful one July 18, 2012

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.


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