When we describe the church as holy, we confront the paradoxical nature of the church. Just as last week when we spoke of the church as one, it doesn't seem to gibe.
To say the church is holy in the face of the Inquisition, the Crusades, the conquest of the Americas and today's sexual abuse scandals seems to severely distort reality. The church is not holy or divine in nature, one might argue; it is human, all too human. It is the work of men and women -- mostly men -- and not the work of God.
Indeed, throughout the centuries, several movements have sought to drive the sinfulness out of the church. Movements such as the Donatists, Waldenses and Jansenists have, at various times and in various ways, tried to preserve the purity of the church through revulsion against priests, bishops and popes who were public sinners. Some of these purists were burned at the stake -- an act which only seems to support their point.
The church, on its better days, has responded by maintaining that the sacredness of the sacraments does not depend on the sinlessness of the priest administering them. It has also responded in the light of Christ's parable of the weeds of sin mixed with the good wheat (Matthew 13:24-30). Leave the weeds alone, said Jesus, "for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them."
The church sanctifies the world not in spite of the sinfulness of its makers, but right in the midst of sin. Our work is to be like Christ who God made "to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Corinthians 5:21). The duty of the church is not to separate itself, but to exist in the midst of the muck of sin.
Through the church, the holiness of God becomes apparent, not the holiness of men and women. Christ, executed like a sinner, is in complete solidarity with us in our sinfulness. The church is the vehicle for God's holiness and God's mercy to be made known to the world even, paradoxically, through people who are themselves profane.
We cannot separate Christ from his church. We cannot conclude that the church is a degenerate "institution" as distinguished from Christ who is the Holy One.
Such a dualism would ultimately be a counsel of despair. For if there is no vehicle in this world to inaugurate us into the life of Christ then there is no hope of salvation. If we must rely on our own holiness or on the holiness of others, we are doomed. We are all great sinners.
Hope can be found through the church precisely because it is holy. "United with Christ, the church is sanctified by him through him and with him she becomes sanctifying," says the Catechism of the Catholic Church (no. 827).
The catechism further emphasizes this point with a quote from Pope Paul VI's Credo of the People of God: "The church is therefore holy, though having sinners in her midst because she herself has no other life but the life of grace. If they live her life, her members are sanctified; if they move away from her life, they fall into sins and disorders that prevent the radiation of her sanctity" (no. 827).
We don't make the church; it is a gift we receive. It is not the result of our own initiative or activity, but rather is something which is done "with me according to your word" (Luke 1:38). Our role is to cooperate with the holiness of God and to pass on the gift of life which he offers us. We become holy to the extent we cooperate with God.
In the first chapter of his letter to the Galatians, Paul tells the story of his conversion and ministry. One might think he was boasting of his exploits. But read to the end of the story and find out that it was not Paul doing these things. Paul is dead. "I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me" (Galatians 2:19-20).
The possibility of life is open to us too. We gain it not through our own merit or activity, but through an acceptance of the love Christ makes available to us through the holiness of the church.
Copyright © 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 -- Western Catholic Reporter
Our mission: To serve our readers by bringing the Gospel to bear on current issues in the Church and in secular culture through accurate news coverage and reflective commentary.