“How much filth there is in the Church, and even among those who, in the priesthood, ought to belong entirely to [Christ]! How much pride, how much self-complacency! Christ’s betrayal by his disciples, their unworthy reception of his body and blood, is certainly the greatest suffering endured by the Redeemer; it pierces his heart. We can only call to him from the depths of our hearts: Kyrie eleison — Lord, save us! (cf. Mt 8:25)”
— Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger
2005 Way of the Cross reflections, 9th Station
One of the articles of faith in our Creed states: “I believe in one holy, Catholic, Apostolic Church.” As we can see, “holy” is one of the four marks of the Church. Being inscribed in the Creed, it means that every single Catholic must profess this belief to actually be Catholic.
It was not difficult to believe in such a statement during the first ecumenical councils, when this Creed was being compiled and discussed. The Church was young and had only recently gained widespread recognition, both from society and from the secular authorities. It had not yet had time to dirty Herself by playing footsies with power. All of its History until then consisted in an heroic stand against the corruption of a bloodthirsty and pagan Empire, through an unwavering adherence to the counter-values of peace, humility, detachment, faithfulness and fraternal love… right to the point of brave martyrdom.
That has changed, however. Throughout the centuries, even until yesterday, the Church has tainted Herself with various evils perpetrated by Her members, including higher clergy. Who can deny the immoral orgies, political power plays and bloody wars from the Renaissance Popes, more akin to kings than priests? Many of such horrible deeds were, in fact, done under the aegis of the title “Holy Mother Church.” And lest anyone may feel tempted in finding solace by burying such events in a distant past, we need only remember the abuse scandal erupting just this week, referring to crimes commited in the last 70 years or so.
Attentive to the objections of Modern Man, the Church has changed Her tone since at least the Second Vatican Council. It has been the only worldwide institution (that I know of) to acknowledge its troubled past and, in the person of Pope St. John Paul II, to ask forgiveness for all its past misdeeds. As a future pope would write in one of his books:
“We are tempted to say, if we are honest with ourselves, that the Church is neither holy nor Catholic: the Second Vatican Council itself ventured to the point of speaking no longer merely of the holy Church but of the sinful Church, and the only reproach it incurred was that of still being far too timorous; so deeply aware are we all of the sinfulness of the Church”
— Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger
Introduction to Christianity
However, as the sins from the Church keep piling up, the revolutionary nature of such acts of sorrow lose its power and effectiveness. As the apologies accrue, so does our desensitization to them, so that they start to ring hollow, a mere exercise of PR and damage control.
Still, we should welcome this evolution. It is no longer sustainable to maintain a triumphalistic view of the Holy Mother Church, as we had until the 1960s. It is about time that the Church would recognize, hierarchically speaking, its sinful nature.
Nevertheless, I do think that such an evolution, though necessary, is unfortunately incomplete. Don’t get me wrong. It is probably wise, in the wake of the abuse scandal, to keep the Church in this intermediate step for a while. Let’s indeed focus on the sinfulness of the Church, for it has brought great scandal to many believers and would-be believers, not mentioning the great pain and suffering to the abuse victims. Now it is not the time for apologetics, for it is not a time for excuse-making. Rather, it’s the time for sackcloth and ashes, a time for honest contrition and atonement. Only by following the biblical example of sinful contrite Israel, or Nineveh, may the Church regain Her holiness, as Pope Francis states on his excellent exhortation about this topic:
“It is not good when we look down on others like heartless judges, lording it over them and always trying to teach them lessons. (…) Humility can only take root in the heart through humiliations. Without them, there is no humility or holiness. If you are unable to suffer and offer up a few humiliations, you are not humble and you are not on the path to holiness.”
— Pope Francis
Gaudete et Exsultate, #117-118
By being schooled by the same secular society the Church has, for centuries, tried to teach and be a moral guide of, She may only grow in holiness, if She takes the opportunity to do some soul-searching instead of hiding inside a shell of self-pity. We should not fear this, for we know the Church to be indestructible until the end of times. The Church will survive this… the souls that may be lost because of this scandal however, those are the ones we should be concerned with.
And this brings me to the necessity of not exhausting ourselves in this intermediary step, but keep moving forward in our evolution in how to understand the Church. For if we press too much onto the sinfulness of the Church, we may actually worsen the bleeding of souls away from the Faith (and, possibly, away from the salvation such faith entails.) For, if the Church is just a den of sin and repugnant crimes, why follow Her at all?
Yet, the holiness of the Catholic Church keeps popping up at every single Mass, infallibly defined in our Creed. A holiness that is being increasingly being brought into dispute… So, what should we do?
I sincerely think the next step should be… to do away with the false dichotomy of Holiness vs. Sinfulness. Honestly, it would be solve many, many problems.
For far too long, we have seen images of the saints towering over our altars or posing regally in our prayer cards. Their seraphic demeanor gives them an otherworldly appearance… and therefore, a certain inaccessibility to the common mortal, who must only bow before them to ask their intercession.
However, apart from Jesus Christ (God Incarnate, in Whom no sin was possible) and the Virgin St. Mary (preserved from sin since conception), every saint attained his/her crown by wrestling with sin. In fact, we can say that, apart from those exceptions, sainthood presupposes the existence of sin.
It would do a lot of good to bring down those images of the saints to the level of the common mortal. To make their struggles more known, to show their frailty, to unashamedly explore their sinfulness. By doing so, everyday man could find in them friends with which he can relate to, someone who understands his struggles, an example to emulate, and companionship along an otherwise lonely journey. The saints could be singing on everyday man’s ear the same words Christina Perri sings in her song “I Believe“:
“I have been where you are before,
And I have felt the pain of losing who you are,
And I have died so many times but I am still alive”
In fact, we can hear echoes of such a song precisely in one quote from a saintly pope:
“Christian holiness does not mean being sinless, but rather it means struggling not to give in and always getting up after every fall”
— Pope St. John Paul II
How should we understand this balance between holiness and sinfulness in the Church (and by this I mean, the hierarchy)?
Maybe it would be instructive to see how it all started. When Christ Himself, sinless and divine, instituted His Church, He didn’t call the visibly virtuous to be His Apostles. “Have not I chosen you twelve; and one of you is a devil?” (Jo 6:71). Yes, Jesus consciously knew that one of those He chose would betray Him… and that one would never be canonized.
But even among the other Apostles, the ones who made the cut for canonization, things don’t look much better. Constantly, Jesus finds them contending who among them would be the greatest in the Kingdom of God (an earthly kingdom according to their misconceptions.) And yet, every single one of them (except St. John) would desert Him when He went out to be Crucified. St. Peter himself, the one Jesus gave prominence to, by offering him the keys to bind and lose in Earth as in Heaven, would go on and deny Him thrice.
Let me repeat this, for people may risk not understanding how important this is: every single bishop save one was not at the side of Christ at the time He was being brutally tortured and murdered. Only one bishop stood by Him… the rest of those that remained with Him were part of the laity, or to be more precise, laywomen, who could not be ordained.
It was like this in the beginning of the Church, when the hierarchy had been chosen by Christ Himself. If Christ asks us to see Him in the least of these, in those who are persecuted or abused, then we should not be surprised if this plays out again nowadays. Surely we can be disgusted, but really not surprised.
So, I can only conclude that there is a catechesis here somewhere. The Church’s sinfulness, it seems, doesn’t look like a bug, but a feature. Why would He do this, though?
The answer lies probably in the words of another Apostle, handpicked by Jesus Himself after a life of persecution of His Church (i.e. sinfulness):
“But we hold this treasure in pots of earthenware, so that the immensity of the power is God’s and not our own”
— 2 Cor 4:7 (NJB)
Knowing how prone Man’s heart is for idolatry and personality cults, it is wise of God to build a Church out of sinful men, not holy ones. Seems foolish at first, but it is actually wise… for one of God’s trademarks is precisely “foolish wisdom.” It would be too easy, if the Church was led solely by virtuous men, to ascribe the Church’s success to their own actions and competence. How long until men would fall into spiritual pride, the sin more difficult to heal?
We would risk incurring in an error that is, unfortunately, very prevalent even today: the notion that we attain holiness through our own actions. This error has been condemned by Pope Francis in his exhortation on holiness, under the name “neopelagianism“:
“Those who yield to this pelagian or semi-pelagian mindset, even though they speak warmly of God’s grace, “ultimately trust only in their own powers and feel superior to others because they observe certain rules or remain intransigently faithful to a particular Catholic style”. When some of them tell the weak that all things can be accomplished with God’s grace, deep down they tend to give the idea that all things are possible by the human will, as if it were something pure, perfect, all-powerful, to which grace is then added. (…) Ultimately, the lack of a heartfelt and prayerful acknowledgment of our limitations prevents grace from working more effectively within us, for no room is left for bringing about the potential good that is part of a sincere and genuine journey of growth (…) Grace acts in history; ordinarily it takes hold of us and transforms us progressively. If we reject this historical and progressive reality, we can actually refuse and block grace, even as we extol it by our words. (…) So often we say that God dwells in us, but it is better to say that we dwell in him, that he enables us to dwell in his light and love. He is our temple; we ask to dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of our life (cf. Ps 27:4). “For one day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere” (Ps 84:10). In him is our holiness.”
— Gaudete et Exsultate, #49-51
In other words, holiness doesn’t come from the way we act, but from letting ourselves be transformed by God’s grace, Who alone is holy.
We see this also in the History of primordial Church. After being shamed into a dark corner by Jesus’ death, the Apostles receive the visit from the Resurrected Christ and, ultimately, are infused with the Holy Spirit. On the day of Pentecost, the Church as we know it is born. After the humiliation of having been deemed unworthy of Christ by letting Him perish, they are transformed by the Holy Spirit and start their evangelizing mission, spreading His Gospel all over the world.
This pentecostal (re)birth is something the Church must (re)learn and (re)experience in every age, every generation… in fact, everyday.
This notion of the Church as simultaneously holy and sinful has, in fact, a long tradition, even if such tradition has not been as explored, developed and preached as I think it should. For example, in my once very conservative and pious country, I was never taught that I should view priests as some kind of impeccable race of men… rather, sometimes their sins were widely known in the public square. My grandmother was always repeating an old Portuguese proverb about it being “incomprehensible how doctors die and priests go to Hell” (it is funnier in Portuguese, because it is punny and rhymes.)
What about the old saying (erroneously attributed to St. John Chrysostomon) about “the road to Hell being paved by the skulls of bishops“? What about that story, frequently disseminated in Catholic media, about a dictator (his identity varies according to whom is telling the story) telling a priest (in some versions the Pope) that he would destroy the Church, only to hear from the priest that “if we haven’t been able to destroy the Church from the inside, neither will you“? What about Dante Alighieri placing two popes in Hell in his literary masterpiece? And so many medieval plays and paintings portraying the moral decay from the clergy, while at the same time exuding Catholic piety and reverence?
But nowhere is this contrast so poignant as in St. Hildegard of Bingen’s visions. This medieval Doctor of the Church oftentimes depicted the Church (“Ecclesia“) allegorically as a female of great splendor:
“After this I saw the image of a woman as large as a great city, with a wonderful crown on her head and arms from which a splendor hung like sleeves, shining from Heaven to earth. Her womb was pierced like a net with many openings, with a huge multitude of people running in and out. She had no legs or feet, but stood balanced on her womb in front of the altar that stands before the eyes of God, embracing it with her outstretched hands and gazing sharply with her eyes throughout all of Heaven. I could not make out her attire, except that she was arrayed in great splendor and gleamed with lucid serenity, and on her breast shone a red glow like the dawn”
— Scivias II.3
However, the same saint, who also composed magnificent hymns in honor of Ecclesia, had something to say about Her darker facet. In fact, she spared no punches, using very suggestive imagery, and a language not for the faint of heart:
“And I saw again the figure of a woman whom I had previously seen in front of the altar that stands before the eyes of God; she stood in the same place, but now I saw her from the waist down. And from her waist to the place that denotes the female, she had various scaly blemishes; and in that latter place was a black and monstrous head. It had fiery eyes, and ears like an ass’, and nostrils and mouth like a lion’s; it opened wide its jowls and terribly clashed its horrible iron-colored teeth. And from this head down to her knees, the figure was white and red, as if bruised by many beatings; and from the knees to her tendons where they joined her heels, which appeared white, she was covered with blood. And behold! That monstrous head moved from its place with such a great shock that the figure of the woman was shaken through all her limbs. And a great mass of excrement adhered to the head; and it raised itself up upon a mountain and tried to ascend the height of Heaven. And behold, there came suddenly a thunderbolt, which struck that head with such great force that it fell from the mountain and yielded up its spirit in death.”
— Scivias III.11
The Church is glorious and holy, but inside Her dwells also great sinfulness, which can only be conquered by God Himself. This simultaneous holiness and sinfulness of the Church may be difficult to accept sometimes, but is actually a huge grace for us, the layfolk striving to adhere to Her. For two reasons…
The first reason is that it cements the notion of the Church as a field hospital for sinners. If the Church is not an exclusive club for the virtuous, led by super-heroes, then a person who deems him/herself as a sinner does not need to be ashamed to seek the Church’s embrace… and to find a worthy place in the Church’s functioning.
The second reason is that it may actually be an antidote for our natural judgmentalism and Phariseeism. If we follow the Church, because we know that God is acting in Her in spite of all Her sinfulness and messiness, then we should not be too quick to judge those individuals we deem sinners too, for God may very well be working in their lives. In fact, herein lies a key for adequately interpreting Amoris Laetitia… many of those who dissent from this document are scandalized because they can’t seem to grasp that God’s grace may actually be present in those imperfect situations they too quickly rush to judge as mortal sin. But as we have seen, God does not shy away from the darkness of our sin, but in fact can act through (or in spite of) it, progressively bringing about a more perfect realization of His will, if we are patient enough (and non-judgmental enough) to let Him act.
In the end, the Church is not just the hierarchy, but every single one of us. And I do believe that what I expounded in this article can very well apply to all, be them popes, bishops, priests, deacons, religious and laypeople. In each of us lies both holiness and sinfulness, so what is true for the institutional is certainly reflected at the individual level. It is up to the laity to demand accountability and transparency from the Church, but we should not oppose clericalism by falling into the opposite error of anticlericalism, for the laity is not immune to the same sins and mistakes.
Ultimately the hierarchical Church has, throughout all of Her History, without exception, kept Her primary functions: 1) providing the sacraments with which the Christian may receive sanctifying grace and 2) maintaining orthodoxy of teaching in faith and morals. After all, Donatism, the doctrine that maintains a priest must be faultless for the sacraments he administers to be valid, has rightfully and thankfully been condemned as heresy. And not even in the dark papacy of Alexander VI was any heresy ever spewed from the mouth of St. Peter’s See.
The fact that the Church remains indefectible even in the middle of so much filth should give us hope. On my end, it compels me to remain steadfast to Her teachings, not to take this opportunity to rail against doctrines I may find difficult to understand and live by. And even as I denounce the injustices in Her midst (which is also an act of love for Her), I am also called to proclaim this long-forgotten doctrine of the Church as a monstrous hybrid chimera of holiness and sinfulness. When the Church faced the greatest crises, God always sent the greatest saints to rebuild Her… this means God never abandons His Church, and that fills me with joy, for it means He will never abandon me.
Therefore, when I recite the Creed, I have no compunction in proclaiming:
“I believe in one holy (sinful) Catholic Church.“
[Photo credit: “St. Peter Penitent”, Gerrit van Honthorst, 1613-1620]
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Pedro Gabriel, MD, is a Catholic layman and physician, born and residing in Portugal. He is a medical oncologist, currently employed in a Portuguese public hospital. A published writer of Catholic novels with a Tolkienite flavor, he is also a parish reader and a former catechist. He seeks to better understand the relationship of God and Man by putting the lens on the frailty of the human condition, be it physical and spiritual. He also wishes to provide a fresh perspective of current Church and World affairs from the point of view of a small western European country, highly secularized but also highly Catholic by tradition.