Can the church be both holy and sinful?
Like many of my friends, colleagues and fellow Catholics, I have been deeply disturbed by the recent revelations of just how much church leaders have failed in their obligations to protect our young people and to provide examples of holiness to the church. A number of practical suggestions for structural changes have been made, and many of them will help in the reform of our church. As a Catholic and a theologian who studies the nature of the church, I want to suggest another contributing factor to the sexual abuse crisis: an inadequate theology of ecclesial sinfulness.
The denial or covering up of abuse and the silencing of victims and their families often occurred out of a desire to prevent “scandal” and to preserve a false theology of ecclesial holiness. Our inability to speak clearly and candidly about ecclesial sin was not the only or primary cause of the abuse crisis, but it compounded abuse of children and young adults in its attempts to preserve a façade of perfection and purity. That façade not only hid the horror of clerical sexual abuse behind a wall of institutional silence; in its recent collapse, it has come crashing down upon the faith of numerous Catholics in the holiness of their church.
The denial or covering up of abuse and the silencing of victims and their families often occurred out of a desire to prevent “scandal” and to preserve a false theology of ecclesial holiness.
The Holy and Sinful Church
Catholics in earlier centuries, while maintaining faith in the holiness of the church affirmed in our creeds, were willing to name its failings, including those of its members, its leaders and its communities as a whole. In the midst of the Pelagian controversies of the fifth century, for example, the Council of Carthage in 418 (attended by St. Augustine) taught that when Christians pray the Lord’s Prayer, all Christians—without exception—had to ask God “to forgive us our trespasses” in their own voice and not on behalf of some other people, as though they were sinless themselves.
Christians did not hesitate to call out the sinfulness of their leaders, as in the quote attributed variously (though likely erroneously) to St. Athanasius, St. John Chrysostom and others that “the road to hell is paved with the skulls of erring bishops.” Even cardinals were not exempt; according to one medieval folk tradition, a cardinal’s soul was released from purgatory only when his galero, the wide-brimmed red hat hung from the ceiling of the cardinal’s church after his death, finally rotted enough to fall to the floor.
Why, then, in recent years have Catholics been so hesitant to speak clearly and candidly about the church as sinful? For a few reasons—some praiseworthy, some problematic. The first is our firm belief in the holiness of the church. On the surface, it seems that ecclesial sanctity and sinfulness are mutually exclusive—and, in important ways, that is true. The participation in the life of God that we call “holiness” precludes sin, and in the fullness of life that we can look forward to in the reign of God we will be freed from every stain of sin and every shadow of death.
Yet, as St. Augustine taught so well, in our current time between the ascension of Christ and his return in glory, the church is always a “corpus permixtum,” a mixed body of saints and sinners, including serious sinners who remain part of the church even in a limited way. The struggle for greater transparency to God’s grace and greater freedom from sin also goes on in each one of us who prays the Our Father daily; each of us is aware of our need for forgiveness to live a more holy and free way of life. That experience of the church as a mixed body and of ourselves as sinners who are already holy yet still saints-in-progress is part of the reality of a holy and sinful church.
In our current time between the ascension of Christ and his return in glory, the church is always a “corpus permixtum,” a mixed body of saints and sinners, including serious sinners who remain part of the church even in a limited way.
But what about Jesus Christ, the head of the church, and Mary, the mother of the church? Does not their sinlessness preclude naming the church as sinful? And not theirs alone: We can point to the holiness of the saints and martyrs who rest in the presence of God. In those ranks we can see both those whom we know and venerate on the calendar and the anonymous saints, the “ordinary people in ordinary time,” as Elizabeth Johnson names them, who led lives of holiness unnoticed because of the biases of their times about what “counted” as holiness or the very ordinariness of quiet lives spent in imitation of Christ.
We can name whole holy communities who followed Christ together, like the Trappists of Tibhirine who died out of fidelity to the needs of their Muslim neighbors or the Protestants of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon who worked together to save thousands of Jews from extermination in the Shoah. Given all these holy women and men, given the headship of Christ and the example of Our Lady, how can we call the church “sinful”?
The example of the saints and the presence of Christ through the Holy Spirit in the church are precisely why we can believe that even in the midst of its pilgrimage, the church already is holy. The church may stumble at times, but it is stumbling in a wider context of holiness, rather than toward a holiness that is entirely future and unknown. So the saints, known and unknown, and the presence of Christ himself are the great “first fruits” of the future fullness of holiness. We are not only thinking about the future when we say “we believe in the holy Catholic church.”
The gates of hell will not prevail against Christ’s church. Christ did not promise, however, that the route to that destination would necessarily be direct, without detours or hardships, without sin and the continuing effects of past sin.
And so Christ’s ascension, Mary’s assumption and the joy of all the saints in God’s presence do not entail an escape from our mixed reality of holiness and sin. Rather, both Christ who emptied himself to become part of our complicated, messy human history and the saints who imitate his example remain part of the church, praying with and for us, interceding on our behalf and sharing the pain of a church that is yet holy and sinful.
In fact, one of the theological achievements of the past century that allows us to speak more clearly about the church’s sin and sanctity is the recovery of the sense of the church as a pilgrim church on a journey. It is sent on its way to the reign of God with everything it needs for the journey, and Christ’s promise is that our destination is secure—the gates of hell will not prevail against Christ’s church. Christ did not promise, however, that the route to that destination would necessarily be direct, without detours or hardships, without sin and the continuing effects of past sin.
In the “in between” opened up between Christ’s life, death, resurrection and ascension, on the one hand, and the completion of his victory in the reign of God, on the other, we the church shuffle along, never allowed by the Holy Spirit to lose the way entirely but also never deprived of our freedom to answer God’s call to holiness or to ignore that call. Within this framework, an “eschatological” framework that takes account of the church’s location as already holy but not yet perfect, as “at the same time holy and always in need of being purified,” in the words of “Lumen Gentium,” we can begin to speak more clearly about our firm belief in a holy church and at the same time speak about the tragic reality of ecclesial sin.
A Problematic Formula
Without such an eschatological framework, theologians have struggled to find a way to reconcile belief in the holiness of the church with their knowledge of sin committed by members of the church, by leaders of the church or by whole communities of Christians. The most dominant formulation has been the idea that “the church does not sin, but its members do.” But that formula has undermined our ability to name and claim our church’s sins and contributed to our inadequate responses to the crises of the church in recent years.
Developed most clearly by the theologian Charles Journet in the early 20th century, this formula was a step forward in a Catholic Church previously marked by an extreme overestimation of its own saintliness. In the face of 19th- and 20th-century theologies of the church as a “perfect society,” existing outside of the limitations of time and space, of history and human error, Journet’s formula prompted Catholic theologians to remember the real sins committed in the name of the church or by the leaders of the church in near and distant history. But without a strong enough sense of the church’s location in time, both in history and in the wider eschatological horizons of God’s ongoing plan for humanity, the formula helped foster a dangerous division between an abstract, ideal, sinless church and the more messy, complicated embodiment of the church that we experience.
Such a formula leads to a distinction between the concrete, historical church, the corpus permixtum of saints and sinners, and an idealized, abstract entity called “the church,” often personalized as “the Bride of Christ” or “Holy Mother Church.” It attempted to resolve the paradox that the church will be spotless, sinless, fully holy and fully alive in God’s presence, and begins to be so even now, but that until the completion of God’s plan, all of us, including the saints, remain “groaning in the pains of childbirth,” in Paul’s words, for a future that has not yet arrived. This attempted resolution of the paradox divides the real, concrete church from its head and its saintly members and prevents us from either addressing our own sinfulness or appreciating the real holiness that sparks out regularly and clearly from the stubble of our lives.
Claiming a perfection for the church that it does not yet possess leads to a false and fragile notion of ecclesial holiness, a premature claim for sinlessness and perfection that cannot withstand the truth of our leaders’ (and our own) fallibility. A church that cannot sin is, at best, a mirage that tempts us to ignore our need for further purification and conversion, our need to lament, apologize and reform. At worst, a church that cannot sin is an idol to whom the lives of numerous children were sacrificed in a misguided attempt to “avoid scandal.”
Hoping in Ordinary Holiness
Does this mean that we should despair of the holiness of the church? Absolutely not! Just as only speaking about the ecclesial holiness and not its sinfulness leads to a warped understanding of the church, only speaking about ecclesial sin, as some inside and outside the church are tempted to do, leads to an equally mistaken theology of the church. Theologians’ hesitation to speak of ecclesial sin is rooted in awareness that God’s holiness and desire to share that holiness with the People of God is stronger than our ability to thwart God’s plans.
Claiming a perfection for the church that it does not yet possess leads to a false and fragile notion of ecclesial holiness, a premature claim for sinlessness and perfection that cannot withstand the truth of our leaders’ (and our own) fallibility.
The holiness of the church, rooted in God’s calling and in its final destiny, can still be found in its saints—both in the “big names” that grace our churches and chapels but also, and perhaps more powerfully, in what Pope Francis called in “Gaudete et Exsultate”the “next-door holiness” of ordinary Christians leading lives of quiet discipleship. The backbone of ecclesial holiness has always been God’s grace and the reception of that grace in humble, faithful, sometimes sinful yet always repentant lives of ordinary holiness.
In the coming years, thanks to further investigations and testimony, we are likely to come to greater and more painful knowledge of how deeply and repeatedly our leaders failed in their protection of minors. We need to lament what was done and left undone, by us and on our behalf. We need to remember and keep retelling the dangerous memories of victims of clergy sexual abuse. We need to carry out practical reforms that will prevent further abuses of power of various kinds. But we also need to recover and renew in our lives a vision of the church as a pilgrim people, already holy yet still sinful. We need to learn to see ourselves as part of God’s ongoing project to heal and sanctify the world, begun in Christ but yet to be fulfilled, and to believe in a holy and sinful church.