Can the church be both holy and sinful?

  Archbishop Charles C. Thompson of Indianapolis lays prostrate on the floor of Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral in Indianapolis Sept. 15 during a "Holy Hour for Prayer, Penance and Healing" for victims of sexual abuse. (CNS photo/Sean Gallagher, The Criterion) 

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.

Advertisement

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.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Jim MacGregor
1 year 9 months ago

This and related articles seem to rightfully stress the paradox of saint and sinner in each of us. Sinner because of our fallen nature and saint because of Jesus’ atonement for our sins to attribute Sanctification to us.
Have I understood the article correctly?

Dionys Murphy
1 year 9 months ago

I think so. Humanity, and therefore any institution created of humanity, is complex and imperfect.

William Bannon
1 year 9 months ago

I look at the sacraments and de fide doctrines and approved liturgies as Holy but not any of the people as Holy constantly and thus I think we need to stop calling Popes...His Holiness.
And I find support for that view not only in the obvious bad Popes of history but in how modern information makes us more aware than ever about the shortcomings of the very praised Popes of our time none of whom were zealous against this sex abuse. Indeed while the above author is very aware of the great event sainthood of religious groups, we are a conformist culture which is very often not known for heroes of an individual sort...ie the sex abuse years had no publically known Catholic heroes fighting the trend...lay or Pope. I Peter says, “ If the just man will scarcely be saved, where will the impious and the sinner appear.”
That passage helps me theologize this matter. It is inspired by the Holy Spirit and it is saying that Aquinas was scarcely saved...I hopefully will be scarcely saved...John Paul II was scarcely saved...my mom and all moms were scarcely saved. We need to look to what God says about Holy men and women...they are scarcely saved...either at great stress points of their lives...or with others, more continuously. But calling Popes...His Holiness is one little part of the problem...and I suspect it will not change until we get a Pope who Himself abrogates the practice definitively.

Patrick Murtha
1 year 9 months ago

You mistake in the understanding of the Church as "a perfect society." When philosophers speak of a perfect society, they merely mean that such a society is sufficient to accomplish its end. The Church is a perfect society in that it has the means to accomplish its ends--the salvation of men's souls. It being a perfect society has not to do with the perfection of the soul. It does not mean the Church is impeccable.

Nevertheless, your argument fails to follow reasonably the distinction between the institution and the members. You make the distinction, and then you cast it off as not being sensitive to the issue. You cannot accuse an institution of sin or criminality when the principles of the institution are opposed to those very sins. There is a distinction that must be made between the institution and its members. Remember Christ refers to Church as "I am the vine and you are the branches." This vine is incapable of being rotten, yet the branches may be marred. Therefore, they may be culled and burned.

Rhett Segall
1 year 9 months ago

When I taught theology in a Catholic high School theft would sometimes occur. Some students would exclaim "This is a Catholic school. There shouldn't be any stealing!" I'd respond "We're not Catholic because we don't sin. We're Catholic because we recognize we are sinners and need to be saved." One of the most important features of our school's communal celebration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation was seeing the invited priests themselves confess. Your underlining of Lumen Gentium's affirmation that the Church is simultaneously sinful and holy is most important.

Tim Donovan
1 year 9 months ago

As a Catholic who's gay and has been celibate for most of my life, it may be surprising that I agree with church teaching that marriage is the union of one man and one woman. However, many years ago I had sex with men. However, I recognized the error of my acts, and received forgiveness and consolation through the Sacrament of Reconciliation. I believe that the Church has many people who won in various ways. I certainly do, so I go to the Sacrament of Reconciliation each month. I believe that it the people of God frequently confess their sins and receive forgiveness, that the Church will be made up both of sinners and saints.

Dr.Cajetan Coelho
1 year 9 months ago

In our part of the world every coin has mostly two sides.

Patrick Murtha
1 year 9 months ago

Every currency of an analogy only goes so far. God is not a coin, and He has but one side.

Dionys Murphy
1 year 9 months ago

Anyone who has read the Bible and particularly experienced the God of the OT and NT can surely see that God has many sides and many manifestations.

Annette Magjuka
1 year 9 months ago

Every human is a sinner. Those in the church hierarchy are human and they sin. But to run a sex ring with rampant raping of children and running a cover up is both a sin and a crime. We are called to protect the vulnerable. Instead, the vulnerable were raped while others in the institution covered it up, obfuscated, and attacked the survivors and their families. The hierarchy live by subjugating women:women clean, cook and serve the priests without compensation. The entire set up
Is advantageous for the men in the hierarchy. All others are acceptable collateral damage to these selfish ends. “We are all sinners” does not cover it. Sorry.

Annette Magjuka
1 year 9 months ago

Every human is a sinner. Those in the church hierarchy are human and they sin. But to run a sex ring with rampant raping of children and running a cover up is both a sin and a crime. We are called to protect the vulnerable. Instead, the vulnerable were raped while others in the institution covered it up, obfuscated, and attacked the survivors and their families. The hierarchy live by subjugating women:women clean, cook and serve the priests without compensation. The entire set up
Is advantageous for the men in the hierarchy. All others are acceptable collateral damage to these selfish ends. “We are all sinners” does not cover it. Sorry.

Annette Magjuka
1 year 9 months ago

Every human is a sinner. Those in the church hierarchy are human and they sin. But to run a sex ring with rampant raping of children and running a cover up is both a sin and a crime. We are called to protect the vulnerable. Instead, the vulnerable were raped while others in the institution covered it up, obfuscated, and attacked the survivors and their families. The hierarchy live by subjugating women:women clean, cook and serve the priests without compensation. The entire set up
Is advantageous for the men in the hierarchy. All others are acceptable collateral damage to these selfish ends. “We are all sinners” does not cover it. Sorry.

Annette Magjuka
1 year 9 months ago

Every human is a sinner. Those in the church hierarchy are human and they sin. But to run a sex ring with rampant raping of children and running a cover up is both a sin and a crime. We are called to protect the vulnerable. Instead, the vulnerable were raped while others in the institution covered it up, obfuscated, and attacked the survivors and their families. The hierarchy live by subjugating women:women clean, cook and serve the priests without compensation. The entire set up
Is advantageous for the men in the hierarchy. All others are acceptable collateral damage to these selfish ends. “We are all sinners” does not cover it. Sorry.

Annette Magjuka
1 year 9 months ago

Every human is a sinner. Those in the church hierarchy are human and they sin. But to run a sex ring with rampant raping of children and running a cover up is both a sin and a crime. We are called to protect the vulnerable. Instead, the vulnerable were raped while others in the institution covered it up, obfuscated, and attacked the survivors and their families. The hierarchy live by subjugating women:women clean, cook and serve the priests without compensation. The entire set up
Is advantageous for the men in the hierarchy. All others are acceptable collateral damage to these selfish ends. “We are all sinners” does not cover it. Sorry.

Annette Magjuka
1 year 9 months ago

Every human is a sinner. Those in the church hierarchy are human and they sin. But to run a sex ring with rampant raping of children and running a cover up is both a sin and a crime. We are called to protect the vulnerable. Instead, the vulnerable were raped while others in the institution covered it up, obfuscated, and attacked the survivors and their families. The hierarchy live by subjugating women:women clean, cook and serve the priests without compensation. The entire set up
Is advantageous for the men in the hierarchy. All others are acceptable collateral damage to these selfish ends. “We are all sinners” does not cover it. Sorry.

Annette Magjuka
1 year 9 months ago

Every human is a sinner. Those in the church hierarchy are human and they sin. But to run a sex ring with rampant raping of children and running a cover up is both a sin and a crime. We are called to protect the vulnerable. Instead, the vulnerable were raped while others in the institution covered it up, obfuscated, and attacked the survivors and their families. The hierarchy live by subjugating women:women clean, cook and serve the priests without compensation. The entire set up
Is advantageous for the men in the hierarchy. All others are acceptable collateral damage to these selfish ends. “We are all sinners” does not cover it. Sorry.

Annette Magjuka
1 year 9 months ago

Every human is a sinner. Those in the church hierarchy are human and they sin. But to run a sex ring with rampant raping of children and running a cover up is both a sin and a crime. We are called to protect the vulnerable. Instead, the vulnerable were raped while others in the institution covered it up, obfuscated, and attacked the survivors and their families. The hierarchy live by subjugating women:women clean, cook and serve the priests without compensation. The entire set up
Is advantageous for the men in the hierarchy. All others are acceptable collateral damage to these selfish ends. “We are all sinners” does not cover it. Sorry.

Annette Magjuka
1 year 9 months ago

Every human is a sinner. Those in the church hierarchy are human and they sin. But to run a sex ring with rampant raping of children and running a cover up is both a sin and a crime. We are called to protect the vulnerable. Instead, the vulnerable were raped while others in the institution covered it up, obfuscated, and attacked the survivors and their families. The hierarchy live by subjugating women:women clean, cook and serve the priests without compensation. The entire set up
Is advantageous for the men in the hierarchy. All others are acceptable collateral damage to these selfish ends. “We are all sinners” does not cover it. Sorry.

Annette Magjuka
1 year 9 months ago

Every human is a sinner. Those in the church hierarchy are human and they sin. But to run a sex ring with rampant raping of children and running a cover up is both a sin and a crime. We are called to protect the vulnerable. Instead, the vulnerable were raped while others in the institution covered it up, obfuscated, and attacked the survivors and their families. The hierarchy live by subjugating women:women clean, cook and serve the priests without compensation. The entire set up
Is advantageous for the men in the hierarchy. All others are acceptable collateral damage to these selfish ends. “We are all sinners” does not cover it. Sorry.

Joe Mcmahon
1 year 9 months ago

The tongue-twister Suscipiat I learned in high school ended with this phrase: totiusque ecclesiae suae sanctae. In 2014, the USCCB commentary on the changes in English translation said of reintroducing the word "holy": "The addition of the word HOLY reminds us that the Church belongs to Christ, and is founded on His grace." However, the expression "holy Catholic church" is to my mind a ploy to honor the clerics who consider themselves The Church. It is they who failed to maintain the holiness of our church. Nowadays, I omit that suspect adjective when answering the Pray, Brethren.

gerald nichols
1 year 9 months ago

With all due respect for Mr. Flanagan, after reading much of the long treatise, I must say his efforts to cobble together a solution to the current state of the RC Church is futile.

Romanism is not based upon the gospel of Christ according to God's Word in the Bible. The Church actually distances itself from the scriptures by not rightly dividing them as taught by St. Paul.

Eternal life with Christ as the Head of the Body of Christ is obtained by believing Christ died for my sins, and His resurrection. Almighty God takes it from there and I live my life in Christ. Galatioans 2:20, 21 says:
20 I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.

Advertisement

The latest from america

Robert MacDougall in “Boys State” (photo: A24) 
In a new award-winning documentary about Texas Boys State, democracy is fraught with conflict.
Ryan Di CorpoAugust 14, 2020
We use the words “mystery” and “miracle” not to say that science has been stumped but rather to express the expansive claim that an event makes upon us.
Terrance KleinAugust 14, 2020
It has been two years since the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report was published, documenting in disturbing detail at least 1,000 cases of abuse by 300 predator priests spanning seven decades.
Colleen DulleAugust 14, 2020
The precedent for attacking an opponent on religious grounds is more apt than you might think.