Not yet without spot or wrinkle
In his polemics against the Donatists and then against the Pelagians, Augustine insisted on the mixed character of the Church on earth. In the passage below, he repeats his argument, this time against Manicheans. He invokes the two New Testament passages that he thinks clinch the argument: the plea in the Lord's Prayer and the warning of the Beloved Disciple. Augustine's point is very concrete, and not easily compatible with the view one hears often today: that the Church herself is without sin but not without sinners.
But, the Manicheans say, How is the flesh by a certain likeness compared to the Church? Surely the Church does not lust against Christ? Did not the same Apostle say, 'The Church is subject to Christ'' (Eph 5:24)? Yes, the Church is subject to Christ; because the spirit lusts against the flesh so that the Church may in every way be made subject to Christ; but the flesh lusts against the spirit because the Church has not yet received the perfect peace promised her. The Church is made subject to Christ as a pledge of salvation, and the flesh lusts against the spirit out of the weakness of sickness. It was to members of the Church, after all, that the Apostle said: Walk in the spirit, and do not fulfill the lusts of the flesh. For the flesh lusts against the spirit, and the spirit against the flesh; for these are opposed the one to the other so that you do not do what you wish to do (Gal 5:16-17). These things were certainly said to the Church, and if it were not subject to Christ, in it the spirit would not be lusting against the flesh through self-control. That is why they were able to avoid fulfilling the lusts of the flesh, even while, because the flesh lusts against the spirit, they could not do the things they wished, that is, not have the lusts of the flesh themselves. But then, why should we not confess that in spiritual people the Church is subject to Christ, but in carnal people still lusts against Christ? Were they not lusting against Christ to whom it was said, Has Christ been divided? (1 Cor 1:13) and I could not speak to you as to spiritual people but as to carnal people, as to little children. I gave you milk to drink, not meat; for you were not yet able. But even now you are not able, for you are still carnal. For since there is among you envy and contention, are you not still carnal? (1 Cor 3:1-3). Against whom does envy and contention lust but against Christ? Christ heals these lusts of the flesh in his own, but he loves them in no one. That is why as long as the Church has such members, it is not yet without spot or wrinkle.To those sins are added also those for which the voice of the Church prays every day, Forgive us our debts (Mt 6:12). Lest we think that spiritual people are exempt from these sins, it was not a carnal person nor even some one of the spiritual people, but he who leaned against the breast of the Lord, the one whom Jesus loved more than the others (Jn 13:23), who said: If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us (1 Jn 1:8). Every sin involves lust against righteousness, more in a greater sin, less in a lesser sin. And it was of Christ that it was written: Who was made by God for us wisdom and righteousness and sanctification and redemption (1 Cor 1:30). Without doubt, then, every sin involves lusting against Christ.But when He, Who heals all our sicknesses, shall have led His Church to the promised healing of sickness, then in none of his members will there be the slightest spot or wrinkle. Then the flesh will not in any way lust against the spirit, and there will be no reason for the spirit to lust against the flesh. Then all this conflict will come to an end; then there will be the highest concord between the two substances; then to such a degree will no one there be carnal that even the flesh itself will be spiritual. Consider, therefore, what every one who is living in accordance with Christ does with his own fleshhe lusts against its evil lust; he restrains it so that it may be healed; he holds it, though not yet healed, and nourishes and cherishes its good nature, since no one ever hated his own flesh (Eph 5:29).All this is what Christ does with the Church, if one may compare lesser things with greater ones. For he both represses it with rebukes so that it will not be puffed up by impunity and burst, and he raises it up with consolations so that it will not sink from the weight of its infirmity. That is why the Apostle said: But if we would judge ourselves, we should not be judged; but when we are judged, we are chastised by the Lord lest we be condemned with this world (1 Cor 11:31-32). And a Psalm says: In accord with the multitude of my griefs in my heart, your consolations have gladdened my soul (Ps 93:19). We are to hope, then, for perfect soundness of our flesh, without any opposition, when there shall be sure security of the Church of Christ, without any fear (Augustine, De continentia, 25; PL 40, 366-67).
About the Author
Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.