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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).

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Re: "the view one hears often today: that the Church herself is without sin but not without sinners," I wonder whether this is really said so often today. ( And if it were said, how it would be received by anyone who reads the papers.) Lumen Gentium put it more soberly: "8. The Church, to which we are all called in Christ Jesus, and in which we acquire sanctity through the grace of God, will attain its full perfection only in the glory of heaven, when there will come the time of the restoration of all things.(237) At that time the human race as well as the entire world, which is intimately related to man and attains to its end through him, will be perfectly reestablished in Christ.(238) But till then....

Susan: Actually, that facile statement is heard quite often. It was the view invoked, for example, to explain how it was that Pope John Paul II could go around making so many "mea culpa" declarations of the failures of the Church's members (her "children"), not of the Church. Georges Cottier, for example, Theologian of the Papal Household, entitled on of the paragraphs of his little book on the Pope's actions: "The Church is holy but not without sinners." That, of course, is true, but he is unwilling to speak of the Church itself as "sinful." I should point out that in John Paul's talks on the subject, as also in Cottier's writings, "Church" does not mean hierarchy, as if they were saying that the hierarchy are without sin. Both of them made it quite clear that among those for whose sins the Church was expressing sorrow and repentance, there were more than a few of the higher, indeed, of the highest clergy.

I suppose that the Church is without sin in its vocation; that the ideal of the Church, and eventually its state one day in the future, is without sin. I think I am reading that into both the passage quoted and LG8. So what? So, I suppose, we ought not to resign ourselves to a less than perfect state.(In terms of trying to read this text, I used "to lust against"=to desire what is against, "spiritual"=good, "carnal"=bad, "flesh"=it depends; and I'm assuming that everything after the first line of 25. is what Augustine says, not a continuation of what the Manicheans say.)

If we believe that Christ is the head of the church - not detached and separate, but a part of one and the same body, literally a body part - then the implications of the unnuanced claim "the church is sinful" seem troubling. In point of fact, I don't know that people who would tend to cast aspersions on the church think about Jesus as being included in that criticism / condemnation. The only way I know to resolve this conundrum is to recognize that the body has some parts that are "healthier" than others.

the implications of the unnuanced claim the church is sinful seem troubling.No more than our own sinfulness even as we receive communion. It's no more troubling at the level of the church than of the individual.

Claire: I tried to clarify above where the Manichean question leaves off and Augustine's reply begins. Jim: The Council says in LG 8 that the Church is "always in need of purification." Are you also troubled by this claim?

Isnt sin the action and responsibility of an individual, not a group? Even if all members of a group commit the same sin, doesnt the responsibility remain at the individual level?

Fr. K - I'm only troubled by it when other people say it :-). When the claim is made, "the church is sinful", or "the church is in need of purification", I think it's warranted to ask, "What do you mean by 'church'?" If what is really meant is, "church leaders are sinful" - well, that opens up the possibility of a discussion, if the cliamant is willing to have it, about the nature of the church. Bruce - there is such a thing as a structure of sin, in which social structures (formal ones like government bodies or corporations, or less formal but still complex structures like participants in a marketplace) can enable and generate sinful behavior that isn't reducible to one individual. One mammoth example is the abortion industry, in which many individuals would seem to sin, but no single individual is entirely responsible/culpable.It seems pretty clear that many dioceses constructed processes of personnel management that became structures of sin when they were utilized to move offending sex abusers from one parish to another, or to shield the miscreant from legal penalties. That is not quite the same as saying "the church is a structure of sin", but it does seem that the church leadership constructed a structure of sin that was housed within the formal church organization. That's too close for my liking.

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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.