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Holy Church

Pope Francis devoted his catechesis today to the holiness of the Church. His insistence that the primary meaning of the Creed’s statement that the Church is holy is that she is the creature and the recipient of God’s holy grace and gifts is well founded in the New Testament. This is a holiness that may and even must be acknowledged by those who constitute the Church on earth, not one of whom is not a sinner. As Augustine said somewhere, it is holy Church that prays every day: “Forgive us our trespasses.”

I note that the Pope did not make use of the view that has recently threatened to become canonical: that the Church is without sin but not without sinners. This formulation came from the Swiss theologian Charles Journet, but he, along with his close friend Jacques Maritain, defended the view that the Church has a “subsistence” of its own that is not reducible to the subsistences of its members, that it is itself a “person” not reducible to the persons of its members. It is that supra-personal Church of which holiness is predicated. Journet did not, of course, deny that the Church was composed of sinners nor that among the worst of them were high ecclesiastical personages, but he did not think that their sins could be attributed to the Church which he identified instead with the gifts of God and their holy effects in the Church’s members. Yves Congar thought that this reified the formal element of the Church.

Augustine and Aquinas thought differently. Identifying the Church on earth with its members, all of whom are sinners and must plead everyday for the Lord to forgive them their trespasses, they said that the Church would be “without stain or wrinkle” only in the Kingdom.  Here is the neat short explanation in St. Thomas Aquinas’s commentary on the article of the Creed:

With regard to holiness: it can be noted that Scripture speaks of another assembly, that of evildoers: “I hate the assembly of evildoers [ecclesiam malignantium] (Ps 26:5). That assembly is evil, but the Church of Christ is holy. As the Apostle says, “God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple” (1 Cor 3:17). The faithful of this assembly are made holy in three ways. First, just as a church is materially washed when it is being consecrated, so also the faithful are washed in the blood of Christ: “He loves us and has washed us from our sins by his blood” (Rev 1:5). “Jesus suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood” (Hb 13:12). Secondly, just as a church is anointed, so also the faithful receive a spiritual anointing which makes them holy; otherwise they would not be Christians, for “Christ” means “anointed.” This anointing is the grace of the Holy Spirit: “God has anointed us” (2 Cor 1:21). “You were made holy in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 6:11). The third way in which the faithful are made holy is by the indwelling of the Trinity, for any place where God dwells is a holy place: “This place is holy” (Gen 28:16). “Holiness befits your house, O Lord” (Ps 93:5). There is also a fourth way in which the faithful become holy: they are called by God’s name. “You, O Lord, are in the midst of us, and we are called by your name” (Jer 14:9).

After being made holy in such ways, then, we must beware not by sin to desecrate the temple of God which is our souls: “If anyone violates God’s temple, God will destroy him” (1 Cor 3:17).

In a gloss on the first of the reasons Aquinas gives for the holiness of the Church, Journet makes him say that it is the Church who “washes the faithful in the blood of Christ,” which (1) distinguishes the Church from the faithful and (2) ignores that Aquinas here was speaking of the Church–that is, the assembly of believers–having been washed in the blood of Christ’s sacrifice itself, not in its sacramental re-enactment.

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.



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The most interminable online argument I've ever witnessed was on the proposition (and subject line), "The church sins".  It went on for years, and as is typical in online exchanges, neither of the two chief antagonists ever succeeded in moving his opposite number so much as an inch from the entrenched position.  One point of view was that, manifestly, the church sins, as every member is a sinner, and besides, some ghastly sins have been committed by church officials in the name of the church.  The opposing point of view is that Christ is the head of the body, and to state that the church sins is, ipso facto to state that Christ is tainted by sin, which seems heretical (or something similar).  

I expect that this Body of Christ paradigm is at the root of the ambiguity.  What is the precise relationship between Christ, the church and its members?  What does it mean to say that we are all members of the same body, with Jesus as our head?  What happens to our identity and autonomy when we join ourselves to Christ?

I note that, in the quote provided, Aquinas is careful to refer to the faithful rather than the church, implying that they are not identical.  


Jim P.

How does the distinction between the Church and the faithful change when the Church is defined as The People of God.  Can we any longer maintain that distinction" Isn't this dichotomy at at the root of the problem of clerical abuse and the inability of the Church to deal with it?  The real Church transcends its members so what they do cannot taint the Church.  If that were true why all the cover-up.? At some level the hierarchy has admitted that the Church sins and they tried to hide it. 

I don't see where in the excerpt given Aquinas distinguishes the Church from the faithful. His whole argument here, as in the whole section of his commentary on the article of the Creed dealing with the Church, depends on his taking "Church" to mean "the assembly of the faithful."  The Church is holy because its members have been made holy in the four ways mentioned. There is no treatment of an alleged "holy Church" distinct from the believers who constitute it. That is why Aquinas can agree with Augustine that there will be a sinless Church only as the assembly, not of believers, but of gazers, in the Kingdom of God.  

The Church transcends any single member of the Church but not the totality of its members. What would such a Church be? In whom would it exist?  This is why I make so much of Augustine's comment that each of us, taken singly, is a child of Mother Church but all of us, taken together, are Mother Church. There is no other entity over and above us all that gives birth to us singly in Christ.

The question of collective guilt is a serious one, raised with regard to other social groups as well. One faculty member's sin, for example, does not of itself taint other members of the same faculty, but it would be enough to make it impossible to say that the faculty is without spot or wrinkle.

Thank you for your comment. I would have preferred to see a few more references especially regarding Yves Congar as the single sentence brushed a wide swath over hundreds of pieces of works, some of  which evolved over the years.

Isn't this dichotomy at at the root of the problem of clerical abuse and the inability of the Church to deal with it?  The real Church transcends its members so what they do cannot taint the Church.  If that were true why all the cover-up.? At some level the hierarchy has admitted that the Church sins and they tried to hide it. 

It's something I find it difficult to sort through.  My own reaction to clerical abuse is that, while I and most others personally are blameless in these sins, yet because I belong to the church, the taint of it still somehow sticks to me, which makes me angry on my own behalf and on behalf of the church and its members whom I love.  I would disagree that "the church sins" when clerical abuse happens. The church didn't abuse those children; individual clergy did, and what the hierarchs tried to hide were not the sins of the church but the sins of those individuals.  Those sinful men are not identical with the church.  That the abuse was done under the auspices of the church makes those sins perhaps even more heinous than they would be in another setting.  And our connectedness to those sinful individuals is not nothing.  If all that seems a bit muddled, I don't dispute it.


Fr. K - I took Aquinas' use of the term "the faithful" to equate to what used to be known as "the church militant".

@Jim P. "what the hierarchs tried to hide were not the sins of the church but the sins of those individuals.'

not take is that most heirarchs were trying to hide the idea that their Church was when push came to shove they almost always threw the individual priest under the bus .This Church sinning is the point of this thread... 

Journet's "church as a juridic person" is just a concept and should be scrapped. It is based on a problematic metaphysics.

The last time this topic came up on dotCommonweal, Cathleen Kaveny raised the question of whether a refusal to talk about the church as a sinner was bound up with resistence to structural reform. The question regards whether the church, in addition to being composed of sinners individually, enables certain sins as a community and thereby becomes a sinful social structure in history.

It would seem that Francis' condemnations of worldliness, careerism, and clericalism identify these as structural sins. Careerism only emerges in a situation that enables it. Further, his decision to convene a council of cardinals to discuss these problems treats them as distortions of ministry for which the church as a whole bears responsibility. 

Speaking doctrinally, the church is an emergent reality. As such, in history it is always engaged in a struggle against unauthenticity. That struggle for authenticity is the work of the indwelling Trinity Thomas identifies. It would seem that Francis wants authenticity in the church, and authenticity requires conversion. If there is need for conversion, there is sin. We should neither posit our own holiness as a way of avoiding personal reform, nor posit holiness of the church in order to avoid structural reform. By his words and actions Francis seems to be aware of the inconstitency in certain ecclesiologies.


Ms. Reinhardt:

The comment of Congar on Journet's view--“But isn’t this to reify a formal point of view?--appears in a fairly late work of his, L'Eglise: Une, sainte, catholique et apostolique (Paris: du Cerf, 1970) 136-37. See also, in the same volume, p. 259: "...unless we are to go off into idealism, we can’t separate the institution from the people of believers”.  As I wrote some time ago: “The contrast between tortured modern approaches to the question of the holiness of the Church and the ease with which St. Thomas moved from the "Ecclesia" to the "we" of its members says a great deal about what has happened in ecclesiology: "That there be “a glorious Church not having spot or wrinkle' is the final goal toward which we are led by the passion of Christ. It will be, therefore, when the homeland is reached but not in the course of our journey during which 'if we say that we do not have sin, we are deceiving ourselves' (I Jn 1:8);" Summa theologica, III, q. 8, a. 3, ad 2m.

Mr. Gleason:  I don't agreee with your interpretation. There is no doubt that certain leaders of the Church sinned, and sinned grievously, and I think it is likely that the cover-ups were chosen in order to prevent the Church from being brought into disrepute, an implication made all the more likely when the Church is identified with the hierarchy. But if one does not make that identification, I do not know how one can say that it was the Church that committed the atrocities or tried to cover them up.

Mr. Mudd:  Journet's point is not so much about the Church as a juridical person but as a mystical person.

I recall that earlier conversation, and I believe that Cathy Kaveny's point was effectively met. That the Church might at one point or another--and we certainly are at one of those points now--might need structural reform was once almost taken-for-granted--see the calls for "reform of the Church in head and members" of the medieval reform councils. This need, however, did not prevent reformers from confessing belief in the holy Church.

I agree entirely with you that the Church is an "emergent reality," and that it is also "engaged in a struggle against unauthenticity." I have spoken of it as an always precarious achievement. Hence the need, as you say, for conversion, and it is probably the case that the need for structural reform itself presupposes conversion. Certainly we would not want the new structures devised by the unconverted, would we?

I sometimes thnk that some people reify institutions or structures and think that they can be reformed without the conversion of the persons occupying offices and fulfilling roles in the institution. There can be formal changes, of course--new allocations of responsibilities and competencies--but one wants converted people deciding on them.


In that homily Pope Francis makes liberal use of the word "all":

"...the Church calls all to allow themselves to be enveloped by the mercy of the Father... the Church offers all the possibility of encountering him... The Lord wants us part of a Church that is able to open her arms to welcome all, which is not the house of a few, but the house of all, where all can be renewed by His love...The Church offers all the possibility of following the way of sanctity... the love of God towards all... Let us not lose hope in sanctity, let us all follow this way. Do we want to be saints? All? The Lord awaits all with open arms..."

It reminds me of the motto of my parish church in the US: "All are welcome", and of the words of consecration before Advent 2011: "This is the cup of my blood ... which will be shed for you and for all". Now it goes: "This is the chalice of my blood ... which will be poured out for you and for many." When I see the insistence of Pope Francis on the Church being the house of all, I wonder what he thinks of the new translation.


Re:  JAK’s commentary @ 8:41 pm:

"Thus I put up with this church, until I see a better one; and she is forced to put up with me, until I myself become better."      Erasmus

Mr. Mudd --

Yes, thinking of the Church as some sort or "person" or "subsistance" is based on a bad metaphysics, and I think it's basically a Platonic one.  Plato's metaphysic posits independent, susistent, perfect entities (the perfect "Forms")  which lesser entities "participate" in, which imples that the lesser ones somehow share the reality which is that perfect Form, a sort of limited identification.  When you add all the Catholics together they become the perfect Church "Form", only we ain't perfect.  The whole theory is a mass of contradictions.   

JIm P. --

Maybe you're trying to get more truth out of the metaphor "Body of Christ" than is there.  It's ONLY a metaphor, and as such it's only *partly* true, and the rest of it's meaning is false when related to the Church.  The more you take the metaphor literally the more often your conclusions will lead to contradictions.

And notice also that "the Church is our Mother" is also ONLY a metaphor.  Don't push it too hard. 

Doesn't every corporate body take on a life that is related but distinct from the members who form it? And in turn that supra-personal life forms the members of that corporation.

We are not just individuals sharing a common creed and experience, there is a trans-personal quality that reaches out and in turn creates and forms bonds which shape us.

I am thinking of marriage whereby the couple have their own kind of married life that shapes each of the partners as individuals. It is kind of a mysterious thing. We speak, for example of our "relationship". That thing, the "relationship" is the sum of our interaction but it is bigger and different than each. And "relationship" can feed or starve us or do all kinds of things. So when we say we are working on the "relationship", it is almost like we are working on this third thing that will feed us.

By analogy, so is the Church but by faith we believe that Christ is the other partner, we are the bride to his groom and the church is that "relationship". Sometimes the relationship isn't working on one side or the other and the parties need to move. Hence structural or systemic reform. 

George D:

Your point is sometimes put this way:  "The Church is more than the sum of its members." But (1) most often this "more" is not explained or even described; and (2) this is also true of any other organized social body, e.g., the Planning Board of the tiny village where I reside.  The Board can legally do things that the individual members, qua individuals, cannot do, but the Board does not exist as an entity distinct from its members.

The key, as you say, is in the notion of relationships.  Traditional metaphysics regarded a relation as an ens minimum, the slightest of beings and did not give it the attention it deserved. In addition, our latent materialism, which wants to confuse the real with the physical, the tangible, finds it hard to think of interpersonal relations as themselves real. My students used to be mystified when I asked them if President Obama was ontologically the President of the U.S.A. 

The Church on earth exists, occurs, in the minds and hearts of Christian believers. Its ontological reality is subjective and intersubjective. 



It's always been a mystery to me why the medievals didn't develop the concept of relation in more depth, given that many  theologians including Aquinas described the three Persons of the Trinity as being three relations:  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (the love between them).

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