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.

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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