Scandal and the Holiness of the Church

I have been having a conversation with Pastor Mark Henderson on his blog “Glosses from an Old Manse” with respect to the current spate of goings on in the Vatican being reported to us in the media. He originally started off opining that:

As this scandal increasingly plays out in the unforgiving light of media scrutiny, it might be said by some in defence of Rome that all churches suffer from sometimes vicious ecclesiastical politics. True enough, I suppose, but none seem to rise – or perhaps should that be sink – to the levels of Rome; after all, how many church hierarchies today can, on their own authority, imprison an apparent whistleblower in a cell with only the barest of amenities without appeal to a judge unconnected with the prosecution (habeus corpus!)? Furthermore, most other church bodies do not claim that their hierarchies are the succcessors to the Apostles and the only guarantors of God’s grace in this world. That claim would seem to require a higher degree of probity than that usually associated with the Roman curia.

He went on in his next post to

happily admit to using the various scandals of the Vatican as an antidote to the romantic longings for a return to Rome which seem to afflict some Lutheran pastors and laity in these poor and difficult times for the Church of the Augsburg Confession.

Here follows my response in the combox to his latest post, and then his response, and then some further reflection from me.

David Schutz said… I still don’t think you have quite understood my point, Mark.

Your criticism is based on what appears to be a disjunction between the Catholic Church’s claim to be the “the guarantor of God’s grace in the world and, I might add, an infallible guide in matters of faith and morals” and the way some of her members, even among her leaders, are behaving.

You are giving a lot of credance to rumour rather than fact here – we do not know (and probably even the pope doesn’t know) exactly what is going on – we have rumours and strange things being reported in the papers, but no one has actually been charged with any crimes here except for a butler (which sounds like the stuff of Agatha Christie, but is hardly the basis for condemning the whole Catholic Church) – what you are seeing is exactly the same sort of thing that goes on in any human institution, including other Christian communities. It goes on because the members of these institutions – even good and holy Christian institutions – are still sinners. That is no different in the Catholic Church to what it is in the LCA or any other Christian communion.

The Church’s claim to be an (not the only) instrument of God’s Grace and integral to the plan of God for the salvation of the world, doesn’t change this one bit, and it is a bit Donatist of you to think that it would. While the example of the saints in the Catholic Church is a strong factor in the attraction of converts to the Church, I don’t know of any Protestant who has converted to the Catholic faith because they believed that the institution of the Catholic Church (rather than the Church in her spiritual aspect) is “more holy” than the institutions of any other Christian communion.

While the Church’s claim to be a infallible teacher of faith and morals is certainly not helped when the faith and morals of her members (and even her leaders) does not comply with that teaching, it is not proof that the claim is false. It is, and always will be, the beauty and holiness of Truth that attracts converts to the Catholic faith, not some fanciful idea that the institutions and members of our church possess a greater degree of holiness and purity than the insititutions and members of other Christian communities.

And his response:

Mark Henderson said… Thanks for your reponse, David. Perhaps we are talking past each other. I’m presently wrapping up a busy week but I’ll be on recreation leave as of Friday so perhaps I can respond then.

One question in the meantime – are you saying that the marks of the church as claimed by Rome are simply objects of faith and not actualised in its life? Of course, the marks are objects of faith, but it has always seemed to me that the distinguishing feature of Rome is the claim that the marks are demonstrably evident in itself as in no other church body (or ecclesial community!). Is not the Roman church “where the Spirit flourishes”, even “the temple of the Spirit” where His gifts are poured out for the purpose of making the church holy? Is it not from the Roman church itself, the divine-human institution presided over by the Pope and the magisterium and administered by the curia, which claims to provide the baptized with the “example of holiness”? This is all taken from the CCC, btw. I’m simply saying that we should be able to assay (quantitatively examine) these momentous claims in the life of the church itself. If not, then the Roman conception of the church would seem to be more of a Platonic Idea than a reality in time and space.

My further comments:

Certainly the “conception of the Church” held by the Catholic Church is not a “Platonic idea”. Quite the contrary. It may be said that the “Platonic idea” of “The Church” is far more a Calvinist trait with the doctrine of the “invisible Church” (sometimes seen in Lutheranism too, but not to the same extent, as Lutherans affirm the visible “marks of the Church”). In distinction from both the Lutheran and Calvinist conception of the Church, the Catholic faith affirms that the Church is a true visible society on earth with visible structures (cf. Vatican II, Lumen Gentium 8).

The Catechism deals at length with the four marks of the Church – Unity, Holiness, Catholicity, and Apostolicity – in paragraphs 811-870, with particular attention being given to the mark of Holiness in paragraphs 823-829. As a preliminary, it should be said that the marks of the Church are indeed “objects of faith”, which seems to be affirmed in paragraph 812:

“Only faith can recognize that the Church possesses these properties from her divine source. But their historical manifestations are signs that also speak clearly to human reason. As the First Vatican Council noted, the “Church herself, with her marvellous propagation, eminent holiness, and inexhaustible fruitfulness in everything good, her catholic unity and invincible stability, is a great and perpetual motive of credibility and an irrefutable witness of her divine mission”  [Vatican Council I, DS Filius 3: DS 3013].”

So the marks of the Church can only be recognised by faith, and yet faith recognises them in “historical manifestations” which are “signs that also speak clearly to human reason”. It is notable that the First Vatican Council spoke of “eminent holiness” as one of these signs. Mark calls this assertion into question: is the “holiness” of the Catholic Church indeed “eminent” and can it be recognised by reason alone, without the aid of faith? What is the teaching of the Church with regard to the disjunction between the mark of “eminent holiness” which she claims, and the reality of sin and scandal which are seen all to often in the media today?

First let us note that in regard to the mark of Unity, the Catechism acknowledges that while this mark is a gift of the Lord Jesus to his Church, nevertheless, because of the sinfulness of human beings, there are real “wounds to unity” among Christians. This reality with regard to the first mark of the Church should give us some parameters for discussion of the second mark, Holiness. We should note that

1) As a mark of the Church, her Unity can ultimately only be recognised by faith.
2) This is because Unity is a gift from the Lord to the Church – it is (in Lutheran speak) an “alien” unity because it is Christ’s unity and the unity of his body.
3) Nevertheless, because the Church truly is Christ’s Body, that unity also properly belongs to her; ie. although the source of Unity is “from without”, yet it becomes truly “within” and a mark of the real society that exists on earth.
4) At the same time, there are forces working in the opposite direction, namely human sin, which contradict this Unity and wound it as a visible sign that should “speak clearly to human reason”.
5) And yet, despite the manifest “wounds to unity” that exist even within the Catholic Church, it must be admitted that the fact that over a billion Christians exist within the one visible communion of the Catholic Church is something of a miracle, evident even “to human reason”. There is indeed an “historical manifestation” of the mark of Unity within the Catholic Church.

If we can say all this of the mark of Unity, I suspect that we can also say this of the mark of Holiness. What does the Catechism say specifically on this issue?

Paragraph 823 begins by asserting that the Holiness of the Church is “held…as a matter of faith”. It goes on to say that this Holiness derives as a gift from the Bridegroom to the Bride – because he (with the Father and the Spirit) is the One who sanctifies the Church, we must confess that the Church is indeed Holy.

Sanctified by Christ, paragraph 824 asserts that the Church is a channel of holiness and sanctification to the world. The previous section on Unity acknowledged that there are indeed elements of sanctification outside the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church (paragraph 819, drawing on Unitatis Redintegratio from the Second Vatican Council), but that these derive from what properly belongs to the Catholic unity of the Church. So the Catholic Church does not have a monopoly on holiness. The Second Vatican Council acknowledged in Nostra Aetate that there may be elements of holiness and truth even in non-Christian religions, but that these too have their source in Christ and should be recognised as such.

Is Holiness more evident in the Catholic Church than in other Christian Communions or in other religions? Catholics with the eyes of faith may affirm this, but the cold hard view of human reason without the aid of Catholic faith would say not. Paragraph 828 points to the one place where the mark of Holiness truly is in evidence in the Catholic faith: in her saints. The fact that such heroic holiness is possible in the Catholic Church is testimony to the gift of Holiness which Christ bestows on all the Church. For in the end, all true holiness must be personal, and can only really be discerned in the personal. Here there is something of the particularity of the Gospel. At the same time, while the Church does not canonise saints who do not belong to her fold, there is what Blessed John Paul II called “the ecumenism of the martyrs” – that is, the recognition that not even saintliness is restricted to the Catholic Church, but examples of heroic holiness may indeed even be found outside her boundaries. Yet again, this holiness derives from Christ and from his Body, the Church.

At the same time, the Catechism, in paragraphs 825 and 827, acknowledge the reality of human sinfulness even within the one, holy Church. The Holiness of the Church is described by the Second Vatican Council in terms that are exactly the same as those which it used to describe the “real though imperfect” communion that exists between the Catholic Church and her separated brothers and sisters:

825 “The Church on earth is endowed already with a sanctity that is real though imperfect” [LG 48# 3]. In her members perfect holiness is something yet to be acquired.

This is sober reality. Holiness is a gift from the Lord of the Church to his Bride and Body, yet its perfection in her members is a reality “yet to be aquired” – or perhaps “attained” might be a better word. Paragraph 827 states:

“The Church, however, clasping sinners to her bosom, at once holy and always in need of purification, follows constantly the path of penance and renewal” [LG 8# 3; cf. UR 3; 6; Heb 2:17; 726; 2 Cor 5:21].”

Paradox of this kind ought not sound strange to Lutheran theologians, who are aware of the “simul justus et peccator” nature of the individual Christian. What the Council taught is that this is also a reality for Church as a whole. The “gift” nature of the mark of Holiness always remains someting to which we aspire to receive in faith. Yet the practice of the Church in canonising “saints”, and above all the presence within the Church of the Blessed Mother herself, point to the reality of the hope of that the holiness only imperfectly seen here in the Church in the present age will shine forth gloriously at the final vindication of God’s elect at the Last Judgement.

I hope these reflections are sufficient to guide us all in the right understanding of the nature of the mark of Holiness in the Catholic Church. Despite all the sinful actions of many of the members and pastors of the Catholic Church, I have embraced the Catholic faith and entered into her fold in the certain hope and assurance that it is within the Catholic Church that I myself might – solely by the grace of God and merits of the Lord Jesus (made most evident in his saints) – one day attain the fullness of Holiness which Christ desires to endow upon all his people.

About Schütz

I am Catholic, married to Cathy, father of Maddy & Mia. Since 2002, I have been the Executive Officer of the Ecumenical & Interfaith Commission of the Archdiocese of Melbourne. I was once a Lutheran pastor, but a "year of grace" and soul-searching led me into the Catholic Church. It was a bumpy ride, but with the support of my (still Lutheran) wife, I was finally confirmed on June 16, 2003.
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6 Responses to Scandal and the Holiness of the Church

  1. maryh says:

    “For in the end, all true holiness must be personal, and can only really be discerned in the personal”

    I really like that!

  2. Matthias says:

    “Despite all the sinful actions of many of the members and pastors of the Catholic Church, I have embraced the Catholic faith and entered into her fold ” I have to David.However i think that the Machiavellian machinations in the Vatican need to be addressed ,by prayer and repentance.spiritual arrogance and conceit needs to be removed .Soloviev-the founder of the Russian Catholics- in his book THE ANTICHRIST-has the Pope,assisted by a protestant elder and an Orthodox Elder leading a remnant of Christians out of the wilderness towards Jerusalem to await the Returing Saviour. perhaps he was calling for leadership to be living ,working and worshipping more at the coalface than in some HQ

    However other Churches have members who have sinned:
    spiritual abuse in the Exclusive Brethren and Churches of Christ,the latter i observed as a lad
    sexual abuse in Baptist and Salvation Army.
    a distinct lack of duty of care exhibited by a Lutheran School vice principal to my son.

  3. Matthias says:

    Thanks for that Dan .It shows the biasness of Main stream media reporting is getting worse,and it shows that as Christians we need to walk circumspectly before a watching world,which waits to try and entrap us.
    my wife is so anti Christian and anti catholic ,any negative reporting on Christianity especially she gloats over.

  4. maryh says:

    I was reading on another blog a new convert remarking on the difference between the way Catholics view our priests as opposed to how other Christians view their ministers. She was scandalized by a priest, and said that when she was a Protestant she would have changed denominations if a minister had acted like that. But as a new Catholic, she noted that while Catholics want and pray for our priests to be holy, we don’t require it.

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