View all Novenas | February 13, 2024
Part 5 – The Church – Week 2
The Holiness of the Church
Today’s reading deals with a particularly pertinent and difficult theme: the holiness of the Church. We are more aware today, perhaps than ever before in history, of the sins of Christians, and in particular of the horrific and devastating sins of many of her priests. So what does it really mean to say that the Church is holy? Ratzinger explains this idea in one of the most beautiful and surprising passages of Introduction to Christianity. The Church is holy, he tells us, above all because Christ is holy and because Christ has forever bound himself to man in and through the Church. But that is not all. For the holiness of Christ, he continues, did not consist in a purity that separated itself entirely from sin. Instead, Christ, the pure and holy one, came to earth to mix with the filth of mankind, with the filth of our sins. And so the Church too, and each one of us as Christians, are called to bear the sins of others as Christ has borne our sins, to support and atone for the sins of others as Christ supported and atoned for our sins. This ‘unholy holiness’ of the Church, Ratzinger concludes, is why she also has place for me as a sinner, why she gives me “a home and a hope, a home that is hope.”
“As we have already seen, in all these statements of faith the word “holy” does not apply in the first place to the holiness of human persons but refers to the divine gift that bestows holiness in the midst of human unholiness. The Church is not called “holy” in the Creed because her members, collectively and individually, are holy, sinless men—this dream, which appears afresh in every century, has no place in the waking world of our text, however movingly it may express a human longing that man will never abandon until a new heaven and a new earth really grant him what this age will never give him. Even at this point we can say that the sharpest critics of the Church in our time secretly live on this dream and, when they find it disappointed, bang the door of the house shut again and denounce it as a deceit. But to return to our argument: The holiness of the Church consists in that power of sanctification which God exerts in her in spite of human sinfulness. We come up here against the real mark of the “New Covenant”: in Christ, God has bound himself to men, has let himself be bound by them. The New Covenant no longer rests on the reciprocal keeping of the agreement; it is granted by God as grace that abides even in the face of man’s faithlessness. It is the expression of God’s love, which will not let itself be defeated by man’s incapacity but always remains well disposed toward him, welcomes him again and again precisely because he is sinful, turns to him, sanctifies him, and loves him.
Because of the Lord’s devotion, never more to be revoked, the Church is the institution sanctified by him forever, an institution in which the holiness of the Lord becomes present among men. But it is really and truly the holiness of the Lord that becomes present in her and that chooses again and again as the vessel of its presence—with a paradoxical love—the dirty hands of men. It is holiness that radiates as the holiness of Christ from the midst of the Church’s sin. So the paradoxical figure of the Church, in which the divine so often presents itself in such unworthy hands, in which the divine is only ever present in the form of a “nevertheless”, is to the faithful the sign of the “nevertheless” of the ever greater love shown by God. The thrilling interplay of God’s loyalty and man’s disloyalty that characterizes the structure of the Church is the dramatic form of grace, so to speak, through which the reality of grace as the pardoning of those who are in themselves unworthy continually becomes visibly present in history. One could actually say that precisely in her paradoxical combination of holiness and unholiness the Church is in, fact the shape taken by grace in this world.
Let us go a step farther. In the human dream of a perfect world, holiness is always visualized as untouchability by sin and evil, as something unmixed with the latter; there always remains in some form or other a tendency to think in terms of black and white, a tendency to cut out and reject mercilessly the current form of the negative (which can be conceived in widely varying terms). In contemporary criticism of society and in the actions in which it vents itself, this relentless side always present in human ideals is once again only too evident. That is why the aspect of Christ’s holiness that upset his contemporaries was the complete absence of this condemnatory note—fire did not fall on the unworthy, nor were the zealous allowed to pull up the weeds they saw growing luxuriantly on all sides. On the contrary, this holiness expressed itself precisely as mingling with the sinners whom Jesus drew into his vicinity; as mingling to the point where he himself was made “to be sin” and bore the curse of the law in execution as a criminal—complete community of fate with the lost (cf. 2 Cor 5:21; Gal 3:13). He has drawn sin to himself, made it his lot, and so revealed what true “holiness” is: not separation, but union; not judgment, but redeeming love. Is the Church not simply the continuation of God’s deliberate plunge into human wretchedness; is she not simply the continuation of Jesus’ habit of sitting at table with sinners, of his mingling with the misery of sin to the point where he actually seems to sink under its weight? Is there not revealed in the unholy holiness of the Church, as opposed to man’s expectation of purity, God’s true holiness, which is love, love that does not keep its distance in a sort of aristocratic, untouchable purity but mixes with the dirt of the world, in order thus to overcome it? Can, therefore, the holiness of the Church be anything else but the bearing with one another that comes, of course, from the fact that all of us are borne up by Christ?
I must admit that to me this unholy holiness of the Church has in itself something infinitely comforting about it. Would one not be bound to despair in face of a holiness that was spotless and could only operate on us by judging us and consuming us by fire? Who would dare to assert of himself that he did not need to be tolerated by others, indeed borne up by them? And how can someone who lives on the forbearance of others himself renounce forbearing? Is it not the only gift he can offer in return, the only comfort remaining to him, that he endures just as he, too, is endured? Holiness in the Church begins with forbearance and leads to bearing up; where there is no more forbearing, there is no more bearing up either, and existence, lacking support, can only sink into the void. […]
Only someone who has experienced how, regardless of changes in her ministers and forms, the Church raises men up, gives them a home and a hope, a home that is hope—the path to eternal life—only someone who has experienced this knows what the Church is, both in days gone by and now.”
- Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, Ignatius Press, San Francisco 2004 , 341-344.
- What does it mean that the Church, despite all the failings of her members, is holy?
- How is the Lord calling me today to increase in holiness by ‘carrying’ and ‘atoning’ for the sins of others?