Every Sunday, when we gather at Mass, we say the Nicene Creed and profess our faith in “one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church” (emphasis added).
Likewise, at each Mass, before the Eucharistic prayer, we pray asking God to accept the sacrifice at the priest’s hands for the praise and glory of God’s name and “for our good and the good of all his holy Church” (again, emphasis mine).
Yet we hear something very different in the world. Go online or listen to secular news media, and descriptions of the Catholic Church rarely include the word “holy” and in fact often contain words (and sometimes deeds) suggesting quite the opposite.
Suppose the Church speaks out about some issue, which is part of its job of bearing witness to the truth that comes from God for the good of all. The response from those who don’t want to hear it, in the PG-rated version, runs roughly like this: “Yeah, clean up your own house and then you can talk to me about” whatever the issue happens to be.
This is usually followed by a soliloquy on the evils, real or imagined, of the Catholic Church. The clergy sex abuse scandal almost always (and deservedly) plays prominently nowadays, but from there it could go in seemingly infinite directions, from sinful popes to half-baked histories of the Inquisition and Crusades to the Church’s supposed hatred of science and women and homosexuals, and on and on.
This is a terrible argument for many reasons, starting with the fact that it’s a blatant logical fallacy. It’s the genetic fallacy, in which one dismisses an argument not because of any flaws in the argument but because of who said it.
I also notice that this tactic of dismissal is always a strictly one-sided affair, in which the worst sins of the Church’s members are held up for ritual denunciation without any consideration of the legions of saints, canonized and anonymous, across all times and cultures, out joyfully spending their lives in love of God and neighbor. We probably know a few of them in our own parishes, if we stop to think about it.
But we can’t make the reverse mistake. While some of the accusations made against the Church are fair and some are not, to talk about the holiness of the Church, we have to begin with the radical honesty of recognizing that the Church is chock full of sinners and always has been.
This is not pious false humility. It’s not something we tell ourselves to avoid getting cocky, judgmental, and self-righteous. It’s plain fact. From the pope to the last person baptized, we are every one of us sinners. (Pope Francis, when asked about his identity in an early interview, beautifully said just this: “I am a sinner.”)
Some of those sins are horrifying and heartbreaking, and justice demands we face them honestly. They are worthy of the whole Church’s penance, prayer, reparation, and efforts for justice and authentic reform.
But one thing they aren’t is a surprise. It’s Church teaching. As I write this, we are approaching Holy Week, during which our solemn liturgies will remind us of the time one of the first Apostles betrayed Jesus to his death, of how the first pope denied him three times, and of how nearly every follower of Jesus fled and abandoned him.
Jesus famously gives the harsh warning that those who harm his “little ones” would have been better off having a millstone hung around their neck and being cast into the sea. St. Paul, in one of his farewell speeches, warns of wolves who will come among the flock.
Jesus isn’t hanging there on that cross because we are such awesome people, and he just wanted to give us a special thumbs-up. He’s there because it’s medicine all of us need to live. He’s there because we need mercy.
The holiness of the Church is what makes it that “field hospital” Pope Francis has so beautifully spoken about, even if in this field hospital, the doctors and nurses are also among its patients. The Second Vatican Council, in its Constitution on the Church, puts it this way: “The Church … clasping sinners to her bosom, at once holy and always in need of purification, follows constantly the path of penance and renewal.”
And that’s really the point, isn’t it? Penance and renewal, beginning with me. In the end, the holiness of the Church is more fundamental than the sins, but it’s not some kind of boast. Rather, it’s a challenge, a vocation, one issued not to some bad people somewhere else but to me and you, personally, by God. Am I living the life of grace, using the means God has given the Church, to cooperate with him in becoming the saint I’m called to be? Am I growing daily in God’s gifts of faith, hope, and love? Am I growing more converted in heart every day?
That’s what the “universal call to holiness” means. Our time of crisis, in the Church and the world, like every other throughout history, is a crisis of saints. Ultimately, the very best thing I can do to make the world and the Church better is to let God make me one. And that begins on my knees, often enough in the confessional.
Kyle Eller is editor of The Northern Cross. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.