Q&A with Fr John Flader: How can a Church of sinners be holy?

Question: Dear Father, When we say in the Creed that the Church is holy I can become quite cynical, wondering how we can call the Church holy when there is such obvious and widespread sinfulness in so many of her members, including priests and bishops. How can we call the Church holy?

I think many people ask this question. The first thing to remember, as I wrote in this column last week, is that the Church is not just the sinful members – all 1.3 billion of us! – who make her up at any given time here on earth.

The Church is the Mystical Body of Christ, with Christ as her head, the Holy Spirit as her soul, Mary as her mother, and the myriad of saints in heaven and suffering souls in Purgatory praying for us.

A good way to describe the Church is the traditional expression immaculata ex maculatis: immaculate, unstained, though composed of stained members.

No matter how many sins we members of the Church commit here on earth, the Church herself will always be holy because she is the Mystical Body of Christ. This is the first reason why we can call the Church holy, but there are others.

Second, the Church is holy because she was founded by Jesus Christ, the very Son of God, who is all holy.

Other religions have been founded by men, some of them notorious sinners, but the Catholic Church was founded by God himself, through his Son Jesus Christ.

Third, the Church teaches that all are called to holiness of life.

Quoting the Second Vatican Council, the Catechism says that “all the faithful, whatever their condition or state – though each in his own way – are called by the Lord to that perfection of sanctity by which the Father himself is perfect” (Lumen Gentium 11 §3; CCC 825).

The Church does not teach a morality of mediocrity, where all can do whatever they please, but rather calls us to true holiness of life, modelled on the holiness of Christ himself, “perfect God and perfect man” (Athanasian Creed).

In the words of the Second Vatican Council, “All the activities of the Church are directed, as toward their end, to the sanctification of men in Christ and the glorification of God” (SC 10).

Fourth, the Church offers us all the means we need to grow in holiness. It is in the Church that “the fullness of the means of salvation” is deposited, and in her “by the grace of God we acquire holiness” (UR 3; LG 48; CCC 824).

The means of salvation are, of course, especially the seven sacraments, but also the Mass and other liturgical rites, the reading of Scripture etc.

It is up to us to make use of these means, receiving regularly especially the sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist.

Pope Paul VI’s Credo of the People of God (1968, states: “The Church is therefore holy, though having sinners in her midst, because she herself has no other life but the life of grace.

If they live her life, her members are sanctified; if they move away from her life, they fall into sins and disorders that prevent the radiation of her sanctity” (CPG 19; CCC 827).

Fifth, the Church is holy because many of her members have lived lives of exceptional holiness and have been canonised by the Church, a recognition that they practiced heroic virtue and lived in fidelity to God’s grace.

They are proposed as models and intercessors and, as such, they help us here on earth to aspire to holiness and to make this world a better place.

Quoting Pope John Paul II, the Catechism of the Catholic Church says: “The saints have always been the source and origin of renewal in the most difficult moments in the Church’s history …

Holiness is the hidden source and infallible measure of her apostolic activity and missionary zeal” (CL 16, 3, 17, 3; CCC 828).

Sixth, the Church is holy in the many ordinary people here on earth who lead lives of exemplary holiness.

They are “the saints next door”, as Pope Francis calls them in Gaudete et Exsultate, (GE, 6-9). In this sense he says: “Holiness is the most attractive face of the Church” (GE 9). We should all strive to be these saints.

Seventh, the Church is holy in her teaching.

She not only calls us to holiness but teaches a demanding moral code, with respect for life at all stages, a demanding way of living marriage and sexual morality, concern for the poor, social justice, etc.

Here the words of Deuteronomy come to mind: “And what great nation is there, that has statutes and ordinances so righteous as all this law which I set before you this day?” (Dt 4:8)

So yes, the Church is indeed holy in spite of our sins.

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