Of all the distinguishing marks of the Church, the Church’s holiness is perhaps the hardest to reconcile with reality. The Church’s history is riddled with scandals and scoundrels. Even to this day, the enemies of the Church use this as a weapon to discredit the Church. Those who might otherwise be open to the Truth found only in the Catholic Church cannot seem to get over the scandals. Yet, the Church’s members profess boldly that we believe in “the Holy Catholic Church.” Are we merely delusional or is there something more to this belief than meets the eye? If we are to both profess and defend this mark of the Church, then it is necessary that we understand exactly what this means.
Sacred Scripture describes the Church in a number of ways, two of which are especially helpful in understanding the holiness of the Church. The first is the Kingdom of God. So important is this concept that Jesus speaks about perhaps more than any other topic in His preaching. In describing His Kingdom He anticipates the problem of scandals that would come from the community of His disciples (such as good wheat growing with tares, etc.). Even His handpicked Apostolic College contains Judas, so we must view scandals and scoundrels as somehow part of the Divine plan for the Church.
It is St. Paul’s image of the Church as the Body of Christ that helps us to best see how the Church is holy. The Church has attached the term “Mystical” to it in order to distinguish it from Christ’s physical body. It is the richness of the notion of the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ that helps us to view the Church in the manner Christ intended.
At the close of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus makes a rather puzzling promise to the Apostles. After commissioning them to make disciples, baptize and teach, He says “And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Mt 28:20). What Matthew omits is just as important as what he does say. He makes no mention of the Ascension like the other Synoptic Gospels. To make this promise and then present Jesus as leaving would make Jesus’ presence very difficult to believe. Instead Matthew wants to emphasize that Jesus remains until the end of time.
This enduring presence is no mere spiritual presence. Instead, it is a physical presence just like the Incarnation. As proof of this, when St. Paul meets Our Lord on the road to Damascus, He asks the Apostle to the Gentiles “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4). He does not ask why Saul persecutes His followers, but His Person. One cannot persecute a “spiritual person” but only one that is physically present.
It is no wonder then that St. Paul in his letters (especially to the Ephesians) uses this metaphor of the Church as the Body of Christ in a way that suggests it is more than a metaphor. For the Church is the extension of the Incarnation “until the end of the age.” The Eternal Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, took to Himself a new body on Pentecost. This body, like the first one, is something physical and tangible.
To understand this more fully we have to see that the human nature He took to Himself was merely an instrument. Making the invisible reality of God in our midst, visible, His human nature acted as a sign of this. Just as He used the physical body to win our salvation, so too He will use His Mystical Body to extend the fruits of salvation through all time and space.
With the Church as the extension of the Incarnation through time and space, we can see that it suffers from the same problem that Our Lord did while He walked the earth in His flesh. Many people saw Jesus as one man among others, even if they thought He was somehow special or wise. So too some may view the Church as a merely one human institution among many; one Church among many. Some saw Him as a prophet able to exercise great powers, yet they could not understand where He derived those powers from. Likewise there are those who view the Church as an instrument of God, but still a merely human institution. Finally there were those who looked upon Him with supernatural faith as the “the Son of the living God” (Mt 16:16). So too there are those who see the Church through the eyes of faith as a profound mystery.
In other words, we err because we see the Church primarily as an institution and not an organism. The Church is holy for the same reason the physical body of Christ was holy—because the Person who inhabits that body was holy. Christ is the head of the Church not as a CEO, but as the head that sits upon a body, leading it around. As an organism, there must be a bond between the head and the body which is a living soul. That living soul in the Church is the Holy Spirit, Who is intrinsically holy and thus the “Lord and Giver of Life.”
Seeing the relationship between the Incarnation and the Church helps not only see the intrinsic holiness of the Church, but also how to deal with the sinful members. During the Incarnation, Christ took upon Himself all human weakness but without any personal sin on His part. The body He assumed to Himself was plagued by fatigue and thirst, collected dirt, and bled in the Garden. It is therefore natural to assume that He would also allow weakness in the members of His Mystical Body. He allows this weakness precisely for the same reason that He did during the Incarnation—by identifying Himself with sinners, He was able to comfort the afflicted. It is the weakness in the members of the Mystical Body that allows Him likewise to eat with sinners in our day.
As an aside, we can also begin to see why the Church only considers those who have been baptized as members. By sharing the soul of the Mystical Body through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, a person becomes a member and instrument of Christ’s Body (1Cor 12:13). Just as parts of a physical body may succumb to disease and no longer be able to properly act as members of the body, members of the Mystical Body may succumb to sin and no longer act as members. And just as no one would attribute the actions of a diseased part of the body to the person, we do not attribute the sins of the members to the Personality of the Church. Finally just as a body has varied means to heal diseased parts of the body, so too the Church has the same power because it is always the Person of Christ who acts, even if He uses other members of the body as instruments.
In conclusion we can see why someone who says the Church stands in the way of a relationship with Christ is just as wrong as the Jews who could not accept that God would take on weak human flesh. The Church is Christ Himself, made visible, even in the weak members of His Body. Just as in the Incarnation the actions of the human nature of Christ were attributed to God, so too in the Church because of the oneness with Christ, its actions are His actions. The human elements, as weak as they are act as merely the instruments with which Christ continues to teach, govern and sanctify just as the human elements were instruments in the Incarnation. As a true body, not only is the body visible, but it must have a visible head in the person of Peter and his successors. A living person does not merely speak through writings of the past but as proof of existence He must have the ability to speak now. The Mystical Body of Christ is no mere metaphor, but the very definition of the Church.
“‘Who are you, sir?’ The reply came, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.’”(Acts 9:5)