taken from Iota Unum, Chapter VI
#58. Sanctity of the Church. An Apologetical Principal.
That the Church is holy is a dogma of the Faith, included in the creed, but the theological definition of that holiness is a difficult business. We are not here concerned with canonized holiness, which has indeed varied in style with the centuries: the holiness of Emperor Henry II is markedly different to that of St. John Bosco, as is that of St. Joan of Arc from that of St. Therese of Lisieux. There is furthermore a gap between the heroic virtue of the canonized saint, and the holiness inherent in anybody who is merely in state of grace.
In the Summa Theologica, III,q.8,a.3 ad secundum, and in the Catechism of the Council of Trent, in the section on the creed, it is explained how the sins of the baptized do not prejudice the holiness of the Church, but this remains, nonetheless a complex notion which only a rigorous distinction can render clear. A definite distinction must be drawn between the natural element, and the supernatural element which produces the new creature, between the subjective and the objective element; between the historical element and the suprahistorical element which operates within it.
Firstly, the Church is holy because it is the body which has the God-Man as its head. In union with that head it becomes itself theandric (Relating to, or existing by, the union of divine and human operation in Christ): no profane body can be conceived as living in union with a holy head. Secondly, it is objectively holy because it possesses the Eucharist which is in its very essence the Sacred and the Sanctifier: all the Sacraments derive from the Eucharist. Thirdly, it is holy because it contains revealed truth in an indefectible and infallible way. The fundamental principle of Catholic apologetics must be located here: the Church cannot display, throughout its history, an uninterrupted sequence of activity in perfect conformity with the requirements of the Gospel, but it can point to an uninterrupted teaching of the truth: the holiness of the Church is to be located in the latter not the former.
It follows from this that those who belong to the Church will find themselves preaching a doctrine that is better than their own deeds. No man can preach himself, beset by weakness and failure; he can only re-preach the doctrine taught by the God-Man, or better, preach the person of the God-Man Himself. Thus, truth too is a constituent element in the holiness of the Church, and is forever attached to the Word and forever at odds with corruption, including one’s own.
The holiness of the Church is revealed in what could be called a subjective way in the holiness of its members, that is, in all those that live in grace as vital members of the mystical body. It appears in an obvious and outstanding way in its canonised members, whom grace and their own activity have pushed onwards to the highest levels of virtue. This holiness did not fail, be it noted once again, even in the periods of the greatest corruption of society and among the clergy; an age when the papacy was depraved by pagan influences saw the flourishing of Catherine of Bologna (+1464), Bernadino of Feltre (+1494), Catherine dei Fieschi (+1503), Francis of Paola (+1507), Jeanne de Valois (+1503) as well as many reformers such as Girolamo Savonarola (+1498).
Considerations and facts of this sort, however, do not clear the field of all objections. Paul VI conceded to the Church’s critics the fact that “the history of the Church has many long pages that are not all edifying” but he did not distinguish clearly enough between the objective holiness of the Church and the subjective holiness of its members. In another address, he put it in these terms: “The Church ought to be holy and good, it ought to be as Christ intended and designed it to be and we sometimes see that it is not worthy of the title.”
It would seem that the Pope is turning an objective note of the Church into a subjective one. It is indeed true that Christians ought to be holy, and they are inasmuch as they live in a state of grace, but the Church is holy. It is not Christians that make the Church holy, but the Church that makes them holy. It is also true that the biblical affirmation of the irreproachable holiness of the Church non habentem maculam aut rugam (Having neither spot nor wrinkle: Ephesians 5:27) is applicable to the Church in time only in an initial and partial way, despite the fact that it is indeed holy. All the Fathers take that flawlessness as connected with the final eschatological purification rather than with the Church’s pilgrim state in time.