The Church’s Unholy Holiness


Each Sunday we profess belief that the Church is holy. Yet almost daily the newspapers challenge this profession with accounts of heinous sins by her leaders and members. In light of these reports, calling the Church holy seems at best a laughable farce and at worst a sinister delusion. The Church was founded to combat sin, but sin remains even within her and can drive one farther from her. Pope Benedict pointedly acknowledged this reality in his Letter to the Catholics of Ireland when he wrote that the scandal there has “obscured the light of the Gospel to a degree that not even centuries of persecution succeeded in doing.”

Of the four marks of the Church – one, holy, catholic, apostolic – holy came first as early as the beginning of the second century. Notorious sinners were present in the Church then as well as now, and equally threatened her credibility. That the Church perseveres today in her doctrine and sacraments points to some other source as the guarantor of her holiness. This source, in the words of the Second Vatican Council, is Christ, who has “loved the Church as his bride, giving himself up for her so as to sanctify her; he joined her to himself as his body and endowed her with the gift of the Holy Spirit for the glory of God.” Christ, the divine physician, came not for the righteous, but for sinners. His sacrifice has sanctified the Church, which transmits his healing medicine in the form of the sacraments throughout all time. Having been sanctified by Christ, the Church endures to sanctify humanity.

Over forty years ago in his book Introduction to Christianity Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger referred to this paradox of sinners within the holy body as the “unholy holiness of the Church.” In every century, he explained, the world has defined holiness “as untouchability by sin and evil, as something unmixed with the latter.” Such was the opinion of the Pharisees, who found Christ’s association with sinners gravely scandalous. Ratzinger countered that holiness became visible precisely when Christ drew near to sinners, and, above all, when Christ bore all the sins of the world on the cross. True holiness, then, is “not separation, but union; not judgment, but redeeming love.”

The Church, Ratzinger continued, is “simply the continuation of God’s deliberate plunge into human wretchedness.” While the world expects purity, in fact it is the “unholy holiness of the Church” that reveals “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.”

Ratzinger admitted that the Church’s unholy holiness carries an air of comfort. Who alone could live up to the standard of total purity that the world demands? The famous English convert Father Ronald Knox shared Ratzinger’s sentiment: he knew his missing umbrella was likely to have been stolen from the back of a Catholic church, for her adherents are a mixed lot. Catholics know the beauty to which they are called, but they also know in humility that they are still on the path to holiness.

The Church’s unholy holiness is not an apologia for the indefensible sins that dominate the headlines these days. It is rather a reminder to believers that the Church is more than the sum of her human parts, as important as they are. The Church is the means through which humanity encounters Jesus Christ, imbibes his teachings, receives his grace, and experiences the charity of Christian fellowship, through which sinners minister to sinners.

Ultimately, only faith can appreciate this vision of the Church. As much as the sins of her members deservedly receive criticism, many news reports and popular opinions have bludgeoned the Church. According to Cardinal Ratzinger, attacks of this sort are motivated by a “hidden pride” that is “accompanied only too often by a spiritual emptiness in which the specific nature of the Church as a whole is no longer seen, in which she is only regarded as a political instrument whose organization is felt to be pitiable or brutal, as if the real function of the Church did not lie beyond organization.” In a world that refuses to admit the presence of the supernatural, the Church is nothing more than an antiquated bureaucracy thwarting the Zeitgeist of secular modernity.

The Church is holy only to those who believe in holiness. Consecrated by God from the very beginning of the divine plan, the Church remains the vehicle of Christ’s saving grace. In this vocation she is holy, and because of it neither the sins of her members nor the attacks of those outside of her can take away her holiness. And because of this vocation, the Church’s members must struggle – aided by her grace, doctrine, fellowship, and charity – to overcome sin, which is, alas, always with us.

David G. Bonagura Jr. an adjunct professor at St. Joseph’s Seminary and is the 2023-2024 Cardinal Newman Society Fellow for Eucharistic Education. He is the author of Steadfast in Faith: Catholicism and the Challenges of Secularism and Staying with the Catholic Church, and the translator of Jerome’s Tears: Letters to Friends in Mourning.