Catholics have sometimes been heard to speak of the four marks of the church. In fact, we state our belief in them every time we say the Nicene Creed at mass, when we state that we believe in “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.”
Catholics believe that the true church can only be identified as one that bears all four qualities.
The second mark of the Church is the hardest to demonstrate. That the Church is holy seems to fly in the face of some of the headlines. There are many reasons for this. One of those reasons is that the Church, unfortunately, has many enemies.
These enemies are often very zealous in the way they wish to seize on the sins of our church. That there are some who are willing to lie or grossly exaggerate is a matter of indisputable fact.
Some claim that tens of millions died in the inquisitions. This number is so ludicrous it defies belief. In fact, there weren’t that many people in existence in the countries where the inquisitions were! The majority of responsible historical studies put the number at less than 10,000.
Some claim that the church openly accepts pedophiles in the priesthood. This is yet another outrageous allegation. 1.7% of Catholic priests have been found guilty of pedophilia. This number compares to about 3% of the general public and an alarming figure of nearly 10% among protestant ministers. This according to Penn State historian Phillip Jenkins.
Throughout her history, there have been those who would malign the church by exaggerating and misrepresenting facts to attempt to prove that the church is not holy but evil.
The gross exaggerations notwithstanding, the arguments, at times, seem to have merit don’t they?
The church, throughout its history, has witnessed some great evil. There have been Catholics who lied, murdered, stole, and were guilty of corruption, adultery and simony. There have, sadly, been priests who committed the unimaginable crime of child molestation. How can the church be holy, when many of her members have been unholy?
The answer to this question can only be found in the examination of who is and isn’t holy and how did they get that way.
Holiness is defined by Webster’s Dictionary as “The state or quality of being holy; perfect moral integrity or purity; freedom from sin; sanctity; innocence.”
In human beings, it can only be attained to degrees. Human beings are frail and imperfect; therefore, they are capable of only frail and imperfect holiness. God alone is perfect in His holiness. All humans fall short of God’s holiness (Cf. Romans 3:23).
That all humans fall short is a matter of fact. However, that some fall shorter than others is just as true.
That the church is holy has never been a guarantee that all its members would be holy. To imply otherwise is to do a great disservice to those who are by aligning them with those who are not.
Christ is holy but not all Christians are holy. Why?
The answer is very simple: Christ is Holiness in perfection. Men and women are holy in degrees, relative to how closely they follow Christ’s perfect holiness. If 100 out of 100 Christians are unholy, it does not impugn Christ’s holiness one iota because they aren’t living like Christ. You cannot truly call someone a Christian if his actions, in no way, resemble Christ’s.
If Christ is Holy, the Church he established must, likewise be Holy. If entire cities of unholy people go to the Church, it doesn’t make the Church unholy anymore than 100 reprobates reading the Bible makes the Bible unholy.
The holiness of the Church isn’t dependent upon the holiness of the person in the Church. However, the holiness of the person in the Church is dependent on the holiness of the Church. Why?
It is very simple: The Church is the institution by which the person becomes holy.
Let me repeat….
The Church is the institution by which the person becomes holy. It is not an exclusive club for those that already think they are going to heaven. Jesus already addressed this in Matthew 9:11-13:
“When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and ‘sinners’?” On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
If Christ created the Church as our means of attaining holiness, then, the church itself must be holy in order that following it makes us holy. A disobedient member of a holy church cannot be holy but, just as surely, the most stringent disciple of an unholy Church could not be a holy person.
Now, many will protest that Jesus said, “you will know them by their fruits…a good tree cannot produce bad fruit.” True enough. Jesus was speaking of persons here.
Matthew 12:35 – “The good man out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil man out of his evil treasure brings forth evil.”
Although this all sounds like so much good philosophy, the truth is revealed in the true application of these principles.
If the Church, as I contend, is Holy, then the holiest members of the church are those who most closely followed its precepts.
In this regard, the Catholic Church is without peer.
From the early martyrs, through Saint Francis, and Saint Bernadette and Padre Pio and right up to Mother Theresa and John Paul II, it is hard to make the case that any other Christian church can boast even a fraction of the number of remarkably generous, kind and devout men and women that have dazzled our church.
Yet, I can expand even further.
Would a perfect Catholic be Holy?
A perfect Catholic would never lie, cheat or steal, never use the Lord’s name in vain, never commit idolatry or adultery or fornication. A perfect Catholic would always honor the Lord’s Day, never boast, never covet and would never be a drunk or a glutton.
He or she would pray ceaselessly, love his wife or her husband or his congregation or monastery, give food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, visit the imprisoned and receive the body and blood of Christ with reverential awe.
A perfect Catholic would be baptized and confirmed and would know the scriptures like his own name and live them. He would worship God as a Trinity. He would acknowledge Jesus as divine.
A perfect Catholic would be Holy to perfection because he would be perfectly following a perfectly holy church.
Unfortunately, I know no perfect Catholics (not even the Pope)…but I do know a perfect church, perfect because its founder is perfect; holy because its founder is holy.