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The Church’s Mark of Holiness, Noted by Friends and Foes

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jan 27, 2014

Once again we begin with the Catholic profession of Faith in a Church that is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. Yet because of the sins of her members, there can be no mark of the Church’s life that is harder to defend than the mark of holiness. We may feel this acutely in the wake of clerical sex abuse, but certainly those in other ages were challenged as well. Consider, for example, the worldliness of the Catholic episcopate in those eras when the Church’s leadership was drawn primarily from noble families. Many bishops regarded earthly wealth and honor as their due, while remaining heavily involved in territorial and dynastic affairs.

Nonetheless, the Church in her very essence draws her members into holiness in the same way that she draws them into unity with Christ—as was demonstrated in the first entry in this series. Indeed, the Holy Spirit, often described as the soul of the Church, is active also in each of her members. Therefore, the key to understanding the Church’s holiness is also the same as for her unity, the recognition that the she has a sacred or mystical personality which transcends, transforms and draws into herself the individual personalities of her members. We saw this earlier in St. Paul’s emphasis on the Church as Christ’s body and bride. For the mark of holiness, however, we should consider especially this critical passage from his letter to the Ephesians:

Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the Church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. [Eph 5:25-27]

The Dominican theologian Aidan Nichols explores this holy personality of the Church both eschatologically (with respect to the fulfillment of God’s plan at the end of time) and ontologically (with respect to the Church’s very being here and now). Nichols notes that there will be a certain fulfilled splendor in the Church’s holiness at the end of time, when all of her members personally partake completely of her holiness. But he also explains how this eschatological plenitude was actually present from the very beginning. In the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Church’s first member, we can see what Hans Urs von Balthasar called the “primal Church”, already in its very membership full of grace. Thus the Second Vatican Council, in the eighth chapter of its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium), explained that Mary is the very type or figure of the Church: “But while in the most Blessed Virgin the Church has already reached that perfection whereby she exists without spot or wrinkle (cf. Eph. 5:27), the faithful still strive to conquer sin and increase in holiness” (#65).

In developing these ideas in his study Figuring the Church, Fr. Nichols capably supplies a valuable dogmatic foundation for the Church’s holiness. Yet I suspect that most Catholics today know the marks (if they know them at all) in terms of apologetics. That is, they argue that the true Church alone possesses these marks as visible attributes. Thus the marks actually permit us to identify the true Church of Christ in the midst of rival claimants. Let us see how the mark of holiness can be treated in this way.

The Visible Mark of Holiness

The Catholic Church alone possesses both the fullness of the sanctifying principles imparted by Christ and what may be called a corresponding systematic holiness among her members, far outstripping what is present in any other group. The breadth, depth and consistency of the Catholic Church’s doctrine (on faith, on morals, on the life of grace, etc.), as unfolded theologically under the guidance of her Magisterium, is unparalleled elsewhere. The Church alone authoritatively preserves Sacred Scripture and protects its understanding, so each generation can interpret it as she herself has always understood it. Even at a more pragmatic level, through the constant rhythms of her liturgical year and in all her other canonical disciplines she fosters constant attention to spiritual growth.

Moreover, the Church continuously makes her members holy through her Divinely-ordained sacramental ministry—a uniquely incarnational mystery, working through both soul and body not only in the individual but in the Church as a whole, and even through the constant transformation of culture. The Church’s pastors readily distinguish between what we might call the common holiness of all of her members who strive to live a good Catholic life, the more perfect holiness of those who embrace the evangelical counsels, and even the heroic holiness of those who persist in their witness to Christ under considerable duress—heroes whom the Church constantly models for all through the canonization of her saints. Finally, the Church offers no endpoint for perfection, no particular attainment which completes the process. Through her insistence that discipleship always grows through sacrificial love, she constantly challenges her members to still greater heights. In contrast to so many other spiritual elites, Catholic saints always regard themselves as works in serious need of progress.

It is clear that some aspects of charity can be found naturally among the best men and women, and that more of these points of holiness appear at least partially in Christian bodies which have broken from Rome. But all of these things together appear, and preeminently, only in the Catholic Church. From this it becomes clear that her members fail to become holy not insofar they follow the Church’s teaching and partake of her richness, but only insofar as they resist the means of holiness the Church makes available to them by her very nature.

In closing, we might reflect on Our Lord’s warning that His disciples could expect constant suffering and persecution at the hands of the world, for the servant is not greater than His master (Jn 15:19-22). We may ask which Church is constantly pilloried, far more than any other body in history, down through all the ages since her founding? Which Church is ever attacked, from every side through every shift of passion and culture, as the main obstacle to securing worldly progress? Many students of the Church’s holiness have observed, to use the words of the 20th century ecclesiastical scholar Albin Michel, that regardless of the ideologies motivating different persons, “all know where they must strike.”

This is, as Our Lord foretold, the price of holiness. “Blessed are you when men hate you, and when they exclude you and revile you, and cast out your name as evil, on account of the Son of man!” (Lk 6:22). And so this hatred by the world may be fairly taken as a pointer to the mark of holiness. Such persistent and varied animosity serves only to reveal a holiness both peculiar and essential to the Church of Rome, identifying it ever anew as the Church of Christ.


Previous in series: The Church’s Mark of Unity, and How It Works
Next in series: The Church’ Mark of Catholicity, on the Surface and in its Depth

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Show 2 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: jg23753479 - Jan. 29, 2014 4:14 PM ET USA

    Mr. Plick: And it was those same Protestant founders who wrote the documents that eventually allowed the central government to expand its powers beyond what you consider a healthy limit. What this has to do with the holiness of the Catholic Church, though, totally escapes me as I am sure it does others.

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Jan. 28, 2014 11:11 PM ET USA

    But, paradoxically, it is clear to me, and it should be clear to any number of others that our own Catholic bishops in America have abandoned and have, for some time, their belief in the practical efficacy of "the Church..." Strange as it may seem, it was the largely PROTESTANT founding fathers who believed in a limited centralized government with local needs being fulfilled by the local government and THE CHURCH. It is our own bishops who encourage the federal monolith and discredit the Church.

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