The last two months have not been the happiest time for the Catholic Church. Media criticism of the Church for her alleged and real mishandling of sexual abuse cases have attacked the Church at her most sensitive point — her holiness.
The implication, if not the outright assertion, has been that the Church is as sordid, more sordid even, than any human institution and that it nurtures a culture of serial criminal abusers and patriarchal cover-up. The merit and lack of merit of that picture have already been discussed in these pages.
Beyond that, however, one thing that ought to be clear is that the Church not only needs a better public relations department, she also needs a fresh outbreak of holiness.
The Second Vatican Council asserted that the Church, as a matter of faith, is “unfailingly holy” because Christ loved her as his bride, giving himself up for her and sanctifying her continually. To say, as the council did, that this sanctity is real though imperfect is likely to be of no consolation to victims of clerical sexual abuse.
But as the Church continues her process of repentance, the faithful ought to remember that the Church has continued to grow and spread the Good News through 2,000 years despite grave sins of her members and leaders. Paradoxically this growth is a sign of her holiness, a sign that Christ sanctifies her.
When the Church is most drenched in sin, Christ purifies her and draws out new signs of her holiness. Such was the case at the end of the Middle Ages when the moral degradation in the Church reached such a high pitch that the schism of the Protestant Reformation ensued. We still reap its consequences.
But of near-equal importance at that time was the Counter-Reformation, which brought not only internal reforms but also the greatest outpouring of saintliness since the age of the martyrs. The 16th and 17th centuries were a messy time, but the spiritual rebirth in the Church was real and profound.
Vatican II trumpeted the universal call to holiness, a clarion call that has still not drawn an appropriate response. No more can we get away with saying that holiness is reserved for priests and religious, while the rest of us are entitled to muddle through life.
Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount apply to all his disciples: “You are the light of the world. . . . Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5.14, 16).
The Church is holy by nature. She is also holy because she sanctifies her members. The holiness of the Church further requires those disciples to become the light of the world.
The ways to holiness are many, as many as there are people in the world. Now is the time for a new explosion of holiness. The Church requires it.