The holiness of the Church on earth

 — Apr. 29, 200429 avril 2004

In today’s Vatican Information Service (VIS), a report of the ad limina visit of some U.S. bishops to Rome can be found. The pope will be speaking to each group of U.S. bishops as they visit over the coming months, and it has been announced that he will be speaking to them about their ministry as bishops. This is an opportunity to reiterate some of the reflections arising from the Synod of Bishops a few years back, but also a chance to speak to them about their special struggles as a result of the sexual abuse scandals in the past few years.

In today’s message the pope spoke about “the sanctifying mission of all bishops, which ‘finds its source in the indefectible holiness of the Church.'” I find very interesting the humility of the pope’s comments, particularly in light of another Vatican statement some years ago. In 1998 “We Remember: a Reflection on the Shoah” was moderately well received in the church and by the Jewish community for its firm rejection of anti-semitism and of the acts of certain bishops, priests, and civil authorities over the 2000 years of Christian history. The document called the treatment of Jews sinful, and insisted that anti-semitism is itself sinful. The document was criticised by some Jewish commentators and by many Christian theologians because it failed to acknowledge that the church itself had sinned. The document maintained the traditional assertion that the church is holy, and thus the church does not sin. The sin is that of its members, not of the church as a whole.

What a striking contrast then to read the pope’s comments to the U.S. bishops. Speaking in the wake of the sexual abuse scandal, the pope states “she [the church] has been endowed with unfailing holiness and has become herself, ‘in Christ and through Christ, the source and origin of all holiness’.” However, he goes on to say

“At the same time, the holiness of the Church on earth remains real yet imperfect. Her holiness is both gift and call, a constitutive grace and a summons to constant fidelity to that grace.”

It would be twisting the pope’s words and intention to argue that he is acknowledging that the church can sin, however there are important signs of humility here. By referring to the church on earth whose holiness is “real yet imperfect” he distinguishes it from the church of heaven whose holiness is unblemished. He sees the holiness of the church as both a present gift and an eschatological call, a pilgrimage.

In the Lutheran-Roman Catholic “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification,” Roman Catholics assert that faith (and indeed each of the theological virtues) is first a gift of God’s grace and only then a response of the individual to that grace. In the pope’s comments today he reflects the same dynamic. The holiness of the church is first given as a “constitutive grace” and then as an eschatological “summons to constant fidelity to that grace.”

I firmly believe that the U.S. bishops will be better served by this kind of humility about their task.

Posted: Apr. 29, 2004 • Permanent link:
Categories: OpinionIn this article: church, holiness, John Paul II, pope
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Catégorie : OpinionDans cet article : church, holiness, John Paul II, pope

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