During a performance by a local amateur opera company in a small Italian town, an amusing thing happened. These were amateurs in the true sense, they performed out of love for the art, and not for pay. Now, love and virtuosity do not always coincide in the same person. And Italians do like their opera to be done well. Hence, the local baritone having botched his aria quite splendidly, he was met with a chorus of boos from the raucous audience. Inserting a dramatic aside not included in the score, he addressed his audience thus:
“If you think that was bad, wait till you hear the Tenor!”
This story came to mind when I was considering the subject at hand, which is the holiness of the Church, one of the four “marks” or “notes” of the Church mentioned in the Creed (see But Only One Church is ‘One’ for an explanation of what a “note” is). This note seems more concealed in our times than in others, owing to numerous scandals and crises, but we cannot be like the baritone and say, “If you think we’re bad, just look at the Unitarians! Compared to them, we’re saints!”
No, that won’t do. The Church’s four marks are essential to Her, and must be manifest to those who are not Catholic. How, then, do we explain that the Church is holy even when many of her own priests and bishops have shown themselves to be particularly vile and unholy?
That question will be answered as we proceed to explain the Church’s mark of holiness.
Holiness is proper to God, of whom the books of Isaias and the Apocalypse say that He is “Holy, Holy, Holy,” a providentially trinitarian affirmation in a language (Hebrew) that lacks the comparative and superlative degrees of adjectives, thus necessitating this tripling to intensify the word “holy.” In God, holiness signifies two things, one negative and one positive: The complete absence in Him of all that is imperfect or creaturely (the Hebrew word for holy, qadosh, means separate or set apart), and His total, perfect adherence to His own goodness. (To see this idea developed, see Abbot Marmion’s Christ the Life of the Soul, pp. 14-16).
In creatures, sanctity is a participated holiness, and is therefore radically contingent on God’s own holiness.
We speak of creatures being holy in two distinct ways: ontologically and morally. In general things are said to be ontologically holy, while persons are said to be morally holy. Things that are set aside for the divine use are ontologically holy: such are holy rituals, scriptures, oblations, sacrifices, temples, churches, sacraments, offices (e.g., the priesthood, the episcopacy), etc. Persons are said to be morally holy by virtue of a twofold character: first, the negative quality of absence of sin or evil, and second, the positive quality of benevolent union with God Himself, who sanctifies the soul by the infusion of sanctifying grace, the theological and moral virtues, the gifts of the Holy Ghost, and actual grace so that the child of God may increase in sanctity by performing meritorious good works.
As holiness differs from person to person, moral holiness is sometimes spoken of in three ascending gradations: ordinary (or “common”) holiness, perfect holiness, and heroic holiness. These degrees correspond to the descending gradations mentioned by Our Lord Himself, in the Parable of the Sower: “But he that received the seed upon good ground, is he that heareth the word, and understandeth, and beareth fruit, and yieldeth the one an hundredfold, and another sixty, and another thirty” (Matt. 13:23).
Now, the Church is said to be holy in all these ways. She is ontologically holy as an institution for several reasons: by virtue of her union both with Christ who is her Head and Founder, and with the Holy Ghost, who is her Soul; by virtue of her purpose, which is the glory of God and the eternal salvation of souls; by virtue of her faith, morals, sacrifice, and sacraments; and, finally, by the fruits of all these things, which is grace, virtue, and charisms in her children.
The Church is also morally holy in her children, and that in all three degrees. It is easy to prove her ordinary moral holiness when we consider her ontological holiness; the Church is that “good tree” (ontological) which must bear the “good fruit” of moral holiness in her children (Cf. Matt. 7:17-19). But Holy Scripture also speaks more directly of the moral holiness of the Church:
To the church of God that is at Corinth, to them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, with all that invoke the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, in every place of theirs and ours. (1 Cor. 1:2)
And such some of you were [effeminates, nor liers with mankind, thieves, covetous, drunkards, railers, extortioners]; but you are washed, but you are sanctified, but you are justified in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the Spirit of our God. (1 Cor. 6:11)
Who gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and might cleanse to himself a people acceptable, a pursuer of good works. (Titus 2:14)
The Catholic faithful who remain in the state of grace are holy by at least ordinary moral holiness. They practice the commandments and the virtues, and avoid mortal sin. In short, they conform themselves to the New Law of Christ, whose purpose it to sanctify; therefore, they are holy.
The BAC Sacrae Theologiae Summa tells us that “The proper end of the New Law, as contrasted with the Old, is perfect moral holiness. But such an end must be obtained unfailingly. Therefore the Church unavailingly will be holy also with perfect moral holiness.” To prove the major premise of that syllogism, the author, Father Salaverri, cites the exalted moral character of the Gospel as taught by Our Lord in the Sermon on the Mount, where we find multiple “elevations” of the moral standards of the New Law over the Old, including those clearly stated in six distinct phrases that follow a format like this: “You have heard that it was said to them of old… But I say to you….” (See this article for more detail, including the citation of all six of these verses.)
Jesus offered the possibility of perfection to the rich young man when He challenged him in these words: “Jesus saith to him: If thou wilt be perfect, go sell what thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come follow me” (Matt. 19:21). We know that the rich young man went away sad, but we also know that generations of consecrated persons, beginning with the Apostles themselves (cf. Matt 19:27-29), went on to follow Our Lord in the life of the evangelical counsels, those “counsels of perfection” which are added to the observance of the commandments in order to live a life of perfect moral holiness. Not that moral perfection is exclusive to the religious state (neither do all religious achieve it), but that is its end: perfect moral holiness resulting from the free and voluntary embrace of the evangelical counsels, which, according to Saint Thomas, remove the chief obstacles to the observance of the commandments.
This challenging Law taught by Jesus on the Mount of Beatitudes is something that the Apostles were commanded to teach, and did: “And Jesus coming, spoke to them, saying: All power is given to me in heaven and in earth. Going therefore, teach ye all nations; baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and behold I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world” (Matt. 28:18-20).
Based upon these promises, Father Salaverri argues, “Therefore the power will never be lacking efficaciously to obtain the moral perfection, which Christ willed and commanded to be observed in the Church; and consequently perfect holiness will also be found unfailingly in the Church.”
Finally, we come to the third and highest tier of moral holiness, that described as “heroic.” Christ willed the Church as a Spouse worthy of Himself, as Saint Paul lucidly teaches in Ephesians 5:23-30, of which verse twenty-seven describes the Church as “a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy, and without blemish.”
From this passage, it follows that there must be those in the Church who actually are worthy of Christ by rising to what Christ intended His Church to be; such practice virtue to the heroic degree with the help of grace. They follow the precept and example of heroic charity given to the Church by Christ Himself, heeding the words of Saint John the Beloved:
In this we have known the charity of God, because he hath laid down his life for us: and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.” (1 John 3:16).
Indeed, they heed the words of the Word Himself:
A new commandment I give unto you: That you love one another, as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love one for another. (John 13:34)
This is my commandment, that you love one another, as I have loved you. Greater love than this no man hath, that a man lay down his life for his friends. (John 15:12-13)
It was Tertullian who wrote, in his Apology:
“Look,” they [the pagans] say, “how they love one another” (for they themselves hate one another); “and how they are ready to die for each other” (for they themselves are readier to kill each other).
In that passage the African father shows that there were then living in North Africa Christians so heroic that they would follow the words of Christ and lay down their lives for their brethren in imitation of Him. Christ Our Lord promised that such things would happen, and the Apostles exhorted their own disciples in the same fashion (cf. Matt. 10:17-28; John 15:9-20; John 16:1-4, 20, and 33; and I Peter 2:21).
The lives of the saints from every age since Apostolic times provide us with “so great a cloud of witnesses” (Heb. 12:1) to the holiness of the Church. The martyrs most readily come to mind: many millions of them date from the early centuries of persecution, but many millions of them also from modern times, thanks to the anti-Christian -isms of modernity going back to the French Revolution. As Christians were killed for their Faith in the early centuries, the Church continued to spread, such that Tertullian famously said, “the blood of Christians is seed.” That seed still germinates.
But in addition to her millions of martyrs ancient and new, the Catholic Church shows her heroic sanctity in numerous confessors, virgins, ascetics, anchorites, monks, canons regular, nuns, friars, clerks regular, and lay faithful in every age. Many a pagan has been converted over the years by witnessing the holy lives of the missionaries the Church sent them. Our American Indians were shocked at the sanctity manifested by the missionaries of the Society of Jesus, especially as manifested by their celibate chastity, which seemed superhuman to the natives. “Savages” could see the sanctity of the Church as manifested in her missionaries. That is what a “note” is!
And what of our own day, when scandals abound? Such scandals — and so many! Wherever the seed of the Faith has taken root in good soil it manifests at least “ordinary” sanctity. We see it — and sometimes more than it — in large Catholic families whose parents avoid the sin of onanism, are committed to raising their children properly, and put God’s holy will above the consumerism that surrounds them, opting out of the government indoctrination centers we call public schools, and instead teaching their children at home or stretching their means to send them to schools that are Catholic in fact (if not in law: cf. Can. 803 §3), passing on to their precious offspring that pearl of great price that they value above all else. There are many such people quietly going about the duties of their state in life. To encounter them is to be edified. There are those who wrestle with the vices so liberally advocated by the popular culture, who, having been seduced by their allurements, now do penance and bewail their former sins, living the life of grace. In our midst are new Augustines and Monicas, Magdalens and Margarets of Cortona. There yet remain those who flee the world to embrace the evangelical counsels, some in the most penitential of monastic communities, others in those congregations that show the sanctity of the Church is performing works of mercy. While the numbers are hardly proportioned to the general population (owing to a lack of generosity on our part, not God’s), the seeds of reform are present now in the Church. What produced a Thebaid, a Cluny, a Citeaux, a Grande Chartreuse, a Camoldoli, etc., still remains in the Church because Christ is Her Spouse and the Holy Ghost Her Soul.
Today, we see many good priests persecuted for their fidelity to the priesthood. They suffer, and it is edifying to see them being conformed to Christ the Victim-Priest by their sufferings. If the corruption infecting the Mystical Body today has produced many Herods, Annases and Caiphases in the episcpoacy, it is also occasioning the rise of new heroic imitators of Jesus and the Apostles in the priesthood.
We were created and subsequently redeemed by the good God for His glory. Regardless of their state in life, those who see, love, and seek the Triune God in all things are possessed of piety; they glorify Him. His glory radiating into them through holy things — especially the Blessed Eucharist — makes them holy, and manifests itself excellently in the life of the Beatitudes. Such Catholics, by their holy lives, sing a canticle to the glory of God for all to hear (no matter how good or bad their voices are!): “Thy testimonies are become exceedingly credible: holiness becometh thy house, O Lord, unto length of days” (Ps. 92:5).