Is the Church a ‘Harlot’?

Alright, this is a very provocative title, I admit, but the name of the book about which I here write is even more so: Casta Meretrix, “The Chaste Whore,” An Essay on the Ecclesiology of St. Ambrose. This long and jarring appellation bedecks a Spartan little volume, sadly out of print, by Cardinal Giacomo Biffi, formerly the Archbishop of Bologna and a scholar of no minor accomplishment. (I have written about him elsewhere: see “Cardinal Biffi’s Bombshell.”)

There seems to be no end to the tonnage of collective guilt heaped upon the Church herself for the crimes (real and supposed) of her children. Not only do secular journalists, entertainers, and social commentators of all sorts engage in this fashionable slander, but Catholic notables gladly join their voices to the raucous chorus. The Cardinal’s small study — a redacted lecture — is one response to this plethora of craven protestations of the Church’s “guilt.”

Oft times, the “experts” who urge churchmen to these corporate mea culpas make the claim that the Church is at the same time a saint and a sinner. Some of them boldly assert, with the effect of arresting all objections, that “the Church Fathers” lend their weight to the opinion by calling the Church “a chaste whore.” (Cardinal Biffi cites a passage from the archvillain Hans Küng doing just that.) Cowed into submission by the cult of experts, the ill-informed go with the flow and call the Church dirty names.

Enter Biffi. He shows that it can in no way be said that “the Fathers” generally used this term. It is of very rare coinage. In fact, only one Father used it: Saint Ambrose. Conveniently, Cardinal Biffi is an not only a native of Milan — the episcopal see of the Honey Tongued Doctor — but he is also an Ambrosian scholar; he was a principal collaborator in the publication of the Opera Omnia di S. Ambrogio.

Fully qualified to get to the heart of Saint Ambrose’s use of this poetic oxymoron, His Eminence puts the phrase in its context: “Ambrose did, in fact, use the expression in question once and once only, in his meditation on Rahab, the woman of Jericho who is mentioned in the book of Joshua.” (p. 17)

So, we are speaking in terms of typology; and in typology (as the Cardinal points out), we must not be too eager to transpose all the qualities of the type to its antitype. Otherwise, Our Lord would bear the moral failings of Solomon, David, Abraham, and all the other Old Testament types of the Messias; while the Immaculate Virgin would carry guilt akin to that of Eve’s transgression. These are unthinkable conclusions. (For an explanation of typology, see the subheading “typology” in “Ark of the New Covenant.”)

Here is Saint Ambrose’s context for the “chaste whore” comment (to understand this, it is important to be familiar with the biblical passage in question, Josue 2):

“Rahab — who as a type was a prostitute, but as a mystery is the Church — showed in her blood the future sign of Universal Salvation amid the world’s carnage; she does not refuse to unite herself with numerous fugitives, and is all the more chaste in the extent to which she is closely joined to the greater number of them; she is the immaculate virgin, without a wrinkle, uncontaminated in her modesty, plebeian in her love, a chaste whore, a barren widow, a fecund virgin.” (In Lucam III:23)

In his use of Old Testament typology, Saint Ambrose has made use of the “accommodating” character of the prostitute — she gladly receives all comers — but he has stripped it of its sexual impurity and made it “chaste.” In fact, he calls the Church “immaculate,” something incompatible with the moral character of an actual harlot.

Here, I quote at some length from the book, for the typology of Rahab interests us for more than one reason (the bold emphasis is mine):

Ambrose says that she “as a type was a prostitute but as a mystery is the Church, united now to the Gentiles by the sharing of the sacraments.” …

The “typical” use of Rahab — a contradictory character, to whom was attributed both an unworthy profession and a praiseworthy and providential action — was already a classic in Christian literature.

Matthew’s Gospel has recalled her in the genealogy of Jesus (Matthew 1:5). The Letter to the Hebrews had featured her as an example of the faith which saves (Hebrews 11:31). St. James, concerned with other aspects of theology, had emphasised her justification obtained through works, i.e., through the good deed that she did for the Hebrew scouts (James 2:25). Clement of Rome, almost as though trying to synthesise and reconcile the two texts, had written, “Through her faith and her hospitality, Rahab the prostitute was saved” (I ad Corinthios 12:1).

After Clement, who dwells a long time on the episode of Joshua 2:1-21, reading it in the light of the Redemption worked by Christ (cf. I ad Corinthios 12:1-8), a definite ecclesiological interpretation of the figure of Rahab is clearly delineated — from Justin to Irenaeus, to Origen, to Cyprian. Indeed, it is through reflection upon the “house of the prostitute” — the only house in Jericho which preserved its occupants from death — that the famous principle emerged of extra Ecclesiam nulla salus.

“No one could be deceived in this regard,” writes Origen, “no one could be mistaken; outside of the house, that is to say outside of the Church, there is no salvation.’ (Om. in Josue 3:4).

Cyprian in turn writes, “Do you think that you can live if you detach yourself from the Church, building yourself other houses and different dwelling places, when Rahab, prototype of the Church, was told that anyone who left the door of her house would be guilty?” (De unitate ecclesiae 8).

[In a footnote, His Eminence adds:] “In Cyprian, the principle of “extra Ecclesiam nulla salus” is linked to the truth of the maternity of the Church: “no one can have God for a father who does not have the Church for a mother” (De unitate ecclesiae 6). [p. 17-18]

There’s that dogma again!

In the book’s development, Cardinal Biffi explores the ecclesiology of Saint Ambrose by citing from many of that father’s works. The net result is to prove with scholarly agility that the Doctor from Milan never intended, and could not have considered without contempt, the insult that modern progressivists regularly direct toward the Church.

His Eminence does, with the help of Saint Ambrose, wrestle with the great mystery of a sinless Church made up of sinful members, but I don’t want this Ad Rem to be too long! Suffice it to say that he handles the issue with aplomb. Whatever the crimes of her children may be (see the “Big Bad Catholic Church”), the Church herself remains the immaculate bride of Christ.

So, far from being a protestation of the Church’s guilt, the phrase “chaste whore” emphasizes the Church’s immaculate nature as well as her necessity for salvation.