Many Catholics are asking this question: “How can the Church be holy when she sometimes seems packed floor to ceiling with sinners, even among our leadership?”
This question needs to be answered, especially in the twenty-first century, when Catholics have increasingly grown justifiably distrustful of all authority figures, including Church hierarchs. The faithful who have given themselves over to the Church knowing her to be the sacrament (or instrumental sign) of intimate union with God, a force for good in the world, have suffered from seemingly endless reports about sex abuse and cover-ups. Such stories are quite naturally scandalous, depressing, and disillusioning. But should this cause us to question the holiness of the Church?
Sometimes we defend the holiness of the Church without understanding what makes it holy, even as it is full of sinners. For years, I taught a Church history class, and one of the first lessons covered the nature of the Church and her four marks (one, holy, catholic, and apostolic). The students were already familiar with less-than-ideal episodes in the Church’s life, which had already conditioned them to be a bit distrustful of the Church. Indeed, I started the lesson by reading off the board “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic,” and when I came to “holy” I heard a student in the back sarcastically mutter “yeah right . . .”