Theologian grapples with combining Church's sin and sanctity

Theologian grapples with combining Church’s sin and sanctity

Theologian grapples with combining Church’s sin and sanctity

People pray as Pope Francis leads a penance service in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican March 4. (Credit: CNS.)

Crux speaks with Professor Brian Flanagan about his new book, "Stumbling in Holiness: Sin and Sanctity in the Church."

These days, there can seem to be more sin than sanctity emanating from “the Holy Catholic Church.” Understanding how the Church can be both holy and sinful is Professor Brian Flanagan’s project in his new book, Stumbling in Holiness: Sin and Sanctity in the Church.

In an interview with Crux, Flanagan — an associate professor of theology at Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia — discusses this paradox and why he believes the current sexual abuse crisis, and all manner of ecclesial sins, shouldn’t prevent Catholics from persevering in the pilgrimage of faith.

Crux: You penned Stumbling in Holiness long before this summer’s wave of sex-abuse revelations hit. The themes of sin and sanctity in the Church couldn’t be timelier though, no?

Flanagan: Sadly, yes. A friend described the events I had scheduled to tell people about the book as the “Unfortunately Relevant Book Tour.” The Pennsylvania grand jury report and the revelations about abuse by Theodore McCarrick, the former Archbishop of my diocese, brought me and many others right back to Boston in the early 2000s, the time and place where I first started asking these questions for myself.

As the Pennsylvania report has shown, and as further revelations by investigations in other jurisdictions prompted by that report will no doubt show in coming years, Boston was not an isolated incident or an outlier, but just the most prominent first example of ecclesial failures in the past century. My hope now is that my book will give my fellow Catholics and others some of the concepts and language they need to be able to address ecclesial sin while maintaining their belief in the holiness of the Church.

You write that it’s not a contradiction to say that the Church is both holy and sinful. How is that?

Primarily, I argue that an eschatological viewpoint, that is, a viewpoint that takes account of the “in-betweenness” of the Church – between Jesus Christ’s saving life, death, resurrection and ascension, and the sending of the Holy Spirit, on one hand, and the full completion of God’s plan for humanity in the coming Reign of God.

The Church is already holy. It already participates in the mystery of divine holiness, in the gifts God has given it such as the Scriptures and the sacraments, and in its saints, holy women and men, both known and unknown, who are living proofs of the truth of the Gospel.

But while already holy, it is composed of women and men who, in some cases, are actively sinful, and all of whom, with the exception of Jesus and Mary, are directly affected by the continuing aftereffects of original sin. Even Jesus and Mary, like all the saints who have reached the completion of their stories in the presence of God, do not abandon the continuing story of the Church in its sinfulness, but remain with us in our pilgrimage.

Given the holiness of the Church, why would we want to talk about its sinfulness? Isn’t that a possible cause for scandal, or a lack of faith in the Church?

In one sense, that’s correct – neither I nor any theologian I know enjoys thinking about the Church’s failures or wants to use our greater knowledge of our community’s failings to tear down the Church or our faith. But at the same time, I think that mistakenly understanding the Church only as already perfect, without attention to where it is not yet holy, is not only inaccurate, but positively dangerous.

In order to preserve a false façade of perfection, bishops and some other Church leaders transferred and hid abusers of children or covered over their own mistakes. Instead, confessing our sins allows us to repent, to lament our past ways, to make restitution for our errors out of fidelity to God rather than judicial fiat, and to be further converted to the service of the Gospel.

We are in for a great deal of pain in the coming years as the realities hidden behind the façade continue to be exposed; but, to use a different metaphor, even if ripping the bandaid all off at once exposes just how wounded and wounding the Church has been, that’s the first step in allowing God to heal us.

How do you distinguish between “ecclesial sin” and the sin of the individual Church figures?

We can talk about this in a few ways. First, when leaders of the Church – not only clergy, but also lay leaders, teachers, even theologians – acting on behalf of the Church sin, we can, in a certain sense, say that the Church sins. This is clearer in the case of those who hold higher office or whose decisions affect greater numbers of people with power they exercise on behalf of the people of God. But if we claim in some way that “we are the Church,” than that holds not only for our good actions but for our sins; all of the sins of the baptized are, in some sense, the sins of the Church.

We can talk about ecclesial sin in two other ways. First, we can talk about cases in which whole communities of Christians, acting together as Church, act wrongly – we can look at the history of our Church’s past, we can see instances when Christians acted horribly, and thinking that the way they were acting was the Christian thing to do.

Second, we can talk about social sin. Theologian Daniel Finn has discussed the social or structural sin, a concept first introduced in magisterial teaching by John Paul II, is a bit like concupiscence, the aftereffects of original sin which form the environment in which we live and make us more likely to sin individually.

Even in the Church, our structures and institutions are affected by the choices of those who came before us. Naming these sinful structures and purifying the Church is one aspect of the Church’s continuing pilgrimage toward greater transparency to God.

How did the Second Vatican Council change — or clarify — the Church’s teachings on holiness?

Vatican II spoke a lot about holiness – the Jesuit historian John O’Malley has talked about it as one of the great themes running through the conciliar documents. Two seem to me most important. The first is Chapter Five of the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, that speaks about the universal call to holiness. Much of that text was originally drafted to speak about those in religious life, since in many circles only clergy and religious were “called to holiness,” while lay people were set the lower task of simply trying in their lives “to avoid sin.”

Vatican II clarified that all Christians are called to holiness through their discipleship to Christ, and it widened our expectations of what holiness could look like. The second important clarification is also found in Lumen Gentium. The Council Fathers stated that the Church is “at the same time holy and always in need of purification.” In this reaffirmation of the paradox of ecclesial holiness and sin we see their attempt to address our experience of the Church as a place of holiness and of human weakness, and in many ways my entire book is simply an attempt to faithfully understand and explain that single sentence.

Lastly, how can the liturgy help us move from sin to sanctity? 

It’s interesting that this is your last question, since in the book I start rather than end with the liturgy. In the first chapter of my book I ask how we learn about the mystery of ecclesial holiness in relation to ecclesial sin through the normal, regular rhythm of the Church’s prayer, and particularly through the way we pray the Eucharist.

Every time we gather at the Lord’s Table, we are further formed into a people that confesses its brokenness, receives God’s mercy, and are then pulled into deeper and purer communion with God through Jesus Christ. While not automatically or magically, each time we as Church gather in Christ’s presence to open the Scriptures and break the bread, we are further forgiven, healed, and made holy, individually and communally.

At the same time that the liturgy is a primary means in which we are made holy, it also seems to me one of the surest sources for understanding ourselves as holy and sinful, as already participating in God’s life and yet always needing further purification.

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