Monday, July 7, 2014

Holiness as a Mark of the Church

Earlier today I wrote about the call to live a life of sanctity within the Church.  My friend Tom Leith wrote to me, correcting what he perceived to be a bit of a Donatist slant in what I had said.  He provided a link to the Catholic Encyclopedia article on Sanctity as a mark of the Church, which explains the holiness of the Church much better than I could.  It answers not only the question, "How can the Church be holy when so many of its members are far from holy?", but quite a few other things too.

Here are some highlights, with my emphases in bold.

As used of a society, the term [sanctity] means
  • that this society aims at producing holiness in its members, and is possessed of means capable of securing that result, and
  • that the lives of its members correspond, at least in some measure, with the purpose of the society, and display a real, not a merely nominal holiness.
The Church has ever claimed that she, as a society, is holy in a transcendent degree. She teaches that this is one of the four "notes", viz., unity, catholicity, apostolicity, and sanctity, by which the society founded by Christ can be readily distinguished from all human institutions. 
... Thus it follows as a necessary consequence from the nature of the Church and her relation to Christ, that as a society she must possess means capable of producing holiness: that her members must be characterized by holiness: and that this endowment of sanctity will afford a ready means of distinguishing her from the world

The article points out that Christian virtue is of supernatural origin.  It differs in kind and in degree from natural virtues.

It is further manifest that the Church's holiness must be of an entirely supernatural character — something altogether beyond the power of unassisted human nature. And such is in fact the type of sanctity which Christ and His Apostles require on the part of members of the Church. (1) The virtues which in the Christian ideal are the most fundamental of all, lie altogether outside the scope of the highest pagan ethics. Christian charity, humility, and chastity are instances in point. The charity which Christ sets forth in the Sermon on the Mount and in the parable of the Good Samaritan — a charity which knows no limits and which embraces enemies as well as friends — exceeds all that moralists had deemed possible for men. And this charity Christ requires not of a chosen few, but of all His followers. Humility, which in the Christian scheme is the necessary groundwork of all sanctity (Matthew 18:3), was previously to His teaching an unknown virtue. The sense of personal unworthiness in which it consists, is repugnant to all the impulses of unregenerate nature. Moreover, the humility which Christ demands, supposes as its foundation a clear knowledge of the guilt of sin, and of the mercy of God. Without these it cannot exist. And these doctrines are sought in vain in other religions than the Christian. In regard to chastity Christ not merely warned His followers that to violate this virtue even by a thought, was a grievous sin. He went yet further. He exhorted those of His followers to whom the grace should be given, to live the life of virginity that thereby they might draw nearer to God (Matthew 19:12).

And not only does Christ demand of us a sanctity which only He can provide, including humility, chastity and self-sacrificing charity, virtues which are incredible and unattainable to the natural man; but He shows us how this sanctity can be achieved by means of suffering, which is repugnant to selfish human nature ...

(2) Another characteristic of holiness according to the Christian ideal is love of suffering; not as though pleasure were evil in itself, but because suffering is the great means by which our love of God is intensified and purified. All those who have attained a high degree of holiness have learnt to rejoice in suffering, because by it their love to God was freed from every element of self-seeking, and their lives conformed to that of their Master. Those who have not grasped this principle may call themselves by the name of Christian, but they have not understood the meaning of the Cross.

Get that last part - if you don't rejoice in suffering you aren't a good Christian!  (We never hear that from the pulpit).  We must indeed take up our cross daily and follow Him.  (Luke 9:23).

But more.  The mark of holiness sometimes shows its supernatural character in supernatural ways.

(3) It has ever been held that holiness when it reaches a sublime degree is accompanied by miraculous powers. And Christ promised that this sign should not be lacking to His Church. The miracles, which His followers should work, would, He declared, be no whit less stupendous than those wrought by Himself during His mortal life (Mark 16:17, 18; John 14:12).

When is the last time you heard a homily reminding you that we will do "even greater things than these"?  (John 14:12)  Many priests seem too embarrassed to preach on the miracles of Christ Himself, much less on the miracles of His disciples - of which the New Testament affords many examples (see the book of Acts), and Church history affords even more.  These miracles are not parlor tricks, they are wrought through holy men and women by God as a sign of sanctity, of their growing by grace in resemblance to Christ.

But, holy though the Church may be, there will be tares among the wheat (Mat. 13:30).

Such in brief outline is the sanctity with which Christ endowed His Church, and which is to be the distinguishing mark of her children. It is, however, to be noted that He said nothing to suggest that all His followers would make use of the opportunities thus afforded them. On the contrary, He expressly taught that His flock would contain many unworthy members (Matthew 13:30, 48).
And, finally, the author reminds us that it's the Catholic Church alone that possesses all of these four marks.  She alone is One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic.  Just look, for example, on Catholic vs. Protestant teachings on marriage.

She [the Catholic Church] alone maintains in its integrity her Master's teaching on marriage. Every other religious body without exception has given place to the demands of human passion.

... and as the Presbyterian Church USA (who will now engage in the sham of "gay marriage") have already shown, every religious body apart from the Catholic Church will eventually give place not only to human passion, but to human perversion.

Soon the Catholic Church will stand alone of all social bodies not only in calling men to heroic virtue, but in calling men away from degenerate vice.

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