17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the first-born from the dead, that in everything he might be pre-eminent. For in him all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. And you, who once were estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him. (Col 1:17-22)
The Church is the mystical body of Christ. That's kind of Catholicism 101. But it’s hard to fathom that idea. Members of the Church have done a lot of bad things. Christian kings and churchmen have done bad things, some in the name of the Church. For this reason, many have looked at the Church, shook their heads, and walked away. Some of the faithful, even, have done the same. The sexual crimes of some priests and the bishops who protected them have scandalized many over the past few decades. The abuse of authority by so many ecclesiastics, the infidelity of some theologians’ teachings, Vatican bank scandals,... the list goes on. So many people in the Church, even many in the clerical state, seem to be a far cry from holy. The whole institution looks like just so much hypocrisy.
And yet, we call the Church "holy." We profess our faith in "one, holy, Catholic and apostolic church." At Mass, we ask God to accept the Sacrifice, "for our good and the good of all His holy Church." It seems obvious from our behaviors, however, we are not holy, I am not holy. What is this image of a holy Church?
As St. Paul notes above, the church is a body and Christ is the head of the body. And as we noted elsewhere, St. Paul often alludes to this image of the church as a human body with different members - we are all the members. This body is not merely an allegory, though, but a reality. We really are all connected in a communion with one another, through the central "hub" of our Lord. And we each have our own role to play in this spiritual body. But, the role of the head is played by only one member of this body: Jesus Christ. And this is why we call the Church holy: because of that head. His holiness permeates the entire body and every member. I am holy, not because I behave in a holy manner, but because I'm in communion with Jesus who is holy. I have become a part of Him, grafted onto His body. This is the genius of Christianity, that I can find union with God despite myself, despite my own inabilities; it is a work of God, not of me. As noted in St. Paul's text, above, it is this very mystical body of Christ through which this amazing work is done:
21 And you, who once were estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him. (Col 1:21-22)
And so, despite so many scandals of churchmen, despite so much sin and judgmentalism among Catholics, I can see beyond the sin to the beauty of Christ within, permeating everything. The sins are bad, yes, and we are taught to do everything we can to avoid sin. We were not, however, promised the ability to stop sinning.
8 If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 Jn 1:8-9)
But we were promised to be made holy, as St. Paul says above. Holiness is not the same thing as behaving in a sinless manner. Holiness is similitude with God; God shares Himself with us, so we become holy by association. It is a union of two natures; my human nature still remains, so my sinful tendencies also remain. The divine nature I now share does not eradicate my sinful human nature. No one will see holiness by looking at me. No one will “see” holiness by looking at the Church, because holiness is not a thing to be seen.
So what of the Church and its external ugliness? It is to be expected; the mystical body of the Crucified One is shocking in its appearance.
1 Who has believed what we have heard? And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed? For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or comeliness that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed. (Is 53:1-5)