Jacques Maritain Center : On the Church of Christ


The Church Penitent

1. Veni columba mea, come my dove, my all-beautiful,{1} I without stain or wrinkle, holy and immaculate.{2} The Church is the Beloved of Christ, she is His plenitude. And yet this same Church is penitent. She accuses herself, often in very harsh terms, she weeps for her failures, she begs to be purified, she pleads unceasingly for forgiveness (she does so every day in the Lord's Prayer), she sometimes cries out to God from the depths of the abyss, as from the depths of his anguish one who fears damnation.

For us to take advantage of that to strike hard on her breast, when in reality we are speaking either of the failures of the hierarchy or of the sometimes atrocious miseries of the Christian world, the peasant of the Garonne saw there "a silliness in which many young clerics of today do not fail to take pleasure."{3} I think so still, but my language lacked courtesy. I should only have said that they are first-rate simpletons.

2. The fact remains that the penitence of the Church shows us that if, in the image of Christ immaculate, the Church also is immaculate, she is not so however in the same manner as He is. In other words the mystical Body of Christ is not in the same relationship with its members as the physical body of Christ is with its. Whereas the holiness of Christ renders the members of His physical body holy as He is, the holiness of the Church, or of the mystical Body, does not prevent the members of the latter from being sinners.

Holy as Jesus Himself were the members of His body. In the members of this human body which walked on the roads of Galilee and whose voice announced the Good News, and which was crucified under Pontius Pilate; in these feet which Mary Magdalene covered with kisses, and which were pierced, in these hands whose touch healed the sick, and which were pierced, there was never the slightest trace of sin. In taking upon Him the sins of the world, He assumed something which was entirely foreign to Him, and which He made His own by pure love, pure will to substitute Himself as victim for sinful humanity; it is in this sense that St. Paul says that Christ was made sin in order to save US.{4} He never, in absolutely anything which was proper to Him, or which He had as His own, knew the taste of sin, had the experience of sin. It was solely by and in His love for sinners that He knew sin: Darkness of the contemplation of sin, night truly implacable, experience founded in the charity and in the union of love of Christ with sinners . . . He tastes the infinite bitterness of our failures, as in the darkness of divine contemplation the poor saints taste the essential sweetness of God. . . . {5}

Of the mystical Body, on the contrary, sinners are the very members. They are something of it. The Church "embraces sinners in her own bosom."{6} And thus the Church is not unacquainted with sin; "she is wholly mingled in sin,"{7} she knows the taste of sin, she has the experience of sin, in the innumerable multitude of the sinners who are her members, her head here on earth, her hands, her feet. She has sin in her members.

Is this not enough in order to be tempted to say with certain theologians that she is at once holy and sinful? Detestable formula, which blinds the mind as to that which the Church really is, and claims to make us kneel before a flagrant contradiction. As if in taking away the sins of the world Christ had not always at His side His Bride (who is not of the world); as if His mystical Body was at the same time His enemy; and as if she, the Plenitude of Christ, the one full of grace, "without stain or wrinkle," holy and immaculate, bore also in her that which gives death to souls, was soiled herself with all the crimes committed by those who bear the name of Christians.

3. It is fitting here to recall that the mystical Body is a collective body, and to be attentive to the ambiguity of the word "member," which signifies now one of the constitutive parts of an individual living being, now one of the human persons who form a part of a community. If one of my "members" is sick, I am myself sick. But if a "member" of a learned society or of a political party catches the flu or the cholera, one cannot say for all that that this learned society or this political party has the flu or the cholera.

It is true, I have enough insisted on it, and I shall return to it again in a moment, that the Church is neither a learned society nor a political party nor any mere community whatsoever; she is a person. Yes, but a collective person, -- whose unity (of grace) is of the superior and divine order, -- and thus the sin of the human persons who are her members, and who each possess free will, and are each capable of following the instinct of grace or of resisting it, is not her sin.

"Holy" and sinful at one and the same time, it is in the members of the Church that the paradox resides, and that it resolves itself. Far from having, indeed, the plenitude of grace which in the person of the Church as in that of the Virgin Mary excludes all possibility of sinning, we others, members of the Church here on earth, and the best among us, live by grace and charity only more or less imperfectly (when we live by them); and it is therefore without any contradiction that we can be, in a measure, sanctified ones by the Blood of Christ, while remaining, in another measure, sinners and ungrateful ones.

As soon as one has understood that, by a unique privilege, the Church possesses, by virtue of the image of Christ present in her, a subsistence and personality of grace which in its supernatural unity transcends the natural personality of her members, -- that which seemed an enigma becomes decipherable to the mind. That the Church has sin in her members and that she is wholly mingled in sin, -- this does not at all make her to be herself sinful, because her personality transcends that of her members, and because they are invested with her personality only to the extent that they live by her life of grace and of charity. One understands at the same stroke that the Church in her own person is "indefectibly holy,"{8} and that she is nevertheless composed of human persons who are all here on earth sinners to some degree, whether it is a question of "living" members who in the measure in which they are living are assumed by the personality of the church while slipping away from it to the extent that they fail, or whether it is a question of the "dead" members more or less anchored in evil or more or less ready to live again, who have withdrawn from the personality of the Church and from her soul, but who belong to her body (and at the same stroke, virtually and initially, to the soul which informs the latter) by the faith ("dead" itself without charity) which they have kept, as also by the Baptism which they have received and the other character -- imprinting Sacraments which they have been able to receive: inert shreds in which the blood no longer passes, but which the person of the Church considers still to be her own and for which she is more than ever sollicitous. For they were living by her life when she had received them from God in order to lead them to eternal life, and behold them now tom away from her life, and on the way to losing eternal life.

All of this, -- it is the very mystery of the Church.

4. One sees, consequently, that of the person of the Church in her earthly state it is necessary to say that by herself, like Christ when He lived among us, neither does she know the taste of sin nor does she have the experience of sin; but that, unlike Christ when He lived among us, she knows the taste of sin and has the experience of sin by and in something which is proper to her and which she has as her own, by and in her members, her own members, who are a part of her without being herself.

She herself, who in her supernatural personality is free from every trace of sin, she "completes in her body," for all men, and all through the centuries, "that which is lacking in the sufferings" of her Bridegroom. And it is through love, like Jesus, that she takes on her the whole mass of sins which she has not committed. But if it is a question of the men who have been made hers by the Sacraments, then, unlike Jesus, it is sins committed by her own members that through love she takes thus upon her. This is why, then, she is not only coredemptrix, as was Mary; she is also penitent.

She does penance for her members, -- who are not she, but who are of her and belong to her. She accuses herself, in her members, with whom she identifies herself through love; she weeps for her failures, which are the failures of her members, not of herself, and which she makes her own through love. She pleads unceasingly for forgiveness, for her members, whose sins she assumes through love. She sometimes cries out to God from the depths of the abyss, in making, through love, of the anguish of her members and of their distress her own distress and her own anguish. She is in perpetual labor of purification,{9} in her members and for her members, as if the sancta et immaculata, the one without stain had herself need of being purified. (She does not cease to grow in grace, -- which is not the same thing. And that she calls purification this progress in grace, it is still by identification of love with the wounded and lame ones who are her members.) That is how the Church is penitent. And it is also because she knows that if there were more saints engendered by her, there would be more sinners who would return to God, more "sons who were dead, and who have come back to life, who were lost and who have been found,"{10} and whom the Father clasps now in His arms; and she knows that there is no greater joy in Heaven.

The Church suffers and prays for all men; but she suffers and prays especially, -- as penitent, -- for her members, and more particularly for those of them who have withdrawn themselves from her soul and who are dead to the life of grace. What a thirst in her, comparable to that of Jesus on the cross!

{1} Song of Songs 2, 10.

{2} Ephes. 5, 27. p

{3} The Peasant of the Garonne, p. 185.

{4} II Cor. 5, 21.

{5} "La Couronne d'épines," in Poèmes de Râissa.

{6} Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Ch. I, Sect. 8.

{7} Charles Journet, Théologie de l'Église, p. 239.

{8} Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Ch. V, Sect. 39.

{9} Cf. Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Ch. I, Sect. 8: "at the same time holy and always in need of being purified."

{10} Cf. Luke 15, 24.

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