Jacques Maritain Center : On the Church of Christ


The Members of the Church Here on Earth
Are All Sinners and the
Church Herself Is Without Sin

1. I do not speak here of the Church of heaven, but of the Church in pilgrimage on the earth. Except for the Virgin Mary, who up until her Assumption was a part of the Church of the earth, it is a fact that the members of the Church here on earth are all sinners. A few words first of all on this point.

Sons of Adam, they are all born deprived of grace, and it is in a human nature inclined to evil that at Baptism they have received the latter; they all bear in them the wounds of the first sin. They sin very frequently in a more or less slight manner, in many cases themselves because they have neglected to purify their heart.

The sins of which each day the priest and the faithful accuse themselves at the beginning of Mass, -- "I have sinned through my own fault, in my thought and in my words, in what I have done, and in what I have failed to do," -- do not prevent them from receiving the Body of Christ less than a half-hour after this avowal. They are sinners, yes: they sin each day through human weakness; and if it happens that they have sinned gravely they have had recourse to the Sacrament of Penance and have received absolution. They have habitually grace and charity.

And there are other members of the Church (they have received Baptism, which has imprinted in them -- as has Confirmation, -- an indelible "character," and they have kept the faith) who live in evil and who have lost grace and charity, I say before the gaze of God, Who alone knows the bottom of hearts. One calls them because of this "dead" members. I don't care much for this word: for in fact, as I will indicate further on, they remain worked by ferments of life{1}.

Let us call them nevertheless, because the word is convenient, "dead" members. And let us say that in the reality of existence all the members of the Church here on earth, "living" members or "dead" members, are sinners, -- more or less sinners; and that it is always to be feared that the best Christian will yield one day to temptation, and will slip away from grace, and even perhaps will install himself in a life of grave sin; just as it is always to be hoped that the worst rogue will turn indeed some day and will return to God, and will die perhaps as a saint.

2. On an entirely different plane, it is necessary to say also that in the consciousness that man has of himself, the more exalted a soul is in grace the more it feels itself a sinner, because then it knows a little, as its Master knew to perfection, "that which is in man." If the saints accuse themselves thus, it is less by moral scruple than by a crushing ontological view of human fragility in the face of the inscrutable grandeur and beauty of God,(2} and of the abyss of sufferings into which Mercy caused His Son to enter in order to save us.

And when they think of all the gifts which they have received without having merited them and which they have caused to bear so little fruit, and of the misery which remains in them, they are perhaps not wrong to put themselves below the great sinners for whom they pray, poor assassin gangsters and poor sordid prostitutes, or even poor rich men who feed their fortune and their mistresses with the blood of the starving, or even poor ones suffering from delusions of empire or of revolution who establish their power on mountains of corpses. The saints do not doubt that all of these habitués of evil are indeed their brothers.

For the consciousness that the sinner has of himself it is quite otherwise. He seeks to justify himself in his own eyes, or at least to find some means of accepting himself without repenting. He does this in many ways. As the Russian writers have admirably seen, and Dostoevsky above all, there are some who say to themselves: "I am a scoundrel, I wallow in the mud," with tears of pity for themselves, of indulgence and of resignation, and not without counting also on divine mercy. There are others who, while keeping the faith, say "I am right to live as I do, and I am proud of myself, it is the morality of the priests which spoils everything by imposing the impossible . . . ."

As for the non-Christians of our occidental civilization, they doubtless do not have the sense of sin, but they know what remorse is, and this is enough in order to destroy a man. How to find an alibi? The whole question is to save my pride by accusing things, for it is in them, is it not, not in me that vice is. In order to disclose the latter, philosophy is fortunately there, with its discoveries and the new pictures of the world and of the human condition that it reveals to us. Room then for the thinkers who tell us that the sole hope is in the creative power of man, and who deny God because there is evil on the earth. These people think still that if the God of heaven existed, it would be good; and they attach themselves still in some measure, Marx for example, to the Judeo-Christian cultural heritage. And room finally for other thinkers who have completely broken with this cultural heritage, and who tell us to despair of man as of God. These people announce the death of God, -- and the death of man, -- while dreaming of the superman with Nietzche, the greatest among them, or while offering like Freud a therapeutics to the depraved animal that we are.

3. What is a modern Catholic going to do after this who is filled with good will and the desire to show himself fully of his time, as if it had not been said: nolite conformari huic saeculo? He will think that the moment has come to change everything radically. It belongs to us therefore, and to him for his part, to work to renew the faith. The old Church is dead or dying by dint of having been soiled by history: it belongs to us to make another. We understand now that if the transcendent God existed, -- the God of Abraham, of Isaac and of Jacob, the one Whom Jesus called the heavenly Father (unfortunate expression, due to the ignorance of the antipaternal complex), -- this God of heaven would alienate us from ourselves and would be for us worse than evil: it belongs to us to cause to be the God required by the man not alienated from himself and by the religion of pure exaltation which is his, God of the earth only, inviscerated in the visible and living force in us of the world in evolution.

These thinkers are Christians (neo-Christians), who think that they have received for today the mission of prophets. There are perhaps saints among them (man is such a bizarre animal), saints whose hearts would have caused them to lose their heads. The fact remains that to tell the truth the integral transformation of all the values preached by them is a dream of an adolescent sick with desires, and that they themselves are passing through a serious crisis of intellectual puberty which runs the risk of tiring them for a long time, although these crises are transitory by nature.

Be that as it may, one can ask oneself what becomes, in the consciousness that they have of themselves, of that profound feeling of being sinner, ashes and dust, which for centuries has inhabited the soul of the Christian. Be careful, they say to themselves, beware of the guilt complex! They know well, assuredly, that they are fallible like every human being. But there where there is no longer the sense of the infinite transcendence and of the infinite goodness of the All Holy One, it is inevitable that the authentic sense of sin will become blunted, -- which has nothing to do with the guilt complex, for it allies itself with the joy (sacred) of deliverance and of salvation, with peace of the heart and confidence in limitless Mercy, -- and which causes man to see his own truth, and the menace, inherent in all the fibers of his being, of the nothingness from which he has been drawn, and into which he can at each instant, through the liberty which is his admirable privilege, proceed morally to lose himself, but from which there suffices, in order to be drawn from it again, an act of this same liberty turning itself toward God.

How would the authentic sense of sin of which I have just spoken not be greatly blunted in our new prophets? It is doubtless because in the new teaching distributed by the clergy one speaks less and less of sin, instead of showing better that which it is truly, that many Christians who in a world more and more inhuman believe themselves made only in order to be more and more proud of being men regard recourse to the Sacrament of Penance as an irksome and superfluous drudgery.{3}

* * *

4. Composed of members who are all sinners, and who all bear in themselves the wounds of original sin, the Church herself, holy and immaculate, without stain, "indefectibly holy,"{4} is pure of all trace of sin. To state such a paradox is to say that the Church is essentially different from all the great human families or communities, temporal or spiritual, which we know, and that she possesses in comparison with them a privilege absolutely unique. If she is completely human, she is also completely elevated to a divine life which she is commissioned to communicate to us.

In the Apostles' Creed it is said that we believe "in Deum Patrem omnipotentem," and "in Jesum Christum," and "in Spiritum Sanctum," whereas for the Church (as also for the remission of sins, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal life) the preposition in is omitted. We believe "sanctam Ecclesiam catholicam," -- or, in the French translation (I refer here to the Profession of Faith of Paul VI): we believe "à l'Eglise une, sainte, catholique et apostolique." God, we "croyons en" Him, because He is the author of being and the author of salvation, and because into the uncreated abyss of his Truth and of his Goodness we cast our whole being, our intelligence and our love, in other words because we adore Him. The Church, we do not adore her, and therefore do not believe "en" her, but "à" her, because she is created, and a divine gift made to the universe of the created. (And likewise are gifts made to the creature: the remission of sins, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal life). But the difference of the prepositions en and à{5} does not signify in any way that the Church would be a thing purely and simply human, not implying in its being participation in the very life of God. (Would the remission of sins, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal life be likewise things purely human and natural?) The Church, who proposes to us by her teaching all that which God has revealed, and who perpetuates here on earth by the Mass the sacrifice of Christ, and who sanctifies us by her Sacraments, belongs essentially to the supernatural order, and she is herself a mystery of faith, as I have already noted.

In order to aid us to acquire some understanding of this mystery, I do not know a better guide than Cardinal Journet.{6} For more than fifty years it has been he who has been my master in the matter. And if in such a long protracted meditation it happens to me to depart from him on some point, -- as this happens to me also for the Angelic Doctor -- it is in feeling myself his disciple more profoundly and more truly (a true disciple is a free disciple, is he not?).

5. Every living being, here on earth, has a soul which is the principle of its life, and a body in which and by the activities of which this life manifests itself visibly. Of the life of every living being, especially of the human being, we have thus external signs: in itself, -- or insofar precisely as immanent activity operating in the depths of the body, and, in man, of the spirit also, -- this life is invisible, like the soul from which it proceeds.

It is the same for the Church. Her uncreated soul is the Holy Spirit, who, as the second Council of the Vatican says, dwells in the Church and in the hearts of the faithful as in a Temple,{7} and "by the power of the Gospel, rejuvenates the Church and renews her perpetually,"{8} so that "the holy Fathers were able to compare her role to that which the principle of life, that is to say the soul exercises in the human body."{9}

But the Church has also, she, this great and mysterious human Figure, peregrinating under our eyes from century to century, a created soul{10} -- and a created life -- which she receives supernaturally from God and which are sanctifying grace ("entitative habitus") and charity ("operative habitus," as the jargon of the philosophers and of the theologians says). The soul and the life of the Church are grace and charity, which are realities invisible in themselves. There where grace and charity are, there there is the life of the Church, and there passes the Blood of Christ. There where grace and charity are not, there there does not pass either the Blood of Christ. To the extent that a man who has been baptized in the Church sins, to that extent he slips away from the life of the Church; if he installs himself in the state of sin (while keeping the faith, which without charity is itself "dead faith") he remains still a member of the Church, but then the life of the latter no longer passes in him. To the extent that he lives by grace and by charity, he lives also by the life of the Whole of which he is a member, and which is the mystical Body of Christ and the Bride of Christ.

All contradiction is therefore lifted from the moment one understands that, on the one hand, the Church herself is without sin because her own life is grace and charity, -- in their plenitude, I shall return to this point further on, -- and that, on the other hand, each of her members is sinner in the measure in which, in slipping away from grace, he slips away at the same stroke from the life of the Whole of which he is a member.

6. This is true, although in a manner essentially different, of the "living" members of the Church and of her "dead" members.

With regard to the "living" members, the part of evil in them remains greater than it could seem at first sight.

In man, indeed, there is not to be considered only moral evil properly so-called, -- moral evil of free will, -- but also that which one can call moral evil of nature, I mean by this the bad dispositions or inclinations for which we are not responsible -- they come to us from Adam and from our personal heredity -- and of which we are generally not conscious, they are as hidden to our own eyes as they are apparent to the eyes of the neighbor. Now in the "living" members of the Church these defects or failings of nature are there, coexisting with grace and charity, -- below them if I may say, as the dregs at the bottom of a vase of some precious liquor which has not been decanted: self-respect, inferiority-complex or superiority-complex, obscure need to be recognized by another, and to please him, or obscure need to dominate him, and aggressiveness which impels one to blacken him in our judgments, morbid sensitiveness, etc. All of this can doubtless cause at some moment a "living"member of the Church to fall into sin, but much more often preys upon, while warping it, the good which is in him and which gives its fruits along the whole course of his existence. From the subterranean empire exercised by all of this many will deliver themselves little by little by dint of progressing in charity, and also by the effect of frequent Holy Communion; only the saints are almost liberated from it. Meanwhile, and as long as all of this has not been burned by charity, all that which in the "living" members of the Church proceeds from such failings of nature and spoils more or less the good which they do, is something which withdraws itself to this extent from the grace and from the charity which are in them, and at the same stroke slips away from the life of the Whole of which they are members, from the proper life of the Body of Christ passing in its members in the state of grace.{11}

As concerns after this the "dead" members, it is the part of the good that we risk not recognizing in them. It remains much greater than the word "dead" suggests.

First because if human nature is wounded since the Fall, in itself however it has been created good and keeps a fundamental goodness. What reserves of goodness and of generosity remain in those who have abandoned God and despair of themselves, and can at certain moments surprise us by profound movements of the soul and acts singularly beautiful! These interior movements and these acts are of the merely natural order, without doubt. And the life of the Church, which is supernatural grace and supernatural charity, does not at all pass by them, although however, if the souls in question belong to the Church by the baptismal character and by faith, the purely natural good at work in them belongs like them to the Church and is a part of her treasure.

But there is much more still: I am thinking of all the holy things, and depending on divine charity in our regard, which remain still in them: faith first, if these sinners have kept it and are still by this members of the Church. And theological hope, if they have kept it also. And as long as the heart is not hardened, sorrow for having sinned. And the prayer which suddenly rises to the lips of him who thought he had forgotten it. And then the actual graces which they receive at certain moments and which sometimes slip perhaps into the great movements of the soul, natural in themselves, of which I first spoke. I am thinking also of the traces left by the grace which one has betrayed, and of the ambivalence of the effects which they produce: now remembrance, regret, nostalgia, now resentment which turns to hatred of this God and of this Church against the hidden attraction of whom one defends oneself (we know that hatred is sometimes an inversion of love, rage against that which one has loved and which one would like still to be able to love), And I am thinking above all of the secret pressure exercised by the collective charity and the collective prayer of the Church and of her saints, interceding unceasingly on behalf of all men, and especially of sinners.

7. It seems to me that after having meditated a little on all these things, one is ready to grasp, in its eminently realist truth, that which I consider to be the central intuition of Cardinal Journet concerning the "proper frontiers" of the Church, considered in her created soul and her life (sanctifying grace and charity) as in her uncreated Soul, which is the Holy Spirit. "These frontiers," he writes, "precise and real, circumscribe only that which is pure and good in her members, just ones and sinners, taking within her all that which is holy, even in the sinners, leaving outside her all that which is impure, even in the just; it is in our own behavior, in our own life, in our own heart that the Church and the world, Christ and Belial, light and darkness confront one another. The total Christ, Head and Body, is holy in all His members, sinners and just, drawing to Him all holiness, even that of His sinful members, rejecting from Him all impurity, even that of His just members."{12} It is thus that the Spouse of Christ is "wholly resplendent, without stain or wrinkle or anything of that sort, but holy and immaculate, sancta et immaculata."

"The frontier of the Church passes through our own hearts."{13} "The Church divides in us good and evil. She retains the good and leaves the evil. Her frontiers pass though our hearts."{14} Here we have the words which illuminate everything, and they refer to the secret of the hearts.

8. Here we are in the presence of the great question of the personality of the Church, that is to say at the very heart of the mystery of the Church. One understands nothing of this mystery if one does not discern in it above all the mystery of the person of the universal Church, Una, Sancta, Catholica, Apostolica, who transcends the persons of her members, who are all sinners, whereas her own person is holy and immaculate. The Catholica, as St Augustine liked to say, the Church considered in her universality and her unity as to her invisible soul and her visible body at one and the same time, has a personality distinct from that of the members who compose her, and insofar precisely as Church she is a person. In order to convince oneself of this it suffices to read St. Paul, who speaks always of her as of a person.

It is this that I am going to venture to consider more closely, instructed by theology, but faithful to the proper concerns of the philosopher, I say of the Christian philosopher.

{1} One is no longer a member of the Church if one has not kept the faith. (Cf. Ch. Journet, L'Eglise du Verbe Incarné, t. II, pp. 1056-1081.) Whoever has lost grace and charity is a "dead" member, and his faith is "dead" also (as to eternal life). In itself it is however always a gift of the supernatural order, so that such members "receive still from Christ a certain act of life, which is to believe" (Sum. theol., III, q. 8, a. 3, ad 2).

{2} "The saint does not place himself in the perspective of an ideal of perfection proposed to his effort, in order to measure afterwards whether he has come near to it or even whether he has accepted it. The misery with which he groans and which is revealed to him in the light in which he perceives -- however confusedly this may be -- the divine transcendence, is not that of his virtue, nor even of his intention. More profoundly and more absolutely it is the misery of his being, not by way of abstract or metaphysical knowledge, but by way of vital reaction before the Presence of the divine Being." (Dom Pierre Doyère, Introduction to Héraut de l'Amour divin, t. 2 of Oeuvres Spirituelles of St. Gertrude, Paris, éd. du Cerf, 1968, pp. 39-40.)

{3} I add however that for the aversion today evident toward the use of the laughably sinister piece of furniture called 'Confessional' there is an altogether different reason. I believe that those who -- very justly -- held frequent Confession to be a normal custom in the spiritual life felt more and more painfully the discordance between the idea that the sin of the world caused God to die on the Cross and the weekly drawing up of a list of current faults, always identical, to be confessed without forgetting anything, which resembles a little too much a list of provisions to be bought at the market. Would it not be desirable that all these sins always the same become the object of a formula of confession periodically recited by the community, and followed by a public absolution, -- private Confession being reserved for the sins which really torment the soul of the penitent?

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

{5} One will note that in the Oriental form of the Apostles' Creed (St. Cyril of Jerusalem) the same preposition eis is employed for the Church as for God. (Cf. Denz.-Schön., 41.)

If one does not give to "croire en" the eminent sense of manifesting adoration, but the current sense in French of adhering fully without seeing (to the truths revealed by God), I think that the Greek use is preferable, and that it is better to say "je crois en" all through the Credo. This is moreover what one does now in the missals in French.

In his beautiful book La Foi Chrétienne (Paris, Aubier, 1969) Father de Lubac brings strongly to light the difference between "credere in" and "credere" followed only by the accusative. But in order to justify the use, in the French language, of "je crois en Dieu," one can argue from the remarkable chapter (Ch. VIII) of the same work, where the author shows that the radical novelty of the Christian message has obliged one to do violence to the Latin language, to the point of cramping exceedingly the Ciceronianism of St. Jerome and of St. Augustine. Introduced forcibly by the Christian faith in the three divine Persons, "credere in" is a solecism in Latin. But this is in nowise the case for "croire en" in our language. We say "je crois en la dignité de l'homme" as we say "je crois en Dieu." "Croire en" is not an unusual grammatical form, introduced forcibly into French in order to connote the idea of adoration. Where one expresses oneself in French, there is no reason not to say "je crois en l'Eglise."

{6} Cf. above all his great treatise L'Église du Verbe Incarné (Paris, Desclée De Brouwer).

{7} Cf. I Cor. 3, 16; 6, 19.

{8} Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Ch. I, Sect. 4.

{9} Ibid., Sect. 7. -- Cf. Leo XIII, encycl. Divinum illud, and Pius XII, encycl. Mystici Corporis.

The Holy Spirit is the Soul of the Church because He is the first principle of her life, dwells in the depth of the hearts of her "living" members, inspires and directs -- He, the Spirit of Christ -- the behavior of this great Body through human history. But it is in a hyperbolical sense that He is thus the uncreated soul of the Church. It is clear, indeed, that He cannot inform the body of the Church in the manner, however analogical it may be, in which the soul informs the body, or be a part of the ontological structure of anything merely created. (In the hypostatic union, in which the Person of the Word has assumed a human nature, Christ is not purus homo. And the Church is not God, as Christ is.)

This is why we must recognize in the Church, as Cardinal Journet does, a soul which is created as she is, and which informs her body in the manner -- analogical -- in which the soul of a living being informs the body of the latter. Considered in its nucleus, this created soul of the Church is, Charles Journet tells us (L'Église du Verbe Incarné, t. II, p. 613). "the capital grace of Christ unifying in it the triple privilege of His priesthood, of His holiness, of His kingship"; considered in its blossoming forth in the Church, it is (ibid., p. 646) "charity insofar as related to worship, sacramental and orientated."

But desiring (without succeeding always) to employ in this book the least technical language possible, I think it preferable to say simply that the created soul of the Church is the grace of Christ; for grace is a divine gift (created) which perfects our soul and invests it with a new nature, and it is from it that charity proceeds, which perfects our will and our action, so that one can regard it as the very life of the Church. These two notions of grace and of charity are so closely related that it is normal to join them by saying that grace and charity are the soul and the life of the Church.

{10} Cf. Charles Journet, Théologie de l'Eglise, Paris, Desclée De Brouwer, 1958, pp. 193-213.

{11} Grace is given by God directly to whoever receives it, in a relation of Person to person. But the. grace received by each is one of the constituent parts of that pleroma of all graces which is the soul of the Church, so that whoever lives by the grace of Christ lives, by that very fact, by the soul of the Church. (Cf. further on, Ch. X, pp. 102-103, 104-106 and note 27).

{12} Théologie de l'Eglise, p. 244. "It is true," the author continues, "that Apostolic men could complain loudly to the bad Christians that they were staining the Church. We think however that their intention was less at that time to defend the theological thesis of the Church stained by the stains of her members, than to cause Christians to understand that they belong de jure wholly to the Church (which is true), that the world will hold her responsible for their lapses (this also is true but it is an injustice) and that in this sense they stain her in staining themselves."

{13} Charles Journet, Nova et Vetera, 1963, p. 302 (cf. same review, 1958, p. 30).

{14} Théologie de l'Église, p. 236.

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