What makes the church holy?

I’ve been having some trouble lately with the Nicene Creed. The First Council of Constantinople in 381 added the sentence, “I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.” It’s the holy part, as you might expect, that’s bothering me.

The Pennsylvania grand jury report released in August disclosed years of unholy conduct by priests and bishops. Since then, one diocese after another around the country has released a list of names of priests who have been credibly accused of sexual abuse. And then there is Archbishop Theodore E. McCarrick.  

What does it mean to say that the church is holy when its leaders behave like this? We wouldn’t say that Enron was an honest energy company after its corporate officers were convicted of securities fraud and insider trading.  

The desire to present the church as holy has actually caused some of the problems we are dealing with. I don’t think this happens so much today, but in the past, some bishops moved problem priests around and paid victims to keep quiet, precisely because they didn’t want the scandal to blacken the church’s good name.

The sins of her pastors don’t just seem to disprove the notion that the church is holy. They are a stumbling block to our faith in the Gospel. If the word of Jesus is true, you might expect his followers to be holier than the average person. But they don’t seem to be – not even the most prominent among them. Therefore, we might conclude, the Gospel is not true.

I don’t think things were much different even in the beginning. Jesus himself reflected ruefully on the unholiness of the apostles he chose for his first bishops: “Did I not choose you twelve? Yet is not one of you a devil?” (Jn 6:70). The first pope denied knowing Jesus after he was arrested. And at the Crucifixion, they all ran away, except for St. John and a group of women (laypeople, I might point out).

Among the successors of the apostles, it’s not just present-day bishops who are open to criticism. Pope Boniface VIII (1294-1303), the author of the bull “Unam Sanctam” (“One Holy”), was guilty of simony, according to Dante. In “Inferno,” he is in the eighth circle of hell, deeper down than sodomites.

The faults of our clergy are so evident, in fact, that they point the way to a different understanding of what the creed means. It’s not the sanctity of the clergy that makes the church holy. They’re no worse than the rest of us, but no better either. And “the church” is not a shorthand way of describing all of us who are baptized – priests, bishops and laity. The church is not just a group of people. It’s all of us united in Christ.

If we forget about that part, we’re missing the point. Christ is the head of the church. This is not just a metaphor. Jesus loves and lives in the faithful. We are united with him in the holy Eucharist.  

It is the union with Jesus that makes the church holy. Our own membership has little to do with it. Even the saints, like Mother Teresa, whose actions make the church look good, do what they do with God’s grace. That’s what makes the church holy.

As for the rest of us, who give the church a bad name, we are part of it too. Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners. And when the Pharisees reproached him for doing so, he reminded them that it is the sick who need a doctor. He came not to call the righteous, but sinners.

John Garvey is president of The Catholic University of America in Washington. Catholic University’s website is

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