The Catholic Church: Home for Sinners

Perched majestically atop courthouse buildings in almost every land, there stands the Roman goddess Justitia, armed with sword in one hand, scales in the other, exercising her fine art of giving all and sundry exactly what they deserve.  Often depicted wearing a blindfold to emphasize the pure impartiality of her judgments, one cannot help but admire the sheer unbending objectivity by which she executes justice.  Such a satisfying prospect it must be to punish the wicked, to acquit the innocent.

And haven’t we all longed to settle scores along the lines of some ideal paradigm of justice?   Indeed, to adjudicate the fate of those we secretly pine to punish?  When asked once to weigh the comparative evils of Rousseau and Voltaire, Dr. Johnson asked, “How does one determine the proportions of iniquity between a flea and a louse?”  How we should all relish the job of doing something like that.

But forget for a moment the tablets of human justice, what about the exercise of justice on, say, a divine scale?   Wouldn’t that be great fun?   Suppose, for example, you’d been asked to drive a stake right through the heart of Christianity.  Go ahead now.  Just do it.  Would not the invited incision provide a perfect separation of sheep and goats?  Wouldn’t a clean surgical strike straight down the middle, forcing everyone to the margins, pretty neatly drive the wicked and worldly to one side, the upright and godly to the other?  Is that the line of division, do you suppose, prescribed by faith?

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Because from a certain angle, it does look wonderfully, seductively simple to pull off so neatly packaged a solution to the problems of good and evil.  Precise as a pin.

Simple as soup.  At least that’s how it looks on paper, where all complexity can be so easily flattened out like a map.  In the real world, of course, none of us would survive the pruning shears.  If you insist on a standard of membership in Christ’s Body so pure that only saints could qualify, the unwashed masses having sunk too deep into the morass of sin for God to salvage them, then you might as well write off the entire human race as being hopelessly reprobate.  Where then would you locate the love and the mercy of Almighty God?  It would have nothing whatsoever to work on.

“It does not matter what level of perfection you reach,” writes Luigi Giussani in his book The Psalms. Nor does it matter, he adds, “what others think or don’t think of how much you do.”  In fact, it scarcely matters what you think.  “All that matters is that mercy has taken you for ever, from the very origin of your existence.  Mercy called you to love, because mercy loved you.”

Isn’t this, he asks, precisely what holiness of life looks like?  “Holiness means always affirming—before everything else, in everything else—the embrace of the Father, the merciful, pitying movement of Christ….”  Who is not galvanized into action by the brightness of our behavior.  It is rather our failure to meet the fulfillment to which we have long been called that moves him to take pity upon our nothingness, to fill us with forgiving grace.

How terribly sad that so many who belong to the Church, she having long since baptized them into the mysteries of her life, now profess to being sick unto death of her.  She who is Mater et Magistra (Mother and Teacher) and whose sole business is to dispense the very medicine on which their lives depend.  So what’s stopping them from simply going out and establishing a better and more perfect church?  So perfect in fact that only the virtuous need apply?  Would that please them?  Of course it is useful to remember that from the first instant of they’re having found such a church, all of its vaunted perfection would at once be diminished by their membership in it.  Wherever you go, as they say, there you are.

“I would hate to belong to a club,” Groucho Marx once famously quipped, “that would have me as a member.”  Thank God the standards of his Son are far less exacting.  Indeed, criteria for admission to Christ’s Church are so loose as to appear positively promiscuous.  Which is to say, anybody can join.

So what’s the litmus test?  Well, have you got a heart?  Does it beat with the need and desire to be happy?  What about beauty, or peace, or joy, or love—do these immortal longings define your life?  Do they float your boat?  Does the hope in your heart spring eternal?  Then why aren’t you on board yet?  Is it because the seating arrangements aren’t up to speed?  Or do you really not wish to become a New Creature?  “The final mutation in the evolution of the human species,” is what Pope Benedict has called the Rite of Baptism.  Who wouldn’t want that?

How freeing the insight of that incomparable Christian, Charles Peguy, who often noted that at the heart of the Catholic Thing, which for a thousand years and more formed the culture of Christendom, provision is always to be made both for the saint and the sinner.  In other words, when you come to the real line of demarcation between Church and world, the fault line runs not between the righteous and the wicked, as if those armed with virtue stood athwart those steeped in vice.  No, the dividing line is always Christ, whose sole consuming passion is to be with sinners (breaking bread with the bad, you might call it), in order to transform them into saints.

“When God looks at a sinner,” Father Vincent McNabb used to say, “he is no longer a sinner; he used to be a sinner.”  How we need to remind ourselves of that fact, especially amid the repeated failings of our own lives.  Because for all the apparent distance separating us from those godly specimens we appear so haplessly to try and emulate, we really are creatures of the same God, annealed therefore to the same Christ by virtue of our common Baptism.  We stand thus in equal need of the medicine of mercy.  Every hour of every day.  There will never be a time when in our nothingness we need no longer turn to Omnipotent Love in order to feast on God, and so to soldier on in the direction we most want to go.  Could it be that what really distinguishes us from the saints is that, unlike these great athletes of the spiritual life, we just don’t ask so ardently for it?

In a letter sent to a woman who, despite having just turned Catholic, was already bent on becoming an ex-Catholic (no doubt having stayed just long enough to meet a few Catholics, perhaps in the parking lot), Flannery O’Connor, whose stories were the reason she was drawn to the Church in the first place, wrote the following:

I think that the Church is the only thing that is going to make
the terrible world we are coming to endurable; the only thing
that makes the Church endurable is that it is somehow the Body
of Christ and that on this we are fed.

How wonderfully prophetic that is.  It expresses with great wit and precision exactly the attitude we are to have if the offer of salvation—first bestowed by Christ, then ratified and imparted by his Church—is to make any difference in our lives.  And because of that mysterious bond we share with the whole Body of Christ, saint and sinner alike, we can be confident that the event of Christ will certainly be found wherever the People of God gather to celebrate the Mystery.  What a joy it is when, popping into any Catholic church anywhere on the planet, one instantly feels right at home with all the other sinners who have come for the same reason, hungry for the same food.

Editor’s note: The image above entitled “The Confession” was painted by Giuseppe Molteni in 1838.


  • Regis Martin

    Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar’s Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, published by Scepter, is called Looking for Lazarus: A Preview of the Resurrection.

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