Confronting a Sinful Church

“For our good and the good of all his holy Church.”[1] Even seven years after the new translation of the Roman Missal, I will occasionally stumble over this response if I am not concentrating. However, over the past months as the disturbing reports about now-laicized Cardinal McCarrick and the horrific details from the Pennsylvania grand jury report have come to light, the word “holy” has sometimes stuck in my throat at Mass—not because I am lacking sufficient attention but for precisely the opposite reason.

In the wake of this ongoing scandal, I heard from longtime Catholic friends who feel misled, angry, and/or betrayed. One friend, so disturbed by the sordid tales of systematic abuse and cover-up by Pennsylvania clergy released last August, as well as her by own parish’s inability to respond, quietly left her pew in the middle of Mass for the door.

As Catholics struggle to move forward by supporting victims, pressing for meaningful reforms, and trying to hold together a faith under siege by corruption, our liturgy functions as a double-edged sword. The sacraments, particularly the Eucharist, stand as a source of strength and grace. At the same time, we repeatedly speak of the Church’s holiness (in both the Creed and the invitation to prayer), a language which we have internalized but which also grates against the reality of the Church’s staggering failures. Our Church has a black mark which is not the subject of ritual repetition, but of which we all are so painfully aware these days. How many of the faithful can remain in a community that provokes such cognitive dissonance? Is reform possible in a Church that talks about itself primarily in terms that appear so different from the realities on the ground?

The truth is, thankfully, that the Catholic Church does have a language that speaks directly to the painful experiences of our day, a language of the Church’s own sinfulness and need for purification. As the Second Vatican Council came to a close in 1965, the renowned Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner adamantly insisted that the Church is both holy and sinful, and he argued that in many respects the Council itself supported such a position. In today’s turbulent times, we would do well to revisit the writings of both Rahner and the Council Fathers. Unless we supplement our confessions of the Church’s holiness with a full-throated affirmation of its sinfulness, we risk the following:

  1. Construing the Church as an otherworldly reality,

  2. Undercutting urgency for reform, and

  3. Alienating the faithful by describing the Church in one-sided terms that conflict with their own experience of it.

Learning from the Past

Rahner begins his article “The Sinful Church in the Decrees of Vatican II” by turning to the Bible, the Early Church Fathers, and various medieval theologians. References to the Church’s holiness abound in Scripture, which speaks of the Church as both Christ’s own body (1 Cor 12) and as “without spot or wrinkle . . . holy and without blemish” (Eph 5:27). Does such holiness rule out sin in the Church? Is it a matter of either sin or holiness?

Various historical movements, Rahner observes, have made precisely this assumption, distinguishing strongly between sinful individuals and the holy Church: “Montanism, Donatism, and various heretical wandering preachers and sectaries of the twelfth century . . . harboured the dream of an utterly pure Church from which are excluded all those who have lost baptismal grace.”[2] Indeed, one either/or way to deal with apparent sin in the holy Church is to claim that, upon sinning, sinners remove themselves from that Church, ever pristine as it allegedly is. But while it is true that sin certainly damages a person’s relationship with Christ (and his ecclesial body), this tidy picture goes too far. In fact, as Rahner points out, it was condemned by the Council of Constance. The conciliar tradition insists that the Church, holy though it may be, really includes sinners.

Claims even bolder than this were made regularly in past centuries. Beyond admitting that Church members sinned, “in patristic times and in the Middle Ages one spoke without hesitation of the sinful Church . . . of the Church in so far as she is sinful now, of her sinfulness as a moral condition.”[3] Rahner observes that many of the tradition’s greatest theologians (e.g. St. Augustine) interpreted biblical references to the Church’s unblemished holiness as possessing a “strongly eschatological character;” it may be “holy” now, but it will only be “spotlessly” so in the end of days.[4] Other early writers, like the author of the Didache, do not speak of the Church’s holiness but instead ask God, “Make it holy.”[5] In their own days, these early theologians attended closely to scriptural warnings about weeds and wheat growing together (Mt 13:24ff), nets that captured good and bad fish alike (Mt 13:47), and a Church built upon a “rock,” the apostle Peter, who abandoned and denounced his Lord (Mt 16:18; 29:69ff). Here, there is no either/or—the Church is both holy and sinful.

Things shifted, however, in the late medieval and post-Tridentine eras, as references to the Church’s spotlessness become less eschatological and increasingly immediate. At this same time, Rahner adds, the Church became “hypostasized,” that is, construed as a figure which “stands as teacher and guide over against the people of God; she does not appear to be this people of God itself.”[6] This separation of an anthropomorphized “Church” against its “people” provided a new avenue for thinking through the thorny issue of sin and holiness, one which divvied up the earlier both/and into an either/or: the Church remains holy while its people struggle with sin. Such a model operated into the twentieth century and continues even today.

An Intervention

The bulk of Rahner’s essay concerns a corrective which entered the scene at Vatican II, especially in its Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium (1964). The final version of this text differed greatly from its 1962 preparatory draft; in other words, interventions by bishops at the Council had a significant impact.

One such intervention was made by the Austrian bishop Stefan László, whose short speech contained a number of important points that would find expression in the final text. Noting that current theology “seems to describe a Church of saints, but life itself seems to show us a Church of sinners,” László called for Christians to stop describing the current Church in terms of “glory; that belongs to the end of time.”[7]

Along with restoring a strong eschatological sense of the Church’s purity, László’s speech insisted on retrieving a both/and approach to talking about sin and holiness. In fact, he argues that in the here and now, for the Church to be holy it must confess its sinfulness: “It is the very holiness itself of the Church which urges her always to be a penitent Church, so that she may always humbly implore afresh from God the remission of sins.”[8] Further challenging the either/or division of “holy Church” and “sinful people,” László speaks of a single church-people, which is both holy and sinful: “We should not be silent about sin in the holy Church of God, and even in its hierarchy . . . We should speak of the glory and the sins of the people of God.”[9] Finally, the Austrian bishop implored the council to speak of the “pilgrim” Church as at times distant from Christ, and so “must always be undergoing reform.”[10]

A Conciliar Corrective

This intervention resonated with many of the Council Fathers, but László’s bold language also met significant opposition. As a result, the final texts stop short of calling the Church “sinful,” but they point in the direction of a much more humble, self-aware Church. Key to this direction are two of Lumen Gentium’s central motifs: the Church as the “People of God” and this people as a “pilgrim Church” on the way. Presenting the Church as a single pilgrim people resists the tidy juxtaposition of a “hypostasized” holy Church over and against a sinful people.

The council affirms the classical teaching that the Church contains sinners within its “bosom” (LG n. 14). It also goes further. As Rahner notes, the Council teaches that sinners in the Church “wound” it with their sins (LG n. 11). Accordingly, these sinners act to “co-determine” the Church’s “quality,” impacting what it is: “The Church does not only stand over against them like an institute of salvation which, while remaining itself quite untouched, regrets that its care did not have more success, but must regard these sinners as a part of herself . . . the Church is herself affected by the sins of her members.”[11]

The Council also resurrects Augustine’s eschatological reading of Ephesians’s “without spot or wrinkle” language. In LG n. 65, the Council contrasts Mary, who has achieved this status of purity, to “the followers of Christ” who must “still strive to increase in holiness by conquering sin.” In doing so, it reemphasizes the Church’s “pilgrim” status, though the text cautiously attributes sin to “the followers of Christ” rather than to the Church. However, in perhaps the most important conciliar text for our theme here, Bishop László’s stronger language comes through: “the Church, embracing in its bosom sinners, at the same time holy and always in need of being purified, always follows the way of penance and renewal” (LG §8). In describing the Church as semper purificanda, the Council implicitly affirms its sinfulness. After all, as Rahner observes, “The Church cannot be the subject of her own renewal and purification if she was or is not also in the first place and in a certain sense the subject of sin and guilt.”[12] To put it simply, if the Church must be constantly purified, it must be purified from something. That something, the “terminus a quo,” says Rahner, is “a state of sin.”[13]

Both Holy and Sinful

To be clear, Rahner’s goal in arguing for the Church’s sinfulness is not to supplant or replace the Church’s holiness with this descriptor.[14] An accurate account of the Church must resist an either/or division in whichever direction. In addition to gesturing toward the Church’s sinfulness, the Council describes the Church as “indefectibly holy” (§39), the “holy people of God” (§12), and Christ’s “Body . . . the universal sacrament of salvation,” enlivened by the Holy Spirit (§48). But how can such opposing descriptors be held together? What hope can we have for such an ambiguous institution?[15]

Rahner admits that a simple answer is not contained within the Council’s texts. The closest they come is to state, “Already the final age of the world has come upon us and the renovation of the world is irrevocably decreed and is already anticipated in some kind of a real way; for the Church already on this earth is signed with a sanctity which is real although imperfect” (§48). This statement of an “imperfect” sanctity redirects our conception of the Church to the biblical images of the weeds with the wheat, the good and bad fish, and the foundering rock on which the Church was built. And the Gospel promises a sorting, accounting, and purification. For where sin has “increased, grace abounded all the more” (Rom 5:20).

But in the ambiguous present time which precedes this predestined victory of grace, Rahner echoes László’s earlier remark. The way to be holy is for the Church to own the sin that it has and to seek constant, ongoing purification: “God gives this holiness to the Church in so far as he grants to her and her members the possibility and the reality of constantly fleeing from their sinful state to the mercy of God which alone makes holy.”[16]


These conciliar texts, together with Rahner’s reading of them, are important in our own day for at least three reasons. First, recourse to the either/or juxtaposition of a holy Church and sinful people still persists. This outlook, especially when paired with the frequent (and unfortunate) tendency to signify by “Church” the hierarchy and by “people” the laity, produces the impression of a pure leadership and sinful rank-and-file. Such a vision is calamitous at this moment, when we are more aware than ever of the hierarchy’s failings.

Moreover, this either/or approach raises a pressing question as we struggle through texts like the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report: Where precisely is this “Church without sin”? It does not seem to exist in the U.S., nor in Chile, Ireland, or anywhere else on earth. On such an outlook, the Church becomes a Gnostic, “purely ideal entity, possessing an almost mythological character.” But our Church, the “really existing People of God,” lives in this world and so we should acknowledge it as such, sins and all.[17]

Second, as Rahner points out, denying the Church’s sinfulness obstructs efforts toward reform. The old adage, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” operates ecclesiologically as well. The decades of institutional corruption and cover-ups indicate a structural and cultural problem, and so the reform of individual sinful members is necessary but not sufficient. Accordingly, we should resist any urge to confine that “sinful” label simply to individuals—the sooner we recognize the scope of the problem, the more readily we can tackle it.

Finally, talk of a holy Church without an accompanying “sinful” descriptor, especially in times like our own, can provoke profound cognitive dissonance among the faithful. This phenomenon, cognitive dissonance, can function negatively. After all, it can (and does) drive people from the faith as a way of resolving it. However, I have also seen it cited in pedagogical literature as an educational tool of sorts. Good instructors press their students to see complex situations in new and deeper ways. One effective strategy they use to accomplish this goal is to present new data or perspectives that challenge simplistic lenses that students might have carried into the classroom. In other words, cognitive dissonance can provide a learning opportunity for replacing faulty frameworks with updated ones that are up to the task.

And so today two outcomes lie before us. Many of the faithful have heard the Church describe itself only as “holy,” and with each new report that surfaces, they are finding it not to be as advertised. One path forward is to realize that this one-sided language is too simplistic a lens and to replace it with a “both holy and sinful” framework which can accommodate our experience of the Church’s failures.[18] The other path is to maintain the status quo and let the scandalized faithful find alternative ways to resolve that tension, although that resolution may lie outside the Church’s doors.

 [1] My thanks to Richard Lennan for his helpful comments on an earlier version of this essay.

[2] Karl Rahner, “The Sinful Church in the Decrees of Vatican II,” in Theological Investigations vol. 6 (Baltimore: Helicon, 1969), 270-294, at 271.

[3] Ibid., 271-72, emphasis original.

[4] Ibid., 273.

[5]The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, Commonly Called the Didache,” 10.5, in Cyril Richardson (ed.), Early Christian Fathers (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2006), 171–179, at 176.

[6] Ibid., 277.

[7] Stephen Laszlo, “Sin in the Holy Church of God,” in H. Küng et al (eds.), Council Speeches of Vatican II (Glen Rock, NJ: Paulist, 1964), 44–48, at 45.

[8] Ibid., 46.

[9] Ibid., 47 (emphasis original).

[10] Ibid.

[11] Rahner, 284.

[12] Ibid., 285.

[13] Ibid., 287.

[14] Indeed, too exclusive a focus on sin could even lead to a defeatism or apathy that would undermine momentum for reform.

[15] For some insightful reflections on this question with attention to the Lumen Gentium’s “sacrament” model of the Church, see Jakob Rinderknecht’s essay, “St. Benedict’s Raven.” There, Rinderknecht compares the sacrament of the Church to the sacrament of the Eucharist, noting that both communicate God’s grace. “But that doesn’t mean that eucharistic elements can’t mold, or even that they can’t be poisoned. In that unfortunate case,” he notes, “Christ’s body and blood would still be present, but receiving those tainted elements would not be sound theological or pastoral advice.”

[16] Ibid., 292.

[17] Ibid., 291.

[18] Brian Flanagan has offered a compelling account of this framework, both in his recent essay, “Can the church be both holy and sinful?” and book-length study, Stumbling in Holiness: Sin and Sanctity in the Church (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2018).

Featured Image: Parts of the Colossus of Constantinus I in the Capitoline museum, Taken on: 9 May 2009, Author: Alessio Damato; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0.


Brandon R. Peterson

Brandon R. Peterson is a lecturer for the Department of Philosophy for the University of Utah, teaching also in the Religious Studies Program. His research topics include Christology, soteriology, and the Second Vatican Council. He received his PhD in systematic theology from the University of Notre Dame in 2015.

Read more by Brandon R. Peterson

Confronting a Sinful Church

Brandon R. Peterson, University of Utah Department of Philosophy Lecturer, on the cognitive dissonance of speaking of the Church as holy.

Colossus Of Constantine