In the Creed, the profession of Christian Faith, an article of Faith is I believe in [...], the holy catholic Church/We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.

How does the Catholic Church reconcile the holiness of the Church, with the Pope apologising and the clerical sex abuse scandal?

cf. Ephesians 5:27 (RSVCE) 27 that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.

Note: An article of Faith is not optional. It is belongs to the deposit of Faith that one must believe in order to be saved.

'[The Church] is a Mother, through whom we are born to a new life in God. A mother should be loved. She is holy with regard to her Founder, her works and her doctrine, but she is, nevertheless, composed of sinful men. It is our duty to make a positive contribution to the life of the Church, to help her progress along the way of faithful renewal. This is not accomplished by negative criticisms.' - Pope St. John Paul II [the Great], Homily in Barcelona, 7 November 1982.

'If we love the Church, there will never arise in us a morbid interest in airing, as faults of the Mother, the weaknesses of some of her children. The Church, the spouse of Christ, does not have to intone any 'mea culpa'. But we do: 'mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa'. The only true 'mea culpa' is a personal one, not the one which attacks the Church, pointing out and exaggerating the human defects which, in this holy mother, result from the presence in her men whose actions can go far astray, but which can never destroy - nor even touch - that which we call the original and constitutive holiness of the Church' - St. Josemaría Escrivá, In Love with the Church, quoted in In Conversations with God, 4/37.2 | Francis Fernandez

  • 1
    Please explain what you think needs reconciling.
    – curiousdannii
    Jul 28, 2014 at 5:04
  • @curiousdannii To a believer there might be an apparent contradiction even leading to s crisis of faith i.e. if the Church is holy, why the sexual abuse scandal? And by priests? And if she is holy, why should the Pope appear to be apologizing for the Church?
    – user13992
    Jul 28, 2014 at 5:08
  • 1
    The church is not equivalent to it's members, especially ones who show evidence of being false teachers.
    – curiousdannii
    Jul 28, 2014 at 5:09
  • And the creed is not saying the church is sinless, so I don't think there's anything to reconcile.
    – curiousdannii
    Jul 28, 2014 at 5:11
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    FMShyanguya, I don't think you've got the right meaning of "holy". It means "set apart" or "distinct" which is tangential to righteousness.
    – curiousdannii
    Jul 28, 2014 at 5:32

3 Answers 3


The Church is holy, but it is an institution which is populated by human beings, who can and do sin. This can be seen in the first few chapters of the book of Revelation where the Angel catalogs the sins of the seven churches.

In his apology, the Bishop of Rome is merely acknowledging the sinfulness, individually and collectively, of members of the church, even though the Church itself, as the Body of Christ is preserved Holy by the Spirit of God.

Perhaps this is a novel analogy. In my "day job", I work with shipping pallets, those devices constructed of wood (and other materials) which are used to unitize freight to make for easier handling. Now, some constituent parts of some wood pallets are defective: incomplete, broken, or rotten. But a Master Carpenter can take broken, defective, incomplete, and rotten members, and construct a pallet which, notwithstanding the apparent inadequacy of the parts, still performs the function it is intended to perform. So it is with the Church. The Master Carpenter takes the materials at hand, and combines and attaches them in a way to make a creation that admirably performs the mission to which it is called because the strong parts of one member compensate for the weak parts of another. Or, to put it another way, a fully functional pallet is made from less than functional parts.

In just the same manner, the Master Carpenter takes human sinners, and uses them to make a Holy Church.

  • Good answer. Make it great? e.g. Vine and branches imagery?
    – user13992
    Jul 28, 2014 at 5:13
  • I thought about the vine and branches analogy, but consciously decided against it, because it lacks the other essential part of apologizing, which is repentance and forgiveness. Besides, I see the apology and repentance as part of the fruit of the vine, and in that sense, the analogy fails, because the branch has, indeed, born fruit.
    – brasshat
    Jul 28, 2014 at 5:20
  • My take is that the vine is always holy and the branches depending on the severity of their unwholesomeness vary from being diseased, weakly attached, to being broken, cut-off from the holy vine (and thus fit for the fire). The Church is holy but the effectiveness of her holiness in her pilgrim members/children varies with how they themselves remain united to her/draw life from her.
    – user13992
    Jul 28, 2014 at 6:27
  • OK. But the Father is the vinedresser, with the judgement to know the exact state of each branch; the Son is the caretaker who asks for more time to fertilize the ground and care for the branches.
    – brasshat
    Jul 28, 2014 at 6:32
  • I believe there is a more significant point. The church is redeemed, in the same way that individual Christians are redeemed. Christians are presented as holy and blameless before God, even though they have sinned, thanks to the saving grace of Jesus Christ. Likewise the church is saved and redeemed through that grace. Jul 28, 2014 at 15:23

Nothing in Catholic doctrine suggests that the Church is absent of sin, nor that its members or clergy are free from the need for forgiveness. To the contrary, it explicitly teaches in various formats that all people are sinful.

From the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

All men are implicated in Adam’s sin, as St. Paul affirms: “By one man’s disobedience many [that is, all men] were made sinners”: “sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned....” The Apostle contrasts the universality of sin and death with the universality of salvation in Christ. “Then as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men.” (CCC 402)

No exception is given for clergy of any level -- nor the Pope. All men (and women) are stained with sin. All are sinful in nature.

Consider your verse from Ephesians again, in a fuller context.

21 Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ. 22 Wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is head of his wife just as Christ is head of the church, he himself the savior of the body. 24 As the church is subordinate to Christ, so wives should be subordinate to their husbands in everything. 25 Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the church and handed himself over for her 26 to sanctify her, cleansing her by the bath of water with the word, 27 that he might present to himself the church in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. 28 So [also] husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no one hates his own flesh but rather nourishes and cherishes it, even as Christ does the church, 30 because we are members of his body. 31 “For this reason a man shall leave [his] father and [his] mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” 32 This is a great mystery, but I speak in reference to Christ and the church. 33 In any case, each one of you should love his wife as himself, and the wife should respect her husband. (Ephesians 5:21-33)

The implication in Ephesians isn't that the people of the Church, though holy ("set firmly apart" for God's plans), is pure. Rather the opposite is stated, that the Church is blemished by sinful people and is being actively purified by the Word of God (Jesus Christ).

This understanding of the Church is supported by Fr. Barron, a prominent Catholic Priest and Catechist, with specific regards to the sexual abuse scandal. His interpretation of the scandal, and sin in general within the Church by extension, is available on Youtube.

  • The Church as the Mystical Body of Christ is holy without spot or wrinkle ...
    – user13992
    Jul 28, 2014 at 20:30
  • Sure. If time allows, I'll dig up some resources for you. But very briefly, the The Church as Mystical Body of Christ is certainly without spot or wrinkle. But, we (you, me, and the Pope) are explicitly talking about something mystical there -- something largely beyond our understanding. Something eternal. The visible Church in time is, as Ephesians explicitly notes along with all the Church fathers and the present day Church, composed of sinful individuals.
    – svidgen
    Jul 28, 2014 at 20:56
  • Just bear in mind, the Church itself is a mystery. The Church acknowledges that: The Church itself has a self-acknowledged, limited understanding of its own self.
    – svidgen
    Jul 28, 2014 at 20:57

The Church is made holy by Christ's sacrifice for her. However, while on earth her holiness is imperfect. Therefore, her members, including priests are sinners. However we are called to strive for perfection, so repentance when the mark of perfection has been missed is natural.

CCC on One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church

823 "The Church . . . is held, as a matter of faith, to be unfailingly holy. This is because Christ, ...' loved the Church as his Bride, giving himself up for her so as to sanctify her; he joined her to himself as his body and endowed her with the gift of the Holy Spirit for the glory of God."The Church, then, is "the holy People of God," and her members are called "saints."


825 "The Church on earth is endowed already with a sanctity that is real though imperfect." In her members perfect holiness is something yet to be acquired: "Strengthened by so many and such great means of salvation, all the faithful, whatever their condition or state - though each in his own way - are called by the Lord to that perfection of sanctity by which the Father himself is perfect."


827 "Christ, 'holy, innocent, and undefiled,' knew nothing of sin, but came only to expiate the sins of the people. the Church, however, clasping sinners to her bosom, at once holy and always in need of purification, follows constantly the path of penance and renewal." All members of the Church, including her ministers, must acknowledge that they are sinners. In everyone, the weeds of sin will still be mixed with the good wheat of the Gospel until the end of time Hence the Church gathers sinners already caught up in Christ's salvation but still on the way to holiness:

The Church is therefore holy, though having sinners in her midst, because she herself has no other life but the life of grace. If they live her life, her members are sanctified; if they move away from her life, they fall into sins and disorders that prevent the radiation of her sanctity. This is why she suffers and does penance for those offenses, of which she has the power to free her children through the blood of Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit.

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