The term “sanctity” is employed in somewhat different senses in relation to God, to individual men, and to a corporate body. As applied to God it denotes that absolute moral perfection which is His by nature. In regard to men it signifies a close union with God, together with the moral perfection resulting from this union. Hence holiness is said to belong to God by essence, and to creatures only by participation. Whatever sanctity they possess comes to them as a Divine gift. As used of a society, the term means
- that this society aims at producing holiness in its members, and is possessed of means capable of securing that result, and
- that the lives of its members correspond, at least in some measure, with the purpose of the society, and display a real, not a merely nominal holiness.
The Church has ever claimed that she, as a society, is holy in a transcendent degree. She teaches that this is one of the four “notes”, viz., Unity, Catholicity, Apostolicity , and Sanctity, by which the society founded by Christ can be readily distinguished from all human institutions. It is in virtue of her relation to the Person and work of Christ that this attribute belongs to the Church. She is (1) the fruit of the Passion — the kingdom of the redeemed. Those who remain outside her are the “world” which knows not God (1Jn3:1). The object of the Passion was the redemption and sanctification of the Church: “Christ also loved the church, and delivered Himself up for it: that he might sanctify it, cleansing it by the laver of water in the word of life” (Eph5:25, 26). Again (2) the Church is the body of Christ. He is the head of the mystical body: and supernatural life — the life of Christ Himself — is communicated through the sacraments to all His members. Just as the Holy Spirit dwelt in the human body of Christ, so He now dwells in the Church: and His presence is so intimate and so efficacious that the Apostle can even speak of Him as the soul of the mystical body: “One body and one Spirit”(Eph4:4). Thus it follows as a necessary consequence from the nature of the Church and her relation to Christ, that as a society she must possess means capable of producing holiness: that her members must be characterized by holiness: and that this endowment of sanctity will afford a ready means of distinguishing her from the world.
It is further manifest that the Church’s holiness must be of an entirely “Supernatural” character — something altogether beyond the power of unassisted human nature. In fact the type of sanctity which Christ and His Apostles require on the part of members of the Church.
(1) The virtues which in the Christian ideal are the most fundamental of all, lie altogether outside the scope of the highest pagan ethics. Christian charity, humility, and chastity are instances in point. The charity which Christ sets forth in the Sermon on the Mount and in the parable of the Good Samaritan — a charity which knows no limits and which embraces enemies as well as friends — exceeds all that moralist had deemed possible for men. And this charity Christ requires not of sanctity (Mt18:3), was previously to His teaching an unknown virtue. The sense of personal unworthiness in which it consists, is repugnant to all the impulses of unregenerate nature. Moreover, the humility which Christ demands, supposes as its foundation a clear knowledge of the guilt of sin, and of the mercy of God. Without these it cannot exist. And these doctrines are sought in vain in other religions than the Christian. In regard to chastity Christ not merely warned His followers that to violate this virtue even by a thought, was a grievous sin. He went yet further. He exhorted those of His followers to whom the grace should be given, to live the life of virginity that thereby they might draw nearer to God (Mt19:12).
(2) Another characteristic of holiness according to the Christian ideal is love of suffering; not as though pleasure were evil in itself, but because suffering is the great means by which our love of God is intensified and purified. All those who have attained a high degree of holiness have learned to rejoice in suffering, because by it their love to God was freed from every element of self-seeking, and their lives conformed to that of their Master. Those who have not grasped this principle may call themselves by the name of Christian, but they have not understood the meaning of the Cross.
(3) It has ever been held that holiness when it reaches a sublime degree is accompanied by miraculous powers. And Christ promised that this sign should not be lacking to His Church. The miracles, which His followers should work, would, He declared, be no whit less stupendous than those wrought by Himself during His mortal life (Mk16:17, 18); (Jn14:12).
Such in brief outline is the sanctity with which Christ endowed His Church, and which is to be the distinguishing mark of her children. It is, however, to be noted that He said nothing to suggest that all His followers would make use of the opportunities thus afforded them. On the contrary, He expressly taught that His flock would contain many unworthy members (Mt13:30, 48). And we may be sure that as within the Church the lights are brightest, so there too the shadows will be darkest — corruptio optimi pessima. An unworthy Catholic will fall lower than an unworthy pagan. To show that the Church possesses the note of holiness it suffices to establish that her teaching is holy: that she is endowed with the means of producing supernatural holiness in her children: that, notwithstanding the unfaithfulness of many members, a vast number do in fact cultivate a sanctity beyond anything that can be found elsewhere: and that in certain cases this sanctity attains so high a degree that God honors it with miraculous powers.
It is not difficult to show that the Catholics and Roman Church, and she alone, fulfills these conditions. In regard to her doctrines, it is manifest that the moral law which she proposes as of Divine obligation, is more lofty and more exacting than that which any of the sects has ventured to require. Her vindication of the indissolubility of marriage in the face of a licentious world affords the most conspicuous instance of this. She alone maintains in its integrity her Master’s teaching on marriage. Every other religious body without exception has given place to the demands of human passion. In regard to the means of holiness, she, through her seven sacraments, applies to her members the fruits of the Atonement. She pardons the guilt of sin, and nourishes the faithful on the Body and Blood of Christ. Nor is the justice of her claims less manifest when we consider the result of her work. In the Catholic Church is found a marvelous succession of saints whose lives are as beacon-lights in the history of mankind. In sanctity the supremacy of Bernard, of Dominic, of Francis, of Ignatius, of Theresa, is as unquestioned as is that of Alexander and of Cæsar in the art of war. Outside the Catholic Church the world has nothing to show which can in any degree compare with them. Within the Church the succession never fails.
Nor do the Saints stand alone. In proportion to the practical influence of Catholic teaching, the supernatural virtues of which we have spoken above, are found also among the rest of the faithful. These virtues mark a special type of character which the Church seeks to realize in her children, and which finds little favor among other claimants to the Christian name. Outside the Catholic Church the life of virginity is contemned; love of suffering is viewed as a medieval superstition; and humility is regarded as a passive virtue ill-suited to an active and pushing age. Of course it is not meant that we do not find many individual instances of holiness outside the Church. God’s Grace is universal in its range. But it seems beyond question that the supernatural sanctity whose main features we have indicated, is recognized by all as belonging specifically to the Church, while in her alone does it reach that sublime degree which we see in the saints. In the Church too we see fulfilled Christ’s promise that the gift of miracles shall not be wanting to His followers. Miracles, it is true, are not sanctity. But they are the aura in which the highest sanctity moves. And from the time of the Apostles to the nineteenth century the lives of the Saints show us that the laws of nature have been suspended at their prayers. In numberless cases the evidence for these events is so ample that nothing but the exigencies of controversy can explain the refusal of anti-Catholic writers to admit their occurrence.
The proof appears to be complete. There can be as little doubt which Church displays the note of sanctity, as there is in regard to the notes of unity, catholicity and Apostolicity. The Church in communion with the See of Rome and it alone possesses that holiness which the words of Christ and His Apostles demand.
MURRAY, De ecclesia Christi, II (Dublin, 1862); BELLARMINE, De conc. et ecclesia, IV, xi-xv; TANQUEREY, Synopsis theol. dogmaticæ, I (Paris, 1900); BENSON in Ecclesia edited by MATTHEW (London, 1906). For modern anti-Catholic polemics on this subject, see MARTINEAU, Seat of Authority in Religion (London, 1890); PALMER, Treatise of the Church (London, 1842), I, vi, x, xi.
APA citation. Joyce, G. (1912). Sanctity (Mark of the Church). In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved December 15, 2018 from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/13428b.htm
Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. February 1, 1912. Remy Lafort, D.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.