What is it to be Holy?
Article from ACI website
What is it to be Holy?
What exactly is holiness? Will we know it when we see it? Is it attainable by anyone, or only by those who have made a lifelong commitment to the ‘religious’ or ‘consecrated’ life and to celibacy? How does holiness relate – if at all – to the secular virtue of integrity?
In The Charismatic Structure of the Church: Priesthood and Religious Life at Vatican II and Beyond, Michael McGuckian SJ 1provides essential historical background to the long debate on holiness in the Catholic Church and explains why complete agreement by Catholic bishops at Vatican II proved impossible to achieve. Arrested by this unexpected discovery, the author is currently busy on a sequel – not only to reinforce the call to all to ‘be perfect’ but to explain why no one should suppose that this calling is ever impossible for themselves, whatever their situation or time of life.
That all Catholics are called to holiness by Lumen Gentium (‘Light of Nations’ – a key document of Vatican II 1962-65) – is known at least vaguely to many of that generation and later. However, if asked to explain clearly what holiness is and how that call can best be answered, how many could confidently respond? If asked, perhaps scathingly, what the purpose or point of holiness could be now – by someone of a secular mindset – how many would be ‘up’ for that as well?
Necessarily the standard for holiness for all Christians was set by their founder, Jesus of Nazareth – and from the beginning those called by him to ‘follow’ and to ‘be perfect’ needed to discern how exactly to do that. Given that Jesus’s own ‘way’ was not simply one of poverty and celibacy but of exceptional risk, suffering and – in the end – catastrophe, was it even sensible to think of following all of that perfectly? If not, what ‘way’ would be best?
The greatest virtue of The Charismatic Structure of the Church is the copious evidence it provides for the conclusion that there has never been a time in the long history of the church when Christian ‘holiness’ was a settled question, with its meaning and practice harmoniously agreed by all who sought to follow and to teach.
To marry in uncertain times, or not?
The difficulty of the choice between the married and celibate states was an obvious one from the start, a choice made more problematic in the first century by uncertainty over how soon Jesus would return in glory, for the Final Judgement. St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians clearly reveals that this was an issue in his time (e.g. 1 Cor 7).
Those who opted for perpetual virginity in those early years set an example that proved durable down the centuries, but so did those who did not. From the latter came subsequently many Saints who then themselves became enthusiasts for virginity. A notable example is St Augustine of Hippo in the fourth century, who strongly advocated celibacy following his conversion. If his sainted mother Monica had been able to opt for virginity when of marriageable age, and had been so inclined, the medieval church would have been deprived unknowingly of one of its greatest luminaries.
The Monastic Model – and ‘Secular’ Clergy
Soon also there were those who decided that ‘following’ required a way of life that was separated entirely from the distracting and profligate ‘world’, and was lived within a separated community of like-minded ‘ascetics’. This ‘coenobitic’ option was the origin of monasticism.
And yet – especially after the early fourth century legalisation of Christianity by the Emperor Constantine – the diocesan successors of the apostles needed local parish ‘presbyters’ or clerics who would not live in a separated and dedicated community but in ‘the world’ among ordinary citizens. This was the origin of the ‘secular’ or ‘diocesan’ clergy – and for the first Christian millennium many of the latter lived married rather than virginal lives.
It followed, then, that from an early stage there could and would be strong differences of opinion on how best to follow Jesus faithfully. Where St John Chrysostom (347-407) would insist that none of the baptised should feel unable to follow the Lord faithfully, others took Jesus’s solitary and debatable reference to ‘eunuchs’ (Matt 19: 11-12) as an injunction to lifelong celibacy. That inevitably consigned the married state to the relative disapproval of many of those who chose that option.
We are the Holiest
The question of who was the holiest became even more unsettled with the arrival of the mendicant orders – e.g. the Franciscans and Dominicans – in the 1200s. Given a universal missionary mandate by the pope, they inevitably came into conflict with the hierarchical claim of diocesan bishops – that even the monks and friars should consider themselves subordinate to themselves in the scale of holiness – since ‘perfection’ was a distinctive ‘sign’ or attribute of the bishop’s apostolic office.
When the Dominican friar St Thomas Aquinas disagreed and prioritised three ‘evangelical counsels’ – of poverty, chastity (i.e. celibacy) and obedience, as a ‘holocaust’ or total consecration of the person to God (1256), he was therefore setting this ascetic option up in opposition to any association of a superior holiness with the hierarchical principle – and a centuries-long disagreement between ‘secular clergy’ and ‘religious’ ensued.
That such tensions could exist between ‘regular’ clergy (those who belong to religious orders whose members are bound to a founder’s ‘rule of life’) and ‘secular’ clergy (those directly under the authority of a diocesan bishop) will astonish those lay Catholics who may fondly have supposed that no historic disharmony could ever have intruded into the equally edifying holiness of all of their ordained ministers.
Vatican II – Same Old Same Old
However, many will be even more mind-boggled to learn that this same dispute was to surface – 800 years later – at Vatican II (1962-65).
Whereas there was strong support among many bishops at the council for an emphatic statement in Lumen Gentium that regular clergy, secular clergy and laity (married or unmarried) were equally called to and capable of manifesting the same holiness (by God’s grace) – a powerful lobby for the manifest superior claim of the evangelical counsels was eventually successful in frustrating that aim.
Two consequences followed: not only does Chapter 5 of Lumen Gentium (‘The Universal Call to Holiness in the Church’) lack the insistence that all of the baptised are called to the same holiness, but immediately following, in a separate chapter entitled ‘Religious‘, there is an assertion of the superior claim to holiness for the following of the evangelical counsels, including celibacy.
As a result, while Chapter 5 of Lumen Gentium stresses that all in the church are called to holiness, Chapter 6 of the same document insists that the evangelical counsels of poverty, celibacy and obedience ‘are based upon the words and examples of the Lord’. Furthermore, this ‘religious state whose purpose is to free its members from earthly cares, more fully manifests to all believers the presence of heavenly goods already possessed here below’. (44)
That marriage and the nurturing and the safeguarding of children are thereby declared ‘earthly cares’ that are inherently less capable of ‘manifesting the presence of heavenly goods’ (i.e. of holiness) will baffle lay Catholics today, especially in light of the revelations of the last three decades. Global church events since the 1980s have raised the most serious questions over any claim to a moral or spiritual superiority for any chosen ‘state of life’ or hierarchical office – up to and including the office of pope. Jesus’s most solemn adjurations re the protection of the innocence of children have had a new and shocking impact. Pope Francis’s frank and welcome admission that he too is a sinner – and has also made mistakes in handling clerical child abuse – provides a postscript to Lumen Gentium Chapter 6 that underlines its shortcomings.
An Unsatisfactory Confusion
Michael McGuckian therefore concludes that at present the church’s formal teaching position on holiness is ambivalent and unsatisfactory. Whereas all are called to holiness by Lumen Gentium, this is not clearly – in this important document – the same call to the same holiness. By implication those who do not observe the evangelical counsels – including Catholic parents – cannot equally manifest holiness. Those bishops who insisted on the insertion of Chapter 6 into Lumen Gentium could not agree to the use of the phrase ‘same holiness’ in any part of the document other than article 39 – where it clearly refers only to those who observe the evangelical counsels. Subsequent magisterial treatments of holiness – e.g. Vita Consecrata by St John Paul II (1996) – have not resolved this problem either, in his view.
Can we avoid the conclusion that the recruitment crisis for the celibate priesthood is still preventing a full and unequivocal acknowledgement of the equal call to, and potential for, holiness of the unordained and non-celibate majority of the baptised people of God?
In light of this situation, and the hovering threat of the Vatican watchdog, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, what Catholic evangelist today would take on to preach on the meaning of holiness for lay people – especially in the wake of the revelation that, apparently, integrity – so emphatically modelled for us by Jesus – was never a consideration or an issue at Vatican II when holiness was under discussion?
Are Christian holiness and Christian love the same?
In a subsequent recorded interview Michael McGuckian promotes a persuasive solution to the problem of defining holiness: we should look to the Great Commandments of love of God above all, and of neighbour as oneself – the Shema Israel still recited and sung by observant Jews today and reiterated by Jesus (eg. In Matt 22: 37-40). We should look also to Jesus’s own new commandment in John 13:34 – to love one another as he has loved us. These, Michael insists, are a non-postponeable and binding call to be perfect in love – a call that can be heard and obeyed at any stage of life – or in any state of life – by any of the baptised without distinction.
On discovering that St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas had agreed that these Great Commandments of Jesus and the Torah were not real commandments – because they demand an unattainable perfection – Michael McGuckian was unimpressed and unconvinced, and is now bent on explaining why.
If anyone else has ever wondered why, in the wake of Vatican II, no Irish bishop ever convened his people of God to consider together how they could ‘consecrate the world to God’ (Lumen Gentium 34), this book will greatly help to explain all that. It has not only addressed most of my own questions on holiness, but given me an invaluable historical overview of the issue. My only slight complaint relates to its title. While ‘The Charismatic Structure of the Church’ may signal the book’s content clearly to experts on church structure, something like ‘Holiness? A History of Disagreement’ would have made it a ‘must read’ for me as soon as it was launched in April 2021.
It must surely be seen also now that the citation out of context of Matthew 19:12 in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (Article 1579) – the sole reference by Jesus to celibacy in the Gospels – is a scandalous leaning on the scales in the cause of making celibacy a necessary condition of ordination. That Gospel context was a discussion of Jesus’s teaching against easy divorce, a teaching that was obviously also ‘for the sake of the kingdom of God’. In light of the known contemporary Jewish expectation that religious men would marry, by far the most sensible inference to be drawn from Jesus’s subsequent reference to eunuchs is that celibacy could also serve the kingdom, not that it would better or would best serve the kingdom.
Holiness and Integrity
This needs especially to be said at this time, in light of the global revelation that priestly celibacy can as readily be a matter of appearances as of fact. Here Jesus’s denunciations of hypocrisy – of seeking to be regarded as holy – have not yet received the attention they deserve (e.g. Matt 6:1-6). That unknown multitudes of innocent children and vulnerable adults have suffered lifelong agonies as a consequence is now indisputable, and the cost of centuries of concealment of this reality has not yet been fully acknowledged and redressed.
We can therefore anticipate that in his next book – on that same subject – Michael McGuckian will be citing Jesus’s story of the equal reward given to the latecomers in the vineyard to question any claim that any office or chosen state of life can entitle anyone to a superior expectation of ‘the treasure hidden in the field’. We can also hope that the critical importance of integrity – the conformity of behaviour with what is vowed and professed, or is implied by any church role or office – will be emphasised.
The ancient belief that personal holiness must come automatically with the conferring of any particular office, even that of bishop, must surely also be finally rejected. Here Lord Acton’s comment on the danger of attributing holiness to a person solely on account of that person’s role or official status has too long been ignored: ‘There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.’2
Can disobedience be holy?
Also – in regard to the virtue of obedience – that a good conscience can oblige anyone to disobey a religious superior needs now also to be emphasised – since everyone understands now that unholy obedience was also a major factor in the global tide of recent scandal. Why, for so long, was Jesus’s courage in challenging the Jewish religious hierarchies of his own time never seen as a distinctive mark of his sanctity? That a fetish for lace-laden clerical attire could be preferred as a sign of holiness in the long era of clericalist illusion will forever be remembered.
The canonisation of the Australian Saint Mary McKillop in 2010 is conclusive proof of the need to qualify the elevation of obedience as a requirement for holiness. Personally pilloried for her calling out of a clerical abuser in Australia, the cross of excommunication she was obliged to carry in 1871 is a dire warning against a pernicious religious authoritarianism – the expectation of deference in all circumstances by a religious superior.
Finally, the ongoing promotion of the ‘domestic church’ to an indispensable role in the faith formation of adults as well as children has its own logic. If parents and grandparents are truly to have the primary responsibility for encouraging and guiding the faith development of their children, must this not be recognised as a call to a sacred role and a holy task, modelled on the example of the Holy Family? That we should still be so distant from a full and unequivocal recognition of the same call to every baptised person – to respond sincerely to the greatest commandments of integrity and love in whatever space we currently occupy – speaks loudly for the timeliness of this book.
Sean O’Conaill, 19th August 2021
- The Charismatic Structure of the Church: Priesthood and Religious Life at Vatican II and Beyond, Michael McGuckian SJ, Xlibris US, 2021
- Lord Acton, letter to Mandell Creighton, 1887
That ‘subsequent interview’ with Michael McGuckian can be heard at the Irish Jesuits’ site: