When Dante rises with his guide Beatrice to the circle of the lovers, symbolized in Paradise by the planet Venus, he is told that the most brilliant and most deeply blessed of all the souls in that realm is Rahab, the harlot of Jerusalem who housed Joshua’s spies and assisted the children of Israel in their conquest of Canaan. That the harlot should be so exalted is no surprise. The fathers of the Church had long seen in Rahab a foreshadowing of the Church, the bride who would share in the triumph of the new Joshua, Jesus, who alone can bring his people into the ultimate land flowing with milk and honey.
Is the Church then a harlot? No, and yes. The Church is like the bride in the Song of Songs, black but beautiful; dwelling amid suffering and sin, and yet blessed and redeemed by her spouse. She is a temple built up with the bricks of truth and mortared with the blood of the martyrs. She is also a market, wherein sinners hawk their wares. She stands faithfully at the foot of the Cross, looking upon the bridegroom who gave His life to make her pure. She also wanders off into the alleys and the dark corners of the city of man, leaving Calvary far behind. She is of divine institution; and every single man and woman who belongs to her is a sinner, including those who have led her down through the ages.
I love this Church, this bride, this sheepfold, this ark, this glorious cathedral. I love the soaring visions of blessedness that inspired the glaziers of the rose windows of Chartres; and I love, sometimes I am not sure why, the same Church that has turned louche show tunes into hymns for the common people. I love the Church for which St. Thomas Aquinas wrote his great compendia of theology and philosophy, dictating, it is said, four separate books to four secretaries simultaneously as he paced about his room; and I love the Church that sells simple holy cards to old women who miss their beloved dead. I love the Church that celebrates the sacrament of the altar under Bernini’s baldacchino at St. Peter’s, and in a bamboo hut in Africa; a Church of untold riches, and sometimes terrible poverty. I love a Church great enough to exalt a middle-class girl dying of consumption, a Therese of Lisieux, to the status of doctor, a teacher of endurance and faith amid suffering. I love a Church whose saints shine forth in beauty — a simple Francis of Assisi, hymning the goodness of all creation; a King Louis IX, meting out justice and mercy under a tree in Paris; a Mother Teresa, smiling with kindness upon the destitute and the dying of Calcutta. And I love a Church filled to the clerestory with sinners, some of whom make their silent way to the confessional every month or so, while others err at the margins, looking warily but longingly to their Mother, hoping someday to return home.
No human institution is clean. No great nation has ever been free of blood-guilt. Scientists have happily sold their services to evil, as the last century’s history amply shows. The Communists could never have oppressed and murdered millions of people had they not had the cooperation of the intelligentsia, the press, the leaders of society. Meanwhile the Church, spanning two thousand years, has, with all the sins that can be laid to the charge of her members, been simply the greatest agent of social transformation the world has ever known. Her monks drained the swamps of Germany and turned them into fertile land; or they preserved for future generations the learning and the poetry of Rome and Greece; and they followed a way of life that our own harried and spiritually anemic sufferers of postmodernity look upon with mingled incomprehension and awe. She sent her priests to the four corners of the world, to bring the Good News to people burdened under the weight of false gods; and some of these priests were bad men, but others were teachers, healers, martyrs. She has done more than her share of dabbling in the politics and even the warfare of the world; and she has built schools and hospitals and orphanages, and has hearkened to her Founder’s saying, that her love for Him would be made manifest in her love for the least of His brothers.
I love the Church because she is both pure and spotted; because she holds up to me patterns of holiness, and because she would deign to take such people as me in the first place. I know, because the Church is Rahab, that she will always give the world cause for deprecation. It is a Church that once elected a Borgia politician as pope. Then she underwent a tumultuous reform; and the Lord has blessed her with a run of good men for her popes that has lasted almost five hundred years. It is a Church that saved a now deeply ungrateful Europe from being overrun by the Turk — and has earned for her pains the accusation of being warlike. It is a Church that has preached love for one’s enemies — and has earned for her pains the accusation of being pacifist and weak. It is a Church hated for her sins, and sometimes hated even more for her saintliness.
There are scandals in the Church. There have always been scandals. Consider for a moment how many rascals and jobbers and liars and money-grubbers mill about the halls of any congress, including the American; or how many seducers, slackers, political agitators, and hacks compel parents to put their homes in hock so that they can pay to have their children’s faith and reason subverted in college. The Church is Rahab; she is sometimes no better than a den of politicians, or a coven of the intellectual elite. She will disappoint us cruelly; and her faithful sons and daughters will cry out, justly, for reform. But she also towers above us in her holiness, calling us at all times to a conversion of heart. She is devoted to God, and therefore devoted to man — sinful, stupid, slothful man, glorious and greathearted man.
I belong to the largest and the oldest institution in the world. When America passes away, as it inevitably will, the Church will still stand. When the European Union is but a bad memory, the Church will still be there, building up a new continent upon the ruins of the old. When her critics have passed into dust, the Church will still loom to the heavens, as impassive as stone, as faithful as the return of the day. We have the promise of her divine Founder that it will be so. But there is more to the Church than her manifestation upon earth. For she is one with the saints who enjoy their triumph now, and the vision of God; and I hope someday to be ushered into that Church, that harlot made immaculate, singing with her to her Lord, “Holy, holy, holy!”