The Catholic Church: Home for Sinners

Perched majestically atop courthouse buildings in almost every land, there stands the Roman goddess Justitia, armed with sword in one hand, scales in the other, exercising her fine art of giving all and sundry exactly what they deserve.  Often depicted wearing a blindfold to emphasize the pure impartiality of her judgments, one cannot help but admire the sheer unbending objectivity by which she executes justice.  Such a satisfying prospect it must be to punish the wicked, to acquit the innocent.

And haven’t we all longed to settle scores along the lines of some ideal paradigm of justice?   Indeed, to adjudicate the fate of those we secretly pine to punish?  When asked once to weigh the comparative evils of Rousseau and Voltaire, Dr. Johnson asked, “How does one determine the proportions of iniquity between a flea and a louse?”  How we should all relish the job of doing something like that.

But forget for a moment the tablets of human justice, what about the exercise of justice on, say, a divine scale?   Wouldn’t that be great fun?   Suppose, for example, you’d been asked to drive a stake right through the heart of Christianity.  Go ahead now.  Just do it.  Would not the invited incision provide a perfect separation of sheep and goats?  Wouldn’t a clean surgical strike straight down the middle, forcing everyone to the margins, pretty neatly drive the wicked and worldly to one side, the upright and godly to the other?  Is that the line of division, do you suppose, prescribed by faith?

Because from a certain angle, it does look wonderfully, seductively simple to pull off so neatly packaged a solution to the problems of good and evil.  Precise as a pin.

Simple as soup.  At least that’s how it looks on paper, where all complexity can be so easily flattened out like a map.  In the real world, of course, none of us would survive the pruning shears.  If you insist on a standard of membership in Christ’s Body so pure that only saints could qualify, the unwashed masses having sunk too deep into the morass of sin for God to salvage them, then you might as well write off the entire human race as being hopelessly reprobate.  Where then would you locate the love and the mercy of Almighty God?  It would have nothing whatsoever to work on.

“It does not matter what level of perfection you reach,” writes Luigi Giussani in his book The Psalms. Nor does it matter, he adds, “what others think or don’t think of how much you do.”  In fact, it scarcely matters what you think.  “All that matters is that mercy has taken you for ever, from the very origin of your existence.  Mercy called you to love, because mercy loved you.”

Isn’t this, he asks, precisely what holiness of life looks like?  “Holiness means always affirming—before everything else, in everything else—the embrace of the Father, the merciful, pitying movement of Christ….”  Who is not galvanized into action by the brightness of our behavior.  It is rather our failure to meet the fulfillment to which we have long been called that moves him to take pity upon our nothingness, to fill us with forgiving grace.

How terribly sad that so many who belong to the Church, she having long since baptized them into the mysteries of her life, now profess to being sick unto death of her.  She who is Mater et Magistra (Mother and Teacher) and whose sole business is to dispense the very medicine on which their lives depend.  So what’s stopping them from simply going out and establishing a better and more perfect church?  So perfect in fact that only the virtuous need apply?  Would that please them?  Of course it is useful to remember that from the first instant of they’re having found such a church, all of its vaunted perfection would at once be diminished by their membership in it.  Wherever you go, as they say, there you are.

“I would hate to belong to a club,” Groucho Marx once famously quipped, “that would have me as a member.”  Thank God the standards of his Son are far less exacting.  Indeed, criteria for admission to Christ’s Church are so loose as to appear positively promiscuous.  Which is to say, anybody can join.

So what’s the litmus test?  Well, have you got a heart?  Does it beat with the need and desire to be happy?  What about beauty, or peace, or joy, or love—do these immortal longings define your life?  Do they float your boat?  Does the hope in your heart spring eternal?  Then why aren’t you on board yet?  Is it because the seating arrangements aren’t up to speed?  Or do you really not wish to become a New Creature?  “The final mutation in the evolution of the human species,” is what Pope Benedict has called the Rite of Baptism.  Who wouldn’t want that?

How freeing the insight of that incomparable Christian, Charles Peguy, who often noted that at the heart of the Catholic Thing, which for a thousand years and more formed the culture of Christendom, provision is always to be made both for the saint and the sinner.  In other words, when you come to the real line of demarcation between Church and world, the fault line runs not between the righteous and the wicked, as if those armed with virtue stood athwart those steeped in vice.  No, the dividing line is always Christ, whose sole consuming passion is to be with sinners (breaking bread with the bad, you might call it), in order to transform them into saints.

“When God looks at a sinner,” Father Vincent McNabb used to say, “he is no longer a sinner; he used to be a sinner.”  How we need to remind ourselves of that fact, especially amid the repeated failings of our own lives.  Because for all the apparent distance separating us from those godly specimens we appear so haplessly to try and emulate, we really are creatures of the same God, annealed therefore to the same Christ by virtue of our common Baptism.  We stand thus in equal need of the medicine of mercy.  Every hour of every day.  There will never be a time when in our nothingness we need no longer turn to Omnipotent Love in order to feast on God, and so to soldier on in the direction we most want to go.  Could it be that what really distinguishes us from the saints is that, unlike these great athletes of the spiritual life, we just don’t ask so ardently for it?

In a letter sent to a woman who, despite having just turned Catholic, was already bent on becoming an ex-Catholic (no doubt having stayed just long enough to meet a few Catholics, perhaps in the parking lot), Flannery O’Connor, whose stories were the reason she was drawn to the Church in the first place, wrote the following:

I think that the Church is the only thing that is going to make
the terrible world we are coming to endurable; the only thing
that makes the Church endurable is that it is somehow the Body
of Christ and that on this we are fed.

How wonderfully prophetic that is.  It expresses with great wit and precision exactly the attitude we are to have if the offer of salvation—first bestowed by Christ, then ratified and imparted by his Church—is to make any difference in our lives.  And because of that mysterious bond we share with the whole Body of Christ, saint and sinner alike, we can be confident that the event of Christ will certainly be found wherever the People of God gather to celebrate the Mystery.  What a joy it is when, popping into any Catholic church anywhere on the planet, one instantly feels right at home with all the other sinners who have come for the same reason, hungry for the same food.

Editor’s note: The image above entitled “The Confession” was painted by Giuseppe Molteni in 1838.

Regis Martin


Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar's Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, also published by Emmaus Road, is called Witness to Wonder: The World of Catholic Sacrament. He resides in Steubenville, Ohio, with his wife and ten children.

  • cloonfush

    I do not understand anyone who professes to be “sick to death” of the Church. But sometimes I have a hard time remembering that just because I am sick to death of much of the clergy and many, many of the Princesses of the Church, that they are in fact not the Church. I find myself lonely in our Church today. I do not feel in any way “in communion” with so many of those in the pew who do not believe in, and even make fun of, what our Church teaches.

  • publiusnj

    I agree entirely with the author’s final sentence: “What a joy it is when, popping into any Catholic church anywhere on the planet, one instantly feels right at home….” I belong to my parish, but I also belong to my diocese and to the Church as a whole. When I see a priest in a different Catholic church, I think of him as my priest. Even if the foreign mass is in a foreign language, I am usually able to follow the course of worship so long as I can get hold of a missalette with the readings. That is the joy that comes from belonging to the Church Christ sent to the Whole World.

  • poetcomic1

    As one of your commentators at Crisis recently stated (I wish I saved the author) both the modern church and the traditional Latin Mass community make it almost impossible for the sinner to feel part of the body of Christ. And I do mean Sinner capital ‘S’. Immediately I knew this is so and wondered why it is so.

  • Nestorian

    I think that multitudes of disaffected former Catholics can be forgiven for thinking that there is more to the Catholic Church than the “sole business of dispensing the very medicine on which their lives depend” when they contemplate the vastness of the sex abuse crisis business, the business of engineering in truth-hating stone-walling and cover-ups of the crisis that implicates the very popes themselves (Benedict XVI and John Paul II, at the very minimum), the business of building self-aggrandizing and self-indulgent $40 million complexes, a la the “bishop of bling”, etc., etc.

    • Objectivetruth

      As long as the same Catholics contemplate Peter denying knowing Jesus three times, the apostle Judas betraying Jesus, nine other apostles running and hiding the night Christ needed them most, Doubting Thomas’s unbelief at Christ’s resurrection, etc….

      In other words, if Christ wanted perfection out of his clergy, he would have never have hand picked the extremely weak, impatient, doubtful, cowardly, rough, sinful men He did to get this whole operation off the ground.

      • slainte

        Great response. Very much on point.

      • Nestorian

        Yes, but there is no record in the apostolic church of sex abuse scandals, nor of $40 million appropriations of church funds by clergy for one’s own devices. Quite the contrary, the early Church in Jerusalem lived a life of primitive communism, holding all funds in common. And rather than protecting sex abusers and their own wealth and privilege, the apostles had enough of God’s grace to perform miracles and endure heroic deaths.
        The differences between that and the present are stark, and call into entirely legitimate question for legions of disaffected Catholics whether the clerical church today is really the successor of the apostolic church.
        And it goes on and on: More records of wholesale abuse just grudgingly released in Chicago, this time implicating Cardinal George….

        • Objectivetruth

          2000 years of perspective, please……

          Christ did promise Peter that “the gates of the nether world shall not prevail against it.” Did Christ promise that His Church would not come under constant, 24/7/365 attack from Satan and his minions? No. But He did promise Peter that the ultimate victory is the Lord’s. And this is what is currently happening with the sex abuse scandals. The Church’s battlements and defenses have been damaged and pitted by this godless onslaught, but when the smoke clears, we will see that Christ has chivalrously protected His bride, and the Church’s walls will not have been breached and the Son of Man has yet again won the day!

          Be strong, pray, and don’t give up hope, Brother! Christ is counting on us as His Body to clean up this horrible demonic slop, and do the work of saints and martyrs to make sure it does not happen again! As with all the sins fallen man has inflicted on His bride the Church for 2000 years, we will emerge holier and stronger! But we the Church Militant must strap on our breastplates and become the best, holiest Catholics we can. And Christ will take care of the rest!

          • Nestorian

            Your faith in the Church’s indefectible divinity is admirable, and in a certain sense, I share it. The important difference, though, is that I believe the Nestorian Church is the True Church, and not the Catholic Church.
            It is, accordingly, the Nestorian Church against which “the gates of hell shall not prevail,” and not the Catholic Church, with its ultimately worldly and thus non-divine institution of the papacy.

            • Objectivetruth

              This is no place to reargue the Nestorian heresy, which is settled history. But interestingly, see below from Catholic answers:

              “There is some doubt whether Nestorius himself held the heresy his statements imply, and in this century, the Assyrian Church of the East, historically regarded as a Nestorian church, has signed a fully orthodox joint declaration on Christology with the Catholic Church and rejects Nestorianism. It is now in the process of coming into full ecclesial communion with the Catholic Church. “

              • Nestorian

                Yes, exactly. I am a member of the Assyrian Church of the East. I call myself a Nestorian only because I have found that people are more likely to have heard that name than the appellation “Church of the East” (which I actually prefer).

          • hombre111

            I like your reply, but I agree with Nestorian in some ways. We barely grasp the depth of disillusionment experienced by many Catholics because their shepherds let them down. Hard to be solemn about the Magisterium when it turns out to be so stupid on the sex abuse issue, and so hard-headed in its clericalism.

  • hombre111

    Wonderfully written, and in general, spot on. But I do wish the Church would show that kind of compassion toward the divorced and remarried. Annulments, while sometimes helpful, are also a huge hurdle for people who are already spiritually down and out. Why not just handle it pastorally, as they do in the Orthodox Church?

    • eddiestale

      clearly, you licktheobamatesticles

      • hombre111

        Is that your default answer to any troublesome question? What does Obama have to do with the dilemma of divorced and remarried Catholics who are sentenced to second class citizenship within the Church?

    • publiusnj

      Annulment is an essential under the rule on Divorce/Remarriage promulgated by Jesus Christ Who was fully aware that people would prefer to have the option of divorce/remarriage that politicians are always so willing to hand out. As Christ made clear beyond peradventure, the divorced and remarried, if truly married the first time, commit adultery with their second spouses until they go back to their first spouses or begin living as brother/sister with their second spouse. Mark 10: 2-9 (“Some Pharisees came and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” “What did Moses command you?” he replied. They said, “Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away.” “It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law,” Jesus replied. “But at the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate….Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.””).

      • hombre111

        Eh, no. Read what real scripture scholars and real theologians say about the subject within its historical context. There are probably newer studies around, and I will read them if someone has a suggestion. But I suggest Schillebeekck’s “Marriage, Human Reality and Saving Mystery.” For a very good Protestant account, I suggest Eric Fuchs’ “Sexual Desire and Love.” I am reading the latter book along with a re-read of Pope John Paul’s “Theology of the Body.” Fuchs offers a wider exegesis of the pertinent scripture texts, but the Pope is the better poet.

        • publiusnj

          Jesus, the Christ, the Son of the Ever Living God could not have been clearer: “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.” So much for the “Scriptural faithfulness” of protestants and other non-Catholics. The Catholic Church has always understood that clarion statement to mean exactly what it says. What is it about “divorces and marries another” or “commits adultery” that you don’t want to understand?

          • hombre111

            Jesus meant what he said, and what he said was spoken within the social and religious context of his day. But what did he want us to do about it? Interpret it all in the back-breaking legalistic manner he detested, as the Church does now? Or find a way to handle the matter pastorally, with the compassion he expressed in so many different ways.

            • publiusnj

              Jesus was full well aware that Moses permitted Divorce as He clearly noted. Nevertheless, Jesus called Divorce-Remarriage Adultery. Was Moses being more “pastoral” than the Good Shepherd? Certainly not as regards the non-divorcing spouse. He or she had been pledged marriage for life, not “for as long as the divorcer wanted to be married.” He or she had joined with the other so as to become one flesh. As Jesus realized, they were no longer two flesh and neither was free to disregard the rights of the other. That is true compassion, not the legalist’s phony approximation of it.

              • hombre111

                I still suggest that you read the other side of this issue. How do scripture scholars put it into context? Why are the bishops in Germany saying what they are saying? But anyway, I am finished with this subject.

                • publiusnj

                  I suggest you put yourself on the other side of the issue. When the non-divorcing spouse sees her adulterous husband with the other woman, she can turn to the supposedly pastoral Moses and be told: “just move on. We have allowed him to ignore the promises he made to you because we are pastoral.” Or she can listen to the Living Lord of the Universe Who proclaims the “better part” in which men and women love the other spouse as they love themselves. That is the Christian way.

                  • hombre111

                    I have been the Moses in this situation more than once. First, I talk to the injured party and ask her if she could forgive and try to rebuild the relationship. I talk to him and urge them both to seek counseling, and urge that they make a Retrouvaille, in which I am active. Often enough, one or the other will refuse. At this point, a divorce is probably legally necessary because the other person can empty bank accounts and find other ways to destroy a beloved person suddenly become an enemy. This is for her own protection and the protection of the children. But if there is a divorce I ask them both to wait. In an adulterous affair, the husband will quickly marry his new love. Interestingly, the majority of women will wait and many will never marry again.
                    Now, suppose the husband has filed for a divorce the woman did not want. I cannot imagine Christ asking her to assume the great burden you are suggesting when she is not the one who caused the problem. I would ask her to attend “Beginning” sessions designed to help divorced people face what has happened. I would urge her to attend Mass and receive Communion. I would also urge her to see me again if she decides to meet other men. At that time, I would ask her to begin a marriage case.
                    I personally, do not believe this situation can be solved by the usual Roman Rite legal ball of knots. But I will ask her to begin the process. Often, before the marriage case can work its two to three year magic, she and her new fiancé are struggling. If they have done all they can do on their end, and it is just a matter of legal paperwork beyond their control (God bless Pope John Paul, who added 3-4 months to the agony. Didn’t stop one divorce, of course), I will tell them they can pray about it, and I will encourage them to go to Communion. If they can’t bear the tension and marry civilly, I will promise to do a Church marriage as soon as the case is over.

                    • publiusnj

                      Hombre writes: “At this point, a divorce is probably legally necessary because the other person
                      can empty bank accounts and find other ways to destroy a beloved person suddenly
                      become an enemy. ” Sure, as the lawyers say: “bad facts make bad law.” A divorce may sometimes be necessary to prevent a rapine spouse from hurting his/her life-partner. Yet a re-marriage by either party to a valid marriage would still constitute adultery. For the remarrying spouse would be ignoring the fact that he/she had become one flesh with the person with whom he/she had exchanged vows.

                      It is the remarriage (or sex outside the Marriage) that is the Adultery on either spouse’s part because a valid marriage is for life. And no matter how many times a person confesses adulteries, he/she doesn’t get forgiveness for future acts of adultery. Forgiveness regarding intervening adulteries is given after confessers have pronounced their intention to sin no more. You can say that a non-divorcer spouse is hurt by staying true to their vows and considering themselves still married, but he/she in fact has been hurt by the other spouse’s decision to ignore the marriage vows. Both vows to become one flesh instead of two are life-long ones that are for better or worse. Christ understood that marriage calls us out of ourselves into a union where we love another as ourselves, even if Moses didn’t.

                    • hombre111

                      Well, I have explained what I have done, and you repeat yourself. Thanks., Conversation over.

                    • publiusnj

                      I think the conversation should have been over before you said that John Paul would have trouble looking Christ in the eye (as though you had some special insight into Christ’s judgment of one of his principal servants), but for some reason you wanted to say that and then have the last word. At the risk of repeating myself: Christ had the last word: “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.””

  • joice

    I love to read Regis Martin. It’s a feast of language and idea and goodness.

  • NE-Catholic

    Not to go too far off topic, but I’ve always found Flannery O’Conner’s stories to be bleak, depressing, wallowing in self-pity, full of self-abuse and degradation and lacking any shred of salvation or hope, That so many embrace her as the epitome of Catholicism and its message of redemption is just staggering.

    All that said, Mr. Martin’s basic message is well done.

    • Dr. Timothy J. Williams

      No one can be called the “epitome of Catholicism and it’s message of redemption.” O’Conner would certainly not have recognized herself in that phrase. But she did understand that the Gospel is good news primarily for sinners.

  • John O’Neill

    Aquinas scripsit in Summa: quia iuxta Mt.16, 18, regnum a Christo praedicatum est illa Ecclesia, de qua in decursu totius nostril tractatus demonstrabimus esse veram hominum in hoc mundo degentium societatem visibilem et externam, hierarchicam et monarchicam,muneribus socialibus docendi sanctificandi et regendi praeditam atque veris visibilibus notis discernibilem. Christus vincit, Christus regnat, Christus Christus imperat.

    • Barry Penobscott

      Szczesliwego Nowego Roku!

      • Rusty

        C’est assez vrai! Je ne comprends pas si on n’ecrit pas en anglais. Parfois l’opinion n’est pas tellement croyable?

    • Marcelus

      En latín es hermoso pero mejor escribilo en inglés así todos entienden

  • Dr. Timothy J. Williams

    I wish it were true that one could “pop into any Catholic church anywhere on the planet” and “instantly feel right at home.” I am an inveterate Church-popper-inner, and I frequently feel that I am no longer on planet earth when I pop into some “catholic” churches today. I recall a church near Sion, Switzerland, where the parish priest had removed the offensive, traditional stations of the cross, and hung up portraits of Great People (like Mohammed Ali and Gandhi). In another church of the same diocese, where the parishioners were wont to gather to pray the rosary, thereby offending the crowds of tourists, the pastor had installed speakers to blare round-the-clock musak. This drove the rosary-toting fanatics out into the parking lot. To the eyes, the church interior was still Catholic, but for the ears, it was the Mall of America.

    • Objectivetruth

      True……I’ve ran in to some of the same situations.

      But then I’ve been to Mass at St. Anne’s in Repulse Bay, Franciscan Churches in Old San Juan, the Duomo in Florence…..not really knowing the native tongue but all very much felt like “home.”

      And as long as the Tabernacle reflects the glow of the candle showing Christ ever present, it’s home.

    • Marcelus

      Just as you mention the must be then a serious serious problem with NO parishes in America and other places. Totally unacceptable to have pictures? ??? Of personalities within the Church itself? I believe some of our all responsibility remains with the local bishops. YOU can not allow that passion and simple. Where I live is NO mostly, Argentina and it goes for the rest of LA, the ‘FURTHER’ you ll every go out having some kids from the Catholic youth play guitar at certain moments during Mass on certain festive Sundays. That is that. Other than that any Church is a very solemn place of worship. Humble or ‘rich’ , some dating back to colonial times and no one, no Father in his wildest dreams would ever think of setting up a picture of Gandhi in his Church. You drop into any Church in Buenos Aires at any time of the day and you will find people saying the holy rosary with absolutely no problem. They belong, you may or May not. Incredible. Feel sorry for you hope it comes to an end. Luckely NO had not evolved into that disgusting things you mention in South America. Bishops must do their work. We are not a club.

      • Dr. Timothy J. Williams

        Um… I don’t quite follow your point. But I am happy that you appear to have found a good parish in Argentina.

        • Marcelus

          What I meant is that this is not the first time I read churches elsewhere do this sort of thing like pulling down the stations to hang pictures or uphold extremely liberal or relaxed attitudes toward these sort of thing. For instance in Argentina NO ONE would ever think of doing anything like that in any Church. I would say the and stands for L America as a whole. No wonder people find NO not to ‘attractive’ so to speak. But it’s not the same everywhere believe me.

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  • Margaret Costello

    The Catholic Church may wash us of sin but it is the home of saints in the making…a trauma ER and hospital for the mortally wounded but only so they can be healed, thrown into the crucible of spiritual bootcamp, emerging as Navy Seals/saints to transform the world for Christ. And I agree with Dr. Williams…in no way do I feel “at home” in the horror show of post V2 churches where liturgical abuse, heresy, and mortal sin abound. God bless~

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  • Knights of Columbus Insurance

    In my views catholic church still has millions of followers and its all because of their faith on this religion and the concern of Pope towards their followers so due to some peoples bad activities we can’t say catholic church is the home for sinner’s.

    Carl Anderson knights of Columbus