Scandals in the Mystical Body
Address Delivered by Archbishop Fulton Sheen
January 27, 1935
by Pauly Fongemie
Whenever I am tempted to be
unsettled by scandal, I run to the Sacred Heart, my refuge. In the
Sacred Heart as with the Blessed Eucharist we find the perfect unity of
the Divine and Human natures of Jesus Christ, a unity that is
irresistable no matter the times we find ourselves in.
I have had anti-Catholic people contact me about all the sandals, suggesting that I ought to be ashamed of Catholicism and so forth.
We offer this
article by Bishop Sheen as a counterpoint to all the noise and chaos in
the media involving our beloved Church. It is one in a series of talks
he gave in 1935. All emphasis in bold added by me; material in parentheses added by me. Bishop
Sheen is not telling his audience that moral failure is a good thing in
of itself, but that God does, indeed, write straight with crooked lines when He wills to. In all our trials and temptations we ought to place all our trust in the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
Thus far we have spoken of the Church as an ideal. The Risen Christ at
the Right Hand of the Father is the head; we the baptized members are
the body; and the Holy Spirit of Truth, the Third Person of the Blessed
Trinity, is the soul.
But in fact does the Church always reveal that ideal? The world has
asked these quetions a thousa and times: How dare you say that the
successor of Peter is the vicar of Christ? Do not the sinful lives of
men who have sat in the chair of Peter prove that they are not
infallible? How can anyone be infallible who is a sinner? Do you mean
to say that a wicked man like Alexander VI, who was a sinner, could be
the infallibile vicar of Jesus Christ?
Furthermore, is it not almost blasphemy to say that you Catholics, many
of whom have been guilty of grave scandals, murders, political
intrigues, dishonesty, and shameful sin, constitute the Body of Christ,
and then against bad Catholics; or first Would you dare assert that
they were part of the Body of the All-Holy Christ? How could He Who is
pure have a Body which is soiled?
Despite these seemingly strong objections we still believe that the
Holy Father is the vicar of Christ, and the Church is the Body of
Christ. I will consider first the objections against the Vicars of
Christ, and then against bad Catholics, or first against the Head of
the Church and then against its Body.
The root of error on this subject is that the enemies of the Papacy fail to make a distinction between infallibility
Infallibility means freedom from error, impeccability means freedom
from sin. Hence this question arises: When Our Lord conferred primacy
on Peter and his successors did he make them infallible or impeccable?
The Gospels themselves make the distinction. Peter made the confession
of Our Lord's Divinity, whereupon Our Lord made him the Rock of His
Church with the guarantee that the gates of error would never prevail
Immediately after this promise of freedom from error and guarantee of
faith, Our Blessed Lord tells His Apostles that He must "go to
Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the ancients and scribes and
chief priests, and be put to death".
Poor, weak, human Peter, who was evidently puffed with pride because he
had been made the Rock of the Church, was yet to learn the limitations
of his gift. Like a boy given authority and anxious to exercise it,
Peter now takes Our Lord aside, in the language of the Gospel "to
rebuke him", saying: "Lord, be it far from thee, this shall not be unto
Whereupon Our Lord, whose back was to Peter, turned around and said to
Peter: "Go behind me, Satan, thou art a scandal unto me: because thou
savourest not the things that are of God, but the things that are of
A moment before Peter was called the Rock; now he is called Satan. Oh
think not that the Divine Mind had so quickly changed. Our Lord did not
take back the gift of primacy, for He re-emphasized it again after His
Resurrection. He was just driving home to Peter the distinction between
the office and its man, between infallibility and impeccability,
between freedom from error aNd freedom from sin. In so many words Our
Lord was telling him: "As Peter, the Rock upon which I build My Church,
whenever you speak with the assistance of Heaven
you shall be preserved from error, but as Simon, son of John, as a man
you are so weak, so human, so apt to be sinful, that you may become
even like unto Satan. In your office you are infallible; as a man, you
are peccable". Most of us, too, who examine our relations with our
fellow men are conscious of this distinction Our Lord made at
Caesarea-Phillipi. If an officer of the law holds up his hand and
orders you to stop in traffic, you do so. And why? Because he is the
representative of law and order. And you would do so even though you
knew that as a private citizen the traffic officer was known to beat
his wife. In other words you make a distinction between the office and
the man. God thus permitted the fall of Peter immediately after the
gift of primacy to remind him and all his successors that what he
received as Peter was not his as Simon; that infallibility would belong
necessarily to his office, but virtue would have to be acquired by his
own merit; infallibility would come from God, saintliness would have to
come from himself.
Admitting then the weakness of the man, because he is himself, and the
power of the office, because that is Christ's, does history justify the
emphasis the enemies of the Church have placed upon her failing Peters?
To read some histories one would think the Papacy was nothing but a
scarlet river of blood. Scandals have the unfortunate quality of
absorbing attention. A murderer receives more space in our newspapers
than a sacrificing mother. Saints never make the headlines. It is
generally safe to say that those who know everything about the two or
three bad successors of Peter know nothing at all about the other two
hundred and fifty good ones. How true it is that "the. evil men do
lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones". The
wickedness of one man in authority is allowed to obscure a million Saints.
But why not put all things in due proportion? How many who dwell on
Papacy for thirty years during the Renaissance ever dwell on the
history of the Papacy for the other hundreds and hundreds of years? How
many of those who exploit the bad two or three, ever admit that of the
first thirty-three successors of Peter, thirty were Martyrs for their
faith and the other three exiled for it? How many of those who dwell on
the bad example of two or three will know or ever admit that of the
two hundred and fifty-three successors of St. Peter eighty-three have
been canonized for their heroic virtue, and that over fifty were chosen
over the protest of their own unworthiness for such a high office?
Anyone who attacks such a long line of Martyrs, Saints, and scholars
must be mighty certain of his own sinlessness to lay his hand on the
two or three who revealed the human side of their office. If they who
attack are holy, pure, and undefiled - and I wonder how many are - let
them pick up their stones. For it is the privilege only of those
without sin to cast the first stone. But if they are not above
reproach, then let them leave their judgment to God.
Now let us consider the objection against the scandals of the members
of His Mystical Body. As Christ never promised that His Visible Head
would always be a Saint, neither did He promise that the members of His
Mystical Body would all be Saints. Sacred Scripture nowhere guarantees
that those who, called to intimate union with God, would all be Saints.
There were eight in the ark and one was a reprobate (Ham)
; there were twelve
tribes and - one was rejected for the final sealing (Simeon)
; there were twelve Apostles and one of them was a devil; there were seventy-two
disciples and some walked no more with Christ; there were seven deacons
and one of them was a heretic (Nicholas)
The Kingdom of God on earth, Our Blessed Lord assured us, would be made
up of foolish virgins as well as wise virgins, of cockle as well as
wheat, of bad fish as well as good, and the final rejection of the bad
would not take place until the end of time.
In ideal then the Church would always be the "immaculate spouse" of
Christ, but that ideal would never be fully realized here below. The
world is full of half-completed Gothic cathedrals, of half-written
epics, and of unfinished symphonies, and in the Church Our Lord Himself
told us: "Scandals must come." It is rather natural, too, for them to
come when one remembers that the graces of God are communicated
through "frail vessels", where mediocrity is the nemesis, genius the
rarity, and Saints the exception.
Quite apart from the Divine warrant that such failings are to be expected, does it not seem to be implied in the very
nature of the Mystical Body: In the Incarnation Our Lord assumed a
physical body, a human nature, like unto ours ill all things save sin.
The remarkable thing about the assumption of that physical body from
the womb of the Blessed Mother was that He, though God, did not
dispense that body from the physical imperfections of all human bodies.
He was subject to fatigue and thirst when He rested at Jacob's well;
He was subject to grief when He wept at the grave of Lazarus; He was
subject to a bloody sweat when He bowed down to the Father's will in
Gethsemane's garden; and He was subject to pain, anguish, pierced hands
and feet, torn body, and bruised brow in what He called the "scandal"
of His life - the Crucifixion.
Is it not natural then to expect that in assuming a mystical body,
which we are, that He would permit this body to be subject to mystical
and moral weakness; such as loss of faith, sin, scandals, heresies,
schisms, and sacrileges? And why, when these things do happen, should
we deny that the Mystical Body is Divine in its inmost nature, anymore
than we should deny He was Divine because of the weak ness of His Own
physical body. The Crucifixion did not obscure His divinity; then why should scandals do so when we find
them, as He foretold, in His Mystical Body? But the scandals or sins
of a few members do not affect the intrinsic sanctity of the Church.
Because one's hands are dirty, the whole body is not polluted. The
scandals, sins, and imperfections of the members of the Church no
more destroy its substantial holiness than the Crucifixion destroyed
the substantial wholeness of Christ's physical body.
Hence it is no great objection against the Mystical Body to urge
that some Catholics are bad. The Church no more expected to have
perfect Catholics than Our Lord expected to have perfect Apostles.
Catholics may be bad, but that does not prove Catholicism is wicked,
any more than a few bigots prove America is bigoted. If the Catholics
are bad, it is not because they are Catholics; it is because they are
Faith increases their responsibility, but it does not force
obedience; it increases blame, but it does not prevent sin.
Why is it that the world is always so scandalized at a scandal in
Church? Why does it always blame a bad Catholic more than it blames a
bad Mohammedan, if it is not because it expects so much more of the
Catholic? Any fallen-away Catholic whose name is quoted as a by-word of
sin, and who is supposed to be an argument against the Church, is
really a strong Catholic credential. The seriousness of any fall
depends on the height from which one has fallen, and
since one can fall from no greater height than union with Christ in His
Mystical Body, the fall is accordingly greater. Nowhere does evil
become so visible as when contrasted with the ideal. The very horror
the world expresses at the fall of a Catholic is the measure of the
high virtue it expects of him.
Looking at the Church now from another point of view, would not those
who object to her because her members are not all holy, be just as
scandalized if she were all they wanted her to be? Suppose every Vicar
of Christ was a Saint; suppose every member of His Mystical Body was
another St. John the Baptist or another St. Theresa. Would not her very
perfection accuse and condemn those who were outside? Too high an ideal
often repels rather than attracts. She would be so saintly that she
would no longer allure ordinary mortals. She might even appear to
struggling souls as a terrible Puritan, easily scandalized at our
failings, who might shrink from having her garments touched by sinners
like ourselves. Where then would faith be for those who doubted? Where
would hope be for those who were unholy? Where would charity be for
those who were in sin? No, a perfect Church would be a stumbling block.
Then, instead of men being scandalized at her, she would be
scandalized at men - which would be far worse.
Our Lord did not make His earthly life one prolonged transfiguration. In those few, brief moments He did reveal the
glory which was really His, but at all other times He appealed through
the humanity which was like unto ours. His fatigue at Jacob's well, His
tears over Jerusalem, His agony in the garden, His sufferings on the
Cross - all the "weakness" of His human nature - have won more souls to
Him than the blazing garments and the Heavenly Voice of Thabor.
In like manner, if the life of the Church had been one triumphant,
blazing transfiguration on a mountain top, apart
from the woes and ills of man, she would never have been the Comforter
of the Afflicted and the Refuge of Sinners. She has been called, like
her Divine Head, to be a redemptress, lifting men from the shadows of
sin to the tabernacles of grace where Saints are made. She is not a
far-off, abstract ideal, but a Mother; and though she has been stained
with dust in her long journey through the centuries, though some of
her children have left her and saddened her soul, yet there is joy in
her heart because of the children she has nourished; there is gladness
in her eyes because of the faith she has preserved; there is
understanding in her soul for she has known the frailty of our flesh,
and how to nourish us back to life. And in these qualities one divines
the reason why Our Blessed Lord chose, not a sinless man like John, but
a weak, frail, fallen man like Peter as His first vicar, in order that,
through his weakness, he and the Church of which he is the head might
sympathize with the weakness of his brethren, be their Apostle of
Mercy and, in the truest sense of the term, the Vicar of the Saviour
and Redeemer of the world who came not to save the just, but the