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 and impeccability. 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 against it.

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 thee".

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 men".

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 the 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 not. 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 the 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 sinner.