In 1535, Henry VIII had Sir Thomas More beheaded for refusing to take the mandatory Oath of Supremacy blessing Henry’s marriage to his mistress Ann Boleyn. Years before, Leo X had given “the Defender of the Faith,” a dispensation to marry Catherine of Aragon, the young widow of his brother Arthur. Almost twenty years later, Henry sought a dispensation from the dispensation. Clement VII refused his request.

Determined to have his way, Henry usurped papal authority and forced the realm to accept his newly-acquired power. Apart from More, Bishop John Fisher, and several Carthusian monks and friars, most took the mandatory Oath of Supremacy. The few resisters were hunted down like animals. Henry’s demand for a divorce was assured as well as the radical revision of Canon Law. With his dissolution of the monasteries, Catholic England ceased to exist.

A Genuine Though Imperfect Holiness

The Church in England needed reform. Thomas More never denied this, but he grasped a key and core principle. The Church’s holiness and moral authority were measured not by the holiness of its leaders, though this was highly desirable, if not expected. He believed in the Church’s holiness because of the invisible yet real and abiding presence of the Holy Spirit as its lifeblood. Jesus had assured the Twelve that the Father would send the Spirit to guide, counsel, and console them in the truth.

The Church’s holiness emerges from its creed, sacramental life, and moral standards. The visible Church is imperfect, but inwardly, the Church of the Spirit is holy. The members are limited, fallible, and often quite sinful in full gaze of the public. This is why the Body needs reform (ecclesia semper reformanda est) so that it can enjoy proper spiritual health. The reformanda never ends.

In the sixteenth century, the sinfulness within the Church posed a problem for Martin Luther, as it did for many others. The issue was not new. A millennium before Luther’ protest, a sect, the Donatists, demanded that the sacraments be administered only by those clergy judged to have the highest and most rigorous standards of holiness. The issue came down to two theological principles: the term ex opere operato (from the work done) and ex opere operantis (from the work of the doer). The former applied specifically to the theology of the sacraments to emphasize that, since God is the chief agent of the sacrament, it can never fail to produce the effect promised in Christ, if it is celebrated under the proper conditions. The second term refers to the actions or merits of the minister or recipients of the sacraments, in contrast to God’s own action in and through the sacraments. The emphasis here rests on the importance of the inner dispositions of human beings.

Today, Catholics expect the formal principle, that of the Holy Spirit, to override the Church’s subjective imperfections. The objective holiness of the Church is a substantive difference between Catholics and Protestants.

Ideal Catholicism and Its Actuality

Living out the Catholic faith lags behind ideal Catholicism. In fact, there has never been a time when the Church has been without stain of sin. Why the disparity between the ideal and the actual?

First, God’s revelation is necessarily accepted in a limited way when brought to the human and the temporal. Wherever the human condition is, there you have limited, narrow, and fallible judgment. But More, Fisher, monks, and friars? All martyrs supreme! At the very end, like More, each could protest with clear mind and pure heart: “I die the king’s good servant but God’s first.”

Average people either reveal God’s truth and grace to the world or conceal or profane it. God has guaranteed that the Church will not fall into error regarding faith or morals, but this guarantee does not extend to every act and decision of church authority. “Reflective Catholics,” writes Karl Adam, “must feel and be pained by the conflict which arises out of the contrast between the sublimity, depth, and power of divine revelation and the weakness of the human, too-human factor” (“The Spirit of Catholicism,” 242ff).

Today through sin and vice, “Christ as he is realized in human history is dragged through the dust of the street, through the commonplace and the trivial, and over masses of rubbish. That is the deepest tragedy, the very tragedy of the Divine, when it is dispensed by unworthy hands and received by unworthy lips” (Ibid, 250).  In short, the perfect revelation of God rests in the hands of God’s imperfect instruments.

Second, the Church, as a visible society, encounters problems of authority and human liberty. Clashes occur between individual charism and personal choice and formal structure, Church law. Though the Church prohibits blind faith and merely external conformity, every Catholic – pope, bishop, priest, consecrated religious, or lay person, is inwardly bound to obey the authoritative teaching of the Church, which echoes the preaching of Jesus. Spontaneous and independent spirit needs structure, and structure needs charism, “the flow of life and experience if it is not little by little to become rigid and crusted over” (Ibid). We are the Church of Peter and Paul; we are the Church of structure and of charism.

Who Is the Holy Spirit?

The Holy Spirit is properly referred to as ‘spirit.’ The word means ‘wind, breathing, breath.’  In its secondary meaning, it refers to the sign of life. When Jesus breathed his last breath, he breathed forth his Spirit, who came formally on Pentecost.

The Holy Spirit is God’s own Self who gives life to the world. It was the Spirit of God who breathed over creation as it evolved into the history of salvation. The Holy Spirit is the creative power and the source of beauty in the world. God’s Spirit flourishes “wherever something new arises, whenever life is awakened and reality reaches ecstatically beyond itself, in all seeking and striving, in every ferment and birth, and even more in the beauty of creation.” (Walter Kasper, “The God of Jesus Christ,” 227)

“The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil.
Crushed.” (Gerard Manley Hopkins)

Our Advocate

The Spirit is our Advocate (Greek: parakletos). Now an advocate is the legal term for a defense attorney, the moral force who is called to help someone in need of counsel and who imparts wisdom and fortitude in us. The Spirit comforts and consoles, supports, prods, protects, pleads, and intercedes for us before the Father. (1 Jn 2:1) Our Advocate is our personal Gift and our personal Giver of gifts.

The Spirit-Advocate also serves as the jury and judge. Upholding the truth (Jn 16:9), our Advocate teaches us right from wrong and helps us interpret the glamour of sin and the deceits of Satan “who prowls about disguised as an angel of light.” (2 Cor11:14;1 Jn 4:1)

Where is the Spirit? The Spirit is at work always and everywhere leading us forward to the eternal, always seeking new ways of bringing forth new fruit. (Jn 16:13)

The Creator-Spirit in a Spiritless Age

“Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.”

Nihilism “is perhaps the most profound crisis of the present time. Since Greek thought and Christian theology, the word spirit has passed through a multiplicity of meanings so much so that we have already arrived at a spiritless condition in which humanity has lost its soul. (Kasper, 198-99)

For many today, art replaces the spirit. But when the word beauty and even its existence are called into question, the contemporary artist cannot possibly carry out the task of art except in the form of criticism, protest, and negation. What happens when the Spirit has been abandoned and separated from the true and the good, as in nihilism? Then the beautiful can only be understood as taking the form of a self-serving ecstasy, an affirmation of the sensuous. If art, equated with the spirit, cannot answer how the transformation of reality is to take place without the Spirit, then no answer is in sight. The Christian message of the Holy Spirit is the answer to the distress of our times, the answer to the crisis of our age. (Kasper, 200)

“And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs –  
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.”
                        (Gerard Manley Hopkins, “God’s Grandeur”)