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Casta Meretrix: The Church as Harlot

In his provocative essay, "Casta Meretrix," ("chaste harlot"--included in the volume, Spouse of the Word; Explorations in Theology II. Ignatius, 1991), Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, a friend and colleague of both Pope John Paul II and Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI), looks at the use of the image of the church as harlot in the Fathers of the Church and in medieval Catholic theologians. He sets the stage with his introductory sentences.

When Luther dares to equate the Roman Church with the whore of Babylon, it strikes us as the height of blasphemy. But he was not the first to coin the phrase. Similar things can be found in Wycliffe and Hus, and their language was not a complete innovation but the violent simplification and coarsening of a very old theologoumenon. This in turn has its origins in the Old Testament, in the words of judgment spoken by God, the betrayed Husband, against the archwhore Jerusalem, and in the New Testament's application of these texts, which are so fundamental to the old (p. 193).

In the Old Testament, we're probably most familiar with the image of God's people as a whore in the book of Hosea; the foundations for this lie in Exodus 34:14-16, where "playing the harlot" is used in reference to following after the idols of the Canaanites. Hosea is not alone in expanding the theme, as it also appears in Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel.

In the New Testament, unfaithful women feature prominently in the Gospels, not only in stories of forgiven women who became faithful disciples, but also in the women included in the genealogies of Jesus.

One of those, Rahab, was the subject of much reflection in the early Church. She was an ancestor of Jesus, and was used as both an example of justification by faith (Hebrews) and justification by works (James). In contemporaneous Jewish writings, she represents the Gentiles who would be joined to the people of God; she is regarded as a prophet, and one who shows that good works can save. Among the fathers, Clement sees the cord she let down as a symbol of the blood of the Paschal lamb and of the blood of Jesus. Justin Martyr regards her house, like the ark and the Paschal lamb, as a symbol of salvation. Hippolytus goes further, making her house a symbol of the Church. Origen builds upon all of these allusions and sees "the transformation of Rahab from whore to holy Church as the engrafting of the Gentile Church into the Jewish Church" (p. 216). He also coins the phrase, "outside Rahab's house, the Church, no salvation" (p. 217). This was the basis for Cyprian's maxim, extra ecclesiam nulla salus. Jerome: "Rahab, the justified whore, contains us" (p. 217).

The use of the figure of Mary Magdalene by the fathers parallels their use of Rahab.

Most of the texts referring to Rahab and Mary Magdalen stress the transition in time: once she was a whore; now she is a saint. Secondly, they place special emphasis on the Gentile Church: once she played the harlot with idols; now she is chaste and faithful to Christ (p. 225).

Origen and Augustine see the figure as having continuing relevance. Said Augustine, referring to the story of the two women arguing over the dead child before Solomon,

The two women are the synagogue and the Church. ... Both were harlots, for the Apostle says that Jews and Greeks are all equally in a state of sin, for any soul that turns away from eternal truth to indulge in earthly filth goes whoring away from God. ... But one mother woke up and realized, not by her own merits, for she was a harlot, but by God's grace, that a son had been given her--the work of evangelical faith. ... Yet both were harlots, because all had been converted from worldly lust to the grace of God (pp. 225-226).

Rabanus Maurus says, similarly,

There can be no doubt that the Scriptures call both the synagogue and the Church adulteresses and prostitutes. At first sight, this seems blasphemous, but then we turn to the prophets. ... The attentive listener will ask how a prostitute can represent the Church, who has neither spot nor wrinkle. But we are not saying that the Church remained a prostitute, but simply that she used to be (p. 226).

But not all the fathers confine the image to the past. "For St. Augustine and the exegetes who follow him, ... the really pure Church is an eschatological concept" (p. 227). For St. Dionysius the Carthusian,

She is always both "spotless Church" and "disfigured Church", always both "virgin" and "harlot", for "the whole, through the diversity of its parts, can get conflicting names". "Thus the Church is called disfigured, estranged, bloodless, or whorish with regard to believers without charity or good works, yes, those who have been befouled by vice, whose souls are not brides of Christ but adulteresses of the devil" (p. 227).

So it is possible to speak of the Church as harlot also in the sense of the unfaithfulness of its members, including through heresy (pp. 238ff) and through sin (pp. 244 ff)--in particular, the sins of teachers and leaders of the Church. And, says Origen, sometimes the heretics can be holier in life than the leaders of the Church.

The prudent person is not tricked by the heretics' meekness into accepting their teaching, and my sins do not cause him to stumble. He considers the dogma, concerns himself with the faith of the Church. He recoils from me in horror, but he accepts the teaching ... (p. 252).

In the story of Tamar, there is no prostitution, but Tamar appears in the form of a harlot (pp. 264ff).

There is something about the essential form of the Church ... that is reminiscent of sin, conditioned by sin, something that in the present context always means infidelity and fornication. And yet it is not guilt but assimilation to the form of the sinner assumed by her head. ... She is closest to Christ when she assumes the same kenotic form. ... ... [W]e must say that the forma meretricis adheres so closely to the Church that, having been, so to speak, in its final aspect transfigured and rendered harmless, it becomes one of the marks of the Church of the New Covenant in all the beauty of her salvific mystery (pp. 271-272).

Now in the middle ages, as we saw at the beginning, various individuals and groups who were critical of the papacy and Catholic teaching identified the Catholic Church with the whore of Babylon in Revelation--but so did Catholic thinkers like Dante and William of Auvergne (pp. 193-198). In Purgatory, Dante sees the Church as a carriage, in which Beatrice sits. Its form changes over the centuries; it is attacked by an eagle (Roman persecutions), a fox leaps out of it (early heresies), the eagle covers the carriage (Constantine's patronage).

Finally, emerging from the carriage, come the seven heads and ten horns of the Beast of the Apocalypse: the Church appears as a monster. In fact, the whore of Babylon herself replaces Beatrice in the carriage and flirts with a giant (the King of France), who out of jealousy abuses her and finally abducts her: Avignon becomes the Babylonian captivity of the Church (p. 194).

So, how could Catholics see the Church as the Babylonian harlot? Von Balthasar finds the solution to this puzzle in Augustine's understanding of the Church as a community of wheat and tares (pp. 275-276).

For Gerhoh of Reichersberg, the spirit of the city of God coexists in the Church with the spirit of Babylon, and the latter can erupt at any moment. The Church can become a victim of a Babylonian captivity by heresies within, by corrupt clergy, and by Christian rulers who tempt her to simony (p. 277). The Church's hope and salvation is in conformity to her head, in clinging to Christ, in always adopting the posture of a penitent (p. 279).

For all the realists among the fathers and the medieval theologians, the persistence of sin and sinners means that the purity of the Church must be an eschatological reality. The Church prays, "forgive us our trespasses," and will until the consummation. Until then, said St. Isidore of Seville, "the one and only house of Rahab, the one and only Church, ... remains as a whore in Jericho" (p. 285).

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