Casta Meretrix: An Essay on the Eccesiology of St Ambrose by Cardinal Giacomo Biffi, foreword by Fr Peter Joseph (St Austin Press, 2000, 64pp, RRP $17.20 plus $4.40 postage. Available from Ignatius Press, (07) 3279 7415)
Much has been made this year of the "Confession of sins and asking for forgiveness" by Pope John Paul II on 12 March of this year, in which he asked forgiveness for mistakes made by Church members. In his introduction, Fr Peter Joseph of Vianney College, Wagga Wagga, argues that the distinction must be made between the Church, which is the mystical body of Christ and spouse of Jesus, and its members. Whereas the latter are sinful human beings who can do great wrong, even in the name of the Church, the Church itself is sinless.
Some scholars who argue that the Church is sinful have contended that the Church Fathers, through the use of the phrase "casta meretrix" or "chaste prostitute", believed the Church to be sinful. In his study of the ecclesiology of St Ambrose, Cardinal Giacomo Biffi, Archbishop of Bologna and member of the Sacred Congregations for the Clergy, Catholic Education and Evangelisation of Peoples, responds to this assertion. He argues that the only Church Father to use the phrase was St Ambrose, and then only once. If we look at the phrase in its context, St Ambrose was using it to highlight the Church's holiness and sinlessness: the Church is a "chaste whore, since many lovers frequent her because of the attractions of love; yet she is free from the contamination of sin" (p. 22).
Cardinal Biffi continues his reflections, focusing particularly upon St Ambrose's use of the image of the Church as the Bride of Christ, found in the New Testament. He argues that, given the Church's relationship to Christ, particularly in his mission of redemption, "it is necessary for anyone who is persuaded, under the guidance of the Word of God, that all salvation and all sanctification issue into the world from the Church, to believe in her beauty and her sanctity" (p. 36).
The Church, argues the Cardinal, sanctifies sinful people and in a certain sense, shoulders responsibility for the sinner. Nevertheless, it is her sons and daughters who are sinful, not mother Church.
The publication of an English translation of Casta Meretrix is timely, given not only the debate about the "Confession of sins and asking for forgiveness", but also in the light of the publication of Dominus Jesus, which focuses on the nature and mission of the Church.