Holiness is a topic about which ignorance abounds and concerning which not much Catholic ink is spilled. It’s also one of the most critical to understand if we’re to have a clear idea of what it means to be Christian.
Holiness is typically taken as a synonym for moral goodness. However, this is only one sense of the word.
Holiness may be understood in three sharply distinct senses: the ontological, the moral, and the ritual. The one definition that is critical to all three is this: holiness is the clear distinction of one from many. To be holy is to be unique, to be set apart from what is common, imperfect, or wicked.
Ontological holiness is firstly God in Himself. God is essentially holy. His nature is the basis upon which holiness rests. All definitions of the holy depend on God as their reference point. Ontological holiness is also that state of being of being a partaker in the Trinitarian life and indelibly marked as a Christian or a priest. This holiness is imparted in baptism, confirmation, and sacred ordination. It cannot be blotted out by anything whatever, and it constitutes a Christian as definitively set apart forever.
Ontological holiness is fortified by the other sacraments – namely, confession, unction, and matrimony, and the Holy Eucharist is He Who is its end. The sacraments are the sine qua non of participation in that holiness without which no one will see the Lord. This is one of the central elements of the authentic gospel, and it is the sure foundation of the virtue of hope for those of us who believe.
Moral holiness is goodness in human acts and is a result of ontological holiness. It is the conformance of our behavior and our character to God, resulting in us being a new and different sort of people. The heart of moral holiness is the virtue of charity. God is charity, a charity that is firstly Trinitarian and secondly Christological, for God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that we might burn with the charity of the Holy Ghost.
Moral holiness is the witness we give to the reality of the change effected by God in baptism. To the extent that it is present, sin has no place. Moral holiness also urges us to do not only what is right, but what is respectful, prudent, and honorable, discerning what is perfect in all circumstances.
Like ontological holiness, moral holiness is central to the proclamation of the gospel. To it Christians are called so as to be made ever more perfectly the members of Christ.
Finally, there is ritual holiness, which is the consecration of people, places, and things exclusively to God. Consecration imparts an invisible character and signifies that character by physical means.
In baptism, all three senses of holiness are present: the catechumen is ontologically changed; he is infused with the charity whereby moral holiness arises; and, importantly, he is consecrated in the sight of all as the temple of the Holy Ghost.
In every sacramental or liturgical act, the Church segregates certain things from among common elements. The host and the chalice are consecrated as holy to the Lord from the moment they are placed on the altar. The altar is the throne of God and the place of sacrifice; it is no longer just a table. The sanctuary is where God dwells and is the image of Heaven on Earth. It is no longer a mere portion of a large room. The nave is for the use of Christians in the worship of God; for no one else and to nothing else is it so reserved. The narthex is that point at which the world is transformed into the church.
Ritual holiness is neither new nor superfluous. It has been the defining identifier of the Church since Abraham, who by his singular journey to the land of promise signified his call to be God’s own. It is also the defining characteristic of the Mosaic covenant, which with its elaborate rites not only foreshadowed the blood that speaks better things than Abel’s, but also consecrated Israel as holy to the Lord.
Ritual holiness creates hierarchy and exclusivity. It says, “This far, and no farther.” It does not respect all equally. It creates divisions. It implies moral absolutes. It is therefore at enmity with the modern mentality, just as surely as it is at the heart of Catholicism.
These are foundational principles from which many implications can and ought to be drawn. The Church is constituted in, called to, and consecrated in holiness. Holiness is the reason she exists; it is her origin and destination. It is the light with which she lightens the world, the salt whereby she seasons it, and the bait whereby she catches souls. It is Christ, living and moving in His mystical Body. May we all come to realize just how essential holiness is to all of us individually, and especially to the life of the Church.
Jonathan Pierre Cariveau is a Minnesota native and a convert to Eastern Catholicism from Evangelical Protestantism. He writes on Eastern Catholicism, Church history, liturgical theology, and Catholic life in the 21st century.