The Church Is a Whore, But She Is Our Mother

If you've read a good deal in theology you've heard the phrase "the church is a whore, but she is our mother."

If you haven't heard this phrase, well, I bet the title of this post really grabbed your attention. 

The quote is often attributed to St. Augustine though, as best I can tell, this is a mistaken attribution. The better source seems to be Dorothy Day. Dorothy once wrote:
“As to the Church, where else shall we go, except to the Bride of Christ, one flesh with Christ? Though she is a harlot at times, she is our Mother.”
Not exactly the oft-cited quote, but close.

Can anyone offer illumination on the source of the exact quote? Or should we assume the quote comes from Day, albeit modified?

The whore imagery of the quote has some issues. I've written a bit about this imagery in the bible. My main problem with the image is that when sexual promiscuity is being discussed men are the better exemplars. For example, in a recent meta-analysis examining gender differences in sexuality Peterson and Hyde noted that, while the genders aren't as different as we might think, men do tend to be more promiscuous. Their conclusion:
Despite the small gender differences found in this meta-analysis, the results indicate that men typically report more sexual behaviors and more permissive sexual attitudes than women. In particular, the current study indicated that men are more likely than women to report casual sex and permissive attitudes toward casual sex.1
Those issues noted, people use the quote "the church is a whore, but she is our mother" to express their ambivalent feelings about the church. The fact is that many of us have love/hate relationships with our churches, our faith communities and our faith traditions.

On the one hand, the quote expresses harsh prophetic critique. The church has often been faithless, hypocritical, corrupt, unjust, abusive, intolerant, and violent.

And yet, on the other hand, the church brought many of us to Jesus. And still does. And for that gift we are grateful.


1. Petersen, J. L., & Hyde, J. (2010). A meta-analytic review of research on gender differences in sexuality, 1993–2007. Psychological Bulletin, 136, 21-38.

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

6 thoughts on “The Church Is a Whore, But She Is Our Mother”

  1. I am a whore I do confess, I put you on just like a wedding dress and run down the isle, run down the isle. I'm a prodigal with no way home. I put you on just like a ring of gold and run down the isle, run down the isle.

    Derek Webb-Wedding Dress

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=53eAvrknuZA


    If the the church is a whore its because I am.

  2. I think the imagery that is used could also be
    looked at in another way than the sexual betrayal aspects. Obviously the church is most often female, viewed as
    the bride of Christ. But "whore" brings up multiple images to me.
    There are male prostitutes and female prostitutes. But I have even heard the
    phrase "you whore" thrown around since high school (Class of 1988!).
    The meaning was simple: To compromise one's principles for personal gain. Being a whore was to betray your principles for cash, to sell out, give in, or sell your soul. I think this phrase illustrates more than "ambivalent feelings about the church." Calling the church a whore is also a scathing indictment of how it often serves itself over others. Whores don't give you anything you don't pay for and churches can be that way at times too.

  3. I know that John Donne likened church attendance to sexual promiscuity in his sonnets. He's certainly not the one who coined the phrase you quoted, but I wouldn't be surprised if Day, or whoever else, was drawing on him.

  4. Then the question begs to be asked, "Wouldn't those who stand outside its walls and shake their heads in disgust at the church's 'performance at perfection' stand amazed if the church with a humble bow said, 'Please forgive us, we have played the whore while casting the first stone"?

    But that will take stepping away from the healthy and embracing the sick, embracing those that the "healthy church" and the politicians who use it claim are polluting their land and way of life, embracing those that the "healthy church" accuses of contaminating their wholesome culture, and in realty, embracing those who have not allowed to be and feel clean.

    The "healthy" run from whores, and that leaves us with those who are just as sick as we, where compassion rules the moment.

  5. I believe it's a paraphrase of a paragraph of Sermon 213. It can be found in Augustine's Essential Sermons:
    "Let us honor her, because she is the bride of so great a Lord. And what am I to say? Great and unheard of is the bridegroom's gracious generosity; he found her a whore, he made her a virgin. She mustn't deny that she was once a whore, or she may forget the kindness and mercy of her liberator."

Leave a Reply