“Ex Opere Operato”
A Convert’s Reflection on Church Scandals

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“…the sacraments …are efficacious because in them Christ himself is at work: it is he who baptizes, he who acts in his sacraments in order to communicate the grace that each sacrament signifies…. This is the meaning of the Church’s affirmation49 that the sacraments act ex opere operato (literally: “by the very fact of the action’s being performed),[emphasis added] i.e., by virtue of the saving work of Christ, accomplished once for all.  It follows that “the sacrament is not wrought by the righteousness of either the celebrant or the recipient, but by the power of God.”50 From the moment that a sacrament is celebrated in accordance with the intention of the Church, the power of Christ and his Spirit acts in and through it, independently of the personal holiness of the minister.”[emphasis added]
—Catholic Catechism, 1127, 1128

A Convert’s Qualms

When I came to the Catholic Church some 23 years ago, I did so in spite of some misgivings. (I should add, that after deeper study I found that these misgivings were not altogether justified.)   Among these qualms were the treatment of Jews during Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition, the Galileo Affair, the doings of the Renaissance Popes (Medicis and Borgias), and what I thought was the Church’s requirement for a literal interpretation of Creation according to Genesis.  Nevertheless, these misgivings paled, as I realized that Christ had truly risen, and, if the New Testament was to be believed not only in the account of the Resurrection, but in other matters, the keys of the kingdom had been given to Peter.  Christ’s Church is the Catholic Church.

Since that time I have learned that priests are human and thus subject to human faults and frailties.  I have respected almost all of the priests I’ve known as a convert, liked—qua persona—most of them, and tangled with two on ecclesial matters (writing some angry letters, before I came to realize—as a Benedictine oblate—the necessity for humility). I have known several of the priests mentioned in the Pennsylvania Grand Jury’s Report, not personally or well, and I was much surprised and saddened to see their names listed.

In thinking about these scandals and about the reactions of higher ecclesial officials (including that of Pope Francis), I try to maintain a respect for their positions as priests, bishops, and pontiff, even while my intellect is telling me they are either fools, liars, or some combination of both.   My wife (who has her graduate degree in Medieval History and is an expert on the Albigensians) has told me that history gives a perspective  on the current situation that enables one to keep from getting one’s knickers in a twist. (Not her exact words, but a version more suitable for a family friendly article.)

So, let’s look at history and see how our current situation ranks compared to the past.

A Historical Perspective of Misdeeds in the Church.

The Catholic Church is an institution I am bound to hold divine — but for unbelievers a proof of its divinity might be found in the fact that no merely human institution conducted with such knavish imbecility would have lasted a fortnight.
—Hilaire Belloc: a comment made to William Temple and quoted by Robert Speaight in The Life of Hilaire Belloc.

I saw this quote first in a recent comment on an article in this blog.  Queen Kristina of Sweden said much the same when questioned about her conversion to a Church so full of misdeeds. Let’s see what the internet tells about the Church’s “Bad Popes.”  (See here and here for a more complete account.)

  • Pope Stephen VI (896–897), who had his predecessor Pope Formosus exhumed, tried, de-fingered, briefly reburied, and thrown in the Tiber.
  • Pope John XII (955–964), who gave land to a mistress, murdered several people, and was killed by a man who caught him in bed with his wife.
  • Pope Benedict IX (1032–1044, 1045, 1047–1048), who “sold” the Papacy.
  • Pope Boniface VIII (1294–1303), who is lampooned in Dante’s Divine Comedy
  • Pope Urban VI (1378–1389), who complained that he did not hear enough screaming when Cardinals who had conspired against him were tortured.
  • Pope Alexander VI (1492–1503), a Borgia, who was guilty of nepotism and whose unattended corpse swelled until it could barely fit in a coffin.[3]
  • Pope Leo X (1513–1521), a spendthrift member of the Medici family who once spent 1/7 of his predecessors’ reserves on a single ceremony.

Now there are many other instances of a culture of worldliness and corruption by priests and monastics.  It would take a much longer article than I could write to discuss all these.   Rather, I will list the saints who attempted to reform the Church and monastic orders (I’ll admit the list is by no means complete):

These saints founded monastic orders in which a simple life, austere and devoted, could be followed in the footsteps of Christ.  Do we need new religious orders such as these?

Summing Up, Ex Opere Operato

The catechism quoted at the beginning of this article assures me that even though the priest who consecrated the Eucharist I am about to receive might be in a state of sin, his consecration was valid and effective, so that I will truly consume the body and blood of our Lord.  (Note: this doctrine stems from the reforms of the monk Hildebrand, later Pope Gregory VII.) The history I have read tells me that  some of those in high places in my Church were sinners.  But do I not see myself as the sinner with his head cast down, praying in the Temple, rather than the proud, sinless Pharisee? And did not Peter deny our Lord three times?  Our Catholic Church is a Church of forgiveness AND repentance, a Church that has survived sinners and will do so in the future.

More to explorer

The Turkey Pardon

One of the daffier aspects of Thanksgiving in these United States.  Presidents have received formal Thanksgiving turkeys since Harry Truman.  Both Truman

16 Comments

  1. Pretty sure the doctrine goes back to Cyprian of Carthage and has its origins in the Donatist schism.

  2. “Our Catholic Church is a Church of forgiveness AND repentance, a Church that has survived sinners and will do so in the future”
    Forgiveness only with repentance. There are no child molesters in the Catholic Church. Once consented to, the criminal excommunicates himself from the Body of Christ. Unrepentant, the criminal stays excommunicated from the Body of Christ.
    Outlaws are outlawed by their own power of attorney, by their own Justice.

  3. “This is the meaning of the Church’s affirmation49 that the sacraments act ex opere operato (literally: “by the very fact of the action’s being performed“),[emphasis added] i.e., by virtue of the saving work of Christ, accomplished once for all. It follows that “the sacrament is not wrought by the righteousness of either the celebrant or the recipient, but by the power of God.”
    This is where Martin Luther went off the rails. Luther taught that unless the communicant believed in the Sacred Species as he received The Holy Eucharist, the communicant did not receive the Sacred Species. Luther gave a general indult to unrepentant sinners to approach and receive the Holy Eucharist without risking eternal damnation.

  4. Bl John Henry Newman, with his unrivalled knowledge of the Fathers, has a very good summary of the debate in the early church over heretical baptism.

    “The imperial See of Peter, ever on the watch for the extension of Christ’s kingdom, understood this well; and, while its tradition was unfavourable to heretical ordination, it was strong and clear in behalf of the validity of heretical baptism.

    Pope Stephen took this side then in a memorable controversy, and maintained it against almost the whole Christian world. It was a signal instance of the triumph, under Divine Providence, of a high, generous expediency over a conception of Christian doctrine, which logically indeed seemed unanswerable. One must grant indeed, as I have said, that he based his decision upon Tradition, not on expediency, but why was such a Tradition in the first instance begun? The reason of the Tradition has to be explained; and, if Stephen is not to have the credit of the large and wise views which occasioned his conduct, that credit belongs to the Popes who went before him. These he had on his side certainly, but whom had he besides them? The Apostolical Canons say, “Those who are baptized by heretics cannot be believers.” The Synods of Iconium and Synnada declare that “those who came from the heretics were to be washed and purified from the filth of their old impure leaven.” Clement of Alexandria, that “Wisdom pronounces that strange waters do not belong to her.” Firmilian, that “we recognize one only Church of God, and account baptism to belong only to the Holy Church.” “It seemed good from the beginning,” says St. Basil, “wholly to annul the baptism of heretics.” Tertullian says, “We have not the same baptism with heretics; since they have it not rightly; without, they have it not at all.” “Then may there be one baptism,” says St. Cyprian, “when there is one faith. We and heretics cannot have a common baptism, since we have not the Father, or the Son, or the Holy Ghost in common. Heretics in their baptism are polluted by their profane water.” St. Cyril says, “None but heretics are re-baptized, since their former baptism was not baptism.” St. Athanasius asks, “Is not the rite administered by the Arians, altogether empty and unprofitable? He that is sprinkled by them is rather polluted than redeemed.” Optatus says, “The stained baptism cannot wash a man, the polluted cannot cleanse.” “The baptism of traitors.” says St. Ambrose, “does not heal, does not cleanse, but defiles.”

    Expedience is an argument which grows in cogency with the course of years; a hundred and fifty years after St. Stephen, the ecclesiastical conclusion which he had upheld was accepted generally by the School of Theologians, in an adhesion to it on the part of St. Augustine.”

  5. I have known several of the priests mentioned in the Pennsylvania Grand Jury’s Report, not personally or well, and I was much surprised and saddened to see their names listed.

    Remember the document is only that they have been accused– sometimes after death, and in at least one case of assault after death. We know that at least some of the accusations are true because they were criminally charged and jailed with no evidence of funky business, and from the firestorm of reactions we can tell there is a BIG FREAKING PROBLEM here with a lack of chastity to put it mildly, but that doesn’t mean all accused are guilty.

    **********

    As far as the effectiveness of the sacraments… I keep reminding myself that Judas worked miracles while he was stealing from the petty cash and even though he betrayed Christ. Himself made His view on how holy a priest has to be to work wonders, who am I to argue with Him?

  6. “Bl John Henry Newman, with his unrivalled knowledge of the Fathers, has a very good summary of the debate in the early church over heretical baptism.”
    While this may be true for baptism, even an illicit Mass brings forth the Sacred Species. The Sacred Species received unworthily brings condemnation on the recipient.

  7. “…proof of its divinity might be found in the fact that no merely human institution conducted with such knavish imbecility would have lasted a fortnight.”
    Also, what institution on Earth would Satan work harder to destroy than the Church? And yet, here we are. Another piece of evidence that the Church gets some divine help.

  8. The Jew Converted to Christianity by Going to Rome
    By Giovanni Boccaccio (1313–1375)

    AS I, gracious ladies, have heard said, there was in Paris a great merchant, a very good man, who was called Gianotto di Chevigné, a man most loyal and just, who had a great business in stuffs, and who had a singular friendship with a rich Jew named Abraham, who also was a merchant and also an honest and loyal man. Gianotto, seeing his justice and loyalty, began to feel great sorrow that the soul of so worthy and good a man should go to perdition through want of religion, and on that account he began to beg in a friendly way that he would abandon the errors of the Jewish faith and become converted to Christian truth, in which he could see, being holy and good, that he would always prosper and enrich himself; while in his own faith, on the contrary, he might see that he would diminish and come to nothing. The Jew replied that he did not believe anything either holy or good outside of Judaism; that he in that was born and intended therein to live, and that nothing would ever move him out of it.
    Gianotto did not cease on this account to repeat after a few days similar exhortations, showing him in a coarse manner, which merchants know how to employ, for what reasons our faith was better than the Jewish; and though the Jew was a great master in the Jewish law, nevertheless either the great friendship which he had with Gianotto moved him, or perhaps the words which the Holy Spirit put on the tongue of the foolish man accomplished it, and the Jew began finally to consider earnestly the arguments of Gianotto; but still, tenacious in his own faith, he was unwilling to change. As he remained obstinate, so Gianotto never ceased urging him, so that finally the Jew by this continual persistence was conquered, and said:—“Since, Gianotto, it would please you that I should become a Christian and I am disposed to do so, I will first go to Rome and there see him whom you call the vicar of God on earth, and consider his manners and his customs, and similarly those of his brother cardinals; and if they seem to me such that I can, between your words and them, understand that your religion is better than mine, as you have undertaken to prove to me, I will do what I have said; but if this should not be so, I will remain a Jew as I am.” When Gianotto heard this he was very sorrowful, saying to himself: I have lost all my trouble which it seemed to me I had very well employed, believing that I had converted this man; because if he goes to the court at Rome and sees the wicked and dirty life of the priests, he not only, being a Jew, will not become a Christian, but if he had become a Christian he would infallibly return to Judaism.
    Therefore Gianotto said to Abraham:—“Alas, my friend, why do you desire to take this great trouble and expense of going from here to Rome? By land and by sea, even to a rich man as you are, it is full of trouble. Do you not believe that here we can find one who will baptize you? and if perchance you have still some doubts as to the religion which I show you, where are there better teachers and wiser men in this faith than there are here, to immediately tell you what you want to know or may ask? On which account my opinion is that this voyage is superfluous: the prelates whom you would see there are such as you can see here, and besides they are much better, as they are near to the chief Shepherd; and therefore this fatigue you will, by my counsel, save for another time,—for some indulgence in which I may perhaps be your companion.” To this the Jew replied:—“I believe, Gianotto, that it is as you say to me; but summing up the many words in one, I am altogether, if you wish that I should do what you have been constantly begging me to do, disposed to go there; otherwise I will do nothing.” Gianotto seeing his determination said, “Go, and good luck go with you;” but he thought to himself that Abraham never would become a Christian if he had once seen the court of Rome, but as he would lose nothing he said no more.
    The Jew mounted his horse, and as quickly as possible went to the court of Rome, where arriving, he was by his fellow Jews honorably received; and living there without saying to anybody why he came, began cautiously to study the manners of the Pope and the cardinals and the prelates and all the other courtesans; and he learned, being the honest man that he was, and being informed by other people, that from the greatest to the lowest they sinned most dishonestly, not only in natural but in unnatural ways, without any restraint or remorse to shame them; so much so that for the poor and the dissolute of both sexes to take part in any affair was no small thing. Besides this he saw that they were universally gluttons, wine-drinkers, and drunkards, and much devoted to their stomachs after the manner of brute animals; given up to luxury more than to anything else. And looking further, he saw that they were in the same manner all avaricious and desirous of money, so that human blood, even that of Christians, and sacred interests, whatever they might be, even pertaining to the ceremonies or to the benefices, were sold and bought with money; making a greater merchandise out of these things and having more shops for them than at Paris of stuffs or any other things, and to the most open simony giving the name and support of procuration, and to gluttony that of sustentation: as if God, apart from the signification of epithets, could not know the intentions of these wretched souls, but after the manner of men must permit himself to be deceived by the names of things. Which, together with many other things of which we will say nothing, so greatly displeased the Jew, that as he was a sober and modest man it appeared to him that he had seen enough, and proposed to return to Paris.
    Accordingly he did so; upon which Gianotto, seeing that he had returned, and hoping nothing less than that he should have become a Christian, came and rejoiced greatly at his return, and after some days of rest asked him what he thought of the Holy Father, the cardinals, and the other courtesans; to which the Jew promptly replied:—“It seems to me evil that God should have given anything to all those people, and I say to you that if I know how to draw conclusions, there was no holiness, no devotion, no good work or good example of life in any other way, in anybody who was a priest; but luxury, avarice, and gluttony,—such things and worse, if there could be worse things in anybody; and I saw rather liberty in devilish operations than in divine: on which account I conclude that with all possible study, with all their talent and with all their art, your Shepherd, and consequently all the rest, are working to reduce to nothing and to drive out of the world the Christian religion, there where they ought to be its foundation and support. But from what I see, what they are driving at does not happen, but your religion continually increases; and therefore it becomes clearer and more evident that the Holy Spirit must be its foundation and support, as a religion more true and holy than any other. On which account, where I was obstinate and immovable to your reasoning and did not care to become a Christian, now I say to you distinctly that on no account would I fail to become a Christian. Therefore let us go to church, and there according to the custom of your holy religion let me be baptized.”
    Gianotto, who had expected exactly the opposite conclusion to this, when he heard these things was more satisfied than ever a man was before, and with him he went to Notre Dame of Paris and requested the priest there to give Abraham baptism: who, hearing what he asked, immediately did so; and Gianotto was his sponsor and named him Giovanni, and immediately caused him by competent men to be completely instructed in our religion, which he at once learned and became a good and worthy man and of a holy life.

  9. “As far as the effectiveness of the sacraments… I keep reminding myself that Judas worked miracles while he was stealing from the petty cash and even though he betrayed Christ. Himself made His view on how holy a priest has to be to work wonders, who am I to argue with Him?”

    Please cite the scriptures that specify Judas performing miracles. Yes, I am aware that the scripture cites unbelievers trying to cast out demons in Jesus’ name & being physically attacked by the demon possessed person. But I am not aware of any citations that specify Judas performed miracles. Jesus said that Judas was a demon from the very beginning.

  10. “While this may be true for baptism, even an illicit Mass brings forth the Sacred Species. The Sacred Species received unworthily brings condemnation on the recipient.”

    Mary, I have come to believe that it is the joint faith of those assembled & the individual participating in the Eucharist which results in the supernatural strengthening of the mass participate. When I approach the Eucharist in mass, I pray before receiving it and say, again, to the Lord that with His strength & enabling that I am going forward with Him in the Faith through the next week.

  11. “Mary, I have come to believe that it is the joint faith of those assembled & the individual participating in the Eucharist which results in the supernatural strengthening of the mass participate. When I approach the Eucharist in mass, I pray before receiving it and say, again, to the Lord that with His strength & enabling that I am going forward with Him in the Faith through the next week.”
    The Sacrament of Holy Orders imparts to the priest the power to transubstantiate the Sacred Species through the Holy Spirit. Listen closely at Mass and hear the Priest call down the Holy Spirit. All persons, the Church Triumphant in heaven, the Church Militant on earth and the Church Suffering in purgatory are in the Sacred Heart of Jesus on the altar after Consecration. The community all draws sustenance from Jesus Christ.
    Community, if they are reverent and respectful, share in our joy in being present and assisting at Mass, that is, praying with the priest.
    All people are a Blessing from God but only the priest may say Mass and transubstantiate the Sacred Species. Religion is man’s response to the gift of Faith from God in thought, word, deed and peaceable assembly. Religion is man’s intimate and private relationship with his Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier.
    If you were the only sovereign person ever made in the image and likeness of God, Jesus Christ would have come down from heaven and died on the cross for you.

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