“…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.
- 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):
- Pope Gregory VII (Hildebrandine/Cluniac Reforms)
- St. Robert of Molesme
- St. Francis of Assisi
- St. Catherine of Siena
- St. Teresa of Avila
- St. John of the Cross
- And who would you add, dear reader?
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.