Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Return of the Donatists?

Every so often, seemingly out of the blue, someone raises the issue of the priest sex abuse scandal, and often with a question or remark to the effect that there is no way that the perpetrators could have so much as even offered a valid Mass. In other words, not even the Holy Spirit can get past the filth those men covered themselves in.

I am sure that these observations are made out of respect for the Eucharist; it seems to be "protecting" the dignity of the Mass to insist that there be a certain level of uprightness on the part of the priest to guarantee a truly "holy" Eucharist. And, of course, no one would argue that because of their call to act "in persona Christi" in the sacraments, priests are called to a more exacting standard. This is precisely why the abuse scandal was so appalling.

Back in the 4th century, many Christians witnessed another kind of priest scandal. During waves of brutal persecution, some deacons, priests and even bishops escaped martyrdom by publicly offering incense to pagan idols, or handing over the Gospel books to the authorities, or simply denying their faith. One bishop even admitted to murdering his nephew as a mode of self-protection! After the threat of persecution passed, these same ministers expected to resume their former roles in the Church--albeit after doing public penance. The very idea contributed to a schism. A group who identified with the noble and eloquent Donatus (hence "donatists") declared that those who had publicly denied the faith had lost everything: they had to be rebaptized, and that any sacraments they might attempt to celebrate didn't even count. In other words, such sacraments were invalid.

It was St Augustine who clarified what was at stake.

As fitting as it is, and as much as the Church should make every effort to ensure that the ministers of the Gospel live what they preach, the minister's personal holiness is an invisible and unverifiable criteria for the validity of the sacraments. Most sins are not as easily identifiable as the abuse of young children or the negligent oversight of bishops. And as other events have also shown, a convincing facade of holiness and high ideals can mask a secret life right out of the sleaziest novels. How could we ever have full confidence that the baptism or confession, or Communion we received was, in fact, the saving work of Jesus Christ among us?

Unless, of course, it is not so much the human minister as Christ who is really acting in the sacraments. Then, although a sinful minister may be heaping sin on top of sin by celebrating the sacraments without being, as is he is required to be, "in the state of grace," those who receive those sacraments still participate in a graced event. Because it is Christ's grace, not the minister's.

Does that mean, as St Paul said, let us go on sinning so that grace may more abound? That is not what the Rite of Ordination implies: "Know what your are doing and imitate the mystery you celebrate.  In the memorial of the Lord's death and resurrection, make every effort to die to sin and to walk in the new life of Christ."

And... that holds just as true for all of us in the pews!