A Pope in Crisis

According to Vanessa Gera of the Associated Press, “An Austrian priest avoids mention of Pope Benedict XVI in his Masses. A Philadelphia woman stops going to confession, saying she now sees priests as more flawed than herself. British protesters call for the pontiff to resign.” Gera continues:

“There’s too many victims, and too much lying from the church about what really happened," said Martin Sherlock, a Catholic newspaper vendor in Dublin, Ireland.

Experts say the church is facing a crisis of historic proportions.

"This is the type of problem that arises really once in a century, I think, and it might even be more significant," said Paul Collins, an Australian church historian and former priest.

Collins, 69, said the abuse controversy was not mentioned by the priest in his own church near Canberra on Palm Sunday, but that the congregation discussed it afterward outside.

"People are outraged really, they’re furious with the complete failure of the church’s leadership and their view would be that we are led by incompetent people."

Everyone, it seems, has an opinion about the Pope’s culpability, and superlatives aren’t lacking. In what follows I’d like to offer a few observations.

Pedophilia on the part of priests is among the most grievous sins imaginable, and to harbor the perpetrators is manifestly evil. Years ago when I worked in the Catholic Church there was a saying on the East Coast, “All roads lead to New Hampshire.” At the time there were over a dozen pedophile priests tucked away in various parishes enjoying refuge. The wickedness of sexually mistreating and exploiting children defies description, and to do so in the name of God is worse still.

True as this is, in the absence of conclusive evidence condemning or exonerating the Pope (and it seems to me that the jury is still out on this question), we would benefit from the Apostle Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 13:7, “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” In other words, biblical love extends to the one in question the benefit of the doubt. This is the appropriate default mode of the Christian—grace-filled, hopeful love. It’s easy to kick a Pope when he’s down, but such a reflex is hardly Christian.

We also learn a lesson about the necessity of personal holiness and, along the same line, what I regard to be a fundamental flaw in Catholic theology—the distinction between the sancti and sancta. Let me explain.

Sancti is a Latin word literally meaning “holy people.” It is often used to describe the personal holiness of an individual. On the other hand, the so called sancta (lit. “holy things”) refers to the sacraments, including the clerical office held by priests. In this office, Catholic priests are thought to possess a sacred power (sacra potestas) given by the Holy Spirit which allows them to mediate divine grace quite apart from their own personal piety (or lack thereof). In the words of the Catholic Catechism:

It follows that "the sacrament is not wrought by the righteousness of either the celebrant or the recipient, but by the power of God." 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 (paragraph 1128).

This is not to say that the Catholic Church is unconcerned with holiness. After all, the catechism asserts in paragraph 893, “The bishop and priests sanctify the Church by their prayer and work, by their ministry of the word and of the sacraments. They sanctify her by their example." Or, in my Mother’s words, when she taught my CCD (Confraternity of Christian Doctrine) class thirty years ago, “Priests are holy men who should be revered.” But what happens when priests demonstrate that they are very less than holy?

The result is expressed by the lady from Philadelphia quoted above who no longer attends confession. And when the pattern of sin is believed to reach the Vatican, even to Peter’s Chair, the faithful call for the Pontiff’s resignation.

I can’t help but wonder if the Catholic Church’s problem is partly due to the sancti/sancta distinction, that is, the separation of personal piety from priestly office, and whether she would benefit from a more biblically chaste view of their relationship, as it says in 1 Peter 3:12:

“For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are open to their prayer. But the face of the Lord is against those who do evil." (cf. Psalm 34:15-16).

About the author

Chris Castaldo (PhD, London School of Theology) is the lead pastor at New Covenant Church in Naperville, Illinois. He is the author of Talking with Catholics about the Gospel and coauthor of The Unfinished Reformation.


  1. The quote from the catechism that “the sacrament is not wrought by the righteousness of either the celebrant or the recipient, but by the power of God,” is a doctrine articulated by Saint Augustine against the Donatists and embraced by protestants as well. It need not lead to any sort of dichotomy between the life of holiness and the holy gifts from God which create and sustain it.

  2. I agree that it need not lead to any sort of dichotomy, but I’m afraid that it often does. For instance, how does one explain the sexual escapades and blatant nepotism of Pope Alexander VI, the infamous Borgia Pope (I have Borgia as a maternal family name so it’s a bit personal I suppose), or the various alcoholic priests I encountered while working in certain unnamed diocese in the US? The explanation that I get from my Catholic friends is the sancti/sancta distinction. In other words, unfortunate as it is, such riotous living is irrelevant to the legitimacy of one’s priestly office. It must be noted, of course, that there is just as much duplicity and sin on the part of Protestants. The difference however is that without the sancti/sancta distinction, we are (thankfully) without this theological rationale to excuse it (we have other forms of rationale no doubt, but we’ll save that for another post).

  3. Chris, I don’t understand your point. On the one hand, you seem to accuse Catholics of conflating holy orders with a life of holiness (“Or, in my Mother’s words, when she taught my CCD (Confraternity of Christian Doctrine) class thirty years ago, “Priests are holy men who should be revered.””), and on the other hand you accuse them of excusing un-holy behavior with the distinction.

    To be quite honest with you, this post, and your subsequent comment, reeks of trying to score theological points in a very uncharitable way.

    You would be quite right to point out that many Catholics have a poorly formed view of the priesthood. It is a pity that the woman in the article was never taught that the reason she confessed to a priest had nothing to do with his personal holiness. The lives of the saints are an example of this. They tend to have gone to frequent confession, and it is very likely that their confessors were “more flawed” than themselves. The quote from your mother is plainly not saying the same thing as the catechism. Hopefully you didn’t mean to imply that it was.

    When you say that “we are … without this theological rationale to excuse it” what do you mean by “excuse it”? Have you gotten the impression that the Church is trying to “excuse” the behavior of evil priests? Or did you mean that the Church “excuses” herself from the attacks of her enemies, that scandal in the priesthood somehow calls into question her teachings? Or did you mean something else? If you meant that the church used this distinction to excuse herself from the claim that bad priests = false church, wouldn’t Protestants do the same thing? When a Protestant leader or pastor commits serious, public sin, wouldn’t it be fair for the Protestant faithful to believe that the personal failings of a wicked leader do not indict the body of their churches’ doctrines?

    Would you please clarify what your point was in this post and your follow-up comment? It may just be me who was confused by it. Maybe you just meant, “I disagree with the sacrament of holy orders,” and I’m sure you didn’t mean to give the impression that this doctrine has a positive correlation to the existence of evil priests. Unfortunately, it almost sounded like you were criticizing the Augustinian principle of ex opere operato.

  4. Thanks Stephanie. Sorry for sounding snooty and uncharitable. As I mentioned in my follow up comment, we Protestants have our own theological rationales in need of attention.

    I see how my quotation of my Mother confused the point. What I meant to convey in her comment about revering priests is that Catholic faithful expect their priests to be holy.

    I suppose that I am criticizing ex opere operato, at least the Catholic application of it. In Scripture the gospel message is inherently powerful (Rom 1:16) apart from the spiritual disposition of the person who proclaims it (Phil 1:15-18). At this point there appears to be a form of ex opera operato—the preached message is efficacious apart from human agency. However, the idea that a priest continues to operate in holiness by virtue of his ordained office when his conduct is actually characterized by sustained, egregious sin, is an idea that, in my view, is foreign to Scripture (and also to reason). This was why I quoted 1 Pet 3:12 which also appears in Psalm 34:15-16. The integrity of a man or women really matters *for the way that person operates in ministry.* This last phrase is the point where I disagree with the Catholic tradition and, quite honestly, believe that she has a basic theological error. It is at this precise point that Catholics seem to find “an excuse.” To be sure, Catholics don’t aim to excuse sin as though the transgression is okay. But, as I listen to my Catholic friends work out this theology and practice, I hear them saying that morally compromised priests are just as effective in ministering the sacraments as pious ones on account of their ordained office, or, if you will, because of ex opere operato.

    As for Protestants, we have just as much of a sin problem, gross forms of sexual misconduct, and the like, tragically; but there is a difference. Because we don’t apply ex opera operato to the minister, in terms of an unassailable office, there is no category for legitimizing one’s ministry under such circumstances. Such a person is entirely disqualified. This, however, can’t be said of Catholic clergy.

    Perhaps “excuse” is not the best word. Certainly, Catholics don’t intend to excuse sin. But when ex opera operato is applied to one’s officiating of the sacraments, and it’s done *in a sacramental religion* the wedge between the sancti and sancta begins to function more as an (unintended) rationale that excuses sin than one that honestly exposes it. … in my humble opinion.

    Thanks again Stephanie, Chris

  5. Thanks very much for your clarification, Chris. Maybe I’ve been misinformed, but don’t “sacramental” Protestant churches, like Lutherans, Methodists, and many Anglicans, also hold to the principle of ex opere operato when it comes to the administration of their sacraments? That is, don’t they teach that their baptisms and eucharists are still “valid” even if the minister of the sacrament is evil? If so, wouldn’t your critique be more fairly aimed at sacramental religion in general rather than the Catholic Church? I understand that the Catholic Church is the one in the headlines now, but I doubt that there is much of a difference between either the Catholic Church and Protestant communities when it comes to the abuse problem, or between “sacramental” Protestant communities and non-sacramental ones. I could be wrong, though; I’ve never seen a study done that compares cover-up of abuse between sacramental and non-sacramental Protestant communities. Blessings, Stephanie

  6. Stephanie,

    May I interject a Lutheran perspective? Lutheran Theology is indeed sacramental and embraces the Augustinian teaching on sanctus/sancti and ex opere operato. There are, however, a couple distinctions. According to a Catholic encyclopedia, “Sacramental rites are dependent on the Church which established them” and ex opere operato is defined thus: “Grace is always conferred by a sacrament, in virtue of the rite performed.” In Lutheran theology the Word of Christ is emphasized as the power and virtue by which a sacrament is valid and efficient, not by the instituted church nor by the ordination of the officiant, nor by the performance of the rite alone (unless the “rite” is first defined as being pregnant with the Word).

    A second distinction is that Lutherans do not consider ordination or confession/absolution to be sacraments. These two sacraments are the ones at issue most often when discussing the ministry of an evil priest.

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