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).

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