In the ensuing days before a Conclave gathers to elect a new pope the Church is being wracked with scandalous revelations. These pertain to the alleged misbehavior of Cardinal Keith O’Brien, of Scotland, a report of a highly placed homosexual cabal in the Vatican bureaucracy and the poor administrative judgment of Cardinal Roger Mahoney, former Arch-bishop of Los Angeles.
As disturbing as these improprieties are and the organizational dysfunctions they have unveiled, they do provide us with an opportunity to reflect on Catholic ecclesiology and sacramental theology which rely on no man for their validity.
It is important to remind Catholics that the head of the Church is Jesus Christ. He is the one perfect priest who is in heaven. The Body of Christ is here on earth. It is comprised of all the baptized, ordained and lay persons who share in His priesthood. This includes the pope, the hierarchy and the lower clergy who are all fraught with human weaknesses and failings.
Christ was well aware of our fallible human nature. St. Peter is a prime example of how easily we humans can fall from grace. This being so, Christ instituted a Church that could provide its members with forgiveness and helps to sanctity.
Firstly, regarding ecclesiology; it is important to know that the Deposit of Faith, the truths about God and His Church were not compromised by those entrusted with their proclamation. And, even if this were so, the indefectibility of the Church, which preserves her from error in doctrine, would prevail. This means that even if humans err in the teaching of faith or morals, this includes the Pope; the Church herself always preserves orthodox teaching. Infallibility only makes the Pope a conservator of that which the Church always taught and believed.
Secondly, as to the sacramental life of the Church; the sacraments remain effective despite the unworthiness of her ministers. God can convey his graces even though the most corroded conduit, the most sinful of ministers and inept administrators. As long as the matter and form are correct the sacraments are valid.
Institutionally the Church has weathered storms greater than the current crisis. One need only read of the corruption she endured during the Middle Ages and of course during the Renaissance. Many popes and bishops throughout Church history have led less than exemplary lives. However, all of these less than shining episodes with their sordid perpetrators, sad and sinful as they were, have always led to purification.
Is it possible that the current crisis is a prelude to the new evangelization Pope Benedict has been calling for? By stepping aside is Benedict giving way for a more vigorous Pope to bring about the necessary renewal?
It is unfortunate when our leaders let us down. However, it is a reminder to us that our salvation is in God and not in men. Our Catholic ecclesiology and our sacramental belief should stand as a constant reminder of this. Recall that Jesus instructed the people “The scribes and Pharisees occupy the chair of Moses. You must therefore do what they tell you and listen to what they say; but do not be guided by what they do; since they do not practice what they preach.” (Mt. 23:1-4)
We have all heard the old canard “I don’t go to Church because those who go are all hypocrites.” But, the fact is, that’s why most of us do go. All of us, priests and laity need God’s grace because we are weak and sinful. We all fall far short of what we profess. Most of us are not saints yet; this includes the hierarchy.
We must remember our faith is not in the Pope, the bishops or the priests, who may and have sometimes let us down, but in Christ. He will never let us down!
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