The Catholic Church is too big to fail, too true to flounder, and too divine to collapse. But, the Catholic Church is in need of revival. The multitudes have been deserting the Church for centuries because of the heinous actions of the clergy because we equate faith with the wrong thing, rather person.
The publishing of the McCarrick Report on November 10th has caused a tornado of emotions and conversational whirlwinds among those inside and outside of the Catholic Church. Once again, the church makes headlines and grabs global attention for its flaws and not its grandeur. Here, the flaws abound. Behind and below the massive issues found in the Church is the main and ancient problem: a lack of authentic and intentional faith founded on the person of Jesus Christ.
There is a heresy, an ancient one, named Donatism which can provide a further insight into our present predicament. In the late third and early fourth century Emperor Diocletian unleashed a fierce and ruthless persecution on all Christians under his rule. Church property was taken and all sacred texts were ordered to be burned. Many great martyrs gave their lives during this period, but there were also many lay people and clergy who chose to offer sacrifice to the Roman gods in order to save their lives.
These men and women became known as traditors (traitors) once the persecution had ended. When things returned to some sense of normalcy there was a heretical movement within the Church which became known as Donatism. This group believed that all men, women and clergy who worshipped the Roman gods to save their own skin needed to be, in a sense, removed from the Christian community.
Donatists were so enthralled by the false worship of these fellow Christians that they desired a reform that would keep the “holy ones” in and the traitors out. Much of their focus was keyed in on the clergy who chose themselves over the Lord. Donatism stated that all Sacraments administered by these priests after their betrayal were invalid because of their public idolatry. Primarily they spoke of Baptism, Eucharist and Holy Orders.
If a traditor baptized you, you must be re-baptized. If a traditor had celebrated Mass, the body and blood of Christ was not truly made present. If a traditor bishop ordained a priest, he was not truly Alter Christus. They taught that the power and sacredness of these sacraments were tied up with the holiness, or lack thereof, of the men who celebrated them. St. Augustine would later refute these claims and highlight the action of Christ as the dependent factor upon the efficacy of the Sacraments. The holiness of the priest or bishop is not a factor when it comes to the validity of the Sacrament.
Donatists placed such a high priority on the holiness of the clergy that they neglected Christ; they substituted men for God. Countless articles and statements have been written by priests, bishops, theologians and well intentioned Catholics regarding the decrease in Catholic worship and faith. A majority of them fail to highlight or even mention the person of Jesus Christ.
The masses draw up solutions and programs that sound great, but will never truly fix the issue: lack of understanding that Christ is the one in our tabernacles and the one who acts in the Sacraments. Period. The holiness, or lack thereof of the clergy, cannot decrease the substance of what is offered to us at the Sacrifice of the Mass and in the Sacraments. When we replace looking to God with looking to men, and those men fail us, it ends up dismantling the faith.
The Donatist heresy, like many others, continues to breathe in the Church in implicit ways. We need holy and heroic priests. The formation in seminaries and the acceptance of applicants needs to travel through a high level reform. However, Mass is not made more righteous because a certain priest appears more holy, gives a better homily, or is even easier to understand than the priest from abroad. The Sacraments bestow true graces, and place us in direct contact with the divine because of Jesus Christ.
Temptations will abundantly arise to become so consumed with and wrapped up by the horrible and inexcusable scandal of McCarrick and other prelates that we forget about the person of Jesus. We can never equate clergy, movements, or programs in the Church with Christ because we are straying from the epicenter of salvation just as the world and evil desires.
A possible take away from the turmoil of our times as Catholics: no human—whether clergy, lay, bishop, cardinal, pope or pastor—should impede us from the proximity to and encounter with the living God. There is much to be done in the face of the McCarrick Report, but we are dealing here with ancient problems whose only remedy is an everlasting one: let Jesus Christ be King, and let faith arise.
Photo by Nicolas Peyrol on Unsplash