Sinful Priests and Sacred Mysteries

“‘Sir, did you not sow good seed in your field? How does it have tares?’ He said…‘An enemy has done this.’ The servant said, ‘Do you want us to go and gather them up?’ But he said, ‘No, lest while you gather up the tares you also uproot the wheat’” (Matthew 13:27).

In light of the recent pedophile priest scandals one might wonder why the matter of validity has not been raised. In simple terms, can a sinful priest sanctify the Holy Eucharist? Are baptisms and other sacraments he performs authentic expressions of the works of the Holy Spirit? That was a problem centuries ago, especially in northern Africa. For ages Islam has dominated that region of the world, and Christianity has been suppressed; however, it once was among the leading regions of Christianity. These Christians thought deep about matters of faith.

In the fourth century, at the time when converts appeared in great waves into the Church, the standards of faith and morals dropped appreciably. The non-Latin natives of the region held to strict rules, especially in regard to the standards of the clergy. These Donatists as they were called demanded that the priests and bishops who performed the sacred services be worthy of their role; in a word, free from personal sinfulness, as much as it is possible for any person to be so. They were led by a bishop of Carthage named Donatus (313-355). The Latin Catholics protested this stringent qualification. The Donatists were upset because in the recent persecutions of the Church, still fresh in their minds, certain bishops had willingly handed over the Holy Gospels to the agents of the emperor Diocletian, that last and cruelest enemy of Christ.

The renowned bishop of Hippo in Africa, Augustine, among the most famous and brilliant theologians of Christianity, opposed the argument of the Donatists. He insisted that there is no pure Church void of all sin. He used the above parable of the wheat and tares to make his point. Good and bad, saint and sinner are all members of the same Church. Of course one might argue that Christ was not talking about the Church in that parable, but of the whole world. In any case, the blessed Augustine’s position triumphed and became the position of the entire Church.

The Donatists made the point that the celebration of the sacraments depended on having somebody worthy of offering them on the altar. Augustine said that’s not true—the sacraments are not the gift of the celebrant, but of Jesus Christ. The celebrant is but a representative, a stand-in for Christ Who is as He promised, “Where two or three are gathered in My Name.” The bishop or priest is a mere channel of the grace that comes from the Lord. The minister is just that; i.e., one who ministers on behalf of the King.

The problem requires not only a canonical resolution, but also a strong dose of common sense. The Donatists have a point—nobody filled with the Holy Spirit possessing the grace of discernment will follow the spiritual directives of somebody who is unable to control his own passions. The Church demands witnesses of courage, martyrs who will give their lives for the Lord. Christ forgives the sinner, but as He told the adulteress, “Go and sin no more.” (John 8:11). But to demand perfection from the clergy would reduce the entire Church to a monastery, and even there one cannot escape Satan’s clutches.

The other extreme is what we find too often—ordained ministers of Christ who disguise their sinfulness behind a white collar or cassock and treat the sacraments as a magical act. This is an old tale repeated throughout the Old Testament and continues even today. It’s why the Lord is repulsed by the sacrifices of unworthy priests: “The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to the Lord” (Proverbs 15:8). And “The sacrifice acceptable to the Lord is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, You will not despise” (Psalm 51:17).