Many Catholics were outraged last week when the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops failed to take action to address the clergy sex abuse crisis. Almost as soon as the bishops convened in Baltimore, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, the conference president, announced he’d received a letter from the Holy See instructing the conference not to vote on measures that would bring greater accountability to bishops. Instead, they were told to wait for a synod on the crisis that Pope Francis will host in Rome in February.
The news went down like a lead balloon. For some Catholics, it was more than they could bear. Melinda Henneberger, a columnist for USA Today and former Vatican correspondent for The New York Times, announced she was leaving the church. Addressing the bishops directly, she wrote: “After a lifetime of stubborn adherence on my part and criminal behavior on yours, your excellencies, you seem to have finally succeeded in driving me away.”
Henneberger doesn’t make an argument for why she’s leaving, she just says she’s had enough. Like several other Catholic journalists who recently left the church over the sex abuse crisis, her implication is that because so many bishops and cardinals are morally compromised, the church itself isn’t worthy of allegiance or affection.
Tempting as that conclusion might be, Henneberger and the others are giving in to an old heresy, which, like all heresies, keeps coming around in new guises. In this case, it’s a version of Donatism, the notion that for prayers and sacraments to be valid, the clerics administering them must be blameless. As a practical matter, Donatism presents the obvious problem that it’s impossible to find a blameless cleric.
But as a doctrine, it presents yet more serious problems. When Donatism began winning adherents in the fourth century, it drew the ire of Saint Augustine, who famously fought it by arguing that ministers of the sacraments were mere instruments of God’s grace, not its source, which is Jesus Christ.
Henneberger nevertheless has a point about the bishops. I was in Baltimore last week covering their conference, and I can attest that, as a group, they’re unimpressive. Many bishops come across not as vicars of Christ but as spineless, wheedling bureaucrats, seemingly more concerned with their committees and draft resolutions than correcting their brother bishops who have gone astray. Some of them were even annoyed at protesters outside calling for their resignation, as if the suggestion that some of them should step down was ridiculous.
It’s Impossible To Find a Blameless Cleric
But just because some bishops are clueless, or even wicked, is no reason for a Catholic to abandon the church. After all, the church has always been run by sinners—the worst of them almost comically villainous. In the 10th century there was Pope John XII, a murderer and adulterer who ran the Lateran Palace like a brothel, slept with his own niece, blinded his confessor, castrated and killed his subdeacon, and supposedly even invoked pagan gods while playing dice!
The entire history of the church is littered with such characters. One of the worst, Pope Boniface VIII, was still alive when Dante placed him in the eighth circle of hell in his Inferno, in the pit reserved for those who bought and sold church offices (merely one of Boniface’s many sins).
Most Catholics are well familiar with the church’s long history of wicked leaders. Yet with the exception of the Donatists and their modern-day adherents, the villainy of the clergy has never been considered a valid reason to doubt the truth that the church proclaims.
In fact, it was often taken as evidence of that truth. In one of the stories from Giovanni Boccaccio’s 14th-century Decameron, a Christian named Giannotto urges his Jewish friend Abraham to convert. When Abraham says he’s going to Rome to observe the pope and the other leaders of the church, Giannotto, knowing how debauched and corrupt the Vatican is, fears his friend will never convert once he sees the pope and the Roman curia in action. But when Abraham returns, he converts, having concluded that the truth of Christianity must be protected by God with such jackasses running the church.
I can personally sympathize with this view. This past Easter, I was baptized and received into the Catholic Church. Of course, I didn’t know that the summer and fall would bring scandal, and I certainly underestimated the incompetence and cluelessness of the American bishops in responding to the sex abuse crisis. But I knew all about the revelations of abuse and cover-up in 2002, of the failures before and since, and I had no illusions that the church was run by saints.
Had I counted on the blamelessness of the clergy to safeguard my faith in the church, I would’ve had a short run as a Catholic. As it is, I stand by Saint Augustine’s assertion that the validity of the sacraments doesn’t depend on the worthiness of its ministers but on Jesus Christ himself, who comes to us through those sacraments—whether the man administering them is a saint, a criminal, or merely a jackass.