The German historian Ludwig von Pastor, in the midst of research for his monumental 16-volume “History of the Popes,” is famously said to have exclaimed that any institution that could survive such eminently unsuitable leadership must necessarily be of divine origin.
Throughout the 2,000-year history of the Catholic Church, we have had our share of bad popes, bad bishops, and bad priests, to say nothing of the laity.
In our own times, clerical sexual abuse, ecclesiastical mismanagement, and an often conspicuous lack of inspired leadership have led many to wonder aloud why they still affiliate with an institution whose flaws are so apparent. Some, indeed, have chosen to leave, either joining other denominations or abandoning their Christian faith altogether.
I am convinced that this is a sad mistake.
This topic is of more than academic interest to me, since I am a public sinner who has been part of the problem. Having fathered a child while still a priest 17 years ago, I have given my share of scandal and have hurt countless people, beginning with my own family, through my bad choices.
If I am writing this essay now, it is because I believe in redemption and the power of God’s grace, as well as his willingness to make use of damaged and thoroughly inadequate instruments to further his designs.
And where to start, if not at the beginning? During his public ministry, Jesus spent an entire night in prayer with his Father before choosing his Twelve Apostles, the first bishops and the pillars of the Church he sought to found. How is it that our Lord, who knew what was in the heart of every man, selected such manifestly incompetent and defective men as his closest collaborators?
St. Peter, the first pope, denied knowing Jesus when questioned by a serving girl. Judas, entrusted by Jesus with the common purse, was a thief and eventually sold his Lord and master for 30 pieces of silver. In the garden of Gethsemane, when the chips were down, all the apostles turned tail and fled, leaving Christ to face his Passion alone.
I would suggest that, at least in part, Christ’s choice was meant to ensure that the Church could never claim that her greatness stemmed from the moral excellence of her leaders, but only from the one who fills her with his divine life.
Had the Church been founded pure and untainted by human weakness and only later been corrupted by sin and vice, people could have reasonably hypothesized that this was no longer the Church that Christ had willed. This is clearly not the case. This is why the Church is “semper reformanda,” always in need of reform.
This is why the Church ever proclaims that “our help is in the Lord, our God,” and why the prophet Jeremiah insisted, “Cursed is the man who trusts in human beings, who makes flesh his strength. … Blessed are those who trust in the Lord; the Lord will be their trust” (Jeremiah 17:5, 7).
And yet, perhaps paradoxically, Jesus loves this Church as his bride and willed her as the universal sacrament of salvation. He wanted to partner with frail human beings and engage them as co-workers in his vineyard, making us responsible for one another and instruments of his grace.
Catholics have always struggled with the need to approach sinful men as conduits of God’s grace. Why receive the Eucharist from the hands of a priest who is a sinner? Why confess my sins to a man who is probably as bad as I am, or perhaps even worse?
Already in the fourth century, a group of North African Christians known as Donatists argued that Christian clergy must be faultless in order for their ministry to be effective and their sacraments to be valid.
This notion was resurrected again during the Protestant Reformation and the French Revolution in order to discredit the clergy and weaken the witness of the Church and her sacraments.
Responding to the Donatists, St. Augustine famously explained why the sacrament of baptism retained all its efficacy even when administered by a sinner. “When Peter baptizes, it is Christ who baptizes,” he said. “When Paul baptizes, it is Christ who baptizes. When Judas baptizes, it is Christ who baptizes.”
Building on Augustine’s teaching, the Church proclaims one of the most consoling principles in her doctrinal toolkit under the title “ex opere operato,” meaning that the sacraments do not derive their power from the holiness of the minister, but from the holiness of Christ who instituted them and continues to act in his Church.
This does not mean that the holiness of priests is irrelevant — it can and does affect the fruitfulness of their ministry. It does, however, assure the faithful that whenever they approach the sacraments in good faith, Christ guarantees their effectiveness.
None of this should suggest that real, personal holiness is lacking in the Church, either, and this fact should comfort us as well. In the age of the internet, we learn of bad news immediately and insistently, and it can seem overwhelming.
But what of the hundreds and thousands of holy priests, bishops, religious sisters, and lay people who humbly go about their lives in relative silence, never making the front pages of the news? Faithful people doing their job well don’t make the news, but they do contribute to the sanctity of the Church, building her up day by day in holiness.
Great saints often arise when and where we would least expect them. Some of the most notable sainted bishops, for example, came to the fore during pontificates that were not particularly stellar, such as the case of St. Athanasius, St. Ambrose, St. Charles Borromeo, and St. Robert Bellarmine, to name just a few.
When effective Church leadership is lacking, holy priests, religious, and lay people often pick up the slack, rallying the faithful and providing the example and motivations necessary to push forward and renew the Church’s evangelizing mission. The Holy Spirit is ever active, busy wherever we turn.
For those of us who have been delinquent in our duties, theological hope springs eternal as well. As Jesus foretold Peter of his approaching denials, he also offered him the hope of redemption and future fruitfulness.
“Simon, Satan, you must know, has got his wish to sift you all like wheat, but I have prayed for you, Simon, and when you have recovered, you in turn must strengthen your brethren” (Luke 22:31-32).
It was as if our Lord were saying to Peter: “You have been part of the problem, now you must become part of the solution.”
That’s a message all of us need to hear.
Thomas D. Williams is an American theologian living in Rome, and author of 15 books, including “Lenten Meditations on the Sacred Heart" and "Who Is My Neighbor? Personalism and the Foundations of Human Rights.”
SPECIAL OFFER! 44 issues of Angelus for just $9.95! Get the finest in Catholic journalism with first-rate analysis of the events and trends shaping the Church and the world, plus the practical advice from the world’s best spiritual writers on prayer and Catholic living, along with great features about Catholic life in Los Angeles. Subscribe now!