As the crisis surrounding Cardinal McCarrick and the Vigano letters unfolds, I have not said much. For the most part, my thoughts have already been put out there by others, and to be honest, I’m too tired most of the time to write something fresh. But as I see more evidence that Catholics in the trenches are feeling their faith shudder under the impact of cascading revelations of corruption among Church officials, I think it might be good to review just a couple of basic points of Catholic belief.
Now, let’s be clear: I think the crisis is big. In fact, I am personally inclined to think that a tremendous punishment is looming over the Church, and I am inclined to think that the current crisis is the tip of that punishment. Preparation for next week’s classes required that I re-read the account of Sodom and Gomorrah, and I felt chills run up and down my spine. But still and all, we have to keep our heads. So, two basic points:
1. The validity of a sacrament does not depend on the personal holiness of the priest.
This was hammered out in the Donatist crisis way back in the time of St. Augustine. Jesus has given us the sacraments as channels of grace, and he was not so stupid as to make the efficacy of the sacrament depend on whether the priest is in a state of grace or not. If the sacrament of Baptism depended on the priest’s personal state of grace, for example, then no one could be sure of being baptized. You just can’t know from outward appearances whether a priest is in a state of grace–as we are re-discovering in a rather dramatic fashion.
So even when Cardinal McCarrick was abusing seminarians and doing whatever horrid things he did, the sacraments he celebrated were real sacraments. He himself increased his own guilt by celebrating them, but the people who received the Eucharist from him really did receive the body and blood of Jesus. (I received the Eucharist from McCarrick, so this is not an abstract statement for me.)
2. The pope’s teaching authority does not depend on his personal holiness.
Whatever you think of Pope Francis, to the degree that he engages his papal office, to that degree his teachings have authority. There have been some truly stinky popes in history who nonetheless left us authoritative teachings. Jesus was not so stupid as to make the authority of the Magisterium depend on the state of grace of the bishops.
So yes, Pope Francis has taught some things with real authority. As annoying as it is that Cupich seemed to rank environmental concerns over care for abuse victims, still and all, Pope Francis’s statements about the environment mostly continue and confirm statements made by the two previous popes. The fact that Pope Francis devoted an encyclical to the issue gives real magisterial clout to the Church’s position on the environment.
Surprisingly, Pope Francis has not engaged his authority to any great degree on a lot of divisive issues. Amoris Laetitia has a low rank among magisterial documents, and is easily overshadowed by previous documents. Even the change to the Catechism on the death penalty is a low-level intervention, technically speaking. In theory, Pope Francis could have issued a papal bull with “I define, declare, and decree” and so on and so forth on any issue he wanted, so it is remarkable how little he has actually engaged his authority in this stormy pontificate.
Amidst the real calamity, let’s keep our heads. The crisis does not trace back to Pope Francis: Our Lady of Fatima was warning people to do penance for sexual impurity way back in the nineteen teens. And Jesus knew these kinds of times were coming. Worse times are probably still to come. But let’s keep on frequenting the sacraments and reverencing the authority of the Magisterium. Just because the world has gone crazy doesn’t mean you have to.