We know that sin is a reality and that man is a fallen creature. We expect errors and failures from those in leadership positions. No president of the United States is above reproach or without detractors, but this does not mean we should abandon the American experiment. No schoolteacher is perfect, but we do not dismantle the public-school system.
And yet, for some reason, when it comes to the Catholic Church, many of us expect sanctity from our leaders. We see a halo around St. Peter’s head in paintings, so we think his current successor should have one too.
The question of the sanctity of the clergy was front and center in a heresy of the early fourth century after the worst Roman persecutions ever faced by Christians. Known as Donatism, after its founder, Donatus, this heresy taught that clergy who were not in the state of grace could not validly perform the sacraments.
While Donatism in its full-fledged form thrived for only about a century, its heretical shadows have loomed down the centuries. Even today, a sort of descendant of Donatism infects the Church. Today’s version manifests itself in Catholics abandoning the Church because of the failings of its leaders.
People feel betrayed by bishops because of the scandal of clergy sexual abuse; they feel shepherdless because there’s little ecclesial objection to governmental encroachment on religious freedom; they feel that Church leadership is more concerned with appeasement and adapting to the culture rather than teaching the Faith and saving souls; and so they end up leaving the Church. This attitude is akin to the Donatist belief that clergy in a state of mortal sin could not validly perform the sacraments.
Let’s take a look at Donatism as it was when it first reared its head.
Donatism and “traitors”
In the first few centuries after the death of Jesus, the Roman Empire, which reigned supreme throughout the Mediterranean region, continued to expand its sphere of influence. In order to protect its interests, the Empire crushed any movement it deemed a threat to its prestige and the power of the emperor. This included Christianity.
The Emperor Diocletian (r. A.D. 284-305) oversaw the last great Roman persecution of Christians as well as the most brutal. In the decades before Diocletian’s reign, the rights of Christians were increasingly trampled, and they were under threat of imprisonment or even execution if they did not offer sacrifice to the Roman gods.
These policies were enacted inconsistently across the Empire, but in an edict on February 24, 303, Diocletian called for a universal persecution of Christians. The persecutions, threats, imprisonment, executions, and forced dislocations of Christians did indeed cause many to abandon the Faith. A wedge was driven between those Christians who apostatized and those who did not.
In 311, a man named Donatus replaced Majorinus as the rival, schismatic bishop of Carthage, in opposition to the valid bishop, Caecilianus. The people of North Africa were fed up with Roman control, and this unrest was beginning to boil over. Donatus utilized the unrest to his own advantage.
Majorinus, the man Donatus replaced, was elected in opposition to the valid bishop of Carthage, who people felt had been too lenient with the so-called traditores, the people who gave in to Roman persecution and abandoned their Faith.
The traditores faced the severest of penalties for failing to cooperate with the emperor’s dictates: imprisonment or death if they did not hand over relics or burn scriptures or renounce their faith or offer sacrifice to Roman gods. The sin of the traditores, apostasy, was seen by many Christians as the most heinous of offenses from which there was no coming back.
When the persecutions ended, a practical question arose: when a priest or deacon was a traditore, could he be allowed to resume his ministry? Of course, with true contrition he could be reconciled to the Church through confession, at which point he would be allowed to return to ministry and to administering the sacraments to the Christian people.
But there quickly arose a group who decried the traditores and insisted that their sacraments were invalid because they had committed blasphemy and denied the Lord. Before long, the Donatists followed this line of reasoning to its logical conclusion, saying that any cleric in a state of any type of mortal sin could not validly effect the sacraments. In fact, Donatists required that anyone who joined their ranks be rebaptized to ensure that they validly received the sacraments.
An ancient city, Carthage was a hub of Mediterranean trade and thus was able to exert influence throughout the region. Donatus was a shrewd, charismatic rhetorician who was able to spread his teachings against the established Church because many in North Africa began to see Catholicism as a form of foreign domination, tantamount to Roman rule. Donatus drew huge crowds when he spoke. He ordained hundreds of priests who spread out and took his teaching around the region, establishing schismatic churches wherever Catholics could be found.
In the nearby city of Hippo, St. Augustine became the primary and most effective defender of the Faith in the face of Donatism, although he was not the first writer of import to oppose this particular heresy (that honor goes to Optatus of Milevis). Augustine debated Donatists in public, defending the sacraments and the authority and unity of the Church, backing up his arguments with scriptural citations and theological explanations. Eventually, the tide turned, and entire congregations (even entire dioceses) of Donatists were reconverted.
The principles of the Donatists have continued to be applied from time to time throughout the history of the Church. While the principles may not always have been so theologically complex, the fact remains that Catholics many times over the centuries have abandoned the Church because they saw the failings of the clergy as an indication that the Church itself had become rotten. People lost faith in the institution, in the clergy, in the “machine,” and this caused them to abandon the Body of Christ.
This is perhaps the greatest sin of these men and one which puts them in serious danger. After all, Jesus said, “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matt. 18:6, cf. Luke 17:2).
The Church goes on
Scripture contains a number of assurances from Our Lord that the Church he established would not yield to error and would persist in the face of heresy and the sins of its members. The most famous example comes from the Gospel of Matthew in Christ’s words:
And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven (16:18-19).
St. Peter, and later the other apostles, are given explicit teaching authority and are assured of the indefatigability of the Church.
This was not a promise that nothing bad would happen, nor that the Church’s leadership would never let down the faithful but that divine assistance would safeguard the Church. “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you” (John 14:26). Later: “When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf” (John 15:26).
The Holy Spirit has been sent among us, constantly breathing life into the Church and preserving it in spite of the sinfulness and failings of so many of its members. Popes, bishops, priests, deacons, religious, laity—all are prone to poor judgment, error, and sin. But the Holy Spirit protects the Body of Christ, the Church.
This brings to mind the famous supposed exchange between Napoleon Bonaparte and a cardinal. Napoleon expressed his intention to destroy the Church, to which the cardinal responded, “Your Majesty, we the clergy have done our best to destroy the Church for the last eighteen-hundred years. We have not succeeded, and neither will you.”
Jesus even selected Judas, the most infamous traitor in all of history, to be one of the Twelve. Judas was present during Christ’s ministry; he there at the Last Supper, at the institution of the Eucharist, at the ordination of the apostles. And yet he betrayed Jesus and his brethren. Does this mean the whole Christian experiment should have been abandoned from the start?
Even St. Peter—the rock upon whom Jesus said he would build his Church—abandoned Our Lord in his hour of need and denied even knowing him. After Our Lord’s resurrection came one of the most beautiful and touching stories of forgiveness contained in all of Scripture:
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” A second time he said to him, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep” (John 21:15-18).
Peter committed the same sin as the fourth-century traditores: he denied the Lord out of fear for his own life. Jesus approached him and gave him an opportunity to proclaim his love three times, repenting for his threefold denial in the courtyard of the high priest.
If Peter can be forgiven, can’t the traditores? And if Peter and the traditores can be forgiven, we must pray for those leaders who let us down today and trust that—and work so that—the Church will continue on as ever.
So why not leave?
It comes down to the failings and sins of individuals, not of the Church itself. It can be hard to separate the two in our minds: King Louis XIV said, “L’etat c’est moi” (“I am the State”), but that is not how institutions work, and certainly not divine institutions. The individuals who head our institutions—civic, religious, academic, whatever kind—are not themselves the institutions.
We are not Catholic because of the people in the Church. We are not Catholic because of Jorge Mario Bergoglio; or our pastor, Fr. O’Malley; or Sr. Maria Teresa; or anyone else. We are Catholic because Jesus Christ, the incarnate second Person of the Blessed Trinity, established his Church on Earth and under the protection of the Holy Spirit called upon the Church to safeguard the truth, administer his grace through the sacraments, and work to save souls.
We are all sinners; none are perfect. Expecting not to be let down by the Church’s leaders will lead only to disappointment. The head of the Body of Christ, Jesus, is perfect, and nothing can change that. No matter what the pope or the bishops or anyone else does, the Church is the Body of Christ.
It is understandable (and perfectly reasonable) to have righteous anger at the sins of the Church’s members, especially when those sins endanger the souls of others. But it would be sinful for us to let that anger turn into despair and hopelessness—especially if because of our emotion we choose to abandon the Church established by Christ.
We’ve all heard the phrase “God writes straight with crooked lines.” It’s a cliché, but it’s true nonetheless. God can bring the greatest blessings out of the most horrible situations. The most perfect example is Christ’s Passion and Resurrection. Judas’s betrayal led to
the death of Jesus Christ. And yet we commemorate this on “Good” Friday. We all know why that Friday was good: through Christ’s death, and his resurrection on the third day, he saved us all from our sins, broke the chains of death, and opened the gates of heaven.
All of which is to say: the sins of members of the Church do not take away from the fact that Christ established the Church, and it cannot be defeated by Satan and all of his minions, let alone the machinations of sinful men.
If the Church can withstand the failings of its members for two millennia, then the Church is here to stay. And we must not abandon the Church, the Body of Christ, led by the successor of Peter, because of the treachery of a few Judases.