The sacred magisterium (teaching office) was a major part of that inheritance, related closely to hierarchy and awesomely close to each of us as we were trained to share in the preaching and teaching functions of the Church—i.e., of the bishops. We were to follow the magisterium of the bishops and the pope; we were to teach what they taught, for they are the authentic and infallible voice of God in the world. Scripture and Tradition were the rivers of revelation, and the hierarchy was the interpreter of both. That sacred magisterium was for practical purposes codified in the creeds, in the acts of the councils, in catechisms, and in the Latin textbooks we used for moral and doctrinal theology classes.
We were taught something of the Donatist controversy in the North African churches in the fourth through eighth centuries. Those “rigorist” bishops criticized their weaker brethren who acceded to Diocletian’s command that they “hand over” their copies of the Scriptures to the imperial inquisitors. The bishops who refused called the faltering bishops “traditores” (traitors, those who “hand over”), declaring their sinful brethren’s sacraments invalid. The Donatist bishops did in fact believe that treachery undercut the ministry of the traitors: how could a coward who “handed over” the Scriptures celebrate valid sacraments and be trusted to teach the truth about God? Clearly he couldn’t.
The response of orthodox Catholics in the “tradition” of Augustine of Hippo was that the sins of priests and bishops did not affect the validity of their sacramental ministry or the truth of their magisterial teaching. After all, God was the cause of grace and truth while the bishops and priests were merely his instruments. The popes could have their mistresses and children and ill-gotten gain, but they were still popes. The point is marvelously clear: the immorality of ministers does not undercut their apostolic ministry.
God bless those Donatist heretics, for by virtue of their error the orthodox church could ply its wares for centuries to come with a clear conscience: its ministers may be traditores, but their sacramental actions remain pure. The church need not be a church of saints. It was, in fact, a church of sinners. Christ makes up for all our leaders’ tawdry failings by the shedding of his blood on Calvary. The sacraments work, no matter the sins of the clergy, for it is Christ himself who works through them. I am far from a Donatist, but I want to urge a course of action on the church that could easily and with some good reason be called heretical, perhaps as heretical as the Donatists themselves.
Pope Francis, in my opinion a mensch and the best thing that has happened to my Catholic Church since the election of John XXIII in 1958, recently warned us against “an immoderate desire for total change without sufficient reflection or grounding,” as well as against a hardline “attitude that would solve everything by applying general rules or deriving undue conclusions from particular theological considerations.” By way of excuse for departing from the pope’s wisdom let me say that the Roman Catholic Church is in a bad way. What is to be done? I know what needs to be done. But if we did it, we’d possibly be in an even greater mess, thus proving Francis right. “The last state of the man would be worse than the first!” (Luke 11:26). I might well be killing Catholicism rather than healing it. I worry about that, but the risk must be taken, so serious is the situation. So radical is the solution that even the pope who knows the situation far better than I do is apparently unable to enact it.
So radical is the solution that even the pope who knows the situation far better than I do is apparently unable to enact it.
Here is the short version of the argument that follows:
The hierarchy of the church has so egregiously harmed its life and reputation that they have in fact abandoned their inherited apostolic status. The font of their sin is their establishment and vigorous support of a clerical monopoly in the church that must be gotten rid of if the church is to continue in its apostolicity and its evangelical mission.
There is a crisis in the ministerial leadership of the churches, including popes, bishops, and priests. The crisis (a time for decision) is far deeper and more widespread than the scandal of child abuse. A Donatist might say that the offending clergy who raped children cannot confect the sacraments. I would not say that. The abuse crisis itself is only one among the many rolling waves of disappointment the popes and bishops have delivered to the laity over hundreds of years and which demand the revocation of their honorific “Successors of the Apostles.” A short list of examples (see Garry Wills Papal Sinsfor a fuller list) includes:
The Reformation, a monstrous sin in the sixteenth century that tore the churches from communion with one another, was the responsibility of the clergy on both sides. They turned proposals of needed reforms into a struggle for power over souls. In splitting the churches they violated the prayer of Jesus for the unity of the disciples (John 17). (For an account of these events read Diarmaid MacCulloch’s The Reformation: A History).The antimodern crusades of the nineteenth-century popes and their refusal to contribute to the building of the “modern world.” Unable to shake the vestiges of a dying medieval Christendom, the Church (bishops and popes) failed their people (the church) by pitting themselves against threatening “evils” such as democracy, freedom of the press, and a thoughtful lower clergy.The failure of most church leaders to counter the beast of the German war machine and its industrialized murder of Jews, gypsies, male homosexuals, and millions of Polish and Soviet citizens. A sin of omission perhaps, but surely the worst in the history of the hierarchical church.The vicious hounding of theologians by several twentieth-century popes, from the condemnations of the modernist priests in the early years of the century under Pope Pius X to the despicable procedures of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under orders from John Paul II and Benedict XVI.The sexual assault on children and young people by clergy, from priests and religious to cardinals, and the consequent hierarchical cover-up, plagues that have spread across the universal church and in some places continue unabated.The resistance by two popes to the impetus and possibilities of reform of church life suggested by the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965) insofar as they touched on clerical hegemony. Even the council itself, for all its good work, remained thoroughly clerical.The failure of the clerical leadership of the church to face up to the shrinking numbers of ministers and the rapid decline in the sacramental practice of Catholics in the West, much of it attributable to the debilitating clericalism of the higher and lower clergy.We could go back to Corinth, listing one crime after another in violation of the peace and unity of the churches as St. Paul did. Few in the leadership today seem willing to draw the bottom line on these age-old problems. Occasionally some are willing to name the condition that promotes the problems. The pope knows and so do many of his own bishops. So do many theologians and commentators. Clericalism is at the bottom of this, they say. Yet while issuing warnings they do little or nothing about it.
If clericalism is the root of the problem, why not cut to the root? Why not a strategic plan to radically de-clericalize the church? There is none on offer, even from the pope himself. He can’t meet the problem because the Church in his view and by tradition is, from the beginning and up to the present disturbed moment, dedicated to the distinction between those who minister and those who are ministered unto. While this distinction arises quite naturally in the world’s religions, in a process sociologists call specialization, the Catholic Church has made something supernatural of it, made the hierarchical structure of the church part of the revelation of God in Christ. Robert Mickens, editor of La Croix International, a Rome-based Catholic daily, says the pope has made clear his aversion to clericalism, which Mickens describes as a “privileged and separate caste mentality of clerics, that they are specially chosen, and they are set apart from rest of people, to rule, to teach, and to admonish.” (See also David Bentley Hart’s description of the early church’s “extremist” bent in the February 27, 2017 issue of Commonweal.) ............