- The Washington Times - Friday, April 23, 2010


This past Easter weekend, the Protestant Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, stated in a BBC interview that the Catholic Church in Ireland is “losing all credibility” because of clergy sexual abuse scandals and the hierarchy’s poor response to past cases. Such a blunt remark from the normally diplomatic head of the Anglican Communion may seem out of character, especially during this ecumenically sensitive age. Yet the fact remains that insofar as public perception is concerned, Archbishop Williams is correct. However, his statement is limited in time and substance.

The Catholic Church’s credibility cannot be judged on the actions of its members, whether they be its hierarchy, lower clergy or laity. If that were the case, Catholics would be justified in seeking spiritual sustenance elsewhere. The fact is, however, that the church has always admitted that her ranks comprise both saints and sinners. Because of this, the church is always in need of reform, or as the Latin Proverb has it, “Ecclesia semper reformanda.” History is replete with examples of church councils, local and worldwide, that were called to address theological error and moral turpitude. The far-reaching Council of Trent (1545-63), for example, was a direct response to challenges posed by the Protestant Reformation. Some Protestant claims of abuse were legitimate, many weren’t, but all of them were addressed by the Council.

The church’s credibility rests on three tenets central to her ecclesiology. First, that the Catholic Church is the true church founded by Christ; second, that the church is indefectible; and third, that despite the sinfulness of her ministers, the sacraments they administer are always valid.

Catholics believe that the deposit of faith, handed down by Christ to the apostles, fully subsists in the Catholic Church. These teachings are the truths concerning God, salvation through Christ and the church’s possession of all the divine aids willed to it by Christ to help humans achieve eternal life.

Because of human proneness to error, the church has been given the grace of “indefectibility.” This is an assurance that despite human weakness, the church will never stray from divinely revealed truth. Pope Benedict XVI recognized the importance of this dogmatic inerrancy when, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he was asked on Bavarian television in 1997 if the Holy Spirit is responsible for who gets elected pope, and this was his response, “I would not say so, in the sense that the Holy Spirit picks out the pope. … There are too many instances of popes the Holy Spirit would obviously not have picked.” In a 2002 interview, he said “that God entrusts himself to such fragile vessels … he still has to support the church himself again and again through these very tools that have proved unsuitable. It is a consolation, on the one hand, that the Lord is stronger than the sins of men.”

Indefectibility is not the same as the much-misunderstood Catholic teaching of papal infallibility, although infallibility is closely related to it. The charism of infallibility may be used by the pope only under certain circumstances when he speaks on matters of faith and morals. Such statements are circumscribed by what the church has always held to be Catholic doctrine found in Scripture and tradition. The pope, in other words, cannot create a new teaching based on a personal revelation or his own preference.

Finally, Catholic sacramental theology teaches that the sacraments are validly administered notwithstanding the worthiness of the minister. In other words, God’s grace is conveyed to His people through them as long as the proper form and matter are used for the ritual or, as its Latin theological expression puts it, “Ex opere operato.” In the case of the Eucharist, for example, the form consists of the proper words of consecration, and the matter is bread and wine. This teaching has always been a great relief for the faithful as well as for the clergy. What a sham sacramental actions would be if humans were the key to their efficacy!

Catholics believe that the above are the supernatural guarantees Jesus gave His church. It is because of faith in these guarantees that the church has survived two millennia and will persevere through this current crisis. This is why the Catholic Church always has been and remains fundamentally credible for Catholics in Ireland and throughout the world, why Catholics stay in the church and why the church will continue to be a viable force in society. After all, Jesus said to the nascent church before His ascension, “I will be with you always, even to the end of the world.”

Father Michael P. Orsi is chaplin and research fellow in law and religion at Ave Maria School of Law.

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