Sacraments and scandal in the Church

Are sacraments administered by clergy who were later removed valid?

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by Fr. Hugh Vincent Dyer, OP

Q Dear Father:

In the wake of the recent scandals in the Church, I’m wondering about sacraments that accused clergy administered before the Church removed them from active ministry or laicized them. Are all of these sacraments still valid? — Anonymous

Dear Anonymous:

Thank you for your question. It is, in fact, a very old question. The Church faced this question most famously in North Africa in the fourth century. Historians call this the Donatist controversy. In those years, the Church still faced periodic persecutions and many suffered greatly for the faith either through torture or martyrdom. Some North African bishops had handed over sacred books to the Roman authorities out of fear. This enraged Christians who held sacred the memory of the martyrs who had persevered and died for their faith in Christ.

Following the persecution, some bishops who had been counted as traitors were reconciled to the Church. When one of these bishops ordained men to the priesthood, some wondered if they could be validly ordained because this bishop had been a weakened traitor during the persecution. As with all controversies in the world, people took different sides with mixed motives. One of our greatest temptations is to have power and control. So certain bishops were held up as purer because they had not been guilty of handing over the holy books. Those who believed the traitors could not be reconciled to the Church and could not offer valid sacraments came to be called Donatists.

The Donatist controversy continued for more than 100 years, with the Donatists claiming bishops, priests, and lay people as followers. Officially, the universal Church supported a generous mercy for penitent bishops, to the annoyance of the Donatists. The Church has always held that the sinner can be forgiven, even if he has sinned greatly.

The power of Christ is stronger than sin

In the third eucharistic prayer, we hear the priest say these words: “On the night he was betrayed … .” Here we might first think only of Judas who betrayed the Lord to the authorities, but we must remember that, in the Garden of Gethsemane, the apostles who accompanied Jesus fell asleep. Moreover, St. Peter denied even knowing Jesus because he was afraid. A spiritual writer once challenged his readers to recall that the Blessed Mother would have even prayed for Judas. The tragedy of Judas was that he lingered in the shame of his sin, unlike Peter who returned to the Lord to be healed by mercy.

The Church, following her founder and Lord, does not desire the death of the sinner, but that the sinner turn back to God and live. Similarly, the elder son in the parable of the prodigal son (see Luke 15:11–32) is called to rejoice in the conversion of his brother over his self-satisfaction with his own fidelity. At the heart of life is the merciful heart of Christ.

During the Donatist controversy of the fourth century, St. Augustine articulated the Church’s understanding as to why sacraments, even when performed by an impure and sinful priest, are in fact valid. The priest, when performing the sacramental rites — for example, offering Mass — does not receive power through his own holiness but from the person of Christ himself (in persona Christi capitis)whom his priesthood serves. The efficacious priesthood belongs to Christ on behalf of the members of his mystical body, the Church. Jesus Christ exercises this priesthood through men who are ordained bishops or priests. The sacraments are safe and not subject to the lack of holiness and weakness of a particular priest by the fact that it is the power of Christ through the action of the Holy Spirit who makes use of the priest.

Sin causes scandal and sadness in the Church, and we pray — as Our Lady often asks us to — for the conversion of all sinners. Sinful priests can hurt the Church in many ways, just as the sins of any of her members can hurt. The power of Christ is stronger than sin, and sin cannot overthrow the power of Christ acting through weak, resistant human instruments, just as death could not destroy him. When a priest is laicized, he no longer serves as an instrument of administering the sacraments; prior to this he is a valid instrument administering valid sacraments. Please remember to pray for priests and bishops.

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