On a recent Sunday at Mass, I heard again the words of Mark’s gospel in which Jesus is described as sending out his twelve apostles “two by two,” charging them with bringing the good news, and giving them “authority over the unclean spirits.” Traveling light, as Jesus instructed, the disciples “cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many that were sick and healed them.” This story appears in all three synoptic gospels—not only in Mark 6, but in Matthew 10 and Luke 9 as well.
It may be an indication of how my mind works, but I have thought more than once about the fact that Judas was one of those twelve. The passage in Matthew 10 on Christ’s commission to his apostles is in fact the place where this Gospel lists the twelve apostles by name—ending with “Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.” What miracles did Judas perform, equipped with the authority and power that Jesus had given all of the twelve?
It’s an arresting thought: the miracles of Judas. Surely, we want to think, Christ’s betrayer was incapable of healing the sick by divine power. And casting out demons? He whom “Satan entered” to goad him into betraying Jesus? Surely not.
Yet that betrayal was still a long way off. This early in the gospel narrative, there is no indication that Judas has yet resolved on his ultimate betrayal. Was he always hanging back, doubting Jesus, judging Jesus, never giving him his whole heart? We cannot say. And none of the synoptic accounts of Christ’s sending forth of the twelve, two by two, to preach, heal, and cast out demons, gives us any reason to believe that Judas did not do his part. Who was his partner on the road during this time? Simon the Cananaean (the “other Simon,” not Peter), named in Matthew’s list just before Judas? Perhaps, but we can’t be sure. Did Simon or some other companion do all the healing and exorcism, while Judas was just along to hold his staff? There’s no reason to think so.
Our radical uncertainty about Judas’s character, before that final, fatal kiss at Gethsemane, leads me to wonder whether his is not the first case involving the theological principle ex opere operato—that the validity of the sacraments depends on the objective authority of the priest acting in persona Christi, not on the subjective claim of the priest to be worthy or holy.
Of course Christ only instituted the Eucharist on the night before he died, so maybe we cannot strictly say that any of the apostles tramping the roads in the gospel account was yet a “priest” performing “sacraments.” Yet they were clearly out performing miracles among the people, healing and exorcising. And at every Mass, a miracle takes place among the people, effected by the priest in the liturgy of the Eucharist. This may be said of every sacrament. All are in-rushings of God’s grace and presence into our broken world, making wrongs right and turning the topsy-turvy right-side-up. Only their regularity and frequency cause us to overlook their miraculous character, or to think they are small things rather than great ones.
And from at least the age of Augustine, in his conflict with the heretical Donatists, the Church has insisted that ex opere operato, “by the very fact of the action’s being performed,” the sacraments performed by a priest are valid. As Aquinas put it regarding the Eucharist, “the priest consecrates this sacrament not by his own power, but as the minister of Christ, in Whose person he consecrates this sacrament. But from the fact of being wicked he does not cease to be Christ's minister; because our Lord has good and wicked ministers or servants” (ST III.82.5). Thomas goes on to say that in the extreme case “persons defiled are forbidden to approach the altar; but this does not prevent the sacrifice, which they offer, from being a true sacrifice, if they do approach.”
Which brings me to Theodore McCarrick, who has resigned from the College of Cardinals. By now, the evidence of his sexual predation over many years is piled high. For decades, according to multiple reports, he forced himself on young priests, seminarians, and at least one lay Catholic boy under his authority or supervision. For much of that time, others seem to have covered for him. (It is hard to fathom that it could be otherwise.)
And for all of that time, McCarrick has been a priest of Jesus Christ—baptizing, confirming, hearing confessions, marrying and burying, anointing the sick, celebrating the Mass day in and day out, and, since he became a bishop, ordaining priests. We are not permitted, by the teachings of our faith, to regard any of his sacramental acts as inefficacious. Our priests are not wizards with power to conjure the divine; they are God’s imperfect servants. We must not be rigorists like the Donatists, insisting on spotless ministers of the Lord. If we were, we’d be waiting a long time for valid sacraments.
I have attended just one Mass said by Cardinal McCarrick—a funeral, as it happens—and I do not now recall whether I took the Precious Body from his own hands, or from someone else’s. But the cardinal was the celebrant. He uttered the Eucharistic rite, invoking the miraculous Presence under the form of bread and wine. It happened; Christ was there. Whatever was the condition of the cardinal’s soul, it was entirely irrelevant to the fact of Christ’s Presence. Whatever good the sacrament did me, the variables were on my side, not his. I could receive worthily or unworthily—but Christ was there for me.
And so too, Christ was there two millennia ago as the apostles fanned out in pairs, healing and casting out demons, armed with their Lord’s authority. Judas carried that authority just like the others, even if he was already tortured with his guilty burden of contemplating Christ’s betrayal. Are we permitted to doubt that Judas was the agent of miracles wrought by his master’s power? I don’t think so.
We know what became of Judas; Matthew tells us “he went and hanged himself.” And his eternal fate as depicted in Dante’s Inferno is memorable enough. It is not our place to presume to know what may become of any of our fellow fallen creatures. But it is well to remember, as we reflect on the apostolic succession of our bishops, that one of the original Apostles was Judas. His place among the twelve was taken by Matthias, we are told in the Acts of the Apostles. And the Church rightly understands the apostolic succession as descending from that reconstituted Twelve. No bishop, priest, or religious descends from Judas. But the temptation to be Judas is there in the recesses of every heart. Even for those who, every day, preside over Christ’s miracles in the sacraments.
Matthew J. Franck is director of the William E. and Carol G. Simon Center for Religion and the Constitution at the Witherspoon Institute.