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I couldn't bear to look at the recently released Vatican report on Theodore McCarrick. And yet the image of his face on the front page of national newspapers kept appearing in my mind, uninvited. What is it about the McCarrick debacle that feels even more devastating than those 2002 Boston Globe articles? Perhaps because in 2002 we were still naïve about how many rotten apples there were in the Church and how far the rot had spread. This apple was the darling of the U.S. media, had charge of one of the most prestigious archdioceses in the country, and was elevated—even after rumors of his egregious acts were widespread—to cardinal. As a drafter of the Dallas accords on sexual abuse, McCarrick seemingly heralded a new day of accountability and trust in the Church. When the news about McCarrick hit in 2018, we were all punched in the gut. And now, two years later, a 449-page report reminds us in graphic detail that we are not on the brink of a new day.

As a theologian, I am grateful to the 4th-century Christians who defeated the Donatists. We wouldn’t be able to see our way through this scandal without the triumph against the Donatist heresy. As a layperson, I am grateful to know fantastic individual priests, but I will never trust the clergy as a corporate body again. As a mother, I worry that my children’s love for the Church isn’t cemented as mine is, so my answers to their eventual “why stay?” questions will sound hollow.

The Donatists maintained that in order for sacraments to be valid, the clergy who preside over them must be free from fault. The Donatists wanted saints rather than sinners to comprise the church. Why are the Donatists so important? I teach my students at Villanova that heresies have an instrumental role to play in the Church—they are marked as unorthodox because they are so tempting. Who isn’t a Pelagian at heart? A 10-point plan for salvation would be so much easier than a belief that faith is an unmerited gift.

I join the Donatists in wanting a priest to be an unblemished saint, presiding over the most holy sacrament of the Church. Receiving the sacrament from someone who had caved under political pressure during the Donatist crisis when others held fast would certainly leave a bitter taste. In his arguments against the Donatists, Augustine maintained that the validity of the sacrament comes from God—ex opere operato—so a minister in a state of mortal sin who celebrates the sacrament of the Eucharist does not taint the effectiveness of the sacrament. God acts through himwith his virtuousness or not, with his clean conscience or not, and sometimes in spite of him. The Eucharist nourishes regardless of the celebrant. It is of no consequence, then, whether the priest be a great preacher, a mediocre sinner, or an apple rotten to his core.  

I remember when the early clergy abuse stories broke out almost 20 years ago. My husband, Michael, and I were recently married, so I had all the illusions of a new bride. The reality of married life emerged just as the window into the clergy scandal was opening. At the time, I was working in a Catholic parish at the University of Michigan and seeing for the first time that even at a “progressive” parish where the staff were considered “team members” and used a consensus model for decision-making, the lack of accountability for the clergy—financial, personal, etc.—was astonishing, as was the fear that the next pastor would tear down what we were building.

Over the last 20 years, I’ve grown into the reality of married life and out of my innocent illusions. The joys of a fruitful marriage are real not in spite of the struggles, but because of them. But though I have also grown out of my illusions about the clergy, I have not found a new relationship to priests as a class. The Church has broken that relationship—not really because of the rotten apples themselves, but rather because of a system of protection and power that enabled someone like McCarrick to ascend in the ranks while fondling young men. The clergy as a corporate body has acted like an unfaithful spouse.  

Finally, the effects of this clerical scandal have made it more difficult for me and my husband to raise our four children in the Catholic faith. Of course, we never encouraged our three boys to become altar servers. But in 2002, I thought the scandal would pass and that my grandchildren would have a restored relationship to the clergy. The lingering effects of this scandal, and each new episode in it, make it difficult for me to convince my children that the Church will be a safe harbor. 

I remember attending a training program for Church volunteers in which we were told that the Catholic Church would be like Johnson & Johnson after the Tylenol scandal: After the poisoning incident, Johnson & Johnson was at the forefront of the movement to protect children from overdose; the company created the seal on the bottle and the childproof cap. In the same way, we were told, the Church would be at the forefront of protecting children from predatory adults. And I believed it.  

To return to the Donatists: I will tell my children that the Eucharist does not disappoint and that the language of the liturgy offers them a vocabulary for living and resisting toxic cultural trends that is on offer nowhere else. And I thank God that the morality of the clergy cannot stain this reality.

Anna Bonta Moreland is the Anne Quinn Welsh Endowed Director of the Honors Program and an associate professor in the Department of Humanities at Villanova University.

Photo by Manitarski via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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