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Penitential Solidarity

By Mac Stewart

About six months ago, I was walking down a busy street in Washington, D.C., wearing my clerical collar. As I came to an intersection and waited to cross the street, a car sped around the corner where I stood. The window was down, and as the car accelerated through the turn I found myself for a split second face-to-face with the driver. With an icy, emotionless stare, he said, “Priests are pedophiles,” and drove off.

The series of news stories in the last few weeks about clerical sexual sin has been utterly devastating. One can hardly read the details of the Pennsylvania grand jury report without wanting to fall down in disgust and cry out to heaven for vengeance. My encounter with that driver was well before these stories came to light, but of course his vitriolic insult reflects the sad fact that these latest stories are by no means the first time such reports have surfaced.

It would be cheap and self-deceptive of me to attempt to distance myself from the wounds caused by these sins by distinguishing myself as an Episcopal priest over against the Roman Catholic offenders in the spotlight. For one thing, even if that driver had been interested in a rational conversation (he clearly was not), I doubt that explaining that my round collar meant I am an Episcopal priest would have made much of a difference to him. Nor should it, in this case, given that the Anglican Communion has its lamentable share of clergy sex abuse. What such an encounter should bring home to me is not a desire to differentiate myself, but a sober recognition that the sins of the Church’s members, especially those members authorized to represent her, amount to one of those burdens that all the Christian faithful are compelled to bear together (cf. Gal. 6:2).

St. John Paul II said about the crimes of Catholic priests during the Rwandan genocide in the 1990s that “[t]he Church in itself cannot be held responsible for the misdeeds of its members who have acted against evangelical law.” In one sense this is no doubt true. It is theologically defensible — indeed, essential — to affirm that the graces God grants through the ministry of Mother Church are entirely independent of the moral worthiness of those who administer those graces (see Article 26).

In a specific sense the Church remains a spotless bride though all her members, even her ministers, be wretched adulterers. Her eschatological purity is brought forward in the down payment of the Holy Spirit mediated through the sacraments. Those who labor in the sphere of ecumenical relations, especially between Anglicans and Roman Catholics, want for good reason to nuance or thicken the old juridical notion of sacramental validity, but we should be mindful that the traditional conditions given for valid sacraments are so important exactly because they are so minimal: all you need is the right material, the right words, and a minister who intends to do what the Church does. You don’t need a saint, in other words. Any old sinner will do.

On the other hand, precisely as the Mother of the Christian faithful, the Church does in fact “make herself responsible for the sin of her children by virtue of the solidarity that exists among them through time and space because of their incorporation into Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit.” The 1999 text of the International Theological Commission, “Memory and Reconciliation: the Church and the Faults of the Past” (§3.4), from which this idea comes, was prepared by CDF Prefect Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in anticipation of the Jubilee Year 2000, in which John Paul II provided an important balance to the emphasis of his earlier comment on Rwanda by making a formal public apology for the past sins of the Church.

The ITC document quotes St. Augustine — “The Church as a whole says: Forgive us our trespasses!” — and St. Thomas — “To be a glorious Church, with neither spot nor wrinkle, is the ultimate end to which we are brought by the Passion of Christ. Hence, this will be the case only in the heavenly homeland, not here on the way of pilgrimage, where ‘if we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves’” (“Memory and Reconciliation,” §3.3). In this way, it reinforces the point that there is no part, class, order, or subsection of any particular members or collection of members within the Church that itself preserves her promised eschatological purity.

Underlying this is the conviction that there is a deep and even uncomfortably intimate bond of all the baptized with one another such that we necessarily, not as a matter of aspiration but as a matter of reality, bear one another’s burdens, even as we also share one another’s holiness.

Thanks to the bond established by the Holy Spirit, the communion that exists among all the baptized in time and space is such that in this communion each person is himself, but at the same time is conditioned by others and exercises an influence on them in the living exchange of spiritual goods. In this way, the holiness of each one influences the growth in goodness of others; however, sin also does not have an exclusively individual relevance, because it burdens and poses resistance along the way of salvation of all and, in this sense, truly touches the Church in her entirety, across the various times and places. (ibid.)

Thus St. Ambrose can give this warning, which is also quoted in the document: “Let us beware then that our fall not become a wound of the Church.” The sins of her members wound the Church: they wound her enjoyment of the perfect peace of truth and righteousness, and they wound her credibility in the face of an unbelieving world.

The document points out, with hope, that the effects of holiness on the Church are greater than the wounds inflicted by sin and that the hidden influence of the saints in the marvelous economy of God far outweighs and conquers the hideousness of sin. A key element in that holiness, however, is confession and penance. The Church is obliged, as John Paul II said in Tertio Millenio Adveniente, “to express profound regret for the weaknesses of so many of her sons and daughters who sullied her face, preventing her from fully mirroring the image of her crucified Lord, the supreme witness of patient love and humble meekness” (§35).

Pope Francis and others are rightly leading the whole wounded Church in this corporate confession of sin amid abuse discoveries. But every Christian — by no means only Roman Catholics — may join him in this act of corporate penance, and the pope welcomes it: “I invite the entire holy faithful People of God to a penitential exercise of prayer and fasting, following the Lord’s command.” This seems to be a good opportunity for that touchstone ecumenical principle that John Paul II so often emphasized, an ecumenism of personal and communal conversion.



  1. I have no bonds to the horrible sins of the Church. I believe the bishops should all resign for their sinful failure in leadership. What a horrible thing that has happened. Every guilty priest that is still alive ought to be in jail. Every bishop that knew about it and covered it up ought to join him.


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