Scandal and Universalism

The title of this post may seem to be an odd juxtaposition, but there is method in my madness.  Bear with me as I explain.  Over the last month I have been following the news of the removal from ministry of retired Archbishop of Washington, D. C. Theodore Cardinal McCarrick in the light of allegations of sexual misconduct.  During this time, I have also been engaged in discussion of this issue on some blogs that I frequent.  One theme that I hear coming up more than once is the loss of faith of many Catholics.  The abuse scandal that broke in 2002 was bad enough, and its repercussions have perhaps not completely played out yet.  Still, many had hoped that the worst was over.  With the revelations about McCarrick, and the repeated mantra that everyone knew about his behavior for decades, and that nevertheless no one came forth publicly even after the revelations of 2002, many have considered this to be the last straw.  “That’s it–I’m out,” is something I’ve heard more than once.

So what does that have to do with universalism?  Well, in order to make the connection, I’ll need to take a look at ecclesiology.  This is the branch of theology that deals with the nature of the Church.  Most simply, in the Catholic tradition, the Church is defined as the Body of Christ.  That is, all baptized persons–practicing or inactive, good or bad, living or dead–are joined together through that sacrament into the Mystical Body of Christ.  For any of my readers who are Catholics, if you’ve ever wondered why the deacon incenses the congregation, this is why.  Incense is a sign of worship, and liturgically indicates the presence of Christ.  Christ is present at the Mass in four ways–in the Scriptures, in the priest (who acts in persona Christi–“in the person of Christ”), most fully in the Eucharist (which is Christ’s Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity), but also in the congregants, who are the Mystical Body of Christ.  Thus, the Gospel, the priest, the gifts to be consecrated, and the people are incensed.

So the Church is the body of all baptized believers; but as detailed by Paul in 1 Corinthians 12, the body has “many members”.  The people who make up the Church fulfill different functions, just as the organs of the body perform different functions, while being part of the same body.  Traditionally, the members of the Church are divided into three broad categories.  The laity, of course–the men, women, and children of the Church-are the vast majority.  Some men and women feel the call to dedicate themselves to God fully, becoming monks or nuns.  These people are collectively known as the “religious” (yes, this is confusing–in one sense, we’re all supposed to be religious; but in this context, the term means vowed monks, nuns, brothers, sisters, hermits, etc.–the details of the subtle distinctions here we will worry about some other time).  Finally, some men are called to serve the Church by serving as leaders and by administering the Sacraments (Baptism, Confirmation, Confession/Reconciliation, Eucharist, Matrimony, Holy Orders, and Anointing of the Sick, for those of you who are non-Catholic, or Catholics who failed CCD 😉 ) to the faithful.  These men–deacons, priests, and bishops–are the clergy or clerics, and they have all received the Sacrament of Holy Orders*.

Now in Catholic theology, the Sacraments are the way in which God and mankind relate to each other.  They are actual channels of grace with real spiritual effects, not mere symbols.  Baptism, for example, actually erases Original Sin (and any personal sin up to the point of baptism, for an adult convert) and incorporates one literally into the Mystic Body of Christ.  Confession actually takes away sin.  The Eucharist is the True Presence of Christ, Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity.  The Sacraments, in short, are the normal means of salvation.  As such, they are not take-it-or-leave-it; they are not optional.  All Catholics must be baptized–without baptism, one wouldn’t even be Catholic or Christian at all.  The Eucharist must be received at least yearly (preferably as frequently as possible) according to the Precepts of the Church.  Confession (also known as Reconciliation) is necessary if one is aware of being in a state of mortal sin, and even if not, should be done at least yearly.

Confirmation is not strictly necessary for salvation in the traditional view, but ought not be dispensed with.  Anointing of the Sick is not mandatory, though it is highly recommended for the sick and especially the dying.  Matrimony is obviously optional–not everyone gets married.  Holy Orders is where it gets interesting.  Obviously it’s impossible for women according to current teaching (which we’ll accept for the purposes of discussion here–I’m not even going to touch women’s ordination in this post).  For men, it’s optional for any given individual, obviously–most men aren’t deacons, priests, or bishops.  Now functionally speaking, a deacon doesn’t do anything a layman can’t do.  He may teach, assist the poor, visit the sick, and so on–but all Christians not only can but should do these things.  He may baptize; but anyone, even a non-Christian, can do so in case of dire necessity.  He may witness a marriage; but in Catholic theology, it is the spouses themselves who confer upon each other the Sacrament of Matrimony–the deacon or priest is technically just a representative of the Church who witnesses and blesses the couple, but does not confer the sacrament.  A deacon reads the Gospel and sometimes preaches at Mass, which functions are not allowed to the laity; but these are liturgical, not sacramental acts.  Thus, the Church could function quite well without having deacons at all.  In fact, for many centuries it effectively did.  With occasional exceptions, permanent deacons–men who were ordained to the diaconate with no intention of going on to the priesthood, but who remained deacons for life–gradually ceased to be ordained in the Middle Ages.  For centuries, the only deacons were transitional deacons–men ordained as deacons as part of the process of becoming a priest.  Only since the Second Vatican Council has the permanent diaconate been reestablished.

Priests and bishops, though, are quite another matter.  Only a priest or bishop can confect (that is, by consecration, making the bread and wine of the Eucharist into the Body and Blood of Christ) the Eucharist, hear confessions, or administer the Anointing of the Sick.  Only a bishop may give Confirmation (a priest is not the ordinary minister of Confirmation, but he can be delegated to do so by his bishop).  Only a bishop can ordain men as deacons, priests, or other bishops.  This is because bishops are held to be the successors of the Apostles, and thus the representatives of Christ on Earth.  The powers given by Christ to the Apostles (e.g. John 20:23) are passed on through the centuries to the bishops (and by them to priests) through the Apostolic Succession maintained through Holy Orders.  Thus, while deacons are essentially optional in the Church, priests and bishops are vital.  While the sacrament of Holy Orders is optional for any given individual man, it is necessary for the Church as a whole.  This is because only priests and bishops can dispense the sacraments which are considered necessary for salvation, and only bishops can maintain the succession of priests and bishops who dispense those sacraments.

Because of this, clerics (the collective term for deacons, priests, and bishops) are necessary to the Catholic Church in a way that ministers of Protestant churches simply are not.  Strictly speaking, from a theological viewpoint, Protestant ministers are optional.  They preach, teach, serve, and exhort–but they do not dispense sacraments.  They may perform baptisms or lead the Lord’s Supper service, but these are not viewed as sacraments in the Catholic sense, and the minister acts on behalf of the community, rather than as one empowered by the authority of Christ.  Certainly, the minister is not held to be a mediator between God and humankind.  Every believer has full access to God with no intermediary needed.  The church is useful as a way in which believers support each other in their faith and help to correct each other; and ministers are useful as leaders of the community; but neither the actions of the minister nor the nature of the church is held to be necessary to salvation.  For a Catholic, though, the sacraments are the ordinary means instituted by Christ and intended by God for human salvation; and the priesthood and episcopate is necessary in order to have the sacraments; and the priesthood and episcopate cannot exist outside the context of the Church.  Thus, in a real sense, the ministerial priesthood (priests and bishops) and the institutional Church, from the perspective of Catholic theology are actually necessary for salvation, full stop.

Therein lies the issue with the scandals I began this article with.  These scandals have been bad enough, of course.  What has made them even worse is that they’ve originated in the hierarchy, have been perpetuated and exacerbated by the hierarchy, and have been covered up–sometimes for decades–by the hierarchy.  Of course, deacons, priests, and bishops are humans, and like any other humans are susceptible to sin and evil, even to a horrendous extent.  As the somber quotation attributed to St. John Chrysostom has it,  “The road to hell is paved with bishops’ skulls.”  Still, this is a bit abstract.  For a Protestant, the ordained ministry is more easily separable from church and faith–it is, in a sense, as we saw above, optional.  In one way, the institutional church is optional.  True, the faithful may be scandalized, even devastated, by errant ministers and institutional cover-ups.  Still, neither the clergy nor the church are as central to the very concept of what it means to be a believer as they are to Catholics.  A Protestant can go to a different congregation or change denominations–though in principle, different Protestant churches have different doctrines, in actual practice in contemporary America, those differences tend to be elided.  A Catholic can certainly leave the Church, of course–plenty have, plenty still do.  Those who do, though, are leaving behind a much larger part of their identity than Protestants who leave their churches.

For those who remain, the situation can be even more difficult.  If the priesthood, the episcopacy, even the institutional Church itself, can’t be trusted, does this then call into question the whole concept of a holy hierarchy instituted by Christ and intended by him as necessary to salvation?  How is one to reconcile the grandiose theory with the all-too-tawdry reality?

An off-the-cuff response would be to say that this is merely a subset of the problem of evil.  In short, when one asks why God allows His own Church to wreak such nastiness, one should back up and ask why He allows nastiness to be wrought by anyone.  It’s certainly worse coming from the Church, but not different in principle from the massive quantities of nastiness in the cosmos at large.  Admittedly, this is a facile answer.  I think that the logical problem of evil can be dealt with.  Still, to someone in great pain or even to someone looking at the cesspool of the Church–or of the world–such arguments may ring hollow.  Such arguments also fail to explain why evil seems to appear in the Church as frequently as in the outside world.

The first systematic approach to this issue is that developed by St. Augustine of Hippo in the context of the Donatist controversy.  Donatism arose as a response to–let’s be blunt–cowardice on the part of many priests and bishops at the time of the last persecution of Christians under Diocletian.  In North Africa, the relatively lenient Roman governors, rather than executing Christians, merely asked that they turn over their Bibles and other holy writings.  Those who did so–including a large number of priests and even bishops–were left unmolested.  Some ten years later, the persecutions ceased and Constantine, who was emperor by then, issued the Edict of Milan, which made Christianity legal and officially accepted.  Now that the heat was off, so to speak, some of the priests and bishops who had handed over scriptures returned to their posts, resuming business as usual.  Many Christians–some of whom had been tortured for not turning over scriptures–were outraged at this.  Those priests and bishops who had turned over books to the authorities were known as the traditores–literally, “those who turned over [the books]”; but if you think the word “traditor” looks a lot like “traitor”, you’re exactly right.

The opposition these traditores received is completely understandable.  The opponents argued that these clerics had failed in their mission as leaders of the faithful.  They, more than anyone, should have stayed firm against even the most grievous persecution; but when put to the test, they failed abysmally.  Why should these cowards continue to have status in the Church as leaders?  Why should anything they did even be considered valid?  As this movement against the traditores coalesced, it came to be led by Donatus of Casae Nigrae, after whom Donatism is named.  The Donatists argued that the sacraments celebrated by the traditores were invalid.  How could holy rites be performed by such unholy men, after all?  The Church responded with the claim that the Sacrament of Confession, with appropriate penance, was sufficient to restore a traditor to grace.

Rejecting this, the Donatists schismed into a separate church which remained active for some two centuries.  There was a large Donatist church in North Africa during the time of St. Augustine, who, as bishop of Hippo (in what is now Algeria), weighed in on the matter.  He developed the idea of sacramental character and the operation of the Sacraments ex opere operato.  In brief, certain sacraments are said to impart an indelible character to the soul.  The analogy Augustine used was the way a seal imparts its form to hot wax.  Baptism, Confirmation, Matrimony, and Holy Orders, according to Augustine, imparted such a character to the soul.  Thus, a person after one of these sacraments is ontologically different, just as the wax takes the image of the seal (Another metaphor–there’s an old Margaret Becker song, “Soul Tattoo“.  That’s actually quite a felicitous metaphor for a sacrament!).  This is why these sacraments are non-repeatable (Matrimony can be repeated, but only after the death of a spouse).  By the same token, if the sacraments impart a permanent character, nothing the person who has received them does can alter this.  He may even go to Hell, but the baptismal, confirmational, or sacerdotal (priestly) character he has received remains.  To switch metaphors–once you add the baking soda to the vinegar, the reaction changes them into something else (carbon dioxide and sodium acetate).  Once the reaction has occurred, you can’t go backwards and get back to the soda and vinegar.

Thus, according to Augustine, a priest or bishop doesn’t–can’t–lose the effects of his ordination, no matter what he does. This is where the saying “once a priest, always a priest” comes from.  In fact, even if a priest is laicized (the popular term is “defrocked”–that is, removed from the priesthood, either voluntarily, because the priest decided he wanted to leave, or involuntarily, by being removed from the priesthood by Church authorities), he is capable of exercising priestly functions in certain conditions.  Even a laicized priest can hear a confession in case of emergency (for example, for a person at the point of death who has no other access to a priest).  This is also why, if a laicized priest returns to priestly ministry (rare, but it happens), he is not re-ordained.  The effects of  his ordination never went anywhere, despite his having left the priesthood.

Alongside the concept of sacramental character, the argument was made that the Sacraments function ex opere operato–“from the action performed”.  A sacrament requires four things to be valid:  Proper minister (usually a priest or bishop, with the exceptions outlined above), proper matter (the right thing is done, e.g. pouring water or immersion in baptism), proper form (the right words are said), and intention to do what the Church intends.  Note that moral status of the minister is not one of these four things.  The sacraments operate purely “from the action performed”.  If a priest properly baptizes a person, or properly consecrates the Eucharist, then that baptism is valid, or the Host becomes the Body of Christ.  No matter whether or not the priest was a traditor, no matter how awful or horrendous his sins might be, no matter whether he may even be in a state of mortal sin at the time, the sacrament is still valid.

This seems as counter-intuitive for us as it probably did for the Donatists, but there is logic to it.  In sacramental theology, the priest or bishop (or layman, in the case of baptism or Matrimony) does not actually confer the sacrament.  He (or she, if a layman) is merely a channel through whom God Himself confers the sacramental grace.  Thus, a deacon or priest may perform the baptism, but is is God acting through him who removes sin.  A priest or bishop may say “This is my body, this is my blood,” but it is God working through him who makes the bread and wine the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ.  God ensures this despite the imperfections, sins, or even corruptions, of the cleric.  Were this not so, then given the sinful  nature of humanity, and the impossibility of knowing the moral status of the minister of the sacrament, no one could ever be certain of the validity of any sacrament.  This would be an intolerable situation.  Without such confidence in the validity of the Sacraments, one would never know whom to trust.  In fact, not long after it came into being, the Donatist sect began to break into ever-smaller sects itself, as a sort of competition for who was morally the most pure immediately broke out.  If human sanctity is required–not just desirable, but required–for efficacious worship, then the ultimate result is the old cliche about the only perfect church being a denomination of one–since everyone else is too sinful!

Thus, theologically speaking, the concepts of sacramental character and ex opere operato protect the validity of the sacraments from the corruption–however egregious–of fallen humans.  The worst and most corrupt clerics–even popes–are still validly clerics who validly maintain Apostolic Succession and who validly dispense the Sacraments.  This is the established solution to the problem of clerical corruption and misbehavior.  Still, though, one has to admit that it sounds remarkably bloodless and tone-deaf in times of crisis.  It’s all fine and well to say that, from a theological perspective, the molester priest still said Mass, heard confessions, performed weddings, and so on, with perfect validity.  If it’s your child–or yourself–who was the victim of that priest, though, this would be small comfort, perhaps no comfort at all.  So much the opposite, it might seem that these doctrines are a self-serving, cover-your-ass way for the clergy to to claim legitimacy and demand obedience no matter how spectacularly they fall, no matter how depraved their actions, no matter how much they collude to keep things under wrap.  One can certainly sympathize with those laity who become fed up, say “enough is enough” and vote with their feet by leaving the Church.

What of those who do leave, though?  The traditional teaching of the Church has been extra ecclesiam nulla salus–“outside the Church there is no salvation”.  This has sometimes been interpreted in very strict terms–Pope Boniface VIII, in his infamous bull Unam Sanctam, states, “We declare, say, define, and pronounce that it is absolutely necessary for the salvation of every human creature to be subject to the Roman Pontiff.”  This is the most extreme view–that only those who are actually official members of the visible Catholic Church can be saved.  It’s worth noting in passing that the great poet Dante Alighieri was very much opposed to Boniface VIII and his claims.  In any case, there is scholarly doubt that this bull was dogmatically binding; and Church teaching, even in the pre-Vatican II era, has never been so strict as this.  The general understanding is that many who are not visibly in the Church are still saved because of their natural, even if implicit, inclination towards God.  This is sometimes referred to as “baptism of desire”.  There are broader and narrower interpretations of this doctrine, but suffice it to say that the general understanding is that virtuous non-Christians who, through no fault of their own, do not or cannot enter the Church through baptism, still are saved by God, who can work outside the ordinary means of the Church, and thus become part of the Church, though they were not visibly so (or even knowingly so) in life.

For those who are raised Catholic or convert to Catholicism and then leave, however, the tradition has tended to paint a much grimmer portrait.  The First Vatican Council, in its Decree on the Catholic Faith, 3, said, my emphasis:

The situation of those who, by the heavenly gift of faith, have embraced the Catholic truth is by no means the same as that of those who, led by human opinions, follow a false religion; for those who have accepted the faith under the guidance of the Church can never have any just cause for changing this faith or for calling it into question.

The implication is clear:  A person “led by human opinions” to a “false religion” might have an excuse; but a person who is already Catholic “can never have any just cause for changing this faith” or even for “calling it into question”.  Thus, if you leave the Church for any motivation (with the possible exception of mental illness–note the discussion at the page from which I got this quote)–even if it’s because you were raped by a priest, fleeced by a bishop, abused by a person in a position of trust–you still have no “just cause”; and thus your chances of salvation drop to zero, since you are now inexcusably extra ecclesiam–“outside the Church”.

This, needless to say, is extremely hardcore, and seems to go against our deepest intuitions of justice or even basic human decency.  Essentially it is claimed that there is no excuse, no “just cause” at all for ever leaving the Church under any circumstances, even the misbehavior, sinfulness, or even criminal actions of the hierarchy itself.  One with a more jaundiced view might argue that this is the perfect self-serving narrative concocted by the hierarchy.  You must belong to the Church to be saved; if you’re not in the Church (which means we can’t control you, anyway), you might get a pass; but if you’re already in, then you need to totally disconnect anything you see the guys in charge doing–no matter how bad it is–from the validity of the Church as such.  You need to be a good little boy or girl and stay right where you are, no matter how corrupt it gets, no matter how much it never changes, no matter if your complaints or cries for justice fall upon deaf ears, no matter what they do to you; and if you leave after all that, you’re going to Hell!  That way, those in charge get to stay in charge with no repercussions at all, and blame those who leave for leaving, to boot.  The mind boggles.

In many blog discussions I’ve participated in, I have, in fact, seen aggrieved Catholics begging and pleading with others who’ve decided to leave the Church because of the scandals–sometimes experienced firsthand–that they reconsider and stay despite it all.  These pleas are never quite so baldly expressed as, “No matter how bad it was and no matter what they did to you or your loved ones, it’ll be worse if you leave, because then you can never enter Heaven!”  Still, that lingering notion is still a presence in the discussion, even though it remains unspoken.  The power of the traditional reading of extra ecclesiam nulla salus is still strong.

All I can say is that to me, the image of a God who institutes a church that is said to be under His direct guidance and which yet falls again and again into the most loathsome corruption, and who will nevertheless eternally damn anyone who leaves said church as a result of this corruption seems to be more demonic than Divine.  It’s almost as bad as the Calvinist God who foreordains some to salvation and some to damnation, just because He feels like it.  Maybe it’s worse; at least the Calvinist God doesn’t predicate salvation on your behavior.  In any case, given that the Church claims to be instituted by Christ himself and to carry on his full authority, and given the observed periods, including the present, in which the corruption in the Church seems endemic and profound, it seems that one can draw the following conclusions:

  1. The claims the Church makes are in fact false, and the corruption is a sign of this.  Thus, any Catholic would do well to get out while the getting’s good.  Whether “getting out” means “leaving the Church for another” or losing faith in Christianity altogether may vary; but for the purposes of the discussion here, either interpretation will work.
  2. The claims of the Church are true, but because of human sin and human free will, the Church, even almost the entire institution, is capable of falling into profound corruption at times.  The validity of Apostolic succession and the Sacraments is nevertheless maintained, and in the end, the Church will ultimately return to what it’s supposed to be.

Many of us, no matter how bad it gets, are still committed to proposition 2.  It is very much understandable, though, how many might draw conclusion 1, and leave.  Even for those of us who stay, 1 has no doubt crossed our minds at least a few times.  On the one hand, we do have a responsibility to fight the good fight, run the race, and keep the faith (2 Timothy 4:7).  Some Protestants believe you’re “saved” once and for all, and that “once in grace, always in grace”.  This is not a Catholic doctrine–there’s a reason we pray for “perseverance in the faith”.  On the other hand, it surely seems understandable that many, when the Church itself, through its sometimes outright evil representatives, is to blame, are not able to remain in the Church.  When people are so deeply wounded by the organization that ought to be healing wounds, and find that they must leave for their physical and spiritual health, perhaps even for their sanity, it seems perverse to blame them for lacking in commitment.  A God who allows the institution said to speak on His behalf to sink into a corruption that drives people out, and who then damns those so driven out, seems quite unspeakably horrendous.

Thus, counterintuitive as it may seem, I think that the logical takeaway from this is that, contra the frequent claims of the Church that one who leaves after being a member and fully understanding his faith is damned, God instead completely understands the actions of the one who leaves, and does not hold it against him.  That seems to be the only just and decent conclusion to reach.  Now this does not automatically imply universalism as such–one might say that God will not damn the person who sincerely leaves, but that the prospects for those whose actions led him to leave are much dimmer.  Still, the takeaway is that we’ve already put a crack in the hardline interpretation of extra ecclesiam nulla salus.  If a person can leave the Church in good faith and still be saved, then there is, perhaps, a chance for others who, from what we can see of them externally, at least, seem on the fast track to the infernal realms.  There is thus an intimation, however weak, of a possibility of universalism.

I would argue that the damnation of clerics and bureaucrats who perpetuate such scandals in the Church is likelier that of those who leave the Church in disgust.  In fact, such people might seem an argument against universalism.  Shouldn’t at least these clowns split Hell wide open?  I admit that from an emotional standpoint, I can see the appeal.  Still, however badly these people have acted, however much they’ve hurt others, however badly they’ve tarnished and besmirched the Church and its reputation, is that deserving of eternal and infinite punishment?  I can sympathize with those who say, “yes”, but at the end of the day,  I have to answer, “no”.

But doesn’t that mean they get away with it?  Well, in one sense, we all get away with our sins if we ultimately are saved.  Even those who espouse the most hardline views of hellfire and damnation, in a Catholic context, would admit that if the worst abuser priest made a sincere confession, he would escape Hell–though he might have a looooong time in Purgatory.  Those of us who are universalists don’t necessarily disbelieve in Hell–I certainly think it exists–we just think it’s not eternal.  That is in  no way to make light of it.  Those who truly repent of their sins experience the full knowledge of their sins and the true effect those sins had on the world.  They see how much better they could have made the world.  This agonizing state is aptly described as the fires of Purgatory.  How much the worse Hell?  After all, to use a metaphor, those in Purgatory know they deserve it, having, by their repentance, checked themselves into the cosmic rehab, so to speak.  Those in Hell, though, are involuntarily committed to the cosmic psych ward.  This will be a far, far longer and more unpleasant stay–hellish, in fact.  I don’t doubt that abuser priests and their ilk will pay the last penny for their deeds (Matthew 5:26), and a bitter penny it will be, too.

It still may be objected that universalism is too easy on these evil clerics.  I don’t deny the emotional appeal of such a claim.  Still, that appeal is just that–emotional, not logical.  Does it make sense of God to damn even the worst sinners for eternity?  I have argued over the course of this series that it does not.  This area is the most difficult one in which to assert my optimism; but assert it I still must.  In one blog discussion I was following, a commenter asserted that the behavior of bishops and clergy such as McCarrick can be accounted for only if they are either closet atheists who don’t believe what they purport to, or univeralists who believe that nothing they do will ultimately matter to their salvation.  First of all, that’s unfair to atheists.  There is no evidence that atheists are less moral than the religious.  Extremely secular countries such as Japan and the Scandinavian countries are very orderly and have lower crime rates than the much more religions United States.  Preliminary research indicates no significant difference between atheists and believers in morality.  Prison populations do not skew atheist.  As to universalists, I have argued that universalism is in no way a license to misbehave.

Now it may well be that some of these clerics are indeed non-beleivers, or perhaps universalists; and in their minds, they may use this as an excuse.  As it should not be necessary to point out, these men’s minds are already quite twisted; such excuses are equally twisted.  Abusus non tollit usum–“The abuse [of something] doesn’t destroy its [legitimate] use.”  Depraved men may use atheism or universalism as an excuse for their depravity.  That no more undermines universalism (or for that matter atheism) as such, though, than it discredits Catholicism in particular or Christianity in general.  I realize that to those in great pain, this assertion may still seem ridiculous, perhaps obscenely so.  All I can say is that I acknowledge their pain, and I truly believe, with Dame Julian of Norwich, that in the end “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well”.

This is the longest post I’ve written in a long time; perhaps the longest ever.  I don’t expect to convince people who see the scandals in the Church as disproving its claims, or those who have found it necessary to leave the Church.  I also do not expect it to convince those who are not universalists already.  I submit it in humility as a partial apologia for those of us who stay in the Church, battered and stained though she may be, and as a hopeful benediction to my brothers and sisters who found themselves unable to stay.  Hopefully, this latest round of corruption will eventually come to an end.  In either case, all we can do is pray for perseverance in the faith, pray for those who stay, for those who leave, for those who have been hurt, and, yes, even for those who hurt them.  In the end, all we can do is pray for God to have mercy on us all, and put our faith in Him as best we can.


*Religious–monks and nuns–do not, in general, receive Holy Orders.  Religious organizations, such as the Franciscans, Dominicans, Jesuits, Sisters of Charity, and so on, are referred to as religious “orders”.  However, “order” in the context of “Holy Orders” has a different meaning.  Men–and of course, the Catholic Church ordains only men–can receive Holy Orders, thereby becoming deacons, priests, or bishops.  When a man receives any of these orders, he is said to be “ordained”.  When a man or woman enters a religious order, by contrast, he or she is not ordained, but “professed”.  Religious life is indeed a state of life, a vocation; but it’s not a Sacrament, as is Holy Orders.

To make it more confusing, some male religious are ordained.  No nuns or women religious are ordained–women aren’t allowed to be priests (or deacons or bishops).  However, while most male religious do not receive Holy Orders, some are indeed ordained as priests, and sometimes bishops (I don’t know if any, or many, religious are made permanent deacons).  After all, someone in the monastery has to say Mass, hear confessions, and so on.  Thus, most of the men in a monastery are monks, and would be addressed as “brother”; but some are priests and would be addressed as “father”.

Most priests are not monastic, but are ordained to serve in a parish.  These are called “secular priests”, as opposed to priests in monasteries or in religious orders, who are “religious priests”.  One might think all priests are supposed to be religious–but remember the distinction!  A religious priest is in a religious order (as well as Holy Orders); a secular priest is not in a religious order, but serves in a diocese.  Most parish priests are secular priests.  However, some religious orders are non-cloistered (they’re not restricted to the monastery) and provide priests to parishes.  So, for example, the priest who performed the wedding for my wife and me was at that time a parish priest and also a Jesuit; so he was a religious priest and a parish priest.  For a more noteworthy example, the current pope, Francis, is a bishop (the pope is the Bishop of Rome, of course) and is not only a Jesuit–the first Jesuit pope–but once was the head of the Jesuit order in Argentina.  Thus, you might say that John Paul II and Benedict XVI were “secular” popes, and Francis is a “religious” pope!

There is also confusion on vows.  Monks and nuns typically take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.  The second of these vows rules out marriage.  A secular priest does not take these vows, since he’s not in a religious order.  However, he does make a vow of chastity (to remain celibate, since Latin-rite Catholic priests are expected to be celibate) and obedience to the bishop and his successors.  There are some cases in which Catholic priests actually can be legitimately married–Episcopal or Anglican priests who convert and are re-ordained, and Eastern Catholic priests–but we’ve wandered too far afield already, and I won’t get into those.  The point is that monks, nuns, and most priests are all celibate, but for slightly different reasons.

Finally, to add to the confusion of terminology, for those who are aware of Buddhist practice, when a man or woman becomes a Buddhist monk or nun, he or she is said in English to “be ordained” or “to ordain”.  So Buddhist monastics are ordained, but not Catholic ones!  By this time, my readers’ heads may well be swimming, so I’ll leave it at that.


†The understanding of the diaconate, priesthood, and episcopate in the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Oriental Orthodox Churches, the Assyrian Church of the East, and some other smaller churches, such as the Old Catholic Communion, is in fact the same as that of the Catholic Church.  This is pretty much also true of the Anglican Communion of Churches (including the Episcopal Church in the United States), though the exact status of Holy Orders as a sacrament is somewhat ambiguous, based on the Thirty-Nine Articles.  Be that as it may, the scandals to which I’m referring here are specific to the Catholic Church (though there have been Orthodox, Episcopal, and other prelates who have misbehaved significantly, too), and the various Orthodox churches are an almost invisible presence in this country.  Thus, I’m confining the discussion to the Catholic Church, though the argument I’m making here could be relevant to the others just mentioned, too.

Part of the series “Universalism (What the Hell?!)

Posted on 26/07/2018, in Catholicism, Christianity, religion, theology and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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