Pope Benedict XVI was fond of saying that the saints are the living proof of faith — “an epiphany of God,” as he once put it. I fear there may be a different kind of truth in the reverse of this — evidence that the church’s leaders have feet of clay may, for some, disprove the faith in their own minds.
I have heard this said too often, at first and second hand, to discount it. Not just by those who might have been abused, but by those in their circle of acquaintance, and even devout seekers further removed. “How could this church be the body of Christ,” they will ask, “when its bishops behave so shamefully?”
It doesn’t avail to insist that most of its bishops are good and holy men, as they are. People just don’t want to hear that now.
But there is another point that we need to keep in mind at times like this. The bishops of the church have had sinners among their number from early days. During the persecution of Diocletian, many of them, out of fear for their lives, succumbed to demands that they turn over Christian texts (hence the name “traditors” — the ones who handed over) and make offerings to the Roman gods.
Donatus, the bishop of Carthage, maintained that these lapsed clergy could not validly perform the sacraments anymore. This idea was carried further, to include any case of mortal sin — and the Donatists had quite a following in the fourth century.
The thing to keep in mind, as St. Augustine rightly argued at the time, is that the church is not holy because saints preside over it. God’s grace makes it holy. The sacraments derive their power from the work of Christ, not from our own feeble efforts.
It doesn’t ease the pain of our current distress to know that this isn’t the first time people have left the church