The Church: Corrupt from the Start?

If the Catholic Church was ever corrupt, it was corrupt from the beginning.  But as it was not corrupt from the beginning. It never was and never will be corrupt.

Such was my thought while listening recently to a podcast on ancient Rome.  The city of Rome – the podcaster was arguing – can claim to be the greatest city in the history of the world: from its great population; the geographical extent of its influence; its centuries of primacy; the organization of its society; its rule of law; its ingenious constructions built to last; and its ability to assimilate and take the best from its neighbors.

Oh, and then there was the fact that it became the seat of the most important religion in the history of humankind. . . .

I was supposing that, after this fair assessment of Rome’s remarkable virtues, the podcaster would praise Peter’s foresight in centering the Church in Rome. He seemed to be a good historian. Surely, he could see that the Catholic Church has been so “important” because its virtues in the spiritual realm very closely resembled Rome’s in the secular realm.

Instead, he lamented Peter’s decision, on the grounds that “the Church’s entanglement with Roman authority after the Edict of Milan led swiftly to its corruption.”

That he would echo a familiar line at this point was disappointing but not surprising – the Catholic Church wasn’t the topic of his podcast after all.  Maybe he simply hadn’t thought about it very much.

But his asides showed him to be a Bible-believing Christian.  Simply from a Scriptural point of view, I found myself wondering whether he paid attention to the Passion. Because “corruption” began much earlier than 313 A.D.  In fact, it was present from the very beginning, and with the knowledge and apparent permission of Our Lord.

I mean Judas Iscariot.  Let’s look at him again. The foundation of the Church was set down when Jesus chose “The Twelve Apostles.”   Judas was on an equal footing in authority with all of them except Peter.  Let’s not retroactively demote or exclude him.  Judas was one of only twelve Apostles, and we can take him to stand for any Apostle, insofar as any holder of an equal office can stand for any other.

Now, here’s a good definition of corruption: the use of an office, implying a trust, for private gain.  For example, an official who takes a bribe is corrupt by this definition.  But Judas was corrupt by the definition.  He made use of his connection with Jesus, through being an Apostle, to gain 30 shekels of silver.

We know the deal: The authorities wanted to arrest, try, and condemn Jesus secretly, so the crowd couldn’t protest.  Jesus therefore needed to be identified and captured in the dark, before he could flee (as they thought he might).  Judas was invaluable in identifying and “holding him” with a kiss.

*

We think Judas must have had some other motive besides avarice.  We tend to favor speculative views which have no basis in Scripture – say, Judas wanted to provoke a crisis that would lead to Jesus as Messiah assuming power; or Judas like Cain was envious of his fellow Apostles whom Jesus seemed to prefer.  And so on.

Yet Judas’ only vice that the Bible speaks of is his love of money: John says that Judas complained about the money spent on the costly nard because he kept the money box and would steal from it. (Jn 12:6)  We are tempted to dismiss greed as the explanation because it seems too weak a reason.  Betray the Messiah for a small sum of money?

But it wasn’t that small: if it purchased a field in the city, it could buy an estate in the country.  And lots of people do outrageous things for small sums: Esau sold his birthright for a mess of pottage. (Gen 25:29-32)  People wager their wedding rings.  Richard Rich betrayed Thomas More “for Wales.”

Aquinas remarks that one of the daughters of the capital vice of avarice is betrayal.  Why?  Because avarice seeks to possess by excess through force or fraud, and fraud as affecting someone is betrayal – “as in the case of Judas,” Aquinas says, “who betrayed Christ through covetousness.” (Here.)  We resist this simple explanation because the irrationality of all avarice is especially patent in the case of Judas and Christ.

So, corruption was present at the beginning, and its effect was infinitely grave.

Moreover, the corruption seems to have extended beyond Judas, at least potentially and virtually, in the sense that each of the Apostles, when told by the Lord that one of them would betray him. actively wondered whether it might be he. (Jn 13:21-30)

If there were newspapers back then, the most visible fact about the Apostles to report on, the juiciest bit of gossip about them, would have been that they were corrupt and sold out their teacher.

But now consider the following.

1. This corruption was present with the calm foreknowledge and “permissive will” of the Lord: “Have I not chosen you, The Twelve? And yet one of you is a devil.” (Jn 6:70)

2. In no way was the Apostolic “office” of Judas affected by his corruption: Matthias was selected to fill it. (Acts 1:24-25)

3. The preaching of Judas and his baptisms remained valid: nothing needed to be redone or undone.

4. Jesus even vouchsafes the “cleanness” of all of the Twelve, except insofar as someone sins personally: “He who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but he is clean all over, and you are clean, but not all of you.” (Jn 13:10)

The Church founded by Christ was “corrupt” from the beginning, in the same way that it was ever to be corrupt (including now), in particular persons, led astray by the devil.  But as a Church, in its institutions, offices, powers, sacraments, and divine guidance – as the Body of Christ – it was holy the way it remains holy.

 

*Image: The Taking of Christ by (Michelangelo Merisi da) Caravaggio, 1602 [National Gallery of Ireland]. Thought for several centuries to be lost, the painting was “rediscovered” in a Jesuit residence in Dublin in 1990, where it was thought to be a copy of the Caravaggio by Gerard van Honthorst. After cleaning, conservators were able to definitively identify it as the original.

You may also enjoy:

Robert Royal’s Church, Clericalism, and Corruption

Brad Miner’s Hell Frozen Over

Michael Pakaluk

Michael Pakaluk, an Aristotle scholar and Ordinarius of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas, is a professor in the Busch School of Business at the Catholic University of America. He lives in Hyattsville, MD with his wife Catherine, also a professor at the Busch School, and their eight children. His acclaimed book on the Gospel of Mark is The Memoirs of St Peter. His new book, Mary's Voice in the Gospel of John: A New Translation with Commentary, is now available.

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