Why the Catholic Church is Credible

April 19, 2010 - 1:55 PM
Over Easter weekend, the archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, stated in a BBC interview that the Catholic Church in Ireland is “losing all credibility” because of clergy sexual abuse scandals and the hierarchy’s poor response to past cases.  Such a blunt remark from the normally diplomatic head of the Anglican Communion may seem out of character; especially during this ecumenically sensitive age. 

Yet the fact remains that, insofar as public perception is concerned, Williams is correct.  However, his statement is limited in time and substance.
           
The Church’s credibility cannot be judged on the actions of its members whether they be its hierarchy, lower clergy, or laity.  If that were the case, Catholics would be justified in seeking spiritual sustenance elsewhere.  The fact is, however, that the Church has always admitted that both saints and sinners comprise her ranks.  Because of this, the Church is always in need of reform, or as the Latin Proverb has it, “Ecclesia semper reformanda.” 

History is replete with examples of Church councils, local and worldwide, which were called to address theological error and moral turpitude.  The Council of Trent (1545-63), for example, was in direct response to just such abuses highlighted by the Protestant reformers.  The most infamous being the sale of indulgences in the former and the concubinage of some of the clergy and Renaissance popes in the latter.
           
The Church’s credibility rests on three tenets central to her ecclesiology.  First, that the Catholic Church is the true Church founded by Christ; second, that the Church is indefectible; and third, that despite the sinfulness of her ministers, the sacraments they administer are always valid.
           
Catholic’s believe that the deposit of faith, handed down by Christ to the apostles, fully subsists in the Catholic Church.  These teachings are the truths concerning God, salvation through Christ, and her possession of all the divine aids willed to her by Christ to help humans achieve eternal life.
           
Because of human proneness to error the Church has been given the grace of “indefectibility.”   This is an assurance that despite human weakness she will never stray from divinely revealed truth. 

Pope Benedict XVI recognized the importance of this dogmatic inerrancy when as Cardinal Ratzinger, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he was asked on Bavarian television in 1997 if the Holy Spirit is responsible for who gets elected pope, and this was his response, “I would not say so, in the sense that the Holy Spirit picks out the pope…There are too many instances of popes the Holy Spirit would obviously not have picked.” 

Pope Benedict XVI (AP Photo)

In a 2002 interview he said, “… that God entrusts himself to such fragile vessels … he still has to support the Church himself again and again through these very tools that have proved unsuitable.  It is a consolation, on the one hand, that the Lord is stronger than the sins of men ….”
           
Indefectibility is not the same as the much misunderstood Catholic teaching of papal infallibility, although infallibility is closely related to it.  The charism of infallibility may be used by the Pope only when he speaks on matters of faith and morals.  Such statements are circumscribed by what the Church as always held to be Catholic doctrine found in scripture and tradition.  The pope, in other words, cannot create a new teaching based on a personal revelation or his own preference.
           
Lastly, Catholic sacramental theology teaches that the sacraments are validly administered notwithstanding the worthiness of the minister. 

In other words, God’s grace is conveyed to his people through them as long as the proper form and matter are used for the ritual, or, as its Latin theological expression puts it, “Ex opere operato.”         
    
In the case of the Eucharist, for example, the form consists of the proper words of consecration and the matter is bread and wine.  This teaching has always been a great relief for the faithful as well as for the clergy.  What a sham sacramental actions would be if humans were the key to their efficacy. 
           
Catholics believe that the above are the supernatural guarantees that Jesus gave his Church.  It is because of faith in these guarantees that the Church has survived two millennia and will persevere through this current crisis.  This is why the Catholic Church has always been and remains fundamentally credible for Catholics in Ireland and throughout the world; why Catholics stay in the Church; and why the Church will continue to be a viable force in society. 

After all, Jesus said to the nascent Church before his Ascension, “I will be with you always, even to the end of the world.” 

Rev. Michael P. Orsi is chaplain and research fellow in law & religion at the Ave Maria School of Law in Naples, Fla.