At the altar, yet far from the Lord

How can priests who are not only intimately united to the Eucharistic Lord but who also receive the graces of the Eucharist each day betray Him and destroy lives?

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He knew who would betray him.” — John 13:11

A layman who is a very close friend of mine and an extremely well-formed Catholic recently suggested an article on a contradiction at the heart of the Church’s sex abuse scandals. Namely, and expressing the problem in my own words, how can it be that men who spend each day in intimate contact with our Eucharistic Lord sin in ways that are so directly contrary to the Sacrament they celebrate?

That priests sin, and sometimes sin terribly, is no new insight. From the Last Supper onwards, men whose lives are dedicated to the altar and centered on the Lord Jesus have betrayed Him. Dante writes of the damnation of priests and bishops with particular vividness in his Inferno, and it is axiomatic that those who are closest to the Lord—in this case, united with Christ as Head and Shepherd in the Sacrament of Holy Orders—commit correspondingly graver sins when they betray Him.

The consequences of the sacrilegious celebration of Mass and reception of Holy Communion are awful, in every negative sense of that word. Though we must never delight in the spiritual downfall of any person, it is still important to know that while duplicitous priests might seem to “get away with it” for a long time, no one evades the all-seeing eye of the Lord.

Monsignor Ronald Knox in a sermon titled “The Great Supper” proposes that Jesus told the parable of the wedding banquet at which one guest was found to be without a wedding garment (Matt 22:1-14) in part to issue a final warning to Judas Iscariot, the traitorous apostle. Drawing out the implications of the parable with regard to the Holy Eucharist, Knox writes:

Only one among all the guests in the story; please God, it is not often that the table of Christ is profaned by a sacrilegious communion. But when it is so profaned; when, for some unworthy end, the sinner who knows himself to be in mortal sin dares to partake of the marriage-feast, then he makes the choice of Judas and deserves Judas’ punishment. Let him not console himself with comfortable Protestant doctrines about the nature of our Lord’s presence in the Holy Eucharist; he knows better in his heart. He knows that the very body born of Mary, the very blood spilt on Calvary, are there; that he, who comes to the faithful as their food and their victim, comes to the sinner as his judge. The King passes down between the rows of his guests; his eye is all-penetrating, the guilty wretch cannot hide his nakedness or make answer to his condemnation; speechless, he goes out with Judas into the darkness he has made his own. (Pastoral and Occasional Sermons)

Knox was not a “fire and brimstone” preacher. Yet he recognized that the sacrilegious reception of Holy Communion is a grave evil precisely because the Eucharist is supremely holy and precious gift. And if what Knox writes of the punishment such a sin deserves applies to every member of the Church, how much more pointed must the warning be to those priests and bishops who preside over the “marriage-feast” of the Mass?

“Why?” and “How?”

But why do priests betray Jesus? How can such a thing happen? These questions spontaneously well-up in the hearts of the wounded faithful, as well as in the hearts of those many bishops and priests who have not contributed to the horrors of the sexual abuse crisis.

We may never be able to answer the “why” question. Sin is a mystery, a mysterium iniquitatis (“mystery of evil”) that has its roots in the mystery of man’s freedom. The seat of that freedom, the human heart, is in turn a place of mystery that no pope, theologian, philosopher, or psychologist can completely explain. Jeremiah 17:9 puts the matter succinctly: “More tortuous than anything is the human heart, beyond remedy; who can understand it?”

The enticements of evil are also mentioned in the Rite of Baptism, which asks those professing the Catholic faith to reject Satan’s “empty show” and the “glamor of evil”. Often the attraction of evil overpowers a person, and each of us can fall into sin with varying degrees of malice or weakness. To sin is to choose not only against faith but also against reason, and such a choice can never make sense to us.

So how is it that priests can fall into such terrible sins as have come to light recently in the case of Archbishop McCarrick and the Pennsylvania grand jury report? Particularly, how can priests who are not only intimately united to the Eucharistic Lord but who also receive the graces of the Eucharist each day betray Him and destroy lives?

Adding to the weight of the question is the truth that the love at the heart of the Eucharist is precisely self-sacrificing love. It is the love by which Jesus gives his “flesh for the life of the world,” as we heard in the Gospel readings of the past two Sundays. In the sex abuse crisis, we come face-to-face with men who rather than sacrificing themselves for others instead destroy others’ lives in order to satisfy the evil desires of their own flesh.

A question at the heart of sacramental theology

At the heart of this question about how priests can offer the Eucharistic Sacrifice, receive Holy Communion, and yet commit such atrocities is a theological question about the relationship between the objective and subjective dimensions of the reception of sacramental grace.

The tension in the relationship between the objective and subjective dimensions of sacramental efficacy might be expressed as follows: on the one hand, all of the sacraments, including the Eucharist, are gifts of God given for man’s sanctification and salvation; on the other hand, the worthy and fruitful reception of the sacraments requires at least some degree of subjective preparation, and the more holy the recipient, the more fruitful will be his reception of the sacraments. And in the cases we are considering, it needs to be said that a lack of holiness can stifle the fruitfulness of the sacraments.

This tension can be the occasion of exaggerations on both sides of the issue. It is possible to place too much emphasis on the objective principle ex opere operato (literally, “by the work being worked”). This happens when a person describes the conferral of sacramental grace in terms that are mechanistic, automatic, or quasi-magical. Conversely, one might lapse into a form of Pelagianism, exaggerating the role of the recipient’s subjective disposition. This is a distortion of the formula ex opere operantis (“by the work of the worker”). Such a person can fall into the trap of spiritual elitism, such as that of claiming the Eucharist as “a prize for the perfect” rather than as “a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak,” to employ terms used by Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium, 47.

The wisdom of St. Thomas Aquinas

Saint Thomas Aquinas, as with so many theological matters, is of great help to us in dealing with the question of sacramental fruitfulness or the lack thereof. To begin on the objective side of the coin, St. Thomas affirms in the Summa Theologica that the effects of the Eucharist are possible only by the power of God, and he attributes the power of the Eucharist to Christ and his Passion.

As is true of the other sacraments, the Eucharist operates through instrumental causality. In the language of the Council of Trent, the sacraments “contain and confer” the grace they signify. Romanus Cessario once wrote, “Whenever a legitimate celebrant with proper intention speaks the words, ‘I baptize you…’; ‘Receive the Holy Spirit…’; ‘I absolve you…’; ‘This is my body…’; ‘By this holy anointing…’; and so forth, the Christian community protests that that which the sacrament signifies occurs in the recipient.”

For St. Thomas, the objectivity of sacramental efficacy is rooted in his Christology: “The sacraments of the Church which derive their efficacy from the Word incarnate Himself” (ST III, q. 60, prologue). What is true of all the sacraments is seen more clearly in the Eucharist, since in it Christ is substantially present. His presence, which St. Thomas compares with the Incarnation, is the first consideration one must keep in mind regarding the conferral of grace through the Eucharist (ST III, q. 79, a. 1).

Rooting sacramental power in Christ, and especially Christ’s Passion, preserves both the objective and subjective dimensions of the sacramental economy. Objectivity is protected, insofar as Christ is the Guarantor of sacramental efficacy, presuming that at least the minimum requirements for valid celebration are in place. At the same time, the truth that sacramental power comes from Christ and not from the works of man protects not only against outright Pelagianism, but against any sense that the sacraments depend upon man’s holiness for their essential efficacy. Further, St. Thomas protects against any sense that the sacraments work by a kind of magic, since the power belonging to them has God as its source. The Church’s role in confecting the Eucharist is critical, but it is the power that flows from Christ’s Passion that enables the Church’s priests to consecrate.

There is more than sufficient objectivity at work in the Eucharist for the faithful to be free of anxiety or scruple. It is Christ who gives the Eucharist, the power of his Passion that confers grace through the Eucharist, his charity they receive, union with him into which they are drawn, and it is Christ himself who consecrates through the ministry of the Church’s priests, who act in His Person at the altar. Even the hunger of the faithful for the Bread of Life comes not because of some kind of self-created desire, but because of the grace of Baptism.

Hunger for the Eucharist is essential to man’s salvation, but even this hunger is given to man as a gift. Surely, those who would receive the sacrament must respond to the gift of Eucharistic hunger, doing what they can to allow their hunger to grow and intensify. Sin always threatens to weaken one’s hunger for the Eucharist. Here we begin to see the subjective side of Eucharistic reception. Hunger, or desire, for the Eucharist is needed to bring a person to the altar in the first place, unless his action is to be merely rote. And it stands to reason that the more intense a person’s desire, the more disposed he will be to receive its benefits gratefully and well.

The same is true for the whole array of dispositions that prepare a person for receiving the Eucharist. Faith, to take a uniquely important example, is the first requirement for the reception of any sacrament. Faith—again, itself a gift of grace—moves a person towards Baptism and entry into the Church in the first place. Faith is then needed throughout the whole journey of the Christian life, drawing him more and more deeply into the life of Christ, drawing him again and again to the sacraments, and helping him to understand and make optimal use of the graces he receives through the sacraments. It is faith that sets a person on the path to union with Christ in his Mystical Body, union in charity.

Freedom from sin is also a critical disposition for receiving the Eucharist, but here we must distinguish between mortal and venial sins and between that basic disposition which makes reception of the sacrament possible and a higher level of preparation which makes possible an even more fruitful reception. The Eucharist has the power to forgive sins, but it is not the ordinary means by which mortal sins are forgiven. One who is conscious of unforgiven mortal sin may not receive Holy Communion, but must first have recourse to the Sacrament of Penance. To receive the Eucharist while in a state of mortal sin is itself a mortal sin. Saint Thomas’s treatment of the question, “Whether the forgiveness of mortal sin is an effect of this sacrament” (ST III, q. 79, a. 3), provides significant insights regarding the interplay of objective and subjective considerations pertaining to the sacraments.

The Eucharist and mortal sin

First, St. Thomas distinguishes between two senses in which one might speak of the Eucharist forgiving mortal sin: on the part of the sacrament itself, which contains the power of Christ’s Passion and is therefore capable of forgiving all sin; and then on the part of the recipient, “in so far as there is, or is not, found in him an obstacle to receiving the fruit of this sacrament.” The “obex”, or “obstacle”, to which St. Thomas refers would become part of the Council of Trent’s teaching on sacramental efficacy. This concept is a key to understanding the lack of sacramental fruitfulness in a priest who does not repent of grave sin and leads a double-life.

Secondly, St. Thomas explains why a person with unforgiven mortal sin may not receive the Eucharist: the Eucharist, as a sacrament of the living, cannot be given to a person who is spiritually “not alive”; also, mortal sin (including “attachment” to it) prevents that union with Christ which is the principal effect of the sacrament.

And thirdly, St. Thomas identifies two ways in which the Eucharist, as a sacrifice and sacrament that “has from Christ’s Passion the power of forgiving all sins”, can in fact forgive mortal sins: when the Eucharist is received not “actually” but spiritually or “in desire” (such reception, of course, involving repentance and contrition), and when a person who is neither conscious of nor attached to one or more mortal sins he has committed receives the sacrament. In the latter case, that of a person who receives in ignorance of his sin, he “devoutly and reverently” receives the benefits of the Eucharist despite his sin(s). He “obtains the grace of charity, which will perfect his contrition and bring forgiveness of sin.” These possibilities do not pertain to the case of a bishop or priest who has either committed abuse or knowingly covered-up or enabled abuse and yet continues to exercise his sacred ministry, unless perhaps some very serious mental illness were involved.

The exact nature of the interaction of God’s power, including the power of his forgiveness, and man’s free will is a mystery, but here St. Thomas does much to clarify the roles of each. God’s power always has the primacy, yet in his power God has given us the ability to say “yes” or “no” to his offer of love. The Eucharist is itself the supreme sacramental expression of God’s own free act in Jesus Christ: he offers his love and grace completely so that man might become united to him and share his life of perfect charity. God’s freedom meets that of man in the Eucharistic liturgy. He calls forth worship from his people, and even invites them to participate in Christ’s own worship of the Father. Yet each person must make a decision for or against this invitation, including a decision about whether or not to reject sin and to welcome the graces contained in the sacrament.

It seems that some bishops and priests go through the motions of this worship without making this free act of self-offering. Saint Thomas knows this and distinguishes between various forms of sacramental reception. Having treated what ought to happen with regard to those in a state of mortal sin, St. Thomas also addresses the very practical question of what does in fact happen when people in different spiritual states receive the Eucharist. Chief among these distinctions is the one he makes between receiving Holy Communion “sacramentally” and “spiritually”, of which only the latter bears spiritual fruit. Saint Thomas even goes so far in dealing with practical matters as to say that should an irrational animal consume the species, that animal would receive the Eucharist “accidentally”, but this is not to be set alongside the others as a third way of receiving (ST III, q. 80, a. 3).

In his Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians, St. Thomas teaches that there are three ways in which a person can receive the Eucharist unworthily: first, when the Mass is celebrated in a way that does not conform to the Tradition of the Church, handed down from the Lord himself; second, through a lack of devotion, which can be mortal or venial, as one approaches Holy Communion; and third, by approaching the sacrament “with the intention of sinning mortally” (Chap. 11, 688-690). The second of these possibilities expresses the importance of devotion in St. Thomas’s treatment of subjective disposition, as greater or lesser devotion has the ability to facilitate or retard sacramental grace as it bears fruit in the recipient.

At the core of these subjective considerations is, of course, the subject—in this case, the priest who has given himself over to one or more grave sins. The sacraments and the graces they contain are the gifts of God, but they are not forced on unwilling would-be beneficiaries. It is important to avoid thinking of the giving and receiving of grace as if it were like money wired into a bank account with no action on the recipient’s part. The sacraments are gifts given according to the nature and needs of humanity. An axiom of Abbot Anscar Vonier’s is helpful here: “Sacraments are deeply human.”

At the core of man is his God-given gift of freedom, which allows him to imitate or, tragically, to reject the opportunity to imitate Christ’s freely offered self-gift. For God to ignore freedom in giving sacramental grace would be to render the sacraments inhuman. Colman O’Neill once wrote, “God does not save the adult without his own human and free cooperation. If God dealt otherwise with men He would be denying the nature which He has given them.”

In his goodness God fashions the sacraments and the sacramental economy so that they fit with human nature. This is not to say that God panders to humanity. God calls his people to perfection in charity. But it remains true that God’s gifts are suited to human nature, so that we may say that divine grace is communicated in and through material elements in a way that is conducive to the salvation of man, precisely as man.

Sincerity of heart

Perhaps a final way of attempting to capture the mysterious point of juncture between grace and free will as they meet in the reception of Holy Communion is to invoke the quality of “sincerity”. In his Commentary on the Gospel of St. John, St. Thomas writes:

For, as was said, that person eats in a spiritual way, in reference to what is signified only, who is incorporated into the mystical body through a union of faith and love. Through love, God is in man, and man is in God: “He who abides in love, abides in God, and God in him” (1 Jn 4:16). And this is what the Holy Spirit does; so it is also said, “We know that we abide in God and God in us, because he has given us his Spirit” (1 Jn 4:13).

If these words are referred to a sacramental reception, then whoever eats this flesh and drinks this blood abides in God. For, as Augustine says, there is one way of eating this flesh and drinking this blood such that he who eats and drinks abides in Christ and Christ in him. This is the way of those who eat the body of Christ and drink his blood not just sacramentally, but really. And there is another way by which those who eat do not abide in Christ nor Christ in them. This is the way of those who approach [the sacrament] with an insincere heart: for this sacrament has no effect in one who is insincere. There is insincerity when the interior state does not agree with what is outwardly signified. In the sacrament of the Eucharist, what is outwardly signified is that Christ is united to the one who receives it, and such a one to Christ. Thus, one who does not desire this union in his heart, or does not try to remove every obstacle to it, is insincere. Consequently, Christ does not abide in him nor he in Christ (Chap. 6, Lecture 7, 976. Emphasis added).

“Sincerity”, as St. Thomas understands the term, is a virtue that synthesizes very well the objective and subjective realities we have been considering. Sincerity has to do with the preparation of the heart to receive Christ. A sincere heart recognizes the goodness of the Gift contained in the Eucharist, and welcomes that Gift. A sincere heart is one in which some degree of charity is already present, and which is ready to receive a greater gift of charity and that union with Christ that charity both effects and characterizes. A person who receives the Eucharist with a sincere heart is detached from mortal sin, and strives against venial sin. In short, the sincerity St. Thomas describes suggests a person prepared at the core of his being to receive his Lord and be transformed more and more into his likeness, growing in unity with him and his Church.

A sincere heart is also characterized by the virtue of piety, which recognizes the magnitude of what is being offered. Vonier writes in his landmark book, A Key to the Doctrine of the Eucharist, “At no time ought we to forget this great Christian privilege, that we are partakers of the altar of God.”

A person with a sincere heart cannot forget the privilege of the altar, nor that he stands ever in need of further transformation by the Eucharist, and of greater intimacy with the Eucharistic Lord. Indeed, one of the purposes of the Eucharist is to reveal the love of God for each person, and humanity is called to respond to what is signified in the Eucharist and be gathered into his Church. The theology of St. Thomas Aquinas does much to aid an understanding of all that is done by God, and all that is required of his people, to effect this unity in charity. This theology also helps us to understand the tragic case of those who exercise the priestly ministry with insincere hearts, and the lack of sacramental fruitfulness that can allow them to travel even farther down the dark path of sin.

Conclusion

As we have seen, there is a great contradiction at the core of the sex abuse crisis in the Catholic Church, that men whose lives are consecrated to the priesthood of Jesus Christ, and who live each day in such close proximity to His Sacrament and Sacrifice, nevertheless have betrayed Him in horrific ways. There is no simple answer to the questions of why or how such a contradiction could exist in the lives of so many bishops and priests. But the Church’s sacramental theology, and particularly that of St. Thomas Aquinas, gives us a framework for understanding the efficacy and fruitfulness of the sacraments, or the lack thereof.

Understanding how the sacramental economy works does not remove the terrible pain caused by the sins we are reading about all-too-often these days. The pain of the victims, the pain of the whole Church, and the need for corresponding action and reform is being thoroughly addressed by many other Catholic writers. An essay such as this aims at bringing reason to the aid of our faith in the presence and power of the Lord Jesus in His Church and in His sacraments. The failures we are now witnessing are in no way His. Jesus offers us saving gifts beyond measure, and if these gifts do not bear their intended fruit in the lives of His priests or people, the fault is entirely on the part of those whose hearts are not disposed to receive them.


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About Fr. Charles Fox 8 Articles
Rev. Charles Fox is an assistant professor of theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, Detroit. He holds an S.T.D. in dogmatic theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas (Angelicum), Rome.

6 Comments

  1. Thank you Father for this lesson in sacramental theology. I have several books by Abbot Vonier and, A Key to the Doctrine of the Eucharist was the most challenging but, thoroughly worthwhile read. I’m sure I remember reading Saint Thomas taught that, the sacraments receive their power from the passion of our Saviour. However: not so much from the act itself but, from the love by which it was undertaken. Please correct if need be. The most important thing for myself though is personal application. Being reminded of the role I must play, if I’m to receive the graces on offer to the fullest possible measure. An essay like this can also be a reminder of the dignity of the Royal Priesthood. As you point out: there is so much that is a mystery.
    Stephen in Australia.

  2. I think today’s Gospel passage from the 21st Sunday of Ordinary Time Year B gives a good description of what “sincerity of heart” would look like. We have in Peter a real sincerity of heart. In response to Jesus’ question to the Twelve, “Will you also go away?”, Peter responds, “Lord to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know that you are the Holy One of God.” This is sincerity of heart at its best. His response incorporates the necessary faith and the necessary response not only of repentance of sins but a real choice to follow Jesus no matter what. A few verses earlier, Jesus attests to what lack of sincerity of heart looks like when he says of the disciples who are murmuring against eating his flesh and drinking his blood, “But there are some of you who do not believe.” The evangelist continues with his own commentary on the event, “For Jesus knew from the first who those (plural) were that did not believe, and who (singular)it was who would betray him.” Following Jesus as a disciple without actual faith is insincerity of heart at its best. Many of those “disciples” were looking for a “bread king” (in the words of Archbishop Sheen) but sincerely turned away from Him and stopped following him because his words were too much for them. They couldn’t bear it. They were sincere and left. Judas, however, stayed, hanging on, betraying Jesus. How? It seems that the text itself gives us the answer: he never believed. In our current scandal, I think it would be safe to say that some of the players simply are not men of faith, simply do not believe in Jesus, or in the need of salvation, or that sin exists, or that hell exists, or in the real possibility of eternal damnation or eternal life, or in any or all of the above. Which players? Let God be the judge. Yet for whatever reason they stayed … and … betrayed: insincerity of heart. For whatever reason. How to assess sincerity of heart in selecting men for ordination or for profession of the evangelical counsels? How to assess if one sincerely believes, repents and leaves all to follow Christ, “drops his nets” (via Sherry Weddel) or casts down his crown or has really left his water jug at the well of Sychar? I think these questions need to be part of the discussion as we move forward. One more question. And if that sincerity is not there how can we evangelize these young men and accompany (Sorry guys but accompaniment is really needed in the evangelization process. Jesus accompanied Nicodemus to faith) them to that sincerity of heart where they can either stay or go but be sincere either way?

  3. Back in 1962, Fr. McNamara wrote this: “Christ is not only our mediator. He is ‘God in His most attractive form,’ and ought to be, therefore the most magnetic and influential force in our lives.
    “To date, the biggest hole in our educational system is the failure to convey to young students a meaningful, vital awareness of Christ. This conclusion is the result of years of experience, during which Catholic high school and college students and adults in all part of the country were examined as to their impressions and knowledge of Christ and as to the part He played in their lives. The general response was not good.
    “Their ideas were vague, general, unreal, sentimental, impersonal, academic. To many Christ was a myth, to others merely a historical figure; to others divine all right, but quite remote and not an influence in their everyday life. But a religion without Christ is a corpse; an education that does not convey ideas of Christ that are vital, real, precise, and compelling is a farce. If people are ready to worship a hero and follow a leader, then it is a mistake to obscure the person of Christ behind a welter of abstractions. If they are going to be raised to a higher stature, it will not be by moral coercion or intellectual persuasion, not even by the high ideal of becoming perfect, a saint.
    “Such an ideal is too abstract; and most people need something concrete, dynamic, highly personal to shape their thinking and influence their behavior. They need the infinitely attractive personality of Christ…
    “It is impossible to look into the face of Christ without being drawn into the action of Christ. That is what Francois Mauriac meant when he said: “Once you get to know Christ, you cannot be cured of Him.’…
    “All must be taught, therefore, to believe not only in a creed but through a creed in a person. Faith must come to mean to them what it meant to St. Bonaventure: “a habit of the mind whereby we are drawn and captivated into the following of Christ.’ Religion will thus cease to be a moral code, a list of forbidding commandments, a dull, drab affair. It will take on the thrill and excitement of a love affair between God and man. It will mean, above all, a friendship with Christ.
    “There are two things, therefore, that all of us have to learn: how and where to read the life of Christ, and how to pray…
    “What does He mean to you?” (“The Art of Being Human,” by Fr. William McNamara, O.C.D., The Bruce Publishing Company, Milwaukee, 1962)
    It a priest doesn’t have a personal relationship with the Lord whom he calls down to the altar, then he will look for fulfillment elsewhere.

  4. While I appreciate the depth of this article, I believe that the truth may be simpler than this.

    In order to rape children, mark their victims for further abuse by other rapists with crucifixes, etc, these men must actively be atheists at best, and perhaps satanists at worst.

    It seems impossible that a sane individual can hold such cognitive dissonance in their hearts, and continue to officiate at the Mass.

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