Augustine and the Pedophile Priest Scandal

There is a famous cartoon showing Cardinal Law, formerly head of the Boston Archdiocese, surrounded by wolves. Drawing the cardinal with shepherd's staff in hand, a confused look on his face, and putting the words in his mouth, "You mean, I'm supposed to be protecting the sheep?" cartoonist Mike Luckovich captured the bewilderment of a nation about the Catholic Church sex scandal. How could the overseers of people's souls shuffle priests around whom they knew preyed upon vulnerable boys and youth to satisfy their own selfish desires? There are countless records of priests serving for years -- for decades, in fact -- with such sins on their conscience, with the full knowledge of their superiors. How could the bishops and cardinals allow such evil to go on by men representing, according to their religion, Christ himself, dispensers of His grace through the sacraments? Is there any greater betrayal of trust?

As one of the victims put it, who said a Boston-area priest abused him from 1968 to 1975, "These people knew that pedophiles were coming to town. They had advance warning. We didn't."1

How could they send them?

How could they remain silent?

How could they believe, as Cardinal Law wrote in 1996 to Father Shanley, one of the worst offenders, that such men as Shanley had brought God's Word, love, and Spirit to others?

For thirty years in assigned ministry you brought God's Word and His love to people, and I know that continues to be your goal despite some difficult limitations... Without doubt over all these years of generous and zealous care, the lives and hearts of many people have been touched by your sharing of the Lord's Spirit.2

This was to the same Father Shanley who had said in a 1977 speech, "no sexual act causes psychic damage, not even incest or bestiality," and that in pedophilia, "the adult is not the seducer - the "kid" is and further the kid is not traumatized by the act per se," but by being dragged in for questioning by the police. Further, "Homosexuality is a gift from God," Shanley said, "and should be celebrated."3 The report of this speech had been on file for nineteen years, during which time Father Shanley repeatedly acted on his beliefs, at the expense of the youth of his parishes, by the time Cardinal Law wrote his letter.4

How could this be?

The answer is tied up in an ancient controversy of the Christian Church, one in which the sinfulness of the priest was explicitly considered in regards to his ministry. And the answer, just as decisively, came down that a sinful priest could continue to serve as a conduit of Christ's grace. It was not the priest's status that mattered in the sacraments, but Christ's, who is, of course, beyond reproach. So, in regards to their most essential functioning in the Roman Catholic Church, these men's flagrant sexual immorality had no bearing on their priesthood.

In one case, church records show that a priest left the woman's bedroom after the mother of four (two of them his) took an overdose. Her children found her dead the next morning. This man, Father James Foley, went on to serve for several more decades as a priest in Boston.5 The stories go on and on, one more incredible than the other, as are the sheer numbers of abusive priests involved, and their legions of victims. But most incredible of all is the theology behind it, which takes us back to the religious controversy of sixteen centuries ago. In it, the great Catholic theologian Augustine formulated his famous doctrine regarding the sacraments: the efficacy depends on the grace of Christ alone.

Early in the fourth century, a bishop named Donatus insisted that the sacraments, ministered by unclean hands, conferred no grace. He believed that priests who had betrayed the faith in the last persecutions of the Roman Empire in the early 300s were traitors to the faith, and so could not resume their positions once the persecution ended. This controversy lingered on for close to a hundred years over the general issue of the sinfulness or the righteousness of the priest. Augustine in the early 400s articulated the Catholic position. It remains doctrine to the present day, which this deluge of controversy, lawsuits, and public shame over pedophilia in the priesthood has not changed in the slightest.

Augustine poses the essential theological (not moral) question at work regarding these predatory priests: "There stands before us one that is faithless ready to baptize, and he who should be baptized is ignorant of his faithlessness: what think you that he will receive?" Augustine draws no line regarding the state of the priest's conscience, not even when "the conscience of the giver [the priest] may be in such a condition as to be accursed and defiled" -- which certainly speaks of the consciences of those preying on innocent children year after year.

The heretics were charging that baptism conducted by an unworthy priest was of no effect. No one was saved, in other words. If anything, guilt was communicated to the seeker. Augustine faced the issue head-on: "For we find that it is possible that a man should receive faith even from one that is faithless, if he be not aware of the faithlessness of the giver."

The man seeking baptism does not know, then, that the priest at the baptismal font is living in sin. What is the consequence of his priest's sin? Nothing at all, for saving grace still comes to him, as long he is ignorant of the priest's sin. And the reason for this is the believer's reliance on Christ to save him, not the priest, as Augustine eloquently puts it:

Can it be, that when he who is baptized is unaware of the faithlessness of his baptizer, it is then Christ who gives faith, it is then Christ who is the origin and root and head? Alas for human rashness and conceit! Why do you not allow that it is always Christ who gives faith, for the purpose of making a man a Christian by giving it?6

A pope, writing nearly eight hundred years later, would unconditionally confirm this teaching:

"Nothing more is accomplished by a good priest and nothing less by a wicked priest, because it is accomplished by the word of the Creator and not the merit of the priest. Thus the wickedness of the priest does not nullify the effect of the sacrament, just as the sickness of a doctor does not destroy the power of his medicine. Although the 'doing of the thing (opus operans)' may be unclean, nevertheless, the 'thing which is done (opus operatum)' is always clean." - Pope Innocent III (1160-1216)

And this teaching is also upheld by the Anglican Church:

Neither is the effect of Christ's ordinance taken away by their [a minister's] wickedness, nor the grace of God's gifts diminished from such as by faith, and rightly, do receive the Sacraments ministered unto them; which be effectual, because of Christ's institution and promise, although they be ministered by evil men.7

Faithlessness... wicked priest... wickedness... none of these matter! It's official doctrine. The knowledge of these facts from history and theology makes it easier to understand how the hierarchy of the Catholic Church of America could, systematically and knowingly, employ such depraved individuals as priests.

According to their greatest theologian, Augustine, it simply didn't matter. Nothing else can explain the report from February of this year, by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops National Review Board, which "revealed that 10,667 children were allegedly victimized by 4,392 priests from 1950 to 2002, but said the figures depend on self-reporting by American bishops and were probably an undercount." 8

Besides the moral questions, several others remain. Augustine does not deal with the complicity of the Church and its hierarchy in knowing of the services and the sins of wicked priests. But it is clear from his words, and from history, that that doesn't matter either. Christ's grace is still communicated through wicked ministers whose overseers know are wicked. In fact, they know they are hurting very deeply the sheep under their care, acting like wolves instead of shepherds, and still , they minister grace through the one, holy, Catholic Church through the sacraments.

Paul said that those who practice such things will not inherit the Kingdom of Heaven9 and that "such were some of you, but you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified,"10 and the Son of God said the one who seeks his own glory (how much more his own pleasure) is false.11 Yet according to the official doctrine of the Church, it is obvious the minister could be going straight to the lake of fire forever, and still minister Christ's grace on the way!

Does their Christ not have any say in the matter, or care that His name, and His grace, are dragged through the sewer? Could this basic Christian teaching actually be true? Or could it be evidence that those who teach and practice such things do not know God at all, but have created a mechanical religion that functions like a machine, independent of the goodness or badness of the operators?

There is a famous cartoon showing Cardinal Law, formerly head of the Boston Archdiocese, surrounded by wolves. Drawing the cardinal with shepherd's staff in hand, a confused look on his face, and putting the words in his mouth, "You mean, I'm supposed to be protecting the sheep?" cartoonist Mike Luckovich captured the bewilderment of a nation about the Catholic Church sex scandal. How could the overseers of people's souls shuffle priests around whom they knew preyed upon vulnerable boys and youth to satisfy their own selfish desires? There are countless records of priests serving for years -- for decades, in fact -- with such sins on their conscience, with the full knowledge of their superiors. How could the bishops and cardinals allow such evil to go on by men representing, according to their religion, Christ himself, dispensers of His grace through the sacraments? Is there any greater betrayal of trust?

As one of the victims put it, who said a Boston-area priest abused him from 1968 to 1975, "These people knew that pedophiles were coming to town. They had advance warning. We didn't."12

How could they send them?

How could they remain silent?

How could they believe, as Cardinal Law wrote in 1996 to Father Shanley, one of the worst offenders, that such men as Shanley had brought God's Word, love, and Spirit to others?

For thirty years in assigned ministry you brought God's Word and His love to people, and I know that continues to be your goal despite some difficult limitations... Without doubt over all these years of generous and zealous care, the lives and hearts of many people have been touched by your sharing of the Lord's Spirit.13

This was to the same Father Shanley who had said in a 1977 speech, "no sexual act causes psychic damage, not even incest or bestiality," and that in pedophilia, "the adult is not the seducer - the "kid" is and further the kid is not traumatized by the act per se," but by being dragged in for questioning by the police. Further, "Homosexuality is a gift from God," Shanley said, "and should be celebrated."14 The report of this speech had been on file for nineteen years, during which time Father Shanley repeatedly acted on his beliefs, at the expense of the youth of his parishes, by the time Cardinal Law wrote his letter.15

How could this be?

The answer is tied up in an ancient controversy of the Christian Church, one in which the sinfulness of the priest was explicitly considered in regards to his ministry. And the answer, just as decisively, came down that a sinful priest could continue to serve as a conduit of Christ's grace. It was not the priest's status that mattered in the sacraments, but Christ's, who is, of course, beyond reproach. So, in regards to their most essential functioning in the Roman Catholic Church, these men's flagrant sexual immorality had no bearing on their priesthood.

In one case, church records show that a priest left the woman's bedroom after the mother of four (two of them his) took an overdose. Her children found her dead the next morning. This man, Father James Foley, went on to serve for several more decades as a priest in Boston.16 The stories go on and on, one more incredible than the other, as are the sheer numbers of abusive priests involved, and their legions of victims. But most incredible of all is the theology behind it, which takes us back to the religious controversy of sixteen centuries ago. In it, the great Catholic theologian Augustine formulated his famous doctrine regarding the sacraments: the efficacy depends on the grace of Christ alone.

Early in the fourth century, a bishop named Donatus insisted that the sacraments, ministered by unclean hands, conferred no grace. He believed that priests who had betrayed the faith in the last persecutions of the Roman Empire in the early 300s were traitors to the faith, and so could not resume their positions once the persecution ended. This controversy lingered on for close to a hundred years over the general issue of the sinfulness or the righteousness of the priest. Augustine in the early 400s articulated the Catholic position. It remains doctrine to the present day, which this deluge of controversy, lawsuits, and public shame over pedophilia in the priesthood has not changed in the slightest.

Augustine poses the essential theological (not moral) question at work regarding these predatory priests: "There stands before us one that is faithless ready to baptize, and he who should be baptized is ignorant of his faithlessness: what think you that he will receive?" Augustine draws no line regarding the state of the priest's conscience, not even when "the conscience of the giver [the priest] may be in such a condition as to be accursed and defiled" -- which certainly speaks of the consciences of those preying on innocent children year after year.

The heretics were charging that baptism conducted by an unworthy priest was of no effect. No one was saved, in other words. If anything, guilt was communicated to the seeker. Augustine faced the issue head-on: "For we find that it is possible that a man should receive faith even from one that is faithless, if he be not aware of the faithlessness of the giver."

The man seeking baptism does not know, then, that the priest at the baptismal font is living in sin. What is the consequence of his priest's sin? Nothing at all, for saving grace still comes to him, as long he is ignorant of the priest's sin. And the reason for this is the believer's reliance on Christ to save him, not the priest, as Augustine eloquently puts it:

Can it be, that when he who is baptized is unaware of the faithlessness of his baptizer, it is then Christ who gives faith, it is then Christ who is the origin and root and head? Alas for human rashness and conceit! Why do you not allow that it is always Christ who gives faith, for the purpose of making a man a Christian by giving it?17

A pope, writing nearly eight hundred years later, would unconditionally confirm this teaching:

"Nothing more is accomplished by a good priest and nothing less by a wicked priest, because it is accomplished by the word of the Creator and not the merit of the priest. Thus the wickedness of the priest does not nullify the effect of the sacrament, just as the sickness of a doctor does not destroy the power of his medicine. Although the 'doing of the thing (opus operans)' may be unclean, nevertheless, the 'thing which is done (opus operatum)' is always clean." - Pope Innocent III (1160-1216)

And this teaching is also upheld by the Anglican Church:

Neither is the effect of Christ's ordinance taken away by their [a minister's] wickedness, nor the grace of God's gifts diminished from such as by faith, and rightly, do receive the Sacraments ministered unto them; which be effectual, because of Christ's institution and promise, although they be ministered by evil men.18

Faithlessness... wicked priest... wickedness... none of these matter! It's official doctrine. The knowledge of these facts from history and theology makes it easier to understand how the hierarchy of the Catholic Church of America could, systematically and knowingly, employ such depraved individuals as priests.

According to their greatest theologian, Augustine, it simply didn't matter. Nothing else can explain the report from February of this year, by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops National Review Board, which "revealed that 10,667 children were allegedly victimized by 4,392 priests from 1950 to 2002, but said the figures depend on self-reporting by American bishops and were probably an undercount." 19

Besides the moral questions, several others remain. Augustine does not deal with the complicity of the Church and its hierarchy in knowing of the services and the sins of wicked priests. But it is clear from his words, and from history, that that doesn't matter either. Christ's grace is still communicated through wicked ministers whose overseers know are wicked. In fact, they know they are hurting very deeply the sheep under their care, acting like wolves instead of shepherds, and still , they minister grace through the one, holy, Catholic Church through the sacraments.

Paul said that those who practice such things will not inherit the Kingdom of Heaven20 and that "such were some of you, but you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified,"21 and the Son of God said the one who seeks his own glory (how much more his own pleasure) is false.22 Yet according to the official doctrine of the Church, it is obvious the minister could be going straight to the lake of fire forever, and still minister Christ's grace on the way!

Does their Christ not have any say in the matter, or care that His name, and His grace, are dragged through the sewer? Could this basic Christian teaching actually be true? Or could it be evidence that those who teach and practice such things do not know God at all, but have created a mechanical religion that functions like a machine, independent of the goodness or badness of the operators?

  • 1. G. Frost, "Files on Boston priests yield sordid details," Reuters, December 4, 2002
  • 2. Bernard Law, Letter to Robert Shanley, February 29, 1996.
  • 3. Dolores Stevens letter of October 4, 1977 labeled "Report of Rev. Paul Shanley's talk to Dignity-Integrity 9-23-77 St. Luke's Episcopal Church, Rochester, NY"
  • 4. W. Robinson and T. Farragher, "Shanley's record long ignored," April 9, 2002
  • 5. S. Kurkjian and W. Robinson, "A 'classic misuse of   power'" Boston Globe , December 29, 2002
  • 6. Augustine quotes are from, "In Answer to the Letters of Petilian, the Donatist, Bishop of Cirta" (c. A.D. 400), Book I
  • 7. Article 25, Articles of Religion, Book of Common Prayer (p. 873)
  • 8. D. Zabarenko, "Study Finds 10,600 Children Abused by U.S. Priests" for Reuters on February 27, 2004
  • 9. Galatians 5:19-21
  • 10. 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 -- Note that it does not say, "Such are some of you."
  • 11. John 7:18
  • 12. G. Frost, "Files on Boston priests yield sordid details," Reuters, December 4, 2002
  • 13. Bernard Law, Letter to Robert Shanley, February 29, 1996.
  • 14. Dolores Stevens letter of October 4, 1977 labeled "Report of Rev. Paul Shanley's talk to Dignity-Integrity 9-23-77 St. Luke's Episcopal Church, Rochester, NY"
  • 15. W. Robinson and T. Farragher, "Shanley's record long ignored," April 9, 2002
  • 16. S. Kurkjian and W. Robinson, "A 'classic misuse of   power'" Boston Globe , December 29, 2002
  • 17. Augustine quotes are from, "In Answer to the Letters of Petilian, the Donatist, Bishop of Cirta" (c. A.D. 400), Book I
  • 18. Article 25, Articles of Religion, Book of Common Prayer (p. 873)
  • 19. D. Zabarenko, "Study Finds 10,600 Children Abused by U.S. Priests" for Reuters on February 27, 2004
  • 20. Galatians 5:19-21
  • 21. 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 -- Note that it does not say, "Such are some of you."
  • 22. John 7:18

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