The Sacraments and Sinful Priests

What happens when a Sacrament is celebrated by a sinful priest?

By the time this question reached the time of Saint Augustine, there was a group of Christians in Northern Africa who were very concerned with maintaining the purity of the Church against the impurity of the world. They viewed the Church as a sanctuary of truth and purity amid a world full of error and idolatry. They were called Donatists after Donatus Magnus, who was a leader of this movement and died in 355, a year after Augustine’s birth. For the Donatists, which was a significant part of Christians in Northern Africa by the time Augustine was born, a mark of the true Church was whether it had maintained this moral purity, especially among the clergy. 

After the persecutions of the emperor Diocletian had passed, Donatists believed that clergy who had renounced their faith in Christ and handed over the scriptures and sacred vessels to Roman soldiers could not resume their ministry without being rebaptized and ordained again. Otherwise they would be performing invalid sacraments. 

The Donatist belief is very similar to Catholics today who doubt the sacramental validity of sacraments celebrated by priests embroiled in public sin, or Catholics who refuse to go to Confession to any priest they consider as much a sinner as themselves. 

For Donatist Christians as well as for some Catholics I have talked to in recent years, such clergy could not celebrate valid sacraments. Donatist Christians claimed to have maintained the purity of their clergy, and therefore the validity of their sacraments. They held that because Catholics had among their clergy bishops who had been “traitors,” and who had since ordained other bishops and priests, that their sacraments were invalid. Therefore, Donatists would rebaptize any Catholic who would join their flock.

Augustine explained that the holiness of the Church is not a sum of the holiness of its members. For Catholics, the inclusion of sinners does not diminish the holiness of the Church because its holiness comes from Christ not from its members. Think of how the moon reflects the brightness of the sun, not its own. Moreover, there is room for sinners within the Church, because the Church is a means for sanctification, or as Pope Francis has said at the beginning of his papacy, a field hospital for spiritual healing. 

However, the Church today agrees with the Donatist Christians of the 4th century (although for different reasons) that priests who have committed certain sins have no place in public ministry. 

Whereas Donatists were concerned with the validity of the sacraments, the Church today is concerned with the protection of the faithful. 

Every priest has received the gift of sacrament of order which he has received in the “earthen vessel” of his weak humanity. The Church is then called to stand with the victims of clerical abuse, to provide for their healing, to pray for them, to ensure that it does not happen again by carrying out policies and protocols to protect minors and vulnerable adults, and to prosecute the offenders. The painful times we have lived through summon us to an ongoing purification, and to make reparation for the sins of the clergy. 

For Donatists, the line separating saints and sinners, those who belong to Christ and those who did not was clear and it could be determined by a moral scrutiny; whereas for Augustine, this separation was up to Christ at the end of times. One thing that Donatists and Augustine had in common: they both believed the Church to be an eschatological sign, namely a sign of who God calls us to be, and yet for Augustine this eschatological reality is fulfilled and realized in heaven, while on earth we’re called to ongoing conversion and perseverance in truth and virtue. 

So, if you have ever wondered, why should I go to confession with a priest who is just as sinful as I am (if not more) or if you avoid attending Masses of certain priests because you question their moral integrity and worry whether their Mass might be valid, remember that when we confess our sins, the priest is acting on behalf of Christ, and his own virtue or lack thereof, is irrelevant for the efficacy and validity of the sacrament (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 1128). The priest could be risking his own salvation, but Christ still forgives us through him.

Jesus told his apostles, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained ” (John 20:21) not because of the moral purity of the apostles, but because he established their ministry to represent him. During the sacramental celebration, the priest acts in the person of Christ, and therefore his own virtue or lack thereof does not affect the validity of the sacraments.   

Faced with a deeper awareness of our weakness by the reality of clergy abuse that has surfaced during our lifetime, a reflection on Donatism reminds us that Christ is the shepherd of humanity, and it is Jesus’ priesthood that we priests share in when we minister in His name.  

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