Separation leaves scars
When a man is ordained as a priest, receiving the Sacrament of Holy Orders confers “an indelible spiritual character and cannot be repeated or conferred temporarily” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1582). A character such as this is “indelible,” meaning “permanent,” and thus marks the soul for all time, even after death. Only in two other sacraments, Baptism and Confirmation, are characters conferred onto souls.
The rarity and permanency of these characters reflect their profundity. Sacraments such as the Sacrament of Reconciliation may change a person’s thoughts and actions. However, such a sacrament does not change the person “ontologically,” or “on the level of being,” as does the Sacrament of Holy Orders.
Indeed, to be changed on the level of being itself is to be changed in the most profound and personal way that one can be. Receiving a sacrament that leaves a character upon the soul unites a person with all those who have received such a character. Thus, when one changes as a result of such a sacrament, so do all others who have received that same sacrament, for it is in that sacrament that they have all been united. “For as in one body we have many parts…so too, though many, we are one body in Christ” (Rom 12:4-5). It is for this reason that all the baptized are connected in the Mystical Body of Christ and all the confirmed are united in the full communion of the Church. It is for this reason that all priests are brothers in their sacred ministry.
And, it is for this reason that the whole Body of Christ, the whole Church, suffers when a part of it ails. Much like a person who feels fatigued because of a headache, so too does the Body of Christ, the Church, feel afflicted when her ministers fail. The Church agonizes when those who are to act in persona Christi Capitas, in the person of Christ the Head (of the Church), sin and bow to the Prince of Darkness. This is why Holy Mother Church now weeps.
This past summer, the Church was thrown into the midst of a grievous sexual abuse scandal. Case after case of times when the Church’s ministers had sexually abused those under their care were revealed. Not even the highest ranks of the Church were to be found without guilt. Bishops were found to have covered up these crimes. And some were found to even have committed these crimes themselves.
One such man was Theodore McCarrick. Once referred to as Theodore Cardinal McCarrick, he is no longer even Fr. McCarrick. This is because, on February 16th, 2019, he was defrocked. To be defrocked or laicized means that he should no longer be addressed by any honorific title nor exercise the ability to minister the sacraments by celebrating the Mass, hearing confessions, or anointing the sick. In addition, his clerical status is revoked and he is no longer supported by the Church in any financial sense.
Defrocking is the most severe punishment for a cleric. While excommunication is severe, it only stands so long as the excommunicated person persists in sin. Defrocking, however, remains permanent, regardless of whether the defrocked man remains in sin. It should be noted that defrocking can occur at the behest of a priest himself, often for deeply personal reasons, but when it is applied as a punishment, it is critical.
It is important to understand that defrocking discharges a cleric from the obligations of the priesthood as well as forbids him from exercising priestly ministry. But, “he cannot become a layman again in the strict sense, because the character imprinted by ordination is forever. The vocation and mission received on the day of his ordination mark him permanently” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1583). The true punishment in defrocking is essentially prohibiting a man from uniting himself fully with Christ in the celebration of the sacraments; it is the removal of his most sacred gift.
Mr. McCarrick’s punishment quells our anger slightly but not completely. We are reassured to see that McCarrick has been punished. We want to see severe punishments rained down upon all of these men that have failed the Bride of Christ so profusely. But all those punishments will never heal us. In this great Mystical Body of Christ of which we are a part, they are the cancers that must be removed by surgery so that the Body might properly function. But surgery hurts, it changes you, it leaves scars that will serve as constant reminders of a horrible history.
Yet, these scars also serve as reminders of what has been overcome. These scars serve as reminders of the strength and resilience of the Body. We, the Mystical Body are scarred. The sin of the Body’s members has left its hideous stain upon the Church’s history. But the Church prevails. She fears not scars. She looks upon her scars as a sign of her strength, as a sign of what she has and what she can overcome. She remembers that she was founded on scars, the Scars sin left on the Hands, Feet, and Side of her Savior!
Christ could have risen from the dead and made His Holy Wounds disappear. Instead, He chose to keep them. He let His Stigmata remain so that those who, like Thomas, would doubt, might see and believe that He made even the greatest of evils and betrayal good. So too, must Holy Mother Church bare this, her stigmata. She must display openly what has come to pass that Christ might make the betrayal of these priests good.
The priest is not his own; the priest is Christ’s. The good done by priests is, in fact, Christ’s work done through them. The good, however much or little may have been done through the ministry of these men, must not be forgotten. Woe to he who forgets that he is “a priest forever, in the line of Melchizedek” (Heb 7:17)! For such a man shall be “ranked with the devil” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1584). Yet, even should such a man forget his great commission, Christ can make his evil good. For “Christ’s gift is not… profaned: what flows through him keeps its purity, and what passes through him remains dear and reaches the fertile earth. The spiritual power of the sacrament is indeed comparable to light: those to be enlightened receive it in its purity, and if it should pass through defiled beings, it is not itself defiled” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1584).
We are called to remember these words of the Catechism in this current moment. The good that we have experienced from the ministry of some priests now discovered to have committed great evil, was the good of Christ. This good must not be forgotten. It is not to say that we should exalt these men like Theodore McCarrick. Rather, it is to say that we should exalt Christ for the great lesson that He has taught us through them. It is a lesson in His supremacy over evil. Men like McCarrick bowed to the Prince of Darkness. But the Prince is no match for the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords. “Behold, I make all things new,” says the One on the throne (Rev 21:5). When He makes all things new again, bathed in the Blood of the Lamb, He will look upon them, as He did His new creation in Genesis, and see that “it is good” (Gen 1:31).
Patrick is a freshman studying mathematics and theology. He would like you to make a trip to the Grotto and pray for all the priests you know. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.