William M. Shea
A song in the New York seminary of my day (1955–1961) went like this:
It’s Tradition, it’s Tradition, it’s a very, very, very old Tradition.
You can ask the Roman Rota; it won’t help you one iota.
For no amount of wishin’, no, no amount of wishin’
can ever change or hope to change a very old Tradition.
My confreres in the seminary thought of this as wry humor mixed with a bit of sarcasm, and sang it with gusto. Tradition was a real determinant of our life and mind, an ever present condition of our progress toward the priesthood. Among the pervasive traditions we met daily were hierarchy, celibacy, the distinction between those ordained or vowed and the laity, the seminary horarium (up at 5:30, lights out at 10), and a whole complex of social structures and mores in which we were educated and by which we were expected to live. We were taught that the sola scriptura didn’t do it for Catholics; Catholics were marked by their acceptance of capital-T Tradition.
The sacred magisterium (teaching office) was a major part of that inheritance, related closely to hierarchy and awesomely close to each of us as we were trained to share in the preaching and teaching functions of the Church—i.e., of the bishops. We were to follow the magisterium of the bishops and the pope; we were to teach what they taught, for they are the authentic and infallible voice of God in the world. Scripture and Tradition were the rivers of revelation, and the hierarchy was the interpreter of both. That sacred magisterium was for practical purposes codified in the creeds, in the acts of the councils, in catechisms, and in the Latin textbooks we used for moral and doctrinal theology classes.
We were taught something of the Donatist controversy in the North African churches in the fourth through eighth centuries. Those “rigorist” bishops criticized their weaker brethren who acceded to Diocletian’s command that they “hand over” their copies of the Scriptures to the imperial inquisitors. The bishops who refused called the faltering bishops “traditores” (traitors, those who “hand over”), declaring their sinful brethren’s sacraments invalid. The Donatist bishops did in fact believe that treachery undercut the ministry of the traitors: how could a coward who “handed over” the Scriptures celebrate valid sacraments and be trusted to teach the truth about God? Clearly he couldn’t.
The response of orthodox Catholics in the “tradition” of Augustine of Hippo was that the sins of priests and bishops did not affect the validity of their sacramental ministry or the truth of their magisterial teaching. After all, God was the cause of grace and truth while the bishops and priests were merely his instruments. The popes could have their mistresses and children and ill-gotten gain, but they were still popes. The point is marvelously clear: the immorality of ministers does not undercut their apostolic ministry.
God bless those Donatist heretics, for by virtue of their error the orthodox church could ply its wares for centuries to come with a clear conscience: its ministers may be traditores, but their sacramental actions remain pure. The church need not be a church of saints. It was, in fact, a church of sinners. Christ makes up for all our leaders’ tawdry failings by the shedding of his blood on Calvary. The sacraments work, no matter the sins of the clergy, for it is Christ himself who works through them. I am far from a Donatist, but I want to urge a course of action on the church that could easily and with some good reason be called heretical, perhaps as heretical as the Donatists themselves.
Pope Francis, in my opinion a mensch and the best thing that has happened to my Catholic Church since the election of John XXIII in 1958, recently warned us against “an immoderate desire for total change without sufficient reflection or grounding,” as well as against a hardline “attitude that would solve everything by applying general rules or deriving undue conclusions from particular theological considerations.” By way of excuse for departing from the pope’s wisdom let me say that the Roman Catholic Church is in a bad way. What is to be done? I know what needs to be done. But if we did it, we’d possibly be in an even greater mess, thus proving Francis right. “The last state of the man would be worse than the first!” (Luke 11:26). I might well be killing Catholicism rather than healing it. I worry about that, but the risk must be taken, so serious is the situation. So radical is the solution that even the pope who knows the situation far better than I do is apparently unable to enact it.