So Much for “Indelible Character”

John Allen reports that the US Bishops are taking great comfort in the preliminary report of John Jay College that there’s really nothing distinctive about priests–they don’t stand out in any way from the general society.

Archbishop Elden Curtiss of Omaha, for example, said from the floor that the study will be of “great interest,” especially as a way of debunking what he called an “unfortunate media problem” and “a myth, reinforced over time, that there’s something unique about a Catholic priest, about a bishop and his staff,” when it comes to sexual abuse. …

Boosting the apologetic argument that “it’s not just us,” however, may prove to be only the short-term impact of the John Jay study. In the long run, its most significant fallout may come in the arena of today’s growing discussion of Catholic identity.

In theory, Catholicism is supposed to shape a distinctive culture among its followers based on church teaching and tradition; put crudely, Catholics are supposed to be different. In the old days, visible markers that set Catholics apart, such as abstaining from meat on Fridays, were intended to symbolize and reinforce a deeper sense of unique Catholic identity. Since the mid-1960s, however, a growing number of voices in the Catholic world have warned that the church seems to be losing this counter-cultural thrust. As then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, today Pope Benedict XVI, put the point in 1984, “Among the most urgent tasks facing Christians is that of regaining the capacity of non-conformism, i.e., the capacity to oppose many developments of the surrounding culture.”

What the John Jay study appears to suggest, taken at face value, is that at least in the arena of the sexual abuse of minors, a distinctive Catholic ethos is tough to discern. Abusive behavior by priests has mirrored similar misconduct in other walks of life, according to the early results, and the corporate response of the church has often reflected the same patterns as those followed by other social institutions.

It’s deeper than that, though. Catholic theology of the priesthood says that ordination confers an “indelible character“–it makes an “ontological change” in a person. The sacraments are said to confer grace “ex opere operato.” Now the US bishops are rejoicing in this report that can find no difference between priests and non-priests, between Catholics and non-Catholics.

11 thoughts on “So Much for “Indelible Character”

  1. While there is no moral defense for abusing priests, I think you’re missing the point on this one and at least giving the impression that the Catholic Church teaches that a priest is, by virtue of his vocation and ordination, metaphysically, morally “special.” This of course is not true. While priests, ministers and other chuch leaders should be held to a higher moral standard (as Scripture requires), neither the “indelible mark” nor the “ontological change” that comes with ordination–and while different, with baptism and confirmation–implies higher moral behavior although the position of leadership requires it. Thus, the “we’re just like everyone else” is vacuous, but for other non-metaphysical reasons.

    GJMOP

  2. Then it is meaningless to speak of an ontological change or an indelible mark. What kind of change would the Holy Spirit bring upon a person other than making them holy, or to assist them in living out faithfully the ministry to which they are called? Can Catholics admit that these terms are mere hallmarks of clericalism, which seeks to make the clergy somehow above the laity? No, because the Catholic church still lives and breathes clericalism.

  3. I agree, I think you’re missing the point Bill. The Bishops were clearly making the point that with regards to sexual abuse, that the rate of incidence among priests is no higher than the average among all people. To perceive that the bishop is talking about an indelible mark here is completely reading something into the conversation that isn’t there.

    Regarding the indelible Mark, If this is an issue of clericalism then explain the Catholic teaching that Baptism as well as Confirmation imparts an indelible mark. The indelible mark has nothing to do with clericalism.

  4. The bishops say there is no difference between the moral actions of priests (who were selected, screened, formed, trained, and then received the sacraments, which are said to impart grace) and the moral actions of the general population.

    If the sacrament does convey grace “ex opere operato,” if it makes an “ontological change,” if it confers an indelible mark, if it gives sanctifying grace, then should not priests be different? Isn’t the point that they are to be made more like Christ through this grace?

    You’re saying there’s no difference in their moral actions from the general population when it comes to the most deviant sexual behaviors despite their selection, their formation, their training, and their sacrament.

    How then can the church claim the sacraments do anything, if here is an objective, documented example of the fact that it doesn’t reduce even the most vile deviant behavior in the control population? How can it claim they give sanctifying grace, if there’s no evidence of sanctification? How can it claim they gave a spiritual power, if that power produces no fruit?

    For Catholic teaching on this subject, see Thomas Aquinas and the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

    The Catholic Church claims this sacrament does something. The Bishops are grateful now that social scientists tell them Catholic priests are as vile as the general population. Clearly, something is wrong here.

  5. It is, indeed, “meaningless to speak of an ontological change or an indelible mark” within the context of abuse, the John Jay findings or the Bishop’s response because it had absolutely nothing to do with it (it is therefor unmentioned).

    My read of your syllogism: a) The RC Church teaches that priests are “indelibly marked” (as are the baptized) and they recieve an ontological change at ordination(as do the confirmandi). b) These result in the bestowing of grace or graces. c) Therefore, priests should not abuse because the have these “turbo-graces.” It is the conclusion that is fallacious because any unmerited favor(s) from God must be accepted, cooperated with, lived in; whatever terminology you want to use. The fact that abusing priests failed to cooperate with the grace (unmerited favor) they have received, does not negate, mitigate or render false the teaching of the church viz. “ontological change” and/or “indelible marks.” I think Josh is point on on this one; “To perceive that the bishop is talking about an indelible mark here is completely reading something into the conversation that isn’t there”.
    Peace.

    GJMOP

  6. “The fact that abusing priests failed to cooperate with the grace (unmerited favor) they have received, does not negate, mitigate or render false the teaching of the church viz. ‘ontological change’ and/or ‘indelible marks.'”

    So, you maintain the reality of a change, a sanctification, a grace, despite the fact that it does not diminish in the least even the most vile human behaviors. That’s your bottom line.

    (Oh, and it seems you’re using the Protestant definition of grace there, not the Catholic definition, which goes on from that:

    2000. Sanctifying grace is a habitual gift, a stable and supernatural disposition that perfects the soul itself to enable it to live with God, to act by his love. Habitual grace, the permanent disposition to live and act in keeping with God’s interventions, whether at the beginning of conversion or in the course of the work of sanctification.)

    Let’s note further–the bishops say that nothing the selection process and seminary formation program try to do matter one whit. Though they screen, test, evaluate, form and train, they are not able to impact the numbers of abusers at all. They take comfort in the fact that in the past and in the present, the statistics in the world remain the same as the statistics in the priesthood. Not only is the sacramental grace ineffective, but so is the selection process, the psychological testing, and all those evaluations.

    Sounds like it’s a failure from start to finish.

    All it creates is “company men.”

    Well, it doesn’t even do that, does it?–(we both know too many dissenters).

    What does it create? What’s the bare minimum we can say? It creates a group of men who are trained to do the sacraments and who are willing to be moved by the church where it wants them. Anything above that seems to be actual grace.

  7. You forgot another part of the Catholic theology about grace, Bill. Namely, that a person may choose freely and willingly to act against the operation of grace even sanctifying grace. It’s an act deemed mortal sin. Priests aren’t immune from mortal sin (and neither are the bishops who keep moving them around). Check CCC 1731-1735 as well as 1742 and 1861.

    Aquinas states that one of the effects of grace (Prima Secunda Partis Q 113) is justification of the ungodly, but that this justification requires the assent of the will (see Article 3 of the above). You may respond that part of Article 3 also states that one of the acts of God’s grace is to move the will to accept the grace, but this must be conditioned by Q 9 Article 6, Reply to Objection 3: “But man determines himself by his reason to will this or that, which is true or apparent good.” It must also be conditioned by Q 109 articles 9 and 10, which state that man requires grace, even after having already received grace previously, to continue to live well and persevere.

    Aside from this argument Bill, how many Christians do you know who have been baptized and yet sinned afterwards? I have a hunch that you know several. Heck, you can count me as one. I received sanctifying grace and an indelible mark on the soul at baptism, but it hasn’t stopped me from sinning (at least not yet).

    Or how about this: Overall, Protestant Christians divorce at the same rate (39%) as non-Christians (35%…increases to 38% if you include non-married cohabiting couples who split). Now, regardless of the various doctrinal differences between the numerous denominations about grace, sanctifying grace, and baptism (and I’m not sure what you or SDAs in general think about these issues), I think we can generally agree that a Christian has been imbued with (sanctifying) grace, either as a result of or as signified by his baptism. By analogous application of your argument, Christians should be divorcing at a lower rate than non-Christians. But Protestants don’t. Catholics divorce at a rate of 25%…maybe that sacramental marital grace is working better? Or would that statement be a misapplication of the theology…?

  8. “You forgot another part of the Catholic theology about grace, Bill. Namely, that a person may choose freely and willingly to act against the operation of grace even sanctifying grace.”

    OK, so you’re saying the failure is in what, the entire selection and formation process? We’re not talking about garden variety sins. We’re talking about a failure of the Catholic Church in every way to reduce in the slightest the incidence of some of the most vile and heinous sins known to man.

    As to divorce rate — studies also show 25% of Americans have been divorced at least once. There are some differing rates for differing groups, but the differences fall within the margin of error.

    But that’s different that molesting children.

  9. Yeah, I’d say it’s in the selection and formation process. I’d give you some stories from San Antonio if I had the time and this couldn’t be publicly seen.

    The act of divorce is different qualitatively from molesting children, but the same logic you were using applies. I wasn’t intending to compare the sinfulness of the acts, just indicating a fallacy in your argument by way of analogy. You and I would agree about the sinfulness of divorce. Hence, the difference is of degree and not kind. By the way, my source was the Barna Research Group, in case you were wondering

  10. “OK, so you’re saying the failure is in what, the entire selection and formation process? We’re not talking about garden variety sins. We’re talking about a failure of the Catholic Church in every way to reduce in the slightest the incidence of some of the most vile and heinous sins known to man.”

    Yes, now we’re talking turkey (and its not even Thursday: by the way, happy thanksgiving to you and yours).

    Yes, selection and formation is a large part of it but not the only part. A pedophile who seeks ro enter priesthhood because he thinks that ministry would be a good place to find and groom new victims would be quite right; and if he is adept a concealment, which he probably would be, there are no testing instruments capable of identifying him for what he is. Moreover, many seminaries encourage the kind of sexual self expression that can ultimately lead to a full flowering of amoral and criminal behavior, not just for the wolf in sheep’s clothing but for men who entered, perhaps at first for the right reason. I am fond of Richard John Neuhaus’ remark that the crisis is a problem of fidelity, fidelity and fidelity, but much is subsummed in that: the fidelity to scripture, the fidelity to one’s vow’s, the fidelity (as in fiduciary responsiblity) of the bishops, the fidelity to basic Christan doctrines in seminaries. This is a many-tiered problem. I’m sure you have read Michael Rose’s book, Goodbye Good Men. Not all of what’s in there is true, but far too much of it is, but none of it is because —as Josh, Jake and I have pointed out, at least obliquely–of -the attaining or not attaining an indelible mark or an ontological change at ordination. Yet you are right, there has been a tremendous shirking of fiduciary responsibility on the part of the Bishops, and as such, on the Church as well. The USCCB’s latest spin will not be at all helpful since the are wrongly taking comfort in statitics and not addressing root causes.

    Peace.

    GJMOP

  11. Ditto regarding the Thanksgiving greetings. 🙂

    By the way–send me a private note and let me know what’s up with you these days.

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