Ethics and religion discussion: must one be morally pure to dispense the sacraments?


Kathy writes:

“We were encouraged to follow Bishop Robert Barron’s Reflections on the Lenten Gospel during Lent. I am still in shock from an article in which he says: “In the fourth century, Saint Augustine took up the challenge of the Donatists. They asserted that only pure and morally upright priests could legitimately dispense the sacraments. Augustine said, no, the personal evil of a minister does not compromise the validity of what he does sacramentally. Augustine says there can be evil men who do and teach the works of God.

“I find this deplorable and unacceptable! Is this where ethics and religion separate? »

Linda Knieriemen, senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Holland, responds:

“It is a privilege, an honor, to serve the Christian sacraments. It is a privilege and an honor to represent God to the people and the people to God in any religious ritual. No human can ever be morally righteous and pure enough to deserve this responsibility. In my denomination, we speak of ordination as being “set aside for a purpose,” not elevated to a higher level because of individual holiness. It is the justice of God that is celebrated in the sacraments, not that of the celebrant. A character of humility is of the utmost importance.

“That said, a religious leader who engages in unacknowledged or unacknowledged ‘personal evil’ is hypocritical and should expect criticism from his congregation as well as accountability to a denominational authority or council. Such a religious leader should not be surprised if the faithful retire to another congregation whose leaders show greater integrity and humility.

Reverend Colleen Squires, pastor at All Souls Community Church of West Michigan, a Unitarian Universalist congregation, responds:

“Certainly we should hold clergy to high moral and ethical standards, but congregations must remember that their leaders are also human. We all make mistakes. I think all clergy in general serve their congregations best s ‘they are aware of and reminded of their own humanity, their fragility, their shortcomings and their flaws. Some of my failures have made me more sympathetic and understanding towards the mistakes of others. I am not sure what personal harm is meant, if it means any form of abuse, I would vote to remove that person from ministerial service.

Reverend Sandra Nikkel, senior pastor of the Conklin Reformed Church, responds:

“The validity or effectiveness of the sacraments does not depend on our personal holiness. However, their credibility does. The lack of credibility of the person who officiates can easily compromise the sacraments because the person who receives them receives them by faith in Christ – whom we ministers represent. Therefore, it is the leader’s responsibility not to compromise the faith of his brother or sister by misrepresenting Christ and his Truth. Instead, the minister is called to live in purity by holding Christ’s moral standards to live and love God with all his heart, soul and mind and to love his neighbor as one would love himself. oneself. (Matthew 22:37-39)”

Father Kevin Niehoff, OP, a Dominican priest who serves as Judicial Vicar, Diocese of Grand Rapids, responds:

“Heresy is ‘the stubborn denial after baptism of a truth which must be believed with divine and Catholic faith’ (Catechism of the Catholic Church, p. 507). Donatism “was originally a schism, then a heresy which claimed that the validity of the sacraments came from the moral character of the minister, without a sinner able to be a member of the church” ( /culture/library/dictionary/index.cfm?id=33206).

“The Catholic Church teaches that the validity of the sacraments comes from God through the ministry of the Church. Therefore, the validity of the sacraments does not come from human beings but is of divine origin. Unfortunately, human nature is such that perfection is unattainable until we are born into eternal life.

“Furthermore, the Catholic Church teaches” that God, in his almighty providence, can bring good from the consequences of evil “as evidenced by” the greatest moral evil ever committed – the rejection and murder of the only son of God, caused by the sins of all [people].’ Yet, “God has wrought the greater good, the glorification of Christ and our redemption” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, pp 82-3)

“Therefore, despite the personal sin of a priest or minister, God can affect good, and God’s goodness can flourish despite the faults of the priest or minister.”

Reverend Steven Manskar, pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church in Grand Rapids, responds:

“Of course, the character of a priest or pastor matters. Pastoral integrity is essential for effective ministry. The first rule of pastoral ministry is to do no harm. The way to ensure this is to live and work with integrity and holiness. When pastors break this rule, they cause great harm to individual lives and to the testimony of the Church.

“But that was not the subject of the Donatist polemic. The Donatists insisted that only priests who were themselves holy were qualified to administer the sacraments of the church. Augustine argued that such a requirement is contrary to Scripture. To support his argument, he pointed to the parable of the wheat and the tares (Matthew 13:24-31) in which Jesus argues that the church is a mixed community of sinners and saints. Only God can judge. Augustine also held that the efficacy of the sacraments does not depend on the character of the priest because God is the one who acts in and through the sacrament with the priest and the congregation. God, by the power of the Holy Spirit, imparts grace through the priest and the congregation and the ordinary signs of water, bread, wine, oil and the laying on of hands.

Reverend Ray Lanning, retired pastor of the Reformed Presbyterian Church in North America, responds:

“At the risk of shocking you even more, I will reveal to you that there is a lot of ‘personal evil’ in the heart of every minister you have met. All Christians are sinners by nature, including those whom God calls to the work of ministry. All that can be expected of ministers is that they combat the evil that inhabits them, in dependence on the grace of God; but it is the duty of every Christian. Sinless perfection is a goal attained only after death, in the life of the world to come (see the Heidelberg Catechism, QQ. 114, 115). If sinless perfection were a prerequisite for Christian ministry, we would have no ministers at all.

“Presbyterianism teaches that ministerial acts, such as the administration of the sacraments, derive their validity or efficacy” from no virtue in them, or in him who administers them, but only by the blessing of Christ and the action of his Spirit. in them who receive them by faith” (Abridged Catechism, Q. 91). We can only be grateful for this truth, for there can be hypocrites in the pulpit, as well as in the pews of any church. But God always speaks by his Word, Christ is always present to bless his own institutions, and the Holy Spirit leaves no true Christian uneducated or comforted, though the human instrument is defective, perhaps even fatally.

This column answers questions of ethics and religion by putting them to a multi-faith panel of spiritual leaders from the Grand Rapids area. We would love to hear about common ethical questions that arise in your day as well as religious questions that you have. Tell us how you solved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

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