In mid-January, it was made public that His Excellency Bishop Barry Knestout (my local ordinary) had made arrangements with the Episcopal Diocese of Southern Virginia to allow an invalid consecration of a female “bishop” at St. Bede’s Catholic Church in Williamsburg. The public outcry was so intense that the Episcopalians chose to move the event to a nearby Protestant church in order to avoid further division within the Catholic faithful of the diocese.
It should be noted that Bishop Knestout does have the authority under canon law to make prudential judgments concerning the use of diocesan property for ecumenical events. The issue many Catholics had with the decision did not have much to do with the bishop’s authority, but rather the possible impact on the ministerial priesthood and further erosion of the faithful’s understanding of the priesthood in an age marred by scandal and corruption.
For the last two years, the Church has been shaken by reports of clerical sex abuse, corruption, greed, and systematic cover-ups. All of these sins of the clergy have undermined the sacred office of the priesthood—especially the office of bishop. It is the bishop who is entrusted by Christ with the fullness of Holy Orders in order to teach, govern, and sanctify the people of God. Yet the faithful’s understanding of who it is that the priest represents—what his sacred role is within the Church—has been greatly damaged as a result.
These scandals are symptomatic of a much deeper problem. The Church is facing a crisis of faith, as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI pointed out in his recent letter on the scandals. This crisis is most evident in the number of Catholics who deny the Real Presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist. Last year, the Pew Research Center reported that nearly 70 percent deny the Real Presence. The state of the priesthood today and the lack of belief in the Real Presence are inextricably linked since Holy Orders and the Holy Eucharist are bound together in the same reality. One would not exist without the other.
In response to the scandals and decades of poor catechesis, many Catholics have begun to take a rather distanced or indifferent approach to the priesthood. When potential solutions are proposed, many Catholics argue in favor of women’s ordination—which, as the Church has taught clearly and consistently for centuries, is ontologically impossible—or lifting the celibacy requirement on Latin Rite priests.
Bishop Knestout’s decision only further trivializes the importance of the sacramental priesthood in many Catholics’ eyes. Even though the invalid consecration of a woman as bishop was not occurring within the Catholic Church’s hierarchy, our bishop’s support for such an event could lead his flock into further confusion and scandal. In many people’s minds, it leaves open the future possibility of women’s ordination in the Catholic Church. Rather than clearly teaching the faithful about the Church’s understanding of the priesthood, allowing this event to take place on diocesan property could drive some of the faithful into deeper error since it potentially gives the appearance of supporting women’s ordination, even if not intended.
In order to repair the damage done to the priesthood, priests and bishops must once again help us to understand their role in the Church and in our lives. The understanding of whom the priest represents is of utmost importance, which is why many did not agree with the bishop’s decision to allow the event to take place in one of our worship spaces.
There is also a crucial connection between the breakdown in the faithful’s understanding of the priesthood and disbelief in the Real Presence. If ontological realities are irrelevant, then it is very difficult for Catholics to grasp transubstantiation. It is a mystery that we can never fully understand, but if the faithful cannot see that the priest acts as Christ in the celebration of the Mass and in the other Sacraments, then they will struggle to see Christ becoming fully present on the altar. The prevalent belief among many of the laity is that the priest is simply a man reciting a formula over bread and wine. Why can’t it be a woman?
If the priest can easily be replaced by anyone, male or female, then the reality of whether or not transubstantiation occurs becomes a source of debate. One of the essential aspects of reclaiming and catechizing Catholics on the Real Presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist is tied to clear teaching on the role and nature of the priesthood. If the faithful come to see that the priest is representative of Christ and that he stands in as Christ the Head, in persona Christi capitis, at the Mass, then it becomes much clearer that the Holy Eucharist—through the same Holy Spirit and mystery—becomes Christ’s body, blood, soul, and divinity through the words of consecration spoken by the priest.
It is the Church’s teaching on the nature of the priesthood and the Holy Eucharist that led many in my diocese—myself included—to voice concern over the bishop’s decision. It was out of a deep love and reverence for the priesthood that so many were led to protest the decision. The question is not one of authority. The bishop is free to exercise his God-given authority under canon law. The question is one of whether or not such actions would give the appearance of further undermining the priesthood, even if not intended.
It is clear that the Holy Spirit is at work in the Church healing the wounds inflicted by the scandals and cover-ups because the faithful are still fiercely defending the sacred role of our priests and bishops despite the incredible weight of the sins the hierarchy has dropped on our shoulders and the deep pain we all feel from the massive wound hemorrhaging at present within the Mystical Body. Despite the blows the priesthood has suffered, now is the time to boldly defend the priest’s sacred role and to draw the faithful into deeper communion with the ministerial priesthood.
Image: Katharine Jefferts Schori, the former Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church (Getty Images)