Abuse crisis is fueled by lack of understanding Christ’s Eucharistic sacrifice and presence
November 26, 2018 (LifeSiteNews) – “This body which is His …" What body does Pope St Pius X refer to in his exhortation to Catholic priests, exactly 110 years before last summer’s revelations on clerical sex abuse? (Cf Haerent Animo Part I, St. Pius X, 4th August 1908) Is it the Eucharistic Body of Christ, that is, the sacred Host? No. Is it the Mystical Body of Christ, the gathering of the faithful as one Church? Neither. What is meant in this instance is the physical body of the priest himself, with his lips, tongue and hands. This is what Pope St Pius X, arguably the greatest pope in modern times, calls ‘This body which is His … ’ – Christ’s own Body. Rediscovering the meaning of such physical appropriation of the priest by Christ is essential, we suggest, to understand the present crisis, heal the wounds incurred and obtain overabounding graces.
The Church still reels following the revelations of sexual abuse of unprecedented magnitude. It was perpetrated by numerous priests, by bishops and even by a cardinal, over decades and against hundreds of victims, not only in America but also in Europe and on other continents. Sexual abuse is a crime. It is also a grave scandal when it stains the Christian name. Of all Christians, when those appointed pastors of souls betray their mission to such an extent, the harm is greater even.
Most of the crimes uncovered occurred over the past 50 years, against young men. We ask ourselves how, since the late 1960s, so many priests have indulged in the vice of ephebophilia, or “lust for young men.” Ephebophilia pertains to homosexuality as distinct from sexual attraction to children, known as paedophilia. How can a man, consecrated to God in the most solemn and public manner according to Catholic doctrine, break his vow of chastity, with the aggravating circumstances of acting 1) against nature (the victim is of his own sex) and 2) against his mission (as a trusted protector rather than a predator)?
Abstinent for God’s sake
These abusive clerics had been consecrated body and soul to God, so as to consecrate the Body and Blood of God made Man, Jesus Christ, in the Most Holy Eucharist. According to the traditional discipline prevailing in the Western Church, (And in the Eastern Churches, at least for bishops) they had committed themselves to celibacy. They had renounced the good of marriage and family so as to be integrally configured to Christ the Sovereign High Priest, celibate and Spouse to His mystical Bride the Church. But after a while, if not from the start, they craved other bodies. They lusted after human flesh.
The fact that their victims were of the same sex is an aggravating circumstance. But it should be borne in mind that any deliberate sexual activity would have been a betrayal of their commitment to chastity. In fact, it might be timely to observe that sexual activity is fully legitimate for any man and woman only when open to procreation with the view to raising children as saints, which only Christian marriage fully guarantees. Put simply, sex is for [the purpose of making] families, not for self or for partners. Sex is given to increase the number of the elect through building up domestic churches. Sex is for pro-creating new rational human beings to worship the Most Holy Trinity for eternity. The Creator of the human race embedded sexual pleasure in the marital act as a generous incentive for the pro-creation of more human worshippers. The marital act is like a plane bound for blissful eternity. Lust in every form hijacks it.
Priests pursue this noble procreative end through spiritual fatherhood, when begetting a soul to divine grace through Holy Baptism, when nourishing it through Holy Communion, and fostering it through the other sacraments, sacred actions and Church teaching. Priests are not angels, though. They are men of flesh and blood. Like any man (and woman) they rely on divine grace to master their sexual desires and to channel them according to God’s law of life. For celibate clergy, this means offering up sexual pleasure as a sacrifice to God, to affirm the reality of the invisible fecundity embedded in them by God at their ordination through the sacramental character of the priesthood. Spiritual fatherhood is no mere substitute for biological fatherhood, like a consolation prize. Rather, it expresses the essence of the divine fatherhood, after ‘the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, of whom all paternity in heaven and earth is named’ (Ephesians 3:14-15).
The divine powers granted to the priest are objective and permanent. They remain, even though their use might be hindered through sickness or imprisonment; even though the clerical state might be lost; and regardless of the priest’s personal merits or demerits. These powers essentially consist in making Christ present under the externals of bread and wine at Holy Mass, and in absolving souls from their sins in Confession. The more one believes these truths, the more one will value priestly celibacy. Why? Because priestly celibacy points to the reality of Christ’s saving presence in the sacraments of the Church. Fallen men hold sexual activity as a fundamental “need.” “We cannot do,” they think, “without a body to hold.” The celibate priesthood does not frustrate this aspiration – it elevates it. Priestly celibacy implies that the Eucharistic Body of Christ is real enough to reward man’s chastity. Priestly celibacy suggests that absolving penitents is a genuine outpouring of divine life throughout the mystical Body of Christ, His Church.
Thus, faith in and love for the Eucharistic Body of Christ, and for His Mystical Body the Church, should grow in inverse proportion with lust for human bodies. The priests and bishops who committed sexual abuse got hold of the wrong body. Neglecting the Savior’s Body, they craved the creatures’ bodies, and clung to them. To take a comparison, they are like a state officer hearing the words Habeas Corpus, and not listening further. Habeas Corpus is the 14th century English law stating that a person can only be kept in prison following a court’s decision. Instead of hearing: ‘By what right do you hold this body?’ – clerical abusers wrongly understand Habeas corpus as: ‘You should have the body – and keep it!’
To keep the body? They did receive such a mandate though, at their ordination. They were once appointed “keepers of the Body.” On that most solemn occasion, kneeling before the bishop, their hands touching the host on the paten, they were told: “Receive the power to offer sacrifice to God, and to celebrate Masses for the living and the dead, in the name of the Lord.” Priests are entrusted with the Lord’s Eucharistic Body (and Precious Blood), for the benefit of the Lord’s Mystical Body (His Church). Thus, the problem is not for celibate clerics to handle Someone else’s Body, but to handle the wrong body. Priests have a right to a Body – with a capital B.
Aiming for God’s Body
Significantly, handling God’s Body requires purity of mind and body for the priests, as the bishop admonishes them: “Be holy as you deal with holy things. When you celebrate the mystery of the Lord’s death, see to it that by mortifying your bodies you rid yourselves of all vice and concupiscence.” So does Holy Mother Church remind her priests when, vesting for Holy Mass daily, She teaches them to recite the following prayer as they tie the cincture around their waist, over the alb: “Gird me, O Lord, with the cincture of purity, and quench in my loins the fire of concupiscence, that the virtue of continence and chastity may abide in me.” A mysterious swap is happening from one body to another. The priest renounces access to any created body, thus mortifying his own body, so as to handle Christ’s Eucharistic Body and feed It to Christ’s Mystical Body, the Church.
A similar swap occurs in Holy Matrimony according to traditional Church teaching. The Code of Canon Law written under Pope St Pius X described matrimonial consent as an act of the will “by which each party gives and accepts a perpetual and exclusive right over the body (of the spouse), for acts which are of themselves suitable for the generation of children’ (c. 1081, § 2). Matrimonial consent involves a transfer of rights: the object of consent is the handing over of an essential right – the ius in corpus, or ‘right over the body’.
Could this shed light on the priestly state and prerogative, analogically? A consecrated celibate and a bishop, St Paul once wrote: ‘With Christ I am nailed to the cross. I live, now not I; but Christ liveth in me. And that I live now in the flesh: I live in the faith of the Son of God’ (Gal 2:19-20). Here, we see how sacrificial union between Christ and His ordained minister induces an existential swap, whereby Christ lives in His priest, and the priest in Christ. Generally speaking, this applies to any Christian, since we are all called to surrender body and soul to Christ, that God may dwell in us as in His temple: “... reckon that you are dead to sin, but alive unto God, in Christ Jesus our Lord. Let no sin therefore reign in your mortal body, so as to obey the lusts thereof” (Romans 6: 11-12). But it applies more fully to priests, by virtue of the priestly character.
A loving exchange
The divine powers to transubstantiate matter and absolve souls are embedded in the priest, and only in the priest, at his ordination. These powers remain forever, even after death. Such abiding divine capacity is activated every time the priest knowingly and wilfully acts in persona Christi, e.g. when praying, blessing, teaching. Never greater is this activation than during Holy Mass. When at Consecration the priest – let’s call him "Fr. Jim" – says: “This is my body,” the word “my” essentially refers to Christ, not to Fr. Jim’s body. And yet, the words are uttered, physically, through Fr. Jim’s mouth, and intellectually understood by Fr. Jim’s brain, and willed by him at the same time. Simultaneously, in Fr. Jim’s hands, the bread becomes Christ’s Body. In other words, an existential swap occurs, whereby Fr. Jim surrenders his body (and soul) to Christ, so that Christ might now lie in Fr. Jim’s hands. Christ receives Fr. Jim’s body through appropriation; Fr. Jim receives Christ’s Body through transubstantiation. The consecrated Host is the Eucharistic Body of Christ, because Fr. Jim’s body has become the “ministerial” Body of Christ.
The word “ministerial” here does not mean a temporary Church function, however helpful, like being appointed sacristan or collection counter for a year. Rather, only a priest’s body can be termed Christ’s “ministerial” Body, by virtue of the ontological modification the priest undergoes at ordination, when the priestly character embeds in him divine powers forever. What encouragement for priests to realize that their body (as animated by a soul) is not theirs anymore, but Christ’s. When rising in the morning and shaving, when eating their breakfast, when cycling to visit his flock or for leisure, as well as on any other occasion, the priest can think of his body as Christ’s ministerial body.
“All whatsoever you do in word or in work, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, giving thanks to God and the Father by him” (Col 3:17). This lofty call to every Christian is fulfilled in the priest not only spiritually but ontologically, every time he acts in persona Christi, and supremely during Holy Mass, at Consecration. Then, the ius in corpus essential to the sacrament of Holy Matrimony is activated, analogically, when the priest surrenders his body to Christ, for His words to make His Body present in the hands of His priest.
To give the sacred
Notably, as for Christian spouses, this exchange of rights upon each other’s body is meant to benefit others, namely, the family. By its nature indeed, Eucharistic Consecration is not a private prayer or initiative of the priest, but a cultic glorification of God and a public service to all the faithful, within and without the pews, alive and deceased. At the same time, the sacramental intimacy between the priest and Christ the Sovereign High priest is traditionally secured during Consecration through the use of low voice rather than loud speaking, and through the priest’s posture. The congregation kneeling behind him, the priest whispers the sacred formulas while his elbows rest upon the altar, the tabernacle and altar card in front of him screening off the corporal and the oblates during the double transubstantiation.
This intimacy is by no means selfish. It is ordered to the service of the flock. Immediately after Consecration (and his first genuflection), the priest rises and elevates the Sacred Body for the congregation to see and adore. Soon after, he will feed the people with the immaculate Flesh of the Lamb of God. The etymology of the word "sacerdotal," i.e. "priestly," is "sacer-dos," or to "give the sacred." Thus, there is essential continuity between Consecration and Communion. The same "sacer-dos," that is, the priest, makes Christ present upon the altar, and communicates Him to the people.
Understanding better the faith of the Church about the Eucharistic sacrifice and presence, as well as about the ministerial priesthood, is the best antidote to clerical immorality. This requires teaching sound philosophy and theology at seminary, as well as respect for the letter and the spirit of the Eucharistic liturgy. The more a priest understands the reality of his sacramental configuration to Christ, setting him apart from other baptised people to channel to them the life of grace, the safer his soul will be, and those of the flock.
Intellectual persuasion does not suffice though. It must flower into moments of daily intimacy with Christ in prayer, and in a devout offering of Holy Mass. In that respect, priests should be encouraged to offer Holy Mass daily, even without concelebrants, (Often, priests are denied the right to offer Holy Mass individually while on pilgrimage or on holiday. This contradicts the law of the Church stating that: ‘Each priest shall always retain his right to celebrate Mass individually...’ Vatican II, Sacrosanctum Concilium 57,2) and to use their anointed hands to communicate Christ’s Body to the faithful (“Extraordinary ministers may distribute Holy Communion at eucharistic celebrations only when there are no ordained ministers present … ” cf Instruction On Certain Questions Regarding the Collaboration of the Non-Ordained Faithful In the Sacred Ministry As Priest, Article 8 § 2 – 15th August 1997). Recalling Pope St. Pius X’s words: “This body which is His … ,” the priest will know himself to be Christ’s in a real, physical sense. He will give thanks for such intimacy, as fecund as it is chaste. In Holy Communion, lending his limbs as Christ’s ministerial Body, the priest will give the Eucharistic Body of Christ to His Mystical Body, the Church – a sacramental fulfilment of the doxology at Mass: “through Him, with Him and in Him” ...
May the Virgin Mother of God, Mother of priests, St. John Mary Vianney and St. Pio of Pietrelcina intercede for all priests.
Fr. Armand de Malleray, FSSP is the author of Ego Eimi, It is I – Falling In Eucharistic Love, published by Lumen Fidei, with a foreword by Bishop Athanasius Schneider. He is also the editor of Dowry, the magazine of the Priestly Fraternity of St Peter in the United Kingdom.