How Can Bad Priests Consecrate the Eucharist?

I. How Can Pedophile Priests Turn Bread and Wine into the Living God?

A Protestant on a Catholic forum I was reading had some serious issues with the idea that evil (particularly pedophile) priests were still able to consecrate bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. He quoted a former priest named Hugh Farrell from a book of ex-Catholic priests who turned against the Church:

“According to the teaching of the Roman Church the priest, no matter how unworthy he may personally be, even if he has just made a pact with the devil for his soul, has the power to change the elements of bread and wine into the actual body and blood, soul and divinity, of Jesus Christ. Provided he pronounces the words of consecration properly and has the intention of consecrating, God must come down on the altar and enter and take over the elements.”

The last sentence is false. It’s not a case that God “must” obey the priest. The Catechism (in CCC 1257, says that, “God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments. ” God chooses to work through the sacraments, not because of the power of the priest, but because He binds Himself through His own promises. That seems to be a fair assessment of Paul’s message in Romans, amongst other places (see, e.g., Romans 3:3). Still, other than the last sentence, this is correct. God wills that even bad priests, even truly evil priests, can pray over the bread and wine and consecrate it into the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity, of Our Lord Jesus Christ. The commenter asked:

And yet when a pedophile priest blesses the bread and wine it changes to the flesh and blood of Christ. How can a TRULY evil person perform this? Does Evil command God?

Again, evil doesn’t command God. He is the one who created the sacraments, so He obeys His own promise (again, Romans 3:3). The sacraments aren’t based upon the priest’s personal holiness, or we all would have been doomed long ago. And yes, this means that God will willingly allow Himself to have His miracles abused by evil men. This is all foreshadowed in the Old Testament.

II. Moses and the Rock: The Living Waters of Meribah

In Exodus 17:6, God commands Moses to strike the rock, and water will flow forth to save the people dying of thirst. He does, and the place where the waters flowed forth is named Massah and Meribah (Exodus 17:7). Years later, the people are again dying of thirst. This time, the Lord commands Moses to speak to the Rock, and water will flow forth (Numbers 20:8). Moses disobeys this time, and strikes the Rock instead, twice (Numbers 20:9-11).

Nota bene, Numbers 9:11 says that “Water gushed out, and the community and their livestock drank. ” So Moses disobeys God (and is punished for it in Numbers 9:12), but God still operates within the confines of this miracle. Here, it isn’t just that Moses is a sinful man. It’s that he’s sinning in the way he’s trying to perform a miracle, while disobeying God. If ever there was a time for God not to respond to an attempt at a miracle by one of His prophets, this seems high on the list. But He responds nonetheless, and saves the people.

The reason for this is because God made the promise through Moses, but for the people. They need the saving waters. God delivers to remind the people that HE is Good, and that He is trustworthy, even when those He sends fail and falter. That’s the whole point of the Catholic priesthood. It’s not about the priest. It’s about us, the flock. Jesus shows us as much in John 13:14-17. And more than anything, this is God showing His faithfulness, by creating a stable sacramental miracle: Moses striking the rock produces water. Not by magic, but by the Lord’s faithfulness. That’s why Numbers 20:13 calls these new waters “the waters of Meribah.” They’re the same waters which God provided in Meribah in Exodus 17, all those years earlier, “where the Israelites quarreled with the LORD and where he showed himself holy among them.”
Now, the connection to the sacraments is pretty clear, but Paul makes it explicit. He’s writing to warn the Corinthians (who are profaning the Eucharist) that just because they’re receiving the Sacraments, it doesn’t mean that they’re saved. He says in 1 Corinthians 10:1-5,

1For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers, that our forefathers were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. 2They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. 3They all ate the same spiritual food 4and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ. 5Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered over the desert.

So the Rock is Christ, and the Waters of Meribah foreshadow the Eucharist (not Baptism, which is foreshadowed by the parting of the Red Sea). He proceeds to directly address the Eucharist in v. 14-17 of this chapter, as well as v. 17-34 of the next. So Moses’ abuse foreshadows the abuse of the sacraments (generally) and the Eucharist (specifically).

III. A Few Final Thoughts
Finally, John Armstrong, a former Presbyterian minister, has a pretty interesting point in a similar vein this morning. Writing on Baptism, he says:

This spiritual operation is a sovereign work of God and thus a work of true grace, not of free will or human effort. Luther, for example, argued that this in itself was a strong argument for infant baptism, namely that the child could do nothing but receive what was given to them by their parents and the church.

While John is addressing Baptism specifically, Catholics apply that logic to all seven sacraments.

All of this was answered very clearly early on. St. Augustine’s writings on the ex opere operato nature of the sacraments (in opposition to the Donatist heretics, who said that sacraments were invalid if the priest was a traditore, that is, someone who had denied Christ for fear of torture) are very clear on this point. If you’re interested, check out Book I of St. Augustine’s On Baptism or the whole thing.

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