Paul J. Schutz is an assistant professor of religious studies at Santa Clara University. Views are his own.
Wrestling with the Protestant Reformation at the Council of Trent (1545-1563), Catholic leaders defined the principle of ex opere operato, or “by the work worked,” to safeguard the Eucharist against claims that impious priests surely could not effect the transubstantiation of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. Ex opere operato emphasizes that because sacraments derive their power from Christ, and not the priest, they are inviolable; they “work” by the grace of God, irrespective of the priest’s moral standing.
Today, the church faces unprecedented fallout because of widespread sexual abuse of children by members of the clergy. This crisis raises anew the question that led to the definition of ex opere operato: Can the ethical integrity of the Eucharist and priestly ministry be compromised by sin, or do they continue to work “by the work”? Perhaps it is time to rethink these doctrines.
First, ex opere operato affirms the efficacy of grace, regardless of the holiness or sinfulness of individual priests. But as the Pennsylvania report shows, clergy sexual abuse is a systemic sickness that affects every eye, hand, and heart in the Body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:26). Perhaps such sickness demands that we reconceive the integrity of the Eucharist in terms of its ability to confront and transform systemic violence, especially recognizing that sex abuse often happens around the Mass. If the Eucharist does not compel us to resist structures that enable sexual abuse, then perhaps we must question its validity.
Second, though the doctrine says sacraments are not about priestly holiness, ex opere operato protects clerical authority. Consider that even “bad” priests preside, while “good” laypeople do not. In this way, ex opere operato emphasizes clerical power over the power of the faithful. Perhaps these abuses demand that we reconceive ecclesial authority on the basis of and ethics of practical transformation and not on abstract clerical status, especially since clerical power has been a means to violence.
Third, the crisis raises new questions about the “Christ” commemorated in the Eucharist. Ex opere operato evokes the triumph of Christus Victor (Christ the Victor), whose power can transubstantiate bread and wine in identification with the priest’s ministry, irrespective of individual sin, violence against children, and a culture of silence that protects perpetrators. Perhaps, then, the ethical Eucharist is the Eucharist that represents victims of violence and explicitly atones for the horrors of clergy sex abuse; this involves a willing renunciation of power that has roots in the kenosis—the free self-giving—of Christ.
In sum, perhaps such violence demands that we forsake a doctrine that imitates Christus Victor for one that represents Christus Victima—Christ the Victim. For before he was the glorified Son of God, Jesus was an innocent victim of systemic violence, who suffered unimaginably at the hands of those ordained with God-given power. Perhaps the broken body of this Christ identifies best with victims of sexual abuse and so demands that we confront the endurance of violence in our church and our world, seeking to unseat unjust authorities and overturn structures of violence and silence in our church. In this way, perhaps the ex opere operato can remind us—as the right celebration of the Eucharist always has—that God is with us in times of turmoil, calling us to confront the reality of Christus Victima today.