Maciel was recommended by John Paul not such much because of the money he raised, but because of the number of vocations to the priesthood he cultivated in the Legion of Christ. 

Similarly, Karadima in Chile was almost universally honored because his group of young male friends produced four bishops and fifty priests. 

And this in a church which in the developed countries is seeing a substantial decline in priestly vocations.

But what kind of priesthood do we have if psychopathic molesters, who may even be atheists, like Maciel and Karadima, are the most successful priests in bringing other men into the clergy? 

It should give Benedict pause. Perhaps it has. But underlying this bizarre phenomenon is a long-standing and widespread distortion of the priesthood, which I and some of the commentators (Mary Ann’s is a good scholastic explanation) have tried to describe. 

This distortion will eventually be condemned as a heresy, but in the meantime it is doing much harm. 

 For a theological exploration of the source of this distortion, I recommend Bernard Doering. Here is a section from his essay.

On the one hand, Berulle was right, Maritain insists, and magnificently so, in his insistence on the holiness toward which the priest ought to strive. . .

On the other hand, Berulle was mistaken, and seriously so, in exalting the sanctity of the state of life in which the sacrament of Holy Orders places the one who receives it. From affirming the eminent perfection to which the priest is called so that he may exercise his function in a manner that is in complete harmony with what the office demands, to affirming the eminent perfection of the state of life which is conferred on him at the same time as the sacramental powers, there is no more than an imperceptible step for Berulle, and he was happy to take that step.

And the Cardinal did not miss an opportunity to explain that the priesthood itself is a “state of sanctity,” Maritain finds this conception rather bizarre

when one recalls that the indelible mark that the character imprints on the soul of the priest is no other than the power with which he is invested to transubstantiate bread and wine and to absolve, even if he happens himself personally to be unworthy by the loss of grace.

The sacrament of Holy Orders does not constitute the priest in a state of sanctity any more than baptism constitutes an ordinary Christian in such a state. The state of life of the priest, Maritain maintains, “is the same as that of most ordinary members of God’s people” and a clear distinction must be maintained between this state of life and the priestly function.

The mediation that he is called to exercise as a priest is of a completely different order: It is a “ministerial” or functional mediation which he exercises in the hierarchical structure of the Church, in which he is endowed with a canonically fixed authority to transmit to men the truths of faith, to celebrate in their midst the sacrifice of the altar, to give them the Body and Blood of Christ, and to confer on them the graces of the other sacraments — without his having in any way to be a superchristian in order to acquit himself of these holy functions as such.

According to Maritain, the French School did an immense service to the Church by insisting with admirable zeal on the sanctity toward which the priest has the duty to strive, but at the same time it promoted an illusory sublimation of the priesthood through a serious misunderstanding of its true grandeur.

The belief that “God took on flesh” is absolutely and strictly the very same thing as “God made Himself a priest”; the belief that the priest is a superchristian, and even more than that; the belief that he is a conjoined instrument of the Savior; that he enters into His divine Person; that by his ordination he is constituted in a state of perfection and sanctity; finally the belief that through this very state all those things that he happens to do in the exercise of his functions are marked with the seal of the sacred.

He maintained that the French School went so far in this illusory sublimation that, at least in more recent times, many of those it formed believed that the priest communicates a higher dignity to and actually sanctifies whatever he happens to do in his ordinary life. Some even thought (contrary to Berulle) that any act at all accomplished by a priest — trimming trees, fixing a watch, indeed even scolding an altar boy (and we might ask in the present crisis, what have many altar boys not been required to submit to?) or eating a meal with friends — is a sacerdotal act.

We were to believe that from the moment he does something in the exercise of his functions, the priest, because his ordination, in making him the hand of Christ, constituted him in a loftier state than that of the ordinary Christian, then acts as being of Christ by privileged right and brings to men a ray, sometimes a bit obscured (but in such a case we shed a furtive tear and then quickly pull the veil), a ray which emanates from Christ. . . Sacerdos alter Christus — this is the maxim. . . for a long time now. . . the way in which [followers of the French School] sublimate the priesthood was considered the guarantee par excellence for maintaining the respect we owe the Church’s ministers. (And not only were we supposed to respect them, but to love them as well.)

Maritain calls this an “illusory sublimation” of the priesthood. He is not using the term “sublimation” in the now-popular Freudian sense of the word. What he means is the illusionary raising of the priesthood and of the reverence due to the priest to a level far higher than is warranted.

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