Behold, I make all things new, says the Lord. (Rev. 21:5) On the other hand, Old heresies never die, says the faithful Catholic; and there is an oldie (and a baddie!) going around against which you need to be warned.
Sixteen centuries ago, widespread grave moral failure by clergy led to a popular rejection of their ministry and an insistence on “purity” for the validity of Church and sacrament. The theological formulation of this human response was Donatism.
Donatism takes its name from Donatus, a schismatic bishop who set himself up against the Catholic bishop in Carthage, in North Africa, in the early fourth century. The heresy began in the wake of the Roman Emperor Diocletian's brief but bloody persecution, initiated in February, 303. The Church had been outlawed, and professing the Faith was a crime punishable by death. Those who refused to offer incense to Roman idols were executed. Churches were razed, relics and sacred vessels were seized, and any copy of Scripture that could be found was burned.
Some Christians saved themselves by renouncing Christ or, when their churches and houses were searched by the Roman authorities, handing over sacred artifacts. Those who in this way survived the persecution (which ended in 305) were called traditores.
In light of the many who endured martyrdom rather than renounce Christ, some were outraged that priests and deacons who were traditores were allowed to resume their ministry after being reconciled to the Church through confession.
The heresy of Donatism lay … in the assertion that only "sinless" men could administer the sacraments validly. By denying the intrinsic efficacy of the sacraments the Donatists claimed the sacraments could be celebrated validly only by those in the state of grace. They also required the re-baptism of any Catholic who came over to their sect.
This heresy sparked not only schism (a formal split in the church) but also violence almost to the point of war. By God’s providence one of the faithful bishops at that time in that place was none other than Saint Augustine, who was an articulate teacher of the true Faith and a tireless leader of the faithful. Even then, it was a full century before the heresy ceased.
Also by God’s providence, we now have the true Faith presented clearly and accessibly in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, from which I now extensively quote (emphases added):
1127 Celebrated worthily in faith, the sacraments confer the grace that they signify.48 They are efficacious because in them Christ himself is at work: it is he who baptizes, he who acts in his sacraments in order to communicate the grace that each sacrament signifies. The Father always hears the prayer of his Son's Church which, in the epiclesis of each sacrament, expresses her faith in the power of the Spirit. As fire transforms into itself everything it touches, so the Holy Spirit transforms into the divine life whatever is subjected to his power.
1128 This is the meaning of the Church's affirmation49 that the sacraments act ex opere operato (literally: "by the very fact of the action's being performed"), i.e., by virtue of the saving work of Christ, accomplished once for all. It follows that "the sacrament is not wrought by the righteousness of either the celebrant or the recipient, but by the power of God."50 From the moment that a sacrament is celebrated in accordance with the intention of the Church, the power of Christ and his Spirit acts in and through it, independently of the personal holiness of the minister. Nevertheless, the fruits of the sacraments also depend on the disposition of the one who receives them.
1129 The Church affirms that for believers the sacraments of the New Covenant are necessary for salvation.51 "Sacramental grace" is the grace of the Holy Spirit, given by Christ and proper to each sacrament. The Spirit heals and transforms those who receive him by conforming them to the Son of God. The fruit of the sacramental life is that the Spirit of adoption makes the faithful partakers in the divine nature52 by uniting them in a living union with the only Son, the Savior.
This should be reassuring. You and I know that God made the sacraments necessary for salvation. So we can be confident that he would not make what is necessary tricky to identify, impossible to guarantee, or too arduous to obtain.
In the light of current revelations of sinful and abusive acts by priests, and also of failure to respond appropriately by bishops and others in authority, many find their confidence in the Church and in her sacraments shaken or even crushed. That is human nature, and cannot be gainsaid. But the Divine nature is otherwise, so it is there that we must fix our eyes and our faith in times of grave trouble. Praised be Jesus Christ, who is at work in the sacraments – through His imperfect ministers.