One interview subject that plays a prominent role in HBO's Mea Maxima Culpa is Richard Sipe, a longtime Catholic Church basher. After being a Benedictine monk for 18 years, Sipe left the priesthood, and he then married a woman in 1970. Since then, in his books and public appearances, Sipe has often expressed open hostility towards the Catholic Church.
The first thing that may strike viewers about Sipe is his blatant disingenuousness. In Mea Maxima Culpa, Sipe claims he has "great respect" for the Catholic Church, but then in the very next breath he actually asserts that the Church "selects, cultivates, protects, defends, and produces sexual abusers."
Wow. Who on earth could possibly "respect" an organization like that? Quite simply, Sipe wants to have it both ways. He wants to give the impression that he has no animus for the Church, but then he proceeds to portray it in the most mean-spirited, negative, and salacious light.
In the film, Sipe mischaracterizes the role of priests in the Sacrament of Communion by portraying Catholic priests as David Blaine-like magicians. Sipe announces, "A priest can take bread and wine and make Jesus Christ present on [the] altar." In fact, here is what the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), which reveals the tenets of Catholicism, actually teaches:
CCC 1375 (b) "It is not man that causes the things offered to become the Body and Blood of Christ, but he who was crucified for us, Christ himself. The priest, in the role of Christ, pronounces these words, but their power and grace are God's. This is my body, he says. This word transforms the things offered." (quoting St. John Chrysostom)
Quite simply, Sipe's claim is false.
Power over heaven and hell?
Sipe then goes on to say that "[A priest] has power over heaven and hell, so when [you come to him] in Confession, and [he says], 'I won't absolve you,' You'll be damned."
Needless to say, the Catholic Church does not claim that priests have "power over heaven and hell." (For example, see CCC 668: "Jesus Christ is Lord: he possesses all power in heaven and on earth.")
And as far as Sipe's bizarre and kooky scenario of a priest refusing to absolve someone who seeks forgiveness of sins, one need only look to CCC 1441 ("Only God forgives sins") and especially CCC 1466 ("The confessor is not the master of God's forgiveness, but its servant. The minister of this sacrament should unite himself to the intention and charity of Christ …").
Again, Sipe's presentation of Church teaching in this regard is clearly problematic.
"A little less than the angels"?
Sipe also asserts that the Catholic Church is teaching "heresy" in that "When a man is ordained a priest, he is changed ontologically. He is made a different brand of human being, 'a little less than the angels'."
While the Church does indeed teach that there is an "ontological" change when a man is ordained a priest, it is not how Sipe characterizes it.
His reference to "a little less than the angels" comes from Psalms 8:5. However, the line in the psalm actually refers to all of mankind, not only to the ministerial priesthood.
Sipe's presentation is misleading, if not flat-out false.
A spotty record and spotty company
Sipe's dubious theology should not be a surprise considering some other public statements that the bitter ex-priest has made. In a 2010 feature about Pope Benedict, Sipe actually told ABC News that "several hundred [popes] have been murdered" in the Catholic Church's 2000-year history.
It is a wild claim indeed, considering the fact that there have only been about 266 popes since the Catholic Church's foundation.
Sipe's erroneous theology in Mea Maxima Culpa certainly adds to the profoundly problematic and bigoted nature of the film.