In today's "Think Again" column, Stanley Fish refers to St. Augustine and the Donatists in arguing that Roland Burris deserves to be seated in the U.S. Senate.
Think ex opere operato, history buffs. Your priest may have been ordained by a heretic or scoundrel, but he's still a priest and the sacraments he administers are still valid. (Heave a sigh of relief, loyal Catholics.) As Fish points out,
The legitimacy of an appointment can be either a procedural or a moral matter. If it is a procedural matter, authority is conferred by the right credentials, and that’s that. If it is a moral matter – only the good can be truly authoritative (this was John Milton’s position) – authority is always precarious, and the structures of government and law are always in danger of being dissolved.
Fish does not tell the rest of the Donatists' story, however. Though St. Augustine acknowledged the validity of their appointments, he also called for civil penalties against them. The Donatists were wrong, he wrote, and if they could not be persuaded to return to the true church, they should be forced to do so. With his encouragement, churches were closed, adherents were fined, and leaders were exiled.
Presumably St. Augustine, while supporting Roland Burris's appointment, would have no objection to impeaching and imprisoning Governor Rod Blagojevich.