The Case Against Abolishing the Priesthood


In the Dec. 11, 2000, issue of The New Yorker, the magazine’s revered literary critic James Wood began his review of the writings of J. F. Powers with a blunt question, “Does anyone, really, like priests?” I read that article a few months after my ordination to the priesthood. I found it hard to understand not only how an intelligent person could write a sentence like that, but how a prestigious magazine could print it.

It does not take too much creativity to imagine what the reaction might have been had The New Yorker’s literary critic written, “Does anyone, really, like imams?” Or “Does anyone, really, like rabbis?” Firestorms of denunciations would likely have followed. In the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, we saw a flurry of thoughtful articles distinguishing Islam from the terrorists who committed the atrocities (and the clerics who encouraged them), with commentators correctly making judicious distinctions between the actions of a few and the morality of the many.

But when it comes to priests, it is O.K. to hate them. Or at least wonder if anyone, really, likes them.

I thought of that article when I saw the cover of the latest edition of The Atlantic, which features a darkened photo of St. Patrick’s Cathedral above the headline, “Abolish the Priesthood.”

The cover was bad enough; the accompanying article, by James Carroll, was even more disappointing. If this is The Atlantic’s “deep dive” into the clergy abuse crisis, it represents something of a disservice to readers and the general public. Essentially, Mr. Carroll’s lengthy (and, admittedly, in some places careful) examination of the clergy abuse crisis can be boiled down to: It’s priests. He states his thesis with admirable concision at one point: “The very notion of priesthood is toxic.” Using the old dictum that what is easily asserted is easily denied, I would respond: “No, it is not.”

Mr. Carroll, an astute social critic and often brilliant writer, should know better. The problem is not the priesthood; the problem is clericalism, that malign brand of theology and spirituality that says that priests are more important than laypeople, that a priest’s or bishop’s word is more trustworthy than that of victims (or victims’ parents) and that the very selves of priests are more valuable than those of laypeople. Catholic theology is sometimes used to support this kind of supremacism. At his ordination a priest is said to undergo an “ontological” change, a change in his very being. The belief that this change makes him “better” than the layperson lies at the heart of clericalism and much of the abuse crisis.

The problem is not the priesthood; the problem is clericalism.

On this, then, I would agree completely with Mr. Carroll, who knows his theology. And I certainly understand his anger and anguish over the abuse crisis, which I share. The problem, however, is that his article consistently conflates the priesthood with clericalism. Basically, he is engaging in a stereotype. In short, not all priests are “clerical.” Not even most of them.

Let’s step back and look at other places where sexual abuse happens, as a way of understanding the flawed logic that mars The Atlantic piece. Most abuse happens, say experts, within the context of families: fathers (and stepfathers) preying on children and adolescents, to take one example. The reasons for abuse by fathers (and stepfathers), as with priest abusers, are complex.

But few people ever suggest that either marriage or the family are bankrupt institutions or that we should “abolish fatherhood.” Why not? Because most people understand that abusive fathers (and mothers for that matter) are in the minority. Most people know many good and caring parents (and stepparents) who have never and will never abuse anyone. And so we avoid lazy stereotyping.

The same is true with schools. Sexual abuse in the public-school system (as well as in private schools) has been well documented. Some cases are as appalling as those that happened within the church. Yet despite many incidents of sexual abuse perpetrated by teachers, counselors and coaches, few people say “abolish public schools” (that is, the “system” that gave rise to the cases of abuse). Or “abolish the teaching profession.” Again, this is because we avoid stereotyping.

Except when it comes to Catholic priests.

Mr. Carroll also takes aim, as he often does in his articles and books, at celibacy. But this is another red herring. If celibacy were the underlying issue, and if celibacy leads to abuse, then we should suspect every unmarried aunt and uncle, every single brother and sister, and every widow and widower of being an abuser. Does a person instantly become a child molester if he or she begins living a celibate lifestyle?

At the heart of many of Mr. Carroll’s articles on the Catholic Church, especially those written as a columnist for The Boston Globe at the height of the sex abuse crisis, is his own history as a priest. In The Atlantic, he writes, “If I had stayed a priest, I see now, my faith, such as it was, would have been corrupted.”

Would it have? I can’t answer for Mr. Carroll and want to give him the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps it would have. I have no idea. But this does not mean that staying in the priesthood corrupts all priests. Or most. Or even many. His article nods to “good priests” here and there, speaking of the church as the “largest non-governmental organization on the planet, through which selfless men and women care for the poor, teach the unlettered, heal the sick and work to preserve minimal standards for the common good.”

Including priests. Bluntly put, if 5 percent of Catholic priests are abusers, then 95 percent are not. (The numbers, by the way, are actually lower for priests than for men in general.) In the midst of this hateful, corrupt, misogynistic system, as this article describes it, how do we account for the good priests? For Father Mychal Judge, Father Henri Nouwen, Father Greg Boyle, Father Jorge Mario Bergoglio. Farther back, for Father Ignatius Loyola, Father Francis de Sales, Father Vincent de Paul. One of Mr. Carroll’s heroes is St. John XXIII. Also known as Father Angelo Roncalli.

Need I go on? Maybe I should. Maybe I should list a few hundred good and holy priests, or a few thousand, or a few hundred thousand. But I wonder if even a long list would do any good these days. Because, basically, it’s okay to blame all priests, and the priesthood in general, for the abuse crisis. Instead, let’s ask a question I have long wanted to pose to Mr. Wood and now to Mr. Carroll: Does stirring up contempt against priests do much good? Does that,help us confront the sex abuse crisis?

Or does it, really, just make people hate more?

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1 year 8 months ago

Thank you James, it seems to me that a post from the nomadic monk captures the issue of celibacy well, "the.nomadic.monk
Today, as I graduate with my Masters in Ancient Greek and philology. I celebrate the aspect of the search for wisdom that has engaged my mind. I'm so grateful to all who have and continue to accompany me on this journey: My brother Jesuits and the Society of Jesus, my family, my friends, and all of you!

Years ago, the word "God" appeared like a tiny little question mark in my consciousness. "?" is a punctuation that unsettles and moves many things, and so I began a search.

As I went along, I found a pathway, and the route of this pathway was to surrender absolutely to what I was looking for, and to the road upon which it led me. The search for God and for wisdom engages and integrates every aspect of life. It has recruited my intellect, my affective life, my body, my extraneous hobbies, my successes, my failures, the shadows of my psyche, the lights of my personality, my entire history, my whole future, and my destiny as a conscious being.

When the seeking engages everything, then the finding does too. If you seek God everywhere, you must be prepared to find him everywhere. In the beauty and vastness of the mountains, and in the oily puddles of the closed-in city gutters; even in the shadows of your sins and your capacity for self-deceit.

God always respects our freedom, yet when we look for him, in a mysterious way, he can become inescapable to us, that is, faithful. We will find him everywhere and in everything."
Clearly celibacy is not for everyone, but only the small minority of us who are in accord with, "The search for God and for wisdom engages and integrates every aspect of life. It has recruited my intellect, my affective life, my body, my extraneous hobbies, my successes, my failures, the shadows of my psyche, the lights of my personality, my entire history, my whole future, and my destiny as a conscious being."
best and blessings

Maureen Foley
1 year 8 months ago

Yes. I like priests. There have been so many priests in my life who have cared for my soul. I agree clericalism is a huge problem. The priests who inspire are shepherds not clerics.

Marion Sforza
1 year 8 months ago

While clericalism is not the only problem or maybe even the biggest problem, it does loom larger and larger in my mind these days. What can we do about it? I wish I had the answer. I am not even sure I have an answer but I'd like to share some thoughts and observations.
Can we eliminate or change the title "Father?" Forget all the church speak about what the term means, a father is a powerful figure. We say "God the Father" and most of us have powerful memories of our own fathers formed when we were very young. The priest is not God nor are we little children. Although we can agree consciously, I believe that on a subconscious level, the image of "father" implanted in us carries over to the priest we now call "father." Immediately we are giving a man power over us. Is that a priest's role? To have power over us? What should we call priests? I don't know. One thought: How about "Priest?" We call doctors "Doctor." both when we refer to him and when we address him. Maybe we can say "Priest John" instead of "Father John."
The Collar. Oh, yes, the collar and more. I have no idea how this should be handled but I think it clearly sets a priest apart and maybe when he is off duty but "around", he should wear civies like everyone else. A doctor doesn't go to a restaurant with a stethoscope around his neck. Why should a priest wear his collar? In my area it's getting worse. Cassocks are making a big comeback. An occasional biretta. I kid you not. One priest even wears a maniple! At Mass I sometimes wonder if the priest forgets that Jesus is supposed to be the star of the show.
I am very supportive of priests. I truly am. I recognize many of the problems they face especially in today's parish where they often live alone. It can be a lonely life and all the trappings I mention above only keep them further apart from everyone else and thus make them even lonelier. We are all in this together. We should not deliberately set ourselves apart in unnecessary ways.

Joseph O'Leary
1 year 8 months ago

I just read the opening of Carroll's diatribe. He repeats the false allegation that the Tuam babies were "routinely disposed of in sewage pits" and he makes the Ryan Report to be all about priests. He takes "Philomena" at face value because it is "based on fact". He just gobbles up these memes. Above all he eschews historical perspective and talks as if all the scandals going back as far as the 1930s were still operative all the time in the church today. I guess he is motivated by pique that people are not taking him as seriously as he'd like. [Another hammy inaccuracy: "As James Joyce wrote in Finnegans Wake, Catholic means “Here Comes Everybody.”"]

Happy Cathlic
1 year 8 months ago

Sad that what is missing in Father Jim's defense of the priesthood is any reference to the Holy Sacraments, the reason priests exist!

I am not surprised that a Jesuit priest would miss this point.

The question is are they not aware of the reason for their existence (to bring us the Sacraments) or are they deliberately avoiding that subject.

And if so, why?

Michael Basile
1 year 8 months ago

I want to think that Fr. Martin has in mind that sometime soon the Church will seriously and eagerly engage the subject of "clericalism." Fr. Martin, while making points critical of Carroll's piece, leaves it at critiquing Carroll's conflation of "the priesthood with clericalism," a conclusion that has merit. But Pope Francis's passing references to the problems of clericalism need the Church's attention, and soon. I would hope, then, in the vein of a few comments made above here that perhaps Fr. Martin and others within the Church would start the ball rolling with a more serious and profound look at it in future columns or perhaps calls for official venues to do just that. Sure, we have and will have a priesthood for the foreseeable. but what do we do with clericalism at this time? Throwing stones at the term undefined accomplishes nothing but adding disenchantment with unresponsive leadership.

Happy Cathlic
1 year 8 months ago

Clericalism is a secondary problem.

In a different era priests absconded with property, lived grossly wealthy lives on the backs of his sheep.

The problem there wasn't clericalism, but gluttony, hedonism, vanity.

Today the core problem is sexual immorality - mainly priests chasing teenage boys - but is aided and abetted by clericalism...other sexually immoral now-bishops covering/hiding abusing priests.

J Jones
1 year 8 months ago

A commenter asked "Why is it so often the Catholic church, and in this interview Pope Francis too, that arouses so much hatred out there in the world of opinion?"

I believe the answer is very straightforward: the RCC insists on unquestioned acceptance of and obedience to its absolute moral authority and superiority even when caught red-handed in extraordinary moral failures. The RCC does everything in its power - and its worldly power is extraordinary - not to be held accountable beyond the limits it has deemed appropriate. It refuses any response to its failures which exceeds what it judges reasonable.

It is stunning to learn over and over again that the RCC and even exceptionally brave priests like Fr James struggle so mightily and clumsily to tolerate the discomfort of engaging with us around the full extent, profundity and impact of the failures we are only still unraveling.

The RCC and its clerics will continue on this path of destruction for as long as they are unwilling to cooperate with the loss of control inherent in tolerating the just anger, distrust and disgust of those they failed so mightily in the many ways so very many of them failed.

Bowing to the pressures of clericalism by looking the other way (or saving one's own priesthood instead of securing the safety of another, whatever the cost) is a morally bankrupt choice, too.

And it was only just this summer that we began to learn the extent to which RCC clerics up and down the hierarchical line have made * that* choice.

TF Freeman
1 year 8 months ago

I'm not surprised at James Carroll's response on the priesthood. Anyone who's read him knows he'll take a somewhat contrarian view of the topic on which he comments. I think the idea of "get rid of the priesthood "or "get rid of celibacy" and you solve all the problems with priest is kinda like throwing the baby out with the bath water.

I think the priesthood is a laudable vocation and while Fr. Martin is exceptionable, I've met many priests who were non exceptionable but good priests non-the-less. I also recall the priest with which I served mass as an altar boy in the 1960s and while not on a close relationship with any, they run the gamut of sociability. Fr. Wright was fun, Fr. Butterfield, not so much. Fr. Cluny was a bit of a non sociable person, Msr. Spurlock was all business and bit on the arrogant side (he loved to go to the public pool and jump from the high dive ensuring he has everyone's full attention before executing his dive). Fr. Tank was a great guy, likable and really interacted well with teenage boys at the Catholic High School I attended. The list goes on and on and I hope you get my point. These called-to-the-priesthood men were first and foremost human beings with idiosyncracies just like any number of men one can meet at work, the pub, the gym etc. Some likely had issues.

A high school friend, who also attended grade school with me, was a pedophile and ejected from the priesthood after being unable to control his proclivity. I'm so sorry to hear that and crushed because he always wanted to be nothing but a priest! I considered it at one point in my early life, but lacked a mentor to help me sort the calling I felt on my life and had I been connected with such person might have followed that call. At any rate, and one more point, I recall during the Boston priest sex abuse scandal as I was living in Lexington, MA at the time, the response Fr. Neuhas at First Things gave to the cries for jettisoning celibacy..."Fidelity, fidelity, fidelity." These men took an oath to celibacy and didn't keep it. It's not unlike heterosexual abuse of women by priests, that we deem to overlook as less aberrant than homosexual abuse of boys, granted some of these men have problems and in hind sight someone in the church hierarchy should have elevated this to get it addressed, but taking a vow of celibacy is part of the package.

Maybe we need to ensure men entering the priesthood can keep their vows. You don't see calls for eliminating other vows. I know some priests enter the priesthood without taking a vow of poverty and we don't move to remove that vow! At the end of the day, we need more humanity in our religious calls, be they for men or women, and strive to guide people to do that to which they pledge. I still believe strongly the priesthood is a laudable vocation and I would hate to see it jettisoned because of the behavior of a few!


Lisa M
1 year 8 months ago

Thanks for an excellent article. Indeed clericalism is at the root of most of the problems within the Church. Changing hearts will only come if those entrusted to shepherd the flock with allow themselves to get a little muddy and get out with the people instead of being content waiting for the people to go to them. We are waiting...........

Tim O'Leary
1 year 8 months ago

Of course Father Martin is right on this and James Carroll, facilitated by the Christophobic editorial board at The New Yorker, is using the sins of a minority of priests to try to deprive humanity of the only food & drink that gives everlasting life. I can imagine Jesus saying to the Carrolls & Bolcons & Barfields & McCaffreys, and all the rest, like He said to Peter, when the latter tried to undermine His salvific mission by dying for humanity: "Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.” (Mt 16:23).

Like modern Donatists, they claim the problem is a sinful priesthood, when we are all sinners. Yet, their arguments are not to end sin, but to replace one sexual sin for another, along with murder and a good dose of pride. The worst offense is to deny the Eucharist to humanity. They preach perdition.

Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your ancestors ate manna and died, but whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” (John 6:52-59)

Craig B. Mckee
1 year 8 months ago

NO NEED to abolish's DYING all by itself:

Lisa Fullam
1 year 8 months ago

Dear Fr. Martin, I want to raise a question about your argument here. Like you, I know many Catholic priests who are fine, even holy, human beings. I would second many of those on your list of praiseworthy priests. But if Carroll's argument "the very notion of the priesthood is toxic" is countered only by your "it doesn't corrupt EVERYBODY," doesn't that leave open the very question that Carroll raises in his piece--what good is the priesthood? To say that not all are ruined by it--or even that only a minority abuse their office--is faint praise indeed. It isn't clear to me that current Catholic theology of orders can be separated from the clericalism that you rightly decry. Priests are described in Catholic official documents as set apart from and above the laity, uniquely "conformed to Christ" by the grace of the sacrament of orders--a sacralization and institutionalization of clericalism. Accordingly, perhaps, clericalism isn't an odd aberration. We see it at work in the pattern of reluctance by Church leadership (from priests to Popes) to work with laity to identify abusers, get them out of ministry, and protect the vulnerable. So to your argument: if your list of holy priests is intended to show that the priesthood includes holy men, then the next question is: do you believe that it was priesthood per se that MADE them holy, (which would be clericalism, yes?) or that they were holy DESPITE their priesthood, (which I bet Carroll would agree with)? We both know holy people who aren't priests, right? So people are holy either in or not in the priesthood, and holiness is a more mysterious thing, a dance of the soul with its Creator. If priesthood is understood neither as a ticket to holiness nor as a toxic corruptor of souls but a means of training, forming, and authorizing good people for leadership in the Church, then the exclusion of married people and women is more and more puzzling. Also, a point of science: about 4% of priests sexually abuse minors. Whether this % is higher or lower than the % of men generally who abuse minors is unknown--there are no solid data on this. Priests as a group may be the same or better or worse than other men in this regard.

J Jones
1 year 8 months ago

Lisa, wonderful discussion. The idea that ordination results in an ontological change in the man ordained is pure magical thinking. It is an artifact of the 2000 year old roots of the RCC. That "alchemy" narrative has not been adandoned because it works for the ordained class (and I have long imagined that many of them don't buy it either).

I too have known holy priests (I believe Father James is one of them) and I have known holy lay people. The "magic" isn't from ordination; it is from relationship with God and discipleship with Christ. Again, wonderful duscussion

Happy Cathlic
1 year 8 months ago

The priesthood EXISTS (Fr Martin exists) to bring us the Sacraments. That's their main and infinitely powerful gift to Catholics, and through the sacraments, to the world.

That Father Martin didn't mount a defense around the Sacraments, should tell you how corrupted his understanding is of the Catholic faith.

Happy Cathlic
1 year 8 months ago

I've never read a more inept defense of the priesthood in my life, and written by a priest no less!

The Jesuits HAVE lost not just the faith of their father Jesuits; they've lost their intellect as well.

It was like Father Martin was praising Carroll's incoherent argument by damning it faintly!

Martin used his defense of the priesthood to misdirect the focus away from boy-chasing homosexual priests.

Michael Starks
1 year 8 months ago

The problem is clericalism. The questions are how to end clericalism and who's going to make that happen? Is it reasonable to expect the bishops to do it?

J Jones
1 year 8 months ago

I am dismayed that Fr Martin, who I admire, got away with comparing Islamophobia and antisemitism to rejections - due to decades of worldwide criminal conduct and worldwide institutionally reflexive and coordinated cover-up of criminal actions - of the leadership of
a centralized hierarchical, worldwide religious institution which holds tremendous wealth and political power in its headquarters which is a nation-state with Permanent Observer status at the UN and the chosen-by-God" leader of that worldwide religion who is also the absolute monarch of that nation-state.

Fr James, I am quite sincerely dismayed that you made that argument. I have faith in your integrity and your deep understanding of justice and power issues and how language and narratives can be used to distort reality so that those with power and privilege retain power and privilege.

As a result, I am not going to sputter my way incoherently through my astonishment and disappointment and near-disgust that, in your anger and discomfort about your voluntary participation, as a cleric, in the leadership of this centralized institution which is responsible for these crimes, you resorted to this claim. My prayer is that you do not repeat it and, if and when you discover that your words and sentiment are repeated by others, you will be accountable and publicly renounce this part of your statement here.

E. Commerce
1 year 8 months ago

The priesthood was founded by Christ who chose 12 men to follow Him and be His disciples. Before that, God chose a woman, Mary, to give humanity a chance to say a "yes" to God that offset and countermanded the "yes" that Eve said to Satan. The problem is sin. The choosing of self-fulfillment over God, when it goes against God. Priests are as guilty of it as the rest of us. The problem is, priests have a sacred responsibility to "feed My sheep". Most do, and their lives show it, and they are precious to the flock. When the Church (the people) stand up and assume their role as equal with priests (although different), the Church will shine and flourish. The profound sadness of what we have permitted--a clericalism which makes the bargain that priests are separated from the people (and above them) and therefore we can be lazy as a Church--is not what Christ intended, I am sure. We need our priests to be holy. Our priests need us to be holy, and involved. I am not involved, as I should be. The problem is me.

J Jones
1 year 8 months ago

E, I would agree with you in summary and you would agree with your final statement in any situation in which the other party does not hold - and believe God specifically gave him the right to hold - absolute authority over the terms of your involvement.

Chris Brune
1 year 7 months ago

Fr. Jim:
I love and admire your work. Any guy who gets this many people this mad at him must be doing something right!
A Church without priests: What would be the sense?

Blessings and coffee.

Chris Brune

Diane Boover
1 year 7 months ago

Bsst response yet! If only priests all followed the directive as ascribed by Jesus as he spoke to his apostles in Matthew 20: 25-28 Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 26 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." I can't imagine a hierarchy there. In fact, I think you could call that a lowerarchy, where everyone would be lifting someone UP in order to be the least. Quite mysterious divinely loving
in its practice.

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