Don’t abolish the priesthood. Redeem it.
Several months ago I participated in a small campus conversation about the abuse crisis in the Catholic Church. A Protestant speaker diverted our attention for a few minutes by offering a set-piece critique of celibacy as essentially wrong and absolutely intolerable. He listed its many flaws and vices, pointed to its inhumanity and de facto impossibility and called for its abolition. I was caught off guard; I should have spoken up, at least to point out (as the speaker should have known) that I have tried to hold all this together for over 50 years as a Jesuit, over 40 as a priest, all of that time as a celibate. But no one picked up on his theme, and the conversation quickly returned to the conversation’s main concern.
The event, small as it was, is hardly singular. This year has been another dismal one for revelations about sexual abuse in the Catholic Church—painful for victims and their families, painful for all of us who care about the Catholic Church and especially dismal for the Catholic hierarchy that covered up so much of the abuse for so many decades. Analyses of this tragedy are unsurprisingly many, denunciations fiery, proposed remedies innumerable. Some essayists and opinion-makers with Catholic connections are now getting fiercer, proposing more radical solutions, and so the Catholic priesthood itself is now a common target of outrage. Abolish it!
Some essayists and opinion-makers with Catholic connections are now getting fiercer, proposing more radical solutions, and so the Catholic priesthood itself is now a common target of outrage.
Three Critical Voices
Unsurprisingly, too, here in Boston where I live critiques of the priesthood itself have been fiery. The year began with Garry Wills’s January 2019 op-ed in The Boston Globe, “Celibacy isn’t the cause of the church sex-abuse crisis; the priesthood is,” an adequate recap of his caustic 2013 book Why Priests? His minimalist point: What we can’t find in the New Testament is illegitimate, and this includes much of the sacramental and hierarchical structure of the Catholic Church; the priesthood was never intended by Christ and cannot be saved: “I don’t think it should work again. The priesthood is itself an affront to the Gospel.”
Echoing Wills, James Carroll, ever a familiar voice around town in Boston, recently published “Abolish the Priesthood” in the June 2019 issue of The Atlantic. This confessional essay hovers between regret and denunciation. Carroll speaks movingly, sadly, of his near despair at the situation in the church, his decision to stop attending Mass, his self-imposition of “a kind of internal exile,” a life in protest that neither condones the current church nor entirely abandons it.
Good so far. Had Carroll simply confessed this lament, I would have been grateful for his words. But he has in mind greater ambitions: “If I had stayed a priest, I see now, my faith, such as it was, would have been corrupted.” No priest can be innocent, since “a guilt-ridden clerical subculture of moral deficiency has made all priests party to a quiet dissembling about the deep disorder of their own condition.” It follows, Carroll thinks, that “the very priesthood is toxic.” Carroll prays for a better church, illumined by the works of mercy, free of hierarchy and involving, “for many, unauthorized expressions of prayer and worship—egalitarian, authentic, ecumenical; having nothing to do with diocesan borders, parish boundaries or the sacrament of holy orders.”
Around the time that Carroll’s piece appeared, my own school’s Harvard Divinity Bulletin published Robert Orsi’s “The Study of Religion on the Other Side of Disgust.” (Orsi, too, is familiar around here, since he taught at Harvard for a number of years.) Ostensibly an essay on the category of “disgust” in religious studies—perhaps akin to familiar proposals regarding religious envy, religious regret and more—Orsi’s real point lies in the subtitle: “Modern Catholic sexuality is a dark and troubled landscape.” The essay is a manifesto aimed at the Catholic Church, the religion of his youth, which now is the object of his disgust.
His target is even more sweeping than the abuse and its cover-up by sanctimonious prelates, since even the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist is the subject of dismay: “It may be that disgust is a distinctly Catholic emotion, given that the central act of worship in Catholicism, the sacrament of God’s real presence, is the reception, ingestion, and digestion of the consecrated bread and wine, which is to say God’s body and blood, in the community that gathers for and is constituted by this practice.”
Robert Orsi’s real point lies in the subtitle of his essay: “Modern Catholic sexuality is a dark and troubled landscape.”
Purifying the Church Through Passionate Love
At this point Orsi might have probed more deeply the sacred scandal of the Eucharist (as in John 6), since some scandals, God’s stumbling blocks, are revelatory. But instead, he rushes quickly to a grander conclusion: “It is not surprising that I, as a Catholic, am disgusted with Catholicism” as a whole and with the priesthood, in particular. No priest, he informs us, even a hypothetical “good priest,” is innocent, since any such priest surely “knew what was going on with his ‘brother priests’” and surely “colluded in the discourses, practices, and privileges that turned the vulnerable into victims.”
Citing statistics that no more than half of priests are faithful to celibacy, Orsi concludes with astounding certainty that “priests and prelates are always in possession of sexual dirt on each other. This makes every priest intimately vulnerable to the network of ‘brother priests,’ but it also gives priests a measure of control over it.” We priests are all in on the conspiracy. But there is even more: “Please make no mistake about this: it is impossible to separate ‘religion’ here from the rape of children, young people, women, seminarians and novices.” This looks to be the disgust of a person who has given up not just on priests and not just on Catholicism but on religion altogether.
Wills, Carroll and Orsi, though each writing in his own way, are all angry, and the priesthood is their target. Hard words from such authors, and we all do well to hear and feel the fire of such rebuke. The abuse, the insensitivity to victims, the cover-ups have been scandalous. Who would not be outraged? Nor is reform merely a matter of more rules and more committees, a church saved by lawyers. We must reform the church much more deeply and seriously, stripping away the clericalism, the old boys’ club mentality and the cluelessness of church officials who seem unable to talk to ordinary Catholics. All this must change, as we move beyond anger, in order to purify the Catholic Church by a still more passionate love of it.
We must reform the church much more deeply and seriously, stripping away the clericalism, the old boys’ club mentality and the cluelessness of church officials who seem unable to talk to ordinary Catholics.
Priesthood Is Not a Mistake
But even now, even in the Catholic Church as it is in 2019, it would be a serious mistake to give up on the priesthood. Yes, the priesthood has a history, and it has changed over time; it will surely keep changing in the future, too. But it is not a merely extrinsic accretion inimical to “true” Christianity. Medieval clerics did not invent the sacraments merely to bolster their power or suffocate the holy in just certain places, times, things. The priesthood is not a mistake imposed on an imagined pure and original community. Rather, it is part of that community’s learning to be God’s holy community, the Body of Christ, over the centuries.
The promise of the enduring and repeated real presence of Christ in the breaking of the bread pushed the church to find its way toward a priesthood. That the church discovered the priestly function is in a real sense a reaffirmation of our roots in a Judaism that was not mistaken in having a priesthood. That we, too, have priests also marks common ground with other great religions, like Hinduism, so rich in temples, rituals and the work of priests as well.
Ignoring the Continuing Faith of Catholics
But what most clearly distinguishes these essays is the authors’ decision to make it all personal. Carroll has often referred to the fact that he was a priest and reminds us of this fact in The Atlantic; Orsi was never a priest, but he, too, reminds us of his staunch Catholic upbringing and even of his mother’s long service as a valued staff member at Fordham University. Even Wills reminds us of his “seminary days.” To announce that one has grown up Catholic and has Catholic memories can be edifying, and Catholicism is always the better for its memories and personal stories. But in these cases, biography is employed to lend credibility to the devastating criticisms that follow: “I am (or was) a Catholic, so I know what I am saying when I denounce the priesthood.”
But the autobiographical turn, even if good journalism, is never enough. Such stories turn out to undermine the arguments made, by seeming to ignore the continuing faith of Catholics, which is told in the innumerable stories of people who are also angered and scandalized but still see the value of the Catholic Church, finding in its sacramental life something deeper and more enduring than the pretensions of the hierarchy and wickedness of some clergy. As I see in my weekend parish and on campus at Harvard, people still come to church—not merely out of habit, nor out of now-antiquated feelings of obligation, nor because they are insensitive to the crisis. They come because they still see the value of the sacraments, still find God present in this worship, still reverence the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist and yes, can still see their priest as very different indeed from the gang of abusers and their sanctimonious enablers.
People come because they still find God at Mass and can still pray along with a priest humble enough to lead the congregation in prayer and worship. And yes, there are very many priests who have done their work, celebrated the sacraments, preached again and again the Good News, kept their vows and, in our times, mourned with those who mourn. Despite the complaint that all the “good” priests are really co-conspirators, their stories need to be heard as a more than adequate rejoinder to the “look at me” stance of Carroll and Orsi.
I suppose I could even counter Carroll’s and Orsi’s appeals to their Catholic roots with my own story: born and raised Catholic, and as I mentioned above, more than 50 years a Jesuit, more than 40 years a priest. If Carroll and Orsi want to remind us that they are Catholics who yearn for a Catholicism without priests, though a priest and a celibate I have still managed to live in the same real world as Carroll and Orsi and remain a priest. I see the same things that they see, yet I keep on praying with the community on Sundays and often during the week. Early every morning I pray before the Blessed Sacrament.
I, too, have written academic books. I, too, sit in a professor’s chair, not despite being a priest but as a priest. I stay in the church not out of laziness or cluelessness to the magnitude of the crisis or a failure to understand “religion” properly and certainly not because I lack options. Rather, I remain a true believer: God still comes to us; the sacraments still work; people still believe and worship; priests, even when we are less holy than our parishioners and students, have a necessary role to play in God’s holy church. It is not more honest or insightful to call for the abolition of the priesthood than to insist on its redemption.
There are very many priests who have done their work, celebrated the sacraments, preached again and again the Good News, kept their vows and, in our times, mourned with those who mourn.
To erase the priestly role would be to forget that the church is essentially a sacramental community, infused with the holiness of God. God makes the church holy in its very materiality, in the things of this world, as it is—always sinful, never perfect, yet always still a place made holy by God’s choosing to dwell here. Ordinary bread and ordinary wine become the body and blood of Christ; an ordinary human community is ever surprised to find that it is (still) the Body of Christ who gives us his body and blood, not to disgust us but to draw us into radical companionship with God and one another, a participation from which there is no easy turning back.
Ordinary people become priests because they are called by God and by the community to take up this role. To be a priest and a celibate one is a way of being holy in a world desperately in need of such witness. That all God’s people are holy and able to speak and act in God’s name does not rule out this special, enduring role in the community. That there is a priesthood does not mean that priests need to have license to limit or control the holy, as if to protect God’s presence from the people. The holy is in any case well beyond the power of the bureaucrats.
Redeem the priesthood, yes. Reconnect it to the holiness of God, and begin seriously to imagine a Catholic Church in which any of God’s people may be called to this privilege and burden. This is our hope against hope, reaching far beyond passionate yet ultimately clueless proposals to banish priesthood altogether.