Abolish the priesthood (illustrative)

What to do with this rotten Church? Abolish the priesthood

Abolish the priesthood.

That’s the simple but powerful call author and former priest James Carroll has launched in The Atlantic.

Like Carroll, we at Novena feel the clerical sex abuse crisis has been a “grotesque betrayal” of the ideals of Jesus Christ, the deepest confidences of the faithful and, above all, of the innocence of the undeserving child victims.

Like Carroll, we too carry an “ocean of grief” in our hearts for the scandal.

For that reason, we copy below some fragments of Carroll’s must-read piece.

The root of the problem is clericalism, “the vesting of power in an all-male and celibate clergy”

Clericalism, with its cult of secrecy, its theological misogyny, its sexual repressiveness, and its hierarchical power based on threats of a doom-laden afterlife, is at the root of Roman Catholic dysfunction.

The clerical system’s obsession with status thwarts even the merits of otherwise good priests and distorts the Gospels’ message of selfless love, which the Church was established to proclaim.

Clericalism is both the underlying cause and the ongoing enabler of the present Catholic catastrophe.

Clericalism is self-fulfilling and self-sustaining. It thrives on secrecy, and it looks after itself.

Clericalism explains both how the sexual-abuse crisis could happen and how it could be covered up for so long.

If the structure of clericalism is not dismantled, the Roman Catholic Church will not survive, and will not deserve to.

Were it not for crusading journalists and lawyers, the sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests would still be hidden, and rampant.

A power structure that is accountable only to itself will always end up abusing the powerless. 

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.

The anguish of an honest priest

The very priesthood is toxic, and I see now that my own service was, too.

It only gradually dawned on me that there was a tragic flaw deep inside the institution to which I’d given my life, and that it had to do with the priesthood itself. My priesthood.

I heard the confessions of young people wracked with guilt not because of authentic sinfulness but because of a Church-imposed sexual repressiveness that I was expected to affirm.

Just by celebrating the Mass, I helped enforce the unjust exclusion of women from equal membership in the Church.

I valued the community life I shared with fellow priests, but I also sensed the crippling loneliness that could result from a life that lacked the deep personal intimacy other human beings enjoy.

My relationship with God was so tied up with being a priest that I feared a total loss of faith if I left. That very fear revealed a denigration of the laity and illustrated the essential problem.

If I had stayed a priest, I see now, my faith, such as it was, would have been corrupted.

The early Church, love and simplicity

Josephus [a first-century Jewish historian – ed.] described the followers of Jesus simply as “those that loved him at the first and did not let go of their affection for him.”

There was no priesthood yet, and the movement was egalitarian. Christians worshipped and broke bread in one another’s homes.

Equality for women

Equality for women as officeholders in the Church has been resisted precisely because it, like an end to priestly celibacy, would bring with it a broad transformation of the entire Catholic ethos: Yes to female sexual autonomy; yes to love and pleasure, not just reproduction, as a purpose of sex; yes to married clergy; yes to contraception; and, indeed, yes to full acceptance of homosexuals. No to male dominance; no to the sovereign authority of clerics; no to double standards.

What has to happen now?

The recasting of the Church’s relationship with the Jewish people, as I see it, was the single largest revision of Christian theology ever accomplished.

The habit of Catholic (or Christian) anti-Judaism is not fully broken, but its theological justification has been expunged.

Under the assertive leadership of a pope, profound change can occur, and it can occur quickly. This is what must happen now.

I want to be part of what brings about the liberation of the Catholic Church from the imperium that took it captive 1,700 years ago.

A reformed Church, hope for the world

The renewal offered by Vatican II may have been thwarted, but a reformed, enlightened, and hopeful Catholic Church is essential in our world.

On urgent problems ranging from climate change, to religious and ethnic conflict, to economic inequality, to catastrophic war, no nongovernmental organization has more power to promote change for the better, worldwide, than the Catholic Church.

“The exiles will become the core”

What if multitudes of the faithful, appalled by what the sex-abuse crisis has shown the Church leadership to have become, were to detach themselves from—and renounce—the cassock-ridden power structure of the Church and reclaim Vatican II’s insistence that that power structure is not the Church?

The Church is the people of God. The Church is a community that transcends space and time. Catholics should not yield to clerical despots the final authority over our personal relationship to the Church.

I refuse to let a predator priest or a complicit bishop rip my faith from me.

Think of us as the Church’s conscientious objectors. We are not deserters.

Replacing the diseased model of the Church with something healthy may involve, for a time, intentional absence from services or life on the margins—less in the pews than in the rearmost shadows. But it will always involve deliberate performance of the works of mercy: feeding the hungry, caring for the poor, visiting the sick, striving for justice. These can be today’s chosen forms of the faith.

It will involve, 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. That may be especially true in so-called intentional communities that lift up the leadership of women. These already exist, everywhere. 

The Vatican itself may take steps, belatedly, to catch up to where the Church goes without it. Fine. But in ways that cannot be predicted, have no central direction, and will unfold slowly over time, the exiles themselves will become the core, as exiles were the core at the time of Jesus.

An authentic Church

As anticlerical Catholics, we will simply refuse to accept that the business-as-usual attitudes of most priests and bishops should extend to us, as the walls of their temple collapse around them.

The Church I foresee will be governed by laypeople, although the verb govern may apply less than serve.

There will be leaders who gather communities in worship, and because the tradition is rich, striking chords deep in human history, such sacramental enablers may well be known as priests. They will include women and married people. They will be ontologically equal to everyone else. They will not owe fealty to a feudal superior.

Catholic schools and universities will continue to submit faith to reason—and vice versa.

Catholic hospitals will be a crucial part of the global health-care infrastructure.

Catholic religious orders of men and women, some voluntarily celibate, will continue to protect and enshrine the varieties of contemplative practice and the social Gospel.

Jesuits and Dominicans, Benedictines and Franciscans, the Catholic Worker Movement and other communities of liberation theology—all of these will survive in as yet unimagined forms.

The Church, whatever else it may be, is not the organizational apparatus. It is a community of memory, keeping alive the story of Jesus Christ. The Church is an in-the-flesh connection to him—or it is nothing.

The Church is the fellowship of those who follow him, of those who seek to imitate him—a fellowship, to repeat the earliest words ever used about us, of “those that loved him at the first and did not let go of their affection for him.

Related:  Role of bishops at stake in Vatican intervention in German parish mergers, canon lawyer warns

Next on Novena:

Danail Hristov, author and researcher: “Celibacy: a godsend or a life-undermining practice?”

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