Indeed, greater integration of the lives of the clergy and laypeople may be part of the answer to clericalism. The Church must create more opportunities for bishops, especially, to interact with the people they are meant to serve. Early Church canons frowned upon transferring bishops from location to location, according to the Boston College theologian Richard Gaillardetz. In a recent interview with America’s podcast Deliver Us, he said that as bishops have become more mobile, reassignments to larger dioceses have become nearly synonymous with career promotions.
Similarly, integrating priestly seminary studies with that of lay theology students and hiring lay professors at seminaries can also help keep future priests from becoming insular. “How can you form somebody to serve the people of God,” Gaillardetz asked, “when you systematically separate them from the very people they’re supposed to serve?”
I am a journalist at America, a Jesuit publication about faith and culture. My own workplace, one that integrates laypeople with Jesuit priests and brothers, has both unique benefits and unique challenges. (Pro: Easy to find someone to celebrate my wedding Mass and baptize my kids. Con: Need to be careful about accidentally encountering a coworker in the confessional.) But the challenges are eased, and even made fruitful, by the fact that I can be honest with my co-workers, ordained or otherwise. I harbor no illusions that priests are perfect. (The feeling is mutual.) Our shared mission requires us to explain our lives to one another.
We also have the opportunity to attend Mass weekly in our office chapel. The Mass reminds us that, whatever our differences or difficulties, at the heart of our community is the Eucharist, which inspires, empowers, and humbles us. At the risk of sounding overly pious—but it’s what the Catholic Church teaches, and what I’m afraid I actually believe—it is through the prayers said by our priests that bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ, a source of grace and peace and healing. Which is exactly what the Church needs and what so many people desire. The body of Christ also exists fully and powerfully in the people in the pews. We need both of these experiences of Christ—in the people and in the Sacrament—to move forward meaningfully as a Church.
To do away with either ignores the desires of one of the groups that Carroll posits are most likely to be ostracized by the current Church structures: Catholic women. In America’s survey, we asked women which aspects of the Catholic faith were important to their religious identity. Most women named two things: helping the poor (79 percent said “somewhat” or “very much”) and receiving the Eucharist (69 percent said “somewhat” or “very much”).
Carroll’s plan emphasizes the social-justice efforts that appeal to so many Catholics but neglects the desire of women, and Catholics more generally, to receive the real presence of the Eucharist at Mass. As the Southern Gothic Catholic fiction writer Flannery O’Connor once wrote about the Sacrament, “Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.” Yet our survey showed that only 24 percent of women are going to Mass weekly or more. The structural problems of exclusion and power Carroll describes may be keeping some away. But the answer to exclusion cannot be more exclusion. The answer is to bring the priesthood and the laity closer together, not to abolish the former for the supposed benefit of the latter.