A Priestless Church Simply Isn’t Catholic

A call to end the priesthood reveals a deep misunderstanding of Catholicism.

An illustration of a priest's collar
The Atlantic

James Carroll, the author of this month’s Atlantic’s cover story, “Abolish the Priesthood,” is famous in certain Catholic circles for his bitter denunciations of the Church. To the well-documented renunciation of his own priesthood years ago, Carroll now adds the claim that, by its very nature, the Catholic priesthood is inextricably tied to clericalism (all priests being clerics, of course), and thus to “its cult of secrecy, its theological misogyny, its sexual repressiveness, and its hierarchical power based on threats of a doom-laden afterlife.” He also argues that in its more pristine first centuries, Christianity had no priesthood and no hierarchy, and so was far more egalitarian.

Reading Carroll, I find not so much a hatred for the priesthood or the Church more generally, but rather a deep misunderstanding of Catholicism, which has resulted in a conflicted love throughout his public life. As a priest myself, I can only hope that he will one day find some peace and reconciliation.

Twenty years after James Carroll knelt before the altar at St. Paul the Apostle Church on West 59th Street in New York City and received the laying-on of hands from an archbishop, making him a priest, I knelt in the same spot and received the laying-on of hands from a cardinal.

Carroll describes that moment in his essay:

When I became a priest, I placed my hands between the hands of the bishops ordaining me—a feudal gesture derived from the vassal to his lord … I gave my loyalty to him, not to a set of principles or ideals, or even to the Church.

This, like much else in his essay, is true, but it is not quite the whole truth. What Carroll does not relate are two of the vows he was asked to affirm prior to placing his hands in those of the bishop. They were identical to the vows I made in 1989.  The ceremonial reads:

Do you resolve to exercise the ministry of the word worthily, preaching the Gospel and teaching the Catholic faith?

Do you resolve to celebrate faithfully and reverently, in accord with the Church’s tradition, the mysteries of Christ, especially the sacrifice of the Eucharist and the sacrament of Reconciliation, for the glory of God and the sanctification of the Christian people?

This is hardly the commitment of a vassal to his lord. There is much in these words that reflects the commitment we were expected to make to the Church and indispensability of the priesthood to it. But every priest’s experience is different and, in some evident ways, Carroll reflects the experience of many priests who passed through the 1960s and ’70s whose high expectations of the Church, of themselves, of their parents, and even of God failed because their presumptions and definitions were flawed from the outset.

This is evident throughout Carroll’s essay, nowhere more clearly than in how he describes his understanding and expectations of the Second Vatican Council. He sees it almost entirely in terms of discontinuity with the past. This went far beyond the “jettisoning of the Latin Mass.” He also saw the hope that Vatican II could offer a replacement of the hierarchy with some kind of liberal democracy.

I cannot understand how anyone who has actually read the documents of Vatican II could have come to such conclusions. In fact, Carroll’s entire idea of Christianity more closely resembles some of the more fundamentalist tendencies and enthusiastic movements that have periodically reared their heads in the Christian world throughout history than it does the actual reforms of Vatican II.

In Carroll’s version of history there once existed a purer, more original form of Christianity, one that had no priesthood, had no authoritative hierarchy, and was free of “misogyny” (as he defines it) and sexual oppression. But then that mean bishop, Augustine, appeared on the scene centuries later, bringing with him the notion of self-denial as the way to happiness.

Can it be that Carroll does not recall Jesus’s demand to deny oneself, to lose one’s life in order to find it? Or that he has never read the Acts of the Apostles and observed in it the emergence of the gradations of ministry from the apostles, who then extended outward their authority to collaborators in their mission, and instituted the diaconate under their direction? And while Carroll shows knowledge of extra-biblical observations of Christianity in the writings of Josephus in the first century (who wrote, as Carroll rightly notes, “around the same time that the Gospels were taking form”), how could he have missed the 11 letters written by Ignatius of Antioch to a wide diversity of Christian churches throughout the Mediterranean while on his way to martyrdom in Rome?

Those letters described an already extant, highly ordered, and intricate hierarchy with a threefold ranking of priesthood (deacon, priest or presbyter, and bishop) based on a monarchical episcopate. Moreover, long before Constantine, Justin Martyr offered a detailed description of a Eucharistic celebration written in about 153 A.D., which is a highly ordered liturgy replete with a male priest presider.

Carroll makes several references to the historic turn that took place at the Second Vatican Council with regard to the Jewish people. This included the revision of the liturgy to reflect a new sensitivity and a deepened understanding of the integrity of the abiding Jewish covenant and the Jewish people, especially in light of the Holocaust.

This awareness on Carroll’s part makes it all the more odd that he demonstrates no appreciation for the deeply Jewish nature of both Catholic worship and its priestly hierarchy. Indeed, if Carroll were serious and consistent, he would attack with the same ferocity the pre-Christian Jewish temple hierarchy, with its all-male priesthood, as something that should also have been abolished. Of course, the Catholic Church and its ministerial priesthood have undergone change and development over the centuries. Retaining the substance of the Catholic faith, the Church offers new ways of expressing that faith. In the very speech that opened the Second Vatican Council on October 11, 1962, Pope John XXIII echoed the founder of the Paulist Fathers, Father Isaac Thomas Hecker, who wrote of speaking “old truths in new forms.” “The substance of the ancient doctrine,” the pope said, “is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another.”

This, however, is not the agenda of Carroll and a host of others of his Vatican II generation. Carroll wants to jettison not “the imperium that took [the Church] captive 1700 years ago,” but the Church itself.  Though he claims to want to recover the Gospels, Carroll is really about the business of proposing a new Gospel, one quite unrelated to the Gospel proclaimed by Christ.

No doubt, aspects of Christianity can be expressed and preserved outside of Church institutions, “partly written, partly unwritten, partly the interpretation, partly the supplement of Scripture, partly preserved in intellectual expressions, partly latent in the spirit and temper of Christians; poured to and fro in closets and upon the housetops, in liturgies, in controversial works, in obscure fragments, in sermons, in popular prejudices, in local customs,” as John Henry Newman said.  This leaves ample room for variety, debate, and dialogue. Yet for all that, the Gospel has always required an institutional apparatus, without which it simply won’t be able to perdure throughout history.

In Carroll’s new Church, he writes, “the exiles themselves will become the core,” but of course, there will be no core. Or if there is one, how long will it be before this core becomes the new “central direction” from which he dissents? The perpetual need to remake the core would result in a religious version of Groundhog Day.

In this regard, what Carroll describes as “the virtues of the Catholic faith” are especially revealing. He notes that the Church is a worldwide community of more than 1 billion, the only institution that transcends borders and time; that there are 200,000 Catholic schools and 40,000 Catholic hospitals; and that the Church is the largest nongovernmental organization and a “tribunal of justice.”

These are observations about the Church’s institutional nature, and they reveal the residue of Carroll’s Catholicity, which is itself rooted in the fundamental dogma—yes, dogma—fought over and debated by bishops and settled by a council of bishops at Nicaea. They held that Jesus is both God and Man; that the Word who was in the beginning with God became flesh and dwelt among us.

By all means, renew the priesthood—it is sorely and embarrassingly in need of a radical renewal. But to call for its wholesale abolition is to call for the abolition of the Church itself. The Church cannot be reduced to the clergy, to be sure, but Catholicism is not the Church without its priests. James Carroll may want to bring a new Church into being. His won’t be the first such effort. But let’s be clear that his priestless Church is simply not Catholic.