To Save the Church, Dismantle the Priesthood
Catholics must detach themselves from the clerical hierarchy, James Carroll argued in June—and take the faith back into their own hands.
Thank you, James Carroll, for your article. I, too, am fasting from Mass and my commitment to the Catholic Church. I cannot bear to hear how the vulnerable continue to be emotionally and physically mistreated by some clerical men and women—and yet we must not live in darkness. Articles like yours have made me wake up to how far the Church has strayed from its origins.
In one respect, James Carroll’s scathing critique of the Catholic hierarchy doesn’t go far enough. The indecent liberties taken by clergy who are shielded by their “ontologically superior” position include a far wider swath of personal sins than sex abuse or the ignoring thereof—they include sins like pride and cruelty.
In another area, however, Carroll goes too far. Dismantle the priesthood altogether? Unless this is intended merely as a rhetorical provocation, Carroll is living in a fantasyland. Even pre-Romanized Christianity was far from egalitarian in its governance. Jesus was willing to give his life for his flock, but he never took a straw poll before handing down a teaching. A more realistic and desirable solution to clericalism is implied in Carroll’s own formulation that today’s Church structure “owes more to emperors than to apostles.” Just flip the terms: We need a hierarchy modeled more closely on the servant-leaders and martyrs described in the Acts of the Apostles. Turning self-satisfied masters back into servants will take an independently appointed watchdog arm of the Church, peopled by laity and endowed with real authority to adjudicate grievances and assign penalties to miscreant clergy—and, of course, to hand them over to secular authorities whenever civil laws are violated.
St. Louis, Mo.
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.
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.
James Martin, S.J.
Excerpt from an article on americamagazine.org
James Carroll diagnoses the Church with the disease of clericalism, by which he really means hierarchicalism. What Carroll fails to recognize is that clericalism and hierarchicalism are not synonymous. The prideful ambition of clericalism is a poison within the Church, true, but the Church hierarchy was instituted by Christ himself, has existed since the earliest days of Christianity, and is a necessary component for most of Catholic theology. To propose abolishing the priesthood in order to root out clericalism is akin to demolishing a house in order to put out a kitchen fire—you’ve put out the fire, but what are you left with?
James J. Mello
As a professor of ancient history, I research the making of early Christian leadership. I thus read James Carroll’s article with heightened professional interest.
Mr. Carroll blames the fourth-century Roman empire for “clericalism.” In fact, hierarchical clerics started claiming special powers from the divine within their small religious movement very early, long before they won support from Emperor Constantine.
For centuries, Christians have argued about the right form of Church leadership, often by trying to discern the habits of early Christians. It may be encouraging to think that the distinct, powerful clergy is an idea imposed on Christianity by empire. But early Christianity was no utopia; it dealt with the same human problems that affect any community of knowledge that produces experts who relate hierarchically.
And yet, while the notion of a superior clerical rank runs older and deeper inside Christian tradition than compulsory celibacy or imperial power, it need not be eternal. The workings of the Catholic clergy have changed deeply and repeatedly; Mr. Carroll should take heart that they can change again.
Adam M. Schor
University of South Carolina