On The Atlantic’s June Cover, James Carroll Urges the Catholic Church to“Abolish the Priesthood”

To save the Church, the former priest advocates for the end of clerical hierarchy

May 17, 2019 (Washington, D.C.)—The Catholic Church’s reputation and membership has suffered under the continued devastating revelations of rapmant sexual abuse, aided by priests, bishops, and cardinals who’ve protected each other over countless victims. James Carroll, who spent five years as a priest himself, harbored no illusions about the Church’s betrayal, and yet maintained his faith as he wrote and reported on the Church’s moral failings. Only in the past year did Carroll reach his breaking point, spurred in part by the Pennsylvania grand jury findings that over 70 years, more than 1000 children had been abused in the state by 300 priests. He came to realize that the Church would never reform itself, as the institution refused to take the actions necessary to ensure these horrors end. He stopped attending mass, and began considering how the Church could save itself.

His solution is the basis for the powerful argument on the cover of The Atlantic’s June issue. In Abolish the Priesthood Carroll identifies the vesting of power in an all-male and celibate clergy as the problem. “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,” Carroll writes. “Clericalism is both the underlying cause and the ongoing enabler of the present Catholic catastrophe.”  Only by dismantling the clerical hierarchy, he argues, can the Church end the perpetual scandals, move into the modern age, and preserve the faith of its believers.

The cover story is out now and in The Atlantic’s June issue, now on newsstands. Also in the issue: Franklin Foer reports on Hungary’s downward authoritarian spiral, through the lens of the attacks on its last independent educational institution, Central European University; an oral history of Donald Trump’s bigotry, compiled from dozens of interviews with those who’ve witnessed it firsthand; Darcy Courteau chronicles the story of Luz Mirella Zamora, an undocumented resident of the U.S. for 25 years who recalls her border crossings; and Shakespeare expert Elizabeth Winkler makes the case that the Bard’s iconic works were penned by a woman named Emilia Bassano.

On the cover, Carroll makes the case for broad transformation of the entire Catholic ethos, ending the requirement of celibacy for priests and the Church’s misogynist exclusion of women from the priesthood. The Church, he says, must bring lay people into positions of real power and foster equality for women as officeholders in the Vatican. “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; amd, indeed, yes to full acceptance of homosexuals,” Carroll writes. “No to male dominance; no to the sovereign authority of clerics; no to double standards.”

He points to Vatican II as evidence that potential transformation is possible, recalling how the Church radically revised Catholic teachings about Jews following the Holocaust. “The formal renunciation of the ‘Christ Killer’ slandeer by a solemn Church council, together with the affirmation of the integrity of Judaism, reaches far more deeply into Catholic doctrine and tradition than anything having to do with the overthrow of clericalism, whether that involves women’s ordination, married priests, or other questions of sexuality,” Carroll writes. “Under the assertive leadership of a pope, profound change can occur, and it can occur quickly. This is what must happen now.”

Even so, Pope Francis likely won’t make such drastic changes. Carroll recommends that Catholics like him—worshipers appalled by what the sex-abuse crisis has shown the Church leadership to have become—abandon the hierarchy, taking their faith back by holding their own services. “As ever, the Church’s principal organizing event will be the communal experience of the Mass, the structure of which—reading the Word, breaking the bread—will remain universal; it will not need to be celebrated by a member of some sacerdotal caste,” he writes.  By abstaining from the pews, Catholics can remind themselves that the Church is not its power structure. Instead, “The Church is the people of God.”

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Helen Tobin // The Atlantic