In this cover story in the June issue of The Atlantic magazine, author James Carroll (Constantine's Sword and others books) bemoans the scandal-plagued Catholic Church and suggests one answer is simply to abolish the priesthood.
Carroll, himself a former Catholic priest, must know that for as far as the eye can see, this solution will not be adopted. It is so impractical and revolutionary that it seems like wasted breath even to talk about it.
But that it got suggested at all -- with prominence in a magazine with a long, long history of cogent journalism -- says something sad and remarkable about the current state of Catholicism. What it says is that these are desperate times in the church and that they call for unusual measures.
Carroll is more pessimistic about the Catholic Church than I am, but because he speaks as an insider and I don't, I must have respect for his angst. But it doesn't mean I must agree with his dismantle-the-priesthood solution.
For one thing, Carroll tends to say things in needlessly provocative and even spiteful ways. For instance, Carroll notes that one of the responses of Pope Francis to the abuse scandal was "a meek call for a four-day meeting of senior bishops, to be held in Rome under rubric 'The Protection of Minors in the Church.' This," Carroll asserts, "was like putting Mafia chieftains in charge of a crime commission."
Many senior bishops, to be sure, have failed to respond to this crisis in appropriate or effective ways, but to equate them with Mafia chieftains is a good way to cut off a necessary conversation with them.
Carroll says the actions and inactions of his church eventually drove him to stop going to Mass: "I embarked on an unwilled version of the Catholic tradition of 'fast and abstinence' — in this case, fasting from the Eucharist and abstaining from the overt practice of my faith. I am not deluding myself that this response of mine has significance for anyone else — Who cares? It’s about time! — but for me the moment is a life marker. I have not been to Mass in months. I carry an ocean of grief in my heart."
He also expresses his admiration for the church and its potential in ways that buttress my point when I write (as I often have) that the world needs a healthy Catholic Church: "Around the world there are more than 200,000 Catholic schools and nearly 40,000 Catholic hospitals and health-care facilities, mostly in developing countries. The Church is the largest nongovernmental organization on the planet, through which selfless women and men care for the poor, teach the unlettered, heal the sick, and work to preserve minimal standards of the common good. The world needs the Church of these legions to be rational, historically minded, pluralistic, committed to peace, a champion of the equality of women, and a tribune of justice."
But what Carroll and others call the "issue of clericalism," meaning a powerful, insular, all-male priesthood, is destroying the church: "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 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."
Perhaps I'm being overly optimistic when I say that it seems possible to me to dismantle clericalism without abolishing the priesthood as an ordained office. Priests must (and many do) see themselves as servants, not as authority figures who are beyond challenge. Like clergy in all religious traditions, they must model what it looks like to live out the faith even while they acknowledge that they, like the rest of us, are fallible human beings.
It seems to me that that's the task of the Catholic Church today rather than blowing up the office of priest and starting over again. As a Protestant, my preference would be for the Catholic Church to start to ordain females as priests, too. But, of course, I have no say in that matter as an outsider.
Carroll points to a "gradual ascendance of lay leaders in the Church." I hope that continues. But churches also need professional leaders. Abolishing the priesthood might bring Carroll and others some visceral satisfaction, but in the end it would wreck more than it would fix.
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O, CANADA, YOU'RE A LITTLE DIFFERENT
New research suggests it's socially easier to be religiously unaffiliated in Canada than it is in the U.S. Yes, and it's also easier to walk down the street there with a hockey stick and not get arrested for being armed.