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Abolish the Priesthood,” reads the provocative title of the latest Atlantic cover story, penned by James Carroll. Is it the Brahmin priesthood that has to go? The Shinto kannushi? Ordained Anglican women? (Spoiler alert: No, no, and no.) It is the Roman Catholic Church that must do the right thing and drop her connection with the whole priest business. 

This is a puzzling imperative. One can understand a call to fill a need, to address a deficiency by supplying a want. But there are thousands upon thousands of priestless institutions already out there, from Camp Fire Girls to plumbers' unions to Kiwanis clubs; why should the Catholic Church add to their number? On this matter Carroll is as confused as we are. He can point to a diseased and depraved priesthood, but he has no awareness of its healthy state, no comprehension of its authentic purpose.

There is no possibility, as Carroll imagines, of treating the Catholic priesthood like the Beefeaters at the Tower of London, which might be reconfigured as ushers or guides or eliminated altogether, as the exigencies of the moment direct. The theologian Donald Keefe, S.J., put it this way, “It should be kept in mind that the Church has no authority over her sacraments: they cause her; she does not cause them.” Abolish the priesthood and, by entailment, not only the sacraments but the Church herself pop like a soap-bubble and cease to exist. 

In positive terms, what does Carroll give us by way of a theology of the Church? What does he reckon the Church is for?

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.

That Carroll views his church as an NGO tells us all we need to know about his Christology—and his fix for Catholicism. The good works he mentions have no need of priests but—in the historically precise sense—of clerics, persons expressly educated and motivated toward specific this-worldly ends. A cleric, whence English clerk, is a man who can read and write in ways his neighbors can't. All the more perplexing that Carroll of all people should single out clericalism as the Church's besetting sin:

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.

Here Carroll's antipathies have ridden out in front of the hounds so far as to lose the hunt. Doctrines the apostles preached on the day of Pentecost are mixed up with ideological allergies common to soixante-huitards, heathen and non-, and made subject to the same condemnation. We are still no closer to grasping why men who offer the Eucharist should exit the stage and why, post-purge, the dysfunction he laments would be remedied. More to the point, the NGO that embodies Carroll's own dreams is itself not clergyless, but has a clerisy in the service of recreations “beyond the binary”:

Equality for women as officeholders in the Church has been resisted precisely because it, like an end to priestly celibacy, would bring with it a broad transformation of the entire Catholic ethos: 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; and, indeed, yes to full acceptance of homosexuals. No to male dominance; no to the sovereign authority of clerics; no to double standards.

Carroll's ill-focused ardor is fueled not only by the prospect of sexual emancipation, but by justified disgust at the sexual abuse perpetrated by priests and denied, disguised, and sometimes abetted by their superiors. Here his indignation will be shared by most Catholic readers. He reviews, in disjointed fashion, the last half-century of enormities. In Robespierrian mode he calls for an uprising of the masses, in defiance of self-serving Toryism: “The Church conservatives know better than most that the opposite of the clericalism they aim to protect is not some vague elevation of laypeople to a global altar guild but democracy—a robust overthrow of power that would unseat them and their ilk.” It is perfectly understandable that outrage at gross and prolonged injustice might demand to see the last liturgy coordinator hanged with the guts of the last priest. In terms of dispensing even short-term justice, however, the historical precedents are not reassuring.   

Is there a clue as to why Carroll should round up the usual suspects but send only the massing priests to the guillotine? There is. Carroll was himself a priest for five years. From his own account it does not appear that the spiritual side of the job interfered greatly with more important business.

Ironically, the Church, which sponsored my civil-rights work and prompted my engagement in the antiwar movement, made me a radical. I was the Catholic chaplain at Boston University, working with draft resisters and protesters, and soon enough I found myself in conflict with the conservative Catholic hierarchy. It only gradually dawned on me that there was a tragic flaw deep inside the institution to which I’d given my life, and that it had to do with the priesthood itself. 

The priesthood Carroll would abolish he once committed himself to, and once relinquished. Carroll's demands should, in fairness, be viewed against this background. If a lawyer advises a particular woman to file for bankruptcy, it's important to know that she was once his boss, more important to know that she was once his wife. Is he acting in service of her good or of his own vindictiveness? Here we have reasons for doubt. Consider that Carroll's roster of villains (Burke, Ratzinger, Viganò, etc.) are despised not for their failings but their strengths, not for promises they failed to keep but promises on which they deliver. Chesterton once wrote that, in the eyes of the world, a priest is reckoned a knave for breaking his vows and a fool for keeping them. Ditto for Carroll's NGO.  

Carroll's proposal is an example of the disease for which it purports to be the cure. The model of priestly life he found valuable is dismaying not only for its preening 1970s-style Radical Chic, but in the extent to which it viewed the sacramental character and duty of priesthood as an add-on: extraneous, detachable, and dispensable. In sum, a kind of fanny-pack one might put aside when it interferes with—what's the word?—invitations to intimacy. It was in large measure this disintegration of the ritual and the pastoral, this reductive instrumentalizing of the sacred at the expense of praxis, which permitted the Jekyll & Hyde lifestyle we find in McCarrick and in the great majority of abusers and enablers. 

But what about Carroll's valid concerns for the world outside the sanctuary? Would the re-sacralization of the priesthood pull the Church back from her work with the poor and the friendless? Would we become a house of self-regarding bourgeois pietism? Well, seek out for yourself a slum among slums. Go to the convent of Mother Teresa's sisters you will find there. Ask those sisters whether they believe the priesthood should be abolished. Ask them whether, in furthering their own work, the priest as scoutmaster or priest as confector of sacraments is more valuable. You may have to wait until Adoration ends for your answer.

Paul Mankowski, S.J., writes from Chicago.

Photo courtesy of the Diocese of Arundel via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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