Cover Story

Abolishing the priesthood would tear the heart out of the Church

Christ designated a class of people, all of them men, to commemorate his sacrifice (CNS)

The priesthood continues Christ’s work of sacrifice. Those calling for its abolition don’t understand Catholicism

A year ago, there appeared in the National Catholic Reporter an account of a Catholic men’s gathering at Cape Cod, which the periodical said offered “glimpses of a future church”. Blazing the path to this church of the future were the author, Bill Mitchell, and his buddies – “nine guys ranging in age from 57 to 69” (all of them white, judging by the accompanying photo).

They kicked things off with some hiking, they relaxed by a fireplace, they lunched. Then they read the Bible and “headed into the kitchen and gathered around a table, a processional provided with some liturgical oomph as Peter opened his mobile phone [and] played the ‘Glory Be’ he created by layering multiple recordings of his own voice”. But oops: “We forgot to plan a sign of peace. Vincent reminded us, and there followed 72 hugs.” Eventually, they performed a pseudo-consecration and took something like Communion. Then they went home.

As I read The Atlantic’s recent cover story calling for the abolition of the priesthood, I couldn’t help but be reminded of that earlier NCR essay. Here was James Carroll, another aging white American boomer, dreaming of a Catholicism that reverts to some mythical original Christianity, freed from priests and prelates and religious orders, from fusty structures and the cobwebbed accumulation of centuries of Roman tradition. A Catholicism, in other words, that might look and sound a lot like Bill Mitchell’s: just some guys, reading the Good Book, hugging it out, lunching and reflecting.

To be fair to the Cape Cod boys, they didn’t envision their home liturgy supplanting the Mass or their parish, to which they remained devoted. Carroll, a former priest, is much more radical – as radical, that is, as your average liberal Congregationalist. He thinks “the very priesthood is toxic”. It is a source of “theological misogyny” and “sexual repressiveness”, with its “hierarchical power based on threats of a doom-laden afterlife”.

All this rage is ostensibly directed against “clericalism”, which Carroll blames for the problem of sexual abuse, an admittedly grave crisis inside the Church – and outside it. Many faithful Catholics would no doubt agree that clericalism, in the pejorative sense of a privileged and unaccountable ecclesiastical class, bears some of the blame. But it doesn’t follow that Catholic priests should be “abolished”, any more than parents, teachers and the other population groups that include abusers.

It soon becomes clear, however, that Carroll’s whole argument rests on conflating clericalism with the Catholic priesthood as such. The result is that he treats of a church that has little to do with how the actual Catholic Church understands itself (he is welcome to critique this self-understanding, to be sure, but he doesn’t even approach the subject). The Catholic Church sees itself as Jesus Christ in corporate form, continuing his work until the second coming. And Jesus’s main business is sacrifice, giving up his body and shedding his blood on the Cross for the redemption of humankind.

Sacri-fice (literally, “sacred work”) by definition requires a priesthood. Pagan civilisations the world over, seeking divine favours and expiation of sins, designated priests to carry out this important work, often in unspeakably gruesome ways. The people of Israel, to whom the one God first made himself known, also performed sacrifices. All those rams and heifers and lambs and turtledoves of the Old Testaments didn’t offer themselves on the altar; someone had to do it, a class of people set aside for God, the descendants of Aaron and the tribe of Levi.

Jesus of Nazareth fulfilled all sacrifice by making of himself the everlasting offering. As St Paul puts it in the Letter to the Hebrews (2:17), “he had to be made like his brethren in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and high priest in service of God, to make expiation for the sins of the people.”

Before making his expiation, Jesus Christ designated a class of people, all of them men, to commemorate his sacrifice and allow us to participate in it (Matthew 26:26-28). He also charged these men to teach and baptise all nations (Matthew 28:19) and granted them authority to forgive or retain sins (John 20:23; Matthew 16:19). A male priesthood, one that depended totally on the one high priesthood of Jesus, thus took form while he was still fulfilling his public ministry on earth.

It’s thus error bordering on dishonesty for Carroll to claim that the origins of “clericalism” – by which, again, he means the priesthood itself – “lie not in the Gospels but in the attitudes and organisational charts of the late Roman Empire”. Yes, the Catholic Church inherited some of the governance structures and forms of imperial Rome, but there is nothing inherently Roman about the celibate priesthood. And those Roman structures which the Church appropriated she transfigured and repurposed, as she always does, redirecting them to the salvation of souls.

Which raises the question: does Carroll care at all about things like souls, salvation and sacrifice – those things, in other words, that attract people to all religion, not just the Catholic faith?

Not that one can tell from the essay. Early on, he describes the Catholic Church the “largest non-governmental organisation on the planet”. Later he says: “On urgent problems ranging from climate change, to religious and ethnic conflict, to economic inequality, to catastrophic war, no non-governmental organisation has more power to promote change for the better, worldwide, than the Catholic Church.”

Yes, the Church should – and does – address these problems. But as Pope Francis has repeatedly said, she can’t be reduced to an NGO. Doctors Without Borders does some wonderful work. But it can’t celebrate the Eucharist, the source and summit of the Christian life; it can’t absolve sins; it can’t proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ with apostolic authority. For these things, we need the Catholic Church.

That last point, authority, can’t be emphasised enough. Has it ever occurred to Carroll that Catholicism has remained stable doctrinally across two millennia – never taking one piece of Scripture out of context and running away with it to produce bizarre religions – thanks largely to priests, bishops and popes who, through their ministry of preaching, have fought off doctrinal error? That authority is the guarantor of the Catholic Church’s solidity and catholicity, as compared to the thousands of Protestant denominations and storefront churches that pop up one day and disappear the next? That not every schmuck should interpret the Bible by his own dim lights?

The rebels of 1968, of which Carroll is very much one, never appreciated how much suffering, confusion and tyranny were to be found on the far side of the collapse of authority. They were, and are, relentless. Even now, as they enter their twilight, the James Carrolls feel impelled to take parting potshots at authority. Allow me, then, to sum up bluntly: James, I don’t want to confess my sins to Bill Mitchell and the Cape Cod boys. I don’t want home liturgies and homemade recordings of the “Glory Be”. I don’t want an NGO church. And save your 72 hugs.

Sohrab Ahmari is the op-ed editor of the New York Post, a contributing editor of the Catholic Herald and author of the memoir From Fire, by Water (Ignatius Press)