Abolish the Priesthood? A Young Priest Responds

The Catholic priesthood will outlast all those who call for its abolition

Willem Key (1515-1568), “The Last Supper”
Willem Key (1515-1568), “The Last Supper” (photo: Public Domain)

With the flick of a wrist, a turn of phrase, a stroke on a keyboard, people for centuries have called for the end of the priesthood. Martin Luther, John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli are great examples of this. There have been entire political movements radically dedicated to expunging the cancer of men of the cloth. Just read the Wikipedia article on anti-clericalism.

Just when you might have thought that these weighty voices were enough to rid the world of such meddlesome priests, now comes the feature story of the June print edition of the Atlantic. Titillatingly titled “Abolish the Priesthood,” the latest rallying cry comes from James Carroll, former priest and current journalist.

In this latest invective against Holy Orders, Carroll repudiates not only his priesthood and the practice of his faith — he is on a “fast” from going to Mass and receiving Communion— Carroll indeed seeks to call to an end to the pesky priesthood, once and for all, and thereby liberate Christians from the clerical shackles that have held them bound for 1,700 years and counting.

For 1,700 years? According to the Carroll Hypothesis his allegedly beloved faith has been imprisoned for over 85% of its existence! That is a serious countervailing of God’s Providence and the Incarnation. At least when Luther made a similar claim he was impugning only 80% of the history of the Church.

One could possibly sympathize with Luther’s revolution because it had hardly been tried in such a rigorous way. One could see himself supporting the French Revolution because the Church had become so intertwined with oppressive state.

One could even see the editors of the Atlantic in 1969, feeling unrepressed from the black-and-white 1950s of Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman movies about the glories of American Catholicism, smirking as they set the printing press to make such a bold claim.

But come on. We’ve heard this speech by the “Spirit of Vatican II” crowd for so long now. The ideal church created in James Carroll’s image and likeness would be liberal protestant churches, whose attendance has suffered even worse than clerical Catholicism. Americans who identify as mainline protestants has been halved in just 40 years. Catholicism has dipped, but only slightly.

From the moment Jesus chose Twelve followers to follow him in a privileged way, and three among those Twelve, and one of the Twelve above all of them, he established a hierarchical order to spread the Good News among the people. His particular love did not correspond to their role; it was a beloved disciple who received his love the most, not Peter. Nor was perfection or even moral rigor a prerequisite for the job, as Peter and Judas showed.

In the Acts of the Apostles, even after the betrayal of Judas and his scandalous end, they saw fit, inspired by the Holy Spirit, to select another apostle, Matthias (cf. Acts 1). This perpetuated the special assembly of imperfect and oft-failing men called to administer the Church.

The mythical church to which Carroll wants to return never existed. Read again the Acts of the Apostles. Peter administers the Church and regulates it. They live in common, yes, but it is clear that the Twelve, along with the addition of Paul, are special custodians of the people of God. They are imperfect. They fight, bicker, abandon, pick sides. Yet the members of this band are the earthen vessels whom God has ordained to govern. The laying on of hands continues this ministry, passed on from weak man to weak man, by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Carroll and his ilk canonize a certain period of the church that didn’t exist. Ananias and Sapphira were struck down for withholding funds from Peter (cf. Acts 5). Was St. Peter a clericalist? Paul condemns routinely those who teach a doctrine different from his. Was St. Paul a clericalist? Did St. Paul himself condemn the 1960s hippie Catholicism yearned for by Carroll when he reprimanded the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 11:19-22):

Indeed, there have to be factions among you, for only so will it become clear who among you are genuine. When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s Supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk. What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What should I say to you? Should I commend you? In this matter I do not commend you!

Of course, this passage is followed by the earliest recounting of the institution narrative of the Lord’s Supper. By the hands of the one high priest, the command to do this in his memory has been given to those unworthy servants who have been conformed to his one true priesthood.

And herein is where Carroll fails. There is one high priest, Jesus Christ, to whom I and my brother priests tremble to be associated with in radical sacramental conformity. By baptism, I say with St. Paul that it is no longer I who live but he who lives in me. But by Holy Orders, Christ speaks through my unworthy lips and holds in my unworthy hands his very Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity. He hears through my ears the earnest confession of sins, and to those same ears pronounces through my mouth the most comforting words of all, “I absolve you.” When the daughters of a dying old lady whom I’ve never met see me walk in the door, they exhale saying, “Hello Father, thanks for coming.”

The priesthood is wounded for certain. Yet this is even more certain: Jesus Christ, his Church and her priests will outlast me, James Carroll, the Atlantic — even our nation.

James, come back to the faith you claim to love and humbly repent of your sins and receive again the Lord of Life, the one true great high priest.