James Carroll, the author of this month’s Atlantic’s cover story, “Abolish the Priesthood,” is famous in certain Catholic circles for his bitter denunciations of the Church. To the well-documented renunciation of his own priesthood years ago, Carroll now adds the claim that, by its very nature, the Catholic priesthood is inextricably tied to clericalism (all priests being clerics, of course), and thus to “its cult of secrecy, its theological misogyny, its sexual repressiveness, and its hierarchical power based on threats of a doom-laden afterlife.” He also argues that in its more pristine first centuries, Christianity had no priesthood and no hierarchy, and so was far more egalitarian.
Reading Carroll, I find not so much a hatred for the priesthood or the Church more generally, but rather a deep misunderstanding of Catholicism, which has resulted in a conflicted love throughout his public life. As a priest myself, I can only hope that he will one day find some peace and reconciliation.
Fr. Robert’s piece is by turns pastoral, historical, and theological:
In Carroll’s version of history there once existed a purer, more original form of Christianity, one that had no priesthood, had no authoritative hierarchy, and was free of “misogyny” (as he defines it) and sexual oppression. But then that mean bishop, Augustine, appeared on the scene centuries later, bringing with him the notion of self-denial as the way to happiness.
Can it be that Carroll does not recall Jesus’s demand to deny oneself, to lose one’s life in order to find it? Or that he has never read the Acts of the Apostles and observed in it the emergence of the gradations of ministry from the apostles, who then extended outward their authority to collaborators in their mission, and instituted the diaconate under their direction? And while Carroll shows knowledge of extra-biblical observations of Christianity in the writings of Josephus in the first century (who wrote, as Carroll rightly notes, “around the same time that the Gospels were taking form”), how could he have missed the 11 letters written by Ignatius of Antioch to a wide diversity of Christian churches throughout the Mediterranean while on his way to martyrdom in Rome?
Those letters described an already extant, highly ordered, and intricate hierarchy with a threefold ranking of priesthood (deacon, priest or presbyter, and bishop) based on a monarchical episcopate. Moreover, long before Constantine, Justin Martyr offered a detailed description of a Eucharistic celebration written in about 153 a.d., which is a highly ordered liturgy replete with a male priest presider.
The entire spirited essay, “A Priestless Church Simply Isn’t Catholic,” is well worth reading by those of all faith traditions. It gives an authentic account of the historical and theological place of the priesthood in the Catholic Church which was absent from this month’s Atlantic cover story.