If the structure of clericalism is not dismantled, the Roman Catholic Church will not survive, and will not deserve to.
• • •
James Carroll, former priest from the Vatican II era, Boston Globe columnist and author, has written a devastating and poignant call for a complete reformation of the Roman Catholic clerical system in Vanity Fair.
He begins with a retrospective of the coming to light of the Catholic priest sex abuse scandals and the cover ups that “will produce an avalanche of scandal for years to come.” Carroll worked in tandem with the “Spotlight” team at the Boston Globe, producing more than a dozen articles about the scandal on the op-ed page. And yet Carroll remained a practicing Catholic until the summer of 2018, placing almost a “desperate hope” in Pope Francis to lead a real reform in the church.
Then he made a personal choice.
For the first time in my life, and without making a conscious decision, I simply stopped 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.
James Carroll continues his article with a heartfelt appreciation of the virtues of the Catholic faith and the sacrificial love and service by which legions of “selfless women and men care for the poor, teach the unlettered, heal the sick, and work to preserve minimal standards of the common good.”
Like many idealistic and dedicated Catholics of his era, he had hoped that the changes brought about through Vatican II would put the church on a new path of revival and reformation. Carroll became a Paulist priest, a devoted advocate of Pope John’s vision, codified in the Council, that the church was from now on to be defined as “the People of God,” with liturgical reforms and a redefining of the clerical role as “servants” among God’s people rather than as rulers over them.
However, as Carroll notes, the church was only able to deal symbolically with a core issue of the institution. It led to his leaving the priesthood.
What Vatican II did not do, or was unable to do, except symbolically, was take up the issue of clericalism—the vesting of power in an all-male and celibate clergy. My five years in the priesthood, even in its most liberal wing, gave me a fetid taste of this caste system. 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. I left the priesthood 45 years ago, before knowing fully what had soured me, but clericalism was the reason.
In arguing against the clerical system of the Roman Catholic Church, he marshals a historical argument against it, stating that, in the days of the Emperor Constantine, the organizational structure of the church was transformed from a more egalitarian community into an institution modeled after the patterns of the Roman Empire.
But under Emperor Constantine, in the fourth century, Christianity effectively became the imperial religion and took on the trappings of the empire itself. A diocese was originally a Roman administrative unit. A basilica, a monumental hall where the emperor sat in majesty, became a place of worship. A diverse and decentralized group of churches was transformed into a quasi-imperial institution—centralized and hierarchical, with the bishop of Rome reigning as a monarch. Church councils defined a single set of beliefs as orthodox, and everything else as heresy.
At about the same time, the influence of Augustine’s theology, which posited sex as a root of all evil, led to a tightening of the reins within the church. Celibacy, which had emerged in ascetic forms of the faith as a means of engaging God more intimately, developed an almost cult-like status, devaluing the body and the earthiness of faith, separating into classes those who practiced it and those ordinary folks who didn’t. James Carroll notes that there were pragmatic considerations as well.
In the Middle Ages, as vast land holdings and treasure came under Church control, priestly celibacy was made mandatory in order to thwart inheritance claims by the offspring of prelates. Seen this way, celibacy was less a matter of spirituality than of power.
As a result,
The Church’s maleness and misogyny became inseparable from its structure. The conceptual underpinnings of clericalism can be laid out simply: Women were subservient to men. Laypeople were subservient to priests, who were defined as having been made “ontologically” superior by the sacrament of holy orders. Removed by celibacy from competing bonds of family and obligation, priests were slotted into a clerical hierarchy that replicated the medieval feudal order.
Today, Carroll observes, the strongest opposition to Pope Francis has come from those most devoted to the structure of clericalism. This is so bound up with sexuality, that any attempt to loosen the church’s teachings, such as readmitting the divorced and remarried to the sacrament of Communion has been fiercely opposed. Simply put, the very power structure of the church — rule by clerics — depends upon keeping a very strict code in place regarding sexuality, which includes a male-only priesthood and the requirement of celibacy. This code is enforced by the hierarchy, which has historically had little accountability to anyone save themselves.
But perhaps we are seeing evidence that this strict code, this law, as it were, is doing exactly what the Apostle Paul said it would do when he wrote that the law serves to arouse and stimulate one’s sinful passions rather than keep them in check (Romans 7:5). And when that law is embedded in a system that provides cover, secrecy, and the incentive to hide breaches of the law, James Carroll’s conclusion is all but certain: “A power structure that is accountable only to itself will always end up abusing the powerless.”
He is certainly not saying that all priests are sexual abusers. But he also thinks that one of the reasons so many other priests and church officials have looked away and resisted investigation may be because they too have violated their vows of celibacy in other significant ways.
Furthermore, there is a pervasive theological culture, James Carroll suggests, which is continually reminding priests of their unworthiness — “a guilt-ridden clerical subculture of moral deficiency [that] has made all priests party to a quiet dissembling about the deep disorder of their own condition.” This does not lend itself to a healthy view of self and others and it eviscerates the possibility of accountability. It led James Carroll to believe that “the very priesthood is toxic.”
Nor are the laity immune from criticism. The same theological culture has led multitudes of Catholics to simply ignore the church’s teachings on contraception, divorce and remarriage, and other matters related to human sexuality. In Carroll’s words, “Catholics in general have perfected the art of looking the other way.”
In response, James Carroll call for nothing less than a new Reformation, marked by taking seriously Vatican II’s definition of the church as the People of God.
What if multitudes of the faithful, appalled by what the sex-abuse crisis has shown the Church leadership to have become, were to detach themselves from—and renounce—the cassock-ridden power structure of the Church and reclaim Vatican II’s insistence that that power structure is not the Church? The Church is the people of God. The Church is a community that transcends space and time. Catholics should not yield to clerical despots the final authority over our personal relationship to the Church. I refuse to let a predator priest or a complicit bishop rip my faith from me.
The Reformation, which erupted 500 years ago, boiled down to a conflict over the power of the priest. To translate scripture into the vernacular, as Martin Luther and others did, was to remove the clergy’s monopoly on the sacred heart of the faith. Likewise, to introduce democratic structures into religious governance, elevating the role of the laity, was to overturn the hierarchy according to which every ordained person occupied a place of superiority.
…Replacing the diseased model of the Church with something healthy may involve, for a time, intentional absence from services or life on the margins—less in the pews than in the rearmost shadows. But it will always involve deliberate performance of the works of mercy: feeding the hungry, caring for the poor, visiting the sick, striving for justice. These can be today’s chosen forms of the faith. It will involve, for many, unauthorized expressions of prayer and worship—egalitarian, authentic, ecumenical; having nothing to do with diocesan borders, parish boundaries, or the sacrament of holy orders. That may be especially true in so-called intentional communities that lift up the leadership of women. These already exist, everywhere. No matter who presides at whatever form the altar takes, such adaptations of Eucharistic observance return to the theological essence of the sacrament. Christ is experienced not through the officiant but through the faith of the whole community. “For where two or three are gathered in my name,” Jesus said, “there am I in the midst of them.”
Simply summarized, according to James Carroll: “If the structure of clericalism is not dismantled, the Roman Catholic Church will not survive, and will not deserve to.”