Saturday, May 18, 2019

Abolish the Priesthood - a reaction, more than a review

The Comparison
I read the cover article by James Carroll in the most recent (June 2019) edition of The Atlantic just now with great interest. It is entitled “To save the Church, Dismantle the Priesthood.”

Not an original idea, anymore, but one I’d like to think might be gathering some momentum.

The context is the larger context the modern world finds itself in these days between conservative and progressive forces, the same one we find in the political sector, where forward thinkers go to work every day pushing for ever greater social equity and the old fogies, the well-heeled and the feint of heart worry about their balance sheet and fear some radical young’un is going to come along and tear everything down. The conservatives yearn for the good old days when men were men and women knew their place; the progressives worry about the Amazon, climate change and transgender rights. A progressive feels an itch and scratches; a conservative knows that too much scratching can lead to infection.

Carroll’s itch is a spin-off of a medieval hierarchy of authority, where the church came under the control of a special class of men known as clerics who came to have special powers that distinguished them from ordinary men and women. They received this authority through a process known as ordination, a ceremony in which they are granted by God an ontological right to turn bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ for human consumption, the power to forgive sins and the right to define right and wrong for others.

“Clericalism,” Carroll argues, “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.” That’s about as good a summation as I’ve ever heard.

He cites two examples of clericalism which are of the sort that is bringing the church to its knees. Cardinal Bernard Francis Law was head of the Catholic Church in Boston when the Boston Globe first published the story of kids being sexually abused by clerics, and he is known for having insisted that priests who had information on predator priests must be bound to the power of the confessional, making sure the information never got out on his watch. In so doing, he made it certain that the victims of abuse would never see justice, because it switched the focus from possible harm done to victims to an appeal to show mercy to the clergyman who had committed the sin of abuse. For this act of loyalty to the church, you may remember, Law was rewarded with a new life in the Vatican, which doesn’t have an extradition treaty with the United States. Law was hardly the only cleric to prioritize protecting his fellow clerics and the reputation of the church by paying hush money to the families of the victims, but he serves as an early and primary example of an enabler of abusers par excellence.

Carroll also links the name of Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI, to clericalism because of Ratzinger’s rigid insistence on maintaining celibacy just because through the centuries it has taken on the feel of eternal truth, even though it dates back only to the twelfth century when the church needed a mechanism for capturing the fortunes of priests when they died. Too much was being lost to inheritances. This practice became a tool for fostering misogyny and homophobia, as it depends on defining chastity as a virtue, limiting all sexual activity to reproduction and centering morality on sexual behavior. Patriarchal supremacy, already well established in both Roman and Jewish traditions, was carried forward into modern times. Women acquired virtue through obedience, lost it whenever they took the role of Eve, the seductress.

But there is nothing especially Christian, Carroll insists, about maintaining the practice of subordinating women to men. It is simply a practice inherited from the feudal age, and not from anything in the Christian message. Carroll addresses himself to conservatives who want to understand any changes in church practice such as eliminating the chastity requirement as a hole in the dike that would lead to the ultimate collapse of tradition and moral values. Instead, he asks them to understand the natural evolution of the church’s role in society as reflecting the reality of its historical times.

The church, for all its claims to be the work of God on earth, is a man-made, man-run organization, subject to the common values found at any point in history. The church’s teaching in the early centuries was in tune with the rules of imperial Rome. Later, it reflected the values of feudal Europe. Why, then, Carroll asks, should it not “absorb the ethos and form of modern liberal democracy?”  Keep your eye on the message of Christ, he believes, and the rest will fall into its proper place.

I naturally filter this analysis of the Catholic Church by one of its own through my own eyes as an ex-Lutheran. I have trouble understanding why one religious mythology should prevail over another religious mythology, but I have not lost a sense of respect for what I think was probably the most profound notion in Luther’s Reformation: the doctrine of the “priesthood of all believers.” For all of Luther’s faults, which were considerable, he advocated a departure from the corruption of the Catholic church, which at the time was selling forgiveness for future sins as a means of raising money to build St. Peter’s, and a return to the values of the message of Christ, as laid out in the Scriptures. He put his efforts into making the Scriptures available to all, creating a common German language in the process. What people made of what they read he left to them. Although he sided with princely authority over who would run the secular world this side of heaven, at least he took an egalitarian view of one’s intellectual powers, leaving it up to every man and woman to work it out with God whether to understand Jesus’s emphasis on love, charity and compassion as essential, and whether they needed to follow ancient Hebrew rules against mixing types of fabric.

What Carroll is advocating is something similar. Switch the focus from power and glory back to the message of Christ, he’s saying, a move which, besides being good for the soul in its own right, would put Catholics in sync with other Christians. Given the number leaving church membership these days, it surely wouldn’t hurt to link forces with others who share this focus on forgiveness and compassion. He believes Catholics and Lutherans and all other Christians can free themselves from clerical authority without having to reject their cultural homes.

Catholic conservatives can sometimes be heard to worry aloud that giving up all that makes Catholicism distinctly Catholic, including blind adherence to conservative clerical authority, will lead inexorably to Protestantism, which they see as just another step on the road to secularism and rejection of religion altogether. As a “none” myself, I’d be quite happy if this were the case. I’m persuaded that for all the good organized religion does, it does so much harm to the psyche and the societies in which it functions, that we’d be better off without it. But I think that fear is unfounded.

A “return to Jesus”, in other words, is not a move toward Protestantism except in its desire to cleanse the church of corruption. And while Protestants like to think they reached the obvious modernist conclusion ahead of Catholics that an embrace of secularist values in the public sphere does not have to involve an abandonment of religious values in private, Protestants don’t own the idea of universal justice and equity. The widespread acceptance of humanistic democratic values throughout the modern industrialized world, countries with catholic and protestant traditions alike, makes that plain to see.

Religion in America, where I experience it most directly, has become a sinister force. Not all religious organizations, of course, but the authoritarian versions currently in the driver’s seat making the headlines. These Christian organizations, Pentecostalist, Mormon, Baptist and other evangelical organizations, have largely shed their erstwhile religious nature and remodeled themselves as political action lobbies, with goals such as opposing gay rights and abortion. In this they have thrown in their lot with the traditional clericalist Roman Catholics, tossing hitherto inconvenient theological differences out the window.

Their authoritarianism is fundamentally patriarchal. They act out their desire to keep women subservient to men, and display an instinctive aversion to diverse ways of seeking happiness and meaning in life.  Conservative means a not always tacit preference for white over black, straight over gay, Christian over non-Christian, male over female and religious over secular – not merely as “default” conditions, but as “standard” conditions. And, to an authoritarian, “standard” is another word for “normal”, and “normal” a stand-in for “determinant.”

As the current attack on the rights of women reveals, there is no guarantee the world will always move forward. You may resonate with that wonderful phrase Martin Luther King made famous (it is properly attributed to the abolitionist Theodore Parker, if I am not mistaken): “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I’m not so sure. I’m aware of how often we take one step forward and two steps backward, as we can see happening these days with the attack on poor women facing unwanted pregnancies in Alabama, Georgia and Missouri, and I believe five other states so far, who will bear the brunt of the attempt to roll back Roe v. Wade. What I find particularly offensive (and un-Christian, by the way) about these attempts is the ease with which one uses religion unabashedly in our secular society to tell others outside that religion how life is to be defined.

Republicans may try to maintain the fiction that they are not the party of the rich, but the fact remains that rich women are not affected by these laws to the degree poor women are. They will always be able to hop a plane to visit Aunt Helen in Los Angeles and have an abortion which nobody needs to know about while they’re there, an option not open to women living in poverty.

Anti-abortion laws are inevitably the work of the authoritarian religions, and not of religious groups who leave it to individual women to make their own moral decisions. And they illustrate why progressive people, religious and non-religious alike, have a common cause in the embrace of modern secular values in the public sphere.

I have done more than my share of church-bashing in the past, before I learned to make the important distinction between those who lean toward theocracy and those who know the difference between trying to persuade others to follow their religion and using the law to make their religion the law of the land. Carroll criticizes clericalism as anti-democratic and simultaneously expresses his longing to be able to return to his church. By shedding clericalism, he argues, it could once again become a home for many who have abandoned it because it no longer represents an evolved notion of morality, based in equality and justice.

To anyone whose toes I stepped on in the past in my anger and resentment at the damage done by the Catholic Church, I apologize for the rhetorical excess. I mistakenly allowed the ideology of clericalism to represent the entire Catholic Church. Carroll has helped me understand it does not.

I take Carroll at his word that he would start attending mass again if the priesthood were to be dismantled, if the church ever becomes less of a scold, less of an organization of old men in silk and lace with wagging fingers, more of a warm all-embracing home for the body of true believers.

Who would have believed it? Me, the mocker of religion, hoping a religious man's dreams come true.

Photo credit

The painting is the work of French painter Jehan Georges Vibert (1840-1902). It is entitled: The Comparison

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