Abolish the priesthood!

There is scarcely a mention of priesthood in the New Testament. Nor is the phenomenon of priesthood evident in the practices of the early church. How then, asks Garry Wills, did the priesthood become so central to Christianity, and particularly to the Roman Catholic Church, and why is there such an attachment to its continuation in a religion that began without it?
Wills is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author who, over many decades, has brought his impressive command of history to bear on some of the most fundamental claims of Christianity. In his new book he brings his acknowledged erudition to bear on the institution of the priesthood, arguing not only that it has no biblical basis but, more importantly, that, notwithstanding its doubtful heritage, it has played a seminal role in the construction and maintenance of many of the core beliefs of Christianity. Without priesthood, Wills claims, there would be no belief in apostolic succession, or in transubstantiation (the belief that the communion bread and wine actually becomes the body and blood of Christ), or in the sacrificial interpretation of the Mass.
Wills describes the early Christian community as “a priestless movement” that was essentially egalitarian. The only reference of any significance to the priesthood in the New Testament comes in the Letter to the Hebrews, a letter that was traditionally attributed to St Paul but that has long been acknowledged to be of unknown provenance. The writer of the letter describes Jesus as a priest in the line of Melchizedek (a Caananite king referred to in the Book of Genesis) and over the centuries, from this idiosyncratic text, the church began to construct an account of priestly power which implied that the priesthood was established by Jesus and that his apostles could also be understood in priestly terms. This, Wills insists, is quite simply false. It has no historical basis.
Over the centuries the priesthood acquired a status and power that is at odds with the vision of the early church. Wills analyses the acquisition of this power, arguing persuasively that the critical factor in the establishment of the power of the priestly class has been the claim that, in the Eucharist, priests have the power to transform the bread and wine into the actual body and blood of Christ. As Wills notes, nothing else a priest does matches this power. It is here that Wills’s position is at its most original and insightful. Through his expert reading of key theological texts he demonstrates how this assertion gained ascendency in the history of Catholicism. The most definitive articulation of the priest’s apparent ability to transform the bread and wine into the actual body and blood came only in the 16th century, and is thus a late development in Catholicism.
In the background, however, was Thomas Aquinas, with his Aristotelian philosophy of substance and accident, which provided the conceptual apparatus for the claim. Historians and theologians have long acknowledged that the official Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation is a construct of the Counter-Reformation. It sought to impose, once and for all, a literal interpretation on an idea that, for most of the history up until then, was understood in symbolic terms. It drew heavily on the great theologian of the middle ages, Aquinas, to further develop a narrative which claimed that Jesus instituted the Eucharist as a sacrificial meal at the last supper, and that, in an act of unbroken succession, all priests continue to do this when they celebrate the Eucharist. Wills reminds his readers, however, that there is another equally compelling tradition of interpretation, exemplified especially by St Augustine and Martin Luther, which denied this claim.
According to Wills, in the early church, “there were no priests and no priestly services; there was no re-enactment of Jesus’ Last Supper; no ‘sacrifice of the Mass’; no consecration of bread and wine; nothing that resembled what priests now claim to do”. There is no doubt that, when taken together, such claims appear to be radical. However, much of the historical and theological analysis on which Wills builds his thesis is uncontroversial among scholars. What is controversial is the question he poses in light of his conclusion that Jesus did not institute the Eucharist in any way that resembles how it was subsequently developed by the church. He asks whether there is any point in persisting with what he regards as a failed tradition when there is ample evidence that Catholicism does not need the institution of the priesthood at all. He criticises those who argue for the ordination of women or men in married or gay relationships, suggesting that the most honest position would be one that seeks the abolition of priesthood entirely.
Wills is clear in this that his target is not the 400,000 individual priests, many of whom, he acknowledges, make a significant contribution to the lives of countless millions worldwide. Rather, his focus is on the institution, which, he argues, has a flimsy biblical heritage and a dubious theological justification and is an impediment to the development of a more egalitarian Christianity.
Running throughout the text, moreover, is an argument about the necessity of reform in the church. For Wills, the first and necessary step in any meaningful reform process is the repudiation of the sacrificial interpretation of the Eucharist and a return to an understanding that is more consonant with the biblical texts and the practice of the early church. Not only would this restore the Eucharist to its original meaning as a thanksgiving meal, it would also have the effect of requiring the church to confront the exclusivism and hierarchicalism that have been embedded in its structures through the institution of the priesthood. He also sees this as a first step towards genuinely reciprocal relationships with other Christian denominations and other religious traditions.
One hopes that Wills’s argument will be seriously considered, though Wills himself regards this as unlikely. His passion for reform of a church to which he is deeply committed is palpable. However, one can see how this may be missed or misunderstood in the context of such a searing criticism of one of its central institutions. His task is a worthy one, namely to bring the institution of the priesthood under the gaze of historical and theological scrutiny. Moreover, it stands in a long line of critical investigations that focus on the ways in which certain teachings, institutions and practices have come to be embedded in the Catholic tradition. Through his erudite scholarship and his compelling argumentation Wills has made an important contribution to this field of study and, in the process, has written a book that is thoroughly absorbing and engaging.

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  1. This article refers to the 16th century as when the church established the ability of the priest to transform bread and wine. Jan Hus a catholic priest and theologian from Prague was burned at the stake at the Council of Constance in 1415. He was condemned for teaching that the transformation occurred when the bread and wine was consumed and that it was the faith of the communicant and the action of the Holy Spirit that caused the transformation. He also taught that there was no scriptural basis for purgatory and that its invention was caused by simony. Perhaps the Council of Constance caused more trouble that Trent. Cardinal Wojtyla heard a fellow slav give an impassioned speech at the conclave of Vatican II. When he became Pope he asked Cardinal Ratzinger to investigate both Hus and Galileo with a view to rehabilitation. Galileo made it, Hus did not. The official version of transubstantiation seems to be based more on magic than Hus’ reliance on faith and the Holy Spirit. If that be so then Wills may be on the proper track.

  2. “For Wills, the first and necessary step in any meaningful reform process is the repudiation of the sacrificial interpretation of the Eucharist and a return to an understanding that is more consonant with the biblical texts and the practice of the early church.”
    Everything hinges here on how we understand ‘sacrifice’ – an idea that in my long experience has never been visited in a Mass homily. (Why?) But nevertheless many mass-going Catholics are self-sacrificing people – i.e. they are generous to the point of self-denial. Do many subliminally learn from the consecration, as well as from the Gospel, that for Abba ‘an acceptable sacrifice’ is not ‘all about Him’ but all about loving the unloved?
    For me Wills spent far too long in this book obsessing about the letter to the Hebrews, and far too little time on exploring the way in which Jesus changed forever the whole meaning of sacrifice. Why does he quote René Girard’s early denial that the crucifixion was a sacrifice, and then blithely ignore the fact that the very much still alive René Girard now regards that position as untenable? Why did the apparently omnivorous Wills apparently stop reading Girard after ‘Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World’ (1978)?
    And anyway doesn’t St Paul somewhere give a vivid description of what is obviously a Eucharistic service, even if he never includes ‘priest’ in his list of church offices? I can’t remember Wills dealing properly with that objection either.
    Yes, it’s essential to re-explore the idea of priesthood. Clericalism exalts the liturgical priesthood at the expense of the priesthood of everyone, the priesthood of service, but the Mass as we celebrate it has always led individual lay people (women especially) to exemplary lives of service anyway. We need only ask why – and priests especially need to lose their fear of exploring the whole idea of sacrifice in their homilies.
    Why exactly do they seldom if ever do so? Sacrifice ceases to be a scandalous idea just as soon as we remember that Jesus sacrificed only himself. And that he challenges us all at every Mass to do the same – as far as we can.

  3. Patrick Rogers says:

    According to Gary Wills, “there were no priests and no priestly services; there was no re-enactment of Jesus’ Last Supper; no ‘sacrifice of the Mass’; no consecration of bread and wine; nothing that resembled what priests now claim to do” in the early church.
    Wills is using the term “early church” in a very narrow sense here, referring to those texts (and local churches) which seem unconcerned with the sacrificial meaning of the Breaking of the Bread. It is true that according to Hebrews there is only one high priest (Jesus) who in his one perfect sacrifice has abolished the whole apparatus of priesthood and sacrificial ceremonies. But it’s fairly clear that Hebrews was largely intended to console those Jewish Christians for their exclusion from the Jerusalem Temple and its evocative rituals. The author’s focus is therefore on the heavenly sanctuary into which Jesus has entered and to which he invites all the faithful at the end of life’s pilgrimage.
    If the Christ-followers in Jerusalem gathered regularly for the Breaking of the Bread and the Prayers (Acts 2:42), we must wonder what significance they saw in this particular community action. Surely it had some connection with Jesus’ words and actions in the Last Supper, when he said that the shared bread was his body, given, and the wine was his blood, shed for the many. In his calm but quite convincing way, in the book “The Breaking of the Bread: The Development of the Eucharist” Eugene La Verdiere brings out this connection very well.
    It is quite misguided to think that the idea of the ‘sacrifice of the Mass’ has no New Testament roots. Surely a sacrificial meaning is implied in Paul’s statement that “as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord, until he comes” (1 Cor 11:26). And when he does on to say in the next chapter (1 Cor 10:21) “You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons too; you cannot have a part in both the Lord’s table and the table of demons” – he is trying to rule out participation in two rival forms of sacrifice.
    From the first letter of Peter we learn that in that writer’s view all of the baptised were “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation” (1 Pt 2:9). The really puzzling question is at what stage did the one who presided at the sacrificially-understood eucharistic meal (in service to the assembled royal priesthood) come to be seen as a priest in a special sense? The terms that we know were used in Paul’s missionary churches for the formal offices of Church leadership were Bishop, Deacon and Presbyter, while the more charismatic gifts of service – just as vital for the Church’s health – were very many. Paul only offers a sampling when he lists “varieties of service…the utterance of wisdom, gifts of healing, the working of miracles, prophecy, the ability to distinguish between spirits, various kinds of tongues, the interpretation of tongues.” (1 Cor 12:4-11)
    We can regard the evolution of the idea of priesthood positively or negatively, depending on one’s perception of it as service to or as domination of the People of God. In its clericalist manifestation it comes across as mainly dominative, exclusivist, jurisdictional and – let’s admit it – sexist. But in this writer’s opinion, most ordained priests want to offer a loving service, not harsh dictatorship, to their parishioners and to the wider community. In this sense they would be clearly in the footsteps of the one who came to serve, not to be served, and to offer his life for the salvation of all.

  4. The most powerful words in Garry Wills book are on pages 20 and 21, where he suggests, more implicitly, than explicitly, that the people need not wait upon the priest for the Eucharist, as well as, the other sacraments. Given, the “shortage of priests”, this is an attractive idea…….The book was published just prior to Pope Francis’s election….and there is every likelihood, that in an extraordinary circumstance, Pope Francis would not disagree, that the people by the grace of God, will carry on the works of the Church, including those ‘ritual’s deemed the perogative of the priest. When Pope Francis was Cardinal Bergoglio, he tells of a situation where the Philippines (some area of) had no missionaries/priests for over 200 years, but when the priests returned, the Church was in order, and all the sacraments had been administered, during that time period. The Pope has spoken of a Church that is clericalized and he refers not only to the clergy, but to the people……In the instance of the Philippines, the Pope said, the people were able to do this, by the grace and love of God, and because “Baptism is Sufficient”.

  5. Noel Campbell says:

    All very well! I only hope there is enough in the kitty to give us poor guys our redundancy money when we are disbanded. Poor ACP hardly had time to establish itself. A lot of people will be at a huge loss as to what they can write about . Back to the politicians I say !!

  6. There is nothing at all new about this critque of the priesthood. It was at the heart of the Reformation. Why would anyone go the trouble of trying for the umteenth time to change the Catholic Church’s doctrine of the priesthood when there are any number of Protestant churches offering exactly what this critic wants? Why behave as though this critique is some new discovery, when it is centuries old and has been and continues to be tried so many times?

  7. Joe O'Leary says:

    Hebrews is “an idiosyncratic text”? What a frivolous remark. Is there is any part of the New Testament or indeed any figure therein, including Jesus Christ, who could not be dismissed as “idiosyncratic” in this way? In any case the sacrificial interpretation of Christ’s death is all over the New Testament, not just in Hebrews. The reality of his eucharistic presence is well attested in the four gospels and I Corinthians. The eucharist is celebrated by a priestly people (I Peter) who designate ministers (episcopoi or presbuteroi) to lead the celebration; this has been found a necessary component of church order in most Christian communities. The Catholic Church gives episcopal and presbyteral ordination an “ontological” quality, just as with baptism and confirmation, making it a divinely instituted sacrament; I don’t see what’s so terrible about that. It may be a development from what’s in the New Testament but it is not necessarily a departure from the NT, and in substance it may go back to the early second century. The de-ontologized account of ministry is a modern innovation claiming to get back to a reconstruction of NT communities, a dicey operation. Talking about a “flimsy bibical heritage” and a “dubious theological justification” for the Catholic understanding of ministry and eucharist is again rather frivolous and not conducive to renewed understanding.
    P.S. I just read Patrick Rogers’ letter — very well said.

  8. Paradigm shifts don’t happen quickly. They occur over a period of time. The reform of the Church (again!) will happen, as it did before, within a context. Vatican ll urged us to ‘read the signs of the times, and scrutinize them in light of the Gospel’. According to this article, Garry Wills’ book does just this. Whether we like it or not the priesthood as we know it is coming to an end and if the Church doesn’t embrace reform, there will be division and new growth. Hopefully it will be based on partnership and not a monarchical hierarchy.

  9. Would those who have used the word ‘sacrifice’ here please explain what they mean by it? Don’t they know that used without context and nuance it conveys ‘the primitive killing of an innocent victim’, and that satisfaction and substitution theories of Atonement convey to many people today that Christians believe in a God who demands rather than rejects this kind of sacrifice?
    There is a scandal surrounding the bare word ‘sacrifice’ that the ‘ontological priesthood’ in my experience prefers to evade rather than dispel. Why is this? To me and many others the ‘ontological’ claim comes across as a claim of priestly moral superiority – the very essence of clericalism.

  10. Eddie Finnegan says:

    Good for Noel Campbell (@5 above). Sometimes on this blessed (=euphemism for much more vulgar adjective) site, a down to earth response is what’s called for to dampen the oozy ardour of those who can never distinguish the baby from the well-used bathwater. Indeed, “a lot of people will be at a huge loss as to what they can write about,” once their lately found enlightenment has abolished the priesthood “as we know it”. What on earth did these new evangelicals read before Evangelist Wills revealed all to them, rapt up in the third heaven of pages 20-21 whether implicitly or explicitly I know not, God knoweth? Or did they really believe that the Church has always taught that Archbishop Jesus had conducted a full ordination ceremony on Holy Thursday evening, then granted a dispensation to the newly ordained Eleven for their First Mass on Good Friday morning, with first priestly blessing of any parents who dared turn up?
    And as for ‘paradigm shifts’ over the first few centuries, certainly the Greek Fathers weren’t short of paradeigmata, but I suspect that any priests turning up in their shifts could expect pretty short shrift.

  11. The idea of Jesus as a sacrificial lamb given up to be tortured and killed in expiation for our sins is a topic that was hotly debated by two eminent theologians, Peter Abelard (1079-1142) and Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109). Anselm believed that only one who was both human and divine could recompense or compensate for humanity’s sinfulness. Abelard argued that God could forgive sins without sacrificing his only Son, if God wanted to forgive sin, the sin is forgiven and that is the end of it. Abelard believed that Jesus united people back to God by the loving example of his life, in word and deed even to the point of death. Anselm’s sacrificial theory is the one the Church adopted.
    On the subject of Original Sin, Vincent MacNamara believes the tradition read the symbol too harshly, ‘and there has been handed down to us a potent cocktail of pain and guilt and confusion’. I believe the tradition also read the symbol of Jesus as ‘sacrificial lamb’ too harshly with the same consequences. Why does the institution of the Church seem to always lean towards negativity, sin, guilt a deep underlying mistrust of human nature?

  12. Joe O'Leary says:

    The alleged scandal surrounding the bare word “sacrifice” is because people rather wilfully project onto it monstrous images for which the New Testament offers no basis.
    The ontological claim about baptism does not come across as a claim of Christian moral superiority, so why should such a claim about ordination entail such objectionable overtones? Nothing is easier than to deontologize all the sacraments, which just become symbolic rituals of the community. But, while subtle interpretation is indeed called for, to simply do that would not be a good idea.

  13. As a member of the lay faithful, I find it extremely disturbing that an article such as this should be given any air-time, never mind support, on a website of an association of Catholic Priests. I am deeply scandalized that these views are held by ministers of Christ’s Sacraments.
    As has been pointed out previously, attacks on the reality of Christ’s true and substantial presence in the Blessed Sacrament and on the sacrificial nature of the Mass are nothing new. Even during Christ’s earthly life , many found this teaching to be intolerable, and we see how people walked away from him and followed him no more. Christ didn’t stop them nor did he reduce his teaching to a mere symbolic gesture, rather he let them go.
    As Christians it is our duty to study the Gospel of Christ and to accept his teachings, and to question and challenge our own faith in his words. Do we accept them? Or, do we reject, reduce and distort them to suit or own theology? If we choose the first option and respond like Peter, who even though he seemed puzzled and mystified by the teaching Christ had just proclaimed, but recognise who he is and accept him, we will live a life of love and unity with Christ and His Church. If we do not accept His teaching then we cut ourselves off from such communion with him and with His mystical body, the Church.
    Belief in the Real Presence and in the Church’s teaching on the matter is an essential element in the Christian life. The Eucharist truly is the source and summit of the Christian life, from which, or indeed whom, we draw our strength, and to whom we hope to spend an eternity in adoration before in heaven.
    I pray for a Eucharistic renewal in the Church, that the most Holy Sacrament may be adored in every parish throughout Ireland and the world. I especially pray for our priests that they may encounter the Eucharistic Lord ever anew each day at the consecration.

  14. Soline Humbert says:

    For me,Love is what Jesus’ sacrifice was/is about, because “God is Love”, and Jesus told us:No greater love has a human being than to lay down his/her life for his/her friends…. Hence the great commandment He left us:” Love another has I have loved you.” There is no limit to God’s love for us, as Jesus as shown us. And that’s the path we are on: “they will know you are my disciples by the love you have one for another”. We are called to be witnesses of that Love.

  15. From Joe O’Leary #13 :
    “The alleged scandal surrounding the bare word “sacrifice” is because people rather wilfully project onto it monstrous images for which the New Testament offers no basis.”
    Has Joe forgotten that some of those ‘monstrous images’ are presented, often with a lamentable lack of accompanying priestly explication, at Catholic Mass?
    I once heard a woman behind me at Mass express total and just abhorrence of the Father’s cruelty towards Abraham and his son – at the monstrous image of poor Isaac tied down for sacrifice, having himself taken part in collecting the wood for the sacrificial fire.
    Was there then an explanation from the officiating priest that this story emerged from an inadequate Old Testament theology, and that it probably marks an important stage in the Jewish learning process, both about God and about unacceptable sacrifice?
    There wasn’t! To this day (aged 70) I have never heard an Irish secular priest say clearly at such times that understanding of God is always evolving in the Old Testament – and with it an understanding of acceptable sacrifice. I had to learn this from people like Richard Rohr.
    As for the New Testament, the ‘alleged’ scandal of sacrifice was later vehemently expressed to me by a more elderly woman trying desperately to cling on: “Didn’t God the Father want his son dead?” That misunderstanding is maintained by the Catechism’s continued use of the words ‘substitution’ and ‘satisfaction to explain Redemption and Atonement, and by the failure of far too many priests to get their heads fully round those teachings.
    The use of the phrase ‘alleged scandal’ in relation to the real, enduring problem of Christian sacrifice is frankly obtuse, unread and dismissive. As for ‘ontological’, Joe has the ontological privilege of tackling problems like this at Mass. We merely Baptised people don’t and never will, no matter how much we may read and think. All we can do is sit and listen as real scandal often reigns – and then grit our teeth at six-line ontological put-downs when we try to raise such issues.

  16. Can it be that Jesus came not to make any of us ontologically special, but to show us that already nothing and no one exists apart from God (really present) and that already everything is sacred and interconnected (the great sacrament of unity or communion). Surely it is this truth that we celebrate and witness to in the Eucharist. In this understanding, nothing is reduced or diminished; only enhanced; raised up.
    For me, Jesus did away with the primitive understanding of a God that needs placated through sacrifice. Even self-sacrifice needs to be carefully understood to remain healthy. Do the scriptures not repeatedly present us with a God who longs for relationship, not placating. (Psalm 50:14)

  17. Joe O'Leary says:

    The sacrifice of Isaac has always been a notorious text, but there is nothing at all like that in the New Testament. You confirm what I said: that the monstrous image of the Christian doctrine of sacrifice is due to projection (based on bad catechesis). Why throw out the baby with the bathwater? Christ laid down his life for me and took my sins upon himself — surely all Christians know that this is the meaning of substitution and satisfaction and surely priests preach this quite often. Surely Irish priests do not rant about sacrifice in the monstrous terms you evoke — not since Vatican II anyway. Surely the words “lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” are heard as gracious words by those approaching the altar.
    Nor do I know any priest who thinks that the ontology of the sacramental character indelibly imprinted on the soul is a warrant for arrogance, rather the opposite, just like the baptismal character. Of course this ontological language is a bit hairy and metaphysical, and some would say that it is a tyranny to impose on infants an ontological status that they can never undo. No doubt all such language is in need of interpretation and regrounding in biblical realities. But I don’t see the need to mount a crusade against it, and I don’t think a church in which baptism is just a vague admittance ceremony and ministry purely functional and pro tem would necessarily be a humbler and healthier church. Or what are you proposing instead of ontological sacraments?

  18. Joe O’Leary writes, #18:
    “Surely Irish priests do not rant about sacrifice in the monstrous terms you evoke — not since Vatican II anyway.”
    Where, Joe, did I ever say or even imply that Irish priests ‘ranted’ about anything? In my very first post I asked instead why (in my long experience) they simply avoid the issue in their homilies, and leave, for example the Abraham / Isaac text to horrify us, and to ask, dumbly, how Jesus’ Abba could ever have done that.
    I also wrote that in spite of this failing many Catholics exemplify self-sacrifice, proving that somehow the Mass overall does in fact teach many of us the true meaning of ‘acceptable sacrifice’. But that too goes unremarked upon by the celebrant. A stunning opportunity is missed to prevent the walking away of those who remain repelled and baffled by the really difficult texts, and to teach the laity their proper role in realising Catholic social teaching (another closed book).
    You write: “Christ laid down his life for me and took my sins upon himself — surely all Christians know that this is the meaning of substitution and satisfaction and surely priests preach this quite often. ”
    In fact here again there is simple avoidance, in my long experience. People wrestle with a theological schema that suggests that the Father is less forgiving than the son, that it required Jesus’ extra suffering on top of our own to win Abba’s forgiveness. Is this the same God as is implied by the figure of the father of the Prodigal Son? My guess is that priests generally avoid this issue because they are as puzzled by these apparent contradictions as the rest of us.
    You know well that any good theological dictionary will reveal that in the history of the church there have been many theories of how Jesus’ self-sacrifice ‘takes away our sins’ and restores our relationship with God (Atonement). So why are we stuck with a notion that God’s anger simply had to fall on Jesus as a substitute for ourselves (substitution) and that our own sufferings cannot satisfy the dishonour suffered by God as the result of sin (satisfaction, St Anselm’s theory)?
    As to ‘all Christians’ being comfortable with ‘substitution’ and ‘satisfaction’ there is a major battle raging right now between ‘angry God’ Christian fundamentalism and the ‘Emerging Church’ movement in the USA over these very issues. And the latter is drawing inspiration from – would you believe – the likes of Bonaventure, Abelard and Duns Scotus. It is time we all woke up and paid attention. We are not lumbered forever with theological schema that somehow imply a forgetting of Jesus’ assertion: “The Father and I are one.”
    If you want to read up on this, see, for example, Brian McLaren’s ‘A Generous Orthodoxy’ and ‘A New Kind of Christianity’. Our Richard Rohr O.F.M. is helping to clue ‘Emerging Christians’ in on the Catholic mystical tradition. Google ‘Richard Rohr’ and ‘Emerging Church’ for Richard’s ‘take’ on this. He has a good talk on the contemplative tradition at: http://www.dualravens.com/media/RichardRohr.mp3

  19. Just when you think that you’ve seen and heard it all, something like this crops up to reassure your absolute belief that Vatican II Catholicism has run wild on itself. I’m not going to try and argue against the point but take heart in the movement of modernist Catholicism to disband and destroy itself, I pray heartily that it hurries up the process and leaves genuine Catholicism to recover from the errors and falsehoods it has implanted in peoples hearts.

  20. Seainin, the title of the entry is “Abolish the Priesthood”. I examined Professor Will’s book and I want to assure you that nowhere does Professor Wills suggest abolishing the priesthood and he, in fact, states, he’s not advocating doing away with it……He simply wants to reassure Catholics, that in the event, that we do not have a “priest”, to preside at Eucharist, that we ought not to think, that we are disconnected from the Sacred. This same point was brought home by Pope Francis when he talks about a situation in the Philippines where there were no priests for over 200 years.

  21. Joe O'Leary says:

    Rather than abolish the priesthood why not deepen the notion of the universal priesthood of all baptized Christians? See http://www.catholicnews.com/data/stories/cns/1302058.htm
    Darlene, the pope referred to the Hidden Christians in Japan, not the Philippines: http://www.news.va/en/news/pope-francis-mass-with-ior-employees In fact the missionaries who rediscovered the Christians in the 1860s found that their rituals and theology had become quite eccentric, though of course their Christian heroism is awe-inspiring.

  22. Joe O'Leary says:

    The wrath of God plays a big role in some US Evangelical churches (following Romans 1) but as far as I know it is hardly ever mentioned by Catholic preachers. Is the idea that the Father is constitutionally angry and in search of bloody appeasement do deeprooted in Catholic minds as Sean seems to suggest? Priests have been going on about “God is love” and God’s mercy ad nauseam since Vatican II, so if they fail to dislodge jansenistic worries about an angry God the reason must lie deeper. Perhaps they need to address these worries more directly, drawing on St Paul, and showing how we are saved from the wrath of God by his gracious favour sealed in the hilasterion or sacrificial offering of his son (Rom 3:25). People do not worry about their sins most of the time, but when a day of reckoning comes they fall into despair and feel they are under a cloud of divine anger; it is then that the gracious message of the gospel needs to be proclaimed.
    There was also the idea in Marian circles that Mary would hold back the arm of her angry son, prepared to strike sinners — again this has not been encouraged by the clerical church. It is a very human and understandable way of thinking, and perhaps should have been addressed and corrected rather than brushed under the carpet.
    There are lots of shocking texts in the Hebrew Bible and some of them creep into the Lectionary. Usually these are on weekdays. Genesis 22 is a hallowed text, though it has a shocking side, so it could not be kept out of the Lectionary, and needed to be cited in a solemn setting. It is the second reading of the Easter Vigil — the context making clear that it is to be read as a typology of the passion. I don’t remember it as a sunday reading, but if it is, it would occur only every three years. I don’t think the riddle of this texts preys on the minds of many of the faithful or is a cause of deep existential concern.

  23. So all Seáinín has to do is to sit on his moral high horse and wait for the rest of us here to destroy ourselves, and no doubt he will be shaking his sage head sadly as we go. But never mind, the genuine old church will be restored and he can shut the altar gates at the requisite time, and watch the mothers churching in the dim depths of the candle-scented darknesses at the back of the chapel where the baptisms also take place.

  24. Thank you Father Joe for the link to the story about women deacons.
    Irregardless, of sacramental order or ontological sign, the proposed idea of women deacons, with the understanding, that it is a “deepening of Christian baptism”, or the priesthood of the people, works for me, but, I’m thinking, many women would disagree.
    Thank you about the correction where the missionaries were gone.
    Japan, not the Philippines….I don’t know why I thought it was the Philippines….
    I’m hoping to find a way to read your article: New Pope, New Hope
    Maybe Father Wotherspoon can access it…

  25. Thanks, Joe, for that reference to Romans 3:25. One can see clearly how the ‘Letter to the Hebrews’ could arise naturally out of Paul’s theology, especially in light of the exclusion of Christians from the Temple in Jerusalem in the period just before its destruction. And why the latter event would then help boost the circulation of the ‘Letter’ and ensure its inclusion in the Canon.
    As I said in my first post, I think Gary Wills’ book is seriously spoiled by his idée fixe about Hebrews. Joe is entirely right about the way forward being to deepen our common understanding of the priesthood of all the baptised. My major point is that opportunities often go a-begging in the liturgy to do this – e.g. when there is a major disaster somewhere that calls us to do without some comparative luxury so that others may not lack a necessity. All selfless charitable giving, like the widow’s mite, is ‘an acceptable sacrifice’. So is the rejection of enmity as a response to some injustice.
    Here in Northern Ireland many Catholics have, for Christ’s sake, deliberately rejected the option of bitterness over ancestral, recent and ongoing hurt – as have many Christians from the other traditions. This too is an ‘acceptable sacrifice’, the very imitation of Christ. Our relative peace may well be founded on it.
    The tragedy is that current church culture and structures prevent us from discussing all this together, in a liturgical setting. I am convinced that this is the main reason the liturgical priesthood is in such deep trouble. The church will not be at peace, or growing again, until we develop a deep, common understanding and appreciation of the priesthood of all the baptised.
    Just in passing, has anyone here ever heard a Mass homily devoted to this idea?
    Finally, I do not dismiss the reality that lies behind the ‘ontological’ character of some sacraments. I just rebel against the elephantine awkwardness of the word itself, and the way in which it is sometimes deployed, without any clear translation, to privilege clergy and justify structural injustice. We need simpler language to express this idea, and to raise the status of Baptism and Confirmation. We also lack an adult rite of initiation accessible to all the baptised, without exception – and radical structural change – to prove that the ‘priesthood of all the baptised’ is not just a twee idea.

  26. Indeed mjt, I shall continue to occupy my lofty height and observe the bickering and innovations of the liberals, content in the knowledge that the traditional Catholicism I espouse continues to surge in support and that the faces through the incense are like me young and devout Catholics. I am currently doing a paper on traditionalism and the research has thrown up some very interesting data, did you know that the largest seminary in Germany is St. Peters Wigratzbad, a traditionalist seminary, or that the SSPX are constructing the largest seminary to have been built in America for 100 years, you might perhaps be interested in an article in “The Economist” see link: http://www.economist.com/news/international/21568357-its-trendy-be-traditionalist-catholic-church-traditionalist-avant-garde
    Perhaps you might rethink that liberalism is the way forward.

  27. Another reason why I am not concerned for the future:
    Who would have thought that 50 years after Vatican II there would exist a strong and growing resistance to its reforms. I am convinced that the answer to the Church’s problems lies not in innovating and liberalization but in the time honored practice of reaffirmation and holding fast to tradition.

  28. The Abrahamic religions arose in the East – when women were chattels. Here in the west, from Ireland eastward, women were always revered, and often social leaders. In my sparse understanding of the birth of Christianity, in the century after Jesus’ death, people would gather in their homes to break bread in His name, though it did not always need be for the man to host the meal. So whence came the dictum that only men could host a social gathering in His name?
    I think when Christianity became flavour of the millennium for Roman Patriarchs – then is when men started dressing up and taking upon themselves a sense of political importance that had nothing whatever to do with the Word, nor the sacrament of Christ.
    Before my Ireland became the “Isle of saints and scholars”, we were already scribes, 200 years before Christianity came. We were Matriarchs, if anyone cares to reflect on the history, and it was only the politicization of what had originally been a set of sincere moral beliefs that the church became patrician. “Only men can be apostles” – and so said they all who sold wood splinters for money, most notably a pope who was at war at the time.
    So Martin Luther came along and said, “for Christ’s sake can we stop selling wood splinters in the name of Jesus? Around that time people started burning each other alive and Jesus was long out of the picture – and so was the Celtic Matriarchy, overtaken by the ferocity of Germanic and Scandinavian warmongers, plus a few earlier versions of Hitler, appropriately dressed, and wearing the papal head dress still worn today.
    By this stage in European history the moralist named Jesus was entirely forgotten. Instead Christianity had been reduced to a flag, much as Islam is today, tribal warfare in the name of a good man, long forgotten.
    But I forget myself – this excellent article is about the legitimacy of the priesthood. Might I posit what the original moral guy would have said of the centuries of selling trinkets for the sake of selfishly saving one’s own soul? Even kings bought indulgences, for sale at that trash market called the papacy, whole kingdoms lay down in the name of Papacy for kings who were soul less. For shame.
    There was a time in Irish society, even before the pop star that everyone misrepresents today, that women were the equal of men, when even women were priests, when the idea of priest meant wise man, or woman.
    I say, as a long distant friend of priesthood, look you upon what priesthood once meant – the wise – the trusted – the sincere – the committed. Show me a true priest, male or female, who speaks to the sincerity of what Jesus once taught. Show me something to respect.
    All the dressing up – from the bishops to his majesty the pope, are meaningless to the word of a good man, who once lived, by whose humble morals we might live.
    Wills might say there is no role for priests in modern society. I disagree. I say every society needs leaders, male or female – the wise – the trusted – the sincere – the committed. I say, as an atheist, long live the sincere priest – the leader – the moral guide – as long as he or she aint selling wood chips for cash.

  29. Forgive me for over-extending – I don’t wish seem immodest but – the stations of the cross – is it even legal to show infants such gruesome images today? I sincerely hope not.

  30. Good Lord, the last post seems almost representative modern illogicality.

  31. Raymond Hickey says:

    Mark @29, thank you for saying exactly what I believe. I will add not a word to your declaration for fear of taking something away from its meaning.
    Excuse me, Mark, but you are no atheist. In my view, you are simply rejecting the concept of God as the RCC proclaims it. My God, and I believe yours, is the one you identify in your comment here. I think we, and many other Christians, are simply rejecting an idol, a false God, that the RCC worships.
    Thank you for your sincere and erstwhile declaration in favor of Jesus!

  32. Seáinín,
    I had chosen the image of the closing of the altar rail gate during Mass as it reflected exclusion, and was based on fear of people. Why are clerics so afraid of people? Why can they only be comfortable if at a remote distance from people? Do they not really believe all that stuff about people having been made in Gods image?Or that Christ has died once and for all for our sins? That we are already triumphant on that basis?
    The Churching of Women ceremony was based on fear of sexuality and women.
    And the Baptismal Font in post-Vatican 2 churches should be placed centrally, to physically represent its centrality in the story of our salvation, not stuck away remotely at the back of the church as if unworthy of attention.
    Your description of “the bickering and innovations of the liberals” may actually be signs of their being alive, in being engaged in debate both with themselves and with the contemporary world as they strive to find the proper way in the Catholic tradition to serve God in our time.
    Going back to the way it was done in the past is cowardice and can`t work.

  33. Raymond @32, thank you for your kind words. I do not believe in one almighty sentient being, who consciously judges us by our actions, though I entirely respect the sincerely held beliefs of those who do. I have one great faith, that of the moral and intellectual ascendancy of Man as a species. That ascendancy comes naturally with an immeasurable degree of both responsibility and humility, without either of which we crash and burn as we did in the world wars. The fact that we can see as far back into the past, from our tiny jewel of a planet, as to be able to see the beginnings of time through our various telescopes, is the very definition of awesome to me.
    Equally, Darwin and Wallace’ Evolution story is so utterly obvious as to render me astonished that anyone could take Genesis seriously. So you may interpret my respect for Jesus, morality and the ascendance of Man as a belief in a sense of God, but in my belief there is neither eternal life nor eternal fire – when I die I’m gone – and if there is indeed a God, then doubtless he or she will judge me on my worth to my fellow man.
    Seáinín @31, “representative of modern illogicality” – I don’t understand – is it illogical to want to avoid infants knowing anything of past human barbarity, until they are grown up enough to understand that such barbarity is in the past? Teach children of Jesus’ moral principles by all means – but let’s not frighten them, nor invoke hatred, nor fear. Original sin is something we impose on our children – let’s not promote such psychological injury on the truly innocent.

  34. Well actually mjt any person who is involved with the traditionalist movement will tell you that going back to the past is precisely what we need to do, it is something I experience on a regular basis with irreligious friends who are awestruck with the Latin Mass. Even Christopher Hitchens and Dawkins have both said openly that the Latin Mass is extremely powerful in making a person feel a sense of the sacred, Hitchens went on to say that the Church had never been able to recover from the abandonment of its ancient liturgy. With regard to your various metaphors, there really was no need to explain them, I am quite aware of symbolism. Did you watch the videos by matter of interest?

  35. Mark@30
    Forgive me for over-extending – I don’t wish seem immodest but – the stations of the cross – is it even legal to show infants such gruesome images today? I sincerely hope not.
    Forgive me if I appear overly literal BUT you expect us to believe that you think it is illegal to show infants the Stations of the Cross? You really expect us to believe that?
    However if you are being ironic, maybe you would explain what measures you think should be employed to prevent parents doing this. Should they be sentenced for child abuse?

  36. Mary O Vallely says:

    Just thinking about our fear of change and our sometimes siege mentality.
    The C of I had their Annual General Synod here in Armagh last week. It was attended by bishops, clergy and “normal” people as our local rector referred to the laity. 🙂 I found much food for thought in Archbishop Clarke’s opening address. He referred to the Church, not as an organisation but as an organism. “Parts of any healthy organism will flourish and blossom while other parts…. may indeed wither and perish.” He went on to assure his listeners that there was nothing “unhealthy or threatening about natural and vibrant adaptation to changing internal or external circumstances.”
    It seems to me that his call for a more flexible model of ministry ( we too have some “creaking” parishes) could serve to kick start our thinking about which parts of our organism are unhealthy and could be discarded.
    Archbishop Clarke emphasised the vital necessity of collaborative service in the Church of Ireland being ” a delivery point for the Gospel… receiving the Gospel and handing on the Gospel in the world” and quoted from William Stringfellow:-
    “No clergy without a laity serving the world and no laity without a clergy serving the laity.”
    You can read his address below:-

  37. Wills is partly right and partly wrong. Had he a more thorough understanding of Greek and Aramaic he would stop attacking the current 440,000 presbyteroi around the world.

  38. Mark O'Meara says:

    Garry Wills’ book has generated a number of very thought-provoking comments. Some of the points which have been raised here have been new to me, and I will follow them up. Thank you. I am a lay Catholic man (in case it’s in any doubt).
    PS – Message to lower-case ‘mark’ at numbers 29, 30 and 34 above:-
    I have posted a few comments recently, on this ACP website, as ‘Mark’ (that is, with ‘M’ in upper case). But to avoid confusion with you I will now change my own posting style to include my surname (O’Meara). Best wishes.

  39. Steve Edward says:

    Like it or not the concept of sacrifice is clearly ‘hard wired’ in humanity. All civilisations no matter how isolated have believed in the need to make sacrifices to appease, please or apologise to their deities. Who did the ‘hard wiring’?
    As late as the seventies, when Norway voted against joining the EU, hundreds of fishermen went out to sea and returned their catches to the deep in thanksgiving, an ancient way of thanking the Norse gods.
    Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac was an example of trust in God and it was not misplaced.

  40. Seáinín @35 – how far back would it be right to go, perhaps to when Galileo was under house arrest for the remainder of his life for saying that the earth went around the sun? The Vatican has since apologised for that injustice. Nor does it further your argument to quote Hitchens and Dawkins, both of whom did say that the latin mass is impressive, when both would have also said, if you cared to interpret them honestly, that any ritualized behaviour in a foreign tongue is impressive. Neither man would sign up to their names being abused to promote your backward aspirations.
    Rory @36 – thank you for quoting me verbatim. I was not being ironic. I fully understand the significance to the believer in the Stations of the Cross as representing true sacrifice and love – I was brought up a Catholic – but perhaps an outsider’s view will assist. An elderly Hindu friend of mine once told me about his first experience as a door to door salesman in Northern Ireland. He booked a room in a B&B, and when he got into the room he discovered what he told me was a very disturbing picture of a man with his chest open and his heart visible. My friend found it so disturbing he was obliged to turn it to face the wall. You know that picture as “The Sacred Heart” – whereas he saw it as a rather disturbing image. Now try to think how a child a man being nailed to a wooden structure, his head bleeding from a bit of thorny bush someone stuck on his head as a sick joke, and then someone comes up and sticks a spear in him. That all sounds kinda sick to me. But no I aint suggesting anyone should be jailed – simply give up using those twelve images as no longer appropriate in modern society.
    Mary@37 – Clearly Archbishop Clarke said it better than I can that the Faithful must accept that “other parts…(I would suggest the Stations)…”may indeed wither and perish” – now there is a man who understands evolution.
    Mark@39 – sorry if our names conflict. My online name is markdask, everywhere, but for what reason I do not understand it was abbreviated on this site to just Mark. I guess I should feel special 🙂
    Steve@40 – “appease, please or apologize to…” – I fail to see your point. Are you saying that since all other deities, since time began, have demanded to be appeased, pleased or apologized to, that that makes it okay then for your particular god to expect the same? Methinks you are hedging toward the logic of stone altars and goats blood – (only joking). Children can learn sacrifice simply by sharing – images of torture and barbarity are best left whence they came – in the dim and distant sands of the desert that gave them birth.

  41. Surely thanks is not appeasement, or at least it shouldn’t be otherwise it isn’t authentic. Isn’t it possible that the account of Abraham’s offering of Isaac marked a new level of awareness in human consciousness that ended the perceived need for human sacrifice in our relationship with God.

  42. Seáinín, I explained my references to you as in your responses @27 and 28 it appeared to me that perhaps you hadn`t seen them, though I can see now that you had merely chosen not to see them. I had used no metaphors, (I`ve gone back to check, just so as to be able to sleep at night) but just good old, plain old English.
    I referred to Baptism which used to take place in a font placed away in obscurity, until after Vatican 2 when its centrality in the drama of our salvation was understood better, though its full implications have not yet been accepted. But you would like it relegated once again, infants and family herded away out of sight of the place where the real story was, in your view perhaps, with the priest and the place of the Reserved Sacrament rather than the altar, the Table of the Lord?
    Equally, The Churching Of Women was not a figurative or symbolic thing either- the real humiliation of this ritual purging was suffered by mothers until the 1960s. And closing of the gates of the altar rails during Mass was not a metaphor, but a real action, the shutting out of those who had been merely baptised, as opposed to having been ordained as priests in the church, so it was the physical and real exclusion of that lesser order of being at that crucial time in the Mass. You would be more comfortable with them being closed again now too? And the restoration of altar rails? It would render us more reverent and Christ-like, you think?
    I`m sure I suspect what your answer is, but I just want to suggest that many people, with all the dignity and importance they have as the baptised, the laity, that “sleeping giant”, in the words of Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich, will not accept that kind of exclusion and denigration any longer.
    Now, as for adducing Hitchens` sense of the sacred, I can`t imagine what the word could mean to an antitheist. Perhaps he has been interested enough to observe it at work in others, as a scientist might examine the behaviour of insects. But I certainly wouldn`t be impressed by it as evidence of the soundness of a religion or a liturgy.

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