Reposting: John Wijngaards: We need a more democratic process of electing bishops

John Wijngaards is founder of the UK-based Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research, writing in the Irish Times:

Pope Francis has unleashed a synodal process of consultations in the Catholic Church. It offers opportunities for effective change. It may also prove a failure. Over recent months, I have heard many sceptical voices. “By providing guiding documents the curia is steering discussions away from the real issues.” “It will all just amount to talk.” “Nothing will really change.”

Link to article in the Irish Times:


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  1. Paddy Ferry says:

    John Wijngaards: We need a more democratic process of electing bishops

    John Wijngaards is obviously an excellent man.

    However, his statement:

    “Understand me well. Jesus gave authority to the apostles and their successors…”

    is something I think most, perhaps all, scripture scholars would now find troubling.

  2. Joe O'Leary says:

    John Wijngaards: We need a more democratic process of electing bishops

    The Apostolic Succession was first explicitly stated in a letter attributed to pope St Clement, probably around 95 AD: “Through countryside and city [the apostles] preached, and they appointed their earliest converts, testing them by the Spirit, to be the bishops and deacons of future believers. Nor was this a novelty, for bishops and deacons had been written about a long time earlier” (Letter to the Corinthians 42:4–5.

    This was magnificently unfolded by St Irenaeus, Against Heresies, and given sharper focus by Tertullian, The Prescription of Heretics. A Prescription is a principle that preemptively disqualifies false teachers. In Tertullian’s vision truth comes first and errors come later, truth is proclaimed by a united church, errors by breakaway sects, truth is delivered to the apostles and their successors whereas heretics can appeal only to their founding fathers such as Valentinus and Marcion. St Augustine builds on his African predecessor two centuries later in arguing that the breakaway Donatists are dwarfed by the authority of the whole church in its worldwide unity (securus iudicat orbis terrarum, the phrase cleverly highlighted by Wiseman and Newman).

    Perhaps the strongest relativization of this picture came from Walter Bauer in 1934 in a book translated as Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity in 1971. He showed that many early churches were begun by heterodox groups or emerged from a medley of conflicting outlooks. So the story as told by Irenaeus and Tertullian has elements of a retrospective idealization, prescriptive rather than descriptive.

    Nonetheless the system of episcopal authority that the church established in the second century (and that is regarded as unalterable as a matter of 7divine positive law) seems a good realization or development of the vision of apostolic authority expressed by Jesus in the gospels of Matthew (16:18-19), Luke (10:16), and John (20:22-3). (Mt 18:18-20 seems to speak of the authority of the community as a whole rather than the leaders.)

    It might be claimed that this in turn is a retrospective idealization of how Jesus actually proceeded. But the presence of the Twelve as revered figures in the earliest church (1 Cor 15:5) is factual warrant that Jesus appointed apostles. The Twelve were somewhat upstaged by other apostles such as James the brother of the Lord and Paul. Given this concrete historical foundation it makes sense that Eusebius in his Church History sedulously traces the lines of succession from the various apostles.

    The poetic image of the church as ‘built on the foundation of the apostles’ (Ephesians 2:20) would thus seem to have a concrete historical correlative providing a precious link of the mainstream churches today with the first Christians (in addition to their spiritual commonality with them, which non-episcopal churches also enjoy).

  3. Colm Holmes says:

    John Wijngaards: We need a more democratic process of electing bishops

    Joe O’Leary at #2 conveniently ignores the role of women as disciples of Jesus. And Mary of Magdala as Apostle to the apostles. Just because patriarchies continue to survive even in 2022 does not mean they are divinely ordained.

    I believe Jesus regarded women and men as equals for serving and leading our church. I also believe Jesus did not endorse a patriarchal monarchy to rule the church. Democratic structures are far from perfect – but they are far superior to monarchies.

  4. Joe O'Leary says:

    John Wijngaards: We need a more democratic process of electing bishops

    Jesus chose only men for the Twelve, but the Johannine Jesus says the Spirit will teach us many new things and lead us into all truth. That women are now bearers of the apostolic succession is a jolly good thing, and as they more and more become our partners in ecumenical dialogue the RCC will inevitably feel the absurdity of refusing to recognize them as such.

    I argued with a fine Anglican priest this evening (a convert to Christianity at age 24, seemingly attracted to the RCC but not willing to regard his orders as ‘absolutely null and utterly void’ and to be re-ordained) who said he could not get around the contradiction between the 2000 years tradition and the ordination of women, but I just contented myself by pointing to wonderful women priests we both know. The Spirit and the nature of Development, as well as moral considerations, provide a stronger basis.

  5. Joe O'Leary says:

    John Wijngaards: We need a more democratic process of electing bishops

    Googling ‘Mary Magdalen’ and ‘Apostolic Succession’ I see Adriana Valerio (Naples) argue that Jesus invests Mary Magdalene with apostolic authority (Mt 28:10 and John 20:17) and this was violently suppressed by Paul or his source in the list of all-male witnesses of the resurrection in 1 Cor 15. Historically this claim is very fragile. There is no appearance to Mary in Mark and Luke; the women witness only the empty tomb. (Of course ‘Thou art Peter’ is in the same state, as a Matthaean addition to the Markan story; but there is ample attestation of Peter’s leading role beyond that.)

    She appears as ‘apostle to the apostles’ in those texts, but there is no evidence that she had emerged as apostolic leader of a community or that she was prevented from doing so. Why is she given such prominence in John 20? Similarly, why is the mother of Jesus given prominence in John 2 and John 19? Why is the Beloved Disciple given prominence in John 13, 19, 20, 21? In each case the answer is no doubt of a mystical rather than an institutional order. As such the scene between Mary and Jesus in John 20, celebrated throughout Christian history, is an inspiration for anyone who wants to take up a Magdalenian tradition. It is not a knockdown argument against the apostolic succession but it could inspire arguments for a development that would open it to women.

  6. Sean O’Conaill says:

    John Wijngaards: We need a more democratic process of electing bishops

    How does Jesus’s strong injunction to the apostles not to ‘lord it’ over others limit the apostolic ‘authority’, and what if any thought has been given historically to that question?

    Who remembers the very strong push in the 1950s and even 60s to convince us in Ireland that an informed Catholic conscience was one that always deferred to a bishop’s authority to inform it?

    Logically and pastorally that ‘overreach’ explains the Catholic deference so strongly complained of in the Ryan report of 2009, and never since then (to my knowledge) deprecated by any Irish bishop – in the cause of child safeguarding for example.

    Yet the insistence of Pope Francis that Christian authority can derive only from service implies that the days of bishops ‘lording it’ over others anywhere are officially over. Must we wait forever for an Irish bishop to say so, and to encourage a sense of personal agency and freedom of conscience among the merely baptised, as an obvious exercise of the bishop’s own teaching responsibility?

    Given the obvious fact that the exercise of episcopal authority has at times exceeded the limits implied by Jesus’s injunction, does it not follow that there needs to be ‘orthodox’ teaching on those limits if ‘the faithful’ are to be clear on where personal conscience needs to be considered sovereign?

    Over to Joe!

  7. John Wijngaards: We need a more democratic process of electing bishops

    CCC 1782 Man has the right to act in conscience and in freedom so as personally to make moral decisions. “He must not be forced to act contrary to his conscience. Nor must he be prevented from acting according to his conscience, especially in religious matters.”

    As it is virtually certain that this is designed to protect any person from the duress that could be exercised by an authority external to the church – (e.g. a secular government) – it needs to be made clear that the stricture applies also to any religious authority, as follows:

    Man has the right to act in conscience and in freedom so as personally to make moral decisions. He must not be forced to act contrary to his conscience by any other person, even a religious superior. Nor must he be prevented by anyone from acting according to his conscience, especially in religious matters.

    If conscience is indeed the ‘aboriginal vicar of Christ’ (Newman CCC 1778) how can it be licit for any cleric, even the pope, to deny the right of anyone to be guided by conscience in all matters?

    This pinpoints what was wrong with Christendom Catholicism, the tendency towards usurpation by clergy of the lay person’s moral autonomy, their right and duty to consult conscience, prayerfully, in all matters. There lies the root of Catholic deference. It lies deep and needs to be pulled out with both hands.

  8. Joe O'Leary says:

    John Wijngaards: We need a more democratic process of electing bishops

    That the CCC does not even mention the possibility of legitimate dissent from such authorities as the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, and says nothing about the application of conscience in real life circumstances, but worries only that people will use freedom to dilute conscience and authority, is of a piece with the tendentious character of John Paul II’s Catechism. I am not a moral theologian and do not know what the best books or articles on freedom of conscience might be, but I think the fate of Charles Curran tells us how dangerous such topics can be for moral theologians.

  9. Sean O’Conaill says:

    John Wijngaards: We need a more democratic process of electing bishops

    It had not occurred to me to identify the CCC with John Paul II, but why not? It’s first publication was in 1992, the inaugural year of the Irish clerical edifice’s collapse, as summarised by Patsy McGarry today:

    Catechisms began, apparently, not with the apostles but with Martin Luther. As attempts at fixing in stone someone’s last word on everything they must all ‘limp’ and inhibit true theological curiosity and initiative, especially on critical issues such as conscience and atonement and ‘original sin’.

  10. Joe O'Leary says:

    John Wijngaards: We need a more democratic process of electing bishops.

    I think Luther’s Lesser and Greater Catechisms may have been more an attempt to open new perspectives, like the maligned Dutch Catechism. Then the Catechism of the Council of Trent would be a clampdown like the CCC. The confessional writings of the Lutheran and Reformed Churches might be seen as more in the key of witness than of doctrinal control.

    Freedom of conscience would be a great theme for debate at the Synod of Synodality (with expert input) but the official discourse about the forthcoming event does not that way tend. Rather we hear nervous reminders of what is ‘off the agenda’.

  11. Paddy Ferry says:

    John Wijngaards: We need a more democratic process of electing bishops.

    Joe@2 thank you for your staunch defence of the doctrine of Apostolic Succession with copious reference, as always, to supporting documents and then the interesting discourse that has since ensued. I have not read any of the writings of those early church figures you mention but I have read about them and know something of Clement, Tertullian, Irenaeus and Eusebius — a great ancestor, perhaps, of the great Benefica inside forward !
    However, I am sure all serious scripture scholars would also have read, researched and studied the writings that you refer to. Great scholars such as the late, great Raymond Brown and Luke Timothy Johnston who have had very interesting things to say about Apostolic Succession. Two things Raymond Brown has said about the doctrine that have really stuck in my mind. Firstly, he said that there is no compelling evidence to support this classic Catholic thesis and, secondly, that the whole idea of a linear “apostolic succession” has been the result of a series of historic fabrications.

    Luke Timothy Johnston has said that the office of bishop has a complete lack of theology legitimation.

    However, we don’t need to go across the Atlantic to hear an eminent scholar express an opinion on the evidence of an authority structure (or not) of our fledgling Church. In that famous, and very brave, letter to the Tablet — thank God for Francis, and at last, freedom of speech — Fr. Kieran O’Mahony OSA also has said very interesting things about about Jesus’ intentions (or not) for the ‘church’.

    I will now share only the relevant sentences.

    “The exclusion of women from ministry can be traced not only to tradition but also to an erroneous reading of the evolution of ‘church and its ministries.

    In common with many other biblical scholars, I would affirm the following. …………………Jesus did not foresee a separate religious movement later given the name Christianity.

    Much less did he foresee a Church (the term is found in Matthew’s Gospel alone) with specific structures and ministries.


    If the above is substantially accurate, then the historical Jesus “ordained” nobody at all and the Last Supper was not an ordination service, simply because the historical Jesus did not reckon with a body separate from his own Jewish faith”

    Joe, I don’t know what all this does for your “and that is regarded as unalterable as a matter of divine positive law”.

    As far as Eusebius is concerned I now have to wonder just how reliable is he. He definitely made things up in his attempts to rebrand the early Church and to rebrand Jesus which the fictitious correspondence between King Abgar and Jesus clearly shows.

    In Garry Wills’ excellent book “Why Priests” he asks the question why did the priesthood come into a religion that began without it and, indeed, opposed it. And, also, what other deflections from the original path came from this new element in the mix? He asks, without the priesthood would there have been belief in an apostolic succession?

    PS. When we last engaged in conversation on this site in March, Joe following Fr. Tom Doyle’s Zoom meeting on “Corruption in the Catholic Church” your last comment directed to me was less than pleasant. However, comments were then closed and I was denied my right of reply to you. I still hope that I might even now be given an opportunity to reply to you on this site.

  12. Joe O'Leary says:

    John Wijngaards: We need a more democratic process of electing bishops.

    Thanks Paddy for a bunch of juicy topics. Ecclesiology is not my forte, but the topic of apostolic succession is on my plate because of a commission from Tom O’Loughlin to do an annotated translation of Tertullian’s masterpiece De praescriptione haereticorum. His image of the church as originally fully united under the guidance of the apostles, accredited transmitters of the teaching of Jesus, continued by their successors, and of heretics as later intruders, divided among themselves, and thus without a leg to stand on (the word praescriptio can be translated as ‘disqualification’) must indeed be greatly nuanced (to say the least) in light of Walter Bauer’s classic study of 1934, which begins precisely with the Abgar legend. Eusebius claims that his account of the Edessa (Syrian) church by the apostle Thaddaeus and of the king’s correspondence with Jesus is based on documentary evidence taken from the records in Edessa. Bauer says Eusebius is not tracing the actual course of history but is relating a legend. (It would be alarming if he wrote the alleged Abgar-Jesus letters himself, since then we would have to suspect that all the Greek philosophical texts that survive only through him might be forged as well!). Peter as founder of the Roman church and Mark as founder of the Alexandrian church are likewise in Bauer’ opinion theologically motivated constructions rather than historical fact. Still as the bishop lists go forward from these beginnings Eusebius’s history becomes more objectively reliable.

    My notions of ministry were picked up in the 1970s from Rahner (the threefold ministry as divine positive law, i.e. divine law added to natural law, and including such things as the Torah), Schillebeeckx (much harassed by the Vatican), and the admirable Joseph Moingt SJ (1915-2020). I told Moingt that I liked his articles in Etudes arguing that the pluralism of ministries in the early church was a resource for rethinking ministry today. He said, ‘you must have a twisted mind in that case (un esprit mal tourné),’ and a few years later he said that a deluge of denunciations against him had arrived in Rome but that Ratzinger had said to his staff, ‘leave Fr Moingt in peace.’

    The question would be if the Apostolic Succession and the threefold ministry were legitimate developments in Newman’s sense. Development can make huge leaps. For instance, when Loisy made the famed statement that ‘Jesus preached the Kingdom but it was the Church that came’ he was in fact not knocking the church, but arguing against Harnack that the Church was a legitimate development from Jesus’s kingdom vision.

    ‘The historical Jesus did not reckon with a body separate from his own Jewish faith’ — the NT (today’s reading from Acts 13) does see the message of Jesus as intended for Israel, but as developing in a way he did not, humanly, foresee (due to its alleged rejection by Israel and its avid reception by the Gentiles). St Paul positions the church as dependent on Israel for its very identity as a grafted-on shoot (a vision espoused in the revolutionary Nostra Aetate 4 in 1965).

    Brown says there is no compelling evidence to support a linear “apostolic succession” which has been the result of a series of historic fabrications. But it could still be legitimate as a development of NT elements such as the scenes where Jesus confers authority on the apostles. Did any NT writer foresee he would be part of a Canon of Scripture? Yet this was established as binding contemporaneously with the apostolic succession and its legitimacy is not contested.

    ‘Luke Timothy Johnston has said that the office of bishop has a complete lack of theology legitimation.’ Can an exegete make that determination? The NT episkopoi may not be bishops in the later sense, but the monarchical episcopacy of Ignatius of Antioch, immediately after the NT, is regarded as the first emergence of what we would recognize as bishops.

    ‘Why did the priesthood come into a religion that began without it and, indeed, opposed it… without the priesthood would there have been belief in an apostolic succession?’

    I told a bunch of Filipino seminarians in 1986 that Jesus chose presbyters (elders, not very different from episkopoi) and a German exegete riposted from the altar, denouncing the errors of Martin Luther and reminding the seminarians that ‘on the day of your ordination you will hear the words: “You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizadek.”’ It’s complicated. Jesus is very much a priest in Hebrews and Christians are a priestly people in I Peter, so presbyters and bishops who shepherd the flock and supposedly represent Christ to them would naturally have priestly attributes as well. Where does the NT oppose priesthood? Brown suggests: ‘Early Christians acknowledged the Jewish priesthood as valid and never thought of a priesthood of their own’ (Priest and Bishop, p. 17). Not exactly opposition. The emergence of a priesthood demanded two conditions: that Christianity became a religion separated from Judaism and that there be a sacrifice needing a priestly celebrant. The development of the view of the eucharist as an unbloody sacrifice goes back to the Didache. The statement that the historical Jesus instituted the priesthood at the Last Supper, Brown concludes ‘is true to the same real but nuanced extent as the statement that the historical Jesus instituted the Church’ (p. 19).

    Brown does not deny the apostolic succession but nuances it. E.g. ‘the position of primacy held by Peter has been continued in the Church and is now enjoyed by the bishop of Rome’ (p. 54). That sounds solid enough. He talks of ‘Functional Succession to the Apostolate of the Twelve.’

    The origins are murky, but apostolic succession has been a visible and celebrated reality since the second century, and such a substantial reality must carry huge weight. To say it is all based on mistaken reading of the Gospel and has no theological legitimacy is very dismissive of the church’s self-identification and I would say misses something powerful in the NT itself, the concern for transmission of the faith and for mission and the place of delegation in this.

    I see one T.G. Jalland wrote in 1946: ‘the last word on the subject of the origin and evolution of the Christian ministry has yet to be written’ (in K. E. Kirk, ed. The Apostolic Ministry). That is still true.

  13. Paddy Ferry says:

    John Wijngaards: We need a more democratic process of electing bishops.

    Seán, thank you for sharing Patsy McGarry’s article in the Irish Times.

    It is a timely reminder and a timely resumé of the history of crimes committed by those we so looked up to.

    Yet, it is ironic that Eamonn Casey still enjoys centre stage in all of this.

    While his indiscretions may be regarded as sinful they were not criminal. Unlike the crimes — heinous crimes, in fact, committed by those priests who sexually seduced and violated innocent, young children and the crimes endured by the most disadvantaged children in the country in those evil hell holes run by the religious orders.

    How might we classify the actions or lack of action by our bishops as the reality of clerical child sex abuse became obvious? Was that also criminality? Only Bishop Moriarty admitted they were all guilty by their negligence.

    Fr. Tom Doyle in his recent Zoom meeting said an interesting thing. He said harmful sexual behaviour in itself is part of the human condition. This is not a church problem. But the reaction or lack of reaction by our Church authorities is a church problem.

    I often wonder can we ever recover from this even if synodality is a great success and turns out to be everything Francis wishes it to be. I don’t know. But what I do know is that silence and just hoping people will eventually forget all about it will not work.

  14. Sean O’Conaill says:

    John Wijngaards: We need a more democratic process of electing bishops.

    Surely Matthew Ch 25 was part of the teaching that Jesus charged the apostles with transmitting, and surely it is a severe warning against mere religiosity and the mystique of episcopacy and clericalism as routes to salvation? If we do not care for those who most need care – i.e. if we lack practical love for those who need it – we have had it!

    Moreover, those who do discharge that obligation will be rewarded for that activity alone.

    Nowhere in the Gospel is the authority given to anyone to become a potentate, which is what bishops became in the wake of the Constantinian shift – and remained into the modern era. Surely it was then that Christian priesthood also became detached from the sacrificial obligation of practical love and came to be associated only with liturgy, sacrament and ‘learning’ – i.e. a reputation for knowing what only priests and bishops could know.

    And yet again I complain about the inability of clergy to see and explain the complete transformation of the meaning of sacrifice that Jesus achieves in the Gospel account.

    Has anyone ever heard, in a homily, a clear explanation of what Jesus could have meant in Matthew 9:13 in telling the Pharisees to read Hosea 6:6 ‘I desire mercy not sacrifice’?

    If God the Father does NOT desire sacrifice, then how can the sacrifice of the Mass be HOLY? The stark inevitability of that question has been dodged always in my experience – because clergy have never, apparently, had the obvious explanation given to them.

    The sacrifice referred to in Hosea and by Jesus in Matthew 9:13 was obviously the Temple sacrifice, by a Temple priest, of something OTHER THAN HIMSELF – and, often, the infliction of suffering upon ANOTHER creature. Jesus’s self-sacrifice, Christian sacrifice is therefore, essentially, self-giving – meeting the dire needs of others – something utterly different.

    And above all it is something practical rather than merely liturgical and symbolic. If the liturgy becomes an end in itself – endless ‘Mass’ WITHOUT the practical action it calls us to in the world outside – it will be unavailing. There is no other way of reconciling Matthew 25 and the ‘Do this in memory of me’ of the Eucharistic injunction.

    Only if Christian priesthood is reframed as essentially Christian action on behalf of others – prompted by the Gospel texts and nourished by the Eucharist – can it be rescued from mystification, scandal and derision. St Paul’s call in Romans 12 confirms this: Christian sacrifice is essentially the giving of the self, and ALL are called to it. The liturgical/sacramental role is merely one of many – NOT either superior or given control of all of the others.

    When I do hear a homily on the primacy of the common priesthood of all of the baptised – the priesthood of self-giving – in relation to ‘vocations’ – I will know we have turned a corner. Until then we will all dither endlessly.

  15. Joe O'Leary says:

    John Wijngaards: We need a more democratic process of electing bishops.

    Luke Timothy Johnson does not say episcopacy has no theological basis. His Anchor Bible commentary on 1 and 2 Timothy (2001) has this to say:

    My translation of episkopos as ‘supervisor’ in I Timothy respects two features of this text: its remarkably simple structure of leadership, and its complete lack of any theological legitimation. (p. 213)

    There is a complete absence of legitimation of any organizational element in these letters. Leaders are not designated as priests, and none of their functions are cultic in character. (p. 76).

    Johnson adds that this contrasts with Ignatius of Antioch ‘where hierarchical structure was thoroughly legitimated theologically’ (ib.)

    Johnson does not contest or question or seek to disqualify the development we see attested in the letters of Ignatius (bishop of Antioch, martyred in 108 AD). St John Henry Newman, a fierce defender of the Apostolic Succession, wrote a study of these letters. Their warm language about episcopacy sets the tone for the ages:

    ‘Your justly famous presbytery, worthy of God, is attuned to the bishop as the strings to a harp… If the prayer of one or who has such might, how much more that of the bishop and of the whole Church… The more that anyone sees the bishop is silent, the more let us fear him. For every one whom the master of the house sends to do his business ought we to receive as him who sent him. Therefore it is clear that we must regard the bishop as the Lord himself.’ (To the Ephesians, 4, 5, 6)

    ‘It becomes you not to presume on the youth of the bishop, but to render him all respect according to the power of God the Father, as I have heard that even the holy presbyters have not taken advantage of his outwardly youthful appearance, but yield to him in their godly prudence, yet not to him, but to the Father of Jesus Christ, to the bishop of all… As then the Lord was united to the Father and did nothing without him, neither by himself nor through the Apostles, so do you so nothing without the bishop and the presbyters… ‘ (To the Magnesians, 3, 7)

    ‘Let all respect the deacons as Jesus Christ, even as the bishop is also a type of the Father, and the presbyters as the council of God and the college of Apostles. Without these the name of “Church” is not given.’ (To the Trallians, 3)

    ‘See that you all follow the bishop, as Jesus Christ follows the Father, and the presbytery as if it were the Apostles. And reverence the deacons as the command of God… It is good to know God and the bishop. He who honours the bishop has been honoured by God; he who does anything without the knowledge of the bishop is serving the devil… Let that be considered a valid Eucharist (bebaia eucharastia) which is celebrated by the bishop, or by one whom he appoints. Wherever the bishop appears, let the congregation be present; just as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.’ (To the Smyrneans, 8)

    (Loeb Classical Library, The Apostolic Fathers, trans. Kirsopp Lake, 1912)

    I am surprised to find how strong and how heavily Catholic this language is, providing a secure foundation for the sacrament of episcopacy as practiced today in the Roman, Orthodox, Anglican, and some Lutheran churches.

    1. Paddy Ferry says:

      John Wijngaards: We need a more democratic process of electing bishops.

      Joe@14, thank you for such a comprehensive and prompt reply to my “bunch of juicy topics”. I have often wondered how long it takes you to produce stuff like this. Even when I have the knowledge in my head it can take ages due to my slow, elementary computer keyboard skills.

      When I read Raymond Brown’s Priest and Bishop I was already aware of his views on apostolic succession so I expected him just to be just as frank and uncompromising on the origins of priesthood. But, of course, he isn’t. Around the time I was reading Priest and Bishop I met the aforementioned Tom O’Loughlin who had come to Edinburgh to speak at our Newman Association and I shared my surprise with him having just read the book. Tom explained to me that Raymond was teaching in seminary guiding young men towards ordination so you would hardly expect him to be anything but positive about the origins of our priesthood.

      If I now remember correctly in the book he seems to be of the opinion that only Paul was worth his salt as an apostle and he wasn’t even one of the twelve.

      You mention Hebrews and Melchizedek, Joe, and I have read a bit around their significance. I read somewhere where it was said that St. Paul’s Letter to the Hebrews was not written by St. Paul, was not a letter and was not to the Hebrews. Yet, it was only in 1906 that our Church finally accepted that it was not written by Paul and it was you, Joe, who informed me of that fact three or four years ago. Why did it take so long!!?

      I must say I now find Hebrews a seriously dodgy document so much so that I now find it hard to listen when readings from it are part of the Liturgy of the Word during Mass. It will certainly not be part of the Liturgy of the Word in my funeral Mass Order of Service!!

      Of course, the mystery writer is the most polished and sophisticated writer in all of the NT using parts of speech and words not found anywhere else in the NT even beginning with a flourish of alliterated words. But his theology is the most eccentric in claiming that Jesus was a priest in the line of Melchizedek, this minor figure from the Old Testament

      Perhaps of all the fallacies scholars have found in Hebrews the most silly is the so called Loins Fallacy. Even though he is intent on creating a new line of priesthood for Jesus apart from the Levitical lineage, the author still wants to keep his options open. He does this by suggesting that when Abraham had that chance meeting with Melchizedek in Genesis 14 and Abraham offered Melchizedek a tithe, Levi was also offering that tithe as Abraham was Levi’s great, great grandfather — I think — and, so, the contention is that Levi’s seed was, somehow, already in Abraham’s loins. Craig Koester has suggested that this may, in fact, be an attempt at exaggerated humour. Well, it certainly is hilarious!

      And, then there are the “strained parallels” which scripture scholars have also identified.where he sees a certain similarity which he grasps and runs with but fails to see where it might eventually lead him. One example being the Crucifixion of Jesus outside the city and the disposal of the remnants of the animal carcass in the Jewish sacrificial ritual outside the camp, seemingly missing the point that one was sacred and the other was not. Luke Timothy Johnston speaks of carelessness on the author’s part. Myles Bourke calls them crippling difficulties in Hebrews.

      And, then of course there is his introduction of the idea of Jesus being a priest in the line of Melchizedek and the elevation of human sacrifice. Cultural historians have held that the change from human sacrifice to animal sacrifice was, in fact, a sign of of a more enlightened civilization, and understandably so. Has anyone other than the author of Hebrews ever disagreed with that?

      But leaving that aside, there are serious problems with the idea of Melchizedek’s line of priesthood. Experts on this issue such as Fred Horton — author of the Melchizedek Tradition — suggests that those lines in Genesis Chap. 14 are in fact an implant, “intrusion”, is I think, the word Prof. Horton uses as there is nothing in the verses preceding that fleeting mention of Melchizedek and nothing in the verses that follow that is relevant to those three verses, 18-20, where he is mentioned. Scholars, in fact, now question all of Chap. 14 as it appears to show no sign of the work of the primary sources of Genesis.

      In fairness to this unknown author he did not think he was writing for the ages, composing a canon of sacred scripture. According to, once again, Raymond Brown and John Meier he was simply trying to rally a group of second generation christians in Rome who were “backsliding”, I think is the word he uses. They were reverting back to the security of God’s promises to Moses. Raymond Brown, as I am sure you know, Joe, identifies four groups with graded commitment to the new tradition of faith vís a vís the old Pact.

      And, also, it has to be said that Hebrews does not suggest a new line of priesthood that would follow Jesus. Rather Jesus is a one off, the one and only, and the final sacrifice which would make all other priesthoods redundant. But it has not worked out quite like that!
      It was only after Hebrews introduced this new idea of Jesus as priest that other aspects of Jewish practice could make their way into Christian tradition such as the idea of a continuing line of priests.

      So much is built on Hebrews and Melchizedek and it is very difficult now to argue that those foundations are, in fact, sound.

      Seán@ ?? where you say :

      “……And yet again I complain about the inability of clergy to see and explain the complete transformation of the meaning of sacrifice that Jesus achieves in the Gospel account.

      Has anyone ever heard, in a homily, a clear explanation of what Jesus could have meant in Matthew 9:13 in telling the Pharisees to read Hosea 6:6 ‘I desire mercy not sacrifice. …….’

      If God the Father does NOT desire sacrifice, …….”

      Ever since I can remember thinking seriously about this I have always had a problem with the idea of Jesus having to offer himself to suffer this awful death on a cross to appease his wrathful Father’s anger. And, no matter how we may try and dress it up now, that was the teaching. And, why was there this great anger? Because of the sin of our ancient, probably mythical, ancestors which was transmitted through the generations to us who came to share in this guilt. And, so, Jesus had to die to save us. Was it Augustine who invented the idea of original sin which was, of course, all about sex? This always brings to mind Oliver J and his famous, never to be forgotten, performance on the Late, Late.

      Seán, I don’t understand “the complete transformation of the meaning of sacrifice that Jesus achieves in the Gospel account” I accept that you probably have a much greater understanding of all this than I have.

      However, Peter Abelard’s words sum up very well my own belief. He said:

      “It seems extremely cruel and evil to demand the death of a person without guilt as a form of ransom, or that one could take pleasure in the death of a guiltless one–and even more for God to accept his own Son’s death as the means of returning all the world to his esteem.”

      Before I discovered Peter Abelard, I had already read in Joseph Fitzmyer’s “Romans” that “Paul never says that Jesus was sacrificed for our sake. That notion enters the later theological tradition …..etc.”
      I have already referred to this on a few occasions here. I found it so reassuring when I first read it and to find confirmation that my own doubts were reasonably well founded. People of our ilk are so keen to believe what the Church tells us we should believe.

    2. Joe O'Leary says:

      John Wijngaards: We need a more democratic process of electing bishops.

      James Mackey had some very searching remarks on ministry in the New Testament and the church today in: New Testament Theology in Dialogue, co-authored with James Dunn. Philip Devenish reviewed the book critically but singled out the section on ministry as ‘superb.’

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