James Carroll: Abolish the Priesthood

Today I direct your attention to a column by James Carroll at The Atlantic, in which he issues a poignant call for a complete overhaul of the Catholic hierarchy.

Carroll is a former priest who served for about a decade during the Vatican II era.  He went on to become a columnist with the Boston Globe, and his work was instrumental in exposing the clergy sexual abuse scandals in that region back in the early 00’s.  Now Carroll is on a spiritual journey very similar to that of Derek Webb, with respect to his Catholic faith.

This piece is a lengthy read, but one that is well worth it.  I shall quote liberally from it today, then come back later with some thoughts on how all this lands in my world.

Carroll begins with a retrospective of the clergy sex abuse scandals, not just here in America but all over the world, including his ancestral home of Ireland.  The scandal and the cover-ups, he says, “will produce an avalanche of scandal for years to come”.  Yet Carroll remained fully committed to his faith through all that, placing a “desperate hope” in Pope Francis and the possibilities for real reform that seemed to arise with his ascension to the papacy.

Then he reached a breaking point.  At this point his journey begins to look and feel a lot like what Derek Webb has related on the “Fingers Crossed” album.

For the first time in my life, and without making a conscious decision, I simply stopped going to Mass. I embarked on an unwilled version of the Catholic tradition of “fast and abstinence”—in this case, fasting from the Eucharist and abstaining from the overt practice of my faith. I am not deluding myself that this response of mine has significance for anyone else—Who cares? It’s about time!—but for me the moment is a life marker. I have not been to Mass in months. I carry an ocean of grief in my heart.

Carroll then goes on to express appreciation for the virtues of Catholic faith and the selfless love and service of so many who put that faith into action via care for the sick and the poor, especially in developing regions of the world.  Like many Vatican II-era Catholics, he had high hopes for the possibilities of change at that time.  This is what prompted him to join the priesthood.  He joined the Paulists, one of the most progressive religious orders in all of Catholicism.  There he was intensely passionate for Pope John XXIII’s vision, codified in Vatican II, of the church as “the People of God”, with liturgical reforms intended to make the liturgy more accessible to the people and an emphasis on the ordained hierarchy as servants of the people rather than rulers over them.

But Vatican II was limited in how far it could go, and this led to Carroll’s eventual departure from the priesthood.

What Vatican II did not do, or was unable to do, except symbolically, was take up the issue of clericalism—the vesting of power in an all-male and celibate clergy. My five years in the priesthood, even in its most liberal wing, gave me a fetid taste of this caste system. Clericalism, with its cult of secrecy, its theological misogyny, its sexual repressiveness, and its hierarchical power based on threats of a doom-laden afterlife, is at the root of Roman Catholic dysfunction. The clerical system’s obsession with status thwarts even the merits of otherwise good priests and distorts the Gospels’ message of selfless love, which the Church was established to proclaim. Clericalism is both the underlying cause and the ongoing enabler of the present Catholic catastrophe. I left the priesthood 45 years ago, before knowing fully what had soured me, but clericalism was the reason.

In arguing against clericalism Carroll argues from history, that it was with the rise of Constantine that the Church began to shift from the egalitarian structures that existed since the time of Christ and take on the hierarchical form we see nowadays, which was patterned after the Roman Empire:

But under Emperor Constantine, in the fourth century, Christianity effectively became the imperial religion and took on the trappings of the empire itself. A diocese was originally a Roman administrative unit. A basilica, a monumental hall where the emperor sat in majesty, became a place of worship. A diverse and decentralized group of churches was transformed into a quasi-imperial institution—centralized and hierarchical, with the bishop of Rome reigning as a monarch. Church councils defined a single set of beliefs as orthodox, and everything else as heresy.

At about the same time, Augustine came onto the scene.  His views of human sexuality swept everything away as they rose to prominence, with adverse consequences that persist to this day.

This character was reinforced at about the same time by Augustine’s theology of sex, derived from his reading of the Adam and Eve story in Genesis. Augustine painted the original act of disobedience as a sexual sin, which led to blaming a woman for the fatal seduction—and thus for all human suffering down through the generations. This amounted to a major revision of the egalitarian assumptions and practices of the early Christian movement. It also put sexuality, and anything related to it, under a cloud, and ultimately under a tight regime. The repression of desire drove normal erotic urges into a social and psychological netherworld.

Celibacy had, up to that time, been an ascetic discipline reserved for only a few as a pathway toward deeper intimacy with God.  But in this Augustinian milieu, with its devaluation of anything having to do with human sexuality, celibacy acquired a cult-like status.  In time it became a mandatory discipline for all priests.  Carroll notes that there were practical and economic considerations in play as well:

In the Middle Ages, as vast land holdings and treasure came under Church control, priestly celibacy was made mandatory in order to thwart inheritance claims by the offspring of prelates. Seen this way, celibacy was less a matter of spirituality than of power.


The Church’s maleness and misogyny became inseparable from its structure. The conceptual underpinnings of clericalism can be laid out simply: Women were subservient to men. Laypeople were subservient to priests, who were defined as having been made “ontologically” superior by the sacrament of holy orders. Removed by celibacy from competing bonds of family and obligation, priests were slotted into a clerical hierarchy that replicated the medieval feudal order.

Today, Carroll observes, those most fiercely opposed to Pope Francis are those who are most firmly committed to the present clerical order.  This is so tied together with sexuality that any attempt to revise or loosen traditional Catholic teaching/practice in this regard–such as admitting the divorced and/or remarried to communion–draws fierce opposition.  Simply put, the current power structure of the Church is dependent for its continued existence upon a very rigid code concerning sexuality, of which an all-male priesthood and priestly celibacy are two pillars.  This code is enforced by the hierarchy, who historically have had little to no accountability to anyone save themselves.  This creates the perfect setup for the sex abuse scandals and their consequent cover-ups.

Carroll is not saying that all priests are pedophiles or sexual abusers.  Only a small percentage are.  But a much greater number have looked the other way.  Why?  Carroll suggests that many priests have found themselves unable to keep their vows of celibacy.  Their unfaithfulness to this vow causes them to feel compromised and therefore powerless to speak out against the evil of sexual abuse by their fellow priests.  But on a deeper level, priests are called to live up to an impossible standard, of which they fall short:

At a deeper level, Catholic clerics may be reluctant to judge their predatory fellows, because a priest, even if he is a person of full integrity, is always vulnerable to a feeling of having fallen short of an impossible ideal: to be “another Christ.” Where in such a system is there room for being human? I remember retreat masters citing scripture to exhort us priests during our seminary days “to be perfect, even as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Moral perfection, we were told, was a vocational mandate. That such hubristic claptrap came from blatantly imperfect men did nothing to lighten the load of the admonition. I know from my own experience how priests are primed to feel secretly unworthy. 
Whatever its cause, a guilt-ridden clerical subculture of moral deficiency has made all priests party to a quiet dissembling about the deep disorder of their own condition. That subculture has licensed, protected, and enabled those malevolent men of the cloth who are prepared to exploit the young.

Simply put, this does not lend itself to a healthy view of self or others, and it eviscerates the very possibility of accountability.  The laity are not off the hook either, in Carroll’s view.  The same theological culture described above has caused an overwhelming majority of Catholic laypeople to ignore official Church teaching on divorce, remarriage, and other matters of human sexuality–acting as if it simply does not exist.  In Carroll’s words, “Catholics in general have perfected the art of looking the other way.”

But Carroll refuses to give up and walk away.  Such an act would ultimately give free rein to Catholicism’s worst impulses while leaving its best impulses unsupported.  It would ultimately give the most reactionary elements exactly what they want–a smaller and more rigidly orthodox Church.  Instead, what he proposes as the way forward is nothing short of a second Protestant Reformation, one marked by taking seriously the Vatican II conception of the Church as “the People of God”:

What if multitudes of the faithful, appalled by what the sex-abuse crisis has shown the Church leadership to have become, were to detach themselves from—and renounce—the cassock-ridden power structure of the Church and reclaim Vatican II’s insistence that that power structure is not the Church? The Church is the people of God. The Church is a community that transcends space and time. Catholics should not yield to clerical despots the final authority over our personal relationship to the Church. I refuse to let a predator priest or a complicit bishop rip my faith from me.

The Reformation, which erupted 500 years ago, boiled down to a conflict over the power of the priest. To translate scripture into the vernacular, as Martin Luther and others did, was to remove the clergy’s monopoly on the sacred heart of the faith. Likewise, to introduce democratic structures into religious governance, elevating the role of the laity, was to overturn the hierarchy according to which every ordained person occupied a place of superiority.

…I propose a kind of internal exile. One imagines the inmates of internal exile as figures in the back of a church, where, in fact, some dissenting priests and many free-spirited nuns can be found as well. Think of us as the Church’s conscientious objectors. We are not deserters.

Replacing the diseased model of the Church with something healthy may involve, for a time, intentional absence from services or life on the margins—less in the pews than in the rearmost shadows. But it will always involve deliberate performance of the works of mercy: feeding the hungry, caring for the poor, visiting the sick, striving for justice. These can be today’s chosen forms of the faith. It will involve, for many, unauthorized expressions of prayer and worship—egalitarian, authentic, ecumenical; having nothing to do with diocesan borders, parish boundaries, or the sacrament of holy orders. That may be especially true in so-called intentional communities that lift up the leadership of women. These already exist, everywhere. No matter who presides at whatever form the altar takes, such adaptations of Eucharistic observance return to the theological essence of the sacrament. Christ is experienced not through the officiant but through the faith of the whole community. “For where two or three are gathered in my name,” Jesus said, “there am I in the midst of them.”


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