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.

Consequently…

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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Morgan Guyton: Democratized Theology vs. Theology of the Demos

Today I direct your attention to a post by Morgan Guyton entitled “Democratized Theology vs. Theology of the Demos (Mob)“.  Guyton is a Methodist college pastor on the campus of Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana.  He blogs at Mercy Not Sacrifice.

In this post Guyton draws a contrast between democratized theology and a theology of the “demos”.  “Demos” is the Greek word for “mob”, which is the root of our word democracy.  So democracy is, literally, mob rule.

Democratized theology is theology in which each individual is empowered to formulate and express his or her understanding of things.  There is no pressure for everyone to come to the same conclusions at the end of the day.  The professional scholars/theologians have an important part to play because they provide resources for helping each member of the faith community understand and interpret the truth more effectively, but they are not the end-all, be-all.  Democratized theology is intentional about hearing and recognizing all voices because all voices have value, but especially seeking out voices that have traditionally been silenced and/or marginalized, as these voices are seldom heard otherwise.

Theology of the “demos” is essentially the opposite.  Everyone in the faith community is expected to submit to uniform agreement on matters of theology and doctrine that are of concern to the community.  An imperfect understanding and/or articulation of these matters is believed to have eternally catastrophic consequences.  Tremendous energy is devoted to delineating who is inside and out; the insiders are superior, orthodox, going to heaven, etc., while the outsiders are depraved, heretical, going to hell, etc.  There is excruciating competition among insiders to show their insider credentials, with kudos going to those who can articulate the insider view most provocatively and radically, with the greatest possible contrast between insiders and outsiders.  Scapegoats are chosen frequently and it becomes a litmus test of orthodoxy to see how vehemently one can oppose the chosen scapegoat (Rob Bell, for example).  Demagogues arise and become the singular expression of the faith community’s will/voice by telling the community exactly what it wants to hear.

Read:  Democratized Theology vs. Theology of the Demos (Mob) by Morgan Guyton

Morgan Guyton on RHE

Today I direct your attention to Morgan Guyton’s tribute to Rachel Held Evans.  Guyton is a Methodist campus pastor on the campus of Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana.  He blogs at Mercy Not Sacrifice.

We are living in an age comparable to the 1500’s, when Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press set the stage for the Protestant Reformation by making the Bible widely available for the first time in history, thereby allowing individual believers to circumvent the church authorities who read and interpreted Scripture for the masses at that time and read/interpret things for themselves.  In our day, the rise of the internet and the blogosphere have created a space where our authoritative biblical interpreters are not vetted by carefully controlled publishing houses and theological education centers (the vast majority of those who gain authority and influence under this system are white and male, but that’s another diatribe for another day), but by the likes and shares of the masses.  Rachel Held Evans was a driving force in this movement.

Many Christians of a more conservative bent see these developments and quake with fear, because to them it looks like 2 Timothy 4:3 (“For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine.  Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear”).  In all honesty, I look at 81 percent of American evangelicals unabashedly and enthusiastically supporting a president who is the exact opposite of anything even remotely connected to Jesus Christ, and I think they have it backwards.

Read:  “Rachel Held Evans and the Democratization of Theology” by Morgan Guyton

Goodbye RHE

Rachel Held Evans is dead.

To put it in language more comfortable to those of you who are of the evangelical persuasion, she “went home to be with the Lord”.

But I am not here to make people comfortable.  She fucking snuffed it.

About two weeks ago she began to experience severe brain seizures.  Emergency medical treatments failed, and now here we are.  You can read the full story here.

Some of you may recognize the name.  She was a Christian author who wrote a number of provocative books, including “A Year of Biblical Womanhood“, in which she set out to literally follow all of the biblical commands toward women for a full year.  Many leading evangelicals dismissed this as a publicity stunt.  She also wrote “Searching for Sunday“, which unpacks her complicated relationship with the Church, and “Inspired“, which reimagines our engagement with the Bible.

Rachel Held Evans was a faithful companion to those of us who are on the post-evangelical journey.  She will be dearly missed.

Do Not Grieve the Loss of the Evangelicalism of Not Long Ago

Today we are going to jump into the way-back machine and go back…back…back…

Business meetings are an inevitable fact of church life.  Some of you could probably tell some horror stories about church business meetings featuring more violent deaths than a Game of Thrones episode.  Today we are going to look at the first business meeting that ever happened, or at least that was recorded for posterity.  It certainly fits that curve; while there were no violent deaths (that we are aware of), it was still a very contentious thing.

The stakes were high.  The Christian movement–which at that point was basically just a knockoff Jewish sect–was growing by leaps and bounds in the Jerusalem area.  People had seen Jesus, one of many wannabe Messiahs who seemed to litter the landscape around Passover time every year, die a horrifically violent death–and then saw him walking around just a few days later.  And when a guy predicts his own death and resurrection and then pulls it off, well…you just go with whatever he says.  So many in Jerusalem came to accept this Jesus as Messiah and join what would eventually be known as the Christian movement.

Now these were almost all devout Jews who had grown up all their lives keeping the law of Moses–the circumcision thing, the dietary regulations, and all the other stuff.  This was, in their way of looking at things, how they identified themselves and distinguished themselves to the world as God’s people.  Anyone could join via conversion, you just had to get circumcised (if you were a guy) and do all the other stuff.

Then word began to trickle back that things were happening up at Antioch, some three hundred miles to the north.  Paul and Barnabas were up there and many were coming to Jesus as Messiah.  But here’s the thing:  These were Gentiles.  And they were joining the Jesus movement without first becoming Jews.

This caused no small amount of consternation back in Jerusalem.  So they sent a delegation up to Antioch–the first recorded missions trip in church history–to set things straight and lay down the law, as it were, for the Gentile believers up there.

Luke records how this went down in Acts 15:

Some men came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the brothers:  “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.”  This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them.  So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question.  The church sent them on their way, and as they traveled through Phoenicia and Samaria, they told how the Gentiles had been converted.  This news made all the brothers very glad.  When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and elders, to whom they reported everything God had done through them.

This being a business meeting, it did not take long for shit to get real.

Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses.”

The apostles and elders met to consider this question.  After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them:  “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the Gospel and believe.  God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us.  He made no distinction between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith.  Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear?  No!  We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”

At this point Paul and Barnabas got up to tell what was happening up in Antioch.  And all were amazed.  Then James, the brother of Jesus (what would your brother have to do to convince you that he is the Son of God?  No less than what Jesus did), got up.  After citing Old Testament prophecy, he issued his decision:

“It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.  Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood.  For Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.”

The money quote:  “We should not make it difficult for [those] who are turning to God.”  James then followed this with some quasi-Mosaic directives whose only purpose was to keep the peace by asking Gentile believers to show some consideration for their Jewish brethren and refrain from the most over-the-top outrageous and outlandish Gentile/pagan practices.

Now we come to this piece which recently appeared on Roger E. Olson’s blog.

In it, Olson mourns the loss of a certain form of evangelical Christianity which was widely prevalent back in the 1940s and 1950s and possibly before.  As I read the piece and read through the distinctives which Olson identifies as substantive that are now missing from today’s evangelicalism, I am struck by the impression that the kind of evangelicalism presented here made it very difficult for those who were turning to God.  Church was seen as an extended family which–to my mind, at least–had serious boundary issues.  Witnessing (the language used for it back then) and personal evangelism were expectations placed heavily upon every church member, including those who had no personal gifting or inclination in that direction and were required to struggle mightily against every fiber of their personalities in order to perform to the expected level.  Churches required an insane level of commitment to serving and Sunday service/Wednesday bible study attendance, and those who did not rise to that level of commitment were considered backslidden or unspiritual.  If a person attended church regularly but failed to demonstrate what they considered to be a satisfactory level of spiritual growth, he or she would be asked to leave.  Evangelicals had their own alternative culture (this one hasn’t changed much since back then) which all were expected to accept as a substitute for normal, mainstream secular culture.

In short, the evangelicalism of that period made it very difficult for those who were turning to God.  It was a closed system very much centered upon those who were already in the system.  Insane levels of commitment and conformity were the expectation, those who failed to rise to those levels were deemed unspiritual.  I do not join Olson in grieving the loss of that evangelicalism.

Richard Beck: Heresy as Therapy?

Today I direct your attention to a piece on Richard Beck’s Experimental Theology blog entitled “Heresy as Therapy“.

Most people do not suddenly wake up one morning and decide to become heretics.  In the vast majority of cases, people are driven by one issue or another, for which the accepted orthodox answers simply do not provide resolution, until they are left with no choice but to adopt a position considered heretical, just to get to some semblance of peace so they can let it go and carry on with the business of following Jesus.  There is a price to be paid, in that they wind up espousing some controversial stuff, but it keeps them within the Christian fold, marginally at least.

Rob Bell serves as a case study.  He wrote a book a few years back which espoused some controversial views on heaven and hell, and there was hell to pay (see what I did there?).  But I find it impossible to believe that he up and decided to write that book just as a publicity stunt.  The book, and the response to it in the evangelical universe, exposed some real problems on the issue of heaven and hell–namely that widely held evangelical belief on the subject goes well beyond what the Bible has to say, plus it comes from an apparent need to say that we’re right and the vast majority of humanity is wrong and going to hell, which is not a good place to be.

Derek Webb: A Post-Evangelical Poster Child

Today I wish to introduce you to Derek Webb.

I believe that the Spice Girls are everything Point Of Grace ever wished they could be in life, and then some.  In all honesty, the vast majority of Christian music (and I used to love Christian music back in happier times when I was still a young hot-blooded evangelical) is something that I would not listen to unless I wanted to punish myself for some terrible sin, to punish myself disgustingly.  Derek Webb is one of a few–a very few–Christian musicians whom I can legitimately listen to when I do not wish to punish myself.

Some of you may recognize Derek Webb.  Once upon a time he was the frontman for Caedmon’s Call, then a popular Christian band.  He has since gone solo and has been performing solo for several years now.

Webb has long been on the outs with the CCM establishment, which is no small part of his appeal (from my perspective, at least).  Back in the early days, evangelicals of a Neo-Reformed Calvinistic bent fawned over Webb because he was a good-looking, masterful crooner who could sing the TULIP like a boss, though he did ruffle some feathers by calling the Church a whore on his solo debut album.  (TULIP is an acronym in which each of the five letters represents one of the major theological emphases of Neo-Reformed Calvinism, the new black in evangelicalism.)  But when he started dropping lyrics like “Don’t teach me about politics and government, just tell me who to vote for / Don’t teach me about truth and beauty, just label my music / …Don’t teach me moderation and liberty, I prefer a shot of grape juice” (from his 2006 album Mockingbird), that hit the powers-that-be in CCM and much of his fan base (back then) uncomfortably close to home.  His 2009 album Stockholm Syndrome was even edgier and more provocative as he took up issues and positions long considered out of bounds within the evangelical universe.

These days, Webb is squarely in the post-evangelical camp, and likely the post-Christian camp as well.  In recent years he has undergone an excruciating spiritual journey involving a thorough housecleaning of much that he had previously accepted; his 2017 album Fingers Crossed chronicles the journey and the associated grieving process.  He hosts a podcast called The Airing of Grief in which listeners can share their post-evangelical stories by calling or writing in.  The album and the podcast cover many themes of post-evangelical life, such as grieving the loss of certainties you had held for much of your prior life, finding yourself a stranger to you because of all the changes that have happened inside of you, living in that strange space between who you once were and who you are becoming, and finding community and belonging and even worship in unexpected places, including places which we as evangelicals have long been taught to regard with deep-seated fear, suspicion and distrust.

As I have said before in this space, the “post-evangelical wilderness” is not some fanciful construct created by young punk bloggers living in their parents’ basements with nothing better to do with their lives than sit around in front of a computer screen all day and write whatever strikes their fancy.  It is a real place, inhabited by real people with real stories.  It is a space where we are, to borrow a quote from Rachel Held Evans which I have used before, “caught between who we once were and who we will be, the ghosts of past certainties gripping at our ankles”.

It would not surprise me to see some evangelicals who have followed Derek Webb’s trajectory over the years count him as no longer one of us and no longer Christian.  John Piper did essentially the same thing to Rob Bell when Bell published that book back in 2011.  But for those of you out there who, like me, survey the evangelical landscape and find yourself a homeless stranger in a tradition that has formed you spiritually for much (if not all) of your life to this point, know that in Derek Webb you can/will find a faithful companion for your journey.