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.”


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

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.

Michael Spencer: A Conversation in God’s Kitchen

This past week we looked at Pete Enns’ view of the diversity of Scripture, that it is a conversation happening across the ages.  Today I direct your attention to a classic post from Michael Spencer which expresses basically the same perspective.

The authors suggested we approach these books not as a single narrative, or as an education by installment, but as a great, roaring, unruly conversation across the ages. Greek dramatists debating with English scientists. Russian novelists sparring with German psychologists. Gibbon debating Homer. Augustine versus Tolstoy. It was a conversation that never occurred, but was allowed to occur by bringing all these writings together, and then studying them to hear what each writer had to say.

This idea, of a great conversation taking place over time and culture, and then selected and presented for my benefit, has become my dominant idea of what is the Bible. It has proven increasingly helpful in a number of ways.

The great conversation model has allowed me to jettison any defense of the Bible as single book whose human origins and methodologies present significant difficulties that must be explained. For instance, I view the Bible as a selection of purely human literary creations. I may lay aside my faith, as many critics do, and study the Biblical material purely in their historical and cultural settings. This eliminates the need to force the Bible to be divine in origin, and gives me the freedom to hear each Biblical writer saying what he/she had to say in the way he/she chose to say it.

Or I may read the Bible with my eyes, mind and heart alive to the faith that is at the center of the Biblical conversation. The humanity of the conversation is not an obstacle, but an invitation to understand the Bible even as we understand ourselves and our histories, experiences and cultures.

The rich diversity of the Bible is frequently lost in our fear that seeing a book as exactly what it appears to be will ruin the inspiration and divine authority of the book. Is God so small that the humanity of a text matters to His use of it? Further, the particular “voice” or style the text uses to talk about God may come to us in ways that are strange and uncomfortable to modern ideas of reality and truth. But if we are listening to a conversation and not predetermining what it must be, these factors are almost meaningless.

Read:  A Conversation in God’s Kitchen by Michael Spencer

Klasie Kraalogies on Purity Culture

Today I direct your attention to a post by Klasie Kraalogies on purity culture.

Reserving sex for marriage is one of the foundational disciplines of Christian spirituality, and has been from the get-go.  There are very good reasons for this.  Purity culture is a distortion unique to evangelicalism (I believe) which raises the bar on the no-sex-outside-marriage thing to include kissing, holding hands, or any other sort of romantic contact–and then makes this the end-all, be-all of how we identify ourselves as Christians and show ourselves as faithful followers of Jesus Christ.

Purity culture became a mainstream phenomenon in evangelicalism with Josh Harris’s 1997 blockbuster book I Kissed Dating Goodbye.  But purity culture had been in existence in some parts of evangelicalism long before Harris ever came on the scene.  Kraalogies gives his testimony of growing up in one such corner of evangelicalism and how it influenced his life, and ultimately his marriage.  Read the post, and then read this follow-up about being in a disastrous marriage that was an inevitable result of purity culture teaching.

Mark Driscoll on Church Governance

Mark Driscoll is back.

Warren Throckmorton reports that Driscoll’s new church in Phoenix is hosting a conference on church governance.  According to Throckmorton, topics to be covered at this conference include the following:

  • How the Church and pastors’ families both suffer under bad governance
  • A survey of Church governmental models
  • The biblical standard of singular headship and plural leadership
  • Theocratic government: a “kingdom-down” not “pew-up” unity focused model
  • How to embrace apostolic influence
  • How to implement a God-centered theocratic Church government

This is about as naked as it gets.  There is no attempt to hide the fact that churches operating in the Driscollian mold are a top-down and not a pew-up operation.  We know who the gods are here:  not Jesus Christ.  Consider what Jesus had to say on the issue:

But Jesus called them to him and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’

–Matthew 20:25-28

But this is an alternate universe where everyone is wrong but the pastor.  We remember how this ended at Driscoll’s former church:  In a grease fire.