James Carroll, the author of this month’s Atlantic’s cover story, “Abolish the Priesthood,” is famous in certain Catholic circles for his bitter denunciations of the Church. To the well-documented renunciation of his own priesthood years ago, Carroll now adds the claim that, by its very nature, the Catholic priesthood is inextricably tied to clericalism (all priests being clerics, of course), and thus to “its cult of secrecy, its theological misogyny, its sexual repressiveness, and its hierarchical power based on threats of a doom-laden afterlife.” He also argues that in its more pristine first centuries, Christianity had no priesthood and no hierarchy, and so was far more egalitarian.
Reading Carroll, I find not so much a hatred for the priesthood or the Church more generally, but rather a deep misunderstanding of Catholicism, which has resulted in a conflicted love throughout his public life. As a priest myself, I can only hope that he will one day find some peace and reconciliation.
Twenty years after James Carroll knelt before the altar at St. Paul the Apostle Church on West 59th Street in New York City and received the laying-on of hands from an archbishop, making him a priest, I knelt in the same spot and received the laying-on of hands from a cardinal.
Carroll describes that moment in his essay:
When I became a priest, I placed my hands between the hands of the bishops ordaining me—a feudal gesture derived from the vassal to his lord … I gave my loyalty to him, not to a set of principles or ideals, or even to the Church.
This, like much else in his essay, is true, but it is not quite the whole truth. What Carroll does not relate are two of the vows he was asked to affirm prior to placing his hands in those of the bishop. They were identical to the vows I made in 1989. The ceremonial reads:
Do you resolve to exercise the ministry of the word worthily, preaching the Gospel and teaching the Catholic faith?
Do you resolve to celebrate faithfully and reverently, in accord with the Church’s tradition, the mysteries of Christ, especially the sacrifice of the Eucharist and the sacrament of Reconciliation, for the glory of God and the sanctification of the Christian people?
This is hardly the commitment of a vassal to his lord. There is much in these words that reflects the commitment we were expected to make to the Church and indispensability of the priesthood to it. But every priest’s experience is different and, in some evident ways, Carroll reflects the experience of many priests who passed through the 1960s and ’70s whose high expectations of the Church, of themselves, of their parents, and even of God failed because their presumptions and definitions were flawed from the outset.
This is evident throughout Carroll’s essay, nowhere more clearly than in how he describes his understanding and expectations of the Second Vatican Council. He sees it almost entirely in terms of discontinuity with the past. This went far beyond the “jettisoning of the Latin Mass.” He also saw the hope that Vatican II could offer a replacement of the hierarchy with some kind of liberal democracy.
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