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Abolishing the priesthood would tear the heart out of the Church

A year ago, there appeared in the National Catholic Reporter an account of a Catholic men’s gathering at Cape Cod, which the periodical said offered “glimpses of a future church”. Blazing the path to this church of the future were the author, Bill Mitchell, and his buddies – “nine guys ranging in age from 57 to 69” (all of them white, judging by the accompanying photo).

They kicked things off with some hiking, they relaxed by a fireplace, they lunched. Then they read the Bible and “headed into the kitchen and gathered around a table, a processional provided with some liturgical oomph as Peter opened his mobile phone [and] played the ‘Glory Be’ he created by layering multiple recordings of his own voice”. But oops: “We forgot to plan a sign of peace. Vincent reminded us, and there followed 72 hugs.” Eventually, they performed a pseudo-consecration and took something like Communion. Then they went home.

As I read The Atlantic’s recent cover story calling for the abolition of the priesthood, I couldn’t help but be reminded of that earlier NCR essay. Here was James Carroll, another aging white American boomer, dreaming of a Catholicism that reverts to some mythical original Christianity, freed from priests and prelates and religious orders, from fusty structures and the cobwebbed accumulation of centuries of Roman tradition. A Catholicism, in other words, that might look and sound a lot like Bill Mitchell’s: just some guys, reading the Good Book, hugging it out, lunching and reflecting.

To be fair to the Cape Cod boys, they didn’t envision their home liturgy supplanting the Mass or their parish, to which they remained devoted. Carroll, a former priest, is much more radical – as radical, that is, as your average liberal Congregationalist. He thinks “the very priesthood is toxic”. It is a source of “theological misogyny” and “sexual repressiveness”, with its “hierarchical power based on threats of a doom-laden afterlife”.

All this rage is ostensibly directed against “clericalism”, which Carroll blames for the problem of sexual abuse, an admittedly grave crisis inside the Church – and outside it. Many faithful Catholics would no doubt agree that clericalism, in the pejorative sense of a privileged and unaccountable ecclesiastical class, bears some of the blame. But it doesn’t follow that Catholic priests should be “abolished”, any more than parents, teachers and the other population groups that include abusers.

Read more at Catholic Herald

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