Friday, January 4, 2019

Garry Wills on How Celibacy Is Not the Cause of the Sex-Abuse Crisis — The Priesthood Is: "The Priesthood Is Itself an Affront to the Gospel"

Responding to a prediction by Father Tom Reese that the Catholic church will begin relaxing its celibacy requirement for priests this year,  I wrote

There are other ways to imagine the Catholic church than as dominated by a clerical elite — celibate or non-celibate. 
There have always been other ways to imagine the Catholic church. 
Nothing inherent in its make-up or core doctrine requires the clerical system as the primary way to structure and govern the church's leadership caste. 
If the people running the church were serious about wanting to address the crisis of waning numbers of priests, they'd seriously consider ditching the clerical system altogether, not tinkering with it by considering whether to permit priests to marry or not. 
The whole clerical system needs to be dismantled, right to the ground, and something more viable and rooted in the gospels and Jesus' words and example built up.

Here's Garry Wills the day after I made the posting above, in a statement entitled "Celibacy isn’t the cause of the church sex-abuse crisis; the priesthood is":

Five years ago, when I wrote the book 'Why Priests?', some people criticized it because I did not include the pedophile scandal, even though it was filling the news. That was deliberate on my part. I did not want to give the idea that if only the sex scandal could run its course, all would be well with the priesthood — or that some reforms like removing the celibacy rule or ordaining women would make the priesthood work again. I don't think it should work again. The priesthood is itself an affront to the Gospel. Jesus told his disciples: "You must not be addressed as 'Rabbi,' since you have only one Teacher, and you are brothers to each other. . . . And you must not be addressed as leaders, since you have only one Leader, the Messiah" (Matthew 23.8, 10). 
There are no priests in the Gospels, except the Jewish priests, some of whom plotted against Jesus. Jesus is only called a priest in the late and suspect anonymous Letter to the Hebrews, where he is made a priest in the line of a mythical non-Jew, Melchisidek — and even there he is the sole and final priest. Peter and Paul never call themselves or any other Christian a priest. Outside the Letter to the Hebrews, the only New Testament titles for service to the community are episkopos (overseer), presbyter (elder), apostolos (emissary), and diakonos (servant), never priest (hiereus). None of these offices gave any of them a pivotal role in what would later become the seven sacraments. 
Baptism was, from the outset, the entry ritual for the Christian community, but it could not originally be administered by priests, who did not yet exist. As the priesthood was gradually developed in the Middle Ages, it tended to subordinate all Christian activity to priestly superintendence — from childhood (baptism), to adolescence (confirmation), to mid-life (matrimony, sacred orders), to devotions (eucharist, penance), to the end of life (last rites). No wonder church leaders would try desperately to protect this imperial rule over the whole of Catholic life, trying to mute or erase any demeaning revelations of priestly predation.

Though the history and theology on which Wills bases this commentary are sound, this analysis is now treated in many Catholic circles including among "liberal" mainstream Catholic journalists as frivolous, anti-institutional, "pneumatic" (a favorite word of scorn and dismissal among some mainstream U.S. Catholic journalists). This analysis is dismissed as utopian, a call for a structure-less church that cannot exist in the real world.

Though the vision of church it offers us is far closer to the vision of the reign of God proclaimed by Jesus — who did not preach about or even envisage the church — than what we've ended up in the current institutional church.... Jesus' focus was on the reign of God. To the extent that the church, which claims to have grown from that vision, ever has validity, it has validity only insofar as it measures itself against Jesus' proclamation of the reign of God, in which the last will be first and the first last, the poor will be filled with good things and the rich sent empty away.

Many so-called "liberal" Catholic journalists today scornfully dismiss the theological analysis of Garry Wills and others on the ground that this analysis is impractical and radically utopian — without ever admitting to or examining the extent to which their own power and privilege are embedded in maintaining the institutional structures of the Catholic church as it has come to be at this point in history. Mutable, historically developed and historically conditioned structures….

For many of us who do not enjoy that power and privilege vis-a-vis the institutional church, who look at the structures of the church from an outsider's vantage point, those structures can and must change, if the church is to maintain with any credibility that it connects to Jesus and the gospels. In fact, for many of us, the clerical structures of the church have to be dismantled down to the ground and something better built on their foundations, if the church is to be anything approximating what Jesus proclaimed about the reign of God.

From the pope down, many people benefiting from those structures do not wish to face the extent to which clericalism is the problem in the Catholic church. Until someone with power to effect real change grasps that and acts on it, nothing will change, substantially. And the gross problems plaguing the Catholic church today will continue to plague it.

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