The Reality Article that drew the ire of the Vatican

A person emailed me recently, looking for a copy of the article that drew the Vatican on me. That set me to re-activating an old laptop, and I eventually found it. It was written back in June of 2010. I am reprinting it here. I still would have no problem with the content, but I can see that for a time when Benedict was still pope, and the CDF lording it over everything in the Church, I was pushing out the boat a little.  However, no regrets!

Article for Reality Magazine, June 2010

A respected American Catholic commentator recently called the clerical sex abuse revelations the biggest crisis the church has experienced in its history. When I read that first I dismissed it as an overstatement, saying that it could hardly be compared to the impact of the Protestant Reformation. But now as the story of the extent of abuse and cover up spreads from one country to another, it is beginning to sound as if the commentator may be correct. The events of recent years have shaken the church from top to bottom, and we still don’t know what more we have to face in the future.  So it is inevitable that people like myself, caught up in the crisis because, rightly or wrongly, as a priest I am the face of the official church for many people (we have never really taken on the implications of the church as a community of believers –but that is material for another day), would be challenged to question my own position in life.

There are some aspects of the structure and theology of the church that I have been taught and initially accepted but now seriously question. I will outline the main ones.

I no longer believe that the priesthood as we have it in the church originated with Jesus. He certainly had no connection with the priesthood of the Jewish religion of his day. In fact the priests were more adversaries than friends of Jesus, and he questioned their authority. He did not designate a special group of his followers as priests. To say that at the Last Supper Jesus instituted the priesthood is stretching the reality of what happened.  It is more likely that a few centuries after Jesus a select and privileged group within the community who had abrogated power and authority to themselves interpreted the occasion of the Last Supper in a manner that suited their own particular agenda.

Secondly I do not believe that today’s bishops are in direct linear descent from the apostles, though this argument is widely used in the church to legitimise their authority and privilege in a system which has divided  the church into two groups – the clergy and the laity.  This division could be said to be the beginning of the problems as we have them today. The understanding of the role of priest and bishop that developed in the early centuries is mainly responsible for the emergence of what has become known as the ‘clerical culture’.  This culture is, I believe, rightly blamed for many of the problems in the church.

Thirdly, I can no longer accept that interpreting the Word of God and celebrating the Sacraments belong exclusively to the priesthood.  In his letter to priests coinciding with this Year of the Priest, Pope Benedict quoted from St. Jean Marie Vianney as follows: “O, how great is the priest….. If he realised what he is, he would die….. God obeys him; he utters a few words and the Lord descends from heaven at his voice, to be contained within a small host…”. Clearly according to this quote it is the priest alone who possesses the power to celebrate the Eucharist. There was probably a time, in my younger years, when I believed that. But now I believe that the Word of God and the Sacraments belong to, and are already within, the whole community, the church, rather than just the priest alone.

A quote from an article by Daniel O’Leary in The Tablet sums up where I find myself at the moment: “The clerical model of church authority has drifted too far from the vision of the carpenter’s son.  Commentators refer to the idolatrous pull of power, privilege and possessions that subtly infect even the most religious organisation when an isolating clericalism replaces a loving servanthood”.

I think it is only right that someone in my position, who has been a priest for thirty six years, should be asking himself some fundamental questions. Indeed I presume many people within the church are facing questions about their own faith that they never imagined having to face. If, as I have stated above, the structure of priesthood in the church has been one of the big contributors to the problems, have I to conclude that my thirty six years as a priest may have done more harm than good?  I know that I, along with many of my generation of clergy, have tried to present a more positive version of the teaching of Christ than was done in the past, and we like to think that we have endeavoured not to abuse our position or the power that went with it. But we were still part of the system, part of the culture. And by continuing to work, to preach and to celebrate the sacraments, we have perpetuated the myth that Word and Sacraments belonged to us as priests, and us alone.

So where do we go from here? I am in my mid-sixties, and I still enjoy much of the work that I do as a priest. The easy answer is to say that I will continue as I am, while trying to keep the fundamental questions alive both for myself and for the church, as best I can. Thinking of making a major life change at this age is very unsettling. But the nagging uncertainty remains:  is the easy answer the correct one in this extraordinary time?  Hamlet said that conscience makes cowards of us all.  I fear he may be right.

An Addendum:

When I tweeted this article a person praised it, and then asked a difficult question: “If you knew the hassle it was going to cause you, would you still have written it?

My reply:  “I hope I would; but, to be honest, I don’t know”.