Thursday, 10 June 2010

On the importance of priests and the perils of congregationalism

It is par for the course, I suppose, though still disappointing, that Cath News has chosen to mark the nearing end the Year for Priests with yet another (see here and here for commentary on previous efforts in this vein) congregationalist blog piece by Fr Michael Kelly SJ attacking what he argues is clericalism, in particular the significance of the priest’s power, by virtue of his ordination, to confect the Eucharist. 

It is perhaps then timely to remind ourselves of some of the Pope’s excellent catechesis over the last year on the absolutely indispensible role of the ministerial priesthood in the Church.

In particular, he has repeatedly stressed that without priests, ‘there would be neither the Eucharist, nor even the mission nor the Church herself’.

We need to keep reminding ourselves of that, and using it as the focus of our prayers.  In particular, we might pray that priests infected with the heresy of modernism might come to a better appreciation of the nature of their own ministry.

Kelly on the nature of the priesthood

It is true of course, as Fr Kelly points out, that the priest’s ability to confect the sacraments does not depend on his worthiness. And it is equally true that at one level it is not the priest acting as himself who effects the change, for as St Thomas teaches us, ‘only Christ is the true priest, the others being only his ministers’ – rather he is acting ‘in persona Christi’. True also that the priest must intend to do what the Church (and here we mean the whole Church informed by the magisterium, not some little dissenting community of ageing liberals) intends.

But missing from his little exposition is the fairly vital point that ordination does in fact make the priest ontologically different from a layperson. The ministerial priesthood ‘is different essentially, and not just in degree, from the common priesthood of all the faithful’.

The priest does not, as the Cath News piece seems to suggest, acquire his ability to confect the sacrament from the people, because of his ‘relational role’ to the community of the Church he serves. Rather, ordination ‘enables the ordained to exercise a sacred power in the name and with the authority of Christ for the service of the People of God’ (Compendium of the CCC, 323).

And contrary to Fr Kelly’s assertions, the Eucharist is absolutely central to the nature of the priesthood (CCCC 328).

So what is clericalism really?

The excuse for Fr Kelly’s piece is a discussion of the problem of clericalism.

And I do agree that clericalism is a real problem in the Church, endemic amongst liberal, conservative and traditionalist communities alike. Where I suspect we differ is in just what we mean by clericalism, and what we see as its manifestations.

So in the interests of ending the Year for Priests with a better appreciation of the true role of priests, let me give my own perspective on what I think clericalism is and isn’t.

Clericalism in my view is best thought of as an overemphasis on the clerical state to the point where distortions of proper roles and spheres occurs. It is the situation where power, prestige, entitlement and privilege become more important than service.  And amongst conservatives and traditionalists, it can manifest as an implicit or explicit view that only clerical prayers are efficacious.

Its manifestations include a contempt for and distrust of the laity (manifested for example in the reactions to claims of sexual abuse by many bishops); the clericalisation of the laity for example as Extraordinary Ministers or placing of laymen dressed up in surplices etc and acting as if they were a liturgical (clerical) choir for the Divine Office; and the denial of the legitimate role of the laity, for example of their leadership in secular affairs, in the right to express their opinions on things happening within the Church, or to take the initiative in relation to the apostolate.

The problem though in discussing the problem of clericalism is that its opposite pole, congregationalism, which denies any real role at all for the ordained clergy, is also endemic and perhaps even more destructive. Its manifestations include an exaggerated view of the importance of the ‘common priesthood’ of all the faithful to the point of denying the efficacy of ordination, an avowed preference for ‘lay-lead’ communities, an agenda of de-sacralisation, and an aversion to Eucharistic devotion.

So where does the proper balance lie?

The first and critical point is that we do actually need to recover a genuine appreciation for the importance of the priest in the Christian community, and in particular of his role in ‘teaching, sanctifying and ruling’ and thus nourishing the people of God (CL 1007).

Of the three roles, one could perhaps argue that sanctifying is the most important – only the priest after all can act as the channel of grace in the Eucharist, can forgive our sins in confession, and so forth.  And I'd have to say I've seen more than a few priests (traditionalists included) who behave as if delivering the sacraments is their only role, dissapearing into the sacristy after Mass never to be seen again until the next time they are scheduled to be in the confessional or on the altar.

But it is a mistake to downplay his other roles. The Pope has point out, for example that the apostolic mandate "Go into all the world and preach the Gospel to the whole of creation" (Mk 16: 15) is constitutive of the ministerial priesthood.

The reason I think the clericalization of the laity in all of its manifestations is so problematic is that it obscures and takes away from the proper leadership role of the clergy.  And the priest can hardly lead his people, whether by example or otherwise, if he never interacts with them.

The second point though is that there does need to be a proper balance in all of the roles in the Church: the priest and bishop should be open and responsive to the needs, concerns and complaints of his people rather than defensive; the priest doesn’t have to be a Robinson Crusoe, rather he should draw on the advice and support of the laity as his collaborators; the laity should not just be passive recipients of the sacraments, but, nourished by the sacraments and sound catechesis, should carry out their own vocations focusing on the ordering of temporal affairs.

We have a long way to go in achieving that proper balance at the moment. But the Year for Priests has made a start on this.

And now more than ever, all priests need our prayers.

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