Recently writer James Carroll, a former priest who has been publically working out his issues with the Church for several decades, wrote a piece recommending that the Catholic priesthood be abolished. His argument is, in essence, that the only way to save our Eucharistic Church is by the laity ridding itself of our troublesome priests, and “taking the faith back” into our own hands.
His piece, for all of its predictability, is noteworthy for its resonant grief, which comes through as authentic even as it resides within a larger agenda.
In the end, though, Carroll’s passion fails to persuade because most of us understand that the priesthood is something both shared within all of us, by virtue of our Baptisms, but also an office reserved to the “called” in precisely the same way that marriage is an office, as it were, not meant for everyone. If some (too many) have abused their offices, or criminally corrupted them (damaging or losing too many souls in the process), that does not mean that the priesthood has no value any more than a high divorce rate would suggest that marriage itself is meaningless.
In both cases, marriage or priesthood, the failures that too often flourish within these sacramental states arise not from a fault or imperfection within the concepts, but through improper formation, immaturity, natures ill-suited to the vows, instability of mind or character, unsound discernment, a diseased culture, or more.
Carroll’s argument for “abolishment” is extreme, but he’s not wrong in suggesting that our understanding of the priesthood, and how priests are fostered and molded, must change. That can only happen, however, if we laity work to change it by working to identify, shape, and mold the sorts of priests we want to see, in order to become the Church we wish to be.
A recent, extremely disturbing story in The Washington Post has only served to emphasize how true this is. The report outlines how one feckless and distinctly corrupt member of the hierarchy, Bishop Michael J. Bransfield—removed from office in 2018—misused funds intended to serve some of the poorest Catholics in the United States, dipping into those resources to make “gifts” to other high-placed clerics.
It is outrageous. Of course, we must wait for all the evidence to drop, for a full investigation into what happened, who benefited from these monies, and whether the recipients had any knowledge of where the lucre came from. Nevertheless, one gets the sense that certain leaders are not only corrupt, vain, and selfish, but clueless beyond permission. They apparently do not understand that whatever “statement” they put out addressing the unending scandals being exposed around them, what the laity is seeing, hearing, and digesting is a despicable “don’t do as we do, do as we say” hypocrisy.
All of this adds to our disgust and our understanding that something within the Catholic priesthood needs to change in terms of structure, accountability, and formation, and it needs to have happened yesterday. It needs to happen in the very minds and souls of some in leadership whose advancements now seem so questionable, and so connected to a deeply entrenched culture of corruption within our clergy that is still going unaddressed.
It is difficult not to despair. It is difficult to watch Catholics exit the Church, or at least express that they may do so, because many in our leadership seem to have lost touch with what should have been their lifelong focus on Christ Jesus, alone, in service to his Bride the Church, alone. But despair is not productive. What can we do, we laity, about this terrible boys club, so heavily loaded with spoiled princes who need to be made accountable, and double-fast?
There needs to be a strenuous, unified effort—one shared by the laity and the trustworthy bulk of our clergy alike—to build a vibrant and energetic solidarity within the Body of Christ. We do this by together undertaking and really embracing those shared spiritual practices that, since its inception, have brought the Church into cooperation with the Holy Spirit, and are thus its truest source of power.
We laity may feel powerless, but we are not. Our greatest saints have demonstrated how to tap into and unleash the forces of real change, real reformation, through the simplest, most unworldly, means—prayer, fasting, penances, devotions, and wholehearted service to whatever needs lay before them—all offered to Christ with a deep intention toward furthering his purposes in the world. We need to trust that what has saved the Church before will save it again.
Yesterday, Word on Fire Institute Director Jared Zimmerer and I did a live segment discussing Bishop Barron’s Letter to a Suffering Church, and I got especially energized about the idea that the laity must insist on having a hand in nurturing and growing our clerical priesthood. Who knew it would a day later be so relevant.
We must refuse to be mollified by pathetic excuses or perfunctory platitudes. We must refuse to permit a failed status quo from continuing. We must insist on more lay involvement with seminarian formation, for the health and security of the young men pursuing their vocations, and to drive a stake into the heart of incipient clericalism that too often begins there and only grows over time.
As our young people say, “the struggle is real,” and therefore our engagement must be tireless. We mustn’t be afraid to run into battle, wherever the Holy Spirit leads.
Whenever you hear a lay person lament that they hold no power within the Church, tell them they are wrong. Because they are. Remind them that in 1795, when Fr. Chu Mun-mo arrived in Korea and became the first Catholic priest to minister there, he found a land already hungering for the Mass and the sacraments, thanks to the Korean laity, who had already done the hard work of prayerful ministry and evangelization that built the Korean Church.
Perhaps we should pray to some of our Korean saints and martyrs for help with our deplorably lost leadership.