William M. Shea

A song in the New York seminary of my day (1955–1961) went like this:

It’s Tradition, it’s Tradition, it’s a very, very, very old Tradition.
You can ask the Roman Rota; it won’t help you one iota.
For no amount of wishin’, no, no amount of wishin’
can ever change or hope to change a very old Tradition.

My confreres in the seminary thought of this as wry humor mixed with a bit of sarcasm, and sang it with gusto. Tradition was a real determinant of our life and mind, an ever present condition of our progress toward the priesthood. Among the pervasive traditions we met daily were hierarchy, celibacy, the distinction between those ordained or vowed and the laity, the seminary horarium (up at 5:30, lights out at 10), and a whole complex of social structures and mores in which we were educated and by which we were expected to live. We were taught that the sola scriptura didn’t do it for Catholics; Catholics were marked by their acceptance of capital-T Tradition.

The sacred magisterium (teaching office) was a major part of that inheritance, related closely to hierarchy and awesomely close to each of us as we were trained to share in the preaching and teaching functions of the Church—i.e., of the bishops. We were to follow the magisterium of the bishops and the pope; we were to teach what they taught, for they are the authentic and infallible voice of God in the world. Scripture and Tradition were the rivers of revelation, and the hierarchy was the interpreter of both. That sacred magisterium was for practical purposes codified in the creeds, in the acts of the councils, in catechisms, and in the Latin textbooks we used for moral and doctrinal theology classes.

We were taught something of the Donatist controversy in the North African churches in the fourth through eighth centuries. Those “rigorist” bishops criticized their weaker brethren who acceded to Diocletian’s command that they “hand over” their copies of the Scriptures to the imperial inquisitors. The bishops who refused called the faltering bishops “traditores” (traitors, those who “hand over”), declaring their sinful brethren’s sacraments invalid. The Donatist bishops did in fact believe that treachery undercut the ministry of the traitors: how could a coward who “handed over” the Scriptures celebrate valid sacraments and be trusted to teach the truth about God? Clearly he couldn’t.

The response of orthodox Catholics in the “tradition” of Augustine of Hippo was that the sins of priests and bishops did not affect the validity of their sacramental ministry or the truth of their magisterial teaching. After all, God was the cause of grace and truth while the bishops and priests were merely his instruments. The popes could have their mistresses and children and ill-gotten gain, but they were still popes. The point is marvelously clear: the immorality of ministers does not undercut their apostolic ministry.

God bless those Donatist heretics, for by virtue of their error the orthodox church could ply its wares for centuries to come with a clear conscience: its ministers may be traditores, but their sacramental actions remain pure. The church need not be a church of saints. It was, in fact, a church of sinners. Christ makes up for all our leaders’ tawdry failings by the shedding of his blood on Calvary. The sacraments work, no matter the sins of the clergy, for it is Christ himself who works through them. I am far from a Donatist, but I want to urge a course of action on the church that could easily and with some good reason be called heretical, perhaps as heretical as the Donatists themselves.    

Pope Francis, in my opinion a mensch and the best thing that has happened to my Catholic Church since the election of John XXIII in 1958, recently warned us against “an immoderate desire for total change without sufficient reflection or grounding,” as well as against a hardline “attitude that would solve everything by applying general rules or deriving undue conclusions from particular theological considerations.” By way of excuse for departing from the pope’s wisdom let me say that the Roman Catholic Church is in a bad way. What is to be done? I know what needs to be done. But if we did it, we’d possibly be in an even greater mess, thus proving Francis right. “The last state of the man would be worse than the first!” (Luke 11:26). I might well be killing Catholicism rather than healing it. I worry about that, but the risk must be taken, so serious is the situation. So radical is the solution that even the pope who knows the situation far better than I do is apparently unable to enact it.

So radical is the solution that even the pope who knows the situation far better than I do is apparently unable to enact it.

Here is the short version of the argument that follows:

The hierarchy of the church has so egregiously harmed its life and reputation that they have in fact abandoned their inherited apostolic status. The font of their sin is their establishment and vigorous support of a clerical monopoly in the church that must be gotten rid of if the church is to continue in its apostolicity and its evangelical mission.

There is a crisis in the ministerial leadership of the churches, including popes, bishops, and priests. The crisis (a time for decision) is far deeper and more widespread than the scandal of child abuse. A Donatist might say that the offending clergy who raped children cannot confect the sacraments. I would not say that. The abuse crisis itself is only one among the many rolling waves of disappointment the popes and bishops have delivered to the laity over hundreds of years and which demand the revocation of their honorific “Successors of the Apostles.” A short list of examples (see Garry Wills Papal Sins for a fuller list) includes:

The Reformation, a monstrous sin in the sixteenth century that tore the churches from communion with one another, was the responsibility of the clergy on both sides. They turned proposals of needed reforms into a struggle for power over souls. In splitting the churches they violated the prayer of Jesus for the unity of the disciples (John 17). (For an account of these events read Diarmaid MacCulloch’s The Reformation: A History).


The antimodern crusades of the nineteenth-century popes and their refusal to contribute to the building of the “modern world.” Unable to shake the vestiges of a dying medieval Christendom, the Church (bishops and popes) failed their people (the church) by pitting themselves against threatening “evils” such as democracy, freedom of the press, and a thoughtful lower clergy.


The failure of most church leaders to counter the beast of the German war machine and its industrialized murder of Jews, gypsies, male homosexuals, and millions of  Polish and Soviet citizens. A sin of omission perhaps, but surely the worst in the history of the hierarchical church.


The vicious hounding of theologians by several twentieth-century popes, from the condemnations of the modernist priests in the early years of the century under Pope Pius X to the despicable procedures of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under orders from John Paul II and Benedict XVI.


The sexual assault on children and young people by clergy, from priests and religious to cardinals, and the consequent hierarchical cover-up, plagues that have spread across the universal church and in some places continue unabated.


The resistance by two popes to the impetus and possibilities of reform of church life suggested by the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965) insofar as they touched on clerical hegemony. Even the council itself, for all its good work, remained thoroughly clerical.


The failure of the clerical leadership of the church to face up to the shrinking numbers of ministers and the rapid decline in the sacramental practice of Catholics in the West, much of it attributable to the debilitating clericalism of the higher and lower clergy.


We could go back to Corinth, listing one crime after another in violation of the peace and unity of the churches as St. Paul did. Few in the leadership today seem willing to draw the bottom line on these age-old problems. Occasionally some are willing to name the condition that promotes the problems. The pope knows and so do many of his own bishops. So do many theologians and commentators. Clericalism is at the bottom of this, they say. Yet while issuing warnings they do little or nothing about it.

If clericalism is the root of the problem, why not cut to the root? Why not a strategic plan to radically de-clericalize the church? There is none on offer, even from the pope himself. He can’t meet the problem because the Church in his view and by tradition is, from the beginning and up to the present disturbed moment, dedicated to the distinction between those who minister and those who are ministered unto. While this distinction arises quite naturally in the world’s religions, in a process sociologists call specialization, the Catholic Church has made something supernatural of it, made the hierarchical structure of the church part of the revelation of God in Christ.

Clericalism infects the other Christian churches to a lesser degree and variously, but the Roman Church has simply collapsed under its weight.

Robert Mickens, editor of La Croix International, a Rome-based Catholic daily, says the pope has made clear his aversion to clericalism, which Mickens describes as a “privileged and separate caste mentality of clerics, that they are specially chosen, and they are set apart from rest of people, to rule, to teach, and to admonish.” (See also David Bentley Hart’s description of the early church’s “extremist” bent in the February 27, 2017 issue of Commonweal.)

Clericalism affects the whole church. It has been accepted and even lauded by clergy as if it is an anticipation of the Kingdom yet to come. Its hold on us rests comfortably in the symbolic imagination of Roman Catholicism and the Orthodox churches of the East, at once their charm and their curse. That structure must be radically reviewed and reformed if the faith and hope and healthy life of the church are to be revived. As a Quaker colleague once put it to me: “What American adult wants to belong to a church in which he is treated as a child?” Clericalism infects the other Christian churches to a lesser degree and variously, but the Roman Church has simply collapsed under its weight.

According to some, there is nothing to be done about the crisis because the clergy-lay distinction is a matter of the divine will; in other words, “It’s Tradition, a very, very, very old Tradition!” Or could it be that there is something that can and ought to be done that is so radical and church-embracing, so chilling, that it is beyond clerical contemplation? If indeed clericalism is the problem, then the solution is the elimination of that division between clerical and lay Catholics. I am not opposed to leadership, to authority, to structure, to ministry, even to its three-tiered Roman Catholic articulation, but I am opposed to its sacrality and its sanctification. I suppose I am now advocating anti-clericalism, an instinct almost as old as clericalism itself, a historical protest against what the priesthood has done to the church (and a lot for the church, it must be said) through nearly two millennia. Can we count on the clergy to eliminate clericalism? Or the bishops? Or the pope? Not likely! They may badmouth it on occasion, much to their credit. But undo it? Never.

Nevertheless, as I protest against clericalism, I must also protest against my own anti-clericalism for, paradoxically, I have been engaged with the Catholic priesthood for the sixty years of my adulthood. My best friends are priests and priests have been a blessing of God on my life. I am in the odd position of calling for an end of the distinction between clergy and laity when my religious life relies almost entirely on the clergy. (I include sisters and brothers as well as priests, though brothers and sisters have suffered mightily at the hands of the priesthood.)

This fracture in the Christian church began, some would argue, with Jesus himself and so is a divine ordinance, like baptism and the Eucharist. Jesus called the Twelve. He meant there to be in his church some to minister and some to be ministered unto, and that the former are to order the latter. As “Successors to the Apostles” the clergy are a sacral caste who rule, sanctify, and teach the rest of Christians, a Sanhedrin in effect presided over by the Roman High Priest. This was a mistake, made by Christian leaders rather than by Jesus himself (one hopes!), that gradually turned the Christian movement into an essentially hierarchic religion by the time of Constantine. I would argue that this development was utterly foreign to the intentions of Jesus, and was, in fact, a worldly rather than a holy phenomenon. The Christian churches became the Church in structural imitation of Roman and Jewish models of a religious society.

The answer to this ongoing crisis is this: that the clergy from low to high be desacralized entirely. This involves a change in the religious culture of all Catholics, not merely the cracking of the clergy’s etiological myth about itself. There was and is no “divine plan” for how the churches are to be governed. The clergy high and low have not simply misused the myth; they created it, imposed it, maintained it, admittedly with the tacit agreement of the laity. “Change” is not a term that comes close to what is required now; better words for what needs doing are conversion, repentance, transformation, reformation. The Protestants called for it in the sixteenth century and got a partial acceptance, and the Catholics missed the boat entirely, holding to Tradition and reinforcing it!

Vatican II voided tradition in some small matters (e.g., the declarations on the Jews and on ecumenism, where the tradition was especially pernicious), and made several stabs at reducing the clericalism of the Church, but the stabs were neutralized by the fact that clericalism remained the pervasive ethos of the council itself. In the matter of clericalism, the council was a physician who could not heal herself. Pope Francis, who knows what is wrong, strikes at a solution fitfully, but has no idea of how to go about it.

Let me summarize a handful of the elements of my proposal to declericalize the Catholic Church, and all its churches, and to desacralize the clergy. Steps that ought to be taken to make the ideal of a community of communities real rather than a hierarchical religion include:    

Ending Clericalism. There should be no distinction between the clergy and laity, except in functions assigned to some Christians for some time. That distinction should be replaced by the Christian teaching that accords with the directive of St. Paul: “There is no distinction between Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Such divisions were forced on the body of Christ by circumstances, by decisions made in the social history of the church by clerical officeholders, and preserved in and by clerical bureaucracies.

Pope Francis, who knows what is wrong, strikes at a solution fitfully, but has no idea of how to go about it.

Ending the Ontological Sign. Clericalism is reinforced by the doctrine that the sacrament of orders causes a “sign” to be placed on the soul of the recipient marking him eternally as clergy with a special status in the church, in the Kingdom of God, and even in Hell should he go there. I would argue, however, that ministers are simply Christians who share, like all Christians, in the priesthood, the prophetic office, and the reign of Christ. Ministers should be called and accepted by the community to perform a specific service such as presiding at the Eucharistic table. The “priestly people” are the church, not the clergy.

Ending the Accouterments of Sacred Office. All of the marks of the lower and higher clergy that serve to distinguish them from the Christian people and one another are to be abandoned, except insofar as they serve the function to which some Christians are called by the community. Thus the functions of presiding at the Eucharistic table, and preaching to and teaching the Christian people (all necessary communal functions) are not to be marked by accouterments, special dress, peculiar hats, crosiers, and rings made of precious metal. What we have come to call bishops and priests are to dress no differently than worshipping and working Christian men and women. I’m hoping that we can have shepherds who don’t turn the rest of us into sheep.

Ending Christendom. Civil law is applicable to all Christians as it is to all citizens. All Christians are equally subject to the civil laws proper to their culture. The churches are not superior to the state and its culture. Church and state are simply different, each with its own ends and means. Neither lower nor higher clergy are exempt from the laws and mores of the societies in which they minister, nor should they be “protected” when they abuse their congregants. When they commit crimes, they should be treated as criminals. If they were, in fact, the jails of many nations would be sprinkled with bishops who protected abusers of children and young adults.

A Renewed Ecclesiology. The Holy Spirit gives life to the church, yes, but to all the churches. End all “one true church” talk. The church catholic is all the churches, Protestant as well as Catholic, East as well as West. Drop the Vatican II declaration that “fullness of the church subsists in the Roman Catholic Church…”  The fullness of the church dwells where two or three are gathered in Jesus’ name. There is nothing about the Roman Catholic Church that sets it above (or below) any other concrete community of Christians. The one true church is an assembly of equals in Christ, not a monarchy or a hierarchy established by heavenly decree.

Regional and International Synods. Leaders and representatives of the local churches should meet every five years, and ecumenical councils every ten years. This synodal form of governance was implicitly endorsed by the Council of Trent, and would have been put into effect were it not for the paranoid fear of councils that has gripped the souls of popes since the Council of Constance (1414–1418). The synods should have legislative authority for the regional and universal church, and consider issues pertinent to the believing and practicing life of the church. These synods are to include representatives of all Christian communities, not only the ones called Catholic.


These few items are indicative of the reform needed in the Catholic Church. Others are listed in my memoir, Judas Was a Bishop. An ecumenical synod on church governance is needed if the underlying ecclesiological issues are to be dealt with honestly and fully, a synod that includes what are currently called lay persons who shall have speaking and voting rights. If the council is to be successful, the meaning and extent of what the higher clergy are pleased to call “the Tradition” and the “sacred magisterium” need to be reconsidered and redefined. The Church and the churches need reformed constitutions. The mantle of the “sacred” should be removed from the institutional structures of church government and bureaucracy. I don’t think the hierarchy, the clergy, and the dicasteries of the Vatican are any more sacred than the Congress or the Supreme Court. When Governor Frank Keating, as head of the U.S. bishops’ commission on sexual abuse, claimed that dealing with bishops was like dealing with the Mafia, the bishops who had begged him to lead the probe fired him. One can see why they fired him, but his analogy has not been refuted. The church needs to be freed of its formal sacrality since the actual un-holiness of its ministers and leaders can no longer be denied. This Tradition must go the way our denunciations of Protestantism and Judaism have gone—that is, into the proverbial dustbin of history.

Readers may consider my suggestions unrealizable and even fantastical. They might even consider them disrespectful. They may say that I am thoughtlessly calling for the destruction of the Roman Catholic Church. On that score I can say only that I have given these issues decades of study, thought, and prayer, and I come to my conclusion with considerable sadness. Nevertheless, I think the crises facing the Catholic Church are now so severe that one is obliged to say what one thinks the way forward might be.     

William M. Shea is adjunct professor of Religious Studies at the College of the Holy Cross.

Priests participate in the ceremony to bless chrism oil at the Holy Thursday Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica, April 13, 2017.

David Cloutier

There are a lot of ways to narrate divisions in the Catholic Church after Vatican II. One narrative is the power struggle between “liberals” and “conservatives”—ideological factions vie back and forth for control of institutions, engaging in palace intrigue to promote “their guys.” Others narrate a fundamental divide over the documents—the well-known debates about a hermeneutic of continuity versus a hermeneutic of rupture. And there’s always the liturgy, the old standby—bells or not, kneeling or not, translations or other translations...or no translation at all. On all these questions, I’m very happy to take a “both/and” attitude. I appreciate all the post–Vatican II popes. I think the church benefits from wise leaders and diverse institutional approaches that can be found on either side of the ideological divide. I’ve seen good and bad liturgies rooted in both sensibilities, and I’ve learned over time to appreciate the benefits of stylistic diversity for the whole church. I think a certain pope emeritus offered a very balanced hermeneutic of “both continuity and discontinuity” for reading the documents. Instead of polarizations, I can conceive of all of these as complementarities that benefit the whole Body.

This is a divide over whether Vatican II was supposed to “desacramentalize” or “super-sacramentalize” Catholicism.

However, there is a way of understanding a conflict over Vatican II where I am very much on one side. This divide, because it doesn’t map well onto standard political or liturgical categories, can be overlooked. But in the long run, it may be the most important one to get right. This is a divide over whether Vatican II was supposed to “desacramentalize” or “super-sacramentalize” Catholicism. Everyone agrees that a key goal that emerged during the course of the council was needed development of the identity of the church in the modern world, rather than merely against it. As early as the 1940s, Henri de Lubac wrote a profound essay about “the disappearance of a sense of the sacred” that he ascribed not simply to the “bad old world out there,” but to a deadly treatment of Catholic tradition as a carefully curated museum. And in the 1950s, Hans Urs von Balthasar issued a clarion call for “razing the bastions” of a church that has become “barricaded against the world.”

Of course, figures like de Lubac and von Balthasar are reputed to have “gone conservative” after the council. This is a flattened view that imposes its own categories on these figures; what they resisted was a certain interpretation of the council, the “desacramentalization” approach. This approach followed what Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has recently explained as the dominant message of modernity: religions needed to accommodate a more secularized worldview to survive. They had to go along with what the philosopher Charles Taylor broadly calls the “disenchantment” of the cosmos and adopt more plausible forms that are credible to “modern man.”

Prior to the council, Roman Catholicism had resisted doing this. The Freshman Common Reading at my (very secular) college was Richard Rodriguez’s Hunger of Memory, which includes a fascinating section on growing up in a supernaturally saturated Catholic home and parish. The memoir beautifully wrestles with the difficult sense of loss Rodriguez feels as he leaves behind that supernatural world of his childhood and takes his place in an American society that is both modern and white. What Vatican II did, on the desacramentalization reading, was explain why I, white and growing up in the 1980s, could arrive at a secular college and not have to experience that same sense of necessary loss. I could relate to Rodriguez, but I could also see how distant his experience was from mine.

I think this narrative is incorrect—it is incorrect about me, and it is incorrect about the council. And this is really what I want to take issue with William M. Shea about. The desire to desacramentalize the church is supposed to solve many problems. But far from solving the problems he identifies, his proposals just bypass them and create others. My response is not to defend some bygone authoritarianism, but to defend the council’s real aim: to make the church itself a super-sacrament of Christ for the world. What we need is more sacramentality, not less. We do that by getting the priesthood right, and not by doing away with it.

What we need is more sacramentality, not less.

First, I need to explain more of what I mean by the “super-sacramental” view, and then I’ll move on to Shea’s arguments about the priesthood. To explain the “more sacramentality” view, I’ll follow Shea’s example and quote a song from my own era, a common one at our parish’s “chapel Mass.” Some readers may remember it:

Great things happen when God mixes with us
        great things happen when God mixes with us
Great and beautiful, wonderful things
Great things happen when God… mixes with us
Some find life
       some find peace
       some people even find joy
Some see things as they never could before
      and some people find that they can now begin to trust

The original lyrics—“when God mixes with man”—had obvious problems, but did tend to provide a textual echo of Incarnational doctrine whereas “mixes with us” feels a bit more like God at an after-work get-together. Regardless, the light lyrics, the chipper melody, the hand claps—for some, this sort of thing was the height (or depth) of “desacramentalization.”

Let me suggest quite a different reading. It’s true that the song is hummable by a six-year-old and avoids big words. Nevertheless, its lyrics are not trivial. Indeed, they are the essence of what I’m describing as “super-sacramentalizing.” To talk about great things happening when God mixes with us at Mass is not to downplay the enchantment, but to remind us of it vividly. More importantly, to generalize the enchantment is to lead us to realize that the whole of life can be like this. Let’s not just sing about when God mixes with us in the Eucharist; let’s talk about the whole of life. Indeed, the post–Vatican II musical repertoire is filled with song after song that follows this same strategy: take solid, Christological, sacramental theology and apply it to everything. I can’t recall any Catholic song that says: forget the sacraments, just go do good works. The whole point is to extend the enchantment, not to downplay it; to remind us that the Eucharist is “source and summit” of the whole of life, not to make the Eucharist more like a casual meal. My colleague at Catholic University, Msgr. Kevin Irwin, puts this well in questioning the idea that sacraments “offer escapes from the world.” Instead, Irwin writes, we should see the sacraments as “the church’s unique and focused way of penetrating how God can be and is experienced in all human life lived on this good earth.... Liturgy and life are correlatives, intrinsically interconnected and mutually enriching.”

The council’s most decisive statement of this idea is its identification of the church’s entire life as a sacramental sign for the world. As Herbert McCabe writes, mirroring Vatican II’s Constitution on the Church, the church’s core reality is not as a “quasi-political entity constituted by a certain hierarchic structure of jurisdiction” but rather as “the sacramental presence of Christ in the world, and from this it follows that there is authority and jurisdiction within in.” Debates between “people of God” and “hierarchical authority” remain at the level of the church as quasi-political entity, and so both miss the point of this new vision of the church. As Joseph Ratzinger points out, that vision was first and foremost to emphasize “a collective view of Christianity to replace the individual or purely institutional manner of thinking.” He follows de Lubac in saying that “the concept of sacraments as the means of a grace that I receive like a supernatural medicine in order, as it were, to ensure only my own private eternal health is the supreme misunderstanding of what a sacrament truly is” (italics in original). Rather, the sacramental image of the church explains what the church is: the sign and instrument of eschatological realization of the unity of God and humanity, and also the unity of humanity itself.

Of course, this appeal to a deeper vision of unity does not resolve the inevitable conflicts of institutional realities; it is ironic that, subsequent to writing these words, Ratzinger went on to exercise so much institutional power! Yet the primacy of this super-sacramental vision should not be lost amid such institutional battles. Indeed, super-sacramentality permeates papal writings across divides. Though there are real disagreements on particulars, most agree that John Paul II’s Theology of the Body offers an unprecedentedly “high” view of the meaning of human sexuality; moreover, his beautiful account of human work in Laborem exercens is too often ignored as another example of sacramentalizing everyday life. Another example:  Benedict XVI’s extraordinary call for an economics focused on “gift,” where every market transaction should include “quotas of gratuitousness.” The sacramentalization of everyday life also emerges powerfully at the end of Francis’s Laudato si’, with its account of the Eucharist as “an act of cosmic love” that “joins heaven and earth” and “embraces and permeates all creation.” These documents frankly demolish any kind of polarity between vertical and horizontal or between liturgical life and ethics—not by de-emphasizing liturgy and worship, but by supersizing it. An appreciation for this vision won’t mean an end to practical disagreements in the church; rather, the vision invites disputants to conceive of these disagreements in richer ways.

To attack (and surely that is the right word for his essay) the ordained priesthood is to attack the entire sacramental system itself

So I’m clearly on the side of the super-sacramentalizers. This brings me to Shea’s essay. Shea exemplifies the desacramentalization view, and in this case, his target is not the Eucharistic liturgy but the sacrament of orders. Yet in a sense, to attack (and surely that is the right word for his essay) the ordained priesthood is to attack the entire sacramental system itself. Obviously, I have no interest in defending the priesthood against the abuses that Shea rightly points out. Nor do I simply want to appeal to “tradition, tradition, tradition.” Instead, I want to analyze three aspects of his argument and suggest that an appreciation of the super-sacramental intentions of the council actually do a much better job than his proposals do in confronting the problems, while avoiding problems into which his argument falls.

First, Shea criticizes the ordained priesthood as leading to abuses of power. Francis targets “clericalism,” but can’t make it to the logical next step, which is to abolish the clergy/lay distinction. But will that really solve the problem? The problem of abusing power and authority doesn’t depend on fancy dress or claims about ontological character. There are “liberal” priests who run parishes like tyrants, and there are “conservative” priests who listen, share power, and know how to lead well. Moreover, there are plenty of leadership struggles and church politics in Protestant communities without ordination—and some have to do with subjecting leaders to the fickle and often-distorted politics of the laity in their congregations.

A super-sacramental approach should prompt us to recognize the true nature of leadership. As Joseph Ratzinger points out in his wonderful book Christian Brotherhood, the sacrament is not called sacerdotium but ordo. He explains: “One can in no way identify the New Testament office, which is in fact New Testament service, with the phenomenon of priesthood in other religions. It is by nature something totally different.” Herbert McCabe reminds us that Jesus’ criticism of the “trappings” of religion is “not crudely humanist.” Rather, while it abolishes the boundary between sacred and profane, the new distinction for Christians is “the last things as realized and as yet to come.” Thus, while everything is potentially sacred, not everything is “sacramental revelation.” And as Michael Himes of Boston College describes it, the sacramental principle is that “what is always and everywhere the case must be noticed, accepted, and celebrated somewhere sometime. What is always and everywhere true must be brought to our attention and be embraced (or rejected) in some concrete experience at some particular time and place.” Great things happen when God mixes with us all the time, but we must attend specifically to that at some time. McCabe puts that idea in properly historical terms: the new creation is not in fact always and everywhere the case, though it will be, and so for the growth of the life of the whole church for the world, the sacraments make real—realize, make present—the future.

So of course I agree with Shea in decrying tyrannical clerics. But a strong view of sacramental ordination should make power-hungry clerics look even worse—they appear to be stuck in the old age, rather than the age to come. What does this mean for things like clerical dress, which Shea criticizes? It seems to me that, in this as in many other cases, wise and prudent priests do not make an idol out of this question, but recognize that distinctive dress can be fitting or less fitting, depending on the circumstances. Or what might it mean for the questions of practical power-sharing? Again, thinking about the church sacramentally should get us beyond our usual categories. It may be true that the church is not a democracy, but it’s not a military dictatorship, either. This impasse about naming “good leadership” reveals the temptation to confuse church and state that Antonio Spadaro and Marcelo Figueroa criticized in a recent article in La Civiltá Cattolica. Recognizing that the church is different in kind should invite us to richer ways of talking about appropriate institutional structures on all sides. At the recent Bishops’ Convocation of Catholic Leaders, Helen Alvare suggested that if the church was going to take male/female complementarity seriously, then we should start thinking about “what complementarity looks like in the chancery.” There’s a super-sacramental way of moving forward.

A second motivation for Shea’s proposal is the gross immorality of the clergy. While taking the Donatist controversy out for a spin, Shea piles on the well-rehearsed list of terrible behavior. “Who am I to judge?” seems far from his mind. Of course this is all terrible, but again, the link to ordination is far from clear. It’s true that, in the old days, the preconciliar notion of the sacredness of the priesthood contributed to a bad dynamic that suppressed abuse victims’ voices. But the desacramentalizing after the council hardly helped; plenty of liberal clerics and religious communities were implicated. And it hardly seems that other organizations are immune from having immoral leaders—most notably, immoral Protestant leaders (the last time I checked, televangelists had none of the sacramental trappings of ordination).

More troublingly, Shea misses the crucial truth of the Donatist controversy, which is that the sacraments are ultimately actions of God and the church as a whole, and not the charisms of individuals, their personal gifts, or even their morality. Such a dependence would pose difficulties for Catholics trying to ascertain the validity of sacraments. It also suggests (rightly) that leadership is not about “cults of personality.” Authority in the system doesn’t come from oneself; it comes from Christ and the church. Surely the portrait of the flawed apostles in the New Testament is ample evidence for this.

Of course, clergy who live upstanding, even heroic lives are far better witnesses to Christ and better servants to others. But, as a super-sacramentalizer, let me say: that’s true for all of us! What about the immorality of the laity? In emphasizing the whole church as a sacrament, Lumen gentium also included the innovative universal call to holiness, putting an end to a two-level ethic of minimal compliance for laity and maximum sanctity for clergy and religious. “Holiness” in this context shouldn’t be understood simply as pious, “churchy” actions. Lumen gentium makes clear that the laity’s unique vocation is to embody Christ as prophet, priest, and king in the conduct of their everyday lives. So...maybe we should take an archdiocese somewhere, take all its clergy as a whole, see how they are doing with holiness, and then do the same for all the laity. Should the clergy repent of their immorality? Most certainly. But has the laity lived up to its call? Maybe we should attend to the log in our own eye as laity instead of so eagerly rushing in to condemn the sins of the clergy.

It is not adult, but child-like, to assume that a community with authority is antithetical to maturity

This brings me to a third aspect of Shea’s proposal: the total certainty of his ringing tones, and his constant judgments about who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. Look at the good-popes-bad-popes bit going on in the essay, or the apparent exemption from critique of “thoughtful lower clergy” (I wondered: Does he mean all the young “JPII priests”?). In his own words: “I know what needs to be done.” “There was and is no ‘divine plan’ for how the churches are to be governed.” “The mantle of the sacred should be ripped off”—presumably by him and those who agree with him.

Sometimes prophetic proposals require such stridency. Yet I fear at the heart of the desacramentalizing worldview is Western liberal individualism, exemplified in the unidentified Quaker who believes that Catholics are members of a church that treats them like children. Catholics have much to learn from Quakers about processes of discernment and about the importance of peacemaking. But they shouldn’t learn the individualism reflected in this comment. The church has not treated me “like a child”—indeed, in and through the church, I have been introduced (in person and through the Communion of Saints) to the most mature, grace-filled people I know. Every Sunday, the church has put in front of me a complex piece of adult art called “the liturgy” and invited me into a deeper and deeper understanding of its inexhaustible wisdom.

And it is not adult, but child-like, to assume that a community with authority is antithetical to maturity. The implication is that to be treated like an adult is to be treated like an independent sovereign decision-maker, subject to no authority outside the self. As Ratzinger writes, “where each person wants to be a god, that is, to be so adult and independent that he owes himself to no one but determines his destiny simply and solely for himself, then every other person becomes for him an antigod, and communication between them becomes a contradiction in itself.” Or, if you prefer, look at Jorge Bergolio’s comments on the problem of “spiritual worldliness.” He calls it “the greatest danger for the church,” defining it as “putting oneself at the center.” And he is clear: this can happen to any of us, clergy or lay. It is well known that Bergolio faced opposition from liberal Jesuits in his younger days precisely because their vision of the future treated the traditional piety of the people with disdain and contempt. A super-sacramental view invites us to a different understanding of what it means to be an adult. It is to emerge into a mission far larger than one could imagine for oneself, far larger than the idols offered by individualized fulfillments or adolescent certainty. It is to consider one’s life a participation in the sacramental transformation of the world and to pursue one’s personal vocation in light of that.

Let me be clear: I’m expressing concern about individualistic arrogance here because the alternative is to leave the critique of positions like Shea’s to ultra-conservative commentators. These commentators have their own good-guys-bad-guys narratives. They will circulate Shea’s article as more evidence that progressive Catholics are actually anti-Catholic. This is tiresome. My point is not to suggest that there is no need for reforms. Rather, it’s to make clear that desacramentalization—far from shielding the church from ill—actually opens the way to much deeper problems, not least the erroneous autonomy that is pervasive in our culture.

Shea’s proposal should turn us back to the underlying question: What is the purpose of the church? What is the church for? If it is merely a vehicle for individual spiritual journeys and some good social reform, desacramentalization may make sense. But insofar as the church is not simply instrumental but sacramental, involving a profoundly spiritual and material eschatological mission of the realization of the new creation in the midst of the old, then desacramentalization is in fact one of the worst directions for the church to go. The visibility and particularity of ordination—and of all the sacraments—is the making real of the promise of redemption, not simply for isolated individuals after death, but for the whole world. This visibility and particularity can be a source of scandal—indeed, it can devolve into idolatry. This is even true of the Incarnation itself. Nevertheless, it is part of the larger conviction that God, though spirit, does not disparage matter or even abandon it, but seeks always to save, renew, transform, and elevate it. The practice of ordination can become an idol. The answer is not to abandon the practice, but to re-situate it within the super-sacramental understanding of the church that Vatican II so richly proclaimed.

David Cloutier is associate professor of theology at the Catholic University of America, and author of The Vice of Luxury (Georgetown University Press).

William M. Shea is adjunct professor of Religious Studies at the College of the Holy Cross. David Cloutier is associate professor of theology at the Catholic University of America, and author of The Vice of Luxury (Georgetown University Press).

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Published in the January 26, 2018 issue: View Contents
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