We find among Catholics two opposing attitudes to the priesthood. There is the conservative view, which sees the Church as a kind of feudal society, in which each man has his proper status with corresponding “duties of his state.” On the other hand, there is the progressive view, which models the Church on the democratic society, in which citizens are not differentiated by their status but by their functions. I think that both these views are mistaken, because both place the Christian ministry essentially within the Church; both hark back to the idea that the basic job of the priest is to celebrate Mass and otherwise minister to the faithful. In the decree on the priesthood of Vatican II, however, the position is quite otherwise: “Priests, as co-workers with their bishops, have as their primary duty the proclamation of the gospel of God to all men.” It has to be admitted that the same document later on asserts that “Priests fulfill their chief duty in the mystery of the Eucharistic Sacrifice,” but that occurs in a section that seems plainly to have been inserted to satisfy those who wanted to safeguard the practice of daily Mass. The emphasis of the Vatican decree on the priesthood, like the one on bishops, is on the proclamation of the gospel to all, whether Christians or not.
As I see it, the basic error is to see the Church primarily as a community. The Church is not first of all a community; it is first of all a movement within the community of mankind. We ought not to have simply a functional view of the clergy within the Church; we ought to press our functionalism much further; we ought to have a functional view of the Church within mankind. It is only within communities that people have functions. You could not have the function of being a teacher or a plumber except within a society which demands and makes sense of teaching or plumbing. The progressive sees the Church as a community and the priests as functional within it. I, on the other hand, want to see the only community as that of mankind, and to see the Church as functional within it.
It will follow from this that the important distinctions in the Church—those we call sacramental, the distinctions established by baptism/confirmation, ordination/consecration, and marriage—are not functional in relation to a community called the Church. Fundamentally they are functional in relation to the community of man. The bishop or priest is not a man with a special job to do in the Church; he is a man with a special job to do in the world. Any differentiation within the Church is a mere consequence of this.
Being a bishop is a function not in a Church but in society, just as being a plumber is a function not in a Church but in society, with this essential difference; the plumber's job is immanent in the society; it is part of the fabric of the society, whereas the bishop's job is essentially revolutionary or subversive of the society. (I am using the word revolutionary to do the work that in the past was done by the word transcendental, because the latter word has lost its Christian significance; in fact, it has lost both its paradoxical and its historical character.)
If we are to understand the Christian ministry, it is as well to take our start from the New Testament. It seems to me that the most illuminating text is the passage in John 17 when Christ, in the course of his prayer before his arrest, commissions his apostles. Speaking to his Father he says: “I passed your word on to them, and the world hated them because they belong to the world no more than I belong to the world.” I think it is extremely significant that the first thing said about them qua apostles, as bearers of the word, is the world will hate them.
They are to be set apart from the world, not in the sense of avoiding it or “being removed from it,” but in the sense of being sacrificial victims, the consecrated ones of the world. They are to stand askew to the world in some way. And this consecration, Christ explains, is simply their commission to the truth, to the word that he has passed on. Jesus says that their consecration will be like his, hinting that just as the world cannot tolerate his “standing apart,” his independence of its structure, and so hates him and finally kills him, so they, too, are ultimately to be consecrated by violent death.
Jesus then speaks of those others “who through their [the apostles’] word will believe in me.” He clearly envisages a distinction between his missionaries and those who come to believe through their teaching. The belief in question is the belief that Jesus is “from God,” that his opposition to the world, or rather his transcendence of it which provokes the hostility of the world, is divine and not satanic. Jesus is manifestly dangerous to the world; belief in him consists in seeing that his destructive power is not evil but mysteriously good, that if the world will let itself be destroyed, it will find not merely death but a new life. The whole purpose of all this, Jesus goes on to say, is that “they may be one.” The believers are themselves to be one in a new way and in this way they are to bring about unity in the world.
The “world” here in St. John, it seems evident enough, is a political concept. It is a form of relationship among men, a style of society typified for St. John by the Roman colonial empire—a kind of human organization and unity based on the domination of man by man. Jesus sees his task and that of his followers as the subversion of this kind of society so that it may be replaced by a society with a new kind of unity. “Father, may they be one in us, as you are in me and I am in you.” His object is a society sustained as society by love, the presence of the divine Spirit in man.
The attitude of St. John to “the world” is ambivalent. Michael Davitt, the nineteenth-century Irish revolutionary, was of the opinion that Ireland was a horrible country; he was also deeply in love with Ireland. These are not incompatible views. In the first case he meant by Ireland certain structures of political power, in particular the institutions of land ownership; in the second case he meant by Ireland the structures of communication among men which constitute the Irish people as Irish—their traditions, religion, language, environment and all the rest. He felt that the people constituted by the second structures were victims of the first structures. Out of this dual viewpoint came a revolutionary movement called the Land League. (This movement was denounced by the Irish hierarchy. One Archbishop McCabe, the story is, described the women members as “immodest and wicked” and was promptly made a cardinal.)
The movement known as Christianity arose from a similar ambiguity of attitude toward the world, an attitude attributed to God. It is indeed the attribution of this attitude to God, the acknowledgment that Jesus is “sent from God” that lies at the root of faith for St. John.
Christianity is a movement of change within the world, a movement which seeks to transform the institutional relations between men in order the better to express the relationships which constitute them as human; this movement is to be hated by the world, is to come in conflict with the power structure of the world, but is eventually to “overcome the world.” “This is the victory that overcomes the world, our faith.” It therefore seems not unreasonable to describe the Church as a revolutionary movement within the world. The preaching of the gospel is a danger to the values of the world and to the economic and political structures which embody these values.
If I may borrow some words from Cardinal Suhard:
We have to aim at structural reform. A structure corresponds to an aim. Now we have to change the aim; instead of aiming first at producing, we must aim first at giving all men a truly human life. In place of capitalism, a mere technique of production in which, in the absence of a higher rule, production puts man at its service, we must put an economy which will be at the service of men, and not just of some men but of all men...something is needed quite different from a more or less extensive modification of our institutions. More is needed even than a revolution, for 'revolution' means turning round, and a situation which is turned around is not necessarily improved or even changed. There must be a total renewal.
Without quibbling about words like revolution and renewal, that seems a fair account of what Christianity is concerned with.