To Save the Church, Dismantle the Priesthood

Catholics must detach themselves from the clerical hierarchy, James Carroll argued in June—and take the faith back into their own hands.


Thank you, James Carroll, for your article. I, too, am fasting from Mass and my commitment to the Catholic Church. I cannot bear to hear how the vulnerable continue to be emotionally and physically mistreated by some clerical men and women—and yet we must not live in darkness. Articles like yours have made me wake up to how far the Church has strayed from its origins.

DeeDee Chang
Attleboro, Mass.


In one respect, James Carroll’s scathing critique of the Catholic hierarchy doesn’t go far enough. The indecent liberties taken by clergy who are shielded by their “ontologically superior” position include a far wider swath of personal sins than sex abuse or the ignoring thereof—they include sins like pride and cruelty.

In another area, however, Carroll goes too far. Dismantle the priesthood altogether? Unless this is intended merely as a rhetorical provocation, Carroll is living in a fantasyland. Even pre-Romanized Christianity was far from egalitarian in its governance. Jesus was willing to give his life for his flock, but he never took a straw poll before handing down a teaching. A more realistic and desirable solution to clericalism is implied in Carroll’s own formulation that today’s Church structure “owes more to emperors than to apostles.” Just flip the terms: We need a hierarchy modeled more closely on the servant-leaders and martyrs described in the Acts of the Apostles. Turning self-satisfied masters back into servants will take an independently appointed watchdog arm of the Church, peopled by laity and endowed with real authority to adjudicate grievances and assign penalties to miscreant clergy—and, of course, to hand them over to secular authorities whenever civil laws are violated.

Eric Brende
St. Louis, Mo.


The problem is not the priesthood; the problem is clericalism, that malign brand of theology and spirituality that says that priests are more important than laypeople, that a priest’s or bishop’s word is more trustworthy than that of victims (or victims’ parents) and that the very selves of priests are more valuable than those of laypeople. Catholic theology is sometimes used to support this kind of supremacism. At his ordination a priest is said to undergo an “ontological” change, a change in his very being. The belief that this change makes him “better” than the layperson lies at the heart of clericalism and much of the abuse crisis.

On this, then, I would agree completely with Mr. Carroll, who knows his theology. And I certainly understand his anger and anguish over the abuse crisis, which I share. The problem, however, is that his article consistently conflates the priesthood with clericalism. Basically, he is engaging in a stereotype. In short, not all priests are “clerical.” Not even most of them.

James Martin, S.J.
Excerpt from an article on americamagazine.org


James Carroll diagnoses the Church with the disease of clericalism, by which he really means hierarchicalism. What Carroll fails to recognize is that clericalism and hierarchicalism are not synonymous. The prideful ambition of clericalism is a poison within the Church, true, but the Church hierarchy was instituted by Christ himself, has existed since the earliest days of Christianity, and is a necessary component for most of Catholic theology. To propose abolishing the priesthood in order to root out clericalism is akin to demolishing a house in order to put out a kitchen fire—you’ve put out the fire, but what are you left with?

James J. Mello
Steubenville, Ohio


As a professor of ancient history, I research the making of early Christian leadership. I thus read James Carroll’s article with heightened professional interest.

Mr. Carroll blames the fourth-century Roman empire for “clericalism.” In fact, hierarchical clerics started claiming special powers from the divine within their small religious movement very early, long before they won support from Emperor Constantine.

For centuries, Christians have argued about the right form of Church leadership, often by trying to discern the habits of early Christians. It may be encouraging to think that the distinct, powerful clergy is an idea imposed on Christianity by empire. But early Christianity was no utopia; it dealt with the same human problems that affect any community of knowledge that produces experts who relate hierarchically.

And yet, while the notion of a superior clerical rank runs older and deeper inside Christian tradition than compulsory celibacy or imperial power, it need not be eternal. The workings of the Catholic clergy have changed deeply and repeatedly; Mr. Carroll should take heart that they can change again.

Adam M. Schor
University of South Carolina
Columbia, S.C.


We all know that people in power like to stay in power. Since that is never going to change, what’s the point of blowing up the clerical system of the Church today so that it can be replaced by a laity from which will rise new people seeking power who might then also abuse it?

My vote is to keep pushing, demanding change within the structure we have. It’s hard, thankless work, and our present pope has, to date, dropped the ball on the hideous pedophile scandal, but plenty of priests are appalled and ashamed and are speaking out about this. Pressing on within the present system, I say, is the more likely way to eliminate the misogyny, the ban against priests marrying, and the Augustinian concept of sexual repression.

Janice Billingsley
New York, N.Y.


I was called forth—“ordained”—by my house worship community in 1992. Since then we have continued to celebrate the Eucharist together at least once a year. I have also married people, offered prayers at funeral services, led naming ceremonies for babies. But about eight years ago I joined the Unitarian Universalists. I was exhausted by the enormity of what Carroll so rightly calls “clericalism,” and by the hypocrisy. The UUs welcomed me with open arms.

James Carroll’s piece is revitalizing for me. My UU sisters and brothers have encouraged me to resume my lay-led Eucharist celebrations for those liberal Catholics who long for that. Carroll has strengthened my resolve to do it.

Kathleen Henry
Milton, Mass.


Thank you so much for this excellent analysis of the Catholic Church’s clericalism. I was disappointed by your failure to mention that new ways of being a priest are happening all around us, including in communities led by Roman Catholic womenpriests. These groups and the women (and a few men) who lead them are creating a new priest paradigm—collaborative, nonhierarchical, democratic, deeply spiritual, inclusive, in continuity with the traditions of the early Church, and nonclerical.

Helen Weber-McReynolds
Indianapolis, Ind.


As an Episcopalian and a member of the Anglican Communion supporting clerical marriage and the ordination of women, I say, “Come join us, sisters and brothers!” We haven’t forgotten that we share our roots with you. I am an ecumenicalist, and I am inspired by the idea of Catholics rejecting the trappings of earthly power; if Catholics can instead focus on their long tradition of service to the poor and oppressed as well as meeting together for the Eucharist, then there will be much for the rest of us to admire about Catholicism. I am confident that you can retain a specific Catholicism while giving up the power structures that have poisoned your traditions. “Test everything; hold fast to what is good.” And reach out to us if you need support. We are all members of the Body.

Lauren Bickel
Lebanon, Tenn.


The author may have quit the priesthood with good intentions—and good for him—but it seems he is unwilling to quit the special club of Catholicism altogether. He rationalizes this reticence by praising the fellowship and good deeds that flow from the Church. Fellowship is a fair point; we all need a tribe. But an objective look at the sordid history of Catholicism reveals that it has done much more harm than good (Inquisitions and holy wars, genocide, complicity with the Nazis, the Irish orphanages, rampant sexual predation, etc.). His tribe of internal exiles can find many great secular venues for doing charitable work without this shameful baggage.

As the rising tempest of the priest sex-abuse scandal howls at the Vatican’s door, when will Catholics say enough is enough?

Dennis Slifer
Lexington, Va.


James Carroll recommends that Roman Catholics abolish the priesthood and be served by laypeople, gathering on an equal basis. The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) has been doing this since 1652, when George Fox preached that every person could communicate with the Divine Spirit without need of an intermediary minister or priest. The laity were the ministers, and from the beginning of Quakerism, women and men, and children too, shared spoken ministry with their group. The Friends stopped using titles (sir, my lord, etc.) and wore simple, undecorated clothes, so as to rid themselves of the marks of class inequality. They called themselves “Friends” because Jesus said to his apostles, “I call you not servants … but I have called you friends.” The Friends sought to follow the example of Jesus: feeding the hungry, caring for the poor, visiting the sick, striving for justice. It has worked for Friends for more than 350 years. And it could work for Catholics.

Maida Follini
Halifax, Nova Scotia


As a practicing Jew, I belong to a congregation in Newton, Massachusetts, that started in someone’s basement more than 30 years ago. We have no permanent space, no paid staff, no rabbi, no cantor, no hierarchy of any sort. All tasks and roles are fulfilled by members on an active volunteer basis.

James Carroll’s article reinforced my belief that this approach is the model for the exercise of faith in the modern era.

Alexander Chelminsky
Newton, Mass.


James Carroll asks: “If, down through the ages, it was appropriate for the Church to take on the political structures of the broader culture—imperial Rome, feudal Europe—then why shouldn’t Catholicism now absorb the ethos and form of liberal democracy?” I agree that such a future for the Church is possible, but I cannot share his optimism that this would be a good thing.

If the Church has suffered from abandoning its original and egalitarian tradition, how can we assume that liberal democracy will bring us any closer to what Jesus had in mind? Would a Church modeled on President Donald Trump’s Cabinet “have more in common with ancient tradition” than one modeled on Caesar’s imperial court? Would a Church based on the liberal-democratic process by which Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed as a Supreme Court justice necessarily bring an end to the male dominance so far perpetrated in the Church’s imperial and feudal history? Would a bishop who wears a suit and acts the part of a government bureaucrat or corporate CEO represent Jesus the servant to the Church more faithfully than the bishop who wears watered silk and ermine and who rules from a throne?

When Jesus said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and the great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant,” he was presenting a model that is as far from liberal democracy as it is from imperialism or feudalism.

It was never appropriate for the Church to take on the political structures of the broader culture; doing so was an act of apostasy that has only harmed and burdened the Church. By absorbing and making its own the “ethos and form of liberal democracy” now, the Church would only be rejecting once more, perhaps for the last and final time, the community of love that Jesus calls it to be.

Brian Terrell
Maloy, Iowa


The Big Question

On Twitter, we asked people to pick their favorite responses to July’s Big Question. Here’s how they voted.

Q: What lost treasure would you most like to find?

78% The Library of Alexandria

9% A fifth Gospel

8% Genghis Khan’s treasure

5% Vermeer’s The Concert

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