James Carroll, “Save the Church, Abolish the Priesthood”

Mary Magdala Community

To read Carroll’s full article, “Abolish the Priesthood,” click on this link.


A review and an invitation by Jim Ryan,

Co-pastor of Mary of Magdala, Apostle to the Apostles Community

Community blog:  https://maryofmagdala-mke.org/blog

In the June, 2019 edition of The Atlantic magazine James Carroll has written a manifesto, now to be added to the multitudes of manifestos, that speaks to the corrupt clericalism of the Roman Catholic Church.  His “cri de coeur” includes certain ingredients of the recipe that, he proposes, will save the Roman Church from itself.  One of those ingredients is the reclaiming by local communities of Eucharist in its theological essence, meaning the celebration of Sacrament & Liturgy in which a clerical priest is not necessary.  In fact, a representative of the clerical class would only obstruct the transcendental, communal experience of this renewed worshipful celebration.

I would like, first, to start where Carroll leaves off with his recognition of such intentional communities.  This is important because we are just such a community.  We are the Mary of Magdala, Apostle to the Apostles Community of Wauwatosa, Wisconsin.  We are the hope of which Carroll speaks, a real and actual embodiment of his vision of the future.  Yes, our future is now!

Having established that we, the Mary of Magdala Community and others like us, are already present in the life of those who follow Jesus, let’s take a look at Carroll’s article to see how it is that abolishing priesthood makes communities such as ours a vibrant sign of the living Holy Spirit.  His theme has become so familiar; it is the case of clericalism gone corrupt and rotting the very structure which spawned it.

Carroll first identifies that Church is so much more than the clerical-administrative class and structure.  Church is us, we are church, the countless ones who daily serve and love for no other reason than it is what Jesus Christ wants of us.  He writes, “The world needs the church of these legions (all the faithful minus the clerical class) to be rational, historically minded, pluralistic, committed to peace, a champion of the equality of women, and a tribune of justice.”  He continues that what the world does not need is a self-centered, myopic, and corrupt band of clerics who claim for themselves a special character they term “ontological difference” which places them in a permanent place above the faithful laity.

He writes, “Clericalism is both the underlying cause and the ongoing enabler of the present Catholic catastrophe.”  As has become all too routine in these criticisms Carroll points out that the corruption of the Roman Church is a venomous poison in which beyond the pedophilia of certain priests there lies the behavior of other priests who look the other way from the perpetrators.  And beyond the looking away lie the bishops who have hid, protected, and shuttled these criminals not only within and between dioceses.  There is no country they will not send them to just to remove them from sight and the long arm of civil law.  “A power structure,” Carroll reminds us, “that is accountable only to itself will always end up abusing the powerless.”  I love the line from Carroll when referring to the recent episcopal gathering in Rome to focus on the worldwide abuse crisis within the Catholic Church.  He says that appointing the bishops to be the ones to look into this crisis is like appointing Mob Bosses to the Crime Commission.

The shame that exists within the faith life of the Roman Church applies to the view that ordinary Catholics have of “their” priests.  Again Carroll, “For Catholics, priests are the living sacrament of Christ’s presence delegated above all to consecrate the bread and wine that define the soul of the faith.  This symbol of Christ has come to stand for something profoundly wicked.”

Carroll proposes the antidote to such wickedness and that is to abolish this clerical priesthood.  For when one abolishes this kind of priesthood, “the opposite of clericalism is not some vague elevation of laypeople to a global altar guild but democracy.”  Yes, the man said DEMOCRACY.  Think of it, communities choosing who will lead the Eucharistic celebration because as Jesus said, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in their midst.”

“No matter who presides at whatever form the altar takes,” Carroll continues,  “these adaptations of Eucharistic observance return to the theological essence of the sacrament.  Christ is experienced not through the officiant but through the faith of the whole community.”  …there I am in their midst.

Here is what Carroll envisions about the celebrations of those who reclaim this gathering in the Name of Jesus Christ.  “They will take on responsibility and ownership – and, as responsibility and ownership devolve into smaller units the focus will shift from the earthbound institution to its transcendent meaning.  This is already happening in front of our eyes.  Tens of millions of moral decisions and personal actions are being informed by the choice to be Catholics on our own terms, untethered from a rotted ancient scaffolding.  The choice comes with no asterisk.  We will be Catholics, full stop.  We do not need anyone’s permission.”

As I said at the beginning of this review, James, welcome to Mary of Magdala, Apostle to the Apostles Community, Wauwatosa, Wisconsin where your future is now!

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