It is the largest organization in the world, counting a billion members, spanning the globe, supporting 200,000 schools and managing 40,000 hospitals.
The Roman Catholic Church, that is.
It is worth saving, most of us think, if for no other reason than its stellar contribution to higher education and its sacrificial care for the weak and poor among us.
But it has a dark side, perhaps many dark sides. Most churches do, as we ministers know so well.
The underside now being exposed to the light is its long and sordid history of sexual abuse, sexual repression, and sexual coverup.
Country after country, city after city—Dallas being just the latest—is spending enormous amounts of time, energy, and resources to investigate and prosecute the criminals who come to us dressed in clerical collars.
I hate to write these words, because I have such good friends in the Roman Catholic church: colleagues in gospel work, professors in their universities and seminaries, friends who attend mass regularly, and relatives who are devoted to their faith and its local assembly.
I love these people, and I thank God for the influence of Roman Catholics on my life and ministry: from the reading of The Seven Storey Mountain, to studies at Notre Dame University, teaching at LaRoche College (Pittsburgh), preaching in the Cathedral of the Assumption (Louisville), sleeping in the Dominican House (St. Louis), mentoring Young Catholic Preachers, and reading The Future Church: Ten Trends Revolutionizing the Catholic Church. It has all been good, even great.
But the cover story in this month’s The Atlantic plowed me under.
“Abolish the Priesthood” by Catholic poet, scholar, playwright, and novelist James Carroll.
Carroll is a former priest. He gave it up 45 years ago; and now he has given up mass. Not the faith, not even the Catholic faith. But saying no to public mass is one way he has expressed not only his dismay at the Church’s handing of the sexual abuse crisis but also his conviction that the solution is nothing less than the abolition of the priesthood itself.
The church of Jesus Christ cannot survive, he asserts, with its earthly leaders encased in a rigid system of masculine order, loyal to a bishop, and oriented toward career advancement and organizational protection: the priesthood.
The priesthood, with its celibacy and singleness, its power and privilege, its secrets and seclusion, its detachment from the common life of people; this priesthood must go, he says.
Carroll marshals data that is both impressive and depressive. He takes to task the whole collection of modern popes, including the popular Francis. He either lied, Carroll writes of Francis, or he was inexcusably ignorant as regards some of the abuse.
The church cannot survive this crisis; that is the starting point of his critique. And the reason it cannot survive is because the priesthood by its very nature is set up for sexual failure, and also because the priesthood, like all power-rich networks, is set up to defend itself.
It is a serious situation, no doubt. But I remind the faithful Catholic that the Christian community has already given his solution a manly try. We call it the Reformation, a cataclysmic response to priestly celibacy, ignorance, and blind obedience to a compromised religious and political system.
It didn’t work.
The Reformation did some good but also some bad, so much bad as to make that historic movement the perfect picture to attach to the Wikipedia article on “unintended outcomes”.
The Roman Catholic Church has survived some fearsome challenges: Roman persecution, barbaric invasion, Orthodox split, scientific revolution, Protestant rebellion, even Pentecostal competition—survived not because of the priesthood, certainly, although the majority of Catholic ministers then and now are dedicated, intelligent, competent, and disciplined followers of Jesus Christ.
The priesthood needs to change, that is for sure, but not because its existence threatens the vitality of the Church, but because it is the right thing to do: theologically, biblically, psychologically, organizationally, even emotionally.
Whether or not it does change, the Roman Catholic Church will still be around: serving the sick, teaching the curious, welcoming the convert, challenging the rich and powerful to give their attention to the poor and weak, and setting aside the young and devoted to holy orders….
And providing hospitality to young Baptist ministers who need their minds stretched and their souls enlarged.