Ministry and Power


January 25, 2019

On January 3, 2019, the Boston Globe published an article by the Catholic journalist and historian, Gary Wills: “Celibacy isn’t the cause of the church sex-abuse crisis; the priesthood is.” Writing about clerical sexual abuse he noted “The church response has consistently been to doubt, dismiss, or minimize reported acts of abuse. “ He asks as well “How, we have to wonder, can men dedicated to the Gospel allow or abet such a response?”

I am not commenting about celibacy or clerical sexual abuse this week end but about ministry and power.

Wills correctly pointed out, I believe, that sexual abuse is about power over people. We know today that it has existed for a long time because institutional leaders wanted to preserve and protect their institution and their own institutional power.

For Wills, however, the problem comes down to “priesthood” which he sees as “an affront to the Gospel,” because priesthood is historically about power over people. I would like to quote from Gary Wills’ article and then offer my own reflections about ministry and power.

Wills: “There are no priests in the Gospels, except the Jewish priests, some of whom plotted against Jesus. Jesus is only called a priest in the late and suspect anonymous Letter to the Hebrews, where he is made a priest in the line of a mythical non-Jew, Melchisidek – and even there he is the sole and final priest. Peter and Paul never call themselves or any other Christian a priest. Outside the Letter to the Hebrews, the only New Testament titles for service to the community are episkopos (overseer), presbyter (elder), apostolos (emissary), and diakonos (servant), never priest (hiereus).

None of these offices gave any of them a pivotal role in what would later become the seven sacraments. Baptism was, from the outset, the entry ritual for the Christian community, but it could not originally be administered by priests, who did not yet exist.

As the priesthood was gradually developed in the Middle Ages, it tended to subordinate all Christian activity to priestly superintendence – from childhood (baptism), to adolescence (confirmation), to mid-life (matrimony, sacred orders), to devotions (eucharist, penance), to the end of life (last rites). No wonder church leaders would try desperately to protect this imperial rule over the whole of Catholic life, trying to mute or erase any demeaning revelations of priestly predation.”

I resonate with Gary Wills in his biblical and historical analysis. For some Catholics, however, it becomes a very sensitive point, because they still understand “priests” as superior to Protestant “ministers.” Nevertheless, there were no Christian priests in the early church and the historical Jesus did not ordain anyone. Christ is present when we gather for community worship not because we have a priest but because of the assurance we read in the Gospels: “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” (Matthew 18:20)

As the Catholic Church now moves into the necessary and inescapable third millennial reformation, I hope the words “priest” and “priesthood” will gradually fade away. For a renewed vision of church, we need to change our vocabulary, because old words often come with their own particular baggage. The baggage of “priesthood” is institutional power, patriarchy, and clericalism. Yes of course I know many very fine and wonderful “priests” (and came close to being one myself). The key issue here, however, is ministry.

I prefer to speak about “ministry” and “ordained ministry.” (The only place where I still use the word “priest” is when writing about “women priests,” because I see that as a way of affirming that these Catholic women are indeed bonafide Catholic ordained ministers. The day will come, however, when we can drop the term “women priests” and recognize, acknowledge, and support women and men who are ordained ministers: married, single, gay, and straight.

Ministry is about service. It is not about power. Matthew 20 reminds us that Jesus did not come to be served but to serve…. Ordained ministers are called and appointed to be reliable Christian guides. They help us understand and live in the Spirit of Christ. Their ministerial words and actions are expressions of service: inviting conversion and building community, promoting acceptance and belonging, bringing healing and strengthening, and offering forgiveness and reconciliation.

Ministry is not about power over people. Institutional church leaders are not here to be served. They are called to serve and promote unity and collaboration. As brothers and sisters in the community of faith, we must also call them to that as well….

– Jack

14 thoughts on “Ministry and Power

  1. Dear Jack,
    Your description of “ministry” versus “priesthood” certainly resonates in a powerful way. Service to the servants of God is what is expected of our ordained ministers. Conflict comes with the built-in perception that priests are somehow more important because they are the keepers of the knowledge. We cradle Catholics have always been taught that “Father knows best.” Plus, the priests are the paid professionals who know the rules so they can manage those of us who don’t know the rules. In essence, they are the “traffic cops” who can keep us on the straight and narrow. Thanks for, again, offering lucid insights. It would be interesting to know what some of your ordained readers think.
    Peace,
    Frank Skeltis

  2. In 1964, as a devout 24-year-old, I attended a retreat organised by former pupils of my old school, conducted by one of the most popular and sought after retreat-leaders of the day, a Jesuit priest called Bernard Bassett. In the course of the retreat he quoted that passage from Matthew 18:20 and then told us that it only applies when there is a priest present among the two or three gathered in Christ’s name. It was only many years later that I encountered the word “clericalism”, but that comment of Fr Bassett was my introduction to the fact of clericalism.
    Bernard Whelan

  3. I concur with yours, and Mr. Wills’, thoughts totally. We were always taught that the “priest” was the Christ persona on Earth. (Which I always thought was a lot of malarkey). Being raised Protestant, and converting at age 30, some teachings I just couldn’t wrap my mind (or heart) around. We Christians are all called to represent Christ to others. No wonder they got away with so much abuse.

    Wonderful reaffirming message, Jack.

  4. Well said, Jack. I agree. “As the Catholic Church now moves into the necessary and inescapable third millennial reformation” we will have ministers “married, single, gay, and straight” who serve. I don’t know if our Church will still be subservient to Rome. I hope not.

  5. Jack, right on target. I’ve been talking along these lines in some homilies for a while now. A lot of folks in the pews agree, and are very encouraging. Some of the priests, however, are another story — I’m still learning to not say much of substance in some rectories. This probably will come up in this weekend’s homilies about the Spirit who calls us to get involved with hurting people, and not just sent thoughts and prayers. As my Commander in Viet Nam told me, “Anything that affects your people in any way is your concern, and don’t forget that”. “Yes, Sir”.

  6. Thanks, Jack, for your column, for saying this so well. Many of us have come to the same conclusion you state here. The sensus fidelium is at work, “the supernatural appreciation of faith on the part of the whole people, when, from the bishops to the last of the faithful, they manifest a universal consent in matters of faith and morals.” Catechism of the Catholic Church : )

  7. Thanks for this important the*logical exploration on priesthood. I completely agree, but would like to add that the community is called “a royal priesthood” in 1 Peter 2:9-10 and “a kingdom, of priests serving G*d” in Apc 1:6.

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