By Nathan Barton
In the most recent (June 2019) issue of The Atlantic, a former Catholic priest penned the cover story, “Abolish the Priesthood,” arguing that “To save the Church, Catholics must detach themselves from the clerical hierarchy—and take the faith back into their own hands.”
Now, Nathan, you ask, what does this have to do with the price of liberty? Or of a cup of coffee? Pray, read on.
First off, I find this article amusing. That most elite of elite magazines, The Atlantic, publishing an article calling for the dismantling of a 1500-year-old elite? A internationalist (indeed, Tranzi) publication attacking that most transnational of institutions?
Second, I find that I agree with many things that Mr. Carroll wrote in this very long article (more than 8,000 words). Although perhaps not in the way he means them.
He is calling on the Vatican to give up its clericalism. To end the vast gulf between the clergy and the laity. For Catholics to “take back” their church from the “clerical hierarchy.” I agree. He makes very good arguments for doing that, and explains how this clerical system led directly to the horrific abuses of the Catholic laity, especially women and children of both sexes, that is a major generator of news today.
But I think he overlooks some things, very important when we are talking about liberty (and religion, but I will not address those issues on TPOL).
What we are reading about is liberty – liberty for Catholics. Freedom from aggression, or at least the liberty to defend themselves against aggression. Even (or especially) if that threat comes from within the Roman Catholic Church, or those people and entities associated with the Church of Rome. Like all humans, Catholics deserve to be free – that is their gift from God as it is to all.
But it is often very difficult to be truly and completely free while still a faithful and obedient child of Mother Church. To accept the leadership and position of the Bishop of Rome (the Pope) as the Vicar of Christ. To equate love and obedience of God in Christ with obedience of the pope, and the entire hierarchy right down to the local parish priest. Whether that priest is corrupt or not.
The dissolution of the religious hierarchy, going up from that parish up to Rome itself, would undoubtedly let Roman Catholics – including priests – enjoy more of their God-given liberty.
But it would no longer be the Roman Catholic Church that has existed since (according to many scholars) AD 590 or so, The entire RC Church is built on and around that religious hierarchy: it was the development of the pinnacle of that organization, the primacy of the Bishop of Rome as Pope and Pontiff, that defined the Catholic Church (as contrasted with the Orthodox, Coptic, and other fellowships which grew out of the ecclessia established by Christ in about AD 33. The organizational history of the “Christian movement” of the first three centuries of our common era shows the building of the structure that is the Roman Catholic Church.
That history is (to a lover of liberty, at least) ugly. The voluntary collective leadership of individual, autonomous congregations was replaced by groups of congregations (a diocese) ruled by a single “monarchal” bishop assisted by various priests (pastors) each ruling a congregation (parish). The submission, in turn, of those bishops and their dioceses to archbishops, and then to “patriarchs” which ruled over thousands of congregations and hundreds of thousands of church members, finally accepting the supremacy of one of their number: the guy in Rome.
During that period, the wall between clergy (priests) and laity (everyone else) was erected, so that all power within the congregations (now parishes) and diocese was held by the clergy. Over every member, no matter how their society was organized. The power to read and interpret the Bible (and eventually every aspect of life) was taken from the laity. The power to choose their spiritual leaders was taken away. Decisions as to what to eat and drink, whom to marry, how to worship, how to live, were no longer theirs. By the 1500s, in Europe, that clerical power was nearly absolute: as strong as any mullah in Iraq might have today.
The Roman Catholic Church was a more powerful and more active enemy of human liberty than virtually any government, then or now.
Since then, things have changed a lot, of course.
The Protestant rebellion against Rome, followed by successful revolts of secular authorities against Church control, shattered that situation, even as Roman Catholicism spread into the New World, Africa and Asia. The rise of Socialism, then Communism and now Transnational Socialism, and the success of the “American Experiment” including freedom from monarchy and freedom of religion, speech, and more, caused Catholicism to lose ground. But it took centuries. Into the 20th Century, in fact, Roman Catholicism almost always supported some of the most tyrannical of human governments, colonialism, and a singular absence of liberty. Even in those countries with liberty, the Catholic faithful still submitted to the broad tyranny of the priests and hierarchy. In many things.
And as noted in this article, many used that tyranny to abuse others, and take still more liberty from its members and its community.
But the writer ignores a basic tenet of liberty and Christ’s teachings. That concept is individual responsibility. ALL followers of Christ Jesus are priests, able to go directly to their Father and Savior, by His power. We are free to go to God and obey or disobey HIM, not an ordained priest or bishop or pope. They are not needed.
I don’t think it is possible for Roman Catholicism to accept this basic and fundamental concept. Without a hierarchy, there IS no Roman Catholic Church. People who want to be free, to have true God-given liberty, need to leave it. Reform has tried and failed. There is no reason to think it would succeed now.