Abolish the Priesthood?

In view of the weight of claims for the episcopal consecration of women and the “empowerment” of the laity one keeps hearing in French dioceses, I did a search on Google to see if anyone had seriously considered abolishing the priesthood completely. I came across Abolish the Priesthood! and read the article on the Association of Catholic Priests website. I can’t help thinking of the absurd scenario of Hitler issuing an order to sink the Bismarck!

In so many of these calls for “reform” along Protestant lines but going much further, my question is – Why not go all the way? Abolish religion? The would-be church reformer meets the atheist on common ground. All the same, we are brought to ask whether Christ instituted the Priesthood through the Last Supper and allowing himself to be sacrificed as the “proto” priest and the victim in order to bring about the Redemption. Or is this all rubbish, and was Christ’s mission merely a moral one, or even a political one?

I have made many criticisms of clericalism and ecclesiastical bureaucracy, but I clearly separate them from the sacramental Priesthood. I am not enough of a historian to go into the question of the point at which early Christians expressed an explicit notion of the priesthood and episcopate. For the episcopate, it looks like the Epistles of Saint Ignatius of Antioch, but the notion of a Priesthood would seem much older. I would appreciate help from readers.

In the meantime, this is interesting – Were there priests in the early church? Garry Wills says no. He’s wrong, and here’s why.

On the other hand, the thirst some (not always women) have for the ordination of women and therefore their admission into the clerical caste seems to contradict their desire to see the priesthood disappear. It does occur to me that the priesthood would go, but clericalism would remain. Don’t count on me to have anything to do with such a church!

The confusion of priesthood with clericalism seems to be the hub of the whole question. The priesthood is blamed for the sins of clericalism, and then a priestly clericalism is then replaced by a lay clericalism with the same spirit of bureaucracy, tyranny and un-Christian spirit. It isn’t because a priest is able to bring about the sacramental bodily presence of Christ at Mass that is a problem. The problem is when he considers himself to be there to be served and not to serve. That is clericalism, not priesthood.

Is there any historical basis to the assertion that the early Church was priestless and that the Eucharist was a later invention? This article comes up with an amazing notion, certainly unintended but of significance to us Anglicans.

… criticises those who argue for the ordination of women or men in married or gay relationships, suggesting that the most honest position would be one that seeks the abolition of priesthood entirely.

The problem for the reformer is that abolishing the priesthood would mean abolishing the clerical state. But that ain’t going to happen. The reformer will replace the priest with the cleric who is not a priest. Those who guillotined the king in 1793 would be tyrants such as Louis XVI never was. This is the nature of revolution. The claim is made that the Church without the priesthood would be egalitarian and just for all, but this is an illusion. The new clericalism would be much worse than the old. The “lay clerical” church exists here in France and elsewhere – and it isn’t making converts!

What is needed is for priests to put aside clericalism and bureaucracy to bring out the sublimity of our vocation in spiritual and pastoral terms. We need to develop the doctrine and spirituality of the priesthood, and be able to live this vocation even when we are in the catacombs, wearing lay dress because the cassock has taken on a political meaning to replace its spiritual symbolism, celebrating Mass alone because the world is indifferent to it and what it means. Being a priest is like a tiny boat on the immense sea – the Lord must increase as we decrease.

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