For the Dissidents, We’re All Priests Now

While faithful Catholics concluded their celebration of the Year of the Priest only last spring, a coalition of dissident organizations like Call to Action, Voice of the Faithful, and the Women’s Ordination Conference have issued a “universal call to ministry” to help build a “non-clerical Catholic Church in which the laity reclaims their baptismal priesthood.” Promising a “radically inclusive understanding of the role and responsibilities of all the Baptized,” the dissident groups are planning to hold the American Catholic Council during Pentecost to encourage the laity to “remove the two-tiered system that separates the ordained from the non-ordained.” For the dissidents, we’re all priests now.

Well, maybe not all of us. One of the endorsers of the American Catholic Council, Paul Lakeland, a professor of Catholic Thought at Fairfield University, has promoted what he calls the “non-clerical church” but maintains that not all members of the laity have the same gifts to bring to ministry. He writes in his book Catholicism at the Crossroads: How the Laity Can Save the Church, “I am not so sure that someone who is also a plumber or an accountant is necessarily adding to the skills valuable to an ordained minister.” Rather, Lakeland, an ex-Jesuit priest who left the priesthood to marry, suggests that educators (like himself) would be the most logical choice for ministerial leadership once the celibacy requirement is lifted.

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And although we can never know another’s motivation for this kind of spiritual quest, once you scratch the surface of many of the organizers and endorsers of the “non-clerical church” movement, you find individuals with sadness or anger over feeling left out. From women who want to be ordained, to gays and lesbians who want the Church to recognize the goodness of their sexual relationships, to married ex-priests who long to celebrate the Eucharist again, the desire for an inclusive Church that welcomes their ministerial gifts is what unites them. Lakeland’s proposed priesthood is a new and improved model that welcomes women, non-celibate men, and gays and lesbians: “Some will be called to a ministry of leadership, including Eucharistic presidency, while others will be called to minister to the local community in a variety of different ways.”

More than two decades ago, Pope John Paul II predicted this problem during a visit to the United States in 1987. In a discussion on the dangers of confusing the role of the clergy and the laity, the pope spoke supportively of the role of lay participation in parish life but declined to use the term “lay ministry” in referring to this role. In fact, John Paul warned that, in the move to empower the laity in ministry activities, “we run the risk of clericalizing the laity or laicizing the clergy.”

Paul Lakeland

While the Church has attempted to accommodate married men who feel called to ministry by creating the permanent diaconate, Lakeland calls that role in the Church a “monster species that the Bishops have invented.” For Lakeland, creating the conditions for what he calls a “more adult church” will require us “to insist on a thoroughly inclusive attitude. An adult church will be a welcoming church.” In a chapter of his book titled “An Open Church in an Open Society,” Lakeland accuses the current Catholic Church of being “in the business of exclusion.” To rectify this, he claims that “baptism leads inexorably to the restoration of the priesthood of all the baptized, a notion that was all but eclipsed by the Catholic obsession with the nature, rights and powers of the ordained ministry.” He suggests that the “clergy need to see the laity as their equals, not just before God, but in the daily life of the Church. And, the laity need to abandon their fear of speaking out. They need to grow up.”

Bernard Cooke, another married ex-Jesuit priest, echoes Lakeland’s call for an “open Church” movement — but in some ways, Cooke is even more strident in his call for a renewed priesthood of the laity. Critical of the elevated status of ordained priests over the laity, Cooke’s book The Future of the Eucharist claims that, although a liturgical leader may preside, “it is the community that celebrates the Eucharist.” A longtime visiting professor at the University of San Diego, Cooke has stated publicly that “the existence of a socially privileged group [i.e., priests] within the Church is not meant to be…. I hope that in a relatively short time, the inappropriate division between clergy and laity will vanish.”

Criticizing the current separation of ordained from laity has characterized Cooke’s career for the past 30 years. Claiming that the shortage of priests will lead to a “liturgical starvation” for an expanding U.S. Catholic population, Cooke’s solution is to empower the laity and allow married priests to assume leadership once again. A member of CORPUS, an advocacy organization of former priests — mostly married — that lobbies for optional celibacy in the Catholic Church, Cooke is also a board member of Call to Action, one of the organizations spearheading the American Catholic Council. It is no coincidence that Detroit has been chosen for the site of the American Catholic Council meeting on Pentecost: For the dissidents, the first Call to Action Conference in Detroit in 1976 is kind of a Catholic Woodstock that these now-aging revolutionaries all speak of as the most hopeful time of the Church — a time when the “promise of Vatican II” was most vivid to them.

The reality of the first Call to Action meeting in Detroit is closer to what one First Things editor called it: “the low-point in post-Vatican II American Catholic unity.” The 1976 Conference began with calls for structural change in the Church and then progressed to demanding access to ordination for women and married men, changes in Church teachings on gay and lesbian sexual relationships, and full reproductive “rights” for women. Today, Call to Action goes beyond most other dissenting Catholic groups in combining dissent against Church teaching with New Age and wiccan spirituality. Membership draws heavily from former clergy and feminist nuns seeking to reform what they view as the “sinful structure” of the patriarchal Church.

A few years ago, the activities of Call to Action were deemed to be “so irreconcilable with a coherent living of the Catholic faith” that the Vatican publicly affirmed an Episcopal decree of excommunication for any member of the dissident organization. Claiming that Call to Action is “totally incompatible with the Catholic faith” and is “causing great damage to the Church of Christ,” Cardinal Giovanni Battista confirmed that membership in Call to Action causes the member to be automatically excommunicated from the Catholic Church. Despite this, many Catholic theologians teaching on Catholic campuses retain an active membership in Call to Action, openly participating in meetings and conferences.


We’re All Infallible, Too — Except the Pope

One of the reasons that theologians have confidently challenged the teaching authority of the Catholic Church is because many left-leaning theologians believe that they already form an “alternative magisterium,” which interprets and implements the judgments of bishops and popes.

Woven throughout the writings of liberal Catholic theologians like Paul Lakeland are questions about papal infallibility — and error. In The Liberation of the Laity, Lakeland makes the claim that the whole body of the faithful shares in the Spirit guaranteed infallibility of the Church. Former New York Times religion writer, Peter Steinfels, goes even further by arguing that “it is possible for popes, despite the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to fall into tragic error. Many liberal Catholics believe that was probably the case in the 1968 issuance of Humanae Vitae and cannot be ruled out in the refusal of ordination to women.”

There have been many times that this alternative magisterium has been used to defy the infallible teachings of the pope. Most recently, in the case of an elective abortion that was performed in an Arizona Catholic hospital, the leaders of the hospital defended their actions by saying that they “received permission” to perform the abortion from a theologian at Marquette. Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix rejected that explanation and upheld his excommunication of the hospital administrator who provided permission for the abortion.

Leonardo Boff

Still, the dissident groups rely on the alternative magisterium — often rejecting the authority of their episcopal leaders. The Women’s Ordination Conference often draws upon the work of theologians like Cooke and University of Santa Clara professor Gary Macy, who argue that recently discovered and allegedly previously hidden biblical texts — including the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary, and even the Dead Sea Scrolls — preserve memories of an age when women were far more important in the Church than later writers would indicate. Many of the women affiliated with the women’s ordination movement believe that there was a time when women were apostles and prophets, leaders and bishops. And they can draw on a long list of theologians who will support that belief — despite denials from most of their bishops.

Leonardo Boff, a Brazilian theologian instrumental in the liberation theology movement who was later disciplined by the Vatican because of his heretical writings, is the theologian most frequently cited by feminists critical of Catholic teachings on women’s ordination and reproductive choice. Boff’s book Essays in Militant Ecclesiology drew concern from the Vatican because it “distorted doctrine.” The Office of the Congregation of Christian Doctrine (then headed by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger) reprimanded Boff for employing ideological perspectives from history, philosophy, sociology, and politics which were not informed by theology. Cardinal Ratzinger accused Boff of suggesting that Jesus did not determine the specific form and structure of the Church, implying that other models besides the Roman Catholic Church might be consistent with the gospel. While Boff claimed that “it is the life of the Spirit in the Church that protects faith against encrustation in timeless truths that can only negate spiritual progress,” Cardinal Ratzinger feared that such a doctrine of the Spirit would “legitimate the ideological whim of the moment.”


Dissidents’ Role Is to ‘Help the Laity to Name Their Oppression’

For Lakeland, the role of lay theologians is to “engage in the process of the conscientization of the Catholic laity.” He writes: “Helping the laity to name their oppression is probably the most important thing the theologian can currently do for the Church, and the lot falls upon lay theologians because only they share the experience of being lay that is a prerequisite for the effective solidarity that must emerge.” In his book The Liberation of the Laity, Lakeland asserts that “it is time for the Church to begin to democratize many of its processes.”

The choice of Pentecost for the gathering of the American Catholic Council is no coincidence. Like Lakeland and Cooke and other liberation theologians, Catholic feminist theologians like Rosemary Reuther maintain that the Church has no right to interfere with a woman’s right to priestly ordination — or the ordination of non-celibate men — stressing the “emergent” message of the Holy Spirit working through the “people of God” to support these practices.

Retired San Francisco Archbishop John R. Quinn has supported these structural changes in his book Papal Primacy and the Costly Call to Christian Unity. Quinn’s book argues for decreased papal authority with more control granted to bishops, as well as parishioner involvement in the selection of bishops. Quinn believes that the “reunification of Christendom cannot be achieved unless such changes are implemented.”

In a lecture at Oxford University’s Campion Hall in 1996, Archbishop Quinn criticized the Roman Curia for disregarding the needs of the local Church and for “blind, rigid application of Church law.” Quinn also stated that the Vatican should reopen discussion of such issues as the ordination of women, birth control, and married priests. For Quinn, the papacy is located within the college of bishops: “This means that the pope cannot be understood to be outside and above the episcopacy. In other words, the normal exercise of the papal office must be collegial.” The American Catholic Council has promised prospective attendees that there will be “at least one bishop” in attendance at the Detroit gathering.

In some ways, it seems that this older generation of bishops and priests are embarrassed by their own authority. Coming of age in the egalitarian Sixties, when all authority — including episcopal authority — was contested, it seems that many of these prelates are reluctant to even admit that they have authority. This is not just an American problem. During Pope Benedict XVI’s recent trip to Britain, Archbishop Bernard Longley had a difficult time responding to a question from the media about the vestments worn by priests and bishops in the papal ceremonies by minimizing the role of the clergy. Rather than explaining that the vestments are an important signifier that the clergy are about to do something that only an ordained priest can do (consecrating the Eucharist), Archbishop Longley said that “the cloaks and cassocks aren’t used to set the clergy apart from the Catholic laity. They are symbols of service to God.”

That’s really not true. The vestments are indeed intended to set the ordained ministers apart from the laity. The clergy are different from the laity — and the clergy needs to remind the dissidents of that fact. The distinctive chasubles and mitres signify that, when the priests and bishops wear these vestments, they are doing something that is not “ordinary.” They are doing something that the laity cannot do — no matter how much they may want to do it. God has chosen these men to do extraordinary things, and we need to continue to be reminded of that — even if some of our episcopal leaders seem reluctant to do so.


Aging Out of Dissidence

The majority of the self-described “Revolutionaries in Rockports” who will be gathering in Detroit are over 60 years old. Perhaps we need not worry that they can continue to have a major influence on the people of the Church. But this neglects the fact that the students enrolled in graduate theology programs continue to be influenced by dissident theology professors like Lakeland, Cooke, Macy, and others. Their students will learn to form the alternative magisterium of the future as they too complete graduate programs and continue the cycle of disobedience.

But unlike in the past, these dissidents will be confronted by a new generation of priests and bishops who are unafraid to correct them. A few courageous bishops have already spoken out about the dangers to the faithful that the American Catholic Council poses. In a letter posted on the Detroit archdiocesan website, Archbishop Alan Vigneron has asked the organizers to cancel their plans for their Detroit gathering that “distorts the true Spirit of Vatican II.” He also asked us all “to pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit so that we may embrace authentic development of faith and morals and shun efforts which threaten unity.”

Young priests and bishops show a dramatic difference from the older ones in terms of finding joy in their identity as priests. In a 2002 study on “Priestly Identity” by Catholic University sociologist Dean Hoge, the generational divide is quite apparent. Hoge found that 30 percent of priests 56 to 65 saw the notion of a priest as a “man set apart” as a barrier to Christian community. This is double the rate of priests age 25 to 35. Only 30 percent of the younger priests said they would welcome optional celibacy, as opposed to 70 percent of the older priests who were open to a married priesthood.

Still, there is a sadness that one cannot help but feel when reading the books by the married former priests and the women who want to be ordained. It is clear that they genuinely believe that they have been called to the priesthood. But they seem to forget that a genuine calling to the priesthood could not involve women and married men.

The priesthood is a special calling, and those who are priests are grateful for this calling. A Los Angeles Times survey conducted in 2002 found that, even in the midst of the clergy abuse scandal, 70 percent of priests said that they were “very satisfied” with their calling, and 21 percent said they were “somewhat satisfied” — for a total of 91 percent. Dean Hoge’s 2002 study found that 97 percent of priests said administering the Sacraments and presiding over liturgies was their greatest source of satisfaction. Catholic priests are part of the mystery that the Catholic faithful still view with awe and honor. Priests make the transcendent real for us — and that is something that the alternative magisterium can never hope to do.


  • Anne Hendershott

    Anne Hendershott is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville, OH. She is the author of The Politics of Envy (Crisis Publications, 2020).

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