From Hurt to Healing, Appendix II

We can no longer sustain the theology of the priest as “Christ among us” without a serious credibility problem. The activity of the Holy Spirit has not been evident among our bishops of late, with very few exceptions. Instead the Truth has been spoken by the “anawim” the oppressed minority, those whom the Church has rejected: the victims of abuse and their family members and supporters. And the champion of God’s Truth has not been the “Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith” but the secular press, The Boston Globe, The New York Times.

The credibility of the Catholic priesthood as an organ of Christ’s Truth, Justice, and Compassion has been profoundly compromised. Revisiting the theology of the “Priesthood of the People” is one way to redeem that credibility. Discernment of the work of the Holy Spirit is a responsibility of the whole Church which is together the “Body of Christ.”

 The mythologizing of “priesthood.”

It is my belief that one of the reasons sexual abuse of children has been so prevalent in the Catholic Church is the easy access priests have had to our children. And this easy access is, I believe, a consequence of the mythologizing of the priesthood. In the Catholic tradition priests have been presented as superior human beings; they were closer to God than the rest of us; they were Christ’s very presence in the community.  And despite the presence of a theology of the “priesthood of the people” in our tradition, this singular and exclusive emphasis on the role of the ordained priest has returned as the dominant view.

Thanks to you priests, Christ is always sacramentally present in his Church . . . Christ speaks through you: as a result “Christ proclaims Christ.” Who offers the Eucharist?   You, but not alone: through you it is Christ who acts: He is the same now offering, through the ministry of the priests, who formerly offered himself on the Cross.

Pope John Paul II, Fourth International Meeting of Priests, 2000

Catholics in my parents generation had an absolutely naïve trust in their priests. They sent their children on day outings with priests; they sent their children to sleep over at the rectory; they sent their children on overnight trips with priests. And no one ever worried about their sons being altar boys. Priests were beyond reproach. I have watched as a middle-aged Catholic wept over his decision to send his son to sleep over at the rectory. He was convinced it would be good for his son who was having a tough time getting along with his dad. He hoped the priests would counsel him; instead the priest molested him. My own parents more easily believed that I was a liar than that a priest friend of theirs had molested me as a child for more than four years. When I told them my story, the priest was already dead. Yet their loyalty remained stronger to him than to their own daughter, even after his death.

This tendency that Catholics have to “deify” their priests is dangerous, and for many Catholics it has not changed in recent years, despite the revelations of hundreds of pedophiles in the priesthood. It needs to change. I believe there are a number of things that can be done to create a healthier view of the priesthood and facilitate the healing of wounds created by pedophile priests, but it will require a change of theology not just a change of attitude.

Celibacy and the priesthood.

Is the call to celibacy an integral part of the call to priesthood? If the Apostles are our role models as ministers of the Word, the first Christianity community leaders, the first ministers of the Eucharist, and they were married men, then obviously Jesus did not consider celibacy an integral part of the role. On the other hand, Jesus was celibate. But I suggest that to use Jesus as the model for priesthood instead of using the Apostles, while convenient for the supporters of celibacy, is not theologically appropriate. Jesus WAS the Word of God; Jesus was God. Jesus was therefore unique. No human being can legitimately claim to “fill the shoes” of Jesus. In fact, in our theology it takes the whole Church to be the Body of Christ, not just one man (I Cor.12:12f).

Gender and the priesthood.

Is being a male a prerequisite for receiving the call to priesthood?  As the creation story in Genesis chapter one expresses, we are each made in the image and likeness of God. Gender does not interfere with the “God-like-ness” that is ontologically part of us. But Jesus was a man, so can we not assume that it was God’s will that the Messiah be a man?

Those who have studied the culture of first century Palestine and the theology of the ancient Jews know that the status of women was not equal to that of men in either culture or society. Women were not considered strong enough to be held accountable to the rigors of the Torah as a way of life, and wives were still considered part of the property rights of the husband (Ex. 20:17). So a female “Daughter of God” sent to be the Messiah would not have “left the gate” in the race for recognition by the Jews. More likely she would have been shunned as one of the insane. God’s presence to us as a man was therefore culturally expedient. But was it theologically necessary?

Taking a different approach, our theology teaches that Jesus is the full and total revelation of what it means to be human; he is the role model for all who wish to become “fully human,” as God intended us, whether male or female. If then, Jesus’ maleness was not essential to the fulfillment of his humanity, and if the gender of the Messiah was a matter of cultural expediency not ontological necessity, why should maleness be an essential requirement for the Christian priesthood?

But what about the gender of the Apostles, or of the disciples? Weren’t they all men? One of the most amazing things about Jesus, given the culture in which he lived, was the trust he placed in women to be ministers of his Word. Jesus revealed his identity to two women who then became his messengers. The story of the Samaritan woman at the well is told in John’s Gospel, and Mary Magdalene’s story is told in all four Gospels. According to John’s Gospel, the Samaritan woman was the first one to publicly testify about the identity of Jesus as the Messiah. She carried the “Good News” of the presence of the Messiah to her community. Yet, the fact of her many husbands seems to have been the focus of greater interest in Christian tradition than her role in John’s Gospel as the first preacher of the Word.

In all four gospels Mary Magdalene was the first witness and messenger of the resurrection—the event that for Christians established Jesus once and for all, unambiguously, as the divine son of God, not just an earthly Messiah. She was the first person to carry the “Good News” of Jesus’ resurrection to his followers. In fact, in John’s Gospel Jesus commissions Peter to “feed his sheep” after Mary Magdalene has already announced the resurrection to the Apostles and disciples. Yet, despite her significance in the Gospel story, Catholic theology had, until recent scholarship revealed otherwise, painted Mary Magdalene as a repentant prostitute, an interpretation for which there is no biblical evidence. This interpretation, which can be traced back to Pope Gregory the Great in the 5th century, has provided the basis for great homilies on repentance and the power of God’s forgiveness, but at the expense of the reputation of someone whose witness to the resurrected  Jesus could be viewed as the beginning of the Church.

Although the decline of Mary of Magdala’s reputation as apostle and leader most likely began shortly after her death, the transformation to penitent prostitute was sealed on Sept. 14, 591 when Pope Gregory the Great gave a homily in Rome that pronounced that Mary Magdalene, Luke’s unnamed sinner, and Mary of Bethany were, indeed, the same person. “She whom Luke calls the sinful woman, whom John calls Mary, we believe to be the Mary from whom seven devils were ejected according to Malcolm,” Gregory said in his 23rd homily. “And what did these seven devils signify, if not all the vices?. . .  It is clear, brothers, that the woman previously used the unguent to perfume her flesh in forbidden acts . . .”   Sr. Cheryl Clemons, Brescia University.

Could it be argued that the story of the Samaritan woman is simply a fictional vehicle for John’s theology? Perhaps. After all, John’s gospel is the most theological of the four gospels, showing little in common with the Synoptic Gospels. Yet, if the story of the Samaritan woman is John’s theology rather than an historical event, then this is what John came to believe represents the Truth Jesus preached. In a similar way John’s “I am” sayings are understood to represent John’s post-resurrection belief in the identity of Jesus as the divine Son of God.  The significance of Jesus’ choice of women to be Apostles of his Word was not lost on St. Dominic or the Dominicans, for whom Mary Magdalene is the patron saint, and for whom the preaching of the Truth of Jesus has never been understood as a charism given only to the male members of the Dominican Order.