The end of the priesthood: Theology and Practice

Par l'abbé Claude Barthe

Français, italiano

“The Church is running out of steam”: this is the message, half-fabricated, that the media in France, Germany, and other countries want to carry around the scandals of sexual abuse. And the message continues: She must thus engage in structural reforms by purging itself of any clericalism with a functioning mode more democratic, more synodal.

It isn’t about refuting the idea that clericalism is bad, if by this term we mean the arrogance of some clergy forgetting that their “part of inheritance”, kleros in Greek, designates first of all the ministry of service. But, the term used as a slogan and in a depreciative way gives echo to the ideological principles of modern society, still more secularized. And, like in the time of French politician Gambetta known for his famous: “Clericalism, here is the enemy”, it is the Catholic priesthood which is being targeted.

A theology of effacement of the priesthood

The same way we had Death of God Theology which “religiously” supports atheism or modern agnosticism[1], we could speak of a Death of the Priesthood Theology giving a “catholic” backing to the effacement of the priesthood in society. Theologians who are engaged in this explore two types of reflections, which do not exclude but complete each other.

  • The synodal perspective calls for the presbyterate and episcopate to be for the people of the specific local Church and emanating from the people. Fr. Hervé Legrand, op, is a good example of this perspective[2]. According to Legrand, we are to get away from the administrative figure of a clergy administrator, as it has become, and to return to its traditional character, something we would concede even it means arguing how it should be done. Legrand would like to return to the model of the organization of the Church at the beginning of the third century, which can be surmised through the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus of Rome. The local Church, he explains, was a community presided by a bishop, the only actual priest, assisted by few presbyters who were not yet sacerdotes. The community chose its shepherd, not bound by any particular state of life (celibate). According to Legrand, we could return to this structure by borrowing from the way permanent deacons are chosen: the local Church would reflect on the type of shepherds she needs, she would call them and would give them a local training, in phase with the culture and necessities of the time, without making celibacy a necessary obligation. Shepherds, in this synodal perspective, would be born of the People of God, to take it on its mission, and the ministerial priesthood would appear as an emanation and a service of the priesthood of the faithful.
  • The perspective of “multiministeriality” (Henri-Jérôme Gagey, Céline Baraud) seeks to integrate, if not to drown, the priesthood in a multitude of lay ministries derived from the charisms of the People of God[3]. At the root, an article from Fr. Joseph Moingt, sj: “The future of ministries in the Catholic Church”[4], which spoke of the possibility to “distribute to other ministers, and notably laity, all or parts of the functions exercised by priests till now.”

Fr. Christoph Theobald, sj, who plays presently a very active role in the commissions in charge of the preparation of the Assembly of the Synod on synodality, along with theologians such as Arnaud Join-Lambert (Switzerland), Alphonse Borras (Belgium), Gilles Routhier (Quebec), sees the future as this[5]: in Western Europe, the rare priests of tomorrow will have to be “passing priests”, on the road, who will educate Christians to the faith, will grow their sense of responsibilities, and then will go, leaving the place to lay ministers who will ensure a presence of the Church in the governing of the communities, in the service of the Word (predication, catechesis, liturgy, one on one meeting which could compensate somewhat the sacrament of penance), in the hospitality (welcoming faithful and new comers). The “passing priests” will be incidentally identified and chosen by the communities among those who will be in charge of these plural ministries. And rather than a specialized formation in seminaries, the whole of those involved and even the whole of the community will be able to benefit from an ongoing formation.

A laitization of the ecclesiastic staff

Vatican II, a very innovative council in essence since it wanted to overtake Tridentine doctrine, was however, in its documents, a council of transaction between progress and tradition, a patch-up job according to historian Yvon Tranvouez, intended to win a quasi unanimous support. The teaching and the political governance which followed the Council, whatever the orientation of Roman authorities, whether they be Montinian, Wojtylo-Ratzingerian, Bergoglian, were transactional: there was always the idea of showing good intention towards a certain “openness” or on the contrary towards practicing a “realignment to the center”, but without any excess on one side or the other so to avoid, in both cases, to shatter the Conciliar machine. Yet, the laitization of the ecclesiastic staff, and consequently the effacement of the priesthood, though less radical than the theological movements mentioned earlier would have liked it to be, is still very real.

First of all, there is this important fact that the “openness” engaged by the Council was understood by the clergy as implying the necessity to adapt to the secularization of society, and this without any opportunity for discussion. At the beginning especially, this clerical secularization incidentally encouraged considerably the social secularization. This lead to clerics abandoning the ecclesiastical dress, more serious, abandoning the ecclesiastical state, the transformation of the religious life, with as a consequence the rarefaction of vocation because of the loss of the sense of this state in the eye of young Catholics.

As to the Roman decisions of governing (falling under the “auctoritas gubernandi), which have by necessity a doctrinal aspect (faculties docent), they were liturgical and institutional.

In this way, Paul VI when guiding and then implementing Vatican II, while maintaining firm the principle of priestly celibacy (Encyclical Sacerdotalis Cælibatus of 24 June 1967), made three choices which had heavy consequences:

  • When he instituted, with Lumen gentium n.29, contrary to the antic discipline of celibacy, a diaconate as proper and permanent hierarchical degree for men eventually married and not destined to the priesthood. In close proximity with the priesthood thus was formed a staff sociologically more secular than clerical which keeps on growing (in France, between 2000 and 2019, the number of permanent deacons has almost doubled, from 1,499 to 2,794, whilst the number of active priests went from 5,000 down to 3,000).
  • When he abrogated with his motu proprio Ministeria quædam, of 15 August 1972, the Sub-Diaconate and the minor orders, replacing them by simple instituted ministries of Lectors, Acolytes, whose recipients remain simple lay persons[6]. To which was added the distribution of communion by laity, men and women (Instruction Immensæ caritatis of 29 January 1973).
  • When he made quasi automatic the dispensation from celibacy for priests dismissed from the clerical state because they had left it of they own (Norms of 1971). An intention good in itself so they would not remain in a sinful situation but which produced an effect eminently permissive, like an outflow, an encouragement to leave. John Paul II’s tentative to make this dispensation less available (Norms of 1980) actually failed.

John Paul II and Benedict XVI have published beautiful texts to exalt the priesthood and celibacy (Exhortation Pastores dabo vobis of 25 March 1992), but pope Wojtyla and his successor did not even considered going back on the presence around the altar of laity involved in the liturgical actions, men and women, as lectors, altar servers, or communion ministers.

Lastly, Francis expanded the measures taken by his predecessors:

  • When approving the final document of the Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Amazon region who suggested that in the absence of priests in the communities, bishop could entrust for a certain time the exercise of the pastoral charge to a lay person, in turns (n.96). As a result, the exhortation Querida Amazonia, of 2 February 2020, decided that responsible laity endowed with authority could preside to the life of the communities, specially to make apparent the diverse charism of the laity, in order “to permit the growth of a specific ecclesial culture that is distinctively lay”, as it is emphasized in the text (n.94).
  • When publishing the Motu proprio Spiritus Domini of 11 January 2021 which modified Canon 230 § 1 and allowed the ministries of Lectors and Acolyte to be conferred to women, more evidently lay so to speak (decision which was incidentally purely out of principle, since women already exercised the functions).

Contradictions of an ideological synodality

Isn’t it, though, contradictory that some want so badly to have synodality recognized by official documents emanating from the central Roman authority? Why wouldn’t the local Churches or the communities grounded in their experience decide for themselves to implement the “specific ecclesial culture, distinctively lay”? Why, in relation to the needs of the communities and the charisms of their members, doesn’t this multiministeriality emanate from the mist of lay Christians? In fact, no one imagines that the synodality, life of the Church at the base and by the base, be not instituted (or augmented) any other way but by decrees emanating from above! Actually, since Vatican II, the Tridentine centralization that has served an anti-Tridentine doctrinal content has never been so absolute, with an ecclesiastic system totally locked, with bishops acting like prefects, a pope acting absolute, a curia full of activists, Synodal and Episcopal assemblies whose members practice self-censorship with a remarkable effectiveness, all devoted to a group ideologically closed on itself.

Unless salvation is actually found in synodality, a true synodality that is, as one of a Church where pope, bishops, priests, faithful exercise in a responsible manner, within a true order of things, the service of the transmission of the Good Deposit and of its diffusion through the mission. In short, to say it bluntly, we wish for the advent of a traditional synodality which would break the constraint of the ideological synodality. We spoke in our editorial of Res Novæ n.20, from June 2020 (“A Schism by Abdication of Authority”), of the need to trigger salutary crisis, Catholic crisis, liberating acts, when bishops, priests and faithful would enable themselves the opportunity to do what is good for the Church.

Fr. Claude Barthe

[1] See a Catholic version of Death of God Theology in Christian Duquoc’s work, Dieu différent, Cerf, 1977: The God who reveals Himself in Jesus Christ is a fragile and dying God, a God different from the one of reason and even the God of the Old Testament.
[2] “La théologie de la vocation aux ministères ordonnés. Vocation ou appel de l’Église”, La Vie spirituelle, December 1998, pp. 621-640 ; “Ordonner des pasteurs. Plaidoyer pour le retour à l’équilibre traditionnel des énoncés doctrinaux relatifs à l’ordination”, Recherches de Science religieuse, April 2021, pp. 219-238.
[3] Joseph Doré and Maurice Vidal (editor), Des ministres pour l’Église, Cerf, 2001; Céline Béraud, Prêtres, diacres, laïcs. Révolution silencieuse dans le catholicisme français, PUF, 2007.
[4] Études, July 1973, pp. 129-141.
[5] Urgences pastorales. Comprendre, partager, réformer, Bayard, 2017.
[6] Peter Kwasniewski, Ministers of Christ: Recovering the Roles of Clergy and Laity in an Age of Confusion, Sophia Institute Press, 2021