James Carroll- “Abolish the Priesthood”

James Carroll has a lengthy article in The Atlantic, “Abolish the Priesthood.” His discussion of the Catholic Church’s problems is highly recommended. I cite some passages below. He recommends that the laity form their own church without priests, while leaving the Church hierarchy essentially untouched. This is wishful thinking.

Carroll emphasizes the problem of ‘clericalism’ – the Church being run for the benefit of its clergy rather than the laity or the Lord. Regardless of the correctness of his diagnosis, the following paragraph is revealing:

Pope John XXIII’s successors were in clericalism’s grip, which is why the reforms of his council were short-circuited. John had, for instance, initiated a reconsideration of the Church’s condemnation of artificial contraception—a commission he established overwhelmingly voted to repeal the ban—but the possibility of that change was preemptively shut down by his successor, Pope Paul VI, mainly as a way of protecting papal authority. Now, with children as victims and witnesses both, the corruption of priestly dominance has been shown for the evil that it is. Clericalism explains both how the sexual-abuse crisis could happen and how it could be covered up for so long. If the structure of clericalism is not dismantled, the Roman Catholic Church will not survive, and will not deserve to.

The background of Vatican II’s decision on birth control is important and little known. Carroll’s link between birth control and child abuse seems tenuous, though his conclusion is plausible.

He elaborates on the place of priests and the problem of clericalism:

For Catholics, priests are the living sacrament of Christ’s presence, delegated above all to consecrate the bread and wine that define the soul of the faith. This symbol of Christ has come to stand for something profoundly wicked. Even as I write that sentence, I think of the good men on whom I have depended for priestly ministry over the years, and how they may well regard my conclusion as a friend’s betrayal. But the institutional corruption of clericalism transcends that concern, and anguish should be reserved for the victims of priests. Their suffering must be the permanent measure of our responses.

Carroll rightly emphasizes the victims versus the sundry atrocities of priests and their superiors. He elaborates on the problem:

While a relatively small number of priests are pedophiles, it is by now clear that a far larger number have looked the other way. In part, that may be because many priests have themselves found it impossible to keep their vows of celibacy, whether intermittently or consistently. Such men are profoundly compromised. Gay or straight, many sexually active priests uphold a structure of secret unfaithfulness, a conspiracy of imperfection that inevitably undercuts their moral grit.

Carroll simply assumes that priests are making individual choices to look the other way. He overlooks the true evil of the Church. In fact, priests are obeying the code of silence their superiors have imposed on them. The Church punishes whistleblowers far more harshly than child abusers.

Carroll generally views Pope Francis favorably, but thinks he falls short when it comes to clericalism. Carroll really hates Ratzinger, though he ignores John Paul:

[Pope Francis] denounces the clerical culture in which abuse has found its niche but does nothing to dismantle it. In his responses, he embodies that culture. I was never surprised when his papal predecessors behaved this way—when, for instance, Cardinal Ratzinger, before becoming Pope Benedict XVI, prohibited bishops from referring cases of predator priests to civil authorities, binding them under what he called the “pontifical secret.” Even now, as a supposedly sidelined pope emeritus, Ratzinger is still defending the old order. In April he published, in a Bavarian periodical, a diatribe that was extraordinary as much for its vanity as for its ignorance. Benedict blamed sex abuse by priests on the moral laxity of the 1960s, the godlessness of contemporary culture, the existence of homosexual cliques in seminaries—and the way his own writings have been ignored. His complaint offered a barely veiled rebuttal to the pontificate of his successor, and is sure to reenergize the present pope’s right-wing critics. But alas, the pope emeritus and his allies may not have real cause for worry. That an otherwise revolutionary pope like Francis demonstrates personally the indestructibility of clericalism is the revelation.

Carroll thinks Pope Francis hates clericalism, but can't practice what he preaches. He ignores the fact that Pope Francis’s special commission in child abuse was an utter travesty, which he himself ignored when holding his “summit” on child abuse- which will probably also turn out to be mere PR. Carroll stresses the victims, but he ignores Pope Francis’ refusal to work with victims on needed reforms.

Carroll’s Proposals

Carroll’s proposed reforms are rather nebulous. He wants the laity to somehow act together, but not within current churches and Catholic infrastructure:


Replacing the diseased model of the Church with something healthy may involve, for a time, intentional absence from services or life on the margins—less in the pews than in the rearmost shadows. But it will always involve deliberate performance of the works of mercy: feeding the hungry, caring for the poor, visiting the sick, striving for justice. These can be today’s chosen forms of the faith. It will involve, for many, unauthorized expressions of prayer and worship—egalitarian, authentic, ecumenical; having nothing to do with diocesan borders, parish boundaries, or the sacrament of holy orders. That may be especially true in so-called intentional communities that lift up the leadership of women. These already exist, everywhere. No matter who presides at whatever form the altar takes, such adaptations of Eucharistic observance return to the theological essence of the sacrament. Christ is experienced not through the officiant but through the faith of the whole community. “For where two or three are gathered in my name,” Jesus said, “there am I in the midst of them.”


Through devotions and prayers and rituals that perpetuate the Catholic tradition in diverse forms, undertaken by a wide range of commonsensical believers, all insisting on the Catholic character of what they are doing. Their ranks would include ad hoc organizers of priestless parishes; parents who band together for the sake of the religious instruction of youngsters; social activists who take on injustice in the name of Jesus; and even social-media wizards launching, say, #ChurchResist. As ever, the Church’s principal organizing event will be the communal experience of the Mass, the structure of which—reading the Word, breaking the bread—will remain universal; it will not need to be celebrated by a member of some sacerdotal caste. The gradual ascendance of lay leaders in the Church is in any case becoming a fact of life, driven by shortages of personnel and expertise. Now is the time to make this ascendance intentional, and to accelerate it. The pillars of Catholicism—gatherings around the book and the bread; traditional prayers and songs; retreats centered on the wisdom of the saints; an understanding of life as a form of discipleship—will be unshaken.

Carroll says nothing about boycotting the Church and withholding donations. Nor does he suggest taking over local churches that might be closing for lack of attendance. Instead, he seems to have visions of a multitude of house churches. He stresses “deliberate performance of the works of mercy: feeding the hungry, caring for the poor, visiting the sick, striving for justice” – which are harder to implement through house churches than larger groups. Furthermore, much “charitable” activity of Church organizations is really funded by the Federal government, and Carroll’s lay groups would probably not have access to these funds.

While urging the creation of lay churches, Carroll assumes that the current church hierarchy and infrastructure will continue as usual. He hopes that it will change over time and divest itself of clericalism, etc., but his proposed lay groups do little if anything to create such changes. It’s as if they occupy parallel universes.

While Carroll does a good job of describing many Church problems, his proposals seem half-baked. As Lord Acton said of the Church long ago, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Clericalism implies that the Church hierarchy is both isolated and insulated from the laity. Laymen have been leaving the Church in droves for decades, and the situation has largely grown worse. As Carroll notes, “In the United States, Catholicism is losing members faster than any other religious denomination. For every non-Catholic adult who joins the Church through conversion, there are six Catholics who lapse.”

If a mass exodus of laymen hasn’t changed the hierarchy, it is highly unlikely that a lay movement toward house churches will. To change the hierarchy, I suspect Catholics will need to use their financial leverage and other means at their disposal. Even with the support of royalty, Martin Luther and his co-workers couldn’t change the hierarchy. Rather than change, the Vatican fought back with a Counter-Reformation, not to mention friendly armies. The Vatican still has powerful allies, and it will take more than prayer groups to change it.


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