A considered reflection from a long-time believer is a force never to be taken lightly. Garry Wills is a lifelong Catholic and an intellectual. His book, Why Priests? A Failed Tradition, was recommended to me by a friend and it is indeed a book that raises most profound questions. To someone born Protestant, such as the current writer, many of the arguments Wills marshals are strangely familiar. Many were lobbed in Fundamentalist harangues where clergy that believe in a literal six-day creation proved surprisingly adroit at finding the chinks in Catholic armor. The New Testament says nothing about the Christian movement having its own priests. And even the explicit command that seems to have come from Jesus—call no man father—is immediately reversed once priests become a fixture in a priestless faith. Wills explores the origins of these practices not to tear apart the religion of which he remains a loyal part, but to suggest that religious tolerance is the only proper solution. It is amazing how much of Catholic thought goes back to the disputed book of Hebrews with its mysterious Melchizedek.
While I have never been a Catholic, I have always been haunted by the idea that my religion was some kind of innovation. After all, the stakes were beyond stratospheric. If you pick the wrong one, at least according to what I was taught, Hell awaits at the end of the day. Then I discovered that my own Fundamentalism also had a history. We were called Protestants because we protested Catholicism. As I moved into the Methodist tradition, at least there seemed to be a continuity—John Wesley was an Anglican and Anglicans were really kind of English Catholics. Or so it seemed. Naturally, I became an Episcopalian since going Roman seemed like it came with exceptional amounts of accretions that were clearly not biblical. Such accretions are much of what Wills explores. Traditions that become doctrine. And exclusive. Those on the outside can hope for Purgatory at best, and the very Hell I was trying to avoid remained a distinct possibility. Who was right?
Religions suffer with time. The faith that Jesus seems to have proclaimed had already altered by the time Paul put pen to parchment. Ask any Gnostic. Already, within just three decades, the question became “now what did he say again?” And what exactly did he mean? The core of that message seemed to be love above all else, but that doesn’t make for sexy doctrine. Exclusivity achieves what love could never accomplish. Wills explores how sacraments evolved, and how Scripture became a sword dividing believer from believer. His most sensible solution? Its time to get beyond priests. He doesn’t actually suggest doing away with them, but asks Catholics why they don’t consider closely the implications of their roots. Melchizedek takes on a stature greater than anyone seems to have imagined for an imaginary figure. And a lifelong believer here asks the most basic of questions: what is Christianity truly about?
The tragedy that has been unfolding in the Ukraine has brought to light some unlikely heroes. A story on NBC last week showcased, albeit briefly, priests on the front lines. In a world where joining the clergy is often a way to avoid the dark and dreary reality of war and want, it is strangely heartening to see (in this case) men of the cloth willing to walk into danger. These are people who truly do believe. Sometimes it is easy, sitting safely behind a computer monitor in a relatively quiet neighborhood, to believe that the world is a peaceful place. Even a walk through the “cleaned up” parts of Manhattan will reveal, however, that human need is very real and omnipresent. Perhaps it is just the times when I’m out—it is winter after all, and we do value our comfort—but I seldom see clearly identifiable clergy on the streets of Manhattan unless they are trying to convert. The homeless almost always are sitting alone. The chill this winter has been almost Siberian. Where do the helpless turn?
Seminary is not the training ground for combat. At least not in the way that armed conflict brings. As a student and teacher in a seminary setting, I was constantly watching for signs of hope. It takes a truly remarkable individual to engage in caring for those who need it. Far too often “minister” is a job, with benefits, because that is the only way to get along in a world enamored of capitalism. That clerical shirt can be quite costly—who wants to sully it with human need? The world inside the church is often artificial. If the people are not inspired to go out and help, then we’ve just wasted another hour in a feel-good social gathering. We’ve learned to tune out the bitter lessons of life. Yes, there are war zones. Some with real guns and the dead we see in photographs used to be people just like us. Who cares for them? A cassock can cost upward of 600 dollars. How many warm meals would that buy for the woman sitting on the sidewalk with a baby on her lap and a handwritten sign on cardboard in front of her nearly empty paper cup?
Too often religions become ingrown. The job of missionaries is to convert, not to comfort. We would like to crawl into a world where people are safe and happy, but the moment we wander outdoors—and the mall doesn’t count—we find a different reality at work. It is difficult for me to read about current events. The Olympics are not the only reality of the world of the former Soviet Union. There are others who will never be recognized with gold, silver, or bronze, They may walk into the crossfire holding aloft a brass cross to indicate that they are there to try to help. No great cheer arises, no great ceremony for torches that have fictionally burned since ancient times. There is a fire here, however. It is the fire of human warmth. In this long winter, it is an honest flame of hope.
When does religion itself cross that invisible line into becoming the object of idolatry? In a world of an entire marketplace (“bazaar” might be a better word-choice) of religions, where each consumer selects his or her product, some take that choice with such conviction that the religion itself becomes their god. In ancient times religion was often a matter of ensuring that the gods were not angry. The average citizen had little control over this since the religious life of city-states and nations was the responsibility of the priesthood. Just pay your temple taxes and shut up. A religion anyone can live with. Last night as we discussed Jeremiah’s temple sermon in class the point became clear: even the God-chosen, fully approved temple in Jerusalem could become an idol.
Watching political candidates and parties and factions of parties posturing (apart from reminding one of peacocks and other showy birds) for possible election, they fly high the flags of their faith and hope that the market favors their brand. It is clear among many of their constituencies that the religions themselves have become objects of worship. How else can the rancor among a deeply divided Christianity (as only one example) be explained? Families and friends are torn apart by a common faith while ministers with the dubious benefit of seminary egg them on. Having been subjected to seminary as both student and instructor, I tremble when I think how clergy are trained. A holy nationalism pervades religions, transforming the faithful into armies that some, unfortunately, end up taking literally.
All the endless debates about religious violence and evolution and abortion should have taught us by now: no one has God in the witness stand. Our religions are our best guesses, no more, no less. In the face of great uncertainty many turn to the bravado of a faith that is willing to murder in order to prove its point. If God is really watching all this, perhaps a humble acceptance might be more appropriate? I think old Jeremiah might have agreed. Of course, he likely died at the hands of his own people who didn’t like his version of religion. That’s where the prophets have gone.
A small item from the Star-Ledger wire services proclaims, “Former priest accused of trying to hire hit man.” Since the story was bylined Texas I started to wonder if the accused was someone I knew. Nashotah House boasted more Texans than any other statehood citizenship when I was there, so it was natural enough of a gut-level reaction. Fortunately, it was wrong. A former Catholic priest named John Fiala stands accused of trying to hire a neighbor to assassinate a teenager who’d accused him of sexual abuse. In a travesty of at least three of the ten commandments, a man of the cloth allegedly attempted to bare false witness (the error is intentional).
We hold clergy to a high standard in our society. The mystique of being “called” by God, secreted away in a provocatively named “seminary,” and emerging ontologically superior to other humans has a touch of whimsy that is difficult to dismiss. Having twice been a victim of seminary, once as a student and for even longer as a faculty member, I learned some important truths about those trained for ministry. They are merely human. In fact, my best students were those who recognized and embraced this fact. When I was informed that an ultra-pious candidate was about to “shed the shackles of the laity” and would return from his weekend ordination “ontologically transformed,” I rolled my non-ordained eyes. I had seen the test scores and intense faculty evaluations. Ontological change? We should be so lucky.
So, a man barred from any sexual outlet seeks a silent victim. We should not wonder. Attempting to get a neighbor to become an assassin is a bit over the top, even for most Texans. It does, however, illustrate my point that the laying on of Episcopal hands does nothing to change the essence of a person. Clergy are just as human as anyone they serve. It is when they think otherwise that problems arise. Secular students in the halls of Montclair State University are talking about the Vatican’s changing collective mind on condoms. Discussion and exegesis of the issue cover the front page of the New Advent website. Too bad the decision hadn’t been made a few months earlier. This situation might not have emerged at all. As the paper states, “the Sacred Heart of Mary Parish in the West Texas community of Rocksprings [is] a rural enclave known for sheep and goat herding.”
In the local newspaper today there are two stories involving priests and money. One focuses on a British priest, the other on an American priest. The story on page 6 states that a priest in England is receiving harsh criticism for having stated in sermon that the desperately poor are morally justified in shoplifting to survive. He added that this should only apply to large chain stores and not small, family-run businesses. On page 11 is the story of an American priest who won $100,000 in a televised poker tournament. Since the money is being given to the parish it is a light-hearted human-interest story.
What I find disturbing in all of this is the larger message. Yes, priests need to be involved in the financial affairs of the world — we’ve created a culture so focused on money that it is impossible to avoid it. Yet the distinct tone of the news stories is telling. The priest advocating shoplifting to save the poor is suspect since he challenges modern mores of property ownership. The Bible advocates landowners leaving some of their hard-earned crops for the destitute to glean. The priest who won an enormous pot playing a game is simply a creative individual raising church funds in new ways. The Bible states nothing about gambling for money. Somehow I can’t reconcile the two stories.
Everyone feels the economic pinch in hard times, but few in our society really know what it means to experience true deprivation. Would it not be better if the church could devise a system that ensured fair allocations of resources without having to advise petty theft or playing one’s cards close to the clerical collar?