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Authors: Karol Jackowski

Tags: #Religion, #Christianity, #Catholic, #Social Science, #General

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In male-dominated religions, it became a sacred tradition to literally cut oneself off physically in order to better serve God (and kings). And in doing so, a man established himself as holier than everyone else, even equal to Thou. If they weren’t given the gift of celibacy by the gods, there were men who forced celibacy on themselves so that they could have access to its divine, even miraculous powers. And if the divine powers still did not rise within them “naturally,” with castration, they ordained themselves with all kinds of exclusively male powers, the sacramental
powers of the priesthood. From what I see, we haven’t come far in our thinking.

Castration in the name of God. As though that would do it. As though virginity were exclusively a matter of sexual abstinence. And as though we can ordain ourselves men and women of God by literally cutting off sex forever. Who is that God? While castration was condemned by the early Christian community, the literal thinking behind it continued. To think that we would cut ourselves off physically in order to make “men of God” seems like blasphemy of the most profound order—not to mention clerical and divine deception, portraying oneself as a man of God when in fact one is nothing more than a man chosen by himself to be a priest. By taking the love of God in vain that way, what else could it be but supreme betrayal? Castration and forced celibacy in the priesthood appear just as abusive a practice now as they were in the beginning—so clearly man’s idea of priesthood, not God’s—at least not the God who gave us the priesthood of Jesus Christ.

If celibacy is not given to us by God, if it does not rise naturally in our lives through love, then there’s nothing we can do or should do to make it our own, least of all castration. To think that we would take by force or create for ourselves an experience we call God’s is blasphemy. In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, he emphasizes that virginity is not a command, but a personal call from God, a different charism. “With respect to virgins,” Paul writes, “I have not received any commandment from the Lord” (7:25). The general rule is that each one should lead the life God has assigned them…this is the rule I give in all the churches” (7:17). What happened to that general rule?

Forcing celibacy on anyone becomes so abusive that those who experience it that way become abusive also. Forced celibacy becomes naturally abusive, inside and out, because it doesn’t
come from God; it comes from us. The seeds of the abuse we see now appear to have been planted way back in the beginning of religion, when male priesthoods began making themselves into “men of God” through forced celibacy, even through castration. That was the beginning of man making God in his own image and likeness; and the beginning of priesthood’s divinely “privileged” status. From what I see, that was also the beginning of the religious mess our world is in today. We still worship gods who hate everyone we do, and we’re still hating and abusing one another in the name of our gods. We are still little more than haters and killers. After two thousand years of Christianity, it appears as though our minds have not changed much at all.

At least we know now that all the forced celibacy in the world can’t make a bad man a good priest. That much is made clear in the daily headlines. There is nothing we can do to make one another “men of God” because virginity and priesthood aren’t ours to give, take, or demand of one another. Taking the love of God in vain like that not only strips virginity of its divine intent and creative powers, but it devalues profoundly the loving experience celibacy is for those to whom it is God-given. We can see that clearly, too. The whole world looks at celibacy in the Catholic Church now and can hardly contain its laughter, or its soulful sadness. The oldest and most sacred tradition in religious life has become a big joke, and we’re beginning to see why.

The world Christianity was born into is not unlike the world we live in. Most of our world is male dominated, as it was then, and still violent, as it was then. The status of women and children in many parts of the world remains less than that of cattle, and the practice of slavery is nowhere near as gone as we may think it is. Even in the best of worlds, human life, not to mention all life, is
not treated as sacred, even in the United States. The poor and outcast are not only still with us, but they remain just as despised and ignored, if not more so. The world we live in is very similar in thinking to that in which Christ was born. In many parts of our world, religion remains the major source of division, war, oppression, and abuse. The cradle of civilization and the birthplace of Christ are the world’s bloodiest battlefields. Who is that God? For all that can be said truly of monumental human progress throughout history, we are not that well developed as human beings. In the name of all our gods put together, the whole world should know better.

The priesthood that Jesus brought into this world appears just as divinely fitting and troublesome now as it did in the beginning. In looking at the Gospels for insight into the priesthood of Jesus, it’s important to keep in mind that the Christian Scriptures are not eyewitness accounts or transcripts of the life and times of Jesus Christ. The stories as we read them were written nearly a hundred years after Jesus’ death and resurrection—one hundred years of stories and oral traditions being passed from disciple to disciple, community to community, town to town, and generation to generation. That’s a long time to keep the original story straight, not to mention its divine intent. (It reminds me of the biblical version of the children’s game Chinese Telephone.) Even so, the fragments that survived the years, through all of its translations, contain, as we Christians believe, all we need to know. Somehow the Word of God can still be revealed there by those who know how to listen, by those who know how to pray.

Not only do the Gospels reflect historical issues that were of divine importance in the early Christian community, but they also served as a source of daily inspiration and strength. In the beginning, the Gospels were the daily bread of the priesthood. Because Jesus lived those stories, there’s a very real sense in
which his Holy Spirit becomes present in the telling of them—especially when the community gathers around the table at the end of the day and shares stories of what happened. What miraculous events they witnessed. The crowds that followed and what moved them. Even what trouble they caused. All of which would have reminded them of Jesus. Disciples speak of actually feeling the warmth of his presence as though Jesus was right there with them. That happened frequently after the resurrection, where they say it “felt as though their hearts were burning inside them” (Luke 24:32). It reminds me of a line in one of Rilke’s poems, “Imagining you my being burns more brightly.” That’s how real divine power is in the Word of God, and that’s where disciples found inspiration and strength, daily bread and soul food.

Disciples felt divine power in repeating the words of Jesus, and they experienced divine power in repeating his works. The words and works of Christ are what define his priesthood. The table community is the real church of Jesus Christ, and all those gathered around the table are the people of God. In the Gospels, the priesthood of Jesus never gets more complicated than that. It’s always a matter of doing God’s work and being thankful for one another around the table at the end of the day. In the priesthood of Jesus, when that happens, God is with us.

Throughout the Gospels it seems clear that Jesus does not proclaim the founding of a “church” or “priesthood,” certainly not another exclusively male priesthood. To the very end of his life, Jesus remained a faithful Jew who reveals no intention to destroy or overthrow Judaism. The synagogue remained the church of choice by Jesus, as well as the disciples, both before and after the resurrection. Jesus’ priesthood does not come to destroy any religion, only to fulfill its divine promise. He envisions living our lives in an entirely different way, by the spirit of its laws, not the letter. The spirit of the law is God’s voice. The
letter of the law is our voice, our interpretation of what we hear God say, and too often what we want God to say. God sent Jesus into this world to return to all laws their holy spirit. And the life of Christ is what the fulfillment of all God’s laws put together looks like. The one law governing the priesthood of Christ is love. Pure and simple, Jesus reveals that the only law of any true God is love. Compassion. Love is the priestliest power we have. That’s God’s message to the universe as revealed in Christianity according to Christ. And Buddha before him.

One of the most profoundly misunderstood “priestly” gestures of Jesus is the appointment of twelve men as apostles and what that means about priesthood. By the end of the first century, the Church Fathers were proclaiming themselves direct descendants of the twelve apostles, and creating the teaching of “apostolic succession.” The men in the church claimed the most powerful call of Jesus as theirs exclusively. Priesthood, they said, was intended, clearly and divinely, For Men Only. The Church Fathers found God’s most divine blessing bestowed in particular on men, and mysteriously not as much on women. If Jesus found women equally as divine, they reasoned, he surely would have chosen them also as apostles. He didn’t even choose his own mother.

Not only did Jesus choose men exclusively as apostles, but he chose just twelve. The literal-minded believe that means Jesus had no divine intention of inviting everyone to be an apostle. While Jesus may call many to discipleship, only a few special ones, “The Twelve,” were chosen to be his “apostolic successors,” his priests. As a result, the literal-minded also believe the “chosen” to be holier than the rest of us, closer to God, divinely privileged, even anatomically made in God’s male image and likeness. Understood literally, that’s how the division between priest and
people took shape and became divinely ordained. That’s how the subordination of women became divinely ordained. And that’s when women were declared divinely unworthy of priesthood. As we now see, so clearly and so painfully only evil and abuse rise from that kind of thinking because it kills the spirit of God. Jesus reveals over and over that is not what God intended. Divine spirits never speak literally. No one would understand if they did. We see that, too.

The symbolic ways in which Jesus reveals the love of God are intentionally those everyone in the universe can understand: stories, parables, miracles, works of mercy, and those divine gestures that are meant specifically to fulfill the law of God and the prophets. The baptism of Jesus by John is one of those prophetically fulfilling moments, as is his resurrection and the selection of The Twelve. Biblical theologians now recognize that the spirit in which the appointment of The Twelve is made reveals that Jesus accepts further his identity as Messiah. In picking twelve apostles, Jesus fulfills the Old Testament prophecy of the Messiah appointing heads of the “twelve tribes of Israel.” Quite clearly, there is no priestly “ordination” going on there at all.

As Garry Wills observes, “Since there are no priests in the New Testament, there could be no ordination of priests.”
3
He also quotes theologian Raymond Brown’s explanation of what “ordination” in the early church probably looked like:

A plausible substitute of the chain theory (of “apostolic succession”) is the thesis that sacramental “powers” were part of the mission of the church and that there were diverse ways in which the church (or communities) designated individuals to exercise those powers—
the essential element always being church or community consent (which was tantamount to ordination
, whether or not that consent was signified by a special ceremony such as laying on of hands). [Emphasis added by Wills]
4

In the beginning of priesthood, the Christian community practiced ordination by acclamation. In the beginning, it’s the community that chooses and empowers its priesthood, and it’s the community that ordains both men and women to serve in its sacramental ministries. Even so, the literal-minded still cling to the vision of a divinely ordained male priesthood and still claim the appointment of The Twelve as their infallible proof. (And
denial
still ain’t just a river in Egypt).

BOOK: The Silence We Keep: A Nun's View of the Catholic Priest Scandal
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