Church never has been a pristine organization. The Apostles squabbled.
The primitive Church was riven with faction in all of its centers—Jerusalem,
Corinth, Antioch, Rome. At Antioch, Paul called Peter a hypocrite
and a turncoat. About 60 years later, Ignatius, the first bishop
of that city, was driven out by his fellow Christians.
The Church has perdured through horrible times, and it has picked
up many of the attributes of those times. I’ve said before
that the presidents of the United States score higher than the popes
in their general level of decency. We haven’t had presidents
that I know of who were murderers or incestuous or torturers. We’ve
had all of those in the popes. The Church has been misogynist in
misogynist times; slaveholding in slaveholding times; anti-Semitic
in anti-Semitic times. And yet the sacramental life has gone on.
The graces of the Spirit have endured—even in the 10th century,
when the papacy was owned by a family that put its own bastards
in and took Church money for private purposes. That was the very
worst time, and yet the monastic revival of Europe also took place
In the United States especially, people my age grew up with the
idea that the Church was always perfect; that it never changed and
it certainly shouldn’t change. The journalist and Catholic
convert Malcolm Muggeridge used to say he loved that everything
else can switch around but we can rely on the Catholic Church always
to be the same. Well, thank God we can’t: We would still have
interdicts. We would still have the selling of indulgences and a
pope saying that you can get out of purgatory by killing heretics.
Indeed, from the trivial to the serious, there are examples of “changeless”
elements of Catholicism that were themselves the results of change.
For instance, a lot of people were very upset when the Latin Mass
disappeared, and some still are. But the Latin Mass was itself a
change, brought on by popular demand. Jesus talked to his disciples
in the language that they understood, Aramaic. The early Mass was
said in Syrian, in Aramaic, in other languages, but it was mainly
said in Greek, because Greek was the common language of the Roman
Empire. The empire had been inherited from Alexander’s Hellenistic
empire, where they spoke a kind of pidgin Greek—Koine Greek—and
that’s what the New Testament is written in. When Jesus and
Pontius Pilate talked to each other, they spoke in Koine Greek,
because Pilate didn’t understand Aramaic and Jesus didn’t
Only when enough native Italians became Christian did the Mass go
into Latin, and only where they predominated. Mass continued to
be said in Greek in the Greek Church, of course, and in parts of
the Western Church for a long time.
When Latin splayed out into French and Italian and Spanish, the
Mass should have followed into the vernacular. But by that time,
there was a clerical elite that had a monopoly on learning, and
Latin was the key to it. The clergy not only said Mass and the Office
in Latin, but studied theology and read the Bible in it. Latin had
become a shibboleth. At the Council of Trent in the mid-16th century,
the Latin Bible was made official. The reason, according to the
council: The Holy Spirit would not have allowed the Church—meaning
the Western Church—to use the Latin language for so many centuries
if it weren’t the language he wanted.
The Council of Trent crippled Catholic biblical scholarship for
centuries, right down to the last one.
The celibate priesthood, too, though relying on a claim of changelessness,
was the result of change. For centuries in the early Church, priests
and bishops had married. As late as the fifth century, the holy
poet Paulinus of Nola congratulated a bishop on having bishops for
his son and his grandson. And in the New Testament itself, Paul,
in I Corinthians 9:5, says, in effect, “I have every right
to travel with my Christian wife like Peter and the other Apostles.”
What caused the change? In the fourth century, an extraordinary
asceticism swept over both the East and the West—over pagan
as well as Christian worlds—in which it was considered that
the only way to get close to God was to divorce oneself as far as
possible from the body: Torture it. Deprive it of sleep, deprive
it of food, drink, companionship, sex, marriage. The ascetics became
great celebrities. Peter Brown, Princeton’s scholar of late
antiquity, says they were the astronauts of their time, exploring
inner space. People went to them for consultation—Simeon Stylites,
for example, wrote treaties for countries.
Bishop Athanasius in Alexandria grew upset at this, and he said,
in effect, “We’ve got to ordain some of these people
so that their holiness will rub off on us.” But the ascetics
didn’t want to be ordained. The Church kept after one man,
until he sent back his own ear, which he’d cut off, and the
message, “If you keep this up I’ll just keep sending
back body parts, because denying the body is getting close to God
anyway.” John Chrysostom, later the Bishop of Constantinople,
wanted to become a desert father; he went into the desert and his
health broke and he almost died, so he had to return to Antioch
and settle for second best, which was the priesthood.
In order to regain credibility with the people, bishops and priests
of the Church decided that they should become ascetics themselves.
Not only would they not marry, but they would publicly adopt much
of the rest of the ascetic program, scourging themselves and fasting.
So, incrementally, celibacy came in as a way of gaining the trust
and honor of the people.
Well, that original motive has largely evaporated. We don’t
see too many desert fathers in the priesthood these days, starving
themselves to the point of death. And so new arguments have been
developed for saying that the Church can’t change its stance
on clerical celibacy. In his 1967 encyclical on the celibate priesthood,
Sacerdotalis Caelibatus, Paul VI turned to Scripture, but
only to part of it. The most relevant passage of all, the passage
where St. Paul says, “I can travel with a Christian wife like
Peter,” doesn’t appear in his encyclical. Paul VI didn’t
lie directly—he didn’t say, for instance, that St. Paul
didn’t say this or that this passage doesn’t apply.
He just left it out, to deceive us.
And what did Paul VI cite from Scripture? The passage he loved,
that he used four times in the encyclical, is the one in Matthew
19 that says, “Some people are born castrated, some people
are castrated by force by others, and some people castrate themselves
for the kingdom of heaven.” Now, there are certain problems
with his use of that passage. For one thing, Jesus isn’t saying
it about priests. He’s saying it to the whole of the Christian
audience listening to him. He doesn’t specify that it’s
about priests, for a very good reason. There are no priests in the
New Testament. The word iereus, or priest, only appears in
two places, apart from references to Jewish priests: in the Book
of Revelation, where it is said that all who rise will be priests
around the altar of God; and in the Epistle to the Hebrews where
it is said that Jesus is the last priest.
In his epistles, St. Paul speaks of more than a dozen ministries—healers,
teachers, readers, overseers, suppliers, speakers in tongues, interpreters
of tongues, and so on—but he never refers to priests. He never
calls Timothy one. And he never calls himself one. He never says
that he presides over the Eucharist. What he says is that these
are gifts given by the Spirit: Take them as the Spirit moves.
Early Christianity was a charismatic community. And we know from
charismatic communities that sooner or later—usually quite
soon—there has to be some structure. There have to be people
who regularly do certain things, and so the priesthood developed.
It was a development—a natural, legitimate, important development.
Moreover, Paul VI didn’t mention the parallel passages of
Matthew 18 when he cited Matthew 19. The castration passage is part
of a series that says, for instance, “If your right eye offend
you, pluck it out . . . . If your right hand offend you, cut it
off . . . . If your foot offend you, cut it off. If your family
gets in the way, hate your father, hate your mother.” These
so-called “kingdom sayings” signal the tremendous break
in history that Jesus is bringing. But they have nothing to do with
the priesthood, unless you hold all Christians to be priests, as
Peter did in his first epistle.
Paul VI also came up with another argument: that if you are married,
you will have more concern for your wife and children and not as
much concern for your flock; that to be a good priest and think
of the community, you should not be married.
Does a spouse separate you from others? In my case, my wife reminds
me very pointedly of people I would otherwise neglect or misunderstand.
She tells me when I misunderstand them and how I misunderstand them.
Does having children get in the way? When our children were growing
up and we were interacting with other parents at church, school,
Little League, choir, ballet, we were never more involved with the
community, and we never had a wider or closer network of friends.
I think it’s insulting to say that a family cuts you off from
other people. Families are exercises in community; they mesh with
community. When you go to a doctor, do you say, “I must know,
doctor, that you don’t have a child of your own, because if
you do, you might not care as much about my child”? Doesn’t
it work the other way? Should we say to anyone running for president,
“You’re going to have hundreds and hundreds of millions
of people to take care of—only bachelors should run”?
If a bishop had a wife, and their son was raped by a priest, do
you think said bishop would move that priest around and not tell
other people that their children were at risk? Do you think that
he would try to keep the priest from civil authorities? Do you think
he would reassign him decade after decade while 70 or 80 other children
were molested? Do you think his wife would let him?
The last “changeless” element of the Church that I want
to consider is the male priesthood. We’re told that Jesus
didn’t ordain any women. That’s quite true—but
he didn’t ordain any men, either. The male priesthood was
a development, an early, natural development. It took place at a
time when everybody—pagans, Jews, Christians—agreed
that women were inferior. Aristotle said that Nature tries to make
a man and, in failing, we get a woman. St. Thomas Aquinas in the
13th century said women can’t be priests—God deserves
the best, and they’re second best.
It was natural at a time when authority seemed to be male to have
only male authorities in the Church. But that perception has changed,
and there’s no reason now why a woman cannot be a priest.
I have interviewed Sr. Helen Prejean, who goes into prisons and
ministers to individuals during their harrowing time on death row.
Isn’t it a little ridiculous that having gone through that,
she has to call in a stranger at the end to give the Last Rites?
Who is the real pastor in such cases?
For 22 years, I’ve been going to a campus church at Northwestern
University, and for 17 of those years the thread of continuity there
was a woman named Mary Kincaid-Kissinger. She was originally called
a chaplain, and then the diocese got a little upset at that so she
was called the assistant director. In that time, three priests came
and went, and in the interstices she had to pull people in to do
the sacraments the way Sr. Prejean has to pull people in.
Mary Kincaid-Kissinger ran retreats, she ran prayer groups, she
ran meditation groups. She memorized, every year, all of the new
students who had checked off “Catholic” on their enrollment
form, and she would learn something about them. When they showed
up, she would say, “Thank God that you came; we’ve been
waiting for you.” She retired in May, and the students organized
the farewell to her, which took place after Mass. About two dozen
students, present and past, including some married couples who had
taken their pre-Cana instruction from her, got up and told their
stories of what she had meant in their lives. They never did that
for any of the priests.
The priesthood is disappearing at a terrible rate. It’s happening
mainly in developing countries, which have one-fifth the ratio of
priests to congregants that we have in the West. Even so, there
are more lay ministers now than priests in the United States, and
85 percent of them are women. They’re doing what Mary Kincaid-Kissinger
does, in hospitals, in prisons, and in universities.
We need women on a practical level, but we also need them on a theological
level. God is not male. God is not gendered. He’s beyond gender.
He’s a mystery. St. Augustine said, “If it’s God,
you don’t understand it. If you understand it, it’s
not God.” He also said, “The Father is not really the
father in any literal sense. The Son is not really the son.”
We use that paternal analogy because it’s what God gave us
in the Incarnation. It gets us close to the mystery, but it doesn’t
state it in any literal form. We get farther from the mystery if
we think that God is only male, that God created only males in his
image. We should think of God as transcending gender, as having
certain aspects that we want to find in the highest reality that
are male and certain aspects that are female.
We may have to call him God the Father and God the Son. But God
the Holy Spirit can be called female—and she’s the one
who will guide us into being Catholic in years to come, following
a future that is marked out for us by Mary Kincaid-Kissinger.
Wills is an adjunct professor of history at Northwestern University
and the author of Why I Am a Catholic (2002). His article
is drawn from a lecture he delivered in Gasson 100 on October 30,
sponsored by BC’s Church in the 21st Century initiative.
Photo: Cathedral of the Holy Cross, Boston, 1944. Courtesy,
Archives, Archdiocese of Boston
Church in the 21st Century is a two-year initiative launched
by Boston College in September 2002 in response to the crisis
in the American Catholic Church. BCM will include
a special section covering some of the initiative’s
significant lectures, seminars, and public meetings.