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natural selection
A history of change in a changelessa church

The 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 then.

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 understand Latin.

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.

Garry Wills

Garry 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

The 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.

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