SEPTEMBER 4, 2003
More Priests, Fewer Clergy: A Catholic Proposal
Joseph F. Byrnes
In the June 3, 1981 entry of Father Alexander Schmemann's Journals (St. Vladimir's Seminary Press: Crestwood, NY, 2000) the renowned Orthodox priest and teacher wrote, "More and more often I think that the priesthood should not be a profession; that is, priests should work, have another occupation." He was concerned that the charism of ministry could be confused with a job, and yet concluded, "I know full well that what I write will seem impossible."
But why impossible, really? St. Paul had jobs and left open the choice of marriage and celibacy. Wouldn't it be better if large numbers of Catholic priests were not members of the "clergy," understanding the clergy as a distinct professional class in society? The historical records suggest that the Christian religious leaders worked at something else. If today priests were drawn from many professional backgrounds --teaching, medicine, law, manual skills -- and were prepared to preach, teach, and preside in Catholic communities (parishes), we would have a much broader base of candidates to draw from.
It seems clear enough that the New Testament priest was not to be the sacred figure of the old Jerusalem priesthood. Rather he was called presbyteros or elder, helping the episcopos or superintendent of local Christian communities in directing and teaching and presiding at worship. This person was never called iereus, the term used of the temple priest, though the Christian community as a whole was labeled "priestly." Eventually, both superintendents and elders took on the Old Testament qualities of priestly sacredness with its connotations of intermediary.
Like so many controversies in New Testament history, the question is unsolvable in any way that would be acceptable to a modern historian. But we have persuasive arguments from the biblical historian Hans Von Campenhausen, who in Ecclesiastical Authority and Spiritual Power in the Church of the First Three Centuries, 1st German ed. 1953 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1969) notes that in the New Testament generally "Elders are professional guardians of the Law, and for that reason are leaders of their communities" (p. 78). Key patristic sources indicate that "the presbyterate contains not merely the presiding members in the strict sense, but alongside them and of equal status with them 'reverend' men of every kind; prophets, teachers, old and proven pastors and counselors, and later also confessors and ascetics" (pp. 84-85).
With such a varied history, a story of progress in fits and starts, why not begin with St. Paul? For the priest of the future, basic Christian orientation and dedication could be cultivated in a priestly formation that would be distinct from professional training. Naturally, this spiritual and psychological formation would have to be integrated -- along the way and in the end -- with the established profession. And I am assuming that most of these priests would have a network of varied social relationships, with the potential for, or beginning of, a viable marriage (I leave aside this time the very important, and very different, issues of female priests and gay priests).
People who live for, who want to live for, God in Christ, and Christ in others, should be persuaded to lead worship, preach, teach, and counsel. In other words, they should be persuaded to be New Testament priests. A process of volunteering and selection for full-time management/service (pastors in the contemporary sense) could be worked out, in order to maintain a critical mass of full time pastors. Toss in the possibility that parishes would often be managed by deacons (and here, even in conservative Catholic and Orthodox circles, a diaconate open to women could be promoted).
I believe that non-clerical priest could be one of the principal solutions to the current troubled state of the Catholic priesthood. This is not a proposal out of the blue, of course. Over the past thirty years, in the United States in particular, Catholic authorities have developed a moderately successful system to prepare people from all professions for the diaconate. They stay in their chosen professions. For better or for worse, they are called "lay deacons." I am simply calling for "lay priests" (although I wouldn't want the label to stick permanently). What Father Schmemann proposed for Orthodoxy, I propose for Roman Catholicism, hoping at the same time for a renewal of ecumenism in the Orthodox and Catholic churches and the great churches of the Reformation, for the sake of the Gospel and Orthodoxy.
Joseph F. Byrnes is Professor of Modern European History at Oklahoma State University.
For more on the history of the clergy, the development of pastoral roles, and some challenges of interpretation in a review of Histoire des curés (History of Parish Priests) please see http://www3.uakron.edu/hfrance/reviews/byrnes.html.
THE RELIGION & CULTURE WEB FORUM
This month's Religion & Culture Web Forum commentary is by Thomas J. Curry, a colonial historian and Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. The essay is entitled "Religion and the Constitution Confounded: Treating the First Amendment as a Theological Statement."
Our modern problem arises from the fact that government -- the Supreme Court especially -- has determined that the free exercise of religion is something guaranteed by government, that courts are to define and protect. As a result, understanding of the First Amendment is in utter disarray. Because judges assume themselves to be the protectors of religious liberty -- rather than a threat to it, as the Amendment proclaims -- they assume that they are the judges of what comprises that religious liberty. Thus they read the Amendment as containing substantive theological statements.
Invited responses to Bishop Curry's essay from Winnifred Fallers Sullivan and W. Clark Gilpin, both of the University of Chicago Divinity School, may be found on the forum's public discussion board. We invite you to engage the materials and offer your own thoughts on the same discussion board throughout the month of September. Past forums are also always available for review in our archive.
Coming up in October, look for a web forum commentary from Professor William Schweiker of the University of Chicago Divinity School entitled "Humanity Before God: Theological Humanism from a Christian Perspective." The essay anticipates issues that will be addressed at the upcoming Divinity School conference "Humanity before God: Contemporary Faces of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic Ethics," October 21-23, 2003.