Priesthood and Fairness

One particular year I attended a preparation day and rehearsal for our deanery confirmation. Our time with the confirmandi and their sponsors began with informal small group discussions about living the faith, and the Catholic faith in general as seen from the viewpoint of the sacrament the youth were about to receive. People were encouraged to give questions to the priests, even questioning those things that they found difficult with the faith. You know the list: all the moral questions, “why all the rules?”, or “what are the rules for this or that in the first place?” The question of why only men can become priests is never a surprise. But this day it came from a slightly different perspective. It was one of the faithful and devout sponsors who asked to have it explained again – for the inquirer had asked priests before – why it is, that only men can be priests. I could tell that many of the pertinent facts of the priesthood had been covered in this case, and that only a deeper answer, such as would need spelling out with greater depth, would meet it. Unfortunately I had 5 young confirmandi before me, who were going to need something more fundamental, than nuanced and reflective. What I had in mind for this more mature devout Catholic, was not going to reach these high school students in an meaningful way. So I prayed I could at least point out the way. To start opening up the “why” of the male priesthood, in this situation I essentially re-examined the “how it is” that we have a male priesthood; it started with Jesus, then with the Apostles, then their successors, and so on with the history of male bishops ordaining men as priests. One needs to know the tradition historically before one can know if there is an intrinsic justification for it; and the details such as “who was at the Last Supper?” and “what was the commission of the first priests?” take at least a minute or two to cover. In the end I was able to squeeze in a brief reflection on the priest’s role of service. Holy Orders is a sacrament of service, and thus is quite strictly to be “used” for others and not for oneself. Trying to touch on the essence of the priesthood, I thus implied that if there are problems in our Catholic male priesthood it is in the actual men who are priests, and not in the priesthood itself. If every priest were a saint, no one would question whether Christ had left us a broken, faulty, or prejudiced system of priesthood. All the while there was a phrase stuck in my mind which really addressed the sponsor’s question. The deeper “why?” was one of trying to understand God’s inner designs, and his working in the world. Why would a most-loving God restrict one his greatest gifts, the priesthood, to such a particular class of human beings? The phrase that came to mind and stuck there, but which I could not break out in this five minute scope, was “the Scandal of God’s Particularity.” Maybe it is a phrase you have heard before. To satisfy the “why?” of the priesthood as it is in the Catholic Church, requires satisfying a deeper “why?” of any priesthood, or any human intermediary to God. Why would God limit himself with any intermediary? If there is scandal in Christ’s particularity of forming a Church with only men as priests, there is much more scandal in his particularity of forming a Church in the first place. How dare a human institution take on God’s very role! How dare any man or woman associate themselves with such a presumptuous scheme! How could God really choose this means? The scandal of the Incarnation is the worst of all. Why did God become a human being, a man, only in one tiny middle-eastern location, and only for a very brief period in ancient history, for a people who seemed not to deserve such a blessing? If all these things in Scripture are true, one might accuse God of being unfair to the vast and great majority of human beings who did not live in the same time and place as Jesus Christ himself. There is a great ‘why?’ here, like the ‘why’ of the Catholic priesthood. It is a deeper ‘why.’ It is the ‘why’ of grace. Someone who does not accept the need for a savior, will be aghast at the means that the savior has chosen to work through. This is why God’s particularity, we might say his very specific and limited plan in the face of all the other plans that might be proposed, is scandalous. God uses limited finite, even sometimes sinful, human instruments to spread his grace. And yet that is a fundamental article of our faith. When we come back to God’s particularity, the one who accepts the the means in which the savior comes to us (the seven sacraments) is going to implicitly understand that there will be “particularity” in the means that they reach us. God does not give the same vocation or the same grace to all. Again, if every priest were a saint, no one would question whether Christ had left us a broken, faulty, or prejudiced system of priesthood. Yet, despite the unsaintliness of the clergy, if one sees that system with the eyes of faith, it is still very good, as God designed it; good despite the faults of men contrary to that design. Let me conclude this episode with another observation about the priesthood, even my own priesthood. It can sadly be seen that there is almost too little scandal taken concerning the neglect of grace, and too much concerning abuse of authority. Holy Orders places a man within the ranks of a hierarchy. It makes one like the centurion who described himself as “subject to authority, with people subject to me.” But, we know the scripture vehemently insists that the greatest factor in salvation is not authority, but charity. Glory comes not from hierarchy, but from virtue. This should be evident within the ranks of holy orders. But this principle of grace is not confined to the clergy; it runs throughout the entire Body of Christ, to all the elect, and is even proved through the souls who have forever turned their back on God. Just like earthly pleasures and earthly possessions, all earthly authority is temporary; glory is eternal. For myself, I can say I know a good number of lay men and lay women, who, while I outrank them in “hierarchy” as a priest, will soon enough outrank me in glory, when we are with the Lord. God will not be mocked, and one can never accuse him of injustice from seeming to “play favorites.” He has revealed to all people (who have the faith to accept it) the scales on which he will judge the merits of souls, and those scales read “faith, hope, and charity.” The true scandal of men is seen to be the neglect of grace, and lack of faith, hope and love. The scandal of God’s particularity is removed only when one both accepts this revelation and lives according to it. Only when one lives with this goal of charity, and its merits, does the ‘why’ of God’s grace begin to make sense. Only with a life directed to sanctity do we begin to see why God gives certain gifts which cannot even be compared to each other, and why the most obvious gifts on the outside, are not as important as those that are hidden deeper.

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