Scrapping the ‘theology of the body,’ and a new model for priestly ministry

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Oct 11, 2017

Reporting on a conference at Boston College , in which Amoris Laetitia was discussed by an impressive group of liberal Catholics—representing the full range of opinion from A to B—Michael Sean Winters of the National Catholic Reporter reveals that the group was ready to jettison the thought of St. John Paul II. As he puts it, “the ‘theology of the body’ received only a couple of mentions and each time to point out how inadequate it is.”

Particularly revealing is Winters’ report on a talk in which Richard Gaillardetz analyzed the thought of Pope Francis:

Strikingly absent in his papal addresses is any sacral rhetoric regarding the priesthood and ministry,” Gaillardetz observed. “Rather, one hears a call to the church’s ministers, at every level of ecclesial life, to go out and meet people, attentive to their brokenness and particular concerns and insights.” Gaillardetz noted that in his address commemorating the synod, the pope’s “choice here to associate the Christological character of presbyteral and episcopal ministry with Jesus’ washing of feet, rather than its more typical association with the institution of the Eucharist, is suggestive of a quite different trajectory for theological reflection on ordained ministry.”

For some years now, media reports on the Holy Thursday liturgy have focused almost obsessively on the washing of the feet rather than the institution of the Eucharist and of the sacerdotal ministry. So there may be a tendency to forget that the former is a symbolic action, while the latter is sacramental—which is to say that it is real in the most powerful sense. The people in the church don’t really need to have their feet washed. But they—and the Church, and the world—needs the Eucharist.

Gaillardetz now brings the focus on foot-washing into sharp relief, suggesting that it represents a new way to think of priestly ministry. Well, not very new, since Jesus quite explicitly told the apostles that they were to exercise their ministry in this humble fashion. Still the priesthood is, in its essence, oriented toward the Eucharist. A priest can carry out Christ’s mission through service to the poor. So can I, as a layman. But I cannot confect the Eucharist, and a priest who forgets that difference—who forgets that his life is consecrated to that purpose—impoverishes both himself and the Church.

For that matter, the care that Christians offer to the poor is also oriented toward the Eucharist. (Ask the Missionaries of Charity, who follow Mother Teresa’s guidance, spending long hours in Eucharistic adoration before going out to serve the “poorest of the poor.”) A focus on true Christian charity (as opposed to symbolic acts and political postures) is never an alternative to a focus on the Eucharist.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Retired01 - Oct. 12, 2017 4:42 PM ET USA

    The conference at Boston College is a clear indication that those who dissent from Catholic teaching are getting organized with the intention of further propagating their agenda within the American Catholic Church. It is worth noticing that many of the conference participants have been put in position of authority by Pope Francis, while at least one, Fr. Spadoro, is one of his close confidants.

  • Posted by: fenton1015153 - Oct. 12, 2017 7:20 AM ET USA

    The priestly identity crisis may be due in large part to orientation. When celebration of the Mass is done Versus populum or facing the people the priest will have his focus challenged. He will feel pulled to 'play to the audience' rather than have his full attention on Jesus. It would be interesting to compare priestly ministry as a function of the two liturgical orientations. Also, need to compare lay worship under both orientations. I would bet there is a correlation.

  • Posted by: shrink - Oct. 11, 2017 5:22 PM ET USA

    But in the new magisterium of Francis, there is a focus on the Eucharist for the "poor." The new "poor" were those made so by the Pharisees w/in the Catholic Church who insisted on that ugly word "adultery". Before Francis, they were unjustly labeled as adulterers. It is these "irregulars" who now deserve reception of the Eucharist. The symbolism of this new magisterium is that there is no more adultery. Just as the gays banished sodomy, so Francis banishes adultery, in the name of inclusion.