Catholic Culture Dedication
Catholic Culture Dedication

The Brave New Church Without Priests

by Kenneth D. Whitehead


Modern revisionist Catholic theology often holds that the sacraments and the Mass are not powers of the priesthood but rather actions of the "liturgical assembly". Quoting from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Kenneth Whitehead explains how the ministerial priesthood differs essentially from the common priesthood of the lay faithful. He goes on to paint a picture of a typical Church-sponsored event that might be run by feminists who have ignored this distinction, focusing on the "liturgy" of such an event.

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Homiletic & Pastoral Review



Publisher & Date

Ignatius Press, December 1995

One of the more frequently encountered ideas in modern revisionist Catholic theology today is the notion that the sacraments, and, especially, the Mass, are not so much effected and realized by the action of the priest, acting in persona Christi and employing the sacred powers conferred upon him by his priestly ordination; rather, the sacraments, according to this new way of thinking, are considered actions of what, in the vocabulary of this same revisionist theology, is increasingly being called "the liturgical assembly" as a whole. What matters at Mass, according to this new way of thinking, is what is now thought to be the action of "the whole Church," not just the actions which the priest carries out.

It goes without saying that this view is incompatible with the Church's view of the sacraments and the Mass. But in today's era of widespread dissent from numerous Church teachings, this view nevertheless gets adopted and widely disseminated anyway; it surely represents yet another application of the popular but nebulous modern liberal idea that "the people are the Church. . . ."

I have not systematically surveyed or researched the growth and spread of this idea in the modern theological literature; I just keep encountering it. In certain quarters, it obviously seems to be considered one of those famous "ideas whose time has come" which can no longer be denied (as many imagine). It is expounded at numbing length, for example, in the 1992 Crossroad book The Eucharistic Mystery: Revitalizing the Tradition by Fr. David Power, O.M.I., of the Catholic University of America. Fr. Power gives credit to theologians Fathers Karl Rahner and Edward Schillebeeckx for relating sacrament as sign "to the reality and activity of the assembly of the faithful, in distinction from St. Thomas's emphasis on the role of the priest."

Fr. Power himself has not been loath to follow out the logic of this. He frankly believes "that it is in the community . . . and at the table that the memorial is kept of Christ's pasch" (emphasis added). He agrees with Martin Luther that the "purpose" of the Eucharist is "communion," and consequently he believes that "the language of priesthood and sacrifice needs to be . . . demythologized" (pp. 250, 270, 304, and 322).

This new theory of relating the sacrament as sign primarily to the reality and activity of the assembly of the faithful does contain, of course, a small grain of authentic Catholic truth, which, however, gets artificially built up and presented as some great new pearl of "renewal."

For it is quite true that the priest at Mass does speak of "our sacrifice." And it is equally true, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us, that "the whole Church is a priestly people. Through Baptism all the faithful share in the priesthood of Christ." However, the Catechism goes right on in the same article to affirm that "there exists another participation in the mission of Christ: the ministry conferred by the sacrament of Holy Orders" (#1591).

"The ministerial priesthood differs in essence from the common priesthood of the faithful," the Catechism continues, in its very next article, "because it confers a sacred power for the service of the faithful" (#1592; emphasis added). In other words, the priest at Mass does something, accomplishes something, for the whole "liturgical assembly," which the latter cannot accomplish by itself.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church even goes on to declare, quoting the first-century bishop and martyr, St. Ignatius of Antioch, "that without the bishop, presbyters, and deacons, one cannot speak of the Church" (#1593). So much for "the action of the whole Church," then, as opposed to what the priest accomplishes in service to the whole Church, through the specific powers conferred upon him by his ordination.

In spite of what the Catechism of the Catholic Church establishes as the virtual impossibility of having any new "Church without priests," then, what we too often nevertheless find today is that once certain ideas get launched, they tend to go on and on, regardless of whether they are in accord with authentic Catholic teaching and practice or not—sometimes regardless of whether they are even plausible.

This proves to be especially true whenever there are interested parties within the Church's own structure promoting the ideas in question. And today, of course, there appear to be very many "interested parties" out there working within the Church's own structure to promote new ideas which, while they are usually represented as nothing more than the "renewal" called for by Vatican Council II, can nevertheless include such deviant ideas as that the prayers of the whole assembly or congregation, rather than the words of the priest celebrating, constitute the most essential element of the Mass.

This particular idea, in fact, has proved to be especially popular among some of today's radical feminists. Since, as the radical feminists see it, they are being unjustly denied ordination to the ministerial priesthood, for the same negative conclusion appears to follow for them as followed for the fox unable to reach the grapes in Aesop's fable: the ministerial priesthood suddenly turns out to be neither as important nor as essential in their eyes as everybody, including the radical feminists themselves agitating for female ordination, once thought.

Now if some of these same radical feminists happen to be occupying positions somewhere within the Church's official structure, they can sometimes also be found to be acting on their new-found convictions about the non-essential nature of the ministerial priesthood; not infrequently, in fact, some of them may even be in a position to impose their alien ideas on a sometimes unsuspecting "assembly" of Catholics gathered for some legitimate function in the name of the Church.

The whole event is organized and chaired by the DRE of the parish in question, who appears to be well connected with various modern liturgical networks, as well as with several local colleges and universities—the latter connections enabling her to secure some local "name" speakers, presumably at little or no expense, thus further enhancing attendance at the event. This same DRE, evidently, is also a strong feminist (and, in fact, calls herself an MRE, "Minister of Religious Education"; "ministry" is big with these people, for perhaps understandable reasons).

A survey of the topics, speakers, and "liturgies" at this—typical?—diocesan adult education conference would yield abundant examples of how the Catholic faithful today can be drawn in under official Church auspices to a seemingly "Catholic" event where, as a "captive audience," they can then be subjected to ideas and practices which are actually subversive of authentic Catholic faith and established Church discipline.

Although in both of the years I attended there seemed to be a core liberal clientele patronizing this event, there were also many good, loyal, average Catholics present. I learned from various conversations and exchanges in the classrooms and hallways that some of them, at least, were simply oblivious to the fact that the faith and the authority of the Church were simply being undermined by some of the speakers and practices at the conference. Some of the people I talked to thought it was all just such a marvelous "spiritual experience," and there were such "good people" involved.

Meanwhile these ostensibly loyal Catholics were being subtly—and even not so subtly—conditioned to accept ideas and practices as "Catholic" which were sometimes very, very far from being so. Yet many of the participants seemed to have little or no awareness of this: surely it could be nothing but a genuine Catholic event in their view, for was it not being sponsored under official Church auspices? (The principal sponsors and speakers, and a fair number of the participants, knew better, however.)

The speakers and topics presented in both years would be worth detailed analysis in order to show how Catholic faith and Church discipline are sometimes openly undermined within the Church's own internal structure and under her official sponsorship. Some of the liberals in the Church who appear to hate "doctrine" with such a passion nevertheless turn out to be quite good at "indoctrinating" people in their revisionist point of view! In the remainder of this paper, however, we shall not go into the topics and speakers but simply confine ourselves to looking only at how the "liturgy" was handled at the event. It was, unfortunately, quite revealing.

To begin with, and most importantly, no Mass was offered. When this proved to be the case the first year I attended, many of us noted this on our evaluation sheets, pointing out that, since a number of priests were present, many of them on the program, there could surely be no difficulty in offering Mass, especially since the whole event was timed so that most participants could not easily make Saturday Mass at their own parishes and then come on to the event.

When the announcements for the next year's event came out, however, there was still no Mass offered. In my naivete, it only occurred to me later why. The reason became glaringly evident once I had tumbled to it, and the consistency of the whole plan and program for the event rather quickly fell into place: offering a Mass would have made it impossible for a woman to "lead" the "liturgies" that were offered. And female-led liturgies, of course, were precisely what most typically characterized the event in both of the years I attended.

Yes. I assume these liturgies had already become standard long before I ever heard of this particular conference; however that may be, the conferences I attended were organized around these female-led liturgies, and women did, in fact, lead them, even though priests were always present among the participants. And meanwhile, it apparently occurred to nobody to think anything about this.

In both years the conference began with a Morning Prayer, which more or less proceeded according to the Church's official Liturgy of the Hours, although no sign of the cross was included, either at the beginning or the end. There was also one of those periods of silent "Reflection" inserted after the reading which the radical feminists like to use in their "liturgies" in order to call attention to and dramatize the fact that they cannot be ordained priests and preach homilies; so we all had to have a silent "Reflection" instead.

The Closing Prayer Service offered at the end of the day, however, did not follow the Church's Liturgy of the Hours. Instead it was one of those "creative liturgies" on which the liberals and revisionists and feminists seem to pride themselves so much, although what they usually end up "creating" is often utterly banal if not considerably worse. In this case, lavish "credit" was printed in the conference program for the lay "ministers" who "created" and were described as "coordinating" these liturgies; most of these "ministers" were indeed women; no one was left in any doubt whatsoever as to who was really running the show, although, as already mentioned, there were priests present throughout. At one of these services, the feminist DRE "coordinating" the whole conference even went out of her way effusively to thank the pastor for having been present the whole day.

Another reason why the Closing Prayer Service departed from the format of the Church's Liturgy of the Hours and was instead an improvised prayer service, by the way, may have been the fact that the Church's Evening Prayer, of course, always includes the recitation of the Magnificat of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and Mary, it has to be emphasized, was simply absent from this affair. It is ironical how the feminists apparently cannot abide her; but it represents just one more way in which the Church-sponsored events they run are no longer authentically Catholic events. The sixteenth-century Protestant Reformers would have been very supportive of the whole effort.

It is disturbing that such events as these can be put on under Church auspices in such a way that the good "average Catholics" who attend no longer even appear to notice any longer the absence of the Blessed Virgin, of the sign of the cross, of correct rubrics, etc. It would appear to be only too true that veritable religious revolutions can sometimes be wrought by this kind of passive conditioning; one thinks of the instances that occurred during the Reformation in England, as recorded in Msgr. Philip Hughes' great History of the Reformation in England, where priests who had ceased to believe in the reality of the Mass nevertheless sometimes vested and pretended to say Mass in order not to arouse the suspicions or ire of the faithful.

In both of the years I attended this "faith enrichment day," the improvised Closing Prayer Service began with a "gathering song" and thereafter was loosely modeled on the Liturgy of the Word portion of the Missal. There was a reading from Scripture, a sung Responsorial Psalm, and then a Gospel reading which, in this case, was quite patently intended to be read by a woman (as the whole "liturgy" was quite patently intended to be led by a woman). In the event, the Gospel was read by a woman, and with really dramatic flair—even though the reading of the Gospel in the Church is, of course, supposed to be reserved to ordained priests or deacons, a fact of which surely some of the priests present cannot have been ignorant (see, inter alia. General Instruction of the Roman Missal, #34).

The Gospel reading was immediately followed by another feminist-style silent "Reflection"; if they cannot preach, it would seem, at least the feminists can quietly brood over their injuries! Then followed something called a "Signing and Acceptance of Commission," which, in one of the years, also included a "Renewal of Our Baptismal Call." In the case of this latter "rite," all those present in the "assembly" were asked to extend their hands and collectively bless some bowls of water up at the front. These bowls of water were then passed along the rows of participants, each participant being asked, "as the bowl of water comes to you, sign the person next to you with the cross on either their hands or forehead, as an acceptance of the commission and commitment to your own Baptism. As you pass the bowl to the next person, sign yourself with the sign of the cross. . . ."

So they finally did get around to using the sign of the cross! But needless to say, only for their own banal purposes, not the way Catholics generally use it. It became obvious in the case of a "rite" such as this that if we are all, collectively, the ones engaged in "blessing" water and each other, then the role of the priest in the matter of blessing is correspondingly downgraded.

In the second of the two years I attended this event, the bowls of water were dropped. For one thing, the year before, a few of us had declined to participate in this travesty, and had severely criticized the "rite" in our evaluation sheets; this may or may not have had any effect; but maybe even the organizers of an event such as this are capable of perceiving, at least dimly, some limits on the silliness that can be tolerated in "worship." At any rate, all that was included the second year was the "Signing and Acceptance of Commission," in which, however, each participant did still "bless" the "neighbor," signing him or her on the forehead "as a sign of acceptance and unity "—yet once more an example of "self-help" liturgy if there ever was one, and a "blessing," again, it is important to emphasize, in which no priest is in any way necessary.

Clearly, with this kind of "creative liturgy," priests are indeed not necessary. If we can just as easily and validly bless ourselves and each other without priests — indeed if we are the ones who bless them, present among us in the congregation, then the "assembly" itself evidently does suffice; we have already arrived at the brave new Church without priests—at least in one parish.

Forget about the Catechism of the Catholic Church and its citation of St. Ignatius of Antioch who believed that bishops, priests, and deacons were strictly necessary if there was even to be a Church at all. The plain message of this kind of fabricated liturgy is that henceforth it is indeed the "community" or the "assembly" that counts.

Mr. K. D. Whitehead is a former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education who now works as a Catholic writer and translator in Falls Church, Va. Among, other books, he is the author of Catholic Colleges and Federal Funding (San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 1988) and has recently published articles in such journals as Catalyst, Crisis, Catholic World Report, Fidelity, and New Oxford Review.

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