“Reflections on the ‘Functional’ Nature of the Priesthood,” by Donald J. Keefe, SJ

“Reflections on the ‘Functional” Nature of the Priesthood,”
Faith, 32/ 2, March-April, 2000
Reflections upon the “Functional” Priesthood


“Functionalism,” as the term is employed in sacramental theology, amounts to a neologism by which dissenting theologians mask their departure from the sacramental realism of the Catholic liturgy.[i]  It operates by indirection, connoting rather than denoting the existence of a “functional” sacrament, in the sense of a mere symbolism, no more than the expression of a sociologically-determined role in society, rather than the free and intrinsically efficacious Catholic liturgical symbol whose institution by Christ accounts for its concretely historical objectivity and efficacy.  The term introduces the hearer into the universe of pseudo-sacramental, pseudo-serious, heterodox sub-Catholicism.

The historicity, objectivity and efficacy of the sacraments of the Roman Catholic worship transcend the empirical or pragmatic order: they are in that sense metaphysical, not the mere  expression of a dynamism immanent in human culture wherever found, an impersonal “function” that becomes the proper object of the experimental inquiry of one or another of the social sciences.   The effort to reduce the Church’s sacraments to socially-conditoned phenomena specifies the  colporteurs of functional sacramentalism, whose bête noire is the sacrament of priestly orders, but only because of its inherently nuptial symbolism, its spirituality of celibacy.  The abolition of that symbolism, grounded in the Eucharistic Una Caro, is the dissenting goal of goals, by approximating which all else is measured.

In consequence of this anti-nuptial fastidiousness, the application of “functional” is generally reserved to the sacraments of matrimony and orders where its attribution implies the equally real existence of “dysfunctional” marriages and ordinations, whose sacramental signing is presumed to be historically conditioned, liable to inefficacy by reason of its very concreteness and historicity.  This implication cannot but include the submission of the authenticity of the Church’s sacramental realism to empirical verification by those whose academic credentials supposedly warrant their judgment.

As is evident, anyone taking “functionalism” seriously places himself outside the orthodoxy of Catholic faith and worship.  Such a person abdicates the office of Catholic theologian by having undertaken the subversive program of inculcating his own dissenting infidelity as normative for theological discourse.  This dissent and its subversive agenda are paraded as intellectual honesty, as prerequisite to the sincere — and therefore clinically disinterested, or “presuppositionless” — quest for understanding whose alternative is that hypocrisy which, without proof, would presuppose the free truth of the Catholic tradition.

Thus, whenever “functional” is used deliberately to describe a sacrament, its use signals a programmatic dissent, a dissent with a destructive agenda, the justice of whose goal, the dehistoricization of the Catholic tradition, is intuitively clear, requiring no justification and incapable of submission to serious doubt: it is not open to discussion.  Those who do not share its intuition and intellectual universe it constructs, are by that failure excommunicated as a matter of necessity.

From without that universe of dissent, it is obvious that a Catholic theologian cannot put in issue the reality of the Catholic worship in truth.  From within the Catholic universe, the res Catholica whose community is historical and free by the historicity and the freedom inherent in its liturgical celebration and proclamation of the Lordship of Jesus the Christ, the root celebration and proclamation is the Eucharistic offering by a priest or bishop, of Christ’s One Sacrifice in his person and by his authority.  Here all else has its ground and source in such wise that to put this Offering in question is unthinkable.  While it is evident that one can apostasize, to do so is to remove oneself from that Communion in and by which the Church signs the Kingdom of God.

The dissenting insertion of functionalism into sacramental theology implies the existence of an empirical criteriology of sacramental efficacy and the consequent vulnerability of that efficacy to extra-ecclesial judgment.  The authenticity of the Church’s worship is submitted, at bottom, to the secular academy.  Insofar as the sacramental “function” is understood to be empirically verifiable, open then to examination and assessment, so also must be presumed its occasional failure to function properly, its failure to produce desirable, empirically discernible, consequences, for empirically-normed sacraments can have only an empirical efficacy, a “function,” the assessment of which is now taken to be a theological interest.

When sacramental efficacy and “function” are thus equated, theologians drop their properly theological interest in the realism of sacramental marriage or a sacramental ordination, to undertake a sociological inquiry for which few of them have any training and whose limits they rarely understand: the “postulatory atheism” which. Peter Berger, a few decades ago, found inherent in the method of that discipline, remains as he found it: sociology finds the Lutheran “servile will” a more calculable social bond than sacramental realism, and certainly more so than the free and yet indissoluble unity of the One Flesh of the Christus totus which the sacraments of marriage and of orders presuppose as their foundation.

By the adoption of this neologism, with its frequently deliberate rejection of sacramental realism — perhaps more often indeliberate and unreflective where theological novices are in view — the Catholic profession of theology is transformed into an empirical quasi-technical interest in sociology, psychology, and other of the soft sciences.  To hear this idiom without protest and, worse, to deploy it oneself, is to cooperate in a perversion of the Church’s faith and worship.  The faith thereby is submitted to the oversight of amateur sociologists and psychologists, and the Church’s sacraments become the objects of an ironic curiosity rather than of the reverence which is the beginning of the theological quaerens.

Nonetheless, the passage from the realm of sociology to the realm of its confusion with theology is a garden path for many.  From a sociological inquiry into family life, they pass to a quasi-sociological, pseudo-theological consideration of marriage, then to a similarly sociologized, pseudo-theological consideration of the Catholic priesthood.  By an easy step or two, they move from a perhaps legitimate academic, empirically-grounded sociological description of families as functional or dysfunctional, to the application of that empirical description to the non-empirical yet objectively historical, because sacramental, reality of a sacramental marriage or ordination.  This passage from sociology to pseudo-theology reduces the non-empirical historical objectivity of a sacrament to the empirical objectivity of a sociological category.   In short, it reduces the method and subject matter of theology to the method and subject matter of sociology.[ii]

This ease of passage from a sociological interest in empirically defined families to a pseudo-sociological, pseudo-theological interest in sacramental marriages is understandable: “family” may easily seem to include “marriage” in such wise that if sociology can comprehend families, it can hardly avoid having an equal comprehension of marriages.  The merger of the sociological and the sacramental having been achieved, the legitimacy of a sociological criticism of sacramental marriage warrants an extension of the sociological criticism to any other sacrament.

Thus, if the “functional-dysfunctional” analysis is legitimate vis à vis sacramental marriage in such wise as to identify with the “valid-invalid” analysis proper to theology, nothing stands in the way of its determination of the nullity or not of any given ordination.  With this facile inference, the “functional” marriage and the functional priesthood are in place, and the canonists impatient of doctrine will easily be found, willing and even eager to accept the equivalence of nullity and dysfunctionality.  Consequently, we have long been hearing of sacramental marriages that “die;” if that idiom is not much used to justify departures from the priesthood, it is because these are already legitimated by the commonplace acceptance of the merely functional standing of orders: ordinaries of major dioceses in the U.S. and Canada have underwritten the absurdity of attributing a metaphysical standing to ordination.[iii]

With the extension of the competence of sociological analyses of sacramental realities, particularly marriage and the priesthood, the sociological category of  “dysfunctional,” a doubtless useful label for troubled families in which the relations between the members are perceived as abusive and destructive, has been enlarged to include the sacraments of the Catholic Church.  We began to hear, some forty years ago, of “dysfunctional” marriages: i.e., of marriages seen to have “died” by reason of comparably abusive relations between husband and wife.  The use of this term arbitrarily subordinated the sacramental efficacy of the sacramental symbolism of marriage to historical conditioning, to the circumstantial casualties and erosions that are the commonplace of daily experience, with the result that the irrevocability of the sacrament of marriage had been dismissed ex parte, without discussion.  No marriage, within this facile convention, could henceforth be considered transcendent to circumstance, for it is evident that sociologically-normed realities cannot transcend their social contexts, as a matter of definition.

Consequently, to employ this idiom is to dismiss the intrinsic efficacy ex opere operato of the sacramental signing by which the Catholic liturgy is Catholic.  Since the Reformation, the sacramental realism of Catholic worship has been under constant attack: since Vatican II however, that attack is launched from within the nominally Catholic community.

Within the three decades since the Council, the dysfunctionality of the sacraments has become a commonplace postulate within the ranks of the dissenting theologians and the theological journalists who lately, by reason of the overwhelming success of the liberal “march through the institutions” are more influential than the clergy in forming the consciousness of avowedly Catholic people.

These theologians and their allies have found in the dismissal of sacramental realism a relief from the burdens of the committed moral existence which is proper to Catholic fidelity.  In the end, the assertion of a “functional” sacrament is the denial of the Catholic doctrine affirming the realism, the concretely historical efficacy, of that sacrament, and the inescapably eternal as well as historical significance of the actions which attend it. By the glib attribution of “functional” to the sacraments, realm of the holy is overcome and, with it, the significance, the dignity, of human existence in history.

It is now thirty years since a famous sociologist announced the incompatibility of personal dignity with the modernity which he thought to be the engine driving the progress of civilization.[iv]  B.F. Skinner then spoke for the pessimistic consciousness now epidemic in the West, and nearly so within the Church.[v]  Personal dignity, and the personal exercise of authority and responsibility which are its hallmarks, have until very recently been perceived within the Western tradition to be the linchpins of the free society.  Lately however, from within the burgeoning historical pessimism that specifies the Western heresies of modernity and post-modernity, these expressions of human dignity have become identified with an alienating personal idiosyncrasy: tolerable to a point perhaps, but at bottom aberrant, erosive of a public order which regards personal dignity and personal freedom as that by which we threaten each other, by which put each other at incalulable risk, rather than as the condition of possibility of the free, nuptially ordered, personal mutuality which is the free society.  It begins to appear that when all is said and done, we find the irresponsibilities of the cage more agreeable that the jungle perceived to be the inexorable consequence of the common public exercise of personal responsibility for the future.

The foregoing of all claim to personal dignity, personal freedom, personal responsibility, and personal authority has long been seen to be the price of entry into the civic responsibility proper to the secular society’s apotheosis of humanity.[vi]  In that society of dissociate and morally irresponsible, personally insignificant individuals lacking all dignity because lacking all relation to each other, the society which, fifteen centuries ago, Augustine dubbed “the City of Man,” the submergence of the responsible self in the we-saying reflex of the mass, collectivist quest for a secular, technologically-secured salvation, relieves one of all responsibility.  Thereby, with the dehistoricization of consciousness, God is dead, and everything is permitted.

In this “New Age” renewal of the ancient pagan pessimism, salvation is appropriated by personal extinction.  Immersion in the mass consciousness of modernity has no other goal, for in that City, the exercise of personal responsibility has become incomprehensible, the exercise of personal authority, criminal, and the affirmation of personal dignity, absurd.

Because sacramental marriage is the coalescence, into a single, highly efficacious and attractive public expression, of those historically-optimistic aberrations by which men and women actually accept unconditioned personal responsibility for each other in the mutuality, the “one flesh” of elective, nuptial love,  modernism attacks sacramental marriage from an animus as mindless as it is unrelenting.  The instinctively ad hominem response of modernity to the inherent truth and dignity of men and women who give it public utterance in their nuptial fidelity bars from the outset all discussion of its merits:[vii] they have become the subject, at best, of a humor no longer jovial but demonic.

Modernity finds the same absurdity in the young man who, in the rite of ordination to the Catholic priesthood, assents to the call from the ordaining bishop.  By that response he announces his free acceptance of priestly orders, his free undertaking to offer the One Sacrifice and to forgive sins in the person of Christ, to serve the Church and her alone, in celibacy, for the rest of his life — a life whose difficulty is underwritten by the decline of candidates for it to a near vanishing point.

For the Catholic priesthood has no natural attractions which could militate against those offered by comparable careers in the learned professions.  Nonetheless, despite the powerful attractions of marriage and family, of career, property and independence, young and not so young Catholic men continue to present themselves for ordination to the priesthood, knowing that by that ordination they will be forever changed, set apart, committed for the rest of their lives to a course of conduct sustainable only by seeking and finding an ever-closer bond in the worship of the Church with the Lord they will be vowed to serve by accepting responsibility for that worship.

Sacramental realism assumes that in baptism we are given a dignity, a personal word to utter which, as a personal participation in the Church’s historicity, in her worship in truth, transcends the ephemeral chatter otherwise marking our fallenness.  In that worship we each appropriate the Truth that is Christ, given to each of us as our food and drink, for in Him we are members of a priestly people, entitled to the support of the altar.  In this Communion with the risen Jesus the Lord,, we are ourselves affirmed by the II Adam who is our Head, who has named each of us in the naming of his bridal Church and who, by that naming, has summoned us, given each of us our vocation, our uniquely personal truth to utter into the world.  In that free utterance of covenantal fidelity, we appropriate the gift of our own free truth, our personal imaging of God in the freedom that is the worship of the Church.

To worship there is to appropriate as one’s own that sacred symbolism, that utterance into public life of the truth of the good creation, made effective ex opere operato by Christ’s institution, which stands radically athwart the propaganda and the project of modernity, within whose irresponsible society no man or woman has a personal word to utter, and so has no truth or dignity which could be profaned.  Each depersonalized individual has nothing to betray, nothing to honor, nothing to regret, nothing to praise or to blame, nothing over which to rejoice, nothing of which to complain.  To enter this impersonal realm of absolute irresponsibility is to live without hope, without love, without a future or a past.  This is life in the world of man, built by the faithless for their own oppression.  Only death can solace its misery, and death is lavishly to hand, the remedy for all social ills, the efficacious quasi-sacramental sign of that salvation which is oblivion, “the abolition of man,” the soteriology of sin.

The imperceptible inculcation over the past thirty years and more of the connotations of sacramental “functionalism” have deeply eroded much of the confidence of Catholics in their liturgy.[viii]  For example, although “functional” is not often said of the Eucharist, theories which would submit the Real Presence to political or sociological criteria abound.[ix]  For example, liturgists who should know better commonly insist upon the distribution, at any given Mass, only of hosts consecrated during that particular Mass, as though those consecrated at any earlier Mass were by the passage of time rendered no longer capable of mediating the Sacrificial Presence of the Risen Christ.[x]  Consecrated hosts which once were held in ciboria of precious metals upon which artists lavished their skills, are now to be kept in baskets; the gold and silver of which chalices were made has been replaced by some remarkably ugly pottery.  For the contemporary liturgist, the Mass which the Church proclaims to be the Offering by the High Priest of the One Sacrifice, has become merely a meal, and a folksy one at that.

This pseudo-liturgical piety manifests the antisacramental consciousness of the Lutheran Reformation, which regards the Eucharist as “dysfunctional” apart from the Mass in which the hosts were consecrated: the consequent nullification of all other forms of Eucharistic devotion follows as of course, a consequence unworthy of remark.  The Reformation’s aversion from such devotions become fashionable in Catholic circles since the Council for reasons having nothing whatever to do with the Council, but today we find Benediction, Perpetual Adoration, the Forty Hours subsumed under the threat of a supposed competition between the tabernacle and the altar, thought to have been recognized by Vatican II, although the Conciliar documents know nothing of it.

The result is the removal of the tabernacles in our parish churches from their traditionally immediate proximity to the altar, with its corollary, the practical disappearance of Eucharistic piety.  Obviously, this is not the product of any Magisterial decision or policy whatever.  Rather, it is insisted upon by self-proclaimed liturgical experts whose focal aversion — again Lutheran — from Catholic doctrine of the Sacrifice of the Mass has become increasingly evident over the past decade.[xi]  That aversion focuses upon the priesthood: upon its masculinity, its celibacy, its office to offer the One Sacrifice in the person of the Christ.

The Functional Priesthood

One hears rather less of functional marriage of late, perhaps because annulments have become so common as to be perceived by many as “Catholic divorce.”  When marriage thus understood becomes a commonplace, all those virtues which the sacramental sign of matrimony underwrites, and whose lack unravels all free social unity — chastity in and out of marriage, fidelity in marriage, and that subtle but indispensable, sacramentally-signed differentiation within the equal dignity, authority and responsibility of the man, the woman, and their covenant, together with the irreversible personal interrelations which that differentiation connotes and supports, within the one flesh of marriage — all these also soon go by the board.

The consequence is the loss of the free unity of the nuptially-ordered society: its is now replaced by the coercive, mechanist society of Hobbes, a congeries of dissociated humans.  In that fragmented massa damnata, each human being is a social atom with no inherent meaning or significance, lacking any constitutive differentiation from and consequent interrelation with any other, each utterly without personal significance, the multitude held in unity only by a terror greater than their fear of each other, each defenseless, open to unconditional manipulation by the application of that terror.

The currently popular advocacy of the “functional priesthood” is therefore in the service of an agenda: its program is familiar. It came into fashion some thirty years ago, coincident with reversal of altar and its dissociation from tabernacle, with concern for use of hosts consecrated at the Mass attended, with the henceforth ordinary use of “extraordinary” Eucharistic ministers, with fastidious avoidance of concelebration as offensive to women, with an animus against the reservation of the priesthood to men, and against priestly celibacy.  It was at this time that a new paradigm of the priesthood became the object of a popular quest: “professionalism” was in,[xii] usually in some sociological guise, and tradition of a distinctively priestly spirituality was out.[xiii]  The new liturgical translations from 1970 onward began to reflect this new paradigm.  Any language intimating a liturgical differentiation between the “presider” and the people in the pews was suppressed, for now it was understood, without any felt need to explain, that in the liturgy of the Mass they were all doing the same thing.  Implicit in the new paradigm was the discountenancing of the priest’s customary daily celebration of the Mass: this had become meaningless apart from a congregation, for it was now the faith of the congregation which would effect the new “transubstantiation,” no longer of the bread and wine of the Offertory into the sacrificial Body and Blood of Christ but rather, that of the “assembly” into the Body of Christ that is the church.  Soon religious communities, in which every priest had celebrated daily, became congregations, in which one would celebrate for all.  Priestly garb became superfluous; the clergy soon became indistinguishable from the laity, apart perhaps from a certain modishness in dress.

Henceforth, an empirical criteriology for the new priestly professionalism was in view: first, the priest’s novel presidential function needed elaboration: it would not be enough to be seen as a mere occupant of the chair at the liturgical assembly, who would cease to ‘preside’ and vanish into the dissasembled assembly at the end of the liturgy.  We began to hear of the priest as “leader,” a notion requiring a interpretation by “inculturation” for it to be understood[xiv] — for there were other candidates for leadership —: and a consequent education in “leadership.”[xv] in “listening skills”, etc., and those found not up to the new standards, particularly of the novel histrionic liturgical performance thought to be implicit in the strategic reversal of the altars, were invited to reconsider their vocation.[xvi]  Whether the invitation was heeded is hard to say: certainly the vocation crisis was not thereby resolved, but it was effectively confused.[xvii]

The application of the term, “functional” to the priesthood immediately announces an interpretation of the sacrament of orders which rejects the sacramental character imparted by ordination, as its application to marriage announces an interpretation of marriage that rejects the irrevocable bond between husband and wife infallibly caused by their free, sacramentally-signed personal commitment to each other.

In either case, the mentality at work is Protestant: a “protest” against the astonishing, even absurd Catholic doctrine which maintains that adult baptized Catholics are capable, by their participation in the Church’s worship, of historically unconditioned self-assertion: capable then of giving their word irrevocably in despite of all that may occur in the future.

The sublime arrogance of a young man and a young woman, perhaps still in their teens, thus pledging themselves to each other for all their lives, come what may, “forsaking all others, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, for better and for worse, until death do us part“ must horrify any actuarian: the odds against such absolute fidelity are overwhelming.  From the pragmatic and pessimistic stance of the circumambient modernity, the pledge of unqualified fidelity to the Church, the Bride of Christ, which sacramental ordination entails, is in even worse case.  For a man thus to forego what modern secularity regards as his birthright, impersonal access to women liberated for his use by the Pill, by legalized abortion, by feminist ideology, is a radical abdication of manhood itself; this becomes the more obvious when it is considered that by ordination the priest places himself under the personal authority of his ordinary, who thenceforth will determine where and how he will serve his diocese.  For a man thus deliberately to place himself under authority is seen to have foregone thereby that individualistic autonomy and irresponsibility which modernity so prizes, which it associates with the acquisition of the wealth — i.e., with power, that counterfeit of responsible freedom — by which the modern, atomized man may isolate himself yet more fully from his fellows, and so approach more nearly that transcendent standing which befits the Atom as Absolute.  Clearly, priestly Orders are counter-cultural these days, even more radically so than is marriage, which is so easily camouflaged as romance.  But the romanticization of the priesthood as functional proceeds apace.

In fact, it is only the Church’s sacramental worship that recognizes such radically unconditioned, unsentimental personal commitments for what they are, integral and integrating elements of the Church’s worship in truth, which is to say, of the Catholic worshiper’s sacramentally objective imaging of the Triune God.  Only in that worship is there validated the traditionally commonplace supposition that adults do in fact have an absolutely true word to give and that, once given, it can be broken only by a failure of personal integrity — which is to say, by the grave sin of covenantal infidelity.  In short, it is only in that worship that full personal responsibility, full personal significance in history, can be appropriated, for only there is the imaging of God understood in its full nuptial meaning.[xviii]

The assumption of the inviolable personal dignity of all human beings, and of the correlative personal responsibility and authority of adults, is inseparable from the Judaeo-Christian culture of the Western world, but it is an assumption entirely open to the actuarial, pragmatic criticism which sees in the claim of the sacramental symbols of Catholic worship to an ex opere operato efficacy an utter absurdity — e.g.,. the absurdity which a physicist would find in the defiance of entropy by the purported inventor of perpetual motion.  Every pagan, whether the dévot of a bygone cult or a convert to the contemporary secularity, knows that time devours its children, that it erodes the one, the good, the true, the beautiful, and that salvation is given only by flight from time, not by immersion within its futility.  But ordination to the priesthood is a radical personal immersion in the history of salvation precisely as salvific: the man so ordained accepts and affirms the final significance of history, the Kingdom of God, as the very objectivity of the historical order.  For the Catholic priest, the life, death and Resurrection of the II Adam is the unsurpassable fulfillment of von Ranke’s criterion of historicity: the Resurrection, with all it implies, is “that which actually happened,” the Event which unites the past, the present and the future into a single indefeasible sign of the Christ’s victory over the otherwise fatal fragmentation of time and space.

Only Catholic Christianity supports the historical optimism which sees in history itself the medium of salvation: for the Catholic, salvation history is history as objectively understood, in the appropriation of a free historical consciousness which is available only as a gift of truth, freely to be appropriated, freely to be affirmed.  This appropriation-affirmation is liturgical: the time into which one enters, in which one lives by that appropriation, is the time which the Christ’s sacrifice redeemed, and which, as Eucharistic, his sacrifice orders by giving it that free unity, the sign of its fruition in the fulfilled Kingdom of God, by which it becomes history, possessed of an objectively significant content.

By this personal participation in the Catholic liturgy, the gift of personal dignity is freely appropriated and freely uttered into history — a history which is fallen, but which is irrevocably changed by that utterance, which is participation in the mission of the Word, who does not return to the Father without doing that for which he was sent, the redemption of fallen history.

The priest, under the bishop, is ordained to authority over and responsibility for this liturgy: his authority and responsibility are not his own: he can exercise them only in the Person of Christ, the II Adam, the Bridegroom of the II Eve who is the Church.  In Christ’s name the priest offers the One Sacrifice which causes the Church to be, which institutes that One Flesh of the II Adam and the II Eve that is the New Covenant: this is his primary authority, his primary responsibility.  From this Eucharistic authority flows what ancillary authority he may have: to preach, to baptize, to forgive sin, to confirm, to anoint.  His office is then Christ’s: to recapitulate all things in the Caput, the Head, in whose Name he acts.  This recapitulation is the bestowal of the free unity of the One Flesh of the New Covenant upon a fallen world, the flesh whose cause is sin and whose sign is death.

The priest can do this only because he has by his ordination become what he was not: i.e., he has become capable of offering the One Sacrifice in the name and with the authority of Jesus, the High Priest and the Victim of the Sacrifice, and capable of forgiving sins in that same Person and with that same authority.  This priestly capability is constitutive, never to be lost: that it survives even his own sinfulness, his willful abandonment of its responsibilities, was settled by the condemnations of the Donatist heresy in the fifth century.  Therefore the priestly character is not a metaphysical accident: it exists on the level of substance, as does all grace.[xix]

The priesthood is then not a function, any more than the baptismal character of the baptized is a function.  As one cannot take a furlough from the consequences of one’s Baptismal character, so also one cannot have a vacation from the responsibilities of one’s ordination, i.e., of one’s priestly character.  Even formal laicization does not remove the priestly character, the priestly authority and responsibility to act in persona Christi.  The laicized priest is of course forbidden under pain of grave sin to exercise that authority, barring cases of extreme necessity, but he cannot be deprived of it — by anyone, even the Pope — nor can he abdicate it on his own responsibility, whether the abdication be temporary or permanent.  The priesthood is constitutive of his very person, of his exercise of free responsibility and authority, and the priest’s fidelity to the priesthood — which is nuptial fidelity to the Church in persona Christi, is the intrinsic criterion of his personal conduct and his life.  This consequence is not a matter of Church law: it is the reality of his priestly Order.  Freely and responsibly undertaken, this fidelity is inseparable from the priest’s capacity to act in the Person of Christ: to have accepted that Personal authority is henceforth to live under it: he lives, in Paul’s words, not for himself but for Christ, whose fidelity to the Church in the One Flesh of the New Covenant is irrevocable.  The priesthood is not an accident, a function: it is the priest’s very substance, his existence as a man whose fidelity is his raison d’être.

Donald J. Keefe, S.J.

former Professor of Dogmatic Theology

St. Joseph’s Seminary, Dunwoodie

Yonkers, N.Y.     10704

[i] Fr. Gregory Baum, whose article in The Ecumenist (November-December, 1965) announced the passage, supposedly warranted by Lumen Gentium, §28, from a “cultic” priesthood, defined by the offering of the Sacrifice of the Mass, to a “ministerial” priesthood specified by the “making present” of Jesus’ salvific work, was a bell-wether in the ecumenical/liturgical effort to persuade Catholics that Vatican II had underwritten the merely functional priesthood, one resulting from Christ’s gift of ministry to his people, in such wise that it became impossible to distinguish the universal priesthood which is given in baptism from that priesthood which is given in ordination, since the latter is no longer specified by the authority to offer the One Sacrifice in persona Christi.  Baum contrasts a priest who thinks his ordination to have given him a distinct ontological reality, with the post-conciliar “ministerial” priest who has no such illusions. However, over the intervening thirty years, Baum failed to persuade the Magisterium: Pope John Paul II, in Ordinatio sacerdotalis, closed the door on the functional priesthood.

[ii] The mistake is at least as old as St.   Thomas’ application of the Aristotelian category of the “perfect society” to the Church.  Within the past few decades, sociology has displaced theology in many fields of formerly theological interest, particularly sacramental theology and  ecclesiology.  Schillebeeckx did not invent this dissent, but his willingness, even eagerness, to reduce the priesthood to a variety of “leadership” in Ministry: Leadership in the Community of Jesus Christ; tr. John Bowden (New York: Crossroad, 1981) paved the way for a widespread rejection of the sacramental reality of Orders: e.g., John Coleman, the author of  “The Future of Ministry,” America 144 (March 28, 1981), 243-49; “Ministry in the 80’s,” Call to Growth/ Minis-try 9/2 (Winter, 1982) 24-31, teaches sacramental theology to Jesuit seminarians in the Jesuit theologate at Berkeley.

[iii] See the second paragraph of the quotation in n. 13, infra, in re the distribution of Fr. Huels’s article.

[iv] B. F.Skinner, Beyond Freedom and Dignity (New York: Bantam/Vintage Books, 1972).

[v] The primary evidence for the existence of this consciousness are pastoral letters issued by ordinaries who radically misstate the Eucharistic tradition of the Catholic Church.  Notable in this genre is Gather Faithfully Together: A Guide for Sunday Mass, published on the Feast of Our Lady of the Angels, September 4, 1997, by Roger Cardinal Mahony, Archbishop of Los Angeles.

[vi] Feuerbach was the first to state this clearly: see his Essence of Christianity

[vii]A recent letter to the editor of the Wall Street Journal, prompted by the denial by the Supreme Court of  New   Jersey of the legitimacy of the refusal by the Boy Scouts to admit homosexuals to their membership, chided the supposed bigotry and archaism of this refusal.  The author’s condescension to the Judaeo-Christian consciousness which formed the Western civilization is unmistakable:

To be sure, the Boy Scouts’ policy of excluding homosexuals from their ranks should merit no one’s approval.  It is bigoted, archaic and harmful both to the Boy Scouts’ organization as well as to the young men the organization serves.

Richard E. Sincere, Jr., “Pro-Gay Ruling In New Jersey Hurts Gay Rights,” Wall Steet Journal, ccxxxiv, Wednesday, Aug. 11, 1999, A-17.  Mr. Sincere is the president of Gays and Lesbians for Individual Liberty.

“To be sure” is good: a supremely confident invocation, underwritten by the New Jersey bench, as earlier by the Supreme Court, of the politically correct consciousness, whose correctness, secure against all discussion, not only dismisses but also condemns four millenia of Western tradition without a hearing. We have here another instance of the now-familiar nullification by public authority of the historical consensus of a free people, in favor of the rationalist utopian vision of an elite: see Romer v. Evans, 854 P 2d. 1270, cert. den. 114 S. Ct. 414 (1993).  The first symptom of the animus against this free and historical consensus is the absolute refusal to permit its public advocacy: whose who would be its advocates are condemned before they speak.  Truths of this intuitive clarity can only be recognized: their discussion —worse, their criticism — is henceforth simply impertinent, not to be countenanced.  Legally coerced subscription to such dictamina is the very hallmark of the depersonalized and irresponsible society.

[viii] A convenient sample of the views of a leading purveyor of sacramental functionalism over some twenty-five years may be found in the posthumously published collection of Robert W. Hovda’s articles, Robert Hovda: The Amen Corner; John F. Baldovin, Editor (Collegeville: A Pueblo Book; Liturgical Press, 1994).  The “Amen Corner” began as a feature of Living Worship, a journal of the Liturgical Conference in Washington edited by Hovda in the early sixties, who used it there for some years as a personal forum before taking it with him to Worship magazine, where it continued in the same function until his death.

[ix] A supposedly authoritative article in the widely distributed New Jerome Biblical Commentary (1990), “The First Letter to the Corinthians,” by Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, reads Paul as teaching that the lack of discipline in the Corinthian community nullifies the Eucharistic celebration which he criticizes in 11:17-22 of that Letter:

The essence of his reaction is that there can be no Eucharist in a community whose members do not love one another.

The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, 809, ¶49:56

The absurdity of this inference is patent, for it would make impossible that unworthy reception of the Eucharist whose reality Paul specifically affirms — and condemns — a few verses further on (29-30).  Murphy-O’Connor’s cites his own articles as authority for his view, to which he returns repeatedly.  It amounts to a rediscovery of the Donatist heresy, which Augustine fought almost from the beginning of his episcopate on radically Pauline grounds.

[x] We may refer in this connection to the Pastoral Letter published by the Ordinary of Los Angeles, cited in note 2, supra, of which the following excerpt is typical:

Do not deprive these symbols — bread, wine, eating, drinking — of their power.  Our more careful planning helps us avoid taking from the tabernacle hosts consecrated at a previous Mass because we have given thanks over this bread and wine on this altar.  (emphasis added)

Although its language of this excerpt, like the rest of Cardinal Mahony’s Pastoral, is deliberately obscure, the policy these lines would institute has no doctrinal or canonical ground in the Catholic tradition.  The One Sacrifice offered at each Catholic Mass is not numerically distinct from the One Sacrifice offered at any other, nor is the Body and Blood of Christ received at each Communion numerically distinct from that which is distributed at any other.  There is one Eucharistic Lord, the same yesterday, today and forever, and one Church because there is one bread, a point made by Paul in I Cor 10:17, by the Didache, and by Ignatius Martyr.  The unity of the One Sacrifice is not open to debate, still less to liturgical revisionism.

[xi] The official declaration of this aversion is found in the Third Progress Report on the Revision of the Roman Missal (Washington: I.C.E.L., 1992), whose chapter on the “Order of the Mass” (pp. 128-151) announced a radical rejection, by the self-styled International Commission on English in the Liturgy, of the Catholic Eucharistic tradition.  E.g., the Mass has become merely a meal; the deacon, as one whose office includes the distribution of Communion, has thereby become its ordinary minister, for there is no other ordinary Eucharistic ministry than this.  No Lutheran would say otherwise. There is of course no mention of an offering of the One Sacrifice by the priest-celebrant.  The same animus is apparent in Cardinal Mahony’s Pastoral Letter, cited in n. 2, supra.

[xii] The “professionalism” in view was curiously romantic: without credentials, without examination, without morale, without discipline, without fiduciary responsibility, and so, in the end, without honor.

[xiii] A decade ago, I summarized the malaise afflicting the Catholic priesthood in a long footnote, from which the following is excerpted:

The conventional approach is that voiced by Fr. M. Edmund Hussey of Ohio, in his address to a conference in Palm   Beach: “Needed: A Theology of the Priesthood,” Origins 17 (1988) 577-583.  Fr. Hussey evidences no comprehension whatever of the Eucharistic unity of the Church, nor of the role of the ordained priest in the Church so constituted, and yet is willing to prescribe for the priestly renewal which he seeks.  For him and his audience, the central problem is posed by the Eucharist itself, whose celebration he views in the fundamentally sociological terms made normative for most of the contemporary discussion by Edward Schillebeeckx’s Ministry.  It is from such dubiously academic and yet more dubiously theological postulates that Fr. Hussey, like Schillebeeckx and Coleman, would extrapolate a priesthood which condescends to the Catholic tradition which it depreciates in order to have a “mainstream” future.  Fr. John Grindel, C.M., in “Different Expectations, Different Kinds of Training,” Origins 13 (1983) 187-194, described the problem presented to contemporary seminary training by the current inability of seminary directors to agree upon the meaning of the priesthood, a confusion obviously shared by their bishops: see the lectures on the same subject by Archbishops Murphy and Pilarczyk, cited above, and by Bishop Kenneth Untener, “A Vision of Future Ministry,” Origins 13 (1984) 552-556.

In the meantime the liturgists, routinely backed by a hierarchy long confused–by their own advisors–over their own responsibilities, are proposing to inhibit the practice of Eucharistic concelebration which, within their ranks, is seen to affront the ascendancy of the functional interpretation of the priesthood: see John M. Huels, O.S.M., “Concelebration: Sign of Unity or Division?” Liturgy 80 (April, 1987), whose pleasant hints of the authoritarian character of measures impending in case of resistance to the unity he has in view are unfortunately not atypical.  Fr. Huel’s article was again published for the edification of the Archdiocese of Chicago by Liturgy Training Publications, Chicago, IL; it was republished by the Canadian National Liturgical Office in Ottawa, in a circular issued to the Canadian Catholic clergy, and six months later was reissued by the same office as an appendix to the Liturgical Report distributed by that office to the Canadian clergy.  Suffused with an innuendo condescendingly dismissive of the old-fashioned notion, taught immemorially and at Vatican II, that the priesthood is an ontological reality, confident that in a Church in confusion over the meaning of the priesthood, the future lies with those who do not consider their ordination to have any distinctive spirituality associated with it, Fr. Huels’ theology obviously had high-level episcopal approbation in Canada and in the United States.  His article closes with a scarcely veiled threat to outlaw concelebration by reason of the scandal it affords to feminists.  The theological and canonical substance of the piece could hardly be flimsier, but in the servile spiritual milieu which has fostered and promulgated this travesty, such considerations are not of much weight: Huels is “right on” as to the New Class agenda, and that obviously suffices.  The contrast between Huel’s portentous essay and work inspired by the Council itself is instructive; see Jean McGowan, Concelebration: Sign of the Unity of the Church (New York: Herder & Herder, 1964)

Covenantal Theology: rev. edit. with an Appendix (Novato, CA: Presidio, 1991) at 105; continuation of n. 110.

[xiv] Fr. Bartholomew Winters’ dissertation, Priest as Leader.  The Process of Inculturation of a Spiritual-Theological Theme of Priesthood in a United States Context, defended summa cum laude at the GregorianUniversity in 1995, was published by the Gregorian University Press in 1997.  It conforms precisely to the functional notion of the priesthood.  In its 340 pages of text, there is no mention of the sacrifice of the Mass.  At this writing, Fr. Winters is the Director of Priestly Formation at Mundelein, the theological seminary for the Archdiocese of Chicago.

[xv] Twenty years ago a laicized priest, Thomas H. Groome, in Christian Religious Education: Sharing Our Story and Vision (HarperSan Francisco, 19811980) proclaimed the effective usurpation of the clerical magisterial office by the masters of catechesis, whose function it now was to interpret the doctrinal tradition in terms of political correctness.  By that time, the catechetical community had already trimmed the doctrinal tradition to the sub-Christian dimensions allowed by regnant starveling educational theory, having understood themselves to have been freed of magisterial oversight by the spirit of Vatican II.  No bishop seems to have disagreed with the massed DREs until in the late nineties, when the NCCB finally awakened to the disastrous impact of this insolence upon two generations of dummed-down Catholics.  It would be consoling, but naïve, to suppose that matters have changed substantially since that official episcopal awakening.

[xvi] See Robert Hovda’s “Amen Corner” in Living Worship for May, 1967.

[xvii] E.g., Archbishop Pilarczyk observed in 1986 that:

The image of the priest has changed in the church.  It is almost as if priesthood is a different office now except that nobody is too sure where the difference lies….It is clear that we are in some kind of crisis of priestly ministry.  The nature of the crisis is not all that clear.  Is it a crisis of image … of numbers … of celibacy … of change … of prayer … of secularism … of confidence?

In a sidebar of an article by Bishop Thomas Murphy, “The Host of Challenges Priests Face,” Origins 18 (1988) 152-156, at 153.

A few years earlier, Archbishop Murphy, in “The Local Community and the Future Priest,” Origins 12 (1982) 428-431, had approvingly quoted a National Catholic Vocation Council Booklet which presented the contemporary priestly ideal as that of

a person who concelebrates the gifts and ministries of all the people.

Diocesan Priest (Washington, D.C.: National Vocational Council, 1982), at 430.

And this in the green wood: it has since been seasoning for more than fifteen years.

[xviii] Pope John Paul II, in the series of lectures delivered weekly from Sept. 5, 1979 through April 2, 1980, now collected in The Original Unity of Man and Woman (Boston: St. Paul Editions, 1981) associates marriage to our imaging of the Trinity and to the primordial covenant of God with humanity: see pp. 36, 38, 51, 62, 73-4.  In the apostolic exhortation entitled Familiaris Consortio the Pope is explicit:

The Eucharist is the very source of Christian Marriage.  The Eucharistic sacrifice, in fact, represents Christ’s covenant of love with the Church, sealed with His Blood on the Cross.

The. Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World; Vatican tr. of Familiaris Consortio from the Vatican Polyglot Press (Boston: St.   Paul Editions, n.d.) §57 at 86.

[xix] It would be difficult to write a more contentious sentence.  The Catholic theological community has been accustomed for more than seven centuries to the nature-grace analysis of St. Thomas, according to which nature, as the object of creation, is sharply to be distinguished from grace, which latter term St. Thomas understands as a gift in the historical order which modifies an already naturally constituted human being.  Therefore, for St. Thomas, the distinction between nature and grace is reduced to the distinction between a substance and its accidents.  This metaphysical analysis is dismissed by the Reform, whose antisacramentalism is inseparable from its rejection of metaphysics, with the consequence that it is easy to infer, mistakenly, a Protestant mentality in whoever rejects, not metaphysics, but that particular metaphysical analysis.  In Covenantal Theology; rev. ed. (Novato, CA: Presidio, 1996), and earlier in Thomism and the Ontological Theology of Paul Tillich (Leiden: Brill, 1971), I have defended, per longam et latam, the substantiality of grace as the creative effect of the Christ’s Gift of the Spiritus Creator to the Church and, through the Church to the world.  Here it may be sufficient to observe that creation is in Christ, according to Paul in Ephesians, and John in the Prologue: it can then hardly be ungraced, as the Thomist substance-accident analysis requires.  Even Thomas admits that grace is recreatio: ST Ia q. 93, a. 4, citing the patristic tradition summarized in the Glossa ordinaria 3, 92A.  Further, the ex nihilo sui et substantiae proper to creation is also that which is proper to grace: to speak of a “double gratuity” in the order of substance is metaphysical nonsense.  It is also evident that, inasmuch as accidents, in the Thomist analysis, have their necessary cause in substance, a gratuitous accident is impossible within that analysis.  The notion of an “obediential potency” has no metaphysical foundation. For further commentary, see the two books cited in this note.


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