Tuesday, June 26, 2012


Jesus promised us the kingdom; what did we get? The Church!
                                                                                                ~Adolph Harnack

Ecclesia semper reformans, semper reformanda. (The church, always reformed, always in need of reforming.)  ~an expression of the Protestant Reformation

I am a hopeful ecumenist, encouraged by the apparent waning or blurring of denominationalism, so it always both startles and bothers me when I realize that I am still aggravated by a few issues of the sixteenth century Lutheran reformation—issues such as the nature of the priesthood.

This came to mind a few months ago while watching a 60 Minutes segment on the priest sex scandal in Ireland, and more recently on the occasion of the announced resignation of Pope Benedict, during whose "watch" the Church's response to these scandals came under increasing scrutiny and criticism.

Let me be quick to acknowledge that there have been plenty of sexual boundary violators in my own Lutheran fold, and I agree that the solution to this Roman Catholic catastrophe has to be found within the Roman Catholic Church and not in finger-pointing suggestions from protestant onlookers, even as I, ironically, humbly offer an observation based on Lutheran theology. So, to the possible challenge, “What gives you the gall to say anything at all about this?” I can only reply that what follows is the same thing I offer my Roman Catholic friends in conversation over coffee.

Also, I understand the Lutheran Church to be a reform movement within the Church Catholic (Martin Luther never intended to start a new “church”), and it is in that spirit that I have the temerity to comment.

Although the cause of each case of sexual abuse has to do with the mental or sexual health of each individual priest involved (and leads critics within the Roman system to wonder about an approach to priest-formation that perhaps engages young men at a too-early stage in their psycho-sexual development), and although the strictures of celibacy are an easy target for speculation (an issue beyond the scope of this essay), the thing that makes sexual abuse by priests a grave spiritual crisis for Roman Catholics is the ontological holiness of the priesthood.

Some will hear this as an understatement of the obvious, others will say, “Huh?” Let me explain.   I know that “ontological” is a big old sophomore philosophy term, but it’s at the heart of this sad situation. It is a word that has to do with the very essence of being – of one’s nature. In Roman Catholic doctrine, the priest, at his ordination, becomes a holier person in his essential self, in his “being.” Compared to the laity, he is, quite literally, “holier than thou.” He is, in fact, holy in the same way that Christ is divine while still being human. In the words of John Cardinal O’Connor:

This perceived holiness not only makes a trusting person vulnerable, it also elevates the criminal act to a crisis of faith for Roman Catholic laity and a crisis of integrity (not to mention public relations) for the hierarchy. As a laywoman in the 60 Minutes piece puts it, “They covered it up because the priest is supposed to be perfect.” (In Ireland, these ontologically superior beings are now allowed to be in the presence of children only under the supervision of another adult!) Although refreshingly open, the archbishop in the 60 Minutes interview doesn't address the issue of elevated priestly holiness. To my observation, it is never mentioned in churchly or journalistic discussions of this matter. But it is central.

By contrast, the reformation view is that all Christians are priests (needing no intermediary to approach the Divine), and that a member of the clergy is one of these priests who is ordained to a certain function (the care and ministry of word and sacrament), not to a different level of holiness. If the pastor plays a spiritually important role, it is because the word and sacraments, not the person, are important. What happens at ordination is a call to do a job for the community, not a transformation of one’s being.
For good biblical and practical reasons, a pastor is – and ought to be – expected to live an “exemplary” life. But even though a kind of folk-theology causes many a protestant layperson to think of the pastor as especially “holy,” Roman Catholic doctrine assures everyone – the layperson, the hierarchy, and the priest himself that he, in fact, is, and bases the priest-people relationship on this holiness.

When a protestant pastor commits an abuse, great damage ensues (worthy—because it’s in my own clan—of a much hotter essay than this), and each individual case is every bit as devastating as that perpetrated by a Roman Catholic priest. But, I suggest, it seems not to have the effect of a church-wide (or world-wide) spiritual crisis because of the ultimate leveling of function (vs. ontology); the Lutheran pastor is not, in the final analysis, understood to be holier than the parishioners he serves.

What is beginning to sound like a lecture is actually an expression of frustration. And to the charge, “You’re just rehashing a centuries-old debate,” I plead guilty. I continue to hope and pray for the healing of the Lutheran-Roman Catholic breach. I worship lovingly with my Roman Catholic friends. But ecumenism means speaking honestly to one another from the strengths of our traditions, and in this case Martin Luther got it right. Roman Catholic priests need to come down an ontological peg (while the Church itself comes to honest terms with the causes of this epidemic). Of course only a new reformation will allow this. It happened before; it will happen again. Semper reformanda.