The current sexual abuse scandal is eliciting a lot of commentary about the structure of Catholicism. Robert Tracinski at The Federalist claims that a model predicated upon certain men being endowed with a divinely-originated authority is “at war with human nature” because Catholicism demands we reject the ability to make “judgments for oneself.” An article by Angela Bonavoglia argues that “those who lead the work of Christ must be . . . women, men, gay, straight, trans, young, old. They must reflect the reformers’ vision of ‘the priesthood of all believers.’”
Such calls reflect nothing less than a demand to “Protestantize” the Catholic Church, reviving the early Reformers’ assertion that all Christians have the authority to determine the truth about God and His Church for themselves.
Martin Luther attacked the hierarchy of the Catholic Church on the basis of the priesthood of all believers. Luther’s On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church explained it this way:
How then if they are forced to admit that we are all equally priests, as many of us as are baptized, and by this way we truly are; while to them is committed only the Ministry (ministerium) and consented to by us (nostro consensu)? If they recognize this they would know that they have no right to exercise power over us (ius imperii, in what has not been committed to them) except insofar as we may have granted it to them.
John Calvin likewise perceived the priesthood of all believers as a means of undermining the Catholic hierarchy, calling the priesthood “a most wicked infamy and unbearable blasphemy, both against Christ and against the sacrifice which he made for us through his death on the cross.” He put Luther’s ideas into effect, formulating an ecclesiology whereby church members elected lay elders to rule their fellow Christians.
The idea of “the priesthood of all believers” does indeed have Biblical precedent, which is why the Reformers appealed to it. St. Peter urges the Church to accept its calling as “a holy priesthood, offer[ing] spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” For we are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.” (1 Peter 2:5-9)
Indeed, even the Catholic Catechism affirms this: “the whole community of believers is, as such, priestly. The faithful exercise their baptismal priesthood through their participation, each according to his own vocation, in Christ’s mission as priest, prophet, and king. Through the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation the faithful are ‘consecrated to be . . . a holy priesthood’.” (CCC 1546)
Yet this notion must be tempered by the recognition that God has indeed installed leaders over his people whose authority cannot be denied simply by reference to the universal priesthood. Indeed, one story from the Old Testament provides a striking example, hauntingly similar to its use in Protestant theology, and to the language of anti-episcopal Catholics:
Now Korah the son of Izhar, son of Kohath, son of Levi, and Dathan and Abi′ram the sons of Eli′ab, and On the son of Peleth, sons of Reuben, took men; and they rose up before Moses, with a number of the people of Israel, two hundred and fifty leaders of the congregation, chosen from the assembly, well-known men; and they assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron, and said to them, “You have gone too far! For all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them; why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?” (Numbers 16:1-5)
Korah and his ilk argue that God has made all of Israel a holy people and that Moses and Aaron have no right to exercise authority over them. This is nothing less than full-fledged rebellion, against not only divinely-instituted leaders but God Himself. Indeed, Moses tells the rebels: “therefore it is against the Lord that you and all your company have gathered together.”
The response from God for this treachery is quick and dramatic:
And as [Moses] finished speaking all these words, the ground under them split asunder; and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, with their households and all the men that belonged to Korah and all their goods. So they and all that belonged to them went down alive into Sheol; and the earth closed over them, and they perished from the midst of the assembly. (Numbers 16:31-33)
So much for those who seek to destroy institutions established by God himself. They are consumed, Scriptures tells us, “in a moment.”
The leadership of the Catholic Church possesses a divinely-ordained position of authority much like Moses — indeed, Jesus in Matthew 23:2 speaks of the Jewish leadership sitting upon the “seat of Moses,” which gives them authority to govern the people of God.
Our bishops (and our pope), despite whatever errors, misjudgments, and sins they may commit, remain firmly upon that seat. Indeed, the New Testament teaches in numerous places that the leadership of the Church bears apostolic authority. St. Paul, for example, speaks of the episcopacy being conferred by laying on of hands. (1 Timothy 1:6, 4:14)
Recognizing God’s hand in the continuing leadership of the Church is, of course, no blank check for our leaders – they will be judged by God for their misdeeds, and we have every right to demand that they own up for misbehavior and that proper disciplinary action be taken when their errors are particularly heinous. At times, there are bishops and cardinals who should be removed – though not by us (sorry Luther), but by others with the authority to do so.
Whatever recourse is taken against those ecclesial leaders who have failed us, perhaps a wise precept in this time of crisis is the one Jesus gives right after his reference to the “seat of Moses.” Our Lord declared: “practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice.”
*Image: The Punishment of Korah and the Stoning of Moses and Aaron by Sandro Botticelli, 1481 [Sistine Chapel, Vatican]. The fresco is from the cycle of the life of Moses located in the fifth compartment on the south wall of the Chapel.