Church, Ordination, and Power

Every winter semester I lecture on “Office and Ordination” at the University of Innsbruck. I only have 7 times 90 minutes; the course is focused on the ordained offices as they are described and explicated in Lumen Gentium 18–29 and the current Roman rites of ordination, and some aspects of the historical development, canon law, ordained offices in non-Catholic traditions, and non-ordained Catholic offices.

Over the years I have always tried to present a positive approach to the ordained office and teach the good and well-grounded potential of this ecclesiastical element. But after recent months, when the German bishops have revealed their knowledge of sexual abuse and other forms of abuse of power in the last decades and everyone is talking about it, I have decided to include some personal remarks on the matter in the course.

The course is attended mainly by candidates for priesthood and by laypersons who plan to work in diocesan pastoral care. So for all of them the question of power, its use and its abuse, is not just a theoretical issue. They all think about it, discuss it, or even feel challenged by outsiders who cannot understand why people would want to work for what obviously seems to be a corrupt and destructive system.

Here are my thoughts, trying to hew to the principles of Lumen Gentium and avoiding revolutionary ecclesiological paradigm shifts. This is a work in progress, and I do not claim to have arrived at a final, unassailable position. Too much is currently in flux – in the news, and in my own mind.

General Preliminaries

  • The Catholic Church gives ordained men (mainly in the offices of bishop and priest, while the diaconate is a bit different) a lot of power – duties and rights that others do not have. This power can legitimately be called power, must be called power, and must not be denied in some sort of pious manner, as if it did not exist or is totally different from power in society, politics, economics, or elsewhere.
  • The abuse of power is promoted whenever the idea of repraesentatio Christi capitis (an ordained man “represents” Christ) is perverted into the idea of identification (an ordained man somehow “is” Christ). This concept of identification – even if it was not called such – was (and still is!) promoted by the idea that ordination grants magical-metaphysical abilities (often connected to the canonical term of potestas) or a monopoly on certain gifts of the Holy Spirit. The biblical statement that Christ is the one and only head of the church delegitimizes any monopolization of power among his representatives or followers.
  • It is for good reason that power in the Church is described by the biblical metaphor of the Good Shepherd. This metaphor expresses that the legitimate exercise of power in the church demands giving one’s entire life for the sake of the “sheep.” (cf. John 10:11) But if we avoid the term “power” when we talk about the shepherd, we are in danger of trivializing power itself.
  • The Catholic Church must discuss how power (in the meaning of pastoral care) can be exercised without monopolization and without incapacitation of the “sheep.” The “flock” is bearer of the Holy Spirit (by baptism/confirmation). Each “sheep” is bearer of individual charisms that need to be taken seriously and need to be integrated into the church. If not, then the ascription of priestly, royal, and prophetical dignity in the rite of baptism is meaningless.
  • The existence of the office of deacon shows that it is possible to ascribe certain duties to a certain office (e.g. social care) without monopolization and without incapacitation of other Christians.
  • The Catholic Church is currently confronted with the abysmally destructive consequences of the connection between power and uncontrolled, unreflective, irresponsible forms of sexuality. It must be pointed out that while ordained people “represent” Christ within liturgical rituals, at the same time they remain sinners – not immune to the temptations of power. In order to exercise the will of Christ as the one and only head of the Church, in order to strengthen the charisms of all Christians, and – especially! – in order to assist victims of abuse of power (psychological, sexual…) and to prevent future victimization as much as possible, the Catholic Church must seriously complement its structures of power by control mechanisms that optimally hinder the abuse of power.
  • Such a complementary system can be developed theologically by the notions of primatial and synodal principles. In recent centuries, the Catholic Church has almost exclusively focused on the primatial principle. Synodality is put forth as a theological principle, but not really provided for in canon law. In contrast to divine power, human power needs controlling mechanisms, since humans always remain sinners.
  • The current discussion in the Catholic Church about the abysmal consequences of perverted structures of power has become a burden for clerics, who are put under general suspicion. For their sake, the Catholic Church needs a paradigm shift in its system of power.

 Practical Suggestions

  • Ordained office as such is constitutive of the Catholic Church. A complete equalization of all baptized would not do justice to the variety of charisms. Ordained office can legitimately be regarded as an attempt to give order to charisms with respect to all the individuals involved. General equalization would eventually produce new, unorganized authorities that would lack being embedded or controlled by any juridical framework.
  • Any exercise of power in the church must take into account that the people over whom power is exercised are bearers of the Holy Spirit with experiences and insights that belong to the treasure of faith.
  • At the parish level: A parish should minimally have a right of veto against the appointment of a parish priest (e.g. by a public hearing or by a vote by the parish council). Furthermore, a regular procedure for a no-confidence vote should be established. Synodal bodies for governing a parish should be considered and made possible by canon law, so that the all-encompassing canonical duties of the parish priest would be transferred to a body in which the parish priest is one among others. (The German diocese of Trier is currently starting to establish such bodies of three or five people in its parishes: e.g. the parish priest, a full-time pastoral assistant, and the parish treasurer.)
  • At the diocesan level: The diocese must at least be involved in the election of its bishop. A diocesan synod should be a permanent complement to the bishop. That synod should minimally have a veto right against personnel decisions and episcopal legislating. A similar structure could be implemented for certain fields, such as youth, women, or financial affairs. (Episcopalian, Old Catholic, and Lutheran churches show how such bodies can be organized.)
  • At the worldwide level: In view of Vatican I, a limitation of papal power cannot easily be established in canon law. But at least any pope could voluntarily limit his own power. A papal complementary body already exists in the council of cardinals, and history shows that cardinals have not always exclusively been bishops, nor even ordained men. Election of cardinals – e.g. by the bishops’ conferences – or a time limit for the cardinalate should be seriously considered. (Orthodox synods show how such bodies can consist of bishops, priests, laypersons, and advisors.)
  • The selection and formation of candidates for priesthood should not follow the concept of personalized absolute ordination (“I feel a vocation to priesthood”) but rather the concept of ecclesial relative ordination (“Who is needed for what task in the church?”). One may question some forms of joint formation in a seminary and be wary of the temptations of “esprit de corps.”
  • The abolishment of mandatory celibacy for priests could take a lot of pressure off young men who are forced to deal with their sexuality while making a decision which is obligatory and permanent. There is good reason to believe that this would at least reduce the disastrous results of suppressed or unreflective sexual tendencies (including especially the suffering of victims of sexual abuse, but also the psychological suffering of the ordained themselves).
  • If the Catholic Church cannot bring itself to the ordination of women to episcopacy and priesthood – the main offices connected to power –, at least it should take care that public proclamation of the faith and the exercise of power is not exclusively linked to men, or to “men’s corps” with all their harmful inner dynamics. Minimally, the following elements could be implemented: Legalization – even more: assignment! – of female preachers in the Eucharist; stipulated presence of women in the aforementioned synods on all levels; appointment of women to all ecclesiastical offices that do not require priestly duties (e.g. in the top-level administration of a diocese); detachment of offices such as cardinal, vicar general, and diocesan judge from the requirement of ordination (until 1917 even the canonical leadership of a parish could be exercised by laypersons to whom the ordained priests were subordinate); and in general: secure and attractive positions of employment in the church that do not require ordination.

Such are my thoughts, as of today. I welcome your thoughts as well.


  1. I would suggest that pastoral councils should not be considered in general as properly representative of the faithful of a community, if representation of the faithful is going to be considered as desirable. (Even when elected by the faithful who are permitted and chose to vote.) Selection by lot could arguably be more representative, but then one has to tackle the selection bias of how to determine who is and is not included.

    1. As you know, I really like the idea of selection by lot. But even then any candidate needs to be generally accepted: so there still remains a (juridical, technical) element of approval.

      1. Understood. I often refer to the famously complex Venetian electoral system because it betrays several elements of self-awareness: once Venice closed the circle of its aristocracy, its ruling class realized that it had to cultivate a fiduciary duty of governance among all member clans, create ways to frustrate if not entirely defeat gaming of the system (wherein lots appear as an important feature), and require accountability not only of individuals but of member clans. Which to my mind instructs of stepping back and looking at the whole. And, at least in the opinion of the estimable S.E. Finer, Venice was arguably a better governed polity for a longer period of time than any other for which we have enough detailed records to form a solid opinion. (Hint: the USA hasn’t even reached the halfway point of the longevity of Venice’s matured governance system.)

        Taking Todd’s point point about where the Church is in terms of being able to have reasonable discernment: that’s where I think we should be focusing, but it’s much less gratifying work because it doesn’t involve the resolution of the issues we have been groomed to think of as The Issues. Hence my caution about pastoral councils: if people think they are a starting point for this, then we have much more work cut out for us about discernment. We need to engage the reality that most of the faithful may indeed resist an understanding of discipleship as necessarily involving *responsibility* for participation in discernment in ways that are not self-serving (that is, with a fiduciary sensibility for the very long term that lacks gratification) and the *obligation* to serve if called upon to do so. (A small recent historical example: In the first decade of the Catholic Worker communities, Dorothy Day quickly criticized the inclination to avoid personal responsibility on the part of the many people the work attracted.) Monarchy (in the broad sense) is SO much easier for too many people: it gives you one person to love or hate. Americans are, by social constitution, strongly disinclined to engage the perduring attractions of monarchy and how easily we lapse into its arms without noticing.

      2. In fact, this is how elders are chosen in the Mennonite tradition. It certainly would be an interesting method of discerning those who are called to the priesthood.

  2. The reflection on deacons interests me. On the one hand, we’ve seen revitalization of the permanent diaconate, and I believe it is a good thing. I’d rather a parish have too many of them (if such a thing is even possible) than not enough. On the other hand, we seem to have lost the sense that priests and bishops are, in fact, still deacons. Please let me emphasize that it is not a zero sum game; more permanent deacons does not lead to a loss of that sense in the other orders.

    It /does/ seem to me, though, that priests and bishops are effectively told, “No, sorry. You can’t vest as a deacon and operate liturgically as a deacon [even though you never stopped and never will stop being a deacon].” So, they can never again exercise diaconal roles liturgically, unless they sneak off to a parish that uses the Extraordinary Form; following the principle of lex orandi, lex credendi, it’s no surprise to me that many forget it and no longer internalize it, especially its call to service of others.

    As a matter of priest-craft, there’s something to be said for clergy who know how to do every single role in the sanctuary; it’s also healthy to suck it up serve as a deacon or even a lowly boat boy on occasion. It hammers home, “You are not the star of the show.”

    1. That is a great topic!

      I personally tend to say that a priest is no deacon any longer, and a bishop is no priest any longer, but I see there are good arguments (from liturgy and history and dogmatics) against this position.

      I see (theo-)logical aporias on both sides:

      If a priest is no deacon anymore: How can a sacrament be eliminated by another one? How can all three ordained offices be only one sacrament in total? How can duties and prerogatives of an ordained office (here e.g. reading the Gospel in the Eucharist, reading the Universal Prayer) get lost by another ordination?

      But on the other hand: If a priest still remains a deacon: How can the diaconate be a sacrament if it also can be boosted to another level? How can a deacon have ritual prerogatives (see above) over someone who is “a deacon and even more”? Why has the church never practices “re-deaconization” such as the laicization (it is impossible for a priest to say: Oh, I am retired now, but I would like to continue part-time as a deacon)?

      On a rather ethical level I can understand why bishops say on occasion of a priestly ordination: “You remain helpers and servers for the people like a deacon”, but on a dogmatic level it makes more sense to me that a priest is no deacon anymore, and a bishop is no priest anymore. Hence I am against priest playing the part of the deacon in the liturgy or bishops concelebrating under a priest as presider etc.

  3. We’ve had the bad side of equalization forever. Aristocracy where it has been embedded. Gossip mongers since the pre-conciliar Church. The blogosphere and other social media today. What you describe as “General equalization would eventually produce new, unorganized authorities that would lack being embedded or controlled by any juridical framework,” we already have. Lay people and associated clergy are free to pontificate about their brand of faux news and drive their own agendas in their own parochial/congregationalist structures and spread occasional havoc in the parish, diocese, or in the case of Carlo Maria Viganò, the universal church.

    On your other points, I don’t see the Church prepared to have a reasonable discernment, let alone discussion, on any of it. We lack the maturity for it. For the moment, the institution will persist in its adolescence.

  4. Some wise words in this post.

    Essential insight:
    “This power can legitimately be called power, must be called power, and must not be denied in some sort of pious manner, as if it did not exist or is totally different from power in society, politics, economics, or elsewhere.”

    This was especially well-said:
    “The Catholic Church is currently confronted with the abysmally destructive consequences of the connection between power and uncontrolled, unreflective, irresponsible forms of sexuality.”

    And this:
    “The selection and formation of candidates for priesthood should not follow the concept of personalized absolute ordination (“I feel a vocation to priesthood”) but rather the concept of ecclesial relative ordination (“Who is needed for what task in the church?”).”

    And also this, which, on a practical level, is so lacking that I was astonished when I read it, despite the fact that the theology is impeccably grounded in our bedrock baptismal ecclesiology:
    “Any exercise of power in the church must take into account that the people over whom power is exercised are bearers of the Holy Spirit with experiences and insights that belong to the treasure of faith.”

    At first, I assumed the recommendations would be rather tame (more consultative bodies, etc.) but then I came to this:
    “Minimally, the following elements could be implemented: Legalization – even more: assignment! – of female preachers in the Eucharist . . . ”

    Liborius, in the section “on the worldwide level” I wondered if you meant “council of cardinals” or “college of cardinals.” Because Pope Francis has used a council (the C9), I associate that word with a rather small group of advisers, one from each continent. Perhaps you mean the whole college?

    1. Thank you for your remarks! Yes, it seems I mixed up the English terminology there: I meant the entire college of cardinals as a collective body (the “senate” of the church), not the C9 or any other sub-group.

  5. Great piece, especially the assessment of priestly power vs responsibility. Just a few thoughts on the practical suggestions:

    Giving a parish council veto power over a pastoral appoint could really tie a bishop’s hands in terms of appointments. Everyone wants a pastor who fits their parish, but bishops can only assign the priests they have available. Pastors get a lot of flack for wrecking parishes, but that can continue well into the next regime if he made similarly bad appointments to parish councils, and if they’re given power to resist reforms. A better solution might be requiring an assignment board to have a parish/finance council representative participate in proceedings concerning their parish.

    I have similar reservations about synodical bishops appointments/elections, because bad bishops can similarly spoil their own synods with incurious yesmen if given enough time and incompetence (as happened in my former diocese). Maybe another solution would be having the nuncio work with the diocesan college of consultors (which includes laymen/women) to assemble the list that gets sent to the Congregation of Bishops. More effective channels for diocesan backbenchers to communicate episcopal malfeasance to Rome is also a must.

    As to abolishing mandatory celibacy, as I’ve said before, the sum of psychological research currently available confirms that celibate men (let alone priests) aren’t any more likely to abuse children than than those who are married or otherwise sexually active, despite incessant media narratives to the contrary. I’m not opposed to allowing married priests in principle, but the way this issue is connected to the horrific sexual abuse that occurred in our Church needs to be assessed very carefully. Just some $0.02

  6. On the issue of abolishing mandatory celibacy for candidates to the priestly ministry:
    In the present dispensation, men who have discerned a vocation to the priesthood have not necessarily resolved the issue of how to deal with sexual inclinations and feelings. While they all know intellectually that they will be expected to practice chastity which in Catholic moral tradition means minimally no sex of any kind with self or with anyone else, this doesn’t mean they are aware of how to channel sexual energy and desires in healthy ways. The option of marrying prior to ordination would appeal greatly to men who are quite certain and comfortable concerning their attraction to women. I’m not sure how it would affect those with some degree of same sex attraction, save perhaps for challenging the notion that they might get away with acting out on their feelings as long as it is concealed; and that they don’t harm minors or abuse power with regard to adults in their pastoral care. Like the author of the piece these are not fully developed thoughts but hopefully ideas worth conversing about.

    1. Abolishing mandatory celibacy would also greatly affect the congregations that married clergy would serve, not just the candidates for ordination. The congregation (justly) would be required to support the priest, his wife and family with a living wage, meaning that parish giving would have to increase considerably. Especially if there were several priestly families in one parish. How would that affect other programs in the parish or parochial schools? What about parish housing for these families? Diocesan structures would also have to change in regard to the movement of married priests between parishes, benefits, insurance, severance, establishment of new offices and liasons. There would also have to be structures in place for the wives (and possibly children) of priests for support in case of death or domestic situations and divorce. Education for clerical spouses to understand and cope with the role into which they would heading. Seminary structures would also have to change, at the very least in regard to married student housing, as potential priests would have to be married prior to diaconal ordination. Remember, you would ordain married men, and not allow priests to get married. If that were not the case, then there would be ecumenical implications not only with Eastern Catholics (in communion with Rome) who can only marry before diaconal ordination but also with the Orthodox, and other Eastern Churches not in communion with Rome who follow the same rule. Just some thoughts.

      1. Everything that you point out is true, and the time of transition will be perhaps tumultuous, but you already point out that we are not inventing something new here. The Eastern Churches, not to mention the mainline Protestant ones, already deal with all this issues. In the Eastern Code of Canon Law, I presume that all the potential difficulties and how to deal with them are already addressed.
        Why do I suspect that , when all is said and done, all the hand-wringing over practical details of implementation of optional celibacy will turn out to be a tempest in a teapot. The only problem might occur in the seminaries which have been in to many cases turned into bastions of “traditionalism.”

  7. Thanks so far for all your replies.

    Some additional thoughts: When I suggest synods on any level, I presume that the members (or at least a vast majority of them) are elected and not appointed by the pope/bishop/parish priest. But I don’t think a general rule for such an election can be prescribed for the entire worldwide church. Probably every region, country, or diocese needs their own rules in order to represent whomever is to be represented. There are differences between a democratic background like in Switzerland where the Catholic Church has a lot of full-time lay employees in pastoral care, and countries where Christianity is suppressed and only a handful of priests and women religious organize the ecclesial life more or less secretly.

    I think the Catholic Church could learn a lot from synodal structures in Orthodox, Anglican, Old Catholic, and Lutheran churches. They all have their good and bad experiences with synods under different circumstances, so all these experiences could be taken into account.

  8. Where the Church gets in a bind is power, power, power. These suggestions in this thoughtful article are well and good until those who need power subvert the practices and establish their own power structures. There will always be abuse as long as there is power that is established by ordination. Priests and Bishops run roughshod over faithful Catholics because they structurally can. It seems that the Church comes right to the edge of addressing clericalism and control and then says that the real problem is not that at all. But is is the source of the problem. The Australian courts naming the ordination language of the special nature of the recipient as problematic called it correctly. You can get rid of celibacy and still have clericalism, you can establish synods and still have clericalism. Until the seminaries commit to an atmosphere of calling out clericalism and power and detesting it, there will be abuse (sexual, verbal, pastoral, emotional, financial etc) because abuse is an act of power.

    1. Let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that power, or abuses thereof, are unique to our Church. We see it in corporations, democratically elected governments, even other churches (look up Mark Driscoll or Ted Haggard). Power is inevitable because we’re mere people. The Church’s theology on the Sacrament of Ordination has absolutely nothing to do with it, and frankly, that the Australian government chose to chase that red herring just revealed an utter lack of self awareness and credibility on their part. The only way to limit potential abuses of power is to check it, with more eyes on those in authority, better avenues for laity to communicate concerns, and rigorously enforced consequences for when people inevitably screw up.

      1. Power only works when those not in authority kowtow to it.
        The hierarchy actually have no real power over any of the laity if it is not accepted.
        Time is long past for the laity to grow up and stop fawning around “father” and “his lordship.”

      2. “The hierarchy actually have no real power over any of the laity if it is not accepted.”

        Not quite,

        “The sacrament of Holy Orders communicates a ‘sacred power’ which is none other than that of Christ. The exercise of this authority must therefore be measured against the model of Christ, who by love made himself the least and the servant of all.” -CCC 1551

      3. Patrick, I think Alan is referring to the principle in Canon Law which says that where a law is not received (i.e. not accepted) it is not in force. The same sort of thing may be true here.

        The fact that CCC may define a fruit of ordination does not mean that everyone therefore accepts it. I’m reminded of the dictum that power may exist in theory but true authority and respect have to be earned. If you don’t demonstrate the compassion of Christ, people may not see you as an icon of him.

      4. Paul, are you referring to the Canons pertaining to [popular] customs? Canon 25 does talk of “communit[ies] capable… of receiving law,” in that communities are only bound to laws that they know exist (if a bishop were to issue a directive on Monday, one isn’t bound to it until they become aware of it on Wednesday), but not a supposed ability to willfully and unilaterally disregard Church laws at their pleasure. It’s obviously a responsibility of those in authority to maintain good relations with those under them (Christ himself has said as much, as you note), but this doesn’t reduce to a sort of “popular sovereignty” doctrine in the Church.

  9. Though the much more difficult part is discerning how discipleship and servanthood are not distorted in the disengagement from the codependency of power. Easy to talk about, but human individual and social nature are thorny realities that appear to make failures (of a messy kind that don’t necessarily translate into noble or neat lessons) an inevitable part of the process. That’s not a reason or justification for not bothering, but simply to cling fast to humility and hope to help maintain our orientation through the disorientation.

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