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.
- 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.
- 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.