Brief Book Review: Understanding the Religious Priesthood

Understanding the Religious Priesthood:
History, Controversy, Theology
By Christian Raab, OSB

book cover

Who should read this? Systematic theologians interested in the theology of priesthood, religious and diocesan seminarians, religious and seminary formators, those discerning between religious and diocesan priestly vocations

Why is this book useful? Especially for the ordained within religious orders, this book provides Scripturally-rooted models for forms of priesthood that do not follow the typical diocesan model. It outlines the history of priesthood within different kinds of religious orders, and draws on the work of Hans Urs von Balthasar to address lacunae of Vatican II documents that treat diocesan but not religious priesthood.

What difference will this book make? The book situates religious priests within a broader ecclesiology that includes sometimes-overlapping roles and responsibilities for both the ordained and the non-ordained, for both religious and diocesan priests. Each has a contribution to make to the Body of Christ. Some have special missions within the Church. This book helps showcase these different callings with respect.

What intrigued me the most? As a religious woman, I was curious to see how religious men might see their own vocation differently, in light of questions concerning ordination. The theology of priesthood includes official charisms for ordained ministry that are different but related to the more prophetic charisms of leadership seen in non-ordained religious. I am intrigued by how communities of both ordained and non-ordained members can foster leadership and growth among all their members, with a spirit of respect for both.

What will get you thinking? The cover portrays Saints Paul and John, both of whom provide symbolic models or types for religious priesthood, in contrast with St. Peter, who provides more of a model for diocesan priesthood. These come out of von Balthasar’s concept of “constellations” of biblical figures who were in relationship with Christ in particular ways. These then serve as models for various elements of Church life today, providing helpful images for those of us seeking to live our own Christian mission in relationship with Jesus. In this scheme, other biblical figures also speak.

Quibbles. The book is longer than it needs to be. While recapitulation can be helpful, a tighter trajectory could have been equally effective. As the work began as a doctoral dissertation, however, perhaps this is to be expected.

Implications. The book seeks to show how religious priests play a mediating role in the Church: between the hierarchical ecclesiastical institution and religious communities, between the ordained and the non-ordained, between those called to serve within diocesan boundaries and those whose missions are transdiocesan. It touches on what it means to participate in the Body of Christ as the head or as the body, as one embodying the person of Christ or as the Church as Christ’s Bride. While tensions between these different callings may be inevitable, staying in relationship is important for the life of the Church. While some may be called to official apostolic ministry, and some are called to radical forms of discipleship, religious priests are called to both.

Christian Raab, OSB, Understanding the Religious Priesthood: History, Controversy, Theology (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University Press, 2021). 337 pages. $34.95. ISBN: 9780813233239.

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