The Personalist Project

Last week Jules and I had some quality time with a priest friend. There was a lot of heart to heart discussion about the state of the Church and the call of the moment, the challenges facing our generation of Catholics.

As a way of continuing the conversation, yesterday he forwarded to us Archbishop Chaput's latest column.

In his book Why Celibacy? Reclaiming the Fatherhood of the Priest (Emmaus Road Publishing; foreword by Scott Hahn), Father Carter Griffin does a superb job of making a case for “the profound renewal of the celibate priesthood and the fatherhood to which it is ordered.” Every human being has the hunger to create new life. Husbands and wives express that in their children. The fertility of a priestly life reflects and shares in the supernatural fatherhood of God. Priests are therefore called to be real spiritual fathers to their people, transforming them with new life in Jesus Christ. Without that conscious, guiding sense of paternity, rooted in God’s own fatherhood, the life of a priest becomes little more than administrative tasks and sacramental dispensing.

I haven't read the book, but readers of this site won't be surprised to hear that the basic point goes against my grain, to the point that I am practically breaking out in hives as I type. The image of priest as father is of course true and valid, but it's also only one among several given in Scripture. And as I see it (as I think the experience and developments of the post-conciliar period prove), the real need in the Church at this moment in time is for us to realize in thought and practice the mystery of priest as husband, not father. These concepts essentially go together, but the metaphor of fatherhood has so dominated Catholic ethos that we’ve all but lost any consciousness of priest as spouse of the Church, which is primarily what makes sense of priestly celibacy, as well as the lay vocation, imo.

The exaggerated emphasis on priest as father has led directly to the endemic paternalism now crippling the Church. The laity are treated like children. We act like children, and not in a good way. Priests are regarded as parents; they act like parents, and not in a good way.

In the relation between parent and child, the concepts of authority and obedience are central. It’s a hierarchical relation, inescapably. In the relation between husband and wife, mutual self-giving and other-receiving is thematic. It’s a reciprocal relation. Paternity and maternity—fruitfulnesss—come from that complementary reciprocity. The fertility of the priest's life comes from his spousal relation to the people of God. It comes from his opening himself to them, his recognition of their subjectivity, their agency, his ordination toward them, his companionship with them, and his laying down his life for them.

One of the key discoveries for me during the last year of studying John Paul II's Theology of the Body was that his close analysis of Genesis practically identifies original innocence with reciprocity. Reciprocity is what makes Adam and Eve “safe” for each other, i.e. able to be “naked without shame.” Eve is not threatened by Adam’s gaze, because she finds in it his recognition of her equality as a subject, an agent, an image of God, called to dominion over the earth. Both see and intuitively grasp that her being made for him has everything to do with his being made also and equally for her.

That reciprocity was lost with the fall. With the fall came the master/slave relation and all its evil ways and effects. The renewal of the Church in our day entails a reversal of that dynamic in relations between clergy and laity. It entails a rediscovery of the "deep mystery" that the priest is bridegroom, which means that the laity are his bride, his companion and his partner, not his subordinate. We need less emphasis on the fatherhood of priests, not more. Or, maybe better: We won't understand rightly the fatherhood of the priest, unless we first get clear that his fatherhood comes from his being first husband.

Comments (16)

Rhett Segall

#1, Aug 29, 2019 4:57pm

Maybe I’m atypical, Katie, but I’ve not experienced a great deal of priestly paternalism.  I’ve  experienced lay people not “stepping up to the plate”. You acknowledge that fatherhood is dimension of priesthood but has to be  balanced with "reciprocity". Given that priests are far more theologically  educated than the ordinary Catholic,  How this reciprocity can be actualized?

Using the analogy of parenthood, would it be more truthful for our adult children to stop addressing us as Mom or Dad? Most would say that’s silly. The parent will always have a sense of giving to those they have parented. adult children recognize that they have received an incalculable amount from their Mom  and Dad and so want to continue addressing them as such even though the relationship will now have a great deal more reciprocity.

So I’m comfortable calling ordained Christians “Father”. If he’s out of line I’ll let him know in a respectful way. He’ll do the same for me hopefully!

Rhett Segall

#2, Aug 30, 2019 7:15am

Sorry about the poor grammar above! Had trouble posting.

Katie van Schaijik

#3, Sep 3, 2019 9:29am

Hi Rhett. I have a few thoughts in reply, as always. :)

1) I think it can no longer be taken as a general truth that priests are far more educated theologically than the ordinary Catholic. In my experience, many priests are in fact very minimally and/or badly formed theologically, while many lay men and women are highly educated and/or far better formed. It's one of the "rubs" in the status quo. Priests presume a theological superiority that they don't enjoy in fact.

2) Theological education is only one dimension of personal and Christian formation. It's one gift among an infinite variety and abundance of gifts that come from and are ordered to the good of the community. Nor is it the most important one. It's secondary to holiness, for instance. It's not counted among the traditional gifts of the Holy Spirit, given to us in baptism and released in us, as it were, at confirmation for the fulfilling of our mission in the Church and the world.

Katie van Schaijik

#4, Sep 3, 2019 9:40am

3) All kinds of talents and skills are needed for the right-functioning of a community, and many of them are in the direct competence of the laity, not the priesthood. Take, for example, accounting, administration, management, building maintenance, communications. Take music. These are all tasks that are given to priests in the status quo, though they have nothing to do with the Petrine ministry. And, as a matter of fact, many priests are wretchedly bad at them. The education of children is another case. The Church herself teaches that parents have primacy there. You would never know it, though, if you were to look at the typical parish CCD program.

4) Laity not stepping up to the plate is just the other side of the master/slave dynamic. People who have been formed into dependence and passivity tend not to take initiative. And on the flip side, people who have a healthy degree of independence and natural leadership will often keep well-away from parish activities, because they detect the master/slave dynamic in them. I have among my friends and acquaintances many who have basically ceased involvement with their parishes because of the obnoxiousness of clericalism. I know many others who have never gotten involved, because they're alert enough to sense it from a distance.

Katie van Schaijik

#5, Sep 3, 2019 9:50am

I haven't called for us to stop addressing priests as "father," though I think the custom is problematic given the paternalistic status quo, and I wish I could think of a good alternative.

There is nothing wrong with adult children calling their parents mom and dad. There is something wrong, though, with parents not allowing their children to grow up or with parents asserting either explicitly or implicitly an authority over their adult children that they don't in fact have. This is actually a very serious and very widespread problem.

There are libraries of books written on the subject, and "recovery rooms" across the country are full of adults whose lives have been blighted by authoritarian parents.

Rhett Segall

#6, Sep 3, 2019 10:47am

Excellently expressed, Katie! Crystal clear and phenomenologically persuasive!  Your points on the different areas of expertise cannot be gainsaid. However, to  what extent these various gifts can be put at the service of the common good of the parish I question; don't deny, truly question. I'm afraid as at Corinth factions will tend to destroy unity. Our Protestant brethren face this in spades. Actually, the Bishop is supposed to organize the gifts for the common good. As you know the word means overseer. But of course he can't be in every parish, thus the priests.

I know the master/slave dynamic under-girds much of your thinking. Perhaps it is a Jungian archetype. I understand what you mean, but I'm not sure how operative it is in the Christian community. Don't scream.

I've been reading "Truly Our Sister. A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints" by Sr. Elizabeth Johnson.She strongly objects to the model of Mary so prevalent in Catholicism for keeping women subservient to men. But in doing so she doesn't allow room for a feminine or masculine approach to things.  Just the personal. I suspect she'd scream at DvH's phenomenology of the masculine/feminine.

Katie van Schaijik

#7, Sep 3, 2019 12:09pm

The fact that factions can arise that harm unity doesn't justify the maintenance of the false unity of dictatorship, where one man's judgments and decisions and priorities govern all. That's basically what we have now in the Church. (It's mostly a benevolent dictatorship, inasmuch as it's usually exercised with a view to the good of the whole, but it's still not okay.)

I learned about the master/slave dynamic through philosophy and theology (mostly Wojtyla, lately Bergoglio), not psychology, though I've found it there too, especially in those addressing the problem of trauma and codependence. 

I haven't read Sr. Johnson, but I agree with her that much of traditional Marian piety tends to exacerbate rather than heal the problem of female subservience to men. That problem was a central theme in JP II.  His treatment of Mary is notably different and "modern", inasmuch as if focuses on her dignity and independence as a woman, rather than her humility and obedience as a "handmaiden."

Katie van Schaijik

#8, Sep 3, 2019 12:18pm

Von Hildebrand was great in analyzing and extolling the complementarity of the sexes. He didn't see the implications of the equality of women as deeply or fully as Wojtyla did, however. (Von Hildebrand still allows for an "order of life", in which practical necessity gives the husband primacy over his wife.) Same goes for Edith Stein, as I read her. She went a long way toward endorsing and adopting the central tenets of feminism, but not as far as Wojtyla did in his Magisterial documents.

For Wojtyla, the absolute equality of woman with man goes back to the beginning, to the roots of our personhood, to God's original design. It is the order of redemption. Inequality is the result of the fall, the order of sin.


#9, Oct 11, 2019 4:10pm

I have been following your conversation.  Why can’t Mary be seen as an independent woman because of her humility/obedience?  To suggest a contradiction is to fall into the culture’s erroneous view that humility and obedience are signs of weakness and inferiority.  Aren’t you just accepting their terms by being fearful of a word like father?  Don’t let them tell us what motherhood and fatherhood mean.  Why should we cower from the term father because they do not understand?  To see the child in a father/child relationship as less or the father as tyrannical is projecting one’s own bias on the relationship.  Both parties have roles/responsibilities/obligations/duties that absolutely demonstrate reciprocity and mutual respect.  A healthy father/child relationship is obtainable, beautiful, and fruitful.  Remember, many used to and some still do see the spousal relationship as an unbalanced power struggle, so seeing the Church in those terms isn't really a solution either.  Is a shepherd more like a spouse or father to his sheep?  I think if we're being honest the relationship is more like a father/child relationship.  Although, I guess I'm ok with either, as long as one understands what a healthy relationship in either of those cases actually looks like.  Sacrifice and service are involved in both.

Rhett Segall

#10, Oct 12, 2019 9:04am

Very clear thinking, Joy! And we should also keep in mind the idea of "friend", which Jesus stressed.


#11, May 1, 2020 11:13pm

Hi Katie

I keep coming back to this article because I’m delving into the office of the laity with more precision - meaning while the clerical office is fairly well developed the lay office is not and the laity have a massive identity crisis. 

But to do so one must understand the relationship between the two and I agree with you that the spousal aspect shares a truth that is not there in the father/child aspect.


#12, May 1, 2020 11:28pm

I think it strikes people with fear however because it means letting go of a kind of safety net that was never meant to be there: I’m the father and the children will just obey (as my older friends say “pay, pray and obey”!) and the children could say “ok, none of this is my responsibility” leaving us with an severely underdeveloped understanding for lay men and women just what they are called to do.

If, in fact, they are called to be the salt and light to the world this means they are taking responsibility and not just a little, but a significant responsibility: the world.  Does this mean we have to ask dad if we can move before we do or have we been given our own agency to act?

It appears that if we share in Christ’s threefold mission of priest, prophet and king we are not just children but also sharers in the work. That is sounding more and more spousal to me. Equal but different partners working towards a common goal which is salvation for all.


#13, May 1, 2020 11:29pm

Plus when Paul talks about how men should lay down their lives as Christ does for the Church you also see the priesthood : a man who gives his life for the Church who is... wait for it BRIDE. If we are the Bride of Christ, the receptors of Body of Christ brought to us by the agency of the Priest and new life flows from our nurturing (the missionary activity) of life what else would we be but spousal in relation to the Priest, in persona Christi.

 I love this post. Would you ever write a longer article and publish it or a book? I think this idea needs development and for people to understand it. It will challenge clericalism to die and for laity to come into their office which fulfills their dignity.

Katie van Schaijik

#14, May 3, 2020 8:39am

Jen, I agree with you that fear is the big obstacle to much-needed reform right now. It's typical of the master/slave dynamic. Both "master" and "slave" are afraid of any initiative on on the part of the slave. They're afraid it will lead to chaos. 

The thing is, it might. JP II often pointed out that risks and losses come with the development of something new. Guardini has some great passages making the same point about Socrates. He was hated and feared by the keepers of the status quo, because they understood that the new values he was proposing would lead to the destruction of society as they knew it and controlled it. Likewise the Roman rulers of the first century grasped that Christianity would destroy their empire. That's why it had to be stamped out.

As I see it, the situation we're in right now as Church is just like that. A new value is being proposed, i.e., the subjectivity of the laity, their equality, as spouse, in the Church. It's coming to birth in the world by the exigencies of both the doctrines of our faith and the developments of modernity. 

Katie van Schaijik

#15, May 3, 2020 8:46am

Once it's in the world, a "new truth" like this can't be stopped. It can only be delayed by fear and repression, but ironically, that fear and repression are what increases the likelihood that the developments will lead to chaos.

What we need is bold, courageous, faith-filled leadership. We need people who understand how to integrate the "new truth" with the old. (As opposed to 1. rejecting the new or 2. abandoning the old.)

And, as you suggest, by the nature of the case, the leadership we need will have to come from the laity. I often think of it in terms of the civil rights movement. It couldn't have been led by whites, could it?

I'm working on book—a sort of manual of reform based on JP II's TOB, which is paralleled by Pope Francis' Theology of the People. But I'm wretchedly slow and easily discouraged. Pray for me!

Katie van Schaijik

#16, May 3, 2020 9:02am

There's also of course an analogy with the gospel among the Jews. Their whole history and way of life was about the coming Messiah. But when He came, He proved so disruptive to the status quo, where they were comfortable, that they rejected him with violence. This has been the basic human story since the fall.

The fall IS the introduction of the master/slave dynamic into a world of persons designed for love. Redemption IS the reciprocal self-giving of spouses, i.e., complementary equals.

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