The Personalist Project

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Accessed on September 17, 2019 - 9:35:26

Ecclesial fertility comes from a spousal relation between priest and laity

Katie van Schaijik, Aug 27, 2019

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.