The Castration of a Sacrament

Eamonn Clark, STL

As subscribers might be picking up on, I have reached a point where I am starting to speak my mind a bit. This is for a few reasons. Thankfully, I am still prudent enough to keep those to myself… for now.

I have noted with interest since the Pan-Amazon synod the tendency of many “influential” figures in the Church to empty the sacrament of Holy Orders of one of its characteristic dimensions, or offices (“munera”)…

When Jesus is visited by the three Wise Men, they bring Him gifts representing His three offices, as Eternal High Priest: myrrh, representing priesthood or sanctification, frankincense, representing prophecy or teaching, and gold, representing kingship or governance.

As Ven. Fulton Sheen points out in one of the most mature of his works, “Those Mysterious Priests,” every priest is a “little Christ.” He participates in the ministry of Christ the Eternal High Priest. These “little Christs” therefore inherit His offices. They too are given gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Today, some want the gold to be withheld.

We saw this on display in the Pan-Amazon Synod in the suggestions of “reshaping” or “rethinking” the governance of the Amazonian local churches. Laity ought to be able to rule over the ecclesiastical territories and goods, while priests simply move around to preach and administer the sacraments… so goes the suggestion.

This is an attack on the integrity of the sacrament of Holy Orders. It is, in fact, a castration.

Let me put it bluntly. One of the deeper reasons why women cannot be priests is that it is more fitting for men to hold positions of governance. That’s not to say that women can never be good leaders, or should never be in charge of public affairs, etc. – but it is to say that this is a deviation from the norm, and world history bears this out. (I leave aside, perhaps for another time, the Western cultural experiment of women “in the workplace” in the sense proper to the West after the industrial revolution. In my opinion, it has not gone well.) The superiority of men for rule is for numerous reasons – psychological, physiological, sociological, and protological (these latter explaining or verifying the others). This hard truth flies in the face of contemporary Western culture, and yet it is right there in St. Paul’s exegesis of Genesis (1 Corinthians 11 – a complex text, for sure, but there is no getting around certain conclusions), among other places in Scripture. And it accords with the common experience and observation of basically all ages and cultures in world history. Men hunt, women gather – that means something for how society is going to work, let alone flourish. More physical strength and subsequent risk taken, more knowledge of the territory, more freedom when raising a child… it all entails a certain kind of right and fittingness to govern. And this is in fact the pattern even before real civilization began. It continues now, though it is a bit more complex.

The protological truths are where really good spiritual reflections can start. For instance, St. Thomas argues1 that a helper is made for Adam (who came first) primarily with respect to generation – he cannot populate the Earth by himself. Men and women, let it be known, have exponentially different capacities for generation. A man can rather easily have thousands of children in a lifetime and have plenty of time for other things (look at some of the pharaohs); a woman can have a few dozen. That is part of why, as I explored recently, polygamy only ever worked one way in the Bible, on account of the benefit of propagating the human race and propagating the Chosen People in particular. So, this is part of the natural power of Adam, and of males: to propagate the human race. Women are critical assistants in this essential task, but they have a far weaker power of generation. That is just biology.

This biological element of the dynamic between men and women in the context of Eden (along with some other elements which I won’t explore today) is a symbol for what the priesthood is. It is an office whereby spiritual propagation occurs by the personal grace of Christ working through the priest, in the Church, His Bride. Sure, Christ’s grace works instrumentally through any person helping another to be more virtuous, but the instrumentality of the priest is different – it is by his own rational initiative that he exercises his priestly ministry as such, infallibly calling upon God to work in him and through him. Like Joshua made the sun stand still, the priest celebrates the sacraments. “There has never been a day like it before or since, when the LORD listened to the voice of a man, because the LORD was fighting on behalf of Israel.” (Joshua 10:14) Really, it is more like when Christ prays to the Father to have a miracle worked, such as the raising of Lazarus: “So they rolled the stone aside. Then Jesus looked up to heaven and said, ‘Father, thank you for hearing me. You always hear me, but I said it out loud for the sake of all these people standing here, so that they will believe you sent me.‘ Then Jesus shouted, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ And the dead man came out, his hands and feet bound in graveclothes, his face wrapped in a headcloth. Jesus told them, ‘Unwrap him and let him go!'” (John 11: 41-44) This is unlike the charity expressed in a kind word which efficaciously moves a soul to repentance – the causal structure is different. The person who is merely baptized does not “demand” the movement of grace in such an action.

Now, not only is celibacy under attack from those who cannot understand spiritual fatherhood and its ascetic components due either to worldliness, or bad theological education, or sinful lives of their own which they are trying to justify somehow, or outright contempt for the good of the Church, or a combination of these things; the governing function of clergy is being questioned at the highest levels of the Church Militant as well. Often, the same people will put forward both of these two very bad ideas. And, in the extreme cases, they might also propose that women be ordained.

See how it works? See where the root is?

All these things go back (at least in part) to misunderstanding the principle of Adam’s rule over Eve, in relation to Christ’s rule over the Church. Adam is a priest too, a kind of natural priest, the firstborn of material, rational, natural creation – extended later on in Scripture through the so-called “primogeniture” (firstborn) priesthood. Eve is his bride. That spousal dominion, which is “economic” rather than “servile,” we should note, preceded the Fall… it is not a result of sin. Thus, Christ, the New Adam, is a male. Those who participate singularly in His priesthood, who by their office represent His very Person in the administration of grace, truth, and POWER, must be male (and should ideally be celibate, concerned only with spiritual propagation, like Christ).

So we can now see an issue with Cardinal-elect Ghirlanda’s bewildering statement about the new possibility of laity running Roman dicasteries – he argues that it is not a problem, because the “power of governance in the Church does not come from the sacrament of Orders,” but rather from the “canonical mandate,” which, if he didn’t realize it, will always come back to a cleric, whether the parish priest, the local bishop, or the pope. So… the question must be raised… could the pope appoint a lay “vicar for global Church governance” who in practice governs all the world’s bishops, while the pope plays billiards or something? While it is obviously not ideal, is it even possible in theory? It is not so clear. Nor is it clear if the alarming centralization of power in the papacy (pace all the talk about “synodality” and “decentralization”) in the past year or so is entirely legitimate in principle. Understanding what popes are, and what popes are not, which in turn determines their legitimate power and authority, is hopefully going to be a major theological and legal fruit of the period in between Blessed Pope Pius IX and Pope Francis – the period from those who were alive during Vatican I to those who were alive during Vatican II. This age has also seen the end of lay involvement in conclaves (the ius exclusivae) with Pius X – a topic not unrelated to this, but one too complex to broach here, as it opens a very beefy can of worms related to investiture (who chooses/appoints bishops).

As some have already begun to point out, the announcement of – and thankfully, not yet the use of – the “Ghirlandian governance principle” is an attempt at a major revolution in the understanding of Holy Orders and the Church as such, and it seems to run up against the teaching of the Second Vatican Council (in Lumen Gentium specifically), and the Code of Canon Law, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church… While Vatican II is a pastoral and not a dogmatic council, it is also not simply an ideological cafeteria. It is especially annoying when the same people want to appeal to the allegedly unquestionable wisdom and authority of every part of and practical effect of the Second Vatican Council when it suits their agenda, and then jettison things like this because it is not useful to their own ends. (NB: I am not accusing Fr. Ghirlanda of this.)

It turns out that many good clergy resent laity telling them how to govern ecclesiastical affairs on account of those laity being set over those clergy… If we are in fact to follow the teaching of Vatican II, they apparently have got a right sense of their sacramental character. Like Eve is to Adam, laity are critical assistants and cooperators, and they can obviously be great saints, which is the most important thing… but ecclesiastical rule properly belongs to those conformed to Christ in Holy Orders. There could perhaps be individual and extraordinary exceptions in particular cases, but it is not and never can be the norm. To argue otherwise is a castration of the sacrament.

Once again, for my readers in the Second Cycle – this would be a good thesis topic. Distinguishing ecclesiastical governance properly speaking from other kinds of governance (i.e. in religious life) would be a part of such a study.

1 – The biological errors that St. Thomas makes do not destroy the overall argument. Adam didn’t need someone to talk to – he was already talking with God. He needs help making others like himself. Yes, this opens a discussion of why he wants to do this, but the basic point is not therefore fundamentally destroyed.

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