In a gripping and contentious cover story for the Atlantic, journalist and ex-Catholic priest James Carroll argues that it’s time for Catholicism to dismantle the priesthood. The fundamental problem, Carroll writes, is that “clericalism, with its cult of secrecy, its theological misogyny, its sexual repressiveness, and its hierarchical power based on threats of a doom-laden afterlife, is at the root of Roman Catholic dysfunction.” The clergy were not created by God or the bible, he explains, but are political units of the Roman empire, and it has corrupted the Church in a way that has made the systematic abuse of children around the world possible.

The Church’s maleness and misogyny became inseparable from its structure. The conceptual underpinnings of clericalism can be laid out simply: Women were subservient to men. Laypeople were subservient to priests, who were defined as having been made “ontologically” superior by the sacrament of holy orders. Removed by celibacy from competing bonds of family and obligation, priests were slotted into a clerical hierarchy that replicated the medieval feudal order. When I became a priest, I placed my hands between the hands of the bishop ordaining me—a feudal gesture derived from the homage of a vassal to his lord. In my case, the bishop was Terence Cooke, the archbishop of New York. Following this rubric of the sacrament, I gave my loyalty to him, not to a set of principles or ideals, or even to the Church. Should we be surprised that men invited to think of themselves on such a scale of power—even as an alter Christus, “another Christ”—might get lost in a wilderness of self-centeredness? Or that they might find it hard to break from the feudal order that provides community and preferment, not to mention an elevated status the unordained will never enjoy? Or that Church law provides for the excommunication of any woman who attempts to say the Mass, but mandates no such penalty for a pedophile priest? Clericalism is self-fulfilling and self-sustaining. It thrives on secrecy, and it looks after itself.

While Carroll still extols the many benefits of Catholicism’s vast, global, care-giving network of hospitals and schools, he sees the Church’s hierarchy and exclusionary structures as harming, not serving, its 1 billion believers.

In the Americas and Africa; in Europe, Asia, and Australia—wherever there were Catholic priests, there were children being preyed upon and tossed aside. Were it not for crusading journalists and lawyers, the sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests would still be hidden, and rampant. A power structure that is accountable only to itself will always end up abusing the powerless. According to one victim, Cardinal Law, of Boston, before being forced to resign because of his support for predator priests, attempted to silence the man by invoking the sacred seal: “I bind you by the power of the confessional,” Law said, his hands pressing on the man’s head, “not to speak to anyone else about this.”

A priest did this. That is the decisive recognition. The abuse of minors occurs in many settings, yes, but such violation by a priest exists in a different order, and not simply because of its global magnitude. For Catholics, priests are the living sacrament of Christ’s presence, delegated above all to consecrate the bread and wine that define the soul of the faith. This symbol of Christ has come to stand for something profoundly wicked. Even as I write that sentence, I think of the good men on whom I have depended for priestly ministry over the years, and how they may well regard my conclusion as a friend’s betrayal. But the institutional corruption of clericalism transcends that concern, and anguish should be reserved for the victims of priests. Their suffering must be the permanent measure of our responses.

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