For the Dissidents, We’re All Priests Now

While faithful Catholics concluded their celebration of the Year of the Priest only last spring, a coalition of dissident organizations like Call to Action, Voice of the Faithful, and the Women’s Ordination Conference have issued a “universal call to ministry” to help build a “non-clerical Catholic Church in which the laity reclaims their baptismal priesthood.” Promising a “radically inclusive understanding of the role and responsibilities of all the Baptized,” the dissident groups are planning to hold the American Catholic Council during Pentecost to encourage the laity to “remove the two-tiered system that separates the ordained from the non-ordained.” For the dissidents, we’re all priests now.

Well, maybe not all of us. One of the endorsers of the American Catholic Council, Paul Lakeland, a professor of Catholic Thought at Fairfield University, has promoted what he calls the “non-clerical church” but maintains that not all members of the laity have the same gifts to bring to ministry. He writes in his book Catholicism at the Crossroads: How the Laity Can Save the Church, “I am not so sure that someone who is also a plumber or an accountant is necessarily adding to the skills valuable to an ordained minister.” Rather, Lakeland, an ex-Jesuit priest who left the priesthood to marry, suggests that educators (like himself) would be the most logical choice for ministerial leadership once the celibacy requirement is lifted.

And although we can never know another’s motivation for this kind of spiritual quest, once you scratch the surface of many of the organizers and endorsers of the “non-clerical church” movement, you find individuals with sadness or anger over feeling left out. From women who want to be ordained, to gays and lesbians who want the Church to recognize the goodness of their sexual relationships, to married ex-priests who long to celebrate the Eucharist again, the desire for an inclusive Church that welcomes their ministerial gifts is what unites them. Lakeland’s proposed priesthood is a new and improved model that welcomes women, non-celibate men, and gays and lesbians: “Some will be called to a ministry of leadership, including Eucharistic presidency, while others will be called to minister to the local community in a variety of different ways.”

More than two decades ago, Pope John Paul II predicted this problem during a visit to the United States in 1987. In a discussion on the dangers of confusing the role of the clergy and the laity, the pope spoke supportively of the role of lay participation in parish life but declined to use the term “lay ministry” in referring to this role. In fact, John Paul warned that, in the move to empower the laity in ministry activities, “we run the risk of clericalizing the laity or laicizing the clergy.”

Paul Lakeland

While the Church has attempted to accommodate married men who feel called to ministry by creating the permanent diaconate, Lakeland calls that role in the Church a “monster species that the Bishops have invented.” For Lakeland, creating the conditions for what he calls a “more adult church” will require us “to insist on a thoroughly inclusive attitude. An adult church will be a welcoming church.” In a chapter of his book titled “An Open Church in an Open Society,” Lakeland accuses the current Catholic Church of being “in the business of exclusion.” To rectify this, he claims that “baptism leads inexorably to the restoration of the priesthood of all the baptized, a notion that was all but eclipsed by the Catholic obsession with the nature, rights and powers of the ordained ministry.” He suggests that the “clergy need to see the laity as their equals, not just before God, but in the daily life of the Church. And, the laity need to abandon their fear of speaking out. They need to grow up.”

Bernard Cooke, another married ex-Jesuit priest, echoes Lakeland’s call for an “open Church” movement — but in some ways, Cooke is even more strident in his call for a renewed priesthood of the laity. Critical of the elevated status of ordained priests over the laity, Cooke’s book The Future of the Eucharist claims that, although a liturgical leader may preside, “it is the community that celebrates the Eucharist.” A longtime visiting professor at the University of San Diego, Cooke has stated publicly that “the existence of a socially privileged group [i.e., priests] within the Church is not meant to be…. I hope that in a relatively short time, the inappropriate division between clergy and laity will vanish.”

Criticizing the current separation of ordained from laity has characterized Cooke’s career for the past 30 years. Claiming that the shortage of priests will lead to a “liturgical starvation” for an expanding U.S. Catholic population, Cooke’s solution is to empower the laity and allow married priests to assume leadership once again. A member of CORPUS, an advocacy organization of former priests — mostly married — that lobbies for optional celibacy in the Catholic Church, Cooke is also a board member of Call to Action, one of the organizations spearheading the American Catholic Council. It is no coincidence that Detroit has been chosen for the site of the American Catholic Council meeting on Pentecost: For the dissidents, the first Call to Action Conference in Detroit in 1976 is kind of a Catholic Woodstock that these now-aging revolutionaries all speak of as the most hopeful time of the Church — a time when the “promise of Vatican II” was most vivid to them.

The reality of the first Call to Action meeting in Detroit is closer to what one First Things editor called it: “the low-point in post-Vatican II American Catholic unity.” The 1976 Conference began with calls for structural change in the Church and then progressed to demanding access to ordination for women and married men, changes in Church teachings on gay and lesbian sexual relationships, and full reproductive “rights” for women. Today, Call to Action goes beyond most other dissenting Catholic groups in combining dissent against Church teaching with New Age and wiccan spirituality. Membership draws heavily from former clergy and feminist nuns seeking to reform what they view as the “sinful structure” of the patriarchal Church.

A few years ago, the activities of Call to Action were deemed to be “so irreconcilable with a coherent living of the Catholic faith” that the Vatican publicly affirmed an Episcopal decree of excommunication for any member of the dissident organization. Claiming that Call to Action is “totally incompatible with the Catholic faith” and is “causing great damage to the Church of Christ,” Cardinal Giovanni Battista confirmed that membership in Call to Action causes the member to be automatically excommunicated from the Catholic Church. Despite this, many Catholic theologians teaching on Catholic campuses retain an active membership in Call to Action, openly participating in meetings and conferences.


We’re All Infallible, Too — Except the Pope

One of the reasons that theologians have confidently challenged the teaching authority of the Catholic Church is because many left-leaning theologians believe that they already form an “alternative magisterium,” which interprets and implements the judgments of bishops and popes.

Woven throughout the writings of liberal Catholic theologians like Paul Lakeland are questions about papal infallibility — and error. In The Liberation of the Laity, Lakeland makes the claim that the whole body of the faithful shares in the Spirit guaranteed infallibility of the Church. Former New York Times religion writer, Peter Steinfels, goes even further by arguing that “it is possible for popes, despite the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to fall into tragic error. Many liberal Catholics believe that was probably the case in the 1968 issuance of Humanae Vitae and cannot be ruled out in the refusal of ordination to women.”

There have been many times that this alternative magisterium has been used to defy the infallible teachings of the pope. Most recently, in the case of an elective abortion that was performed in an Arizona Catholic hospital, the leaders of the hospital defended their actions by saying that they “received permission” to perform the abortion from a theologian at Marquette. Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix rejected that explanation and upheld his excommunication of the hospital administrator who provided permission for the abortion.

Leonardo Boff

Still, the dissident groups rely on the alternative magisterium — often rejecting the authority of their episcopal leaders. The Women’s Ordination Conference often draws upon the work of theologians like Cooke and University of Santa Clara professor Gary Macy, who argue that recently discovered and allegedly previously hidden biblical texts — including the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary, and even the Dead Sea Scrolls — preserve memories of an age when women were far more important in the Church than later writers would indicate. Many of the women affiliated with the women’s ordination movement believe that there was a time when women were apostles and prophets, leaders and bishops. And they can draw on a long list of theologians who will support that belief — despite denials from most of their bishops.

Leonardo Boff, a Brazilian theologian instrumental in the liberation theology movement who was later disciplined by the Vatican because of his heretical writings, is the theologian most frequently cited by feminists critical of Catholic teachings on women’s ordination and reproductive choice. Boff’s book Essays in Militant Ecclesiology drew concern from the Vatican because it “distorted doctrine.” The Office of the Congregation of Christian Doctrine (then headed by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger) reprimanded Boff for employing ideological perspectives from history, philosophy, sociology, and politics which were not informed by theology. Cardinal Ratzinger accused Boff of suggesting that Jesus did not determine the specific form and structure of the Church, implying that other models besides the Roman Catholic Church might be consistent with the gospel. While Boff claimed that “it is the life of the Spirit in the Church that protects faith against encrustation in timeless truths that can only negate spiritual progress,” Cardinal Ratzinger feared that such a doctrine of the Spirit would “legitimate the ideological whim of the moment.”


Dissidents’ Role Is to ‘Help the Laity to Name Their Oppression’

For Lakeland, the role of lay theologians is to “engage in the process of the conscientization of the Catholic laity.” He writes: “Helping the laity to name their oppression is probably the most important thing the theologian can currently do for the Church, and the lot falls upon lay theologians because only they share the experience of being lay that is a prerequisite for the effective solidarity that must emerge.” In his book The Liberation of the Laity, Lakeland asserts that “it is time for the Church to begin to democratize many of its processes.”

The choice of Pentecost for the gathering of the American Catholic Council is no coincidence. Like Lakeland and Cooke and other liberation theologians, Catholic feminist theologians like Rosemary Reuther maintain that the Church has no right to interfere with a woman’s right to priestly ordination — or the ordination of non-celibate men — stressing the “emergent” message of the Holy Spirit working through the “people of God” to support these practices.

Retired San Francisco Archbishop John R. Quinn has supported these structural changes in his book Papal Primacy and the Costly Call to Christian Unity. Quinn’s book argues for decreased papal authority with more control granted to bishops, as well as parishioner involvement in the selection of bishops. Quinn believes that the “reunification of Christendom cannot be achieved unless such changes are implemented.”

In a lecture at Oxford University’s Campion Hall in 1996, Archbishop Quinn criticized the Roman Curia for disregarding the needs of the local Church and for “blind, rigid application of Church law.” Quinn also stated that the Vatican should reopen discussion of such issues as the ordination of women, birth control, and married priests. For Quinn, the papacy is located within the college of bishops: “This means that the pope cannot be understood to be outside and above the episcopacy. In other words, the normal exercise of the papal office must be collegial.” The American Catholic Council has promised prospective attendees that there will be “at least one bishop” in attendance at the Detroit gathering.

In some ways, it seems that this older generation of bishops and priests are embarrassed by their own authority. Coming of age in the egalitarian Sixties, when all authority — including episcopal authority — was contested, it seems that many of these prelates are reluctant to even admit that they have authority. This is not just an American problem. During Pope Benedict XVI’s recent trip to Britain, Archbishop Bernard Longley had a difficult time responding to a question from the media about the vestments worn by priests and bishops in the papal ceremonies by minimizing the role of the clergy. Rather than explaining that the vestments are an important signifier that the clergy are about to do something that only an ordained priest can do (consecrating the Eucharist), Archbishop Longley said that “the cloaks and cassocks aren’t used to set the clergy apart from the Catholic laity. They are symbols of service to God.”

That’s really not true. The vestments are indeed intended to set the ordained ministers apart from the laity. The clergy are different from the laity — and the clergy needs to remind the dissidents of that fact. The distinctive chasubles and mitres signify that, when the priests and bishops wear these vestments, they are doing something that is not “ordinary.” They are doing something that the laity cannot do — no matter how much they may want to do it. God has chosen these men to do extraordinary things, and we need to continue to be reminded of that — even if some of our episcopal leaders seem reluctant to do so.


Aging Out of Dissidence

The majority of the self-described “Revolutionaries in Rockports” who will be gathering in Detroit are over 60 years old. Perhaps we need not worry that they can continue to have a major influence on the people of the Church. But this neglects the fact that the students enrolled in graduate theology programs continue to be influenced by dissident theology professors like Lakeland, Cooke, Macy, and others. Their students will learn to form the alternative magisterium of the future as they too complete graduate programs and continue the cycle of disobedience.

But unlike in the past, these dissidents will be confronted by a new generation of priests and bishops who are unafraid to correct them. A few courageous bishops have already spoken out about the dangers to the faithful that the American Catholic Council poses. In a letter posted on the Detroit archdiocesan website, Archbishop Alan Vigneron has asked the organizers to cancel their plans for their Detroit gathering that “distorts the true Spirit of Vatican II.” He also asked us all “to pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit so that we may embrace authentic development of faith and morals and shun efforts which threaten unity.”

Young priests and bishops show a dramatic difference from the older ones in terms of finding joy in their identity as priests. In a 2002 study on “Priestly Identity” by Catholic University sociologist Dean Hoge, the generational divide is quite apparent. Hoge found that 30 percent of priests 56 to 65 saw the notion of a priest as a “man set apart” as a barrier to Christian community. This is double the rate of priests age 25 to 35. Only 30 percent of the younger priests said they would welcome optional celibacy, as opposed to 70 percent of the older priests who were open to a married priesthood.

Still, there is a sadness that one cannot help but feel when reading the books by the married former priests and the women who want to be ordained. It is clear that they genuinely believe that they have been called to the priesthood. But they seem to forget that a genuine calling to the priesthood could not involve women and married men.

The priesthood is a special calling, and those who are priests are grateful for this calling. A Los Angeles Times survey conducted in 2002 found that, even in the midst of the clergy abuse scandal, 70 percent of priests said that they were “very satisfied” with their calling, and 21 percent said they were “somewhat satisfied” — for a total of 91 percent. Dean Hoge’s 2002 study found that 97 percent of priests said administering the Sacraments and presiding over liturgies was their greatest source of satisfaction. Catholic priests are part of the mystery that the Catholic faithful still view with awe and honor. Priests make the transcendent real for us — and that is something that the alternative magisterium can never hope to do.

Anne Hendershott


Anne Hendershott is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Veritas Center at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio. She is the author of Status Envy: The Politics of Catholic Higher Education; The Politics of Abortion; and The Politics of Deviance (Encounter Books). She is also the co-author of Renewal: How a New Generation of Priests and Bishops are Revitalizing the Catholic Church (2013).

  • Deacon Ed

    Do you see how old these guys are? We must realize that the long, ecclesial nightmare that began in the 60’s will soon be over.

  • Jaime

    Apparently Lakeland believes that the early church was ill served by the fishermen, tax collectors (early form of accountant), and tent makers who were called the first bishops.

    This bunch is principally interested in perpetuating the kumbayah church that they believed was the natural consequence of the 60s in which they grew up. Interestingly, he apparently still accepts the need for an “ordained ministry,” which by definition is sacramental in nature. Apparently he just feels that the bishops have gone off the tracks in the priests who have been ordained to ministry in the last 10 to 15 years. How unfortunate for them that two brilliant and determined Popes in a row have managed to begin righting the bark of Peter and filling its sails again with the breath of the Holy Spirit.

  • Bruce

    Look what is happening in the Diocese of Rochester! There are now female pastors playing the role of priests…selected as pastors OVER other priests. This is in clear violation of Canon Law 517-521. For more information on these abuses, take a look at the Cleansing Fire blog which keeps this mess in the public eye: AND

  • Tony Esolen

    Great article, Anne!

    It doesn’t occur to these people what great snobs they are. Paul Lakeland would never want church policy to be determined by plumbers and carpenters, because then his push for homosexual pseudogamy would be trounced. And the nonsense about empowering the laity is easy enough to expose. Ask the people in the pews whether they want a layman preaching to them. Ask the boys and the men — and most of the women too, for that matter — whether they want Miss Primadonna determining the liturgy. They know right well that most of the laity are against them. We need priests if for nothing else than to protect our rights as laymen from other laymen who want to corrupt and confuse both the laity and the clergy.

  • John

    The Diocese of Rochester is a hellhole of dissent. Bishop Matthew Clark appoints laypersons, often women’s ordination promoters, as lay “Pastoral Administrators.” He grants them full power to direct the pastoral care of parishes, contrary to Canon Law.

    Change needs to come.

    • Lee

      I am coming back to the church because I want to experience the loving Christ, God and understanding servants of God (priests) that was there when I was a child. This stuff is not it and would not help a person returning home.

  • kmk

    As a laywoman, I am naming my oppression: these dissidents within the Church who, over the past several decades, have made it very difficult for Catholic parents who are trying to raise their children in the Faith. They are so wuillfully blind to the dangers and complete incoherence of the sins which are so destructive to women in particular: Artificial contraception, abortion, the acting out of same sex attraction, the allure of IVF.

    Another oppression: Being called a “lay minister”–forget it! We don’t need the titles, thanks–we’re all just helping out at Our Father’s dwelling. How about calling for… more intact families who love Christ, prayer, the Church, and the Sacraments??!!

    Thanks be to God for the male, celibate priesthood!

  • dan

    “Helping the laity to name their oppression is probably the most important thing the theologian can currently do for the Church…”

    blah blah…’women are oppressed b/c they are prevented from being priest’…etc.

    When I think of the oppressed, I see the poor, refugees, and victims of war. Some church progressives come across as shallow in their reach to consider themselves oppressed. Have to say their view comes across as self-centered, not Christ centered.

    • lethargic

      “… shallow in their reach to consider themselves oppressed.”

      You nailed it. They are concerned only with the “oppressed” who are just like them — “mature,” American or British, materially comfortable. I’m closely related to some of these jokers and have come to understand this all too well.

  • Mrs O

    Celibacy is a discipline, not doctrine, that although could be changed it most likely will not. Our Byzantine catholic priests are sometimes married and only if they were married before ordination.

    I appreciate the run down but could not read those books you have read.

  • Mike in KC, MO

    Anyone else get the feeling that a big part of the ‘new evangelization’ is simply holding the line and waiting for all the hippies whose minds are full of bong resin to die off?

    I know I’ll probably be attacked for saying that, but come now… we know it’s true.

    It’s akin to waiting until a pot on the stove is cool enough to pick up so that we can dump the spoiled ideology it contains down the garbage disposal.

  • Manuel

    I agree their time is coming to an end. They tend to forget the JP II generation will be taking over pretty soon. Time for the product of the 60’s and 70’s to move out. Its our time, and were sticking with Rome. Thank you blessed John Paul, and God bless and protect Pope Benedict.

    • m

      stick with Rome and keep getting rid of any bad apples

  • Gail F

    “Helping the laity to name their oppression is probably the most important thing the theologian can currently do for the Church, and the lot falls upon lay theologians because only they share the experience of being lay that is a prerequisite for the effective solidarity that must emerge.”

    This is like saying “Men can’t have an opinion on abortion because only women can be pregnant,” and then, “Women who are against abortion are against it because they JUST DON’T KNOW what suffering really is.”

    All this “priesthood of the laity” stuff has serious theological roots, based in the work of serious theologians, even if it is often expressed by pop theologians. Much of it has been encouraged in the liturgy for decades. These folks may embrace it more openly than others, but it is held by a large number of influential people — clergy and laity. You have to understand that to be able to fight it.

  • James Anderson

    “But they seem to forget that a genuine calling to the priesthood could not involve women and married men.”

    The author seems to have forgotten that priests can be married in the Eastern Rites of the Catholic Church and that married Anglican priests can now be ordained as Catholic priests.

    • Contemplator

      You are most correct in stating that there are married priests in good standing.

      What is important here is to understand that they are the exception and nothing wrong with that.

      We must remember that even in the East major clerics sub-deacon and up were not allowed to make use of marital rights after ordination until after Trullo in 691. In the West they never were allowed to and after 1039(?) married men were not allowed to be ordained … anyway before this turns into a essay and major debate…

      We seem as a Church to have lost the understanding of the priesthood and the imitation of Christ that it is suppose to be. Something we all can agree on, especially in part, given the vocation numbers.

  • Charles Archangel

    I want the dissidants to leave the Church or to be excommunicated. Who needs them?

  • This particular news article has arrived at the perfect moment. A family member and I were discussing alot of theses events within the culture and the church.

    Being 5th grader at the time of the implementations of the so called new and improved method of church, came with a sense of amazement and confusion in my 13 year old mind in 1968.

    Today in May 2011 i reflect on where we are, and I am on my knees in humble gratitude to God Our Father and His Son Jesus, and the pure gift of the Holy Spirit and how what I was taught in my childhood, is now slowly becoming the norm once again. Thankyou God for Pope Benedict ……………….

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