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If priests are just like other people, why bother?

May 28, 2013|By Michael McGough
  • Maria Eitz receives the cup of Communion wine from the Rev. Victoria Rue during Mass.
Maria Eitz receives the cup of Communion wine from the Rev. Victoria Rue… (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles…)

The Times last week published a fascinating article with the provocative headline “Women becoming priests without Vatican's blessing.” But the most interesting thing about the article was that the irregularly ordained female priests who figured in the article didn’t seem to believe in the importance of priests as a distinct order, a cornerstone of Roman Catholic teaching. So why bother?

Here’s how the article describes a recent Mass at Sophia in Trinity, “a Roman Catholic community celebrating a radically inclusive God.” The priest at the service was Victoria Rue, assisted by Deacon Maria Eitz, whose ordination to the priesthood last Sunday was the peg for The Times’ story:

“As two dozen or so worshipers filed into the chapel, Eitz and Rue donned crisp white clerical robes.

“But not for long.

“ ‘As you know,’ Rue told the congregation, ‘Maria and I wear these robes because they are symbols of our baptism. But because … separation between the clerics and lay people is rampant in our Roman Catholic Church, Maria and I think it is very important to not wear them, these albs.

“ ‘So we take them off, she said, ‘to bear in mind that we are all one.

“A voice from the circle chimed in: ‘Didn't Jesus say we are all priests?’

“ ‘Exactly,’ said Rue, who has a doctorate in theology and teaches comparative religious studies at San Jose State University.

“The robes fell.”

Actually, the alb is not a distinctively priestly vestment. It’s worn in mainstream Catholic churches by altar servers, girls as well as boys. (The priestly vestment is the chasuble.) But it’s the thought that counts, and the thought behind the undonning of the albs was expressed by a member of the congregation who asked rhetorically: “Didn’t Jesus say we are all priests?”

The idea that the only appropriate priesthood is the “priesthood of all believers” was a cornerstone of the Protestant Reformation. It’s a theologically defensible point of view, but it’s not the one taught by the Roman Catholic Church.

To be fair, even among Roman Catholics there can be greater or lesser emphasis on the differences between priests and lay people. Liberal Catholics, for example, tend to describe the priest as the “presider” -- emphasizing that he is leading a community at worship -- rather than as a “celebrant,” the term favored by conservative Catholics. 

And Catholic scholars acknowledge that the priesthood as we know it emerged gradually in the early years of the church.

As a general proposition, however, Roman Catholics stress that priests are an order apart from the rest of the church. To reject that notion and simultaneously aspire to the “Catholic priesthood” seems odd when so many other Christian churches exist in which there isn’t a sharp demarcation between clergy and laity.

To paraphrase a joke attributed to Groucho Marx, these women apparently don’t want to belong to a club to which they claim to be members.

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