Thursday, June 18, 2009

Nicole Sotelo: "Jesus Was Not Focused on Priesthood"

Tomorrow, June 19, is the feast day of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, a day traditionally designated by the Church as a “World Day of Prayer for the Sanctification of Priests” - well, unmarried, celibate, male priests, that is.

Pope Benedict XVI has decreed that this June 19 will also mark the inauguration of the “Year of the Priest,” the primary aim of which will be to promote and highlight the “role and mission of the clergy in the Church and in modern society.”

In response to the Pope’s initiative, author Nicole Sotelo (pictured at right) has written an insightful piece for the National Catholic Reporter, in which she reminds us, among other things, that “Jesus was not focused on priesthood. He was focused on ministry.”

Sotelo’s commentary is reprinted in its entirety below.


Don’t Tell the Pope

By Nicole Sotelo

National Catholic Reporter
June 11, 2009

Pope Benedict has declared June 19 as the beginning of the Year of the Priest. He has proclaimed that “without priestly ministry, there would be no Eucharist, no mission and even no church.” I hate to be the one to inform him, but Eucharist, mission and church existed long before the rise of priesthood.

According to the Gospels, Jesus was not a priest, nor were his disciples. We do see reference to Jesus as a priest in the Letter to the Hebrews. The author uses the word to refer to Jesus as the new and last “High Priest,” ending a long line of Jewish leaders. The author claims that priests are no longer necessary because no more sacrifices are needed. Jesus was the ultimate sacrifice and is our final high priest.

Perhaps the pope has forgotten that Jesus was not focused on priesthood. He was focused on ministry. He called people to minister alongside him, regardless of their status in society. He called out to fishermen and tax collectors and the woman with seven demons. Everyone was responsible for engendering the kingdom of God.

All were invited to minister and they did so with various titles given to them by the community based on their gifts. Some were called prophet, others teacher and still others apostle. It was only later that we begin to see the emergence of a formal ministry structure and corresponding terminology as the followers of Jesus were influenced and integrated into the Roman Empire. It is not until 215 A.D. that we have evidence of an ordination ritual for bishop, priest and deacon.

The emergence of the clerical structure eventually led to a division of the Christian faithful into “clergy” and “laity.” In the early years of Christianity’s emergence, however, Paul reminded Jesus’ followers, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

After the rise of ordination and priesthood, there develops a hierarchical order among the faithful. The word “ordination” derives from the Latin “ordinare” which means “to create order.” It developed from the Roman usage of the words “ordines” that referred to the classes of people in Rome according to their eligibility for government positions.

The laity became “dis-ordered” from the clergy. The word “laity” originates from the word “laikoi” that referred to those in Greco-Roman society who were not “ordered,” or “ordained” within the established political structure. The word “clergy” comes from the word “kleros,” meaning “a group apart.”

While many Christians continued to minister within the church and even some women carried the titles of deacon, priest and bishop, most carrying this title were part of a limited group of men commissioned within the context of a particular socio-political and religious order.

This endured until 1964 when the Second Vatican Council reminded the church that the role of minister, or priest, was not limited to the ordained, but was a call to all the baptized. The document, Lumen Gentium, proclaimed that the laity were “made sharers in the priestly, prophetical and kingly functions of Christ; and they carry out for their own part the mission of the whole Christian people in the Church and in the world” (31).

Priesthood, which arose out of the foundation of the early ministries of Jesus’ followers, was now returned to all Jesus’ faithful. All people are called to ministry again. All Christians are meant to share in the prophetic, sovereign and, yes, even priestly roles within the mission of the church.

So while the pope is exhorting ordained priests to reflection in this Year of the Priest, the call goes out to all of us to reflect on how we are living out our ministry in the church and world.

I wouldn’t worry about telling the pope that Eucharist, mission and church existed long before the priesthood, nor that the Year of the Priest should really be a year dedicated to all the laity. Instead, we need to understand this ourselves.

The Year of the Priest is an opportunity for the entire Christian faithful to reflect on priestly ministry, and in so doing, to claim our own.

Nicole Sotelo is the author of Women Healing from Abuse: Meditations for Finding Peace, published by Paulist Press, and coordinates A graduate of Harvard Divinity School, she currently works at Call To Action.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
The Sacred Heart: “Mystical Symbol of Love”
The Journal of James Curtis (Part 2)
Revealing a Hidden History
Thoughts on Ordination, Intellectual Dishonesty, and the Spirit of Which the Prophet Joel Speaks
The Discussion Continues
Thoughts on Celibacy (Part 1)
Thoughts on Celibacy (Part 2)
Homosexuality and the Priesthood
Vatican Stance on Gay Priests Signals Urgent Need for Renewal & Reform

Recommended Off-site Links:
Ministry, Not Maleness, is the Theological Starting Point for the Priest - James Moudry (
Progressive Catholic Voice, February 18, 2009).
Priest, Priesthood - Christian Classics Ethereal Library.
“Spiritual Paternity”: Why Gay Men Cannot Be Ordained Catholic Priests - Paula Ruddy (
Progressive Catholic Voice, January 13, 2009).
Homosexual Priests and Spiritual Paternity - Ed Kohler (Progressive Catholic Voice, January 26, 2009).
A Brief History of Celibacy in the Catholic Church -
“We Are All the Rock”: An Interview with Roman Catholic WomanPriest Judith McKloskey - Michael Bayly (
Progressive Catholic Voice, August 2008).
Roman Catholic Female Priests Growing in Numbers - Greg Archer (The Huffington Post, June 12, 2009).


Anonymous said...

If there's no priesthood then why is there a Womens Ordination Conference? In fact why should anyone be ordained at all?

PrickliestPear said...

I imagine Benedict thinks the "Year of the Priest" will inspire more men to pursue vocations.

As someone who thinks the institution of the priesthood needs to have its Good Friday, I'm relieved to see he's not taking meaningful steps to address the priest shortage. That would only prolong the agony of a church that desperately needs to rethink its structure.

CDE said...

I hate to be the one to inform him, but Eucharist, mission and church existed long before the rise of priesthood.

Did Nicole ever encounter the Old Testament in her theological studies? Aaron? etc?

This article shows an embarrassing lack of scholarship.

Anonymous said...

Nicole Sotelo should consult the writings of Ignatius of Antioch, Eusebius, Lactantius, Cyril of Alexandria, Gratian, and the Book of Common Prayer, "Ordinations."

I suppose she opposes doctrinal developments, which then places her between a rock and hard place.

Spreading falsehood is not endearing. Nothing is so objectionable as one writing about facts that are not facts, but flights of fancy. We right call them LIES.

Michael J. Bayly said...

Hi Clayton,

I'm sure Nicole is talking about the "rise" of the Christian priesthood. In other words, what we understand as and call "priests" (along with the clerical caste system) in the Catholic Christian tradition came after the concepts and realities of "Eucharist, mission, and church."

Could it be that you have issues with the findings of the scholarship highlighted by Nicole? Is scholarship on this issue even permissible in your view? Or can we only ever maintain the fallacy that Christ "instituted" the Roman Catholic priesthood at the Last Supper?

The type of scholarship that I sense Nicole is drawing from is quite reputable, and the product of such Catholic luminaries as, for example, Hans Kung (whose scholarly perspective on the issue of priesthood can be found in this previous Wild Reed post).

I'm wondering what "scholarship" you would recommend?



Michael J. Bayly said...

Gay Species,

What exactly are the "lies" that Nicole is spreading?



CDE said...

The rise of the Christian priesthood is intimately connected with its origins in the Levitical priesthood.

And the Eucharist is intimately connected with its foreshadowing in the Passover lamb of the Old Testament.

Christ didn't invent a new religion, he fulfilled the promises made to the people of Israel, albeit in a way beyond their expectations.

The church's identity, as reaffirmed at Vatican II, is as the People of God, which is an Old Testament concept as well.

For scholarship, maybe she could begin here.

It's impossible to properly understand realities such as church, Eucharist and priesthood without paying attention to the antecedent realities, their symbolism, and the continuity of the tradition.

I doubt Hans Kung would take issue with this assertion.

Michael J. Bayly said...

Andrew McGowan of Trinity College at the University of Melbourne has an interesting post entitled "Priest and Presbyter" on his blog. It seems pertinent to this discussion on the notion and development of the Christian priesthood.

McGowan notes for instance that:

The early-second century First Letter of Clement is often cited as applying the idea of priesthood to Christian leaders, but does so only by constructing an analogy between the Israelite priesthood and Christian bishops and deacons regarding order and structure, not priesthood as such. Paul Bradshaw states quite rightly that “no Christian text [prior to the third century] uses the title ‘priest’ directly to designate a particular individual or group of ministers within the Church”.

When the language of the sacrificing priest was applied to specific Christian ministers in the third century, it was not initially presbyters but bishops who were called “priests”. This is at least partly because of the role of the bishop in liturgy, including at the Eucharist, which was itself being seen in more directly sacrificial terms at this time. The presbyters only slowly came to be spoken of as priestly, from the fifth century onward, and at first in connection with, or delegation from, the bishop’s role.

There is something arbitrary, not so much about calling presbyters “priests”, but about totally conflating the sacrificial notion of priesthood with the roles of Christian presbyters. Bishops are more priests than priests, in a sense; but more importantly the Church itself is a “kingdom of priests” which offers sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving, sharing the fundamental priesthood of Christ.

Insofar as the ordained - deacons and bishops as well as presbyters - are called to enable and reflect the character of the Church to itself, they are priests too. What we can say about the ministry of presbyters as "priestly" should be applicable to deacons and bishops as well, but only in relation to the priestly identity of all Christians. All three orders of ministry are charged with representing and enabling for the Church as a whole aspects of ministry that pertain to the Church as a whole, but in many and varied ways. . . .



Joe said...

The NT calls Christians a priestly people and calls the paschal Christ our high priest, but it never refers to the presbyters as priests. The Church, however, addresses ordinands with the words "Thou art a priest forever".

The Pope's letter is really embarrassing to read. Some hypoothetize that it cannot be the work of a qualified theologian, and that Benedict has relied on the services of an underqualified ghost-writer. But I think a psychological explanation makes sense: Benedict has recaptured the voice of his own adolescence, regressing in an access of Proustian "involuntary memory" to bright seminary days in the later 1940s, when he developed the exalted image of the Priesthood that was then linked with notions of more than archangelic Power -- for what Archangel could command a piece of bread to become God? His reading of lives of St John Vianney, allied with fatigue at the sexual scandals in the contemporary presbyterate, has sparked this plunge back to a long-vanished utopia.

Anonymous said...

Clayton's remarks are 90% spot on.

The priesthood evolved from the episcopi (distinct from the deaconate) as the church grew rapidly, needing a via media that shared in the pastoral oversight, but were not fully apostolic.

The NT mentions only the episcopi and the deacoante, but continuing developments required an "intermediary" function, and given the obsessions with tripartite trinities, the priesthood shares in the pastoral offices of sacrifices, but not the pastoral offices of episcopi.

The significance, of course, is the church's ability to "develop," organic developments from its antecedents. That Eastern Orthodoxy, Latin Christianity, Anglicans, and Lutherans retained the tripartite ministry is notable, even if EO and LC are the only ones to retain episcopal collegiality.

See Book of Common Prayer.

CDE said...

Interesting that a humanist seems to have a more thorough/consistent understanding of the origins of Catholic priesthood than many Catholics.

Michael J. Bayly said...

Hi Clayton,

Thanks for taking the time to engage in this interesting dialogue.

I think the only thing I wish to add is that, clearly, there have always been elements within the Christian church that have been drawn to and required a “cultic” understanding of priesthood, i.e., one to do with sacrificial offerings. (Perhaps such an understanding was and remains a byproduct of that “lust for certitude” of which Sam Keen writes so eloquently.) In time, these elements became strong enough to do what they needed to do to justify the establishment and maintaining of this understanding of priesthood, one that eclipsed the early church understanding of “presbyter” – a member of a “council of elders.” I don’t see Nicole disputing any of this. Her point is that the rationale within the Christian church for what we now understand as priesthood – and which is, in large measure, definitely a “cultic” understanding, developed after Jesus. Oh, to be sure, things were found in both the Old and New Testaments to support this development, and other things have no doubt been projected back onto the tradition so as to make it seem like it was always meant to be. Yet, regardless, Nicole’s main thesis still stands: the historical Jesus was not focused on priesthood – however understood – but rather on ministry.

The rise of the cultic (and thus clerical) Christian priesthood has been a development within the Church, to be sure. But at the same time it does seem to contradict the egalitarian spirit and life of simplicity modeled by Jesus. It’s also been a development that has had decidedly mixed results (and that’s putting it kindly).

I tend to agree with Prickliest Pear, that the clerical priesthood needs to go. Indeed, I think Australian theologian Paul Collins says it best when he describes clericalism as a “diseased system.” That fewer and fewer men are called to the clerical priesthood is, I believe, a positive and hopeful sign that the guiding Spirit of God is present and active within and among the people of God.

How far have we moved from the example and vision of Jesus? Hans Kung says it well:

“One who relativized the fathers and their traditions and even called women to his circle of disciples cannot be claimed in support of a patriarchalism which is hostile to women. . . . One who served his disciples at table and required that ‘the highest shall be the servant [at table] of all’ can hardly have desired aristocratic or even monarchical structures for his community of disciples.

“Rather, Jesus radiated a democratic spirit in the best sense of the word. This was matched by a people (Greek demos) of those who are free (no dominating institution, even a Grand Inquisition) and in principle equal (not a church characterized by class, caste, race, or office), of brothers and sisters (not a regiment of men and a cult of persons). This was the original Christian liberty, equality, and fraternity.”



Phillip Clark said...

I agree with my fellow NextGen blogger Nicole that the priesthood as we not was an entity that evolved through time over the centuries. Yes, today we have the threefold ranks of Bishop, Priest, and Deacon and early remnants of those positions are found in Scripture but not entirely as we know them today.

It's nice and convenient to say that on Holy Thursday Jesus simultaneously instituted the priesthood along with the Eucharist, but this just wasn't the case. He very well may have laid the foundations for it, exhorting us to "do this" in His memory and emboldening the Apostles and Disciples with the promise of His Holy Spirit. But the way we know the priesthood today, was not entirely founded directly by Jesus Christ.

Now that's not to say that I think the priesthood is without divine inspirations, in fact I think it was the Holy Spirit's will to have priests as ministers of the God's grace through the Sacraments to the People of God. During this Year of the Priest I think it would be useful to reflect on all that our priests throughout the Church do. How much of themselves and of their time they forsake for others and how much we take them for granted. Also, it would be good to pray for the leaders of the Church to be enlightened about a renewed vision of the priesthood that would be more conducive to the current day; especially with regards to celibacy being an OPTIONAL facet of the priesthood as it was in the early days of the Church and also re-thinking the possibility of including women as well as men for ordination.

Anonymous said...

Let me clarify my remarks.

The episcopi and deaconate were distinguished by the Church Fathers I mentioned earlier, BUT the NT does refer to "presbyters." Most scholars regard "presbyters" and "episcopi" as simply different synonyms for the same pastoral office of "oversight."

But as the BCP argues, it provides a scriptural basis for the via media of an intermediary pastor with sacerdotal, but non-apostolic, functions. I think both arguments are persuasive and one can go in either direction.

One of the HUGE problems NOT addressed is whether the Church can alter either interpretation to fit modern exigencies. Vatican II reaffirmed the tripartite ministries, and Anglicanism has the "best sense" of the early church (democratic elections of bishop and presbyter, but appointments to the deaconate).

Whether a priest, bishop, or deacon is permanent or married is, of course, not a theological question, but a rubric of discipline that canon law, ostensibly given because the discipline is deemed most propitious to the Church, can be altered by fiat.

Given the inheritance requirements of Christianity, it cannot revoke the tripartite ministry (it can, however, revoke the Cardinal as "prince of the church," which is alien to all tradition). I'm not sure if I agree with my good friend and polymath Wayne Dynes that the episcopacy can be likened to "union shop stewards," but the analogy is not entirely without early support from original sources.

The earliest exegete of the church's ministry (episcopi and deaconate) is Ignatius of Antioch around 125 A.D.

That said, I happened to agree with Clayton, that before REFORMING, perhaps one should investigate the ORIGINS, and the ORGANIC DEVELOPMENTS, to understand the aetiology, rather than the blustering ignorance of another REFORMATION as Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli thought they had no choice. Blustering Steam seems rather like a Will to Power, than a Will to Love. Winning converts by argument and consensus, rather than by one's will and coercion, should seem rather self-evidently preferred, unless one takes "I came to sow dissent, parent against child, child against parent," too literally.