Rome Diary: 27 December 2002

At a Wednesday audience on November 27, Pope John Paul II ...referred to Christ as the "supreme holy priest, innocent, without stain." Read all of this pope's references to the priesthood and you could sum up his view like this: "Priests should be perfect because they are God's anointed; and if they're not perfect, we just ignore their imperfections. Otherwise the priesthood itself (as well as the Church) would lose all credibility." Now even "good" Catholics are challenging that unreal view.

Hard to say where we, the people of God, are going with this. There will be a big battle, I suspect, between the forces of change and the forces of no change in the church, with the liberals arguing for a new theology of the priesthood and the conservatives insisting on a tightening of the priestly disciplines imposed on the church at the Council of Trent. If Ivan Illich were still an active "shaker" in the church, there's no doubt where he would come down on this issue; he left the priesthood in 1969 because he thought the priesthood had become largely irrelevant.

Illich's father was a Dalmatian prince and his mother a Sephardic Jew from a rich mercantile family in Vienna. He spoke five languages, got one theology degree at Rome's Gregorian University and a Ph.D. in history from the University of Salzburg. Though he graduated from the elite academy in Rome for papal diplomats, his first ministry took him to the poor Puerto Ricans of New York City.

He had a mystical air about him, looking most of the time like someone who had just stepped out of an El Greco painting. But lordship didn't sit well with him. He hardly ever sided with his own kind. He drove a Volkswagen Bug, and he loved to laugh at pomposity and pretension. He preferred the company of prelates like Dom Helder Camara, the poor and saintly archbishop of Refice in Brazil.

Having always been more a prophet than a priest, Illich's leaving the clerical priesthood didn't surprise me. Priests put their blessings on things tat are solid and settled; prophets cry out to heaven for radical change. Illich had much more fun as a prophet, zeroing in for the rest of his days on hierarchies of all kinds - in government, education, medicine, etc., to demand that they first serve the people before serving themselves...

Illich qualified as a shaker when he told me that the "Pedros" and "Marias" of Latin America were far more Catholic than the "Yanquis" heading south to bring them the Gospel. If "Pedro" needed anything from churchmen, it wasn't the faith - they already had that! What Pedro needed was help in overthrowing the Establishment that had been abusing him for several hundred years, with the blessings of the Catholic hierarchy. If "Maria" needed anything from these same churchmen, she needed them to tell her it was okay not to have a baby every single year. Pedro and Maria needed most to be left alone and not imposed upon from above by experts who presumed to have all the answers.

In 1961, Illich was already anticipating much of what the Vatican II Council Fathers would say about subsidiarity and the decentralization of power, and about the need for people to be themselves. He was a liberation theologian before liberation theology was born. This is probably whjy he was summoned to answer charges at the Vatican's Holy Office in 1969. His inquisitors' questions were so patently silly that he left the hearing room for a cappuccino and just kept on walking right out of the church's professional ranks.

Most of the obituaries about him upon his death last December hardly mentioned his ecclesial beginnings; he was a public intellectual who spent three decades writing books that made people think. I image that upon his death Illich was challenging Saint Peter's protocols at the portals of Paradise. "Yes," I can hear him saying, "I did quit the active priesthood in 1969. So what? There were then too many priests anyway." In this judgment, I suspect Illich was about three decades ahead of his time.

Catholics of my own acquaintance are wondering today why we have priests at all. Jesus was not a priest, they say, and didn't ordain any priests. It was his followers (but maybe not the earliest Christians) who made the priesthood into a profession. Then, almost before anyone could object, they had established themselves as a privileged class, increasingly entitled to lord it over the rest of humankind by reason of the holy oils at their ordinations.

Commentary

Rev. Francis F. Baiocchi

Where are today's prophets in the Church? Maybe a goodly number of them, such as Ivan Illich, have departed from the "flock" that continues to hold the popes, bishops and the entire clerical system as divinely instituted and deserving of total and unmitigated obedience. "Pay, pray, obey!" our church leaders insist. The Spirit however is a freely given gift to each and every one of us. Why must the Spirit within us be stilled by the proclamations and control mechanisms imposed upon people by the church's power-brokers?

As Catholics, we were told early on that the "pyramid" model of church governance was divinely given. Not so! That model of church governance was not the model given us by Jesus Christ in the Scriptures. It was a model embraced by church leaders in the 4th century when the Catholic Church became partners with the Roman Empire. At that time the church became the "officially" recognized religion throughout this Empire and thus no longer had to meet in underground catacombs or secretly in private homes to conduct the Eucharist and pass on the faith to the next generation. In return, the church leaders of the day adopted the Roman customs and traditions of privileged leadership and the dismissal of women from public ministries (since women were thus demeaned in Roman society).

The monarchical model of church governance is no more of divine institution than are the robes and miters, the crosiers and bejeweled crosses worn by today's Cardinals and bishops. These are all cultural accouterments that have nothing to do with faith issues. In fact, this style of governing is completely foreign to the Gospel message and life of Jesus Christ who promoted one and only one sign of authority within his community: that of service to the people. Any alleged church "tradition" that violates this primary Gospel value has no validity within Jesus' community.

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