I think that the inadequate progressive idea of the parish goes along with a similarly inadequate idea about the function of the priest: the idea of making the priest a genuinely committed social and spiritual worker among Christians, and perhaps also among non-Christians. But in the context of a whole society and a whole historical movement, this could possibly be a reactionary move. For the meaning of the pattern of emerging democracy in our society is the realisation of a genuinely common responsibility in the fullest sense: a community of care, a community of guilt, a community of consolation. These activities, the activities of a whole people, can never be appropriated by an individual man or a class of men, no matter how well meaning, without serious damage to the whole effort towards common responsibility. Of course, within this process, at key points, we need men with specific functions and skills to sustain the growth: we need psychologists, priests, social workers, educators. But to think that the idea of a specific class of men who guide and nourish this activity, acting as fathers or servants or confessors or consolers, suggests merely that the full, revolutionary meaning of common responsibility has not been grasped. The confusion at the root of this is the confusion we have all been led to make between function and relationship; certain functions, certain roles and skills within society, have become traditionally associated with a whole superstructure of relationship, which is then institutionalised in terms of authority or paternalism or service. The movement towards common responsibility is the movement to return to this sense of role and skill, without its context of social inequality.
It does not seem enough, ultimately, for either priest or doctor to say that they don’t feel superior to anyone else and don’t want to be: this is the liberal mistake of thinking that what is involved is only a change of consciousness, whereas what is equally crucial is a change of structures. As long as priests exist as men set apart for other men to bring their problems to, whether the problems are spiritual or social or psychological, serious inequality is likely to be created, and the movement towards a common culture constantly blocked by this paternalism. What we have to do is learn to look to each other for that kind of active help, not to one man or a caste of men; if we look to each other, that is common responsibility, if we are trained to look to one class, that is paternalism. It is no real objection to this to reply that we must anyway look to particular men, social workers and doctors and psychiatrists, for our welfare. We go to these men primarily because they have specific skills: the relationship then established is always controlled by this motive. But what is the priest’s skill and function to be? If merely a duplicate of professional sociology and psychology, this is not only irrelevant but dangerous; it is that duplication of the wider society in our own terms which above all we must avoid. If it isn’t this, is it that the priest has some special claim to be a general spiritual consoler? This has, of course, been the situation historically: the priest as the local educated man to be consulted in times of trouble. It does not seem likely that this situation can hold any longer in an educated, democratic society, where the whole meaning of democracy and equality is precisely that nobody has a monopoly of human insight by virtue of his status and training.
The priest is president of the liturgical assembly: this is his chief, defining function, and it involves teaching in the direct sense of actually preaching the word of God in the assembly. It seems that we may have to return to the idea of the priest’s function as much less permanent and more intermittent: the priest is the man who has authority to celebrate the liturgy for the people, but the liturgy itself is intermittent, and this is part of its meaning. Why this role should involve a man wearing a black suit and being celibate and spending his time between liturgical activities in generally fostering Christian welfare seems much less obvious. We will perhaps never have a really non-paternalist church until priests… are ordinary workers with families who have this special function to preside over the liturgy in a church where the activities of teaching, welfare, and preaching are genuinely common, not the monopoly of a caste. The ideal is a self-teaching, self-caring church, as well as a self-teaching, self-caring society. (108-112)
Terry Eagleton | The New Left Church