Critique of the Priesthood

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.

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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.

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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

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A Critique of the Parish

It seems vital that Christian energies should not be directed towards creating a network of Christian welfare states called parishes within society, but should work alongside and within the general social movement towards a good society. The parish is in the world, but in the world in a different sense from the way in which a liturgical community centred on schools and factories and streets and offices is in the world. This kind of argument has been developed at length elsewhere: what I want to emphasise here is that, if it is accepted that the work of the church is within social structures, not in duplicated structures, then this makes our idea of the church a more flexible and spontaneous one. It means that the focuses of eucharistic community will be the focuses of natural community within society (which presumes that that kind of natural community does in fact exist in a significant form; and that, if it does not, then it must be created). Much talk of keeping the parish system has centred on the need to preserve a sense of local community; but it is also important to see how a concern with local community can actually be an obstacle to the creation of a whole community in society.  Local communities depend on a measure of physical, face-to-face community which is not always available in the wider society, and this can seriously distort our whole idea of what community is; by thinking of community always in physical, immediate terms we can come to ignore the need for a more complex, less immediately tangible community, the community of a whole society, which is more abstract than a local community only in a very naive sense of “abstract” and “concrete”. What must be asserted is that the only parish is ultimately the whole society: it is here that our sense of community must be gathered and focused. (106-107)

Terry Eagleton | The New Left Church

Liberal-Paternalist Church

The church is undergoing its own version of the liberal-paternalist crisis. When any movement for renewal starts up, there are always anxious hands available ready to catch it up and make it harmless under the plea of guidance and control; the plea may be genuine, but the damage can be severe. The hands are there, hovering, each time we are told to play down our differences in the interests of a public image; each time our common heritage as catholics is made into a blunt instrument to compel submission and compromise masquerading as prudence and loyalty. Protest and dissent is accepted, but changed in tone and emphasis so that it can blend into an only slightly modified status quo; attempts are made to rationalise and institutionalise renewal by assimilating it into a whole new set of official rules and rituals. (You must make the responses in English, otherwise it’s a venial sin.) The problem, with church and society, is how to meet and satisfy demands from “below” without relinquishing real power, without opening the flood-gates to basic structural change. (101)

Terry Eagleton | The New Left Church

Forgiveness and Value

But this also presupposes a radically different sense of value. All things are equal in Christ, all derive their value from the Christ-life they show forth; and this means a quite new definition of value, because previously it was thought that things had some sort of absolute intrinsic values which could be carefully graded and compared. Forgiveness means cutting across this logical structure of values, a refusal to return in proportion to what is received; it is a gratuitous imbalancing of value, a free and irrational bestowal of love in a place where objectively it is undeserved. In other words, it is the act of forgiveness which defines the Christian sense of value: we don’t as Christians weigh a thing or person to see whether it intrinsically merits our love — we make the thing or person valuable by loving it: its value grows in the human response. We love people because of the Christ-life which comprehends all creation in equality and cancels out the old structure of values, we give love freely and unilaterally without calculating returns. And this again is of course part of the meaning of spontaneity, part of our freedom from law and fixed categories, fixed values. The Christian act of love is thus a human act in a particular sense, in that it is a celebration of the power and value of human energy, even when by older standards the energy is fruitless. (19-20)

Terry Eagleton | The New Left Church

Christ-Life

We tend often to think of equality as being so because God made us like that, sharing a common condition, and this of course is true; but more concretely we are equals because we live, not with out own lives, but with the Christ-life which we manifest, and equality therefore means unity in Christ: things which share the same life are equal, they share the same value. It is easy to see how this is so in the Christian community, but we have to remember also that all creation is permeated by the Christ-life, showing it forth, and for the Christian things take their being from this source. Mountains show forth the Christ-life, not in the facile sense of the pathetic fallacy, but because, as Wordsworth understood, in learning to see and describe and respond to a mountain its significance in the human pattern slowly grows, even while it retains its unique selfhood. And so as Christians we see objects and human beings simultaneously as autonomous beings and as related outwards, part of a deeper pattern. There’s always a tension in this — always a necessity to resist seeing objects and people and situations merely as signs and emblems of the divine life, or seeing them as unrelated, without a context, brute being. (18)

Terry Eagleton | The New Left Church