A gathering consensus for radical change

One of the most interesting news stories of 2011 is the increasing number of countries in which Catholic priests have issued statements urging radical church reform.

In most cases, the declaration included a call for the ordination of married men and the ordination of women. In Germany, Austria, Ireland and Belgium, these remarkable documents quickly attracted growing endorsements from other clergy and laity. However, in every case, they also aroused questions, doubts and strong disagreement from other quarters. These movements must be stopped, declared some critics, calling the declarations blasphemy, heresy, an affront to legitimate authority and cause for the excommunication of their leaders and proponents.

I would like to suggest that, as troubling such calls for action may seem to some, they are neither heretical nor contrary to Catholic tradition when viewed over the long sweep of history. It is a fact accepted even by conservative theologians and historians that in the early centuries, each local church believed it had within itself, thanks to the presence of the Holy Spirit, everything necessary to enliven and build up the community. They were not waiting for permission from Rome or elsewhere to proceed. So they regularly chose one of their members to serve as leader or overseer — that is, as bishop (episcopus) — and, as such, to preside at the Eucharist. The chosen one felt a strong obligation to accept this appointment (ordination), as testified in the writings of Cyprian, Augustine and Ambrose (who had not yet been baptized when the community tapped him on the shoulder). These communities also felt they had the right, as baptized members of Christ, to select from the community elders (presbyters) to assist in managing church affairs and deacons to care for the needs of the poor, orphans and widows.

The death, departure or disappearance of one of these key figures did not throw a community into panic. They had only to pick another member to lead and preside at the Eucharist or to carry on the functions of a departed deacon and elder. In the early centuries, these persons were not viewed as intrinsically different or superior by reason of their position. They were simply serving in ministry, and when they ceased serving for whatever reason, they reverted to simple membership in the church.

The distinction between clergy and laity would only come later. Gradually, of course, these communities grew larger. The duties of bishop, presbyter and deacon expanded. Presbyters in time evolved into priests presiding at the Eucharist, since the bishop could not personally cover all the community’s spreading centers of worship. [more]