[Editor’s Note: Clare McGrath-Merkle, OCDS, DPhil, is a philosopher of religion and author of the 2018 book, Bérulle’s Spiritual Theology of Priesthood: A Study in Speculative Mysticism and Applied Metaphysics. She also earned an ABD status in spirituality, focusing on the priesthood, an MTS, and an MA from St. John’s College, Annapolis. She spoke to Charles Camosy.]

Camosy: You’ve done a lot of work on the theology of the priesthood. Can you give us the short version of your central view or a couple central ideas that could give Crux readers some insight into how you are thinking about this topic?

McGrath-Merkle: My work has been focused mainly on the theology of the priesthood and its possible role, if any, in the crisis of sexual abuse and cover-up. The causes of the crisis are, of course, varied, but I have wanted to try to understand how this theology might have somehow contributed to a clerical identity prone to the abuse of power.

The understanding I’ve come to is that what we think of as the official theology of the priesthood is actually a 400-year-old revolutionary one, linked to clerical formation spirituality. Its underlying spiritual theology has influenced the training of seminarians up until Vatican II and has had a major resurgence since the 90’s. Interestingly, it hasn’t been of much interest to most systematic theologians.

This theology was proposed in the early 17th century by a little-known cardinal—Pierre de Bérulle, the founder of the French School of Spirituality, and is a rather psychologically and spiritually unhealthy one. Leading up to my research on the possible historical roots of the crisis as found in this theology, I explored some current serious psychosocial maladaptions in priestly identity in a 2010 article.

Arguably, Bérulle’s innovations have contributed to an unhealthy priestly identity and culture over centuries, principally through both an over-identification with Christ and an exaggerated sacrificial spirituality.

What was behind these innovations?

Bérulle wanted to form a new kind of priest during a time when clerical corruption was still rampant in France, a half century after the Council of Trent’s reforms. He particularly wanted to defend the Church against Protestant objections to the necessary role of the priest in the sacrifice of the Mass.

Interestingly, he made major departures from tradition when he tried to answer Protestant Reformers on their own ­­terms—who had rejected St. Thomas Aquinas, particularly his conceptualization of the sacramental character of the priesthood.

If I could boil it down to one central idea, Bérulle asserted that the priest is not just an instrument of Christ, as Aquinas asserted, but is somehow connected to Christ as a part of His Person. In fact, Bérulle proposed that priests pray constantly so that they could give over their person to Christ, the Incarnate Word, so that He could then replace His Person with theirs.

In terms of pious rhetoric today, the idea that the priest is in some kind of essentialist relation to Christ is defended by insisting there is an “ontological” difference between the priest and laity. The word “ontological” merely points to something having to do with being. Many documents, books, and popular articles on both the theology of the priesthood and priestly spirituality are available today that refer to this “ontological” difference between priests and the laity. But, if it’s used to denote an essential difference, it’s metaphysically impossible, because if a priest’s essence changed, he would no longer be human.

Bérulle’s priestly identity is very different than the priestly identity proposed by Pope St. Gregory the Great—a more humble, service-oriented but still cultic vision of the priest, which I have also explored as one model for renewal in a 2011 article. Gregory’s pastoral manual served the Church for a thousand years before the Berullian priestly identity and spirituality took over.

As you know, there is a new book out on the priesthood, celibacy, and the crisis of the Catholic Church. There is some controversy about in what ways Pope Emeritus Benedict wants to be associated with the book, so let’s focus specifically on it as an articulation of the views of Robert Cardinal Sarah. What do you make of the central case he is making in the book?

I would say Cardinal Sarah’s central argument is that there is a necessary bond between priesthood and celibacy, built on the parallel assertions that Christ is present in the priest as Bridegroom of the Church, and that the Church should also be the priest’s exclusive bride. We can trace the Cardinal’s support of these connections back, in part, to Berullian metaphysics.

The cardinal refers to the link he sees between the priest and Christ as “ontological,” using this term repeatedly throughout the document. For example, the cardinal underscores the link between Christ, priests, and celibacy by saying that celibacy is the sign and instrument of the priest’s entrance into the priestly being of Christ. This is very reminiscent of both Berullian rhetoric and metaphysics.

Strikingly, Cardinal Sarah refers to the priest as not just another Christ, but rather, as ipse Christus, “Christ himself.”

Cardinal Sarah uses more essentialist language in arguing for the absolute necessity for celibacy. For him, celibacy is necessary because the priest offers his own body, “entering into Christ’s virginal offering,” when he says the words of institution: “This is my Body.”

In this, Cardinal Sarah moves beyond traditional notions of the idea of sacrifice as an interior offering of charity, praise, or obedience. The linking of the virginity of Christ and that required of the priest is reminiscent of the ancient ideal of the purity demanded of a sacrificial victim.

Cardinal Sarah specifically rejects a married priesthood based on what I would argue is an over-identification of the priest with Christ as the Incarnate Word — a Berullian echo. He gives the example of a missionary priest visiting a community, whom he calls the “image of the Word visiting humanity.” He then remarks that the ordination of a married priest would express the “opposite movement.”

What do you make of the historical claims he is making in the book? I’m thinking especially here of his claims about the historical relationship of the priesthood to matrimony and, when priests were married, whether they were required to remain celibate.

Cardinal Sarah mentions that Church councils by the 4th century had already called on the importance of continence for priests. I can speak to the era of Pope St. Gregory the Great who was born in the 6th century and who met the corruption of his day by making celibacy a rule for married clergy and a new rule for candidates. As an ideal, celibacy has required, over the centuries, repeated restorations of its practice. We know the need for intimacy and the desire for family are two reasons priests either elect to lead double lives or leave ministry.

Yes, Cardinal Sarah suggests the idea of establishing communities of priests. There is already a long history of communities of priests serving a diocesan bishop along the lines of a monastic model but without religious vows — and I think it is a promising model for celibate priests.

That said, if a general return to this model continues the current practice of trying to form psychosocially immature candidates, it could still be open to the same problems we have had to face. Historically, religious houses and monasteries have had problems with pederasty too. It’s not a panacea.

Also, I would suggest, practical reform can only follow a concerted effort toward theological and philosophical renewal. In repeated attempts over decades to reform the priesthood via psychological, spiritual, and intellectual means, we seem to keep trying to change horses when we actually need to take the cart to the repair shop.

It seems with every new book on priestly spirituality or new project on priestly formation, there are a dizzying number of changes suggested. New icons, new metaphors, new techniques in prayer, deliverance, healing, and spiritual direction. It’s hard to keep up, and illustrates just how much our crisis is really an identity crisis.

To come round right, the foundational questions for me are: who do we say Christ is, and how does the priest serve His Priesthood?

I, myself, follow St. Thomas in his answers to these questions and to many others pertaining to a wide range of related areas. We have lost his wisdom and need to foster scholarship for researchers who can make key corrections and also new inroads in areas such as metaphysics, Christology, pneumatology, the Trinity, and liturgical studies, just to name a few.

I personally have had professors who study related areas, who, probably as I write this, are quietly inhabiting library stalls and basement offices, spending long hours devoted to research. If you asked me their opinions on Church politics, I wouldn’t be able to tell you because it’s not about that for them.

I have hoped for some ten years that we could establish an academic center for the study of the priesthood. In addition to the areas of study I just listed, there are many priestly spiritualities in tradition that we could mine for more ideas. It will take a commitment to being dispassionate and systematic. That’s a tall order in polemical times.

How do you think his views shape how we should think about married Catholics priests today (converts from Anglicanism, for instance), eastern rite Catholic priests in communion with Rome, and ecumenical efforts with the Orthodox churches? 

Cardinal Sarah makes the point that he sees the allowance of clerical marriage for converts as an interim step leading eventually to a celibacy requirement. He fears that married priests, including those he mentions, I would assume, might suffer from being treated like second-class priests. He also points to the problem of divorce among Eastern clergy, and that faithful don’t want to confess to married priests.

I see real value in trying to better understand various pastoral identities like those of pastor-converts and have been working on a model to do that. They could be a rich resource of renewal, including in ecumenical efforts.

Some more traditional members of the Church fear that a married priesthood would mean a (further) “Protestantizing” of clerical identity. Ironically, priestly identity actually took on a host of Protestant ideals through Bérulle’s project, including a moralistic pastoral piety and an emphasis on the power of pastor over office and canon law. I think this emphasis, arguably, can be found in priestly identities on both sides of current divides. In some ways, we seem sometimes to be pots and kettles calling each other black.

I would also argue that even in the quarter century or so after Vatican II of radically different theological training, vestiges of a continued Berullian formation, including a grandiose self-concept and very old and uncorrected Reformist ideals, may have had a major hand in the peak of abuse cases.

I go into the many Berullian influences on the theology of the priesthood in my 2018 book.

Do you see the insights in this book as having import for the challenges the Catholic Church is facing? 

I think it’s immensely helpful, a great service to the Church in several ways.

I really appreciate Cardinal Sarah poignantly laying open his heart to us, giving us a window into his life and the ideals that formed him as a priest. His openness can serve as a model as we try to work through competing solutions to the crisis.

The book seems groundbreaking to me in that we have been invited to respond to his ideas with critiques or augmentation. This isn’t a formal document or decree that must be obeyed, but a work of affective theologizing—expressing theological ideas in terms of the heart.

The book clearly points to the power and roles of spiritual theology and philosophy, the hidden engines of the Church’s official theology of the priesthood.

Finally, it really shows just how complex the issues are and that a Church council rather than regional synods will be needed to address them all—and that will take time. I very much support Cardinal Sarah’s desire to slow things down. From my perspective, it’s hard to reform things we don’t really fully understand yet.

Somehow, I hope that Cardinal Sarah’s cry of the heart can serve as a turning point in the crisis—if we can continue the conversation with him in a spirit of charity.

In this unprecedented period of world crisis, a true acknowledgment and a more humble following of Christ our Eternal High Priest can serve as reparation for the many outrages committed against children by priests and their abettor bishops. Standing with Him in this, the Passion of the Church and the world, both priests and laity together can share His peace and promises. As St. John of the Cross wrote, “In the dark night of the soul, bright flows the river of God.”

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