Banning Books — Banning People

In the past nine months, censorship efforts in the United States, have reached an unparalleled intensity. More than 1,500 books have been targeted by rightwing politicians and activists, including the work of the Nobel prize laureate Toni Morrison. Focusing on literature in U.S. schools, the bans have targeted books that focus on race and LGBTQ issues. A large number of the banned books have been written by non-white or LGBTQ authors.

Between July 1, 2021 and March 31 this year, 1,586 bans have been implemented in 86 school districts across 26 states. The book banning has been matched by a wave of rightwing legislation dictating what teachers can and cannot discuss in schools. In March this year, Florida passed a bill which forbids “instruction” on sexual orientation and gender identity. In Tennessee, the McMinn County School Board voted in January 2022 to remove Maus, a novel about the Holocaust, from its eighth-grade curriculum.

Banning books paves the way for misinformation, disinformation, and fake news. All forms of thought-control. Ultimately, people who ban books are really banning people.

A number of states have also banned discussion about the impact of historical racism in the United States. Of the banned titles, 41% included protagonists or prominent secondary characters who were people of color and 22% directly address issues of race and racism.

Controlling information, of course, controls and shapes what people perceive as normal. Authoritarian political and religious leaders know that information management has a critical role in controlling a population.

In my Catholic tradition, the Index Librorum Prohibitorum (“List of Prohibited Books”), launched in the sixteenth century, banned thousands of books and publications. The aim of the “Index” was to protect “the faithful” from theologically, culturally, or politically repugnant books. It included books about church history, biblical studies, and morality as well as publications by dangerous astronomers, like Johannes Kepler, a key figure in the 17th-century Scientific Revolution, and dangerous philosophers like Immanuel Kant, who stressed that reason is also the source of morality.

The twentieth and final edition of the Index appeared in 1948. It contained 4,000 titles banned for various reasons. Finally, the Index Librorum Prohibitorum was formally abolished by Pope Paul VI in 1966.

Launching his own campaign against book banning, a Deerfield Beach, Florida man said this week that he was more than angry after Florida lawmakers decided to ban 54 math books said to have incorporated dangerous topics such as critical race theory. Well known for his tongue-in-cheek protests, the man asked school districts in Florida to ban the Bible. He asked public school superintendents to immediately remove the Bible from classrooms, libraries, and from all instructional materials. He questioned whether the Bible is really age-appropriate because of the many Biblical references to murder, fornication, rape, and infanticide.

The rise of book banning is the tip of a much greater iceberg: a growing movement on the far-right to push an ideologically slanted vision of what children should learn about culture, society, and history. The objective is not about discussing ideas objectively. It’s about not discussing them at all, because some ideas are dangerous.

So what is really going on in contemporary U.S. society? I see a culture war in which the ideological far-right, who believe many U.S. Americans – especially the “intellectuals” — have sold out to the Antichrist, want to use coercive force to crush the “liberal influence” over U.S. culture. Sometimes called the New Right, these crusaders are fighting against what they see as a dangerous leftist elite, shaped by Hollywood, academia, media like the New York Times and the Washington Post, and even Silicon Valley.

The crusaders, encouraged by Fox News, are angry after decades of political defeats on cultural issues from abortion to gay marriage. And they were greatly energized by D. J. Trump.

Since the administration of former-president Trump – whom many supporters believe was sent by God — the strength of the contemporary U.S. political right, with its authoritarian and conspiracy-minded right-wing movements, like QAnon, has grown to about 24% of the current adult U.S. population. Today even about 8% of U.S. adults, or 21 million people, still support the phony belief that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump and that the Joseph Biden presidency is illegitimate.

Much to the frustration of the far-right, U.S. socio-cultural values are shifting in ways they do not like. Support for LGBTQ people and same-sex marriage, for example, continues to grow. In April 2015, a Washington Post-ABC News poll showed that 61% of U.S. Americans supported same-sex marriage. As of June 2021 Gallup reported that 70% of U.S. Americans support same sex marriage. Most surprisingly Republicans, who have consistently been the party group least in favor of same-sex marriage, showed majority support in 2021 for the first time (55%). Democrats have consistently been among the biggest supporters of legal same-sex marriage. Today it is 83%.

As of this year, according to Gallup, the percentage of U.S. adults who self-identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or something other than heterosexual has increased to 7.1%, which is double the percentage from 2012. Most interesting, perhaps, roughly 21% of Generation Z — those born between 1997 and 2003 — identify as LGBTQ.

Official Catholic teaching is still strongly anti-LGBTQ. Some contemporary books that are considered dangerous are Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Maia Kobabe’s memoir Gender Queer, and Cory Silverberg’s Sex is a Funny Word, a sex education book for 8-10 year olds. Other books being banned or challenged by parents are Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Cage Bird Sings, and Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous. Not so surprisingly, Morrison, Johnson, Butler, and Angelou are African American, while Kobabe and Silverberg call themselves queer and Vuong is gay.

This past week, in Massachusetts, the Catholic school controversy continued to intensify. In the Diocese of Worcester, a Catholic school’s decision to fly Pride and Black Lives Matter flags brought a strong protest from Bishop Robert McManus. He ordered that Nativity School remove the flags or risk losing its Catholic affiliation. The school, run by Jesuits, has so far refused to do so and has found growing support in the local community.

Bishop McManus belongs to a group of culture warrior Catholic bishops and insists that the Pride and Black Lives Matter flags are symbols that “stand in contrast to consistent Catholic teaching” and promote “ideologies which are contrary to Catholic teaching.”

The President of Nativity School, Thomas McKenney, issued a statement that the school began displaying the flags in early in 2021 “to remind our young men, their families and Nativity Worcester staff that all are welcome here and that they are valued and safe in this place. It says to them that they, in fact, do matter and deserve to be respected as our Christian values teach us.”

Fortunately, there are indeed some prophetic U.S. Catholic bishops. In January 2021, eight U.S. Catholic bishops, declaring “God is on your side,” issued a statement in support for LGBTQ youth and denouncing the bullying often directed at them. The bishops are Cardinal Joseph Tobin, of Newark, New Jersey; and Archbishop John Wester of Santa Fe, New Mexico; and Bishops John Stowe of Lexington, Kentucky; Robert McElroy of San Diego; Steven Biegler of Cheyenne, Wyoming; and Edward Weisenberger of Tucson, Arizona, as well as two retired auxiliary bishops, Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit and Dennis Madden of Baltimore.

The bishops’ statement said LGBTQ youth attempt suicide at much higher rates, are often homeless because of families who reject them, and are the target of violent acts at alarming rates. “We take this opportunity to say to our LGBTQ friends,” the bishops wrote, “especially young people, that we stand with you and oppose any form of violence, bullying or harassment directed at you… Most of all, know that God created you, God loves you, and God is on your side.”

Frankly, those other bishops who so loudly protest against LGBTQ and Black Lives Matter are wrong. They are abusing their position and misleading people. Jesus didn’t say anything about LGBTQ. Jesus reached out in love to everybody. He made no distinctions based on gender or race. In the words and example of Jesus we find TRUTH. And his truth makes people free.

When authoritarian leaders control information or create false information, they misrepresent truth as whatever they want it to be. With controlled information, authoritarian religious and political leaders put people into confusing situations in which quite often they do not know what to do. They often then fall under authoritarian control.

Our challenge is to be well-informed promoters of shared knowledge and critical thinking. Our challenge is to support wise, well-informed, and courageous civic leaders. The issue is more than books. Not one single student has died in a mass reading project yet people are banning books instead of guns.

  • Jack

Russian Christian Nationalism

In last week’s post, I announced that I would be taking two weeks off. But on Good Friday I changed my mind. So…as in past years, I will wait to take some time off in June.

Christian Nationalism

On Good Friday, I was struck again by the sinister collaboration of authoritarian rulers and corrupt religious leaders in Jesus’ life experiences. And I began to reflect as well about the sinister religious and political collaboration so apparent in many countries today. Christian nationalism is a virus breaking out in many countries like, for example, in Brazil, Croatia, Hungary, Russia, Poland, and the United States, where the former U.S. president’s campaign strategy, then and now, has always been to embrace Christian nationalism and spread as many lies as possible.

My immediate concern today of course is the war in Ukraine. The current Russia/Ukraine war has a Christian nationalism dimension that absolutely should not be overlooked.

This week, on the Monday after Easter (which for Orthodox Christians was the Monday after Orthodox Palm Sunday) the political scientist and member of the Russian State Duma, Vyacheslav Nikonov (b. 1956), praised the Russian war in Ukraine.

“In reality,” Nikonov said “we [Russians] embody the forces of good in the modern world because this clash is metaphysical…. We are on the side of good against the forces of absolute evil…. This is truly a holy war that we’re waging, and we have to win it and of course we will because our cause is just. We have no other choice. Our cause is not only just. Our cause is righteous. And victory will certainly be ours.”

Historical Perspective

History helps us understand the current Russia/Ukraine events. Around 980 CE, political leaders in what is today’s Ukraine were converted to Christianity by Orthodox Christians from Constantinople. The area around Kyiv became the heart of Orthodox Christianity in Eastern Europe. That would change about five hundred years later.

In 1448, the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow became effectively independent from the Patriarchate of Constantinople and five years later, Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks. Hagia Sofia (built in 537), the patriarchal cathedral of the imperial capital of Constantinople, became a mosque. Then the Russian Orthodox Church and the Duchy of Moscow began to see Moscow as the legitimate successor to Constantinople.

The Patriarch of Moscow became head of the Russian Orthodox Church and all Orthodox churches in Ukraine came under the ecclesiastical rule of the Moscow Patriarchate.

Following the October Revolution of 1917, a communist state, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), was established in 1922. A key objective of the USSR was the elimination of existing religion, with the goal of establishing state atheism.

After Communism

With the collapse of the USSR in the years 1988 to 1991, the Russian Orthodox Church began to rethink its religious and national identity. Alexy (1929 – 2008), Bishop of Leningrad, became Patriarch Alexy II of Moscow in 1990 and presided over a surprisingly quick return of Orthodox Christianity to Russian society after 70 years of repression. About 15,000 churches were either re-opened or had been built by the end of Alexy’s tenure in 2008.

Patriarch Kirill

A major recovery and rebuilding of the Russian Orthodox Church continued under Alexy’s successor Vladimir Mikhailovich Gundyayev (b. 1946), known today as Patriarch Kirill (Cyril). Under Kirill by 2016, the Church had 174 dioceses, 361 bishops, and 34,764 parishes served by 39,800 clergy. There were 926 monasteries and 30 theological schools.

The Russian Orthodox Church, thanks to Patriarch Kirill, has worked to fill the social and ideological vacuum left by the collapse of Communism by becoming a strong agent of national religious and political power. Under Patriarch Kirill, the Russian Orthodox Church has established close ties with the Kremlin. Kirill now enjoys the personal patronage of President Vladimir Putin (b. 1952). Kirill endorsed Putin’s election in 2012 and calls Putin’s presidency “God’s miracle.” Today he stresses that Putin’s Russia is fighting the Antichrist.

In 2014 when Russia invaded Crimea, however, something happened which Vladimir Putin couldn’t imagine, and something he and Patriarch Kirill did not like. A large group of Orthodox churches in Ukraine formed the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, which claimed to be completely independent from the Patriarch of Moscow. This piece of post-Crimea-invasion history is important because it has shaped how Putin envisions Russia’s identity and its global role.

Mother Russia

Vladimir Putin wants to see the glories and geography of “Mother Russia” restored and strongly claims this is preserving “Christian civilization” against the secular decadence of the West. Between 1981 and 2000 the Romanovs, the last Imperial Family of Russia, were canonized as Russian Orthodox saints: Tsar Nicholas II, his wife Tsarina Alexandra, and their five children Olga, Tatiana, Maria, Anastasia, and Alexei.

Putin sees his ideological alliance with the Russian Orthodox Church essential for his goals. Just like the earlier Russian czars, President Putin wants to see Moscow as the center of a political and military empire blessed by the Russian Orthodox Church. This is a key element in his Russian Christian Nationalism. For this Putin needs an Orthodox Church in Ukraine that he can control.

At the start of Putin’s war with Ukraine, Patriarch Kirill gave a sermon in which he emphasized the God-given unity between Ukraine and Russia. During a March 6, 2022 sermon, Kirill stressed: “Much more is at stake than the liberation of the oppressed Russians… The salvation of humankind. ⁠People are weak and no longer follow God’s Law. They are no longer hearing his Word and his Gospel. They are blind to the Light of Christ.”

In weekly sermons on Russian TV, Kirill, regularly portrays the war in Ukraine as an apocalyptic battle against evil forces that have sought to destroy the “God-given unity of Holy Russia.” In March this year, he stressed it was “God’s truth” that the people of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus share a common spiritual and national heritage and should be united as one people — a direct echo of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s defense of the war.

God’s Truth

Kirill has often said the future of human civilization itself is at stake, as he launches into angry tirades against gay rights, which he has often characterized as a great sin against God and a “clear denial of God and his Truth.”

Kirill Is a complex figure in Russian politics. He is smart, charismatic, and an ambitious operator. He has been associated with the KGB, the former Soviet Union’s main security apparatus. Kirill did set off a short-lived scandal, however, a few years after becoming patriarch when he was photographed wearing a $30,000 Breguet watch. That was later conveniently photoshopped out of the official photo by his Orthodox supporters. He and Putin have long been close allies. Putin has said that Kirill’s father, who was a priest in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), baptized him in secret in 1952, at his mother’s request. Putin and Kirill frequently appear in public together: at Easter services, visiting monasteries, and traveling to pilgrimage sites.

The sincerity of Putin’s Christianity has been strongly rejected by Sergei Pugachev (b. 1963) a Russian Orthodox Christian and a former member of Vladimir Putin’s inner circle. In recent years, nevertheless, Putin has increasingly highlighted his own religiosity: wearing a silver cross around his neck, kissing icons, and famously immersing himself in the freezing waters of a lake in front of television cameras. The icy dip was a brazen display of manhood and an Orthodox Christian ritual marking the Feast of Epiphany. Putin regards as his spiritual destiny the rebuilding of a Moscow-based Christendom. In a February 2022 speech he stressed: “Ukraine is an inalienable part of our own history, culture, and spiritual space.”

Russian Orthodoxy has presented itself for centuries as the guardian of the “true faith” in contrast to Western Catholicism and Protestantism. Moscow, according to Russian Orthodoxy today, is the third Rome, the seat of the true Christendom today, after no. 2 Constantinople and no. 1 Imperial Rome.

Blessing Militarism

Certainly history will long remember the Russian Orthodox Church’s major role in the rise of Russian militarism and paving the way for Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Already in August 2009, Kirill had presented an icon of the Virgin Mary to the crew of a nuclear submarine at the Russian shipyard in Severodvinsk. Russia’s military, Kirill said, “needed to be strengthened by traditional Orthodox Christian values… Then we will have something to defend with our missiles.”

Putin and Kirill share nationalist ideological values that, in their eyes, justify the war in Ukraine. Although they claim to be Christian, they never speak about Christian values. Never about Christian ethics and the bombing hospitals, the bombing apartment buildings and schools, and about the calculated abuse and slaughter of Ukrainian civilians. History will never record either of them saying “See how these Christians love one another.”

In a country where up to three quarters of the citizens consider themselves Orthodox Christians, Putin’s partnership with Patriarch Kirill and the Russian Orthodox Church is about strengthening Putin’s power and national support.

Curiously, during the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Hilarion, in the United States, issued a statement asking the faithful to “refrain from excess watching of television, following newspapers or the internet” and “close their hearts to the passions ignited by the mass media.” In his statement, he used the term the Ukrainian land instead of Ukraine, clearly a deliberate denial of Ukraine’s independence. Born in Canada in 1948, Hilarion is a bishop of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR) and Metropolitan of Eastern America and New York. He has close ties to the Kremlin and friendly ties with Vladimir Putin.

The Orthodox Church under Patriarch Kirill, in collaboration with President Putin, has worked hard to reinstate “traditional values.” Key among those “traditional values” are homophobia and anti-feminism with strong advocacy for women as “breeders.” In an interview a year after Putin became president, Kirill said feminism was a “very dangerous” phenomenon that could destroy Russia. “I consider this phenomenon called feminism very dangerous, because feminist organizations proclaim the pseudo-freedom of women, which, in the first place, must appear outside of marriage and outside of the family,” said Patriarch Kirill, according to the independent Russian news agency Interfax.

Putin’s supporters claim he is a Christian nationalist who, as revealed in his autobiography, wears an Orthodox baptismal cross under his shirt, a memento from his mother who died in 1998. For many in the U.S. religious right, Putin is still admired as an authoritarian defender of a Christian civilization against secularism and particularly against Islam. But is it truly Christian? And is it really civilization?

Perhaps the most extraordinary contemporary monument to Russian Christian Nationalism is Moscow’s Victory Church constructed by the Russian Defense Ministry in 2020. It is the third-largest Orthodox church in Russia and was planned after the occupation of Crimea. The Russian military arms manufacturer Kalashnikov donated a million bricks to the project. Frescoes in the church extol the feats of Russian fighters from medieval wars to contemporary conflicts. It is a a very crass glorification of military might. Even an image of Jesus shows him as a fighter wielding a sword. Stained glass mosaics display the faces of prominent military leaders from the Imperial Russian Army.

Russian Christian Nationalism is anchored in an unholy alliance of distorted Christianity and abusive political power. It is not just dangerous. It is evil. – Jack

Easter 2022

In each of the Gospel accounts of Jesus being raised from the dead there is a common thread. The first witnesses were women: Mary the Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and other women disciples who accompanied them. May their Easter witness and joy enlighten, sustain, and guide all of us as we move forward in our life journeys.

Happy Easter 2022!


Anointing of the Sick

I am posting this a couple days early, on Wednesday of Holy Week, as I conclude my Lenten series on the sacraments. Today a brief historical reflection on anointing of the sick. In cathedrals around the world, sacramental oils are blessed this week, traditionally on Holy Thursday but now in many places earlier in Holy Week.

Oil and healing

In ancient times, olive oil was commonly used for medicinal purposes. It was applied to injuries to hasten the healing process. In Luke 10:25-37, for example, Jesus describes the compassionate Samaritan who pours oil, and wine, on the man who was beaten by robbers and left for dead.

Jesus the Healer

Jesus told those whom he healed that their faith had saved them. One could say his ministry was “faith healing,” but with no pejorative connotations.

In the synoptic Gospels, Matthew records fourteen instances of healing by Jesus. Mark records six instances. In Mark 6:13, for example, Jesus sends the disciples out and they anointed many sick people with oil and healed them. Luke, traditionally said to have been a physician, recounts thirteen instances of healing. In John’s Gospel, we find three key healing accounts: the healing of a nobleman’s son who was at the point of death; the healing of a man at the sheep-gate pool in Jerusalem; and the healing of the man born blind.

Early Christianity

The ministry of healing was an important ministry in the early Christian communities. In New Testament apostolic letters we find a number of examples. In his letter to the Corinthians, written c. 53 CE, Paul mentions that some members of the community have the gift of healing (1 Corinthians 12:9). In the Epistle of James, traditionally attributed to James the brother of Jesus and written before 62 CE, James gave instructions to the Christian community about the ministry of healing: the elders (presbyters) were to be called and were to pray over the sick person and to anoint the man or woman with oil in the name of the Lord (James 5:14-16).

Third and Fourth Century

In a letter from the third century theologian Tertullian (c. 155 – c. 220 CE ), he mentions a Christian who cured with blessed oil. There are no other surviving healing texts from the third century. Liturgical documents from the fourth century, however, indicate that the oil blessed for those preparing for baptism was also used for curing spiritual and physical sickness. And there is a prayer for the blessing of oil for strengthening and healing in the early Christian document called “The Apostolic Tradition,” dating most likely from about 375 to 400 CE. The document was once thought to be the work of Hippolytus of Rome, and was dated before 235 CE when Hippolytus is believed to have been martyred.

Eighth Century

Up until the eighth century CE, anointing the sick was a widespread practice. It was done by Christian people for their relatives, by men and women with a reputation for healing, and by monks, nuns, and priests. Especially noteworthy, however, is the fact that anointing of the sick remained primarily a lay practice.

Ninth Century Changes

Indeed, blessed oil had long been regarded as a substance through which People could be healed. But there had been no official ritual for anointing the sick. That changed in the ninth century.

The blessing of the oil became more solemn and more restricted. It was reserved to the local bishop on Holy Thursday. And the anointing of the sick became a strictly clerical ritual. Most significantly, however, the anointing with blessed oil becam an end of life experience, due no doubt to the high mortality rate and the fear of death, at this time.

The sacrament of the sick gradually lost its general healing dimension and became part of the “last rites” before death. Therefore it came to be called “extreme unction” or “final anointing.” Many people who might otherwise have benefited from the sacrament avoided it or waited until death was imminent before requesting it. It had become indeed a priestly ritual for the dying person.

The Council of Trent

Reacting to the Protestant Reformation, the sixteenth century Council of Trent stressed that that anointing of the sick is a true sacrament, that it had been established by the historic Jesus, and that it was especially intended for the people in danger of death. Trent stressed that only priests were the “proper” ministers of anointing.

The Second Vatican Council

The Second Vatican Council (1962 – 1965) reclaimed the original meaning of the Sacrament of Anointing that emphasizes the concern and care of the Christian Community and the healing power of Christ. It is intended not just for the end of life but for any time of serious illness or special need. The Council said as well that “extreme unction” should more fittingly be called “anointing of the sick” because by the 1960s it had become clear that the purpose of the sacrament had originally been for the sick and not just for the dying. The bishops at Vatican II also acknowledged – especially noteworthy — that this sacrament was not a strictly clerical ritual until the ninth century.

Contemporary Reflections

I very much resonate with the words of my, now deceased, sacramental theologian friend, Joseph Martos: “The only genuine way forward is to look away from ritual and to look instead at what is ritualized, that is, to look at life rather than liturgy and, indeed, to look at the communal lives of people in the church.”

Today we already have communal liturgical rites, in which the theme and focus are healing. I envision anointing rituals performed by ordained and non-ordained ministers/chaplains for people in hospitals, under hospice care or in homes. And more particularly, I would like to see regular informal rituals performed by parish nurses and lay ministers who regularly visit the sick.


In concluding my Lenten sacramental reflections, and as we now prepare for Easter 2022, I close with a prayer by the great mystic and visionary Hildegard of Bingen (1098 – 1179). She was a remarkable woman and indeed a great healer.

O Holy Power who forged the way for us!
You penetrate all in heaven and earth, and even down below.
You are everything in One.

Through You, clouds billow and roll, and winds fly!
Seeds drip juice.
Springs bubble out into brooks.
Spring’s refreshing greens flow — through You — over all the earth!
You also lead my soul into fullness.

Holy power, blow wisdom into my soul
And — with your wisdom — joy.

  • Jack

(I am taking some Easter time off and will return in two weeks.)

Ordination – Holy Orders

We begin with the disciples of Jesus

After his death and resurrection, the disciples of Jesus (c. 4 BCE – 30 or 33 CE) understood their role as one of ministry and service to others. Sent out to spread the Good News of the Way of Jesus, they were called “apostles” from the Greek word apóstolos, meaning “one who is sent out.” In the earliest Christian communities men and women were apostles. There was a variety of ministries; but ordained priesthood was not one of them. There are no texts in the Gospels in which Jesus passed on a special power to perform sacramental actions such as baptizing, ordaining, or presiding over the Eucharist. Jesus gave no organisational blueprint for a future church.

First Three Centuries

As Christian communities developed, ministries and the ways of training and appointing ministers evolved to meet changing cultural conditions and changing social needs. Presbyters, from the Greek presbyteroi, were community elders. Supervisors-overseers (later called bishops) from the Greek epískopoi had oversight and offered guidance in community affairs; and deacons, from the Greek diaconoi, were helpers, entrusted with assisting people in the community by caring for widows, doing charitable work, catechising, and assisting in baptisms.

The letters of Paul, written between 48 and 62 CE, mention a variety of charismatic gifts which can be thought of as ministries benefiting the local Christian community (“the building up of the body”) even though the ministers were not ordained in our sense of the word. For example, members who could teach taught. Those who were good organisers administered community affairs. Those who had the gift of prophesy could speak out and tell the community what God wanted them to hear.

We know as well that men and women who were heads of households presided at the Lord’s Supper and hosted the gatherings in their homes. In Romans 16, Paul greets women leaders such as the deacon Phoebe, the apostle Junia, and the married apostles Priscilla and her husband Aquila. Clear evidence that women were respected leaders in the emerging Jesus movement.

The term “holy orders” comes from the Latin word ordo, which came to mean a rank or class. The Roman army had its military ranks and Roman society was divided into different social classes. The early Christian communities, however, were relatively classless and egalitarian. At least they were supposed to be. “Holy orders” however would come later in Christian history.

The approval and blessing of the community for diverse ministries was indicated by the laying on of hands. These ministries included preaching, prophesy, healing, working miracles, speaking in tongues, and interpreting what was said in tongues (see 1 Cor. 12:12-30, Ephesians 4:11-12, Romans 12:4-8; and 1 Cor 12:4-11). None of the men and women exercising these ministries were ordained. Acts of Apostles, written between c. 90 and 110 CE, mentions the laying on of hands for elders or presbyters, but here it was a form of blessing for those in ministry.

Although Peter (died c. 64 CE) was a key leader in the Jesus movement, the early Christian community in Jerusalem was not led by Peter but James (died c. 69 CE) who was Jesus’ brother. At the Council of Jerusalem (50 CE) Peter, Paul, and others were involved in lengthy debate. Peter gave his argument, but did not have the last word. James concluded the matter and then the vote was taken.

Most contemporary biblical scholars are in agreement with the Catholic scholars Raymond Brown (1928 – 1998) and John P. Meier that the Apostle Peter was never a bishop of Rome. Rome did not have a single supervisor-overseer (bishop) in Peter’s lifetime. When Peter arrived in Rome in the late 50s, Roman Christianity was already constituted with a number of communities with close ties to James and the Jerusalem Community. The much later Catholic assertion that Peter was the “first pope” is, frankly, the result of medieval historical conjecture. The “belief” began to be affirmed in the fifth century by Leo I, who was Bishop of Rome from 440 until 461. The belief was then strongly reinforced by Gregory VII, Bishop of Rome from 1073 until his death in 1085.

End of Third Century

In the first three centuries of Christianity, we have no direct evidence of an ordination ceremony. By the end of the third century, however, Christianity had a clear organizational structure headed by presbyters, supervisor-overseers (bishops), and deacons. Initiation into these orders was accomplished through a rite of ordination that inducted a person into a local office in a particular community. It is important to clarify that ordination at this time was not about passing on some kind of sacramental power. It was a blessing on the minister and an assurance to the community that the ordained man or woman was competent, a genuine believer, and trustworthy.

There is ample evidence that in the West women were ordained as deacons and abbesses well into the Middle Ages. Women continued to be ordained deacons in the East and were ordained to a variety of ministries. Many contemporary scholars agree with Gary Macy, professor of religious studies at the University of San Diego, who argues that, during the first twelve hundred years of Christianity, women were also ordained as presbyters and bishops. I find the arguments in Macy’s book The Hidden History of Women’s Ordination well-documented and convincing.

Twelfth Century

In the 12th century, ordination changed from its earlier significance as a blessing for different ministries in service for a specific community to a bestowal of spiritual power “to confect” (make it happen) the sacrament of the Lord’s body and blood. The ordained now belonged as well to a higher social class. The classless and egalitarian church of early Christianity had disappeared.

Sixteenth Century

The Council of Trent, held between 1545 and 1563 in Trento in northern Italy, issued several doctrinal pronouncements about ordination, reacting of course to the Protestant Reformation. The Tridentine bishops declared as required Catholic belief that ordination was a sacrament personally instituted by the historic Jesus. Trent stressed that the sacramental power of ordination was passed on through the tactile laying on of hands “apostolic succession” going back to Jesus’s ordination of the apostles – the very first bishops – at the Last Supper.

About tactile ordination, there was later some debate about whether or not it worked if the ordaining bishop imposed just one hand on the head of the person being ordained. The stress was therefore put on using both hands, just to make certain it really worked.

About the belief that the origin of ordination came from the hands of Jesus at the Last Supper, here are the key words from the twenty-third session of the Council of Trent, July 15, 1563:

The sacred Scriptures show, and the tradition of the Catholic Church has always taught, that this was instituted by the same Lord our Savior, and that to the apostles, and to their successors in the priesthood, the power was delivered of consecrating, offering, and administering his Body and Blood, as also of remitting and of retaining sins… For the sacred Scriptures make open mention not only of priests, but also of deacons; and teach, in the most weighty terms, what things are especially to be attended to in the ordination thereof; and, from the very beginning of the Church, the names of the following orders, and the proper ministrations of each one of them, to wit, those of subdeacon, acolyte, exorcist, reader, and door-keeper, are known to have been in use; though not of equal rank….”

Trent stressed as well that ordination brings about an essential change in the ordained person, which elevated the ordained to a level above the laity, leaving an indelible mark on the person forever. The Tridentine bishops emphasised as well that bishops have the fullest and highest degree of hierarchical sacramental power. “Wherefore, the sacred and holy synod declares that, besides the other ecclesiastical degrees, bishops, who have succeeded unto the place of the apostles, principally belong to this hierarchical order. They are placed, as the same apostle says, by the Holy Spirit, to rule the Church of God; and that they are superior to priests.”

One should not forget of course the influence medieval feudalism still had on the church at this time. There were three estates: the nobility, the clergy, and the peasantry. Bishops, in strongly patriarchal feudalism, held positions of power as feudal lords and as advisers to kings and nobles. Bishops generally lived with the same hierarchical powers, ornate dress, and luxuries as the nobles.

Nineteenth and Twentieth Century

Apostolic succession became a key issue in 1896 when Pope Leo XIII surprisingly declared, in his papal bull Apostolicae curae, that all Anglican ordinations are “absolutely null and utterly void.” The reason was that, due to earlier changes in the ordination ritual in England, the Anglicans had lost their apostolic succession and their sacramental power. (I explored this more fully in my 1980s doctoral dissertation at the Catholic University of Leuven.)

On November 30, 1947, Pope Pius XII solemnly defined once again the official Catholic position about ordination as passed on through apostolic succession, in his Apostolic Constitution Sacramentum Ordinis: “The only minister of this sacrament is the bishop, successor of the Apostles. The matter of the Sacrament of Holy Orders is the imposition of hands by the bishop.’’

Even the Second Vatican Council (1962 – 1965) in the conciliar document Lumen Gentium stressed apostolic succession: “Bishops have succeeded the apostles, not only because they come after them, but also because they have inherited apostolic power…”

Contemporary Reflections

Official contemporary Catholic teaching is still rooted in scholastic theology and medieval thinking. Leaders struggle with contemporary historical and theological understandings. Change often comes slowly.

Ordination, as a ceremony that celebrates the beginning of a professional life of ministry, could be much more flexible than it is today and open of course to men and women, married and unmarried, and of whatever sexual orientation. It could be for a specific number of years or life-long.

Thinking about ordination and pastoral ministry today, I would like to see some creative changes.

I would like to see ministerial appointments – ordinations — extended to religious educators, youth ministers, pastoral counsellors, social workers, and others whose faith and competence are well recognized. Perhaps some would only be ordained ministers for just a few years, and then others would carry on their ministry. Youth ministers for example could be ministers of confirmation. Pastoral counsellors could be ministers of reconciliation. Religious educators and youth ministers could preside at small group eucharists. Social workers could be ministers of the anointing of the sick during house calls and hospital visits as well as presiders at small group eucharists in residences for the elderly. I am sure there are many other creative ministry possibilities.

I would also suggest that the ordained be regularly evaluated and certified for a specific number of years. After say five years, the ordained man or woman could be re-certified, provided (1) he or she gave evidence of ongoing theological and pastoral education, and (2) had been re-evaluated and approved by the local Christian community.

Final Thoughts

What is celebrated in an ordination ceremony is not getting power over other people or one’s being elevated above the non-ordained. It is about making a commitment and responding to a call to preach the Gospel and care for others. It is about being of service to others, as genuine and credible ministers: helping others grow in and with the Spirit of Christ.

In the 1960s, the Second Vatican Council reviewed the meaning of sacraments and spoke about Christ as the sacrament of God and the church as the sacrament of Christ. This was a welcomed and strong movement in the right direction.

Nevertheless, the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church still teaches: “Only a baptized man (vir) validly receives sacred ordination.The Lord Jesus chose men (viri) to form the college of the twelve apostles, and the apostles did the same when they chose collaborators to succeed them in their ministry. The college of bishops, with whom the priests are united in the priesthood, makes the college of the twelve an ever-present and ever-active reality until Christ’s return. The Church recognizes herself to be bound by this choice made by the Lord himself. For this reason the ordination of women is not possible.”

Catechisms of course are always provisional. After 30 years with this one, it is time for a new edition. We all grow in our understandings and need regular updating.

With the development of the sciences and the growth in human knowledge and understanding, it is time to put the medieval viewpoints and conjectures in a museum and move ahead with contemporary life and ministry.

Ordination ought to be what it was originally: a blessing and approval of the person for ministry. The ordained should be credible, trustworthy, and supportive guides for our Christian life journeys: helping us distinguish what confirms and strengthens faith and what undermines it and tears it down.

Yes, ordination has quite a history. But it is not just a Catholic issue. Regardless what Pope Leo XIII said in his nineteenth century encyclical, ordination exists in and belongs to all Christian traditions. Why? Because all Christians are truly successors in the faith, witness, and ministry of the men AND women who were apostles. That is what we best understand as Apostolic Succession!

  • Jack

Next week some concluding sacramental reflections, with a look at anointing of the sick.