Christ and the Catholic Priesthood: Ecclesial Hierarchy and the Pattern of the Trinity
by Matthew Levering
I love books that come clean and just give the modern world the finger, taking one of modernity’s demon-figures (e.g., patriarchy, authority, ethnocentrism) and defending it not as a necessary evil but as a positive good. In this book, Matthew Levering argues that hierarchy in the Church is a good thing. Even apart from its organizational value, a hierarchical priesthood is a better way of communicating grace than something more egalitarian. Levering writes from a Catholic perspective, and so some of the structures he defends won’t interest Protestant readers. However, one of our interests at The Orthosphere is to defend the principle of hierarchy, and Levering provides material for such a defense.
Levering is a Thomist, and he organizes his thoughts in a recognizably disputational style: objections followed by examination of authoritative sources and explication of Levering’s position. The objections he considers — and he includes numerous and lengthy quotes from his opponents — usually have the following form:
The essence of Christianity is X. X seems like a totally different thing than hierarchical organization (the latter being identified with brutal tyranny, contempt for underlines, and/or soulless bureaucracy). Therefore, the Church has betrayed the heart of Christianity by choosing hierarchy over X.
X varies according to critic. For Leftist twits, X is “challenging oppressive social structures” or “radical egalitarianism”. We needn’t bother with that foolishness. More interesting are the criticisms from seemingly serious theologians for whom X is “participating in the Trinity” or “the Eucharist”. These really are core Christian concerns, and Levering shows from the sources that they are precisely the things ecclesial hierarchy was meant to facilitate.
Levering bases his position on the writings of Dionysius the Areopagite and Thomas Aquinas. As he explains, the essence of hierarchy is “looking upward” — lower things ordered to higher things, and ultimately to God. Its purpose is to communicate God’s gift of Himself to us through teaching the truths of salvation and (above all) through the sacraments. The hierarchy is meant to mediate divine gifts to mankind. Mankind’s role is fundamentally receptive, and a visible hierarchy makes this aspect of our relationship to God manifest. Elected officials in a democracy represent the populace whose creatures they are, while a priest should represent Christ Whose gifts he passes on. By manifesting our receptive role, hierarchy teaches us humility. Of course, God could communicate grace to a soul without mediation, and sometimes does so, but working through humans provides an opportunity for us to share in the Trinitarian life of receiving and giving. (For some reason, Levering prefers the word “gifting” to the perfectly adequate “giving” of standard English.) In the angelic hierarchy, beings with a greater participation in the divine splendor pass on their gifts to those on the next lowest level, but among humans, the hierarch needn’t be holier than the laity, because it is God’s holiness, not the priest’s, that vivifies the sacraments and the Church. As the supreme act in the life of the Churh is the Eucharist, the hierarchy’s primary function is to preside over this sacrament. Participants must recieve a “sacramental character” to engage in this distinctly Christological act, and this character is itself a gift of receiving the sacrament, while the priest himself also receives a special “character” for conferring sacraments on others via the sacrament of Holy Orders.
One of the more interesting charges Levering rebuts is that ecclesial hierarchy somehow results from an incorrect understanding of the Trinity by not reflecting the latter’s supposed egalitarianism. Apparently, the idea has gained ground that the Trinity is some kind of hippy commune. Now, the only support that I can think for this image is that, according to Catholic theology, the three Persons all have numerically the same nature, and they share the same intellect and will. Oddly, though, these are the very doctrines that the critics attack for being incipiently totalitarian. The whole thing sounds like post facto rationalization to me; they starts out convinced that the Roman Catholic Church is wickedly authoritarian, but to turn this rebellious adherence to popular opinion into a theological critique, some article in the creed must be seized on. So they carry on the sort of logic-free word association games that give theology a bad name. They say Catholics stress divine unity “too much”, which means they don’t really appreciate the personal diversity in the Trinity (it’s somehow “secondary”), which means they don’t appreciate diversity of thought, which is why the Pope is a tyrant who has reduced all Catholics to mindless automata. This, by the way, was one of the stronger lines of criticism, a fact that should reassure my Catholic readers in their faith.
Levering doesn’t discuss how his arguments would apply to institutions other than the Church. His focus on the Eucharist (entirely appropriate for a book on ecclesiology) would lead one to infer that they don’t, but I noticed that he never assures his reader that all other associations should be democratic/egalitarian. This is a notable omission which we may hope indicates some hidden sympathy for our point of view. While explaining the anti-hierarchical arguments of Miroslav Volf, he writes
A Church that rejects hierarchy in marriage, economics, and politics, while affirming its own hierarchical institutional structure, cannot but alienate its members. That its teachings in one area are not reflected in its teachings in another area suggests theological as well as sociological incoherence.
This is not Levering presenting his own side; nevertheless, the statement makes a good point. If hierarchy is a good school of virtue (especially humility) and a good way to embody social relations informed by Trinitarian charity, why should it be evil in every setting other than the Church? Allow me to suggest a resolution! The Church does not condemn hierarchy in any area of life, and theologians should stop pretending She does. Christian patriarchy and monarchy are also schools of charity, are also ordered to the good of their subjects, and are also symbolic in ways that help us “look upward” to God.