Book review: Christ and the Catholic Priesthood

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.

22 thoughts on “Book review: Christ and the Catholic Priesthood

  1. Even if hierarchy is “a good school of virtue”, it doesn’t follow that monarchy is “a school of charity”. Monarchy literally means rule by one. An absolute monarch is apt to rule by fraud, violence, and caprice. The last king of England who might be described as an absolute monarch was Henry VIII. He allowed a Parliament to deliberate from time to time but took no notice of it. At no stage of his career was he, so to speak, the headmaster at a school of charity.

    A modern limited or constitutional monarch is just a fancy name for the head of state plus pageantry.

    • Heirarchy always exists. Getting away from it is like trying to get away from gravity. The more you succeed, the more you’re going to miss it. One certain lesson of the last three centuries is that nowhere is heirarchy more capricious, malevolent, and brutal than where it is purported not to exist.

      “Monarchy literally means rule by one.” Indeed, sovereignty is always conserved. The buck stops somewhere with someone, or with the someone who let’s someone else say it stops with him. An absolute monarch, i.e., one whose reign is not threatened has no reason to rule by fraud, violence, and caprice, anymore than the CEO of AAPL would so rule. Henry VIII was very, VERY far from an absolute monarch. Indeed, so was Stalin. He was a mere General Secretary of the Communist Party. With a title like that, no wonder he had to kill 20 million Kulaks to protect his power.

      • If you study Henry VIII’s relations with Parliament, I think you’ll find that it
        had very little influence on his wishes or conduct. As Hume observes in his History of England, “All the king’s caprices were blindly complied with and no regard was paid to the safety liberty of the subject. Besides the violent prosecution of whatever he was pleased to call heresy, the laws of treason were multiplied beyond all former precedent. Even words to the disparagement of the king, queen, or royal issue were subject to that penalty…… and so little care was taken in framing these rigorous statues that they contain obvious contradictions; insomuch that, had they been strictly executed, every man without exception must have fallen under the penalty of treason….”

        If that sort of royal control doesn’t come pretty close to absolutism, I don’t know what does.What other measures do you have in mind that Henry could have taken to make his rule closer to being absolute?

        As for hierarchy; strictly speaking it means sacred rule and applies to the authority conferred by Jesus Christ on his apostles to establish and govern the church. Its broad use these days refers to the structure of any polity in which the distributions of power, privilege, and authority are systematic and unequal. Hierarchy in this wider sense may be inevitable in all human societies, but that doesn’t mean we should adopt an uncritical attitude toward it.

        In reply to Bonald’s note, I understand tyranny to mean government without the independent rule of law and where is a concentration of power gets into the hands of a single individual (or a single organization). It seems obvious – at least to me – that a tyrant is more likely, but not certainly, to be an individual than a several number of autocrats acting in concert. This opinion does not imply that I have much confidence in democracy.

    • Hello Alex,

      I’m not sure why you think monarchs are more likely to be violent and tyrannical than parliaments. It seems to me that personal vices in a ruler (the sort of thing unchecked by monarchy, although not nearly to the extent believed by its detractors) are less dangerous than the ideological fanaticism of a group (the vice of democratic ages).

  2. It’s called “Run away from the truth, Run away from the Truth”—“We can’t handle it!”. Orthosphere—still liberal, we are ostriches with out heads in the sands. We only deal with what we can handle. Run away, run away!

      • Ralph,

        Remember: personal insults are not allowed. I’m going to interpret this comment as a criticism of windsaywheeler’s behavior, rather than a direct insult, and let it stand, but please be careful how you phrase things.

        Even apart from the rules, I’d prefer it if people not imply that WW is a “troll”. He’s put forth some very intelligent and thought-provoking comments on the “Is the Orthosphere conservative?” post; I think his presence here is a positive thing.

        That being said, I really don’t know what he’s taking about in this comment.

    • Wlindsaywheeler, there’s a difference between fear and boredom. The thread was rehashing old ground, and I was just not *interested* in reading any more about how the fall of the West is the fault of Christianity. It’s a hoary argument, that has been bruited about since Alaric took Rome (never mind that Alaric, too, was Christian), and it is *boring.* There are lots of anti-Christian websites that would love to hear some more of it; I see no reason to spend any more of my time on it. If it were credible, that might be different; but the fact that the West was strongest when orthodoxy was strongest, and has weakened with the growth of heterodoxy and atheism, make it incredible.

      If you have something original and pertinent to add to that thread – which would not surprise me, given how much thought and effort and intelligence you put into it – then by all means post a comment to the “About” page, informing us of the fact, and we’ll get in touch to talk about it.

      Here’s a hint, though: when you vent as you did here, or otherwise give in to strong emotion, you weaken your argument – it becomes much harder for readers to take you seriously (or even to understand what you are saying). This goes a fortiori for accusing us of cowardice, or otherwise insulting us. If you want to participate usefully and influentially in this site’s discourse about the renewal of civilization, it would be better if you behaved civilly.

  3. My very tentative impression of Wheeler’s outburst is that he is frustrated by Orthospere’s failure to live up to his ideal of what a traditionalist site should be. Too wimpy for him; can’t look the grim realities in the face. This is speculative on my part and I am subject to correction; but he is really not very coherent. He is almost certainly not a true troll, but I wish he’d calm down.

    He appears to be almost entirely self taught and like many autodidacts is extremely strident in his beliefs; he has a lot of sweat and blood invested in them.  His website and bio are certainly interesting to look at. 

    I know nothing about his intellectual mentor Archimandrite Boniface Luykx, (1915 – 2004), but he may be worth following up.

    I note that WW identifies as both a race realist and a traditionalist Christian. The Orthosphere might be the best possible place for a dialogue on whether these positions are compatible; personally I think that they are.

    Finally, to at least try to keep this comment on-topic, I’d like to hear WW’s views on Christian hierarchy, given that he rejects democracy and calls himself a classical republican. Does he perhaps use “Republic” in the sense Belloc gave the word? 

  4. Okay– I will reveal my ignorance– this “race realist” phrase keeps getting mentioned without anyone actually defining what it is. Can someone please elaborate?

      • The link you provided Scott W. is NOT the meaning of “race realism”. Race realism is that Race is real. Race had intrinsic value and race matters. It is not overblown as for say “race ideologues” such as national socialists neither is it deconstructed nor minimalized as with race deniers, or deracinators such as progressives, liberals, communists, and socialists.

        On the Orthosphere, shouldn’t one be very cautious when using Wikipedia that has slanted articles towards the Marxist meaning of everything?

      • The first sentence of the linked wiki article says:

        Racialism is belief in the existence and significance of racial differences, but not necessarily that any absolute hierarchy between the races has been demonstrated by a rigorous and comprehensive scientific process.

        WW, can you explain what you find objectionable about this definition? It seems close to the one you propose, though it is not exactly the same.

    • My impression is that people like Jared Taylor started using this phrase to describe themselves because anything with “white” and “ist” in it makes people think of skinheads.

  5. 1 peter 2:4-9
    4 As you come to him, the living Stone —rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him— 5 you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house[a] to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. 6 For in Scripture it says:

    “See, I lay a stone in Zion,
    a chosen and precious cornerstone,
    and the one who trusts in him
    will never be put to shame.”[b]

    7 Now to you who believe, this stone is precious. But to those who do not believe,

    “The stone the builders rejected
    has become the cornerstone,”[c]

    8 and,

    “A stone that causes people to stumble
    and a rock that makes them fall.”[d]

    They stumble because they disobey the message—which is also what they were destined for.

    9 But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

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