The Indispensable Political Primacy of Sacerdotal Hierarchy

Authoritative sacerdotal hierarchy controls for competitive holiness spirals which, unconstrained, are vicious positive feedback cycles that cannot but end in schism and war – in cultural disaster.

Holiness spirals are not first a search for social status, but rather for ontological safety. Nevertheless, once they have got going, they do result in an arms race to see who is holiest, thus of the highest moral and political rank, and thus least suitable as a scapegoat.

They are driven not by the nisus toward excellence, but by fear. Nor – apart from the minds of the spiritually ingenious – is the fear that drives them fundamentally supernatural – which is to say, in sane minds, sane and proper – but rather mundane, social, profane, and as such – not being ordered to the Truth himself, but to a Fallen social milieu – fundamentally disordered.

Holiness spirals are, first, a search for the proper constraints of true sanctity and righteousness upon conduct. When there is no established sacerdotal hierarchy that can authoritatively define the unquestionable constraints of holiness and righteousness, and then offer people a way to get back within those constraints when they have strayed beyond their pale – that can give them a way to know that they have reached safe harbor – people are going to push and push toward holiness however they can discern it according to their own best lights, without let or correction, and without possibility of any satisfactory completion of the search (because a forecondition of success for any search is a definition of success – such as can be authoritatively furnished to the searcher only by an incontrovertible authority). Anyone who disagrees with the notions of those who find that as a result of their quest for holiness they themselves are of the holiest sort then becomes a legitimate scapegoat in their eyes, and so a social enemy. There is then mutual repudiation and scapegoating of adversarial sectarians; mutual excommunication; schism; and, with the ensuing conflict of irreconcilable cults, civil war either hot or cold.

The thousands of Protestant sects are a natural result of the disestablishment of the absolute mundane authority over affairs spiritual and moral – and, so, political – of a highly ordered and lawful sacerdotal hierarchy. They are sequelae of an honest and untrammeled search for the bounds of a solution space via unconstrained competitive holiness spirals. As an arms race – this, even within the cranium of a single believer – that is focused on discovering, implementing and propagating the truths exemplified in an infinite purely formal configuration space, the competition inevitably gives rise to doctrinal innovations, some of which are bound to conflict with some other doctrines (or, to be just wrong: which is to say, heretical).

So you get schisms multiplying, and then sooner or later fighting.

This is why we cannot expect cultural peace – not just lack of violence, but true harmony, krasis, justice – until there is again an established religion with a supremely authoritative sacerdotal hierarchy universally recognized and (at least ostensibly) obeyed, whose ukases have in principle ultimate authority over all moral and spiritual matters – and thus, implicitly, political matters, including those that pertain to the secular sovereign.[1]

To get the safe harbor of a ritual purity that can settle and so prevent all holiness spirals which might otherwise lead to social chaos, you need enforceable canon law; and to get canon law (enforceable or not), you need judges and administrators of that law whose authority over temporal affairs flows down incontrovertibly from an infallible source; which is to say, bishops under the supervision of a pontifex maximus.

NB: monasticism, too, controls for holiness spirals. You want to channel the religious geniuses who want to engage in serious work at holiness into monastic life, in which they renounce all worldly power and ambition, and vow obedience to the pontifex maximus and his officers. This too is why you want the holiness spiral to lead, not to mendicant and potentially errant friars, but rather to the cloister and the hermitage, which can insulate the wider social order from the intense spiritual research of the intentionally holy – which, as supramundanely oriented, naturally tends to engender enthusiasm of one sort or another, for innovations that are as like as not to be somehow lethal.

This is why the cloistered and eremitical religious look somewhat askance at their peripatetic brothers and sisters. All journeys are hazardous – especially those that involve leaving the cloister.

This is why the Orthodox churches insist that only monks[2] can become bishops, and the Roman rite insists that priests and bishops must be celibate. Among the Orthodox, you must pass through the privation of all worldly interests implicit in the monastic life in order to be properly fitted for consideration as a candidate for the episcopal office. Likewise the priestly celibacy of the Roman rite constitutes a recusal from self interest in worldly affairs.[3] 

Or so should it be, ostensibly, and anyway.


[1] The secular sovereign then must be a subsidiary officer of the ecclesial hierarchy.

There’s no such thing, really, as a secular sovereign. When the US President walks into a room, the aweful mana and majesty of his office walk in with him, and everyone stands, as at the Benedictus qui venit – even when he is a scoundrel or a fool.

The sovereign executive *just is* the earthly manifestation of the angel of the nation. The sovereign office is inherently religious. All kings then are priest kings, whether or not anyone consciously thinks of them as such. Better, then, to get those priests under the supervision of the pontifex maximus, like everyone else – like all their subjects.

[2] Or married priests who have put their wives away: Nazirites, i.e.

[3] When the Anglican Rite eventually subsumes the Anglican Communion – as I think is inevitable for such portions of the Anglican world as do not leave Nicene Christianity altogether, as many of them now are doing – it will need to follow the Orthodox model: priests can be married, but bishops must be (at least effectual) monks.


PS:       Had it not been for the breakdown in the religious and so the mundane political authority of the Second Temple priesthood of the Zadokites (the Sadducees), there would have been no such thing as the Pharisees. Nor, for that matter, would the extremely traditional Essene/Christian priesthood have repudiated the Temple hierarchy, and then – roughly circa the Bar Kochba revolution – coopted it (albeit in exile, and as having transcended its Jerusalemite and Kohanite origins in favor of a prior and supersidiary priesthood of the Order of Melchizedek).

PPS:     I forgot that I had already posted the guts of the essay above.

which began as a Journal entry. Reading it again there, I thought, “Gee, this isn’t bad; it’s really almost a complete post already.” So I posted it again.


Getting old, I guess. No matter; each version sparked slightly different tangential thoughts.

18 thoughts on “The Indispensable Political Primacy of Sacerdotal Hierarchy

  1. Pingback: The Indispensable Political Primacy of Sacerdotal Hierarchy | @the_arv

  2. @Kristor – A holiness spiral isn’t a thing – it emerged only about four years ago as an anti-Christian concept; and the term constitutes part of the error (common among secular anti-Leftists) that Leftism is a Christian ‘heresy’ (whereas it is actually an incremental Christian apostasy).

    I think the reason for the internal church mechanisms you describe is actually related to trying to prevent/ control the sin of spiritual pride (‘prelest’ in Russian Orthodoxy) to which hermits, monastics and contemplatives (esepcially) are prone.

    • I’m not so sure. That we noticed holiness spirals only a few years ago – who first did that, anyway? – does not mean that they were not always present. Call it spiritual pride, or prelest, or call it a holiness spiral, or what you will: it would seem to me at least that these are pretty much the same thing.

      How ancient, after all, is the expression, “holier than thou”? Holiness spirals are at least that ancient.

    • Puritan revolution that overthrew Charles the first was a holiness spiral.

      Maoism was a holiness spiral.

      Plenty of examples of holiness spirals. The holiness spirals of modern times started off with Luther and Lutheranism, and very soon Luther, like Cromwell after him, was applying the brakes.

  3. Pingback: The Indispensable Political Primacy of Sacerdotal Hierarchy | Reaction Times

  4. It might be useful to distinguish the genuine aspiration to sanctity and ordinary status-seeking in a pietistic guise. This would be a theoretical distinction, since the two may be indistinguishable in real life. In any case, the term holiness spiral applies only to status-seeking in a pietistic guise. Alasdair MacIntyre would say these status-seekers are pursuing the “external good” of status within the tradition of piety. Since status-seeking (i.e. competition) is natural to humans, our aim should be to channel it towards useful ends (or at least benign ends). This is not a perversion of piety since these status-seekers were not real saints to begin with. They were just status-seekers LARPing as saints. If the established church defines holiness as hours of silent prayer, we get lots of LARPing saints harmlessly kneeling in the chapel. If it defines holiness as seeking justice in the world, we get lots of LARPing saints harmfully rioting in the streets.

    • Absolutely. Those who truly seek true holiness never advertise their search. Those who advertise their search for holiness do not really seek it.

      It’s like used car salesmen. If such an one advertises himself as honest, you can be pretty doggone sure he’s a scoundrel.

      True honesty is quiet.

  5. The Greek tragedians recognized and represented what Kristor calls a holiness spiral. Their word for it was stichomythia. There are two exemplary instances of it in Oedipus the Tyrant by Sophocles — when Oedipus confronts Creon and again when he confronts Teiresias. In both instances the parties in the confrontation compete to elevate themselves as the true champions of justice in the city while simultaneously accusing the other party of contributing to the ambient degeneracy. The Gnostic texts of Late Antiquity also instantiate a case of the holiness spiral: They pit themselves in competition with the canonical scriptures, offering their artificial complexity as superior to the reader-accessible verses of the Bible. A holiness spiral is a performance, like Derrida’s prose.

    A holiness spiral conforms to the phenomenon that Rene Girard refers to as mimetic escalation and it is always both a sign and an intensification of the sacrificial crisis.

    There is a well-staged holiness spiral among the brothers of the monastery in the beginning of Tarkovsky’s film Andrei Rublev. The viciousness of it drives Rublev out of the monastery and into his wanderings.

    • Thanks, Tom.

      I take virtue signaling to be motivated at bottom by the urge to avoid identification as a suitable scapegoat. “See, see, I’m doing all the right things, I’m not an eccentric like … well, like those others; so, I’m safe, you can let me stay in the polis, no need to banish me, let alone ostracize me! See, see?”

  6. I beg to differ. Virtue signaling (the basic element of a holiness spiral) is only associated with the search for public status. Being considered virtuous by your community may mean being considered high status in your community and the drive for status is a basic need of man, this social animal. Holiness spirals happen where there is an arms race in virtue signaling. By the contrary, looking for ontological certainty is a private matter and not a public thing, as holiness spirals are (see Matthew 6, 1-4).

    Holiness spirals happen where religious status is not indisputable, that is, where a religious authority is universally accepted by society. The Pharisees trying to out-holy the Temple religious authority. Luther trying to out-Bible the Pope. Puritans trying to out-Bible the mainstream Protestant denominations. Unitarian universalists trying to out-holy Jesus. Atheists trying to out-holy God.

    If the religious authority is firmly established (such as the ancient Egypt or the Catholic Middle Ages) no religious contender (heresy) can be holier than the authorities (they can try but they don’t succeed, see the medieval heresies). So virtue signaling is contained so it doesn’t start a holiness spiral.

    • With what, exactly, do you beg to differ? Your comment seems to agree with the thesis of the post – indeed, to restate it succinctly.

      The first sentence of your second paragraph confuses me. On the one hand, it says:

      Holiness spirals happen where religious status is not indisputable.

      They happen, i.e., where religious status is disputable. On the other, it says:

      [Holiness spirals] happen where a religious authority is universally accepted by society.

      But it would seem that where religious authority is universally accepted, religious status is thereby rendered clear and distinct, so that it is much less a matter of confusion and, therefore, dispute. In such cases, people are pretty sure about their status, can’t do much about it, so can relax about it, and feel able to back off on the virtue signals. This at least was one of the main points of the post, and – as I read it – of your comment.

      Perhaps then you intended your second clause to read as follows:

      [Holiness spirals] happen where a religious authority is not universally accepted by society.

      Folk costumes furnish the same sort of safe harbor. When a culture has disintegrated, and the folk costumes of its various constituent subcultures no longer reliably signal commensal membership, the arms race of fashion begins. I went through this myself with the death of the business suit and tie as the standard uniform of all businessmen. When the business suit and tie went out, men had to start thinking hard every day about the appropriacy of their clothing.

  7. @Kristor – If you accept the implicit implication that (say) Communism and Christianity are subject to an identical phenomenon – without making some pretty sharp and explicit distinctions; then you have simply conflated ideology and faith… As I say, this is an anti-Christian term in origin and intent. If you want to adopt and rehabilitate it, you will need to make this a good bit clearer.

    • But there are all sorts of things to which Communism and Christianity are both subject. All the foibles of Fallen man afflict and corrupt all the institutions and motions in which he is involved. That this is so does not confuse Communism with Christianity. It is by their differences that they are known as distinct.

      We could call holiness spirals by some other name, to be sure, so as to make it clear that in discussing them we are not talking about holiness and righteousness proper, but rather only about their specious hypocritical imitators. We could perhaps call them “holiness” spirals or “virtue” spirals.

      I should say that I do sympathize with you on this point. I deplore our loss of “Cathedral” to the denotation of the institution of the Cult of Moloch. It’s just that, as with “the Cathedral,” “holiness spiral” appears to have taken off and achieved orbit, quite apart from what we of the orthosphere might wish, or say.

  8. @Kristor – To simplify and exaggerate – the originator/s of the ‘holiness spiral’ would regard any serious Christianity as intrinsically a latent (or actual) holiness spiral when judged against materialist-reality. They regard Christianity as a means to an end – a social control mechanism.

    The idea is that whenever Christianity is getting so serious that it damages whatever-material-variable-is-valued (eg the economy, the authority of legitimate rulers, law-and-order, science and technological progess, national security or power) then Christianity is ‘in a holiness spiral’: that’s what makes a holiness spiral.

    (To the originator/s) All real, devout Christianity is therefore in a holiness spiral or in imminent danger of one – the only ‘Christianity’ that is exempted, is when the rulers (hypocritically) use the religion to control the masses towards a good materialist end.

    Anyway – I see you have already addressed these concerns in your latest post!

    • The materialist enemies of the faith are indeed ever prone to misappropriation of its tenets for their own purposes.

      But God himself alerted us to the spiritual hazard of the holiness spiral, which is to say, of empty public displays of specious virtue – to which we are all vulnerable – in Matthew 6:5-6. The notion of the holiness spiral is then first and foremost his; for he has proclaimed it, and his claim supersedes all others.

      His enemies try to use it against him. It’s a pathetic, risible exercise. You can’t win against omnipotence; you cannot even really try. So, thinking to thwart his purposes, they serve him.


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