[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?
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.