Do we really need priests? (A response to Carl Lentz)
Truth talk: Nobody enjoys going to Confession—at least not at first.
Okay, maybe I shouldn’t make such blanket statements, because perhaps somewhere there’s a person who thinks, “Oh, that sounds like a blast!” But for the majority, there is nothing in the world more awkward and uncomfortable than thinking of the worst things we’ve done, and saying them out loud where someone else can hear us.
Naturally, we spend most of our social interactions attempting to present ourselves to others in the most positive light possible. But we all have this dichotomy that exists within us, causing us to both seek God and offend Him on a regular basis. So when it comes to the Sacrament of Reconciliation (a.k.a. Confession), these two aspects of who we are struggle to converge into this one, singular act of confessing our sins to the priest.
But also true is the fact that, even though we have this natural resistance to Confession, many of us Catholics learn to love going, anyway. It can get to the point where we want to be in that booth the moment we recognize a failure within ourselves, because—contrary to popular opinion—Confession is actually a healing, life-giving, personal encounter with Jesus Christ in all of His intense love and mercy.
So when this Relevant Magazine article showed up in my Facebook news feed with the headline, Carl Lentz to Oprah: 'That’s Why Jesus Came, So You Didn’t Need a Priest in the Middle', I couldn’t help but click on it, watch the videos and read some of the subsequent comments... even make a few comments of my own. What I mostly took away from it was a reminder that while I’ve been on this journey of discovering the beautiful relationship with God and His Church known as authentic Catholicism, there are still so many others walking around, continuing to hold and perpetuate gross misconceptions of what the Catholic Christian faith is. So instinctively, I wish to clarify some things here.
I’m not necessarily going to take this opportunity to explain the entire Catholic priesthood, first of all because I already wrote a lot about it here, so you can check that out if you're interested. And second of all, because everything we believe is already available in so many ways to anyone interested in studying the teachings of the Catholic Church. I really can't say it better than it's already been said. But I do want to address the most painfully misguided part of what Lentz said in his interview with Oprah (at least what I’ve seen of it thus far). Particularly:
“That’s why Jesus came, is so you didn’t need a priest in the middle. You don’t need to go to a confessional booth. You can go straight to the source. I’m a preacher, but I’m not better than you. I don’t know God better than you. I’m not closer to God than you. I just have a different title.”
So, without further ado...
Dear Mr. Lentz and other like-minded believers in Christ,
While I am moved by your love for our Lord Jesus, and always appreciate seeing anyone love Him so much, I also see some misunderstanding in what's being said here about priests and the confession booth. As a Catholic who has a personal relationship with Jesus, mind if I attempt to explain?
The Catholic faith doesn’t actually teach that we need a priest to mediate between us and Jesus. Our faith is that Jesus is the priest in the middle—Christ Himself is the High Priest—and our ordained priests help Him by becoming Jesus’ audible voice and visible face and tangible hands while celebrating the Sacraments. When they do this, we say they are acting In Persona Christi—in the Person of Christ. And when Christians participate in this sacramental worship of the Church, we are going straight to the source, because Jesus shows up in very tangible ways every single time. Not just as an emotion, or as an internal sensation (although these sensations can accompany the experience many times), but as a real person.
This particular gift of ordained Catholic priests to serve the Church in such a special way shouldn’t be confused with who these men are in their personal lives and characteristics. Yes, they absolutely should be very holy men who strive to emulate Christ in every area of their lives, and many, many of them are truly like that. But this standard is true of all Christians, because we are all baptized into the common priesthood, and while the word “priest” is most widely associated in our culture with guy waiting in scary confessional booth, the concept of “priest” truly refers to someone who offers sacrifices to God on behalf of His people. All Christians are called to live sacrificial lives in union with Christ through our own unique experiences, which is what I think you might be trying to get at. But ordained Catholic priests have a crucial role of living this out for the Church in a specific way. And consequently, as otherwise completely normal human beings, they are also supposed to go to Confession when they mess up, just like everybody else.
One thing that ALL Catholic priests definitely are is… well, just way more educated than I am about theology. To even become a Roman Catholic Priest requires years of seminary and formation, including graduate level studies, and most of the priests I know have at least one master’s degree, if not multiple master's degrees—and that’s just the younger ones! Does this mean that they have a better personal relationship with Jesus than I do, or that they are more deeply spiritual than I am? Not necessarily. But it does mean they know a lot of things, and that I can learn from them in order grow in my understanding of God. It does make them an indispensable resource for navigating the complexities of living out this ancient faith within the context of our contemporary society. Catholic theology is the oldest and most deeply rooted of all Christian theologies, and I tend to trust longevity when it comes to truths about an eternal God. So when I have a question about understanding how God operates in our midst—how He has been at work throughout all ages—I would ask a trusted Catholic priest (and I do all the time!) long before asking someone who isn’t better than me, just has a different title—which I translate to mean has no authority, just has engaging communication skills. And, okay, cooler hair than most priests.
This is like the difference between seeing an experienced physician for my broken leg versus asking the opinion of someone I know who experienced something similar once. I’m not saying that the other person has nothing helpful to contribute to my healing. I’m saying, I need a real doctor.
However, one thing I do agree with you about, Lentz, is your statement, “You have every right, where you are right now, to turn and talk to God for yourself.” Yes, we absolutely do! And we should!
This is not an argument against having ordained priests in our lives, though. Especially since so many people aren't comfortable doing that right away.
I’ve been a non-denominational Christian before, and I first learned to pray through personal conversations with God in this context. I still pray directly to Him in this way all the time, because it is also a part of the Catholic spiritual heritage, believe it or not. This way of praying has become like breathing to me.
What Catholicism has added to my experience is a variety of new ways to pray in addition to these personal, mental prayers. There are so many powerful ways to pray to God, and for so many reasons. Before Catholicism, whenever I really messed something up (sinned, if you will) I could kneel beside my bed and tell God I’m sorry. I could ask Him to forgive me, and to help me not do it again. And as a Catholic, I still do this all the time. Only now, I also go to Confession.
In Confession, my faith in God's forgiveness is not entirely abstract and obscure and inside my own thoughts. I now have the gift of being able to enter a private space and speak to a Jesus wearing human ears—a physical person taking in the sound waves of my deepest admittance to weakness. I confess to the person of Jesus, not to the person of Father [insert priest's name here]. Then, I have the gift of hearing a human voice that audibly tells me on behalf of Jesus Himself, “…may God grant you pardon and peace. I absolve you of your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
And just as my failures became more uncomfortable and real to me in that moment, so God’s unfathomable grace becomes more tangible and real to me in hearing His forgiveness through His servant priest. I get to leave that space with a clear conscience and a free soul, certain of what I’ve experienced, because I know with assurance that I didn’t imagine that merciful exchange. I can recall it by memory as concretely as I can recall the way I messed up in the first place.
This experience of reconciling with God is not an obstacle to Him. It's not a waste of time or energy. It is a direct encounter with Him. The only real obstacle between ourselves and Jesus Christ is our own pride, and when we’re left to our own vices and virtues, often times we never get past that pride. So much sin remains lodged behind it. But by actively making our way to the confession booth, we are called out of that pride as we humbly walk away from our sins, and into Christ's audience.
This is the real reason that Jesus came. Not to get rid of the Old Testament priesthood, but to be the priest that we all need.
And this is what Catholic priests are for: helping our High Priest connect deeply with His people through direct experiences that we call the Sacraments of the Church. These men become Christ to His people, so His people can in turn become Christ to the world.
When we have opportunities like these to personally encounter Jesus Christ in such a powerful way, I believe wisdom says we shouldn’t dismiss or discourage them. We should learn to understand these gifts, take advantage of them, and encourage others to do the same.
Your Little Catholic Sister in Christ,