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Sacramental Priesthood

David Cowles

Apr 15, 2024

“I’m willing to bet there are some people out there (actually, a lot of people) who would literally love to spend their careers revealing the presence of God to others.”

Prior to 1800, it was more or less taken for granted that human life had some sort of transcendent purpose or value. After 1800…not so much! Popes Leo XIII, Pius X, and John XXIII each made a valiant, but largely unsuccessful, effort to win back the hearts and minds of the ‘once faithful’.

The high water mark of this renewal was Vatican II (V2), the Church’s 20th century effort to reinvent itself. For all its good intentions and fine documents, V2 did not accomplish its objective. In retrospect, JP2 probably did more to make the church relevant

Today, the Church is adrift. Even a generally popular Pope like Francis seems oddly out of touch. The Church’s structural and institutional problems are serious and well known but they are not the root cause of this cultural schism. That goes to something much deeper:

Christians believe… or are expected to believe, things that fly in the face of everyday common sense: that God, the Maker of Heaven and Earth, is also a human being, born of a virgin to a working class family in first century Palestine; that he cured the sick, raised the dead, turned water into wine, wine into blood, and bread into his body; that he rose from the dead and ascended into heaven. 

Non-Christians… believe in science. See the problem? Believers and non-believers do not just disagree about things like Abortion; they disagree about what the World is! What the meaning of ‘is’ is! 

Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away, science and religion coexisted, albeit uneasily. Science had its realm, religion had its, and never were the twain to meet. If this ‘two state solution’ ever worked, it certainly doesn’t today. Science strives to be a Theory of Everything (TOE) and, frankly, Theology should do the same, not excluding science, not co-opting it, but incorporating it. 

The scientific world view - logical, empirical, material and practical - has permeated every nook and cranny of civilian life. 8 year olds today are doing science that was unimaginable for 80 year olds a generation ago. It is hard to imagine a role for religion in such a world.

However, we also know that the scientific world view is ultimately unsatisfying. Despite stupendous material progress, people are at least as unhappy today as they ever were. Stress, anxiety, depression, boredom, and self-harm are symptoms of an even deeper malaise – the loss of meaning and purpose.  

I mean a universe that comes into being spontaneously, evolves randomly, and vanishes without a trace is hardly reassuring. May I be excused for at least asking, “Could something else be going on?” I mean, if it turns out that everything is worthless and nothing has any meaning, then fine! But don’t expect me to go gentle into that no good night.   

Science offers no ultimate explanations; it can’t. It’s not in its nature. Now don’t get me wrong: science does an outstanding job of explaining things, one thing at a time, in terms of other things, one thing at a time. Any Best of Science highlight reel must include a shot of a billiards table. But why are there things to explain in the first place? Not a cue! (Oops, clue.)

We have everything…we are nothing! Materialism has proven to be the first cousin of nihilism; so re-enter Christianity? 

Most Christians believe in science – deeply! It’s Nature after all. It’s the Mind of God. In 1000 CE, Pope Sylvester II was said to be the finest scientific mind in all Europe. In Jewish tradition, the Torah is thought to have been given twice: once as Written Torah (first five books of the Old Testament) and once as Oral Torah (nature, logos, the cosmic order). One law, two expressions! 

Science and religion don’t conflict…or even complement; they reinforce. A knowledge of science can and should lead to a deeper understanding of religion…and vice versa!

But this is 2000, not 1000, CE, and it’s certainly not 500 BCE. Science reigns, religion is in exile. The priesthood itself, the scaffolding of the hierarchical Church, is an endangered species. There are no priests! And religious? Forget about it.

What can a priest do? He (sic) can educate, heal, counsel, administer; he can perform the Works of Mercy…but so can others. A priest can ‘also’ facilitate the Seven Sacraments. These are 7 ‘moments’ or ‘stages’ in someone’s life that can bring a person into closer contact with the Transcendent. Generally speaking, this is something others can’t do!   

Beyond the 7 Sacraments, most of what the Church does can be laicized, subbed out, or snubbed out. Much can and should move to the public sector and/or to non-denominational charities. Where the Church wishes to retain a role, e.g. in education, there is no need for ordained clergy to be involved.

Imagine a Church with two ‘tracks’: (1) the lay track for those primarily interested in public service, education, administration, charitable work; (2) the ordained track for those wishing to devote themselves to manifesting God’s presence through the Sacraments. 

We are all called to be Priest, Prophet, and King. Absolutely! But perhaps in our professional lives, we should be priest, prophet, or king. For example, reimagine the priesthood as a loose confederation of men (sic) welcoming newborns and converts, strengthening faith, hearing confessions, celebrating Mass (Eucharist), marrying couples, ordaining clergy, and easing the way for the sick and the dying. Not the worst job description!

To whom could we compare such a ‘reformed’ clergy? To Robin Hood’s Merry Men, to Worker-priests, to Medieval troubadours, to Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums? Wait, I’ve got it, how about we compare the new priesthood to Jesus’ band of disciples (Gospel of Mark), wandering the border regions of Galilee, performing good works and manifesting the presence of God. In other words, the Church as Jesus and the Apostles lived it.

How about that? 

Of course, in the process of carrying out these spiritual functions, priests would overlap with lay practitioners and even civil servants as the latter perform their material and/or social duties: caring, counseling, educating, et al. It could be no other way! Each Sacrament is not only an encounter with Christ; it is also an encounter with, and an unmasking of, the world (Aletheia).

Sacraments strip away the world’s phenomenal veneer to reveal its noumenal essence. They hijack Parmenides’ Doxa and shine its ‘bright light’ on Aletheia. This is Neant without Etre, Dasein without Wassein, the unheard sound of a tree falling in a forest, the unheard sound of one hand clapping.  

Imagine officiating at these moments of sacramental epiphany…and doing it for a living! Doesn’t appeal to you? You’d rather shuffle papers? No problem. I’ve got plenty of work for you. But I’m willing to bet there are some people out there (actually, a lot of people) who would literally love to spend their careers revealing the presence of God to others. And if I’m right, Eureka! We have priests again! Maybe John Webster was right, “Better days are coming,” after all!


David Cowles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Aletheia Today Magazine. He lives with his family in Massachusetts where he studies and writes about philosophy, science, theology, and scripture. He can be reached at


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