Thinking Through Catholic Understandings of the Social Ethic, Eucharist, and Male Leadership

When considering the post about following Jesus from the Roman Catholic perspective, I was struck by three things – the Catholic social ethic, the Eucharistic practice, and the role of the priest in the worship experience. While the particular manner in which many Catholics process and live out their social ethic (as well as the obstacles with said ethic) and the Eucharist were enlightening, instructive, and drew some parallels to Black Church traditions, I was challenged to think more deeply about the role of the priest. More specifically, I wonder how the primacy of the male priest in the Roman Catholic tradition might make it difficult for Catholic women to grow and develop their own relationship with God.

To begin, Ms. Wassell’s articulation of the Catholic social ethic as something rooted in the words of Jesus in Matthew 25, and the modern difficulties facing this ethic, resonates with me as a Black Church adherent. I am somewhat familiar with this ethic, as it draws strong parallels to the ways in which Black churches have attempted to imitate Jesus’ concern for the least of these. The Black Church has a long and rich history of serving and supporting the “poor, the sick, the uneducated and the under-served,” as Ms. Wassell notes is the case in Catholic tradition. For many years following the emancipation of American slaves and context of Jim Crow and legalized segregation, the Black Church was the primary, if not only, institution that would take care of Black people in a world that constantly questioned or disregarded their very humanity. The Black Church was a place of refuge, providing African-Americans with food, economic support, transportation, and countless other needs that the larger society was unwilling or unable to offer. There is some variation in the Black Church experience – not all congregations are committed to serving the material needs of their parishioners and larger communities. Whether it was because of a lack of financial resources, a fear of white violence, or a staunch belief that the primary focus of the Christian faith should be the afterlife, some Black churches have chosen not to be as engaged in addressing the concerns that make it difficult for people to live right now. However, for those Black churches that have heeded Jesus’ call in Matthew 25, following Jesus means, as Ms. Wassell writes, serving people. The church that I am a part of even has a social service ministry named “Matthew 25” to fulfill Jesus’ command in this passage. To follow Jesus in parts of the Catholic and Black Church traditions means to be concerned for and serve those are on the margins.

However, while I was aware of the Catholic social ethic, I did not know of the struggles facing Catholicism at large in its implementation. Ms. Wassell’s comments about the drastic decrease in the number of religious sisters, brothers, priests and Catholic schools, hospitals, and orphanages is alarming because similar trends can be observed in the Black Church tradition. Part of my dissertation research examines the current church landscape, with specific regard to Black congregations, and unfortunately, many Black churches are small or declining in attendance. Most do not have the infrastructure or resources to fulfill this call towards service that many consider vital to following Jesus, even as the needs dramatically continue to expand (i.e. wealth disparities and food insecurity are at staggering levels). Ms.Wassell’s post is encouraging me to think about how the Black Church can fulfill its call of service despite its declining influence because if we are to continue following Jesus, we must persist in taking care of the “least of these” even amid the current challenges.

I also believe the Black Church tradition can gain something from Ms. Wassell’s explanation of the Eucharist. To follow Jesus for many Roman Catholics is to believe that, as Ms. Wassell notes, “the bread and wine becomes Christ as the perfect victim” during the re-presentation of Christ’s Sacrifice at Calvary. While there are some in the Black Church who embody this same belief in the Eucharistic moment (as there are those in the Black Church tradition who identify as Roman Catholic), most Black churches consider the Eucharist (or Holy Communion) as just a symbol of Christ’s sacrifice, not His actual body and blood. There is a deeper meaning to this moment if we consider that following Jesus means we literally take of our Savior in the memory of His ultimate sacrifice. If we truly believe that the Eucharistic moment is one in which we imbue the actual being of our Savior, it no longer simply becomes a ritualistic act that we do as part of church tradition. It takes on more significance and consequence because which of us would be willing to waste the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus?  What would it mean if more believers in the Black Church believed as our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers do? I am grateful that Ms. Wassell named this aspect of Roman Catholicism because the Eucharist becomes an even more tangible reminder of what Jesus gave up for us on the cross, which should spur us to follow Jesus with greater vigor.

Finally, similar to the first reflection on following Jesus from the Orthodox perspective, I am struggling to process the prominence of the priest in Roman Catholicism. I do agree there is a need for some sort of leadership figure – he provides structure to a worship experience, shepherds those in the congregation, and even as Jesus demonstrates, offers leadership to those desiring to serve, love, and follow God. Ms. Wassell makes some critical distinctions in both the Vatican II Mass and the Mass of ages of how the priest, while leading the congregation, performs his role in such a way that redirects the focus on Jesus or the “horizontal experience of faith in a community.”

But what does it mean to follow Jesus when most, if not all, of these priests in the Roman Catholic tradition are male? I am not fully versed in the Roman Catholic Church but between my general understanding and Ms. Wassell’s work, I am not sure if there are many female priests in this tradition. This trend appears to contradict Jesus’ own life, when, according to biblical accounts, both men and women were His followers, women were the first to engage Him post-resurrection, and women became faith leaders who spread the gospel throughout the world. Women have always held a key role in following Jesus, both as His disciples that learned at His feet (in some cases) and leaders that would continue His work after He left the earth. But if women do not see themselves in these types of roles, I wonder how this might limit their imagination of the possibilities available to them as they seek to follow their Savior. In a male-dominated space, women might begin to believe that certain aspects of seeking Jesus are only accessible to men, potentially leading them to question or completely subdue Jesus’ specific call for them. Even still, some might think that without the priest (and therefore men), they do not have full access to Jesus; to them, the priest acts as a mediator between them and God. What perspectives or insights about following Jesus could the Catholic body of Christ be missing as the primacy of male leadership persists?

This reality is not one to consider solely in the Roman Catholic tradition. Ms. Wassell’s post led me to think about how the general over-emphasis on male religious and spiritual authority can cause us to miss the valuable contributions of women across traditions. The Black Church faces similar challenges. While some Black congregations endorse women in ministry, creating preaching and ministry opportunities for them, others still see the pulpit and pastoral ministry as strictly reserved for men. When a woman’s call is affirmed to follow Jesus in the ministry of preaching, the affirmation, in many Black churches, is normally tested and approved once again by men. The severe lack of women pastors indicates that even among those Black institutions and persons that believe women are called to religious leadership, there is a general inclination toward male over female authority.

Following Jesus should be done without restriction or regulation unless Jesus Himself places limits on us. I am just concerned that, with the current male-oriented infrastructure of many Roman Catholic and Black Church spaces, following Jesus could become more of a burden than a blessing for many women who have a commitment to these institutions.




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