The Continuity of the Catholic Church
Further confirmation of Catholic continuity, together with excellent illustrations of both the correct and the in-correct methods of interpreting the Scriptures, is afforded by the relatively unimportant subject of clergy support. Are Christian clergymen expected to give all their time and energy to their ministry? If so, they must look to the laity for support. Or, to the contrary, are they expected to be self-supporting and to work for their livelihood as laymen do?
As the reader is aware, most of the Catholic denominations as well as the Catholic Church, call upon their lay members to provide adequate support for their ministers. They expect the latter to give full time to their religious duties. On the other hand there are a few denominations which have erased the line between the clergy and laity in this respect, requiring their ministers to live as laymen and to provide their own livelihood.
The spokesmen for these denominations are not content merely to defend the practice for the enlightenment of their own members; some of them go further and complain about the different practice in other religious organisations. One Mormon writer went so far as to characterise as "professionals" those priests and ministers who receive salaries for their support, implying that they work for personal gain and not for the love of God. Only through self-support, it was argued, can the sincerity of clergymen be assured.
The reasoning behind this unusual practice deserves a comment. It follows the pattern too often used in reading the Scriptures, that of looking for confirmation of a particular belief or practice which has already been decided upon. One or two statements are isolated from the rest of the Scriptures and are held up as sufficient and conclusive, in seeming unawareness that the overwhelming force of the Gospel narrative points in exactly the opposite direction.
Come now to the Scripture text which is cited as evidence for the practice of self- supporting clergy. It was given innocently enough by St. Paul, the great Apostle to the Gentiles. In it he reminded the Corinthians that, while among them for at least a part of his stay, he worked at his former trade as tent maker, the conclusion is drawn that thereby he set a precedent which is binding upon Christian clergymen generally. The implication is that this supposed precedent reflects the intentions of the founder of Christianity.
Far be it from any Catholic to ignore even the slightest bit of testimony from the Apostolic generation which can indicate what our Lord's Apostles taught. Certainly the writings of St. Paul deserve the most careful reading and evaluation, among them the reference to his manner of supporting himself. But surely this one statement should not be detached from the rest of his Epistles as if it alone deserved attention. It should not be held out against everything else that St. Paul wrote and against the whole Gospel story.
A few very pertinent questions present themselves and must be pondered. Did St. Paul say that his supporting himself in Corinth was an example for others to follow? Did he say that he was obeying a mandate from our Lord? Or, to the contrary, did he not say that his choice of livelihood was exceptional and not required by Christian law? Before considering these questions, let me pass another, just in passing. If St. Paul's manner of living in Corinth be accepted as a precedent, binding upon others, what about his example of celibacy? The argument for the latter would have considerable merit in that St. Paul advised others to follow his example and not to marry.
What St. Paul taught about the subject in question is learned from his rather lengthy statements. Read his words to the Corinthians: "Or I only and Barnabas, have not we power to forbear working? Who goeth a warfare any time at his own charges? Who planteth a vineyard, and eateth not of the fruit thereof? Or who feedth a flock and eateth not the milk of the flock? Say I these things as a man? Or saith not the law the same also?...If we have sown unto you spiritual things, is it a great thing if we shall reap your carnal things? If others be partakers of this power over you, are not we rather? Nevertheless, we have not used this power; but suffer all things, lest we should hinder the Gospel of Christ. Do you not know that they which minister about the holy things live of the temple? And they which wait at the altar are partakers with the altar? Even so hath the Lord ordained that they which preach the Gospel should live of the gospel. But I have used none of these things, that it should be done unto me..." (1 Cor. 9:6-15).
Another and equally significant statement by St. Paul: "Have I committed an offence in abasing myself that ye might be exalted, because I have preached to you the gospel of God freely? I robbed other churches, taking wages of them, to do you service. And when I was present with you, and wanted, I was chargeable to no man: for that which was lacking to me the brethren which came from Macedonia supplied: and in all things I have kept myself from being burdensome unto you, and so will I keep myself" (II Cor. 11:7-9).
Again from St. Paul: "For what is it wherein ye were inferior to other churches, except it be that I myself was not burdensome unto you?" (II Cor. 12:13). Evidently, in the other churches to which the Apostle referred he was supported by the faithful laity. Evidently, furthermore, these "other churches" were superior to the Church in Corinth in that they assumed the responsibility of supporting their clergy. From this and the other texts quoted, it is evident that St. Paul's self-support did not set an example for other clergymen to follow; precisely the contrary.
The ideal for the Christian priesthood is conclusively stated by St. Paul in the first verse of his Epistle to the Romans: "Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, separated unto the Gospel of God." This is precisely what our Lord expects from His Priests, separation from the world.
On this point our Lord's explicit commands to His Apostles tell the same story. The first Apostles had been fishermen. Our Lord called them: "Follow me," He said, "And I will make you fishers of men." It is recorded that "they straightway left their nets, and followed Him". As St. Peter was to testify later: "Behold, we have forsaken all, and followed thee: What shall we have, therefore?" (Matt. 19:27).
Further witness to the same conclusion is the choosing of deacons to minister to needy members of the early Christian community. Again the words of Scriptures deserve to be read: "Then the twelve called the multitude of disciples unto them, and said, 'It is not reasonable that we should leave the word of God, and serve tables. Wherefore, brethren, look ye out among you seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business. But we will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of word" (The Acts 6:2, 3).
It follows that the practice of the Church of asking her people to support the clergy is an excellent illustration of her continuity. It goes back to the very first days of our Lord's ministry when he called the Apostles and when they left all things to follow Him. They were 'separated' from the world and secular pursuits in order to give all their time to the cause of Christ and to His Church. The ideals for the priesthood, thus set by our Lord Himself, have been cherished through the intervening centuries even to this day.
To be sure, they are temporary and individual exceptions. Occasionally priests are assigned to groups of Catholics where the income is inadequate and where, as a matter of necessity, they must obtain supplementary support by engaging in work as laymen. But this sort of thing is unusual and, in the life, of the Church, purely temporary. As soon as circumstances permit, the originally intended plan is restored so that the priests can give all their time to the ministry.
Occasionally, too, there are exceptions in the opposite direction. As critics do not hesitate to point out, Catholic priests sometimes expect and obtain more financial help from their people than they need. Any such grasping and mercenary attitude is unfortunate and is to be deplored. Human nature being what it is, however, imperfections among the clergy are inevitable. These cannot justly be weighed against the ideal which the Church holds, namely, that her priests should receive from their people sufficient income for decent living, enough so that their minds and energies are free from worldly cares.
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