“Mystification” is a fundamental operator in human life. It is an application of our “sense of the sacred” to our social structures. We “mystify” ordinary reality and project it to be something “more than human.” Curiously, when things become “more than human” they also pass “beyond our control.” For most of us there’s a serenity that accompanies this recognition. Once it seems that “this is the way things are supposed to be, and there’s nothing we can do about it” we can relax; things are out of our hands.
Mystification is a perennial feature of all power relationships. It suggests “this is the way things are supposed to be.” The male’s power over the female was mystified in our culture through the “sacred” submission of the wife to her husband. It was similar for children to their parents, employees to their bosses, a ship’s crew to their captain, citizens to the authorities in a civil community. Obedience is couched in terms of a “sacred relationship” and grudging compliance becomes willing collaboration. “Holy obedience” involving the mystification of the authority figure is as essential in the military as in the monastery. Without it life as we know it would be very different indeed.
Mystification is not necessarily “oppressive.” It does not have to imply either blindness or an intention to deceive. It can be taken metaphorically; such a voluntary self-mystification means people embrace what is known to be a symbol in order to enjoy some benefit that derives from the exercise. The British, for example, sustain the myth of the “divinely appointed” Queen and her family. They know it is not literally true, but choose to have the feelings of national pride and continuity that are associated with royalty and its pompous ceremonies. Judges wear black robes and “all stand” when they enter the courtroom as a symbol of respect for their moral authority. Even television’s “Judge Judy” and “Texas Justice” are treated in like manner. It’s a game, a make-believe that is freely chosen for a reason. With metaphorical mystification, the principals are free and in control of what they are doing. It’s a way of poetizing the importance of our relationships.
The authority structures in the Catholic Church depend on mystification too, but Catholic mystification is not metaphorical. It is absolutely literal and has been presented that way with shrill insistence since ancient times. Literalness makes mystification oppressive; it takes away the freedom of the mystified. For it is not their voluntary respect and acquiescence that is being elicited, but rather their submission to “things as they are and are supposed to be.” Let’s see how some of these mystifications evolved and function in Catholic life.
I want to start with something we are all familiar with. It is a mystification that is currently in transition from literal to symbolic: it is the mystification of “the priest” … which has historically been associated with the literal interpretation of the “real presence” of Jesus in the eucharist.
At his last supper with his friends the night before he died, Jesus took bread and broke it and said, “this is my body” and as he shared the cup of wine he said, “this is my blood.” He was clearly using the broken bread and red wine as poetic symbols of his imminent death. The gospel writers all tell us he said “do this in memory of me.” The eucharist is a memorial re-enactment of that moment at the last supper. To claim that Jesus’ words were meant literally is a gross misreading of an obvious poetry. A literal reading is not only dishonest and impossible, it is also misleading, for it overwhelms the symbolism of the shared memorial meal, which was clearly Jesus’ intention. Even Augustine was aware that the belief in the real presence could distract from the primary meaning of the eucharist and warned against it. And exactly as he feared, the thought that Jesus himself was right there in front of us ultimately came to dominate the Catholic imagination; the symbolism of the memorial meal was lost, and the mass became a “sacrifice.” It was only with the reforms of Vatican II that the symbolism of the meal was brought forward again.
From the mis-taken literalness of Jesus’ presence in the bread and wine there came a second: that the person who presided over the ceremony — the priest — had to have “supernatural” powers because he effectuated such an astounding transformation: he brought Jesus back to earth. They were both major mistakes. The bread and wine is not literally the body and blood of Jesus and the priest is not someone with supernatural powers. It is clear that the early communities celebrated the eucharist as a meal, and we do not know exactly when the change occurred, but when the bread and wine began to be considered literally the body and blood of Jesus, the eucharist stopped being thought of as a meal and became a “sacrifice” offered to “God.” The person who played the role of Jesus in the re-enactment also stopped being an ordinary person and became a “priest” who brought “God” to earth with magic words that worked only when he used them and then offered this really present Jesus as a sacrifice “to please and appease God.”
It is significant that class stratification was an integral part of this phenomenon. The control over the eucharist came to be restricted to the bishop who was always a member of the upper class; priests were his agents who served at his pleasure. They were not independent of the bishop in any way. They owed him absolute obedience and their unique powers were conferred on them by the bishop alone. We don’t know exactly when this all happened, for Christianity was originally an egalitarian religion of the poor and leaders were chosen by the community, but when it emerged into the light of day after the Roman persecutions were over 300 years later, all these new features were in place: … the real presence … the mass as sacrifice … and control of ritual by the upper class bishops. None of this existed earlier. And we do not know which came first. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that the literal mystifications of the real presence and the super-powers of the priest were modifications devised by the upper class hierarchy to insure control for themselves. But even if it was an independent development, it served to concentrate control in the hands of the upper class.
Now, what if we were to reverse these mistakes. Notice what happens. First, let’s take the eucharist as a shared meal. “Do this,” Jesus said, “in memory of me.” He didn’t say: “Do this and I will be literally present with you again” which he could have said if that’s what he meant. The presence he spoke of was “in memory.” Christians share their memories of how Jesus lived and what he died for, in order to have his vision live on in them. Jesus’ spirit is not present physically in the church building or the bread and wine, it is present psychologically and voluntarily in the lives of the people who have chosen to remember him. There is no other presence. The meal helps us share our memories and focus our aspirations. We live in the spirit of Jesus and thus “he lives again” in us.
Now let’s take our idea of the “priest” and return it to its proper place next to the symbolism of the memorial meal. We immediately realize that since the bread and wine is not Jesus magically come to earth again, the “priest” is similarly not a supernatural magician with special powers either, but an ordinary human being who simply has the role, given to him by the community, of performing a memorial ceremony. The priest’s job has to do with memory. It is to remind people of the meaning of the symbolism: who Jesus was, what he taught and why he died the way he did.
What about “sacrifice”? Isn’t the mass a sacrifice that will guarantee our safety … our “salvation”? No, that’s the difference between Jesus’ message and the various official religions of his day. Jesus was not conerned with placating any “god,” especially not Yahweh. The “loving Father” of Jesus did not need placating. He was a “God of mercy and forgiveness.” What Jesus taught was that the answer to life is to imitate the generous loving kindness of the One in whom we “live and move and have our being” — our “Father.” Jesus never said we would be saved from death, except metaphorically. What he said was “forgive as you are forgiven, love as you are loved, give as you have been given” and you will be like your “Father.” That is what we remember when we re-enact that meal.
It should not surpise us then, to learn that the word “priest” originally did not mean “one who offered sacrifice.” “Priest” comes directly from the Greek word “presbyter” which meant “elder.” It indicates that in the early communities the eucharist was celebrated by older people, as you would expect. That’s all that “priest” meant. We don’t know when it happened, but it was only much later that we learn that the priest became “someone who offered sacrfice.” We first hear of it after Christianity took over as the official religion of Rome. The Empire demanded a continuity with its pre-Christian practices because that’s what everyone was used to. Sacrifice had to be offered to guarantee divine protection and the success of Rome’s ventures. “Offering Sacrifice” was a Roman state function, it was not originally a Christian category, it was not part of Jesus’ message, not even metaphorically. It was a “theological adjustment” made by the ecclesiastical authorities that conveniently dovetailed with the requirements of the Empire … it earned the Church all those big basilicas and handsome stipends from the Roman government. It’s no wonder “sacrifice” became the dominant category for understanding the eucharist.
Jesus said, “do this in memory of me.” Those christians, women or men who would respond to his request must first realize they have the right to do it. No special powers are needed. This sounds simple, but it’s not. For Catholics have been mystified big-time. They have been told for centuries that the eucharist is reserved to magicians — supermen, priests, an elite corps of men who had an eternal “seal” on their souls giving them “power” that no one else had. That eternal seal, as “indelible” as a birthmark and as powerful as Merlin’s wand, could only be gotten through ordination by a credentialled bona-fide upper-class bishop.
You must understand the depth of the mystification here. These are not just ceremonial metaphors, a poetic overlay designed to show respect for the important role these men played as priests. They were presented to Catholics as literal metaphysical facts, as real and functional as any iron tool that gives humans the power to do what their hands of flesh cannot. It was the hammer of Thor. Catholics were mystified indeed. If they are to accede to Jesus’ request to “do this in memory of me,” all this must be demystified. The community designates who will preside over the memorial meal. Catholics, of course, respect whoever is chosen … but that is the extent of legitimate mystification. The rest is pure “hocus pocus.”
Since the middle ages the mystification surrounding the priesthood has been intensified for Catholics by mandatory celibacy. Celibacy meant these priests could not be married. Not being married became a permanent accompaniment to the elite status conferred by the powers of holy orders. I emphasize “not-married” because it helps gain an insight into the psycho-dynamics of Catholic mystification — what Catholic structures mean and how the Church uses them to project its way of life. All these non-married elite were committed to the “Church” with a total personal dedication. In fact, they had been persuaded that to give oneself in unquestioning obedience to the Church authorities was to give oneself totally to “God.” Please take careful note, there was a double hand-off functioning in the backfield here: … the Church was substituted for “God”… and the ecclesiastical authorities were substituted for the Church. It’s strange that no one seemed to notice the switch. All magic acts depend upon this kind of dexterity that makes key substitutions without being detected. Celibacy was elicited from “souls” that were said to be the “bride of Christ” but the bodies those souls inhabited were, in fact, wedded to the hierarchy and controlled as by a “husband.”
Think of it this way. “Celibacy” is really just another kind of marriage. These celibate elites didn’t marry a human being, they married the ecclesiatical authorities and all the powerful reproductive energies of their young bodies were channeled toward generating more offspring for them — the one “Mother” of all … like a beehive or ant colony where sterile workers dedicate their lives to the proliferation, care and feeding of the progeny of the one fertile “Queen.”
People who marry people are focused on people: … the love and care of their partner … the survival and welfare of their children … food, clothing, shelter … and the equitably shared work-in-community necessary to procure these things for themselves and their neighbors. People who thought they were married to “God,” however, turned their attention to “another world,” a non-existent fantasy universe where human sexuality was supposedly “sublimated” and neutralized by a psycho-erotic relationship with an imagined humanoid “God”-person and its energies placed in service to the ecclesiatical authorities.
People who married people were never trusted by the hierarchy. Of course not. They were married to someone else. Their loyalties were always supect, for at any moment they might put the interests of their families and villages above the interests of the bishops. The “Queen Bee” wanted only sterile workers for her hive. Other potentially reproductive females and sexually potent males were mercilessly exterminated. “Lay” people — in effect the “married” — in like manner, were marginated, stripped of any respect, responsibility and power, fed only the mystifications that would keep them “hooked:” terrified of an eternity of torture from a monster “Father” whose senseless rage was averted only by the “Mother” who alone could protect her children. The mystifications here would be diabolical, if they weren’t so transparent.
The arrogation of all Christian rights to the “sacred authority” (the hierarchy) alone, was a key maneuver that established rule by the “elite.” Clerical celibacy intensified the separation between the elite and the ordinary people. But we may notice, celibacy was about marriage, not sex. Sexual failure for celibates was not infrequent, and “forgiveness” was readily available. No priests have ever lost their jobs because of their sexual foibles … no matter how egregious. But if they dared marry, O most heinous of crimes, they were fired immediately and without exception. Whatever happened to “thou art a priest forever …”? This remains true even today. How transparent does it need to be before we “see” it?
So, it wasn’t “sex” that was the “line in the sand.” It was marriage. Lay people — family people — were excluded from the workings of Church life, especially the central rituals that nourished and directed spirituality. The very first step in the humanization of Christian doctrine, therefore, is for ordinary people to take back those rights that were ripped-off by the upper-class in a maneuver cleverly concealed by the cloak of social and educational superiority, mystified and emasculated by celibacy.
Women, especially upper class educated women, were also given the opportunity to serve the hierarchy as celibates. Being not married was an important condition for them as well. But there was a major difference. Non married women who were dedicated religious were always conspicuously excluded from leadership in the central rituals. Women could never be priests. How do we explain this?
Women embodied a heinous sexual lapse that could never be forgiven: they were women, and a woman’s sexual foibles produce children. Once a woman became a mother we know exactly what would happen to her loyalties. Women cannot be trusted where power relations are mystified because women become mothers and are programmed by nature to put life before all else. Men were the preferred victims of ecclesiastical “vampirism,” the blood-sucking expropriation of human energies represented by mandatory celibacy, because men did not have babies … and their “supernatural” loyalties remained intact. Men were preferred because they could be rendered inhuman … torn from family and clan (and the justice they require) and manipulated at will … whereas women could not. Hence men were the “chosen ones.”
Even when it was embraced and lived sincerely, celibacy erroneously evoked the literal existence of another world … not just another dimension in human life … but a “supernatural” world different from this one whose requirements took precedence over life on earth. Celibacy was intended to keep people from loving and caring for what they really are — people who belong to their families and villages, their shared equitable work and their companions — in favor of projecting a non-existent world where solitary individuals will be saved (or punished) as individuals. “Human Justice” did not matter in that other world. It tried to get us to love a “God” that was nothing but an image in our heads, and not the real “God” whose existential energy flowers in the family of humankind. To love an imaginary “God” is to love an imaginary self — a non existent independent “ego” — and not the real self bound in blood to the real human beings who share life together in this valley of tears. For Catholicism, the human family and the sex and marriage that produce it, is the Original unforgiveable Sin … and it was “Eve,” the woman, who was to blame for it all … she tore us from “paradise” and condemned us to live on the earth.
“Do this,” Jesus said, “and remember me.” It’s a straightforward request and an invitation; nothing very complicated here at all. No mystification, no hocus-pocus. It’s strange. When the ecclesiastical authorities command, Catholics tremble and obey; they believe any line that’s fed them. When Jesus invites them to a common meal, they hesitate. Why is that? Is there a connection between the two?
Perhaps we do not yet have the “ears to hear.”