Clericalism in the Catholic Church is something like the pattern in the wallpaper: it’s been there so long you don’t see it anymore. That may be why, amid all the demands for change in response to the scandal of clergy sex abuse, more has not been heard about clericalism and the need to get rid of it once and for all. Yet clericalism and the clericalist culture are at the heart of this noxious episode.
Clericalism does not cause sex abuse, of course, any more than sex abuse causes clericalism. But when sex abuse occurs in a clericalist context, the situation takes on a distinctively clericalist coloration that makes matters worse. In the present crisis, it is painfully clear that attitudes and ways of doing things associated with clerical elitism often came into play when priests were found to have engaged in abuse. As a result, what already was a tragedy for individuals became in time a world-class disaster for the church.
How is it possible that bishops who, angry rhetoric aside, are known to be conscientious, intelligent churchmen made the horrendous mistakes some repeatedly made in dealing with wayward priests? The only credible answer to that question is that these bishops were acting according to the prevailing clericalist assumptions and procedures for handling priests who get into trouble: protect them to the point of coddling them, give them time off, therapy and new assignments, hush things up, keep knowledge of the mess confined within a very limited clerical circle. Here is all the confirmation anyone could want for Eugene Kennedy’s observation that the clericalist code shielded men from responsibility and covered for them when they fell or failed.
Bishops who responded in this manner to sex abuse by priests were doing what made perfectly good sense within the clericalist system in which they too had been socialized and whose rules they knew only too well. They desired to be good servants of the church; but whenever problems arose, they served the system instead. And, as might have been predicted, this system built on falsehood and illusion betrayed them in the endthem and everybody else.
Clericalism is linked to power. Initially, generosity moves men to pursue a calling to the priesthood. But sometimes the generous impulse is corrupted along the way by a taste for unearned authority, deference and the absence of significant accountability. One thinks of the Boston priest in Edwin O’Connor’s The Edge of Sadness, who remarks, Probably in no other walk of life is a young man so often and so humbly approached by his elders and asked for his advice. Although O’Connor was writing about the Catholics of an earlier generation, even today many Catholic lay people share the clericalist assumptions held by many, though not all, of their priests.
The clericalist culture is variously described as a caste system, a fraternity, a club. All of these terms fit. In part, clericalism is the clergy’s special mode of succumbing to two dangerous errors that threaten all professions: the perversion of solidarity among colleagues and low expectations with regard to professional responsibility.
In a special way, however, clericalism is rooted in the idea that in whatever pertains to religion, it is the right and the responsibility of clerics to make the decisions and give the orders, and the job of lay people to carry them out. At a deep level it is spiritual snobbery reflecting the assumption that the clerical state in and of itself makes clerics spiritually superior to the laity. A mistaken idea of vocation is at work herethe idea that the calling to ordained ministry is superior to all other vocations.
There are several things wrong with that, not least the fact that it ignores the reality of personal vocation. Before the Second Vatican Council, Pope John Paul II points out, it was generally supposed that vocation mainly or even exclusively referred to a calling to the priesthood or religious life. Now we know better. The pope expressed it this way in his Message for the World Day of Prayer for Vocations (May 6, 2001): Within the Christian community, each person must rediscover his or her own personal vocation and respond to it with generosity. Every life is a vocation, and every believer is invited to cooperate in the building up of the church.
As leaders of the church seek solutions to the crisis brought on by revelations of clergy sex abuse and its mishandling by some bishops, what should be done? Many things, of course, with priority given to a significant tightening-up of procedures for dealing with such cases when they arise and, better yet, to preventing them from arising at all. As steps go forward to make it easier to expel priest-abusers, conduct the second apostolic visitation of American seminaries in 20 years and otherwise address this crisis, the bishops must confront the problem of clericalism that did so much to make it the calamity it is.
This must begin with the recognition that clericalism is pervasive in the church. Ugly enough in itself, the present scandal is only a symptom of systemic corruption. Denial of that unpleasant fact is a luxury Catholics no longer can afford. If the opportunity to eliminate clericalism is missed now, when the need is so obvious, clericalism will help to shape fresh disasters in the futureif not sex abuse, something else.
Recognition that clericalism is a fact should encourage priests to internalize the message of Section 47 of Pope John Paul’s apostolic exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis (1992). In the context of ecclesial communion, the pope declares, the priest is first and foremost (above all) an equal among equals. That means being a brother among brotherscommitted to co-responsibility in the one common mission of salvation and sincerely appreciative of all the charisms and tasks which the Spirit gives believers for the building up of the church.
The pastors of the church also must take a great deal more seriously than they have done up to now the implications of accountability and openness. How often since Vatican II has it been said that the exercise of authority in the church is a ministry of service! But if service is not to be paternalistic, accountability is essential. And accountability that is genuine, not just for show, will require an end to the secrecy that even now often serves as an instrument of clerical manipulation and control in the conduct of ecclesiastical affairs.
But more than accountability and openness are required. Decision-making in the church needs a careful rethinking. Lay people should have voice and vote regarding finances at the parish, diocesan and national levels along with a direct say in identifying candidates for positions like pastor and bishop. They, not clerics, should be the ones who set and carry out the public policy agenda of the churchan innovation fully in line with the letter and the spirit of Vatican II and particularly necessary at a time when the sex abuse scandal has gravely weakened the church’s already waning capacity to act effectively in this area.
Some may object that changes of these kinds would require changes in canon law. There is an obvious answer: change it.
Important as structural changes are, however, changes on the level of faith and its living out are even more necessary. These include much wider acceptance than now of the idea that the church is a communion, a hierarchically organized body with a diversity of offices and roles in which all members are equal in dignity and all have roles in its mission, and a much livelier appreciation than most now possess of the implications of personal vocation.
A friend of mine whose love for and loyalty to the church are well beyond the ordinary tells a story that should be pondered for what it says about the present crisis and its clericalist roots.
Back around 1985, when the scandal of clergy sex abuse had just come to light for the first time in Lafayette, La., he and some lay friends were chatting about the situation with several priests. All were staunch Catholics. All were devoted to the church. My friend recalled the conversation:
Every cleric there thought that priests who had committed sexual abuse should be sent off for treatment and put back into some kind of service, at least restricted service as a chaplain or some kind of low-level administrative job. All the lay people thought that was a bad idea. I argued that if a priest has been guilty of sexually abusing a child, even once, he should be out, since such acts are a gross betrayal of the laity’s trust. But all of the priests tended to be more concerned with the erring cleric.
Those were good priests, too. But they were imbued with a clericalist mentality very much as those good plantation owners in the pre-Civil War South who treated their slaves well were imbued with racism.
That is a very strong statement. Perhaps it is too strong. But church leaders should grasp the fact that this is how some of their best and brightest now think.