Clericalism and Priesthood

I received one of those circular e-mails this morning, and it contained three links:

The second article is a response to the first from a fairly “conservative” point of view.

This entire reflection seems to be based on the problems caused by priests who are guilty of sexually abusing children and having the benefit of an institution that covered up for them in a way that suggests the omertà of the Mafia. Pope Francis blames clericalism for these problems. Obviously, as a priest and a bishop, this Pope must surely make a distinction between the clerical status and the gift of the sacramental priesthood.

The pressure is on to abolish the priesthood, or at least reduce it to a secular function. Perhaps what would replace it would be a clericalism of civil servants, politicians, doctors, lawyers, notaries, bailiffs, police officers and anyone who has a position of authority over others.

A short while ago, I watched a film about a paedophile priest in the Archdiocese of Lyon and the way everything was mishandled by Cardinal Barbarin. Such things cause an incredible amount of bitterness, not only the sinful acts of a perverted priest but also the priority given to the institution by those in authority rather than correcting wrongs and caring for the victims and their families. Sometimes, the abuse was not merely the sinful lust of an isolated priest, but was institutionalised in places like orphanages and places where children were taken into care.

Should the entire Church be closed down and chased out of existence? It happened in Reformation times, the French Revolution, as a result of virulent anti-clericalism in countries like France and Italy from about 1870 to World War I. What happens when those who destroyed the Church prove to be far more evil and commit worse crimes. Perhaps the Christian ideal in priests made them a little less evil than their secular counterparts.

The first article features the agony of a priest who suffered from the clerical establishment. At some time, he left the priesthood and, overcome with grief, lost all motivation to continue even attending Mass. However, there is a note of ideology as he lobbies for various typically left-wing causes. He uncritically blames the shortcomings of the Vatican II reforms on the conservatives. He blames clericalism for everything. What is clericalism?

Clericalism, with its cult of secrecy, its theological misogyny, and its hierarchical power, is at the root of Roman Catholic dysfunction.

I doubt he would read this blog, but I would advise him the same way as I think about my own life. He is still too preoccupied with the Church from which he felt alienated, too worried about other people, too bitter to find his soul. Looking at it most radically, he has three choices – suicide, addiction to alcohol and drugs, or moving on and finding a new spiritual life in another way, not necessarily in a church or an organised religion. He speaks of “fasting” from the Sacraments and formal church attendance. For him, such torture is not required for his salvation. Perhaps he needs to become a virulent anti-clerical and political activist, or take a step back and go inwards. Hatred has a horrific effect on the soul. He could learn to sail, buy a yacht and sail to a Pacific island like Bernard Moitessier. Build where others destroy – that is the way of Christ.

If it is all about women, is it really any better for example in the Church of England where women are at parity with men or even in a dominant position? Is a new type of clericalism about to replace the old? There is also the other favourite accusation: collaboration with the Nazis during World War II. Many bishops saw opportunities to work with authoritarian and totalitarian political regimes, the old story of the Grand Inquisitor! This broken priest confused different issues like the role of women and the all-male and celibate clergy. There is the question of status as in any institution, religious or secular. As mixed up as they with left-wing ideologies, some questions ring true like repression in the domain of sexuality, the threat of hell and the power of the caste.

This is a dimension this fellow neglects, that of clericalism that is not specific to priests, deacons and bishops. The problem is wider than a power base of celibate men in the Church. The same thing can happen in any human organisation where the alpha dogs take control of the pack. This happens especially in the police, in which the best men for the job have to be strong, aggressive and uncaring for those they have to apprehend. All professions in which people are highly trained for a particular role can become preserves of arrogance and elitism: politics, law, medicine, business and others. Faced with the ignorance of most people in these domains, the elite will assume authority to put an end to needless discussion. It is not a problem of the Church, but it is a human problem, shared with many species of animals. Some are made to dominate and compete, and others are made for more individualistic lives.

It seems absurd to destroy something because there are abusers. Otherwise, where do you stop? If you don’t want priests any more, then you have to put laypeople in charge of the Church, unless you want to be rid of the Church too. In that first article, it is difficult to discern what kind of church that former priest wants. One thing he does not say is that he would recommend the American Episcopal Church or the Church of England that not only has married clergy but also women clergy and a high importance given to lay participation. Yet all the problems of corporate humanity remain, with the limitations of groupthink and the abolition of imagination and initiative.

I believe that the solution is not destruction of the old and the imposition of some “new orthodoxy” with all its “hot button” issues like feminism and homosexuality – but diversity in the forms a church can take. Certainly, the Church (in its most generic meaning) needs to have room for less institutional forms and need for centralised control. I am much more sceptical about episcopi vagantes and micro-churches. Some are highly inspiring and are ministered to by men of integrity. I have a great amount of esteem for initiatives of other historical eras, like the Quakers, where a community of ordinary people define themselves as friends and meet for silent prayer and spontaneous witness of their spiritual experience. This would not be a reason to destroy the sacramental church and the liturgical life, but there needs to be diversity. Many people do not relate to rites and liturgy, and their personalities are very different from those who do.

There were many initiatives in France after the end of the war. There were worker priests who were often criticised for becoming too involved with far left-wing politics, certainly in reaction against the bishops who collaborated with the Nazis. There was an awareness of a need for some kind of “osmosis” of the priesthood into the lives of ordinary people, if we put the political ideologies to one side. Priests have suffered spiritually for decades, for centuries, and people in the parishes went to church for the wrong reasons. My own experience can testify to a tyranny of the laity in some parishes, where the priest is bullied out of existence. Even relatively conservative dioceses have no vocations and the last seminaries are closing. The only interface many people now have with the Church is a faceless bureaucracy. Why bother?

I returned to a version of Anglicanism that is conservative but without being authoritarian or totalitarian like some of the traditionalists. There is less of a sense of control and repression, of bullying and dominance.

The issue of the priesthood, as distinct from the clerical status and the institutional church, is one that needs a lot of thought. Is the priest only a cleric? Does the idea of an “ontological” priesthood need to be put aside for the sake of being on a par with something like civil servants and functionaries? I know what I was taught in seminary – being an alter Christus, a living icon of Christ. This is too often a meaningless slogan, but the idea needs to be meditated.

How well do we know Christ? A lot less well than we think…

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