Ending Clericalism

The Clergy Abuse Proxy Wars Rage On

Many have suggested in recent weeks that the current firestorm over clergy sexual abuse is really a proxy war for the deeper and longer running battle over the theological and ideological future of the contemporary Church.  By now absolutely no one can deny the tragic fact that Catholic clergy molested and abused vulnerable men and youth in unspeakably awful methods and scope.  However, there does not appear to be any consensus about what caused this problem in the first place, making it possible for both sides of the ideological Catholic civil war to use this current crisis as a weapon in the fight to ensure their own particular cause will gain the upper hand.

If this analysis is true, then Archbishop Vigano recently handed the anti progressive, anti-Pope Francis camp a potentially major weapon of Mass destruction, linking the leadership style and worldview of the current pope, perceived as liberal, to the perpetuation of a Church climate that protects abusers.  It is also said that the same anti progressive camp is citing the fact of clerical abuse as evidence of a systematic failure to deal with homosexuality in the clergy head on, of failures in overall theological rigor in recent decades, of failures in liturgical reform, and of failures to sufficiently enforce Canon Law to name just a few hot button items.  No one really cares about the victims of abuse, so the argument goes, they and their wounds are just being used to advance a theological attack on post-Vatican II Catholic life.

More subtle perhaps but no less important is the possibility that the anti-traditional wing of the Church is also using the reality of abuse victims to advance their side of the debate in order to push the Church further into new territories of doctrine and practice.  The sad existence of clergy abuse just proves, so the argument goes, that celibacy is outdated, that women should be priests, that the laity should seize control of the Church, and that our teachings on sexuality are a disastrous recipe for repressed behaviors with tragic consequences.  All of these claims are advanced under the false pretenses of concern for abuse victims as opposed to the more intellectually honest label of old fashioned 1970’s liberal advocacy.

Clericalism Is A Convenient Culprit For Those Who Lack Introspection

Less easy to pin down on the predictable left-right divide of pet causes to blame for the cause of abuse is the culprit of clericalism.  A clerical culture itself is at the heart of our abuse crisis so the argument goes, and there are examples of stereotypically traditional as well as progressive voices commonly naming this root cause.  Since neither side has claimed sole ownership of this cause for its own respective ideological push, does that mean it must actually be a legitimately real cause of our crisis?  Maybe both sides have put their finger on the, or at least a, correct answer.  If so, then there is also hope that out of genuine concern for abuse victims we can work to help them by eradicating a bonafide root cause of abuse from the Church, ensuring that such heinous things will never happen again.

The difficulty with naming clericalism as the chief cause in our current crisis is that clericalism is not a well-defined term.  Which may be why both sides in the ideological war have grabbed on to it as a likely culprit.  In naming it each side can claim victory, but at the same time neither side can therefore effectively work to eradicate it.

What Clericalism Is and Is Not

Many helpful commentaries on clericalism have been offered over the years, one of which is a 2008 First Things article by Father Richard John Neuhaus entitled: “Clerical Scandal and the Scandal of Clericalism.”  In it he offers reactions to a book by Russell Shaw on the same topic.  The article is worth re-reading in light of our current situation and it raises many salient points about clericalism, a couple of which I will reiterate here in addition to my own points about it.

Indeed clericalism is a problem, and a serious one at that, but unfortunately it, too, can easily become a term hijacked by the respective camps in our current Catholic battlefield because it is at the center of so much that is wrong with our situation today.  This is best illustrated by offering some examples of clericalism as opposed to a simple definition of the condition.

Being clerical means denying the mystical, supernatural, transcendent, elevated nature of priestly identity.  This seems counter intuitive at first because it sounds like putting priests on pedestals, but the reality is that the reduction of the priesthood in recent decades to a merely functional, professional, career rather than a divine calling through which God enters the world has led to a far too earthly perspective of the clergy.  This easily devolves into clericalism because in such a view the priesthood is quickly divorced from the divine authority that, when rightly understood and feared, puts us priests quickly in our places.  We are not little gods, but we quickly forget that as soon as we stop recognizing that we are at the service of his power rather than our own.

Priests are mere instruments, nothing more.  To grasp, even remotely, the awe filled transcendental mystery of Holy Orders is to recognize that God simply calls us, uses us to perform his mysteries, and then one day when we are dead he just finds someone else. To put it plainly, precisely because we are everything we are in fact nothing.  A priest must have a healthy, living awe-filled fear of the God who is made present in us, otherwise we will assume power in our roles that is not properly ours in the first place.

Being clerical means placing ourselves above Church teachings and norms under the guise of being “pastoral”rather than submitting to them with consistent humility.  We do not have the power to alter divine revelation or doctrines, but it is very tempting to do so because it enables us to be, as individuals, arbiters of exceptions to rules.

It is gross clericalism, for example, to pick and choose as pastors, on a case by case basis, which remarried couples should receive Communion and absolution as suggested we do in Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia. This elevates the power of priests dramatically at the expense of what should otherwise be binding universal norms before which all persons are equal.  For clerics and prelates who make a regular business out of lobbying for changes to established doctrines to also call for an end to clericalism is a severe irony.

Being clerical means being suspicious of the intelligence of well-formed laity who can offer valuable expertise in methods and best practices in Church processes, and who can also help foster a deeper understanding of the truths of divine revelation.  Clericalism is defensiveness, or silence, in the face of questions.  Clericalism is being too prideful to admit when we as priests  have made mistakes about teachings, behaviors, decisions, or rubrics when the laity, who can all read, point those things out to us.  Clericalism means finding gratification in the material benefits that are offered to priests out of respect for our sacred office, rather than embracing a humble spirit of poverty and generosity concerning gifts received.  Clericalism means resting solely on the answer “because I said so” in the face of questions rather than offering an opportunity for mutual dialogue about what is reasonable and what is true.

Being clerical means being over protective of our private time, and being resistive to the daily martyrdom that priesthood requires which is made manifest in regular exposure to rejection, interruptions, inconveniences, and even life-threatening hostility to what the priesthood stands for.

Being clerical means desiring lay assistance only when it suits our personal agendas rather than inviting the laity into the conversation of crafting a mutual vision of how to advance the Gospel in the concrete realities of daily life, placing everyone in the Church (clergy and laity alike) at the mutual service of the truth of Christ.

Being clerical means being afraid of transparency about failures and sins, opting instead for structures that preserve and protect our own personal images, sinful lifestyles, or pet ideologies from being questioned or derailed.

Clericalism’s Fiercest Opponents Are Often The Most Clerical Themselves

I could go on, but in light of the above it should be clear, as Father Neuhaus himself also noted in his 2008 article, that clericalism is virtually impossible to systemically eradicate from the Church because it is an attitude that continually tries to invade priestly life. It requires constant vigilance to overcome it.  True, there are some structural and institutional safe guards that can be effective in checking it (pastoral councils for example), but they are not guaranteed fixes, especially if the laity involved in these structures are not well catechized.

Clericalism, as described here, taints both wings of the ideological Catholic civil war.  For every priest and prelate who calls for an end to it as a way to fix our current problem, it also is clear that they themselves rarely grasp how clerical their own behaviors often are.  Some of the most clerical voices in the Church right now, including those at the top of the hierarchy, have most likely never physically molested anyone, and yet they are often dangerously clerical.  Abusive behavior is not confined to sexual deviancy.  More often than not these days it is doctrinal instead.

What all of this means, among other things, is that current voices advocating an end to clericalism as a remedy for the abuse crisis should not be merely content to simply appeal to that label and leave it at that.  Ending clericalism is a call to personal self examination from the top of the hierarchy to the bottom.  If we were all truly serious about eradicating clericalism, there would be a swift end to the left-right divide in contemporary Catholic life, and to the dishonesty that is swirling around this current debate over the tragedy of abuse.   Without serious honesty about it, finger pointing at clericalism is merely another proxy war dynamic in the current fight for the Church’s future direction.  The universal call to holiness, binding on clergy and laity alike, is the only real remedy for all of the messes we face.  Let us all resolve to take that call as seriously as possible.

   On Twitter:  @FatherReesman




About Father Nathan Reesman

On Twitter: @FatherReesman Father Nathan Reesman is a priest of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, ordained in 2006. He is the Shared Pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish, and also of Saint Frances Cabrini Parish, both in West Bend, Wisconsin. Father Reesman is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, obtaining his Bachelors of Arts in Political Science in the year 2000. He completed his seminary studies at Saint Francis de Sales Seminary for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee in 2006, obtaining a Masters of Divinity. Father Reesman completed post-graduate studies at the University of Saint Mary of the Lake, Mundelein, obtaining a Doctor of Ministry in 2019.
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