Pope Francis says clergy and laity are both responsible for the rise of clericalism in the Church. He is wary of lay people who prop up the clergy. CNS photo/Paul Haring

Clericalism: Abuse and the dynamics of power

By 
  • September 10, 2018

By now thousands of people have either scoffed at or praised Pope Francis for responding to another round of sexual abuse revelations with a long letter condemning clericalism. 

Whether or not the Pope’s request that Catholics pray and fast for “the grace of conversion” is enough or just a spiritual deke around a practical problem, few have taken much time to think about just what the Pope means by clericalism.

“To say no to abuse is to say an emphatic no to all forms of clericalism,” the Pope declared in his Aug. 20 “Letter to the People of God.” 

So what is clericalism and what would the Church look like without it?

“It is the assumption, or presumption perhaps, of privilege within the body of Christ,” said St. Joseph’s College, University of Alberta theologian Doris Keiser. “It is inattention to the dynamics of power, or equally abuse of the dynamics of power, within the Church.”

Keiser is quick to say she’s not using clericalism as a code word for conservative or traditional Catholics who love and respect certain elements of Church history.

“It’s not about whether a person is traditional in their understanding of the Church, or modern, or postmodern, or any of those things,” she said. “When I say clericalism, I’m not rejecting the tradition of the Church…. This has obviously to do with clerics and ordained persons — the closing of ranks in ways that allow for inappropriate, possibly even illegal, abusive behaviours to go unreported, unchallenged, unprosecuted.”

For Pope Francis, the rejection of the idea there’s one class of Christians somehow exempt from the law — people who must, for the sake of the institution, be protected from prosecution and public humiliation — isn’t the only problem with clericalism. While the ugliest and most tragic result may be that the Church of Christ “showed no care for the little ones; we abandoned them,” in Francis’ words, the Pope has for years railed against clericalism because it hollows out the Church.

“Clericalism … gradually extinguishes the prophetic flame to which the entire Church is called to bear witness in the heart of her people,” Pope Francis wrote in a letter to Canada’s Cardinal Marc Ouellet in March of 2016. “Clericalism forgets that the visibility and sacramentality of the Church belong to all the People of God, not only to the few chosen and enlightened.”

As a Scripture scholar at the Atlantic School of Theology in Halifax, Sr. Joan Campbell gets what Pope Francis is talking about.

“When we think of clericalism, it’s kind of a cultural attitude that says I am other than you and I am above you,” she told The Catholic Register. “The problem with that, I think, is that it prevents the person from responding to others as Jesus would have responded to them.”

If priests act “in persona Christi” during the Mass, they must at least strive to take on the mind of Jesus in their lives and their ministry. The Jesus who Campbell meets in the New Testament was not a cleric and not separate from the people He healed and prayed for and suffered with.

“We see Jesus, a prophetic kind of holy man, son of God, who reaches out to the very people who are on the bottom of society — the poor, and that’s a broad, broad category, prostitutes, people labeled as sinners, tax collectors — and He’s eating with these people,” she said. “It’s an honour-and-shame world where Jesus intervenes and begins to build what I would call, and many would call, radically inclusive community.”

For a Church that claims to be linked over 2,000 years to Jesus through His Apostles and to the very first communities of Christians, this should matter.

“The beauty of the Jesus movement, the Pauline communities and so on, is that they tried to be radically inclusive,” said Campbell. “So you’ve got Jew and Greek, slave and free, men and women, child and adult, sinner and so-on — alike.”

Pope Francis points to this same contradiction between clericalism and what he reads in the New Testament in his Aug. 20 letter. Every deacon, priest and bishop, along with all the vowed religious, prays the office every day. That means every evening they all recite the Magnificat — Mary’s response to the angel’s news that she will bear a son who will be Israel’s saviour.

“Mary’s song is not mistaken and continues to echo throughout history,” the Pope wrote. “For the Lord remembers the promise He made to our fathers: ‘He has scattered the proud in their conceit; He has cast down the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich He has sent away empty.’ We feel shame when we realize that our style of life has denied and continues to deny the words we recite.”

The Pope doesn’t believe it is just a group of self-important, self-satisfied priests and bishops who are to blame. Francis also sees clericalism among lay people. He is particularly wary of lay people who concern themselves exclusively with protecting and propping up the ordained.

“Without realizing it, we have generated a lay elite, believing that committed lay people are only those who work in the matters ‘of priests,’ and we have forgotten, overlooked, the believers who very often burn out their hope in the daily struggle to live the faith,” Francis wrote to Ouellet. “These are the situations that clericalism fails to notice, because it is more concerned with dominating spaces than with generating initiatives.”

Keiser is certain that a Church without clericalism will look, feel and act differently.

“It’s not without merit to consider other ways, either within the context of history or to look ahead, to reshape the Church in a way that doesn’t maintain this structure,” she said. “Whether or not that will happen, I don’t know. I think it’s anyone’s guess. My personal thought is that the Church will survive. It might not survive looking the way it does today, but it will survive. It has survived other things. How it will look? I don’t know.”

Sexual abuse and attempts to minimize its costs — financial and reputational — is not a new story in the Catholic Church. Keiser is and will remain Catholic while the Body of Christ battles this cancer. 

“My suspicion is that every body of faith, or whatever it is, has its own set of issues,” she said. “I don’t expect that sexual abuse is any less prevalent in any other church, or any other religious tradition for that matter. Having said that, clearly the structure of the Catholic Church manifests it in a certain way.”

No less disgusted than the rest of us are with sexual abuse, Campbell is not giving up her Church in the middle of the storm.

“What’s primary for me is my relationship with Christ and the sacraments,” she said. “I’m staying because of that.”

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