The End of Clericalism
It is not easy being a Catholic priest at a time when on various fronts they are being criticised.
One of the many tragedies of the abuse scandal is that it has cast a shadow over the whole priesthood, with a fracture in the trust between the clergy as a whole and the faithful (though not necessarily between individual priests and their parishioners).
With every new revelation of the scandal, the reputation of the priesthood takes a knock. And with new scandals developing, such as the abuse of religious Sisters or financial violations, many good priests become collateral victims to the dismay of the people — even as most clergy are themselves outraged at such crimes. And yet most priests are living out their vocations with integrity, commitment, generosity, faith and love. They do as well as they can. Such priests must be supported, not abandoned to generalisations.
The clergy is getting criticism, not always without justification, for stipends and stole fees (usually because of abuses committed by a few), the quality of homilies and the liturgy, fiscal management, time management, and so on.
And yet most priests are living out their vocations with integrity, commitment, generosity, faith and love. They do as well as they can. Such priests must be supported, not abandoned to generalisations.
At the same time, it is good and necessary that the laity is asking questions of priests and bishops. The times are gone when it was an axiom that Father knew best and their Lordships and Graces even better.
Pope Francis has blamed much of the malaise in the Church on clericalism. That disorder, it must be stressed, concretely afflicts a minority of clerics and laity — and yet it permeates the culture of the Church at every level.
The pope has exhorted the faithful to help eradicate the phenomenon whereby priests are assumed to be superior to the laity and demand, or are given, excessive deference. Clericalism sees priests as a caste apart, one which is above censure and protects itself from it. At its worst, clericalism is at the heart of the institutional failure which gave rise to the cover-up of sexual abuse and other offences.
Clericalism also entails the assumption that there are non-sacramental, non-liturgical and non-canonically prescribed tasks in the Church which only a priest can perform, with the attendant expectation by some clerics of appointments to elevated positions.
Clericalism sees priests as a caste apart, one which is above censure and protects itself from it. At its worst, clericalism is at the heart of the institutional failure which gave rise to the cover-up of sexual abuse and other offences. Priests occupy a special position in the Church. They are the shepherds who, in the words of Pope Francis, must smell like the sheep
Of course, fighting clericalism must not be anti-clerical. Priests occupy a special position in the Church. They are the shepherds who, in the words of Pope Francis, must smell like the sheep (meaning, they must not be remote from the people whom they are assigned to lead).
In the ministration of sacraments, the priest acts in persona Christi thanks to the “indelible mark” on his soul which he receives when he is admitted to Holy Orders. He retains that “indelible mark” even when he sins, even when he is incompetent, even when he is offensive.
But that gift does not grant a priest immunity from criticism, especially when he is sinful, incompetent or offensive. It does not mean that a priest has better judgment than others, or that he is morally superior.
This is what Pope Francis — who himself sometimes still falls into the clericalist trap — is referring to when he advocates against clericalism.
He draws straight from St Peter, who himself reaffirmed Jesus’ words when he admonished the apostles: “Do not lord it over those assigned to you, but be examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:3). Instead of expecting excessive deference, respect; instead of notions of moral superiority, humble witness.
Instead of expecting excessive deference, respect; instead of notions of moral superiority, humble witness.
In dismantling the old clericalist facades, which have separated the clergy from the laity, priests become more exposed than they were in the past. That can be difficult, especially when priests tend to be held to higher moral standards than lay people.
But there is a challenge for lay people as well. If priests are to be regarded as no better nor worse than the laity, then they must be afforded the same generosity of spirit which lay people would expect to be applied to themselves in their own failings.
It also means that the laity must collaborate with the clergy, in ways many already do and in ways that will need to be defined.
Pope Francis is right: clericalism must go. And that has implications for the priesthood and the laity alike.
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