Dropping the ‘Father’?
Pope Francis frequently condemns a culture of clericalism in which priests “lord it” over the laity and pursue a path of self-aggrandisement rather than of service.
It is a culture of clericalism in which priests look after priests, no matter what. This is what created the culture of silence on abuses of power and cover-ups that has given rise to all manner of scandal, from sexual abuse to financial corruption, on every level of the hierarchy.
The call to eradicate this culture of clericalism must not be understood as an agitation against priests. Indeed, it would be a tragedy if anti-clericalism were to become anti-clerical. We must continue to love our priests and the priesthood. Many priests themselves reject clericalism and seek a reform of how the priesthood is exercised and treated.
Many priests themselves reject clericalism and seek a reform of how the priesthood is exercised and treated.
As we noted in an editorial on clericalism earlier this year, the days when “Father knows best” was the prevalent parish motto are irrevocably gone.
The relationship between priest and laity has to be unfailingly collaborative. While the priest-in-charge of a parish occupies the executive position, with all the responsibilities this entails, he must not feel entitled to ride roughshod over his community’s laity.
Likewise, lay people must no longer accept it when a priest — or, indeed, a bishop — tries to dominate them.
Key to that awareness is to see the priest as a fallible human being, with strengths and weaknesses, and answerable for his failings. It also means that the laity must be charitable when the priest does not meet lofty expectations. The culture of clericalism cuts both ways: priests who set themselves apart, and laity who set the priests apart. Both create an unhealthy power dynamic.
The culture of clericalism cuts both ways: priests who set themselves apart, and laity who set the priests apart. Both create an unhealthy power dynamic.
In his column this week, contributor Chris McDonnell argues that two external signs serve to create those barriers: “forms of address and the dress code that provides the hiding place for the insecurity of some”.
The question of clerical dress is complex: a priest does not lose his humility by the mere act of wearing a soutane, but some priests do use clerical garb to assert their power over those with whom they interact.
It would be absurd to ask priests to cease wearing clerical garb. Indeed, there are times when they should do so.
But if a priest turns up at a parish pastoral council meeting wearing a cassock, the question may be asked whether this is an innocuous choice of dress, whether it is intended to be an expression of power, or whether it has an unintended effect of asserting clerical control. For many Catholics, addressing priests by their first name, without the title “Father”, is improper. But this is exactly what Cardinal John Dew of Wellington in New Zealand recently suggested as a way of “changing the whole clerical attitude”
The same applies to honorifics. For many Catholics, addressing priests by their first name, without the title “Father”, is improper. But this is exactly what Cardinal John Dew of Wellington in New Zealand recently suggested as a way of “changing the whole clerical attitude”.
The practice of calling priests “Father”, Cardinal Dew said, “can be unhealthy because it becomes an expression of dependence which is based on a false and unreal idea of obedience”.
This suggestion gives food for thought, even if it is unlikely to gain traction. Certainly, there will be no Vatican directive to this effect.
While in the Anglophone world, with its informalities in addressing others, dropping the address “Father” is a plausible proposition, it is less likely to be culturally appropriate in societies where the use of formal titles is entrenched, as it is in most of Africa and Asia, and in many European countries. However, surely there no longer are good reasons to dutifully refer to bishops as “Your Lordships, Graces and Eminences”.
However, surely there no longer are good reasons to dutifully refer to bishops as “Your Lordships, Graces and Eminences”.
Indeed, the demise of clericalism does not depend on people calling Cardinal Dew by his Christian name. But clericalism would be diminished if no priest and no bishop has the instinctive expectation to be addressed by his honorific title. The archbishop of Johannesburg, for example, introduces himself to all, regardless of their social standing, by his first name only.
Many priests and bishops have reached that point already. The archbishop of Johannesburg, for example, introduces himself to all, regardless of their social standing, by his first name only.
Lay people might try it: at the right time and in the correct context, politely address your parish priest by his first name only (provided he calls you by your first name).
If he objects, one may well ask why this is so.
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