Let’s end clericalism in our church

Finally, there appears an issue that our divided church can agree on.

Catholics of all stripes—conservatives and liberals and in-betweens—are declaring a pox on clericalism.

From Pope Francis to the back pew widow, from seminary rectors to lay ecclesial ministers, it’s agreed that clericalism is crippling the pastoral mission of the church.

At the same time it is strengthening the secularists’ claim that Catholic clergy are nothing more than papal agents bent on enforcing rigid moral controls which smother our human instinct for pleasure and freedom. So let’s end clericalism in the church.

Yes, of course, let’s end clericalism. It’s just plain right to heed the growing consensus that clericalism must go.

But something tells me, “not so fast.”

This cancer crippling the Catholic world—from local communities to Vatican offices—is so deeply embedded in our past and present church fabric that a careful pre-surgery examination is called for.

So, pull on your surgical gloves and join me in the pre-op room.

We know clericalism when we encounter it, whether on the parish level or in the media’s caricaturist portrayal of priests and bishops.

No smell of the sheep

But although we know clericalism when we see it, it’s not so easy to define it.

Here’s how I see it: Clericalism is an attitude found in many (but not all) clergy who have put their status as priests and bishops above their status as baptized disciples of Jesus Christ.

In doing so, a sense of privilege and entitlement emerges in their individual and collective psyches.

This, in turn, breeds a corps of ecclesiastical elites who think they’re not like other men.

Clergy caught up in this kind of purple-hewed seduction are incapable of seeing that it freezes their humanity—their ability to simply connect on a human level with the various sorts of God’s holy people.

Of all the sour fruits of clericalism, this inability to connect with others might be the most damaging.

When the ordained come across as somehow superior to their parishioners and people they encounter, the playing field is tilted. This kind of disconnect can be fatal to a priest’s efforts to build a sense of community in his parish.

It’s often difficult for parishioners to feel comfortable with a clerical priest.

They simple don’t find “Father” approachable.

The same can be said of bishops who are all too comfortable thinking of themselves as princes by divine selection.

They connect neither with their priests nor with the people they’re meant to shepherd.

And you won’t find the smell of the sheep on them.

Professional distance, but…

Often that’s exactly what clergy caught up in clericalism want: They believe a certain distance from the non-ordained is fitting and right.

Of course, priests need not be chummy with their parishioners, and the pastor-parishioner relationship requires maturity and prudence on the part of the ordained.

Most pastors are all too aware of the smothering demands of some of their flock.

Without question, they need to safeguard their privacy and find time when they are, so to speak, “off the clock.”

But clericalism by its nature exaggerates this need.

Without fail, it breeds artificiality and superficiality between pastors and parishioners.

Though often unnamed, something real is missing.

Clerical priests and bishops (and yes, clerical deacons) come to see their power to confer sacraments, to preach, and to teach and administer as the bedrock of their identity.

When this happens, they lose sight of the truth that the church’s power is ultimately the power of the Holy Spirit. Without words, they seem to say “We are clergy… and you’re not.”

A kind of lay clericalism!

Years ago, when I served as my diocese’s vicar for priests, I spoke with a highly placed lay diocesan official who related his fear that he was being co-opted by the system—that he was becoming “clerical.”

I told him not to worry.

The very fact that he sensed the danger was his deliverance.

We agreed that a number of his lay colleagues apparently didn’t see the danger.

These lay chancery workers thought of themselves as insiders. And in a real sense they were.

And like many of their ordained colleagues, their first loyalty was now to the church as institution rather than to the gospel and to the faithful they served.

So the cancer of clericalism, in its broadest sense, is not restricted to deacons, priests, and bishops. Continue reading

Father Donald Cozzens is a writer in residence at John Carroll University, where he teaches in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies.

Image: St John’s Atonement Seminary

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