Clericalists Discuss Clericalism

America Magazine ran an opinion piece on clericalism from a young monk who thinks his fellow young priests are too clericalist. That engendered some impassioned responses, which you can find linked at Deacon Greg Kandra's place, along with a few updates since the discussion first began.

It's extremely depressing to me that none of the linked pieces (at least as of Columbus Day morning -- I don't know what else Deacon Greg might link later) has anything to do with clericalism -- except that they each in their own way exemplify it by thinking about a genuine problem in the Church only from the perspective of the priestly ministry. Each piece is rather a slightly unseemly (to me anyway) participation in a priestly cat-fight over rubrics and liturgical tastes, with each side claiming the other is rigid and authoritarian. Cards on the table: my sympathies are more with the "right-wing" clergy. It's perfectly true to my experience that -- Popes Francis & Benedict excepted-- there's usually a direct proportion between a priest's call for dialogue and understanding in the Spirit of Vatican II and his tendency to brook no dissent from his own opinions.

An authoritarian or rigid personal style --or overweening pride--is sinful, but not necessarily clericalist. Clericalism doesn't mean that. It means the tendency to put the priest's role at the center of the Church's mission, as if the laity existed to build up the clergy and not vice versa. It’s failure on the part of clergy to understand and respect the lay vocation of sanctifying the secular world by their work within it. It’s constantly sucking the laity into the personal service of the priest and his duties rather than equipping them and accompanying them for their own mission and learning from them.

My classic example of clericalism? I have a friend who for years has labored as a human rights lawyer defending persecuted Christians. When she came back to the faith a decade or so ago, her pastor kind of bullied and cajoled her into doing pro bono work for the parish: that was the limit of his vision of what a human rights lawyer ought to be doing. That was his conception of her contribution to the Church as a lay Christian – no respect for the scope and importance of the work she’s taken on -- the hundreds of thousands of lives at stake-- no asking how he could accompany her to strengthen  her in an often lonely mission. He had a literally parochial understanding of her mission and its possibilities. THAT is what clericalism is, and there is no shortage of clergy anywhere on the political or liturgical spectrum who suffer from it! 40 years after Vatican II and all this incessant tittle-tattle about the role of the laity, and still all anyone is thinking about is how lay-people can pitch in and do a little yard work outside the rectory.

Clericalism is more represented by priests and bishops --who have no particular charism for understanding politics or economics-- prescribing for the laity which economic policies they must endorse rather than elucidating the core principles of Catholic social teaching, forming in their flock a genuinely Christian conscience, and then letting -- trusting!-- men and women with actual expertise in such matters to work out (through proposals and debate) how those rules apply in our time. 

In each of his encyclicals and in all of his eight years of trying to impart the proper role of the Church in a secular world, Benedict XVI could not have been more clear that the laity are charged with engaging the secular world through reason and though their witness as they go about their work.  In my view we laity are constantly hampered in this by bishops’ conference statements and individual homilies that presume to tell us how Catholics must think --not on the non-negotiable matters of life and marriage, which is appropriate-- but on the prudential questions where the clergy should be listening to and learning from the laity. 

We would have many more legitimate and creative and workable proposals for all manner of things – health care, entitlement reform, care for the elderly and other important social justice concerns – if lay people actually in those fields were empowered and encouraged to make such proposals rather than prevented a priori from doing so by sweeping statements from chancery offices crafted by people with degrees in theology and social work and administration, but no functioning knowledge of medicine, economics, climate science or a host of other things.

Think about the current battle to defend against the HHS mandate. The bishops’ conference initial reaction was to protest the HHS rule because it threatened Catholic institutions – but they did not at first defend individual consciences at all. They wanted to carve-out an exception for Church-owned property but had nothing to say on behalf of the laity, much less the good of all citizens. That was clericalism of the first water! It was caring more about Church institutions than about either the truth or the people they're called to serve.

Thanks be to God (and Bishop Lori!) their approach has since broadened – but they still impose on us laity the view that nationalized health care is a good thing, except for this pesky contraception mandate. But there’s nothing in Church teaching that mandates a federal approach to health insurance as opposed to more local approaches– and turning over huge swathes of the economy to bureaucrats is an approach inherently at odds with respect for individual conscience. It weakens any religious claims on the state because instead of putting the onus on the state to make no laws infringing on free exercise of religion, we become reduced to begging for exemptions from laws that apply to everyone else, placing ourselves further and further on the fringe of society.  

The Church’s entire relationship with the state ought to be re-examined, but we are not allowed to have an honest exploration of that relationship because priests and bishops treat the Church's social teaching like copyrighted material only they can think about or use or have opinions about rather than truths for the good of mankind we should be happy to have everyone engage. To be suspicious of state power and to want more local person-centered solutions precisely because you see the way burgeoning statism is damaging the poor and the common good is treated by the bulk of the clergy (and the Nuns on the Bus) as tantamount to being a robber baron.

By contrast, I was very struck in one of Cardinal Ratzinger’s book-length interviews by a discussion he had about how the CDF consulted American doctors about end-of-life issues. In other words, Cardinal Ratzinger and the theologians who worked with him did not assume that because no one understood theology better than they that they knew how to apply Church teaching in real life. They consulted experts in the field to learn: what does the end stage of life look like? Is there ever an occasion when nutrition and hydration might harm or cause suffering rather than help? Etc.  I see very little of that attitude of respect for the laity’s real expertise and cultivation of it in the Church at large – whether on the so-called Right or Left. A lay person who dares to think about how to apply the social teachings of the Church is going to meet with distrust and a fine hammering from just about everyone -- it is not safe to speak of these things to Catholics. Not to the Left, which is too busy patting itself on the back because some of its best friends are poor without any hard look at whether the programs it has advocated since the Great Depression are actually still working. And not to the Right, which is likely to proof-text some magisterial teaching at you but refuse to think about how the principle involved applies in our own situation as opposed to some imagined Catholic golden age. 

And we laity, unfortunately, beg to be clericalized (as Cardinal Bergoglio once said in an interview with 30 Days)  in this way because it’s far easier to stake out one's turf in the parish and whine, "Why don't the bishops DO something?!?" than it is to try to bring Jesus into the world yourself, even if that's what you're here for.

The mission of the Church is to bring the Good News to all mankind. The clergy are here to govern the Church and teach and sanctify her members. The laity, well prepared through clear and faithful teaching and made holy by Christ's life in them through the sacraments -- are then by their work and presence in the world to sanctify the entire secular order. As long we're all arguing about parish life and can't see beyond it, we're ALL being clericalist and I believe that is what Pope Francis has been going on about the past few months.