Consecrated to the Heart of the Redeemer under the patronage of the Theotokos and Fr. Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.

15 October 2013

The Clericalism Clash

The latest strife to surface online is clericalism. Quite a frenzy has erupted in the Catholic blogosphere, all catalyzed by a newly-ordained Franciscan friar, Fr. Daniel P. Horan. He testifies that people distinguish him from other young priests because he is approachable and unpretentious, and not trapped in trappings like fancy vestments and such.

Knowing that my sparse yet benevolent readers are champing at the bit, waiting for me to weigh in on this issue, I cannot disappoint them – even if it is five minutes late. You see, I was just about to go out for a run when somebody brought another yet another post to my attention. I wasn't going to be disturbed on my day off, even though I still have the emergency beeper for hospital coverage and can't really go too far out of the territory. (Was I being clericalist by mentioning this, or just prideful? Or are they one and the same?)

After about three years of blogging, I have learned that where you get the real news and commentary is not in the articles, but in the comment boxes, on the blogs and the Facebook feed. These are the "fireside chats" where persons of every doctrinal, liturgical, and moral stripe gather like vultures around the carcass.
Ubicumque fuerit corpus, illuc congregabuntur aquilae (Mt 24:28): When a word is spoken or written (cf. Pilate: "What I have written, I have written"), it is "dead"--finished, irretrievable--and thus its author is liable to be picked apart. That's an apt saying; I shall make it my episcopal motto!
If you're interested...
(1) Haughtiness and unapproachability are not the exclusive property of the young. Neither is the preference for high-church vessels and vestments. (2) The preference for high-church vessels and vestments is not to be equated with haughtiness and unapproachability. (3) The preference for low-church vessels and vestments is not to be equated with the demeanor of a servant of God. 

A priest for twenty-five years, Fr. John Trigilio responds to Fr. Horan on the supposed relationship of attire to demeanor, branching out from there. Newly-ordained Father Michael Duffy offers another response. From his pastoral activity, especially in Confession, he acknowledges that a great many people are holier than he.  Also Father William Grimm highlights the importance of service for clergy, noting the peculiar "normalcy" of clergy who are not above washing dishes, shopping for groceries, waiting in lines, or shoveling snow--"menial" activities that our good people discharge while managing their households and performing secular jobs that many priests would bungle in a heartbeat!

Wikipedia has it that the term clericalism "has...been applied in a pejorative manner to describe the cronyism and cloistered political environs of the Church, mainly in reference to the Roman Catholic Church." I found this nuance interesting: "The phenomenon of clericalism is not restricted to the ordained, as it occurs in purely secular guilds, such as academia, the legal and medical establishments, and the public-safety clergy: the police and military." 

Clericalism involves a two-tier approach that separates (as opposed to "distinguishes") clergy from laity (although there might be a variation that separates clergy from vowed religious). The phrase being bandied about in the readings I've encountered is "putting on a pedestal." When people are put on a pedestal, I've found, it's so they can be knocked down from it.

Who performs the idolatry, and what might it resemble?

For the clergy, clerical idolatry involves the sense of being beyond scrutiny or reproach. "What we do and how we speak is none of the people's business to judge," and often this self-defense attempts to withstand the critique of fellow priests and bishops. According to texts of yore (I think of the era of Fulton Sheen), the priesthood is a "higher calling." While this bears some validity when properly understood, idolators among the clergy will (consciously or not) co-opt this notion to justify their behaviors, especially the spending of money and time. "I can't be bothered with them." Someone once suggested that a kind of clericalism can prompt confessors to tell penitents that they may violate a teaching of the Church (e.g. to get a tubal ligation), effectively to say, "I can speak for Jesus here." Priests who refuse to recognize the talents and opinions of the laity in parish decision-making also exhibit a clericalist mentality.

For the laity, clerical idolatry likewise involves the sense of being beyond scrutiny or reproach. The priest is not to be questioned. We must cover for, excuse, his behaviors and attitudes. "He has to let off some steam somehow. We must have done or said something to irritate him. He doesn't have a wife." People may even question their own motives and refrain from calling out their priest on egregious errors. But according to Fr. Dwight Longenecker, some laity will take the opposite approach to those who fawn over their priests: instead they will pay him lip-service but passively defy and defame him in his absence. Another example: people keep an unhealthy distance from their priests, fearing that they are "always so busy," and feeling unworthy to seek help with their sins and personal problems. "He can't be bothered with me."

Clergy and laity unwittingly can feed off each other in the promotion of clericalist mindsets and practices. It is a vicious cycle found among households where addiction is present. This is not surprising, as addiction thrives on secrecy, on making exemptions for oneself, rationalizing and justifying, ego-boosting and ego-deflating.

The fallout from the clergy abuse scandal accounts for much of the recent conversation about clericalism, notwithstanding the articles authored by, or concerning, the clericalism observed in young priests. As one who was ordained deacon in the year when the scandals began to unravel (2002), I can say that priests ordained since ca. 2000 are aware of the clericalism that led to the scandal, but we must guard against newer iterations; and who's to say that the sexually scandalous sort is altogether dead?

We are learning from our elder brothers in the priesthood that "priests need priests"--we profit from fraternal companionship and camaraderie. But we must also ask ourselves what we need each other for.   "Set, O Lord, a guard over my mouth; keep watch at the door of my lips" (Ps 141:3): we can run the risk of wasting opportunities for fraternal interaction on unworthy topics just as much as our people may waste them at water coolers, in locker rooms, or other roadsides where carcasses lie. In the past nineteen years (nine as a seminarian, ten as a priest) I have very much appreciated the company of the priests of our diocese. It affords many opportunities to learn and grow, when I am open to them. I hope I am contributing in kind to the positive climate, not putting the "bitter" in the presbyterate.

While priests are unique in terms of our identity and mission in the Church and society, this uniqueness does not ipso facto render us holier or more virtuous than our non-ordained counterparts. (Not that we want to go out of our way to prove that!) If anything--and we've heard this before--it makes us accountable to our people. If they desire or expect from us the Church's doctrinal and moral teachings, reverent liturgical offering (ordinary, extraordinary, St. John Chrysostom, St. Basil, whatever), sound guidance on prayer, or upright personal conduct, this seems eminently faithful and reasonable!

People must "settle for" priests who are human beings, who have bad days and make bad choices (because that's what we are, and what we often do), but this fact does not absolve us from the constant impetus to grow alongside our people. Frequent association with them, inside and outside of the expected parish context, is absolutely necessary. Ideally that contact makes us appropriately vulnerable: we become open to critique as well as praise, teaching us how to process feedback and make salutary adjustments. As Fr. Grimm notes that priests are "normal," we don't have to consider that normalcy an impediment to the Gospel, but rather a conduit. Nothing genuinely priestly need be sacrificed or even compromised by being in mundo conversatus ("moving about in the world"; cf. St. Thomas' hymn Pange Lingua).

I often tell people that I went through seminary with more interest in becoming a "theological practitioner" than a "community organizer," but especially since ordination I have been learning more skills well suited to the latter. (Life has a way of redirecting and reshaping our interests and aptitudes.) As the above-cited Wikipedia article mentioned, a kind of clericalism can exist among the medical profession, sometimes evident in a doctor's lack of "bedside manner." No seminary can adequately teach what our bishop calls "pastoral finesse," though they do their best. Our people can teach us a great deal, if we let them. That, it seems, is the antidote to clericalism.

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