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Father Knows Best?

Reflections on clericalism in the priesthood

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On Sunday, Aug. 4, 2019, Pope Francis issued a surprise letter to his “brother priests” around the world. The occasion was ostensibly the 160th anniversary of the death of St. Jean-Marie Vianney, the famed Curé of Ars, patron saint of parish priests. Perhaps more telling, the letter was also the pope’s attempt to assuage the pain and anxiety many priests feel in the wake of the ongoing sexual abuse crisis and its aftermath.

The letter addresses four major themes regarding the priesthood: pain, gratitude, encouragement and praise. The pope explicitly announced his rationale in these words: “As an older brother and a father … to thank you in the name of the holy and faithful People of God for all that you do for them, and to encourage you never to forget the words that the Lord spoke with great love to us on the day of our ordination. Those words are the source of our joy: ‘I no longer call you servants … I call you friends’ (Jn 15:15).”

Maybe the most startling aspect of the letter is what it lacks. There is no mention of clericalism! Indeed, the words “cleric” and “clerical” are totally absent. The entire tone and content of the letter are not to denigrate distortions of the priesthood but to laud and encourage the better aspects of it, rooted in selfless service to the people of God.

This absence is noteworthy especially because Francis has made it clear from the beginning of his papacy that he views clericalism as a significant danger to contemporary ministry and a scourge that infects both the priesthood and the episcopacy. Numerous teachings have denigrated the clerical attitude of entitlement and careerism that many directly associated with the sexual abuse crisis. The letter tries to strike a balance in this regard. The pope says, for instance, “Without denying or dismissing the harm caused by some of our brothers, it would be unfair not to express our gratitude to all those priests who faithfully and generously spend their lives in the service of others (cf. 2 Cor 12:15).”

What Is Clericalism?

Clericalism is not a new phenomenon, but the definitions are not uniform. It can be said to exist in any society or culture where a distinction between clergy (clerics, or ordained ministers) and laity (non-ordained) exists in such a way as to create a chasm between the two. In such a setup, clerics are often viewed in a “higher” state than laypeople. (Think of the expression, “being reduced to the lay state.”) Conversely, the laity is viewed in a kind of secondary state, less privileged.

A generic description of clericalism could be the policy of according clerics (the ordained) a higher status in society by virtue of their ordination. It is tied to an attitude of entitlement that unfortunately has been linked directly to the way many ordained view themselves or are seen by others ― that is, as beyond the need for oversight. In such a description it is easy to see why an attitude of “father knows best” works as a modus operandi. Unfortunately, this perception of clerical privilege still exists, even among younger seminarians and priests.

I am appalled when I hear tales of some of our seminary alumni who seemed to have been model seminarians, then arrive in parishes and announce that it is their parish. They’re in charge. They are the boss. “Father knows best!” At times they also offend their co-workers — most of whom, statistically, are lay or religious women — with a domineering style of parochial ministry more characteristic of a pre-Vatican II triumphalist Church than contemporary models.

We should also emphasize here that clericalism is not merely an issue of the uniform one wears. Wearing a Roman collar, or even a cassock, is not necessarily an indication of a clericalist attitude. On the contrary, they are indicators of a special ministerial identity in the Church intended to be at the service of people. But if such is part of an attitude of superiority, then clericalism enters the picture in a real way.

Inherent Dangers

In a conversation with a brother priest one time, he opined that he did not see why there was such a fuss being made about clericalism. After all, he said, people expect us priests to be special. They see us as closer to God, personal intermediaries between heaven and earth. We are unique. Besides, we give up a lot to become priests. So why shouldn’t we have some privileges? He is not alone in that assessment.

Objectively speaking, though, I think there are three major dangers to clericalism. First, it is an attitude of superiority and privilege that creates a divide between laity and those ordained. It leads down a path where the fundamental notion of shared obligations in ministry envisioned by the Second Vatican Council is difficult to achieve. As the Vatican’s Congregation for the Clergy warned in the 2013 revision of the Directory for the Ministry and the Life of Priests, clericalism leads to “a desire to lord it over the laity, and this always generates antagonism between the sacred ministers and the people” (No. 25).

Second, since clericalism fosters a sense of superiority, it also leads to the temptation of considering ourselves “above the law.” It promotes an elitist mentality that resists external oversight. We preach to others, but somehow the message does not pertain to us. We have seen this so evidently in the sexual abuse crisis where any notion of accountability seemed absent in the face of serious ethical wrongdoing on the part of the clergy and, even worse, coverups on the part of some bishops and major superiors. The only way to combat such a temptation is to recognize that priestly identity also entails ethical obligations (see the accompanying quote from St. Jerome).

A third danger is that clericalism actually harms the mission of the Church rather than fostering it. As Pope Francis has indicated in several talks, clericalism narrows the perspective of the Church’s mission. It limits the contributions laypeople can make by virtue of their baptismal participation in the threefold ministry of Christ as prophet, priest and king. Its focus becomes oriented toward controlling outcomes and projects in a way that stifles the work of the Holy Spirit. A priest who does not feel that he has to control every aspect of parish life and ministry is a far more effective “elder” (presbyter) in the community precisely because he participates with them and facilitates them to take charge of their parish. Such a priest exercises leadership in action. It fosters the Church’s mission.

Combatting Clericalism

One of the worst reactions we priests could have in the face of accusations of clericalism is to become defensive and/or deny it. That is probably our first temptation. After all, just as not all priests have engaged in sexual abuse, neither are all automatically guilty of a clericalist attitude. But some of our brothers have done both, and egregiously at that. There are, however, some strategies that can be used to combat clericalism. Let me propose seven.

1) The first and perhaps most fundamental step is to reclaim our baptismal identity. Cardinal Blase Cupich, in a recent talk on clericalism, recalled an incident during Vatican II. In one of the debates, Cardinal Franjo Šeper issued a reminder to his brother bishops at the council: “Remember, ordination does not annihilate one’s baptism.” This essential point needs to be emphasized again and again in priestly formation. One’s priestly identity is first and foremost rooted in our baptism, by which we enter into Jesus Christ’s unique ministry as prophet, priest, and king (or shepherd). This is the first foundation of our “priestly” ministerial vocation, but it is one that quickly fades into the background when all the trappings of ordination begin to predominate our identity.

2) Another recommendation is the importance of priests engaging in ongoing formation.

Bishops should exercise their leadership by rallying their presbyterates together in regular, planned and dynamic efforts at ongoing formation. In fact, one of the big deficits that I see in the Church is the lack of any planning for episcopal ongoing formation. Since Pastores Dabo Vobis, Pope St. John Paul II’s 1992 post-synodal apostolic exhortation on priestly formation, the Church has promoted the importance of ongoing priestly formation (not episcopal) that started off well in some areas but has slowly dissipated in the wake of more urgent needs. This enlightened document, which most recently served as the inspiration for the revised Ratio Fundamentalis Formationis Sacerdotalis (2016), was the first magisterial teaching that devoted an entire chapter to ongoing formation of priests (chapter 6). The Ratio itself now enshrines this principle by emphasizing that ongoing formation is a lifelong process (cf. Nos. 80-88, 152).

Unfortunately, inculcating this attitude in seminarians and priests today, let alone bishops, has proven difficult. All pay homage to the principle while observing it in the breach. This reluctance to devote time, resources and energy to ongoing formation means that we will never take seriously the need to combat clericalism because we have “arrived.”

3) My third recommendation is to reconsider our theological language on the priesthood. The time has come perhaps to set aside talk about priestly powers (potestas, munera, governance) in favor of the more biblically sound language of service, ministry and servanthood. The readings at all ordination ceremonies (bishops, priests, deacons) show that we are conscious of this language of servanthood. It is a vocabulary rooted in the teaching of Jesus himself. Remember the great scene when two of his own disciples, the Zebedee brothers (or in the case of Matthew, their mother), sought to be placed in positions of distinction (to the indignation of the other ten), Jesus responded:

“You know that those who are recognized as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones make their authority over them felt. But it is not this way among you. Instead whoever wants to be great (megas) among you will be your servant [diakonos], and whoever wants to be first [protos] among you will be the slave [doulos] of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served [diakonēthēnai] but to serve [diakonēsai], and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mk 10:42-45; cf. Mt 20:25-28).

We should not miss the import of the language in this text. The word “servant” (diakonos) is paralleled with a word that means, literally, “slave” (doulos) in the sense of one who is bound to the service of a master. It is a word that connotes obligation, not voluntary service. And the verb “serve,” or “be served,” is the word diakoneō, which is used of those who truly minister to others, as in the noun diakonos. Neither word connotes privilege or innate honor. All too often we recite this passage fervently and nod knowingly, all the while ignoring its impact. Note, too, that the apostle Paul shares similar vocabulary, emphasizing that he is a slave of Christ (cf. Rom 1:1; Gal 1:10) and a servant of others (1 Thes 2:7-12).

4) A fourth strategy involves our relationships as priests. Too often, especially today, priests lead isolated lives. The priest shortage in the Northern Hemisphere has meant that many priests work alone, often overseeing multiple parishes (perhaps merged) and wearing multiple “hats” on the diocesan level. We have less and less time to foster healthy relationships with laity and fellow presbyters alike. This situation tends to foster excessive individualism and ambition, exacerbates loneliness and can also lead to petty jealousies within the clergy.

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Pope Francis on the Scourge of Clericalism

“It is therefore necessary, on the one hand, to decisively overcome the scourge of clericalism. Listening and leaving aside stereotypes are powerful antidotes to the risk of clericalism, to which an assembly such as this is inevitably exposed, despite our intentions. Clericalism arises from an elitist and exclusivist vision of vocation, that interprets the ministry received as a power to be exercised rather than as a free and generous service to be given. This leads us to believe that we belong to a group that has all the answers and no longer needs to listen or learn anything, or that pretends to listen. Clericalism is a perversion and is the root of many evils in the Church: we must humbly ask forgiveness for this and above all create the conditions so that it is not repeated.”

— Synod on Youth, Opening Address, Oct. 3, 2018

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5) Despite the voices that have called for the dismantling of seminaries (as well as the demolition of the priesthood!), I think it wiser to engage in (yet another) reform of seminaries. There are those who insist that the seminary system is totally outmoded. Some systems indeed seem to be a throwback to another era, one in which clericalism thrived. But I don’t think we need to throw the baby out with the bathwater, as the saying goes. Rather, some down-to-earth practical seminary reforms could help combat clericalism. Clerical attire should not be promoted too early in the program. In addition to priests, qualified laypeople — both women and men — should be engaged in appropriate roles in priestly formation, as the revised Ratio itself invites (cf. No. 151). Seminarians should also, ideally, attend academic and pastoral courses with others engaged in ministry, such as permanent deacons and lay women and men. In my experience, sometimes lay students outshine seminarians in their intellectual rigor. Often they are more motivated, work harder and are truly engaged by the material, and not merely to fulfill ordination requirements.

6) A sixth suggestion is that we cannot be effective in our efforts to combat clericalism by reforming the clergy if it does not mean also reforming the episcopacy. While it is true that Vatican II did much to update the role of the bishop in the Church theologically, we have a ways to go in terms of the practical application of this ministry. It is glaringly clear from events over the last two years that the big lacuna in accountability during the sexual abuse crisis has been the lack of any structure to hold bishops accountable, not only for abusers but also for those involved in coverups.

This is the reality that most upsets the laity. While they are dismayed by clerical abusers, even more galling is the misguided attempt to protect the Church’s reputation rather than victims. Bishops, as vicars for Christ on earth, are accountable to the People of God as well as to the pope. Fortunately, after the international meeting on sex abuse with Pope Francis in Rome in February 2019, and the subsequent publication of his motu proprio Vox Estis Lux (May 2019), we now have experimental norms to redress this lack of episcopal oversight.

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Second Vatican Council on Baptismal and Ministerial Priesthood

“Though priests of the New Testament, in virtue of the sacrament of Orders, exercise the most outstanding and necessary office of father and teacher among and for the People of God, they are nevertheless, together with all Christ’s faithful, disciples of the Lord, made sharers in his kingdom by the grace of God’s call (cf. 1 Thes 2:12; Col 1:13). For priests are brothers among brothers with all those who have been reborn at the baptismal font. They are all members of one and the same Body of Christ, the building up of which is required of everyone.”

Presbyterorum Ordinis, Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests, No. 9

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7) My final suggestion — and in some ways, the most important — is a serious examination of conscience of the way we priests live our lives and witness to our priestly promises. I am convinced that the best way to combat clericalism is by priestly lives that show concretely that we have not been ordained to lord it over others or to establish a class of privileged ministers within the Church. The daily witness of priests in their parishes, in fact, seems not to have seriously eroded the confidence of parishioners in their own parish priests. The day-to-day fidelity to our ministry goes a long way to showing people that we have not abandoned, and will not abandon, our priestly vocation. Actions still speak louder than words. Leading our life of prayer, of service, of humility, and of docility to the Spirit, day in and day out, is what is needed to combat clericalism.

I do not say that this is easy. It is a great temptation to fall into established patterns of behavior, to allow people to continue to put us on a pedestal or to rationalize that we “deserve” one or another privilege because we have sacrificed something for the People of God.

Conclusion

Clericalism will likely remain a temptation in the Catholic priesthood for some time. It is strongly embedded in the institutional Church and, I dare say, in the popular Catholic mindset. But it need not be that way. We can, and must, work against clericalism because it is a false idol. It is not Jesus’ view of ministry. Only when we, by God’s grace, recover the desire to become once more true servants of the People of God, configured properly to the good Shepherd, can we forge a new path for the priesthood in our day.

Sulpician Father Ronald D. Witherup is superior general of the Society of St. Sulpice and author, most recently, of “What Does the Bible Say About Old Age?” (New City Press, $16.95).

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A Mission that Belongs to the Whole Church

“The lack of consciousness of belonging to God’s faithful people as servants, and not masters, can lead us to one of the temptations that is most damaging to the missionary outreach that we are called to promote: clericalism, which ends up as a caricature of the vocation we have received. A failure to realize that the mission belongs to the entire Church, and not to the individual priest or bishop, limits the horizon, and even worse stifles all the initiatives that the Spirit may be awakening in our midst. Let us be clear about this. The laypersons are not our peons, or our employees. They don’t have to parrot back whatever we say. ‘Clericalism, far from giving impetus to various contributions and proposals, gradually extinguishes the prophetic flame to which the entire Church is called to bear witness. Clericalism forgets that the visibility and the sacramentality of the Church belong to all the faithful people of God (cf. Lumen Gentium, Nos. 9-14), not only to the few chosen and enlightened’”

— Meeting with the bishops of Chile during his apostolic trip to Chile, Jan. 16, 2018

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