Saturday, August 24, 2013

The Scourge of Clericalism

Pope Francis:
… Our Lady, Mary, was more important than the Apostles, than bishops and deacons and priests.  Women, in the Church, are more important than bishops and priests; how, this is something we have to try to explain better, because I believe that we lack a theological explanation of this.  Thank you.
Press conference on plane returning from WYD Rio

Reflection – I quoted this same passage yesterday, and getting to the end of my blog post realized that I have a lot more to say about this subject of priests and the priesthood, their relative importance and the role and mission of women and the laity in general in the Church. I realized yesterday that this whole subject and the questions it raises are very much at the heart of my own vocation in Madonna House, and in fact I believe MH has a significant contribution to make to the conversation in the Church about men and women, priests and laity, and their proper ordering.

I won’t repeat everything I said yesterday and in my prior post ‘A Theology of Woman.’ Scroll on down, or click on the relevant links in the ‘Most Popular Posts’ on the right hand sidebar. Today I want to talk about what I think the Pope is critiquing here, that is, the scourge of clericalism in the Church.

So what is this thing, clericalism? It’s a bit hard to define, although like the judge in the obscenity case, I can say that “I know it when I see it.” Clericalism is not showing respect to priests because they are priests. That is faith in the presence of Christ in the ordained minister. Clericalism is not recognizing and submitting to the proper teaching authority of pope and bishop in defining Catholic doctrine. That too is faith in the guiding presence of the Spirit in the Church Christ founded. Clericalism is not being properly obedient to the pastor in the matters in which he has been given authority by his bishop. That is simply good order, both natural and supernatural.

So what is clericalism? It’s a bit tricky to define it. It is a losing sight of the human being who bears the grace of the priesthood. It is putting the man on a pedestal, a fawning, cringing attitude that places a vast distance between priest and people. It is being scandalized when a priest does wrong—not only grave egregious evils like sexual abuse, but the normal foibles and failures every human being is prone to. It is a certain immaturity that ascribes, or expects, total holiness and perfection from the priest while not expecting very much from oneself and other lay people. From the side of the priest, it is an expectation of being waited on, served, catered to, a use of one’s office to bully or lord over or to insulate oneself from the hard knocks of interpersonal relationships.

It is also an exaggerated sense of the centrality of the priesthood in the life of the Church. Now this is tricky. Clearly, the Eucharist is the source and summit of Christian life, and the priest is above all a man of the Eucharist, a servant of this mystery. Clearly the forgiveness of sins is necessary to enter the kingdom of heaven, and the priest is minister of forgiveness. Clearly baptism is the very doorway into the paschal mystery and its saving power, and the priest is the ordinary minister of baptism.

All of that is granted, right? But let us be clear—and I think this is where Madonna House really has something to say, based on our 65 years of lived experience—the whole ministry of the ordained priest is at the service of, and ordered to, the sanctification and (hence) empowerment of the laity, of the whole people of God, a ‘holy nation, a royal priesthood, a people set apart.’

Everyone is a priest, by virtue of his or her baptism. The insistence that women cannot be full members of the Church unless they are ordained priests is based on a deeply clericalist mindset, that somehow the ordained priesthood is ‘the real deal’ and this business of lay apostolate and lay holiness and the vocation of the laity in the world is somehow a second-class, second-tier affair. This attitude is the heart of clericalism—there, I finally defined it!

The ‘real deal’ is not the priestly ministry and office. The real deal is that which Mary communicates to us, that mysterious thing I have been trying to articulate in these posts. The reception of grace, the cooperation of the human person in freedom and love with the action of the Spirit. It is not who is up at the altar performing the sacred rite. In a sense, it is a question of who is on the altar, offering their lives through, with, and in the Lord Jesus. That’s the real deal of Christianity, not the clerical structures that exist to serve this mystery. Ultimately the real deal of Christianity is Jesus, and our life in Him, received from Him.

In Madonna House, priests and laity live together in community. It is a lay apostolate—the work of the apostolate is led, ordered, organized and carried out by the lay members who make up the large part of our membership. We who are priests have our proper role to play. The liturgy is our province, and spiritual direction, and to some degree the teaching of Catholic doctrine that goes on in the place. 

Otherwise, we pitch in and help out under the direction of and in obedience to the lay leaders of the place, cleaning toilets, weeding the garden, peeling vegetables, mucking out the barn, chopping wood alongside our brothers and sisters.

The whole spirit of the place is deeply collaborative, familial, with a deep respect and striving to genuinely work together in peace and love. We all rub along together in a communal way of life. Priests are shown respect, not out of subservient cringing clericalism, but because the priesthood of Christ is a holy thing, a beautiful thing.

We’re not perfect—who is?—but I think we have something, a spirit and a flow of life together, a way of living the mystery of man and woman, lay and priest, that is not just for us, but is a gift for the whole Church. Come and see us, and see if there’s something here That’s why I am so passionate about this subject, and why I wanted to take a little extra time to talk about it today on the blog. Tomorrow, onward to something else.


  1. If there is a universal priesthood of the people of God, if by our baptism we have all died to ourselves and have been raised in Christ in whom "there is no longer male, nor female, nor Jew nor Greek"... and if in our confirmations we have all been ordained to the roles of priest, prophet and kings... and if Christ is the true central mystery on the altar and that the Holy Sacrifice is about Him alone and not about who is serving at the altar...

    How is it "clerical" to think that the gender of the celebrant doesn't matter, in light of these much more important considerations? If anything, since the sacerdotal nature belongs to the entire people of God by the sacraments of initiation, then the most clericalist thing is to restrict the presbyterate and episcopate to men to the exclusion of women since the episcopate was thought of in early Christianity as simply the high priest of the entire priestly people of God who held "presidency" - "presidency" being a hold over from the Jewish fellowship meals of late antiquity. The earliest Christians Fathers, by contrast, used the languages of "offerentes" and the language of "prosphorountes" equally of celebrant and of the lay people. If, it is in fact the people of God which corporately offers the Holy Sacrifice and the episcopate simply holds presidency, a magisterial teaching office and a leadership position and if the presbyterate, which in the beginning wasn't even a liturgical office unlike the diaconate, only later began to be granted permission to offer on behalf of the people BY permission of the bishop... then it's more clericalist to, despite the emphasis we should be laying on the universal priesthood of the people of God, somehow still say that there's something special about the presbyterate and the episcopate that people who were born with ovaries can't discharge a presidency in a sacrificial role that, supposedly, was granted to them at baptism and confirmation anyways.

    Until you guys sort out a "theology" of presidency and gender, I'm personally going to think its a little hypocritical for Roman Catholics or Orthodox to decry "clericalists" as those who think women are not treated as full members of the Church because of their restriction from the presbyterate or episcopate.

    1. God bless you! Well, I guess I have to beg to differ with you. My real basis for excluding the priesthood to men is that the universal Church, from time immemorial, and now confirmed by the definitive teach of the authoritative magisterium of the bishop of Rome, has said we cannot do it.
      For me as a Catholic priest, that's the beginning and end of the matter. I do realize that for those not Catholic, or for Catholics with a different understanding of authority than that, this is anything but satisfactory. I locate the 'obedience of faith' of St. Paul within and in necessary relation to ecclesial obedience.
      I am unpersauded by the historical claims you make in this comment - I don't think the scholarship behind these claims is unassailable, to say the least. Peace and joy to you.

  2. Well, no. You just can't redefine things because you feel uncomfortable, Father Denis. You just can't make up a definition for clericalism to suit yourself and then pass it off to people. The consequence of clericalism is that they will believe it just because you said it.

    Clericalism is passing the decision making authority to the hierarchy. Look it up, it is a we established phenomena- people write about it a the time.

    You just can't dismiss your sins so easily- or you will never be healed of them. You have to look at clericalism and see its ugly face- or quite frankly you will never be able to relate to the people who visit this site. It will make you a better priest and God knows we need them.

    I think clericalism has an influence on maintaining a particular re for women in the church- but it it not the only reason. Some people like Fr Femis seems to like the feminine imagery, it helps them love God. Others do not ( read it does not HP themove God) . Also some people require a greater social role in order to develop into a person ( read not all women grow into healthy persons by having babies)...but some do, some really do.

    I do not know why you felt the need to talk about the priesthood when you are describing the theology of women...perhaps there is some clerical guilt there you are not yet able to articulate?

    Women do deserve a greater place in the church. I do not think it necessiary means they have to be greater than anyone else. But it is time you stopped making them less

    1. God bless you! I don't think your definition of clericalism has any traction - the hierarchy of the Catholic Church has always had authority to make decisions re faith and morals. If that is 'clericalism', then a synonym for clericalism is 'Catholicism.'
      I don't think it is a word with a clear undisputed definition, and I think my attempts to muse on its various meanings resonate with many people, based on my long experiences of life in the Catholic Church.
      I'm not aware of any sin of my own or anyone else that I have dismissed!
      The reason I am talking about priesthood and women is because the Pope did - that's the whole format of this blog. I quote 'x', and then discuss the quote - I do that every day here!
      The reason I have so little time to respond to comments (is that what you mean by 'relate to people on this site'?) is that I'm a very busy priest who really only has a few minutes every day to do this thing. I have lots of other work in my 'off-line' life, much of which involves listening to people, praying with them, giving whatever counsel my poor little brain can come up with. I assure you, I'm doing my best!
      I don't think I'm making anyone less, and I don't see how an honest reading of my post would lead you to that conclusion. Peace and joy to you.

    2. In the old Soviet Union, many institutions, industry, the military, agriculture, healthcare, were all run by skilled professionals. The political establishment made sure that they had there own officers in all of these endeavors, to make sure that the party line was toed and to inform on any who got too far out of line or proposed unacceptable ideas.

      As a priest within Madonna House, Father Dennis fills exactly this type of roll, You may be sure that there are many within the organization, while undoubtedly religious and considering themselves good Catholics have taken their thoughts and concerns to Jesus in prayer and within their own considered thoughts hold many beliefs that do not conform to the official doctrine and dogma of the church. Some would welcome women in the priesthood, some embrace the actively Gay into the church, many feel the LCWR is being persecuted by an hysterically fearful, out of control, all male clergy.

      If Dennis was an obedient spy, he would report these miscreants and a visiting bishop would soon be dispatched, as was Charles Chaput, last year, to Toowomba, in Australia. Heads would roll, the institution purged and new repressive leadership with Cheshire Cat grins would be installed.

      I think Dennis likes Madonna House. He prefers to pretend not to see and lead his very pleasant life. We see this same kind of passive aggressive denial on this blog.

      I am reminded by this of all of the political reactionaries, almost all self professing evangelical Christians, who go out of their way to publicly thank me for my military service, even though they never served themselves and would be horrified at the prospect that any of their own children might have to.

  3. Exactly. Catholicism equals clericalism. The term is not used in any other religion. The problem has worsened in the last decade. There are many thoughts on why. There are many, many thoughts on this. Everyone's voice matters, all are part of the church.

    I think the reason why you get such fierce feedback is not what you believe... It is how you come across. You come across kind of smug- like you yourself are the chief catechism and no one else has an answer or at least a right one. I get you have a point of view- clericalism is when the clergy believes its point of view is more right than anyone else- by virtue of the priest card. We are now in an age where people ( at least those reading this blog) are pretty educated. They can intellectually compete with you- you are going to have to learn how to respect that. God is present and makes himself known in many ways- theology is not the only way.

    Maybe you come across like this because you are so busy. I have hunch it is more than that though.

    1. Having a different opinion and sharing it is one thing, attacking Fr. Denis is quite another and completely unnecessary. He is not responsible for how your personal interpretation of the tone. Share your thoughts but keep your personal opinions to yourself.

    2. God bless you


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