Mark Shea penned an excellent primer on clericalism yesterday at Catholic Exchange, identifying it as a prominent culprit in the “cover-up” mentality among some members of the episcopacy. While the Church does not operate on the principle of vox populi, vox Dei, Shea argues, neither has it ever claimed holiness is reserved for the ordained.
Clericalism is basically the bad idea that only the ordained and religious are fully Catholic and that laypeople are more or less second class. With that idea comes a host of other bad ideas, such as “Father is always right,” “Never disagree if a bishop does it,” and “Don’t question anything a priest or bishop does.”
It’s this conception of the ordained office as a place of power that gave us the scandal of priestly abuse and episcopal cover-up of same. Priests like John Geoghan used their office to dominate and abuse kids. Bishops, many of them thorough-going clericalists as well, saw their office as a place of power and, when that power was threatened by the Heaven-heard cries of victims, attacked the victims and protected the power. And mysteriously, many parents, police, and prosecutors—laity all—let them because they somehow had become convinced that the mere fact of ordination trumped the natural law, which says you should protect a child from a rapist, and call the cops.
Clericalism plays on the tendencies of Americans in a particularly poisonous way, since we’re so given to drawing up sharp political battle lines:
Americans are incorrigible about dividing everything up into “conservative” and “liberal” tribalisms. The standard media template of “Plucky Rebel Liberal Alliance vs. Evil Conservative Hierarchical Empire” lends itself easily to such simplicities. Some would have us believe that “conservatives,” being “poor, uneducated, and easily led,” are suckers for clericalism while “progressives” question authority and prize open discussion of the issues.
Real life is nonetheless more complex than simple conservative-vs.-liberal cartoons. Clericalism cuts across such neat categories ruthlessly. Yes, it was a “conservative” cardinal who rightly resigned in Boston. But it was a “liberal” bishop in Phoenix who—two weeks after cutting a deal with the prosecution to avoid indictment on obstruction charges for protecting child-molesting priests—killed a man with his car and somehow got the impression that his first duty was to hide the evidence from the cops who were looking for him.
And as it turns out, laypeople who misapprehend the clerical office as primarily a seat of power are just as prone to clericalism as clerics.
Clericalism, it turns out, is an equal-opportunity sin. It’s not reserved just to conservatives. Some of the most clerical people I know have been staunchly “progressive” dissenters and despisers of Church teaching who use their office to muzzle any attempt to question them when they “renovate” a Church, improve the liturgy into a festival of St. Narcissus, or transmute RCIA into a cell group for chanting slogans against the Magisterium on their favorite pelvic issues.
For such people, the watchword is “Question the Tradition, but don’t you dare question me!”
At its rotted root, Shea suggests, clericalism stems from a gross misunderstanding of the priesthood’s nature and place in the Church. Peter Kreeft once put it another way in a lecture on the male identity of the priesthood: “Priests are not power brokers or managers. They are sewers. Like Christ, they drain off the world’s sins. They are spiritual garbage men. Like Christ, they clean up our spiritual garbage.” Clericalism’s cure, Shea says, is found in faithfulness to the priesthood’s role of service.
The error of clericalism (and its real desire) is not ministry, but power. Clericalists, both lay and ordained, see the priesthood as a place of power, and hunger for it. But Jesus saw the priesthood as a place of service. So does the Holy Church. That is why the sacrament of Holy Orders is described by the Catechism as a “sacrament at the service of communion.”