The cult of ‘clericalism—we look after ourselves’ spirituality

by Chris McDonnell

Chris McDonnell is a retired Headteacher, having taught in London, Leeds and on Merseyside before his first headship in Staffordshire in 1978. Since that date he has had two further headships, both in LEA schools in the state sector. He has published in the field of mathematics education and has contributed over the years to on-going discussions in the Catholic Press, journals and on various blog sites. He was one of the opening speakers at the A Call to Action Heythrop meeting in October 2012. He is married, with three grown up children and eight grandchildren. To keep sane on the way through, he also writes poetry from time to time. This article appeared in a longer form in Dominican journal SPIRITUALITY published in Dublin in January 2019.

If we were to read an article in the Catholic press or elsewhere with the word 'clericalism' in its title, we would probably immediately relate it to an understanding of patterns of behaviour by priests and bishops and, more than likely in recent years, that in a pejorative manner: 'clericalism' has become a convenient tag for associated blame. However, in many ways this is an easy way out. It avoids not only an examination of the real roots of many contentious issues but is a loose use of language that doesn't address the meaning of the word.

I have just finished a book that offers a different perspective, a much broader and insightful vision than the usually accepted understanding. Entitled Clericalism: the death of priesthood, by an American Jesuit, George Wilson, (MN: Liturgical Press, 2008); it is both readable and informative.

When we talk of the 'clergy' as a group, we are likely to be referring to those ordained as priest or bishop. Wilson suggests that ‘clergy’ is a sociological term that names the fact that society recognises a certain segment of its members as having recognisable social features and norms that distinguish them from the rest of society. So it is perfectly logical to speak of a clergy of the law, a clergy of academics, a clergy of medics and so on. Each behaves within a particular culture; each is recognised as having specialist attributes that allow membership, and each grouping has a value in our society that depends on acknowledgement by those who are not members: the 'laity' who are not doctors, engineers or teachers.

When we come to discuss the clergy of priesthood, confusion of language can give rise to many problems, for if there is not a clear understanding of the distinction between this 'clergy' and the 'laity' who are not in the clergy grouping, difficulties will surely arise. Our common sharing of Baptism is the first calling that all of us share. I think many of us over the years have allowed ourselves to be more of a spectator than one actually performing our priestly duty in offering the Holy Eucharist, celebrating the Mass together with the ordained priest who presides.  But all of us share in that priesthood of Jesus. We are a priest together with him.  Besides offering the Mass, in our everyday life we continue to perform priestly duties.

Our recognition of clergy as a defined group has become confused with our appreciation of priesthood, that royal priesthood we all share, a priest like Melchizedek of old. We need to ask questions relating to our current perception of priesthood, its nature and purpose within community. Trust can only be built on experience of reality and this trust has been severely shaken in recent years. How do we repair the damage done to the Church; how do we walk again this pilgrimage road together?

I would suggest, following Wilson's text, that it is not about them and us. Too easily (and understandably) the laity have laid the blame on the ordained clergy, when in fact if we should recognise that membership of the Church is inclusive; those not ordained need to ask a few questions of their own behaviour: How did we let this happen? What brought the abuse scandal into the public domain?

Partly it was due to the cult of reverence for the clergy of the ordained. They were trusted for who they were, their membership of this closed social group recognised without question. In the same way, teachers, youth leaders and other ‘clergies’ were given freedom to act because no one thought to challenge their integrity. So, the 'laity' have a share in the failure of some 'clergies' by their own implicit trust. Clericalism grew in a protective atmosphere, one party looking after the other.

At the same time, we need to examine the manner in which our seminaries prepare those seeking ordination. Any seminary that does not disabuse its students of the self-evaluation involved in pretending to such omni-competence is seriously failing the priestly community. Maybe it is in the seminary formation that we should seek out the roots of clericalism. In the experience of being 'set aside' lies the root of the clerical club we label clericalism. People come to believe the expectation that is placed on them and so live up to such expectations. Within this closed cultural circle, protectionism flourishes.

It comes not only with the singular way of life but also in the honorifics, the forms of address and the dress code that provides the hiding place for the insecurity of some. There are those priests who are never seen without their collar and cassock; a line of demarcation is drawn that it is hard to cross.

Another writer who has written extensively on this question is Donald Cozzens, writer in residence at John Carroll University in Ohio, USA. In a short piece, published on the ACP website in July 2015, Cozzens suggests that “clericalism is an attitude found in many clergy who have put their status as priests and bishops above their status as baptised disciples of Jesus Christ. In doing so, a sense of privilege and entitlement emerges in their individual and collective psyches. This, in turn, breeds a corps of ecclesiastical elites who think they’re not like other men”.

Part of the problem is that a priest arrives from elsewhere.  He is not chosen from within the community and has very quickly to make connections. Could it be helpful if a priest were to be chosen by the community, recognised as one of their own?  In that way the parish ministry of mission, of service to others, would be emphasised.

We must also reflect on the loneliness that is the lot of many of our priests, a loneliness that drives them to find refuge with others in a similar position. Enforced clerical celibacy only exacerbates a difficult position, emphasising a life that is different to others in the community they serve.

We have been told in no uncertain terms where Francis stands on clericalism. Speaking during a homily in Casa Santa Marta in December 2016, he said,  ‘There is that spirit of clericalism in the Church, that we feel: clerics feel superior; clerics distance themselves from the people ... the evil of clericalism is a really awful thing; it is a new edition of this ancient evil [of the religious ‘authorities’ lording it over others].’  But ‘the victim is the same: the poor and humble people, who await the Lord’.

The Christian Church has a future to look forward to in spite of our evident failings. When the map has been misread on a journey, it is time to pause, look again and re-set the compass.