Ambition; oxygen and energy to the evils of clericalism

Goodbye, climbers! We need to restore servant leadership in the priesthood

 by Fr. Peter Daly

When I was in the seminary in Rome, we called them “Alpiners,” the “climbers” among our fellow seminarians who were ambitious to climb up the corporate ladder of the church. They had a secret (or not so secret) ambition to be a bishop or a Vatican official. Sometimes it was painfully obvious. One guy was caught with a “hope chest” in his room, full of bishops’ accoutrements like miters, a pectoral cross and a collapsible crozier.

For the “Alpiners,” their priesthood is a not a call to serve, but to be served. It is the opposite of what Jesus wanted. (See Luke 22:27, John 13:14 and Matthew 23:11-12.) Ambition is one of the worst and most destructive features of clericalism. If we are going to reform the priesthood, we need to tame the demon of ambition and substitute the idea of servant leadership.

Ambition gives oxygen and energy to the evils of clericalism. It comes from a desire to dominate others. It is a common temptation. In the desert, even Jesus was tempted by the evil one with the power to rule over the kingdoms of the Earth.

Not all ambition is a bad thing. It is not a bad thing to have an “ambition” to develop your gifts and talents. It is good to want to be an excellent musician or preacher or scholar. All these talents can be put at the service of the church.

But the desire to rule is not a good thing. It a feature of megalomania and narcissism. It betrays not talent, but insecurity. Ambition for authority shows an internal emptiness that can only be filled by external deference, titles, honor and power.

This corrupted ambition is the sin of the Pharisees. Jesus takes it so seriously that Matthew’s Gospel devotes an entire chapter (Ch. 23) to this one sin. He said:

All their works are performed to be seen. They widen their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels.
They love places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in synagogues, greetings in marketplaces, and the salutation ‘Rabbi.’
As for you, do not be called ‘Rabbi.’ You have but one teacher, and you are all brothers.
Call no one on earth your father; you have but one Father in heaven.
Do not be called ‘Master’; you have but one master, the Messiah.
The greatest among you must be your servant.
Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.

Jesus called pharisees a “brood of vipers” (Matthew 23:33). He might say the same thing about arrogant clerics.

Clerical ambition has always been around. James and John were “Alpiners.” They came to Jesus and asked to sit “one at your right hand, and the other at your left” (Mark 10:37). It is not just clerics who are ambitious for power in the church. Sometimes it is their families. After all, it was the mother of James and John in Matthew’s version of the story who intervened for her sons to sit at the hand of Jesus. This kind of ambition is from the evil one.

This self-aggrandizing ambition is seen in the lives of many clerics who, like Theodore McCarrick and Michael Bransfield, climb the church ladder. They often talk about being humble, but they are not at all humble. They spend enormous amounts of money on themselves. They use their power and influence to aggrandize themselves. Bransfield and McCarrick both ran the Papal Foundation to funnel money to Rome and thereby gained a lot of influence in the church.

Where does this clerical ambition come from? Let me count the ways.

It starts early in our training. Seminaries are incubators of ambition. We are taught to want and to value the superficial trappings of clericalism; the clothes, the titles, the perks. Seminarians are encouraged to have an obsequious deference to the hierarchy in everything.

It is seen in the clothes. Clericalism loves special clothes; cassocks and capes, lace and silk, birettas and miters. The fancy clothes separate clerics from others and practically shout, “Look at me.” The pretentions of a Cardinal Raymond Burke parading around in his watered silk “cappa magna” (big cape) and fancy lace surplices would be laughable if he did not mean for it to be taken so seriously.

Or look at our presider’s chairs and cathedra in cathedrals and churches everywhere. They are really “thrones” of potentates, inherited from Byzantium. Jesus said that the pharisees demanded “seats of honor” in synagogues. So do clerics. Look at the chairs in most cathedrals, fit for an emperor.

Then there are the exaggerated titles. We call them “Excellency” or “Eminence” or “Monsignor.” These are not Christian titles; they are the pretentions of Italian nobility. The worst is “Monsignor,” which means “my lord” in Italian. Only Jesus is Lord. The cardinals have the temerity to call themselves “princes” of the church. What would Jesus think of that?

After the clothes and titles come the fancy episcopal residences and rectories. Pope Francis has been trying to model humility to bishops by living in two rooms in the Casa Santa Marta rather than the papal apartments. But legions of bishops and many priests are not getting the message. Bransfield spent more than $4 million on his house in West Virginia. McCarrick spent hundreds of thousands of dollars remodeling two apartments and a house for himself in Washington. Remember the “bishop of bling” in Limburg, Germany, who spent $42 million on his residence? Ask yourself, where does you bishop live? How does that house reflect Christian poverty of spirit?

Most egregious of all is the desire for offices of power and prestige that have nothing to do with being servants of God or the church. In this regard it is time to take all the vestiges of the Papal States to the junk yard. What would this mean?

  • The Vatican diplomatic corps? Do away with it.
  • The Vatican bank? Close it.
  • The Vatican pretentions of civil power? Ditch them.
  • The Vatican bureaucracy? Give it to lay people, who would do a better job for less.

Most of the Vatican pretensions to statehood are the only ways to compensate the papacy for its loss of temporal power in the Italian Risorgimento in 1870. For 100 years, the papacy has been licking its wounds and trying to hang on to the trappings of monarchy. Jesus told us to “render unto Caesar” not to become Caesar.

What is the cure for ambitious clericalism? Take away the career path and all its trappings. The pope is trying to do just that. His first Christmas in Rome, he told the Vatican curia to get out of Rome and back to their dioceses. When he was presented to the crowd in St. Peter’s Square, he refused the velvet and ermine cape traditionally worn. He never occupied the papal apartments. He ditched the papal limousine. He carries his own bag. In meetings, he sits on an ordinary chair, not a throne on a raised dais. He wears his worn-out black shoes. His whole life says servant, not ruler.

Time for real reform. Francis says he wants a poorer church for the poor. Let’s get started. One thing is clear, ambition for wealth and power are not part of that church.

People have asked how McCarrick and Bransfield and their type could rise so high in the church despite their sins and crimes. The answer is more straightforward than people might expect. They sought those higher offices and went after them. They got what they wanted. People did not want to stand in their way. They were champion “Alpiners.”

[Fr. Peter Daly is a retired priest of the Washington Archdiocese and a lawyer. After 31 years of parish service, he now works with Catholic Charities.]



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  1. Pól Ó Duibhir says:

    An extraordinarily perceptive and well written piece. It’s all there. Time for action.

  2. Mary Vallely says:

    Yes, I agree with every word. I don’t know why we put up with the ridiculous titles and trappings of hierarchical status. Too few priests speak out about how hard it is to keep young people on board who are generally used to a more equal society.

    Many priests are old now and perhaps afraid of losing the little security they have but if you do not speak out against these things which CAN be changed so easily then careerism, sycophancy and selfishness triumph. More need to model themselves/ ourselves on Pope Francis. He isn’t perfect and he has his blind spots ( as do we all) but think of a Church where priests were more like him, true pastors aiming to serve the people. That way you would gain more souls for Jesus because He is the real true model of how to live. Imagine such a world. “It’s easy if you try.”?

  3. Sean O'Conaill says:

    Ambition is indeed not at all the same thing as the impulse to develop one’s gifts. It is essentially the pursuit of admiration, an insatiable greed for ‘positive feedback’ from others on one’s own superiority.

    Is it not also the ‘Pride’ that heads up the ‘Seven Deadly Sins’? And was it not also for Jesus the essence of the ‘Temptations in the Desert’ – the ‘prestige of the social summit’?

    For Alain de Botton, the philosopher, this problem is rooted in ‘status anxiety’ – that uncertainty we all tend to feel about our own real ‘value’ and importance, the root of the cult of celebrity in our own time, exploited by media of all kinds. So it also the ‘worldliness’ of Christian discernment, the trap that the contemplative tradition sought to avoid.

    In moral theology what Pope Francis calls the ‘fixation’ on sexuality surely pushed this issue into the background – an inevitable consequence of the clerical church’s long association with social elites since 312. As it is also obviously the root of the vast inequalities and injustices that trouble the secular world today, this form of ‘pride’ needs to make a comeback in Christian preaching. We have paid far too high a price for inattention to Jesus’s claim to have ‘overcome the world’. (John 16: 33)

  4. Michael Forde says:

    I have real admiration and respect for the pastors I knew growing up and also in St Jarlath’s College in Tuam! And in my later encounter with the Redemptorists both in Ireland and in Brasil, I was really evangelised by the servant church and in the priests I encounter in the parishes at home and elsewhere in Ireland I am deeply moved by their faith and witness and humour!! Well said, Peter! And by my fellow Redemptorists- Tony Flannery and Gerry Moloney , Gerry O’Connor, and Con Casey who spoke so eloquently on the timeless virtue of hope recently in the Loyola Institute in Trinity College!!

  5. Pádraig McCarthy says:

    As Paul says: “Be ambitious for the higher things. And I’m going to show you a way that is better than any of them… If I am without love …” (1 Cor 12:31; 13:1ff).
    The article says:
    “It is time to take all the vestiges of the Papal States to the junk yard. What would this mean?
    The Vatican diplomatic corps? Do away with it.
    The Vatican bank? Close it.
    The Vatican pretentions of civil power? Ditch them.
    The Vatican bureaucracy? Give it to lay people, who would do a better job for less.”
    First ask the question: what are they for? Can they be put at the service of the gospel?
    I don’t know what the diplomatic corps does, but they are not Political Ambassadors, they are Nuncios – messengers of the gospel. Can they do that?
    The Vatican bank: Can it better serve the gospel? If we close it, we rely on commercial banks, who have not had a good track record in recent years.
    Pretensions of civil power? Where are they seen?
    The Vatican bureaucracy – give it to lay people? Lay people are no less liable than clerics to ambitions for power. Would they cost less? I don’t know what the Vatican bureaucracy costs, or what percentage of them are lay. For lay people, they would need a salary which enables them to support a family with all the attendant consequences.
    We need to make wise decisions, in love and humility.

    A reflection from many years ago:
    The Pope is the servant of the servants of God.
    Bishops are the servants of the servant of the servants of God.
    (Forget cardinals, monsignors, canons, archdeacons, etc.)
    Priests are the servants of the servants the servant of the servants of God.
    Lay people? These are people with a serious servant problem.

  6. Joe O'Leary says:

    You can meet Vatican bureaucrats easily if you stay at the Domus Internationalis Paulus VI near the Piazza Navona (welcoming to all priests). They are fine people and they live modestly and cheaply.

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