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The late Fr McGuane’s Furrow article is worth re-reading


(*Fr Joseph McGuane died unexpectedly in December 2013, RIP.)

The Professional Cleric
I recently read a slim and inexpensive book with the arresting title, Clericalism: the death of Priesthood by George B. Wilson, SJ (Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota). It is a well-researched volume based on extensive pastoral experience of priesthood in America. I am indebted to it for much of the theory and theology of clericalism and in this article I endeavour to put some flesh on these bones.
May I begin by saying that the professional cleric gives thanks every day that he became a cleric, and just not a priest. It is not easy to define a professional cleric, he is easier to describe. Texans sometimes refer to Texas as not just a state, but also a state of mind. The same is true of the genus clericus clericus. It is a unique species. It has many subspecies, and it has, I believe, a deadly stranglehold on the priesthood in Ireland. It has many adherents, a substantial number among the ordained. A high price has been paid, the near-death of the priesthood in Ireland.
There is little or no evidence of clericalism in the life of Christ, nor indeed in the New Testament. It is more a social factor than anything else. It is found in all professions, but most of all, I believe, among the ordained. Auctioneers speak of location, location, and location. When describing clerics, you mention suspicion, suspicion, and suspicion. Suspicion towards the laity, the media, and towards mere priests. There is a hankering after the good old days, and a wish that this newfangled concept ‘laity’ would go back into the woodwork, and concentrate exclusively on their three traditional duties of paying up, praying up, and particularly, shutting up. There is a hidden animosity towards the media, on whom almost all our problems are blamed. They have, after all, taken our rightful and traditional place; they are now the arbiters of public taste. There is resentment towards priests who will not upgrade themselves to clerics.
Clericalism has fascinated me for almost fifty years. It is hardly an exaggeration to call it a cult. Those who at age 17 or 18 were quite normal are now transformed into strange creatures I do not understand. Among the chief appendages of clericalism are celibacy, authority and control.
Authority is key. They have a ‘when I ope my lips let no dog bark’ mentality. Those of different opinions or ideas are dismissed out of hand as troublesome, and the issues raised are not discussed. Those who agree with them are, by definition, sound. The real professional cleric never admits to making a mistake. Transparency and accountability are not values. Parish funds are seen as his money. Delegation is not practised. All decisions are made by the professional cleric. The preferred way of dealing with unwelcome news is to shoot the messenger, and ignore the issue. The professional cleric is a catch22 expert. Unwelcome suggestions are slung into vicious circle land. Better again if you can throw them out on a technicality.
He has a skewed and underdeveloped concept of justice. This is in part brought about by a century long obsession with sexuality. You can’t fit everything in. Something has to suffer. Justice suffers, in the past, and in the present. It is our Achilles heel. For the professional cleric, there is no need much for the concept of justice, however, as in his life the senior cleric is always right, even when he’s wrong. An identical item can be seen as a lovable trait in a cleric, and as sheer awkwardness in a priest. It’s the messenger, not the message.
The professional cleric is intellectually lazy. He never reads the opposition, in truth he hardly reads at all. That is the safest. Some have not read a book in years, others don’t even take a pastoral periodical, and more don’t even venture past the death columns in the newspaper. Others point blank refuse to read, listen, or watch anything to do with clerical child abuse in the belief that, if you sweep it under the carpet, it will go away. The Ferns Report is not on their shelves. The preferred method is the cover-up.
The black suit and black collar from neck to waist are an added weight to authority. He practically sleeps in it. The courts keep their wigs and gowns, look at the respect the judges get. It’s all we have left! Is it not time we consigned such apparel to the museums? If something was needed to identify us as priests, could we not have a universally recognised symbol or badge? Do clerics not look like black beetles in their colour of mourning, sticking out like sore thumbs? Are we not already seen as being sufficiently isolated and odd, besides stoking our own bonfire? Once you have authority, you have control. In his heart of hearts the professional cleric has no time for Parish Pastoral Councils. He is wired only for transmitting, not for receiving. The clerical mindset has many parallels with the colonial mentality. He would, I suspect find soulmates among those people. There lies an untouched field of study. Do what I tell you. Leave the thinking to me. Am I not for your good? Respect your betters. Down, boy, down.
The professional cleric loves administration and titles. Delicious. In administration, everything can be put in its proper box. The figures never answer back, and don’t have any opinion of their own. He disguises his interest in titles by giving the classic answer: they’re an honour for the parish!
And so we have Reverend, Very Reverend, Right Reverend, Most Reverend, My Lord, Your Grace, Your Eminence. Peculiar handles for successors of the first priests who were known plainly as Peter, Paul, John, and so on. And then what about Canons, Archdeacons, Deans, Chancellors, Administrators, Monsignori, Vicar Foranes, Vicar Generals, Delegates, Coordinators, Directors, and more, all in tiny rural dioceses?
A few years ago, in the light of clerical child sexual abuse, it was decided that a national gesture of apology was called for from priests. Instead of thousands of us apologising for something we had never done, would it not be a better gesture to drop all those titles, and become plain Matt, Mark, Luke, and John? There is, after all, a precedent. If it was good enough for them, could it not be good enough for us?
Then there is the symbol of the professional cleric, the briefcase, without which no professional cleric is properly dressed. The professional cleric needs a fax machine. Never mind that it rarely clatters into life and that you hardly know how to use it. It looks good in your office, and it looks great in the Diocesan Directory. The professional cleric is a gadget geek. Lap tops, palm tops, and every kind of top. Nero fiddling while Rome bums. Rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic.
They love ritual, setting, and ceremonial, choreography, and rubrics, anything that distracts their mind from the sinking ship. Excessive emphasis on these has made a hybrid of liturgy.
There is the delicate matter of promotion to keep an eye on. The professional cleric needs eyes in the back of his head. It keeps you awake at night, but the official stance is that you have no interest in it at all. At all, at all, I tell you. The retort most favoured is the hoary old chestnut that the Bishop twisted my arm, even though the configuration of said arm is in permanent corkscrew shape high over the head. Me, me, me.
The professional cleric twigs early on in life that promotion is frequently given as a sinecure or reward for conforming to establishment thinking, and, how should you delicately put it, well, it is not necessarily linked with suitability. We’ll leave it at that. The preferred method of scaling the clerical ladder is by way of attachment to a senior cleric – these are all professional clerics, needless to say. You choose a champion, a padrone, someone to, er, speak for you when the goodies are being divvied out. By hanging on to his coat tails, you will hopefully be propelled up the ladder. However, you must choose judiciously. They fall, you fall, and years of ingratiation go up in smoke. As the late Frank Sinatra used sing ‘That’s Life’!
The aspiring professional cleric must lend himself body and soul as padding and fodder on diocesan committees. He realises early on in life that all decisions are taken by a few, frequently from a non-pastoral background, and that his purpose in life is to provide a semblance of democracy. He is a footstool, and they will work him with their foot. He must be as resolute as a bouncy castle. Any deviation from this and his career is in tatters. He realises that promotion may have little to do with ability or perception, wisdom or learning, nor even with holiness. You must quite simply toe the approved line. You can’t buck the system, you can’t beat city hall, you can’t whack the diocesan office. Let the Holy Spirit pick up the pieces. So, there must be no initiatives of any kind, even though the Church in Ireland is languishing and crying out for some. Career-wise, it is too risky. It is, as the Americans say, a big no-no. Do your hurling on the ditch. Let the priests do the lifting; the smart cleric will do the grunting.
Was the principal occupation of the seminary in Maynooth in the 1960s the removal of backbone? The result all too often was that those with get up and go got up and left. More than one person has pointed out that the most intelligent, the most perceptive, the most dynamic, the best thinkers, those with most initiative, those with most leadership, drive, and enthusiasm were mostly those who left. I must say that, generally speaking, I have often thought this of my own class. In the cold house we are now in, clerics seem incapable of decisiveness or initiative. The analogy of the startled rabbit frozen immobile in the lights of the onrushing car is graphically accurate. Clerics are measured in minus factors only, so ninety nine successes and one failure loses out to doing nothing ever, apart from the bare essentials. So, do without the omelettes, just don’t crack any eggshells. Take it aisy. The cute cleric does not do act, he reacts just, and only if it is essential.
The professional cleric practises exclusion to a ruthless degree. He does black and white only. He does not do grey. Recently, a priest told me he had met a clerical acquaintance who informed him that he had called for the last time on a neighbouring priest, giving as the reason that his neighbour had disagreed with almost everything he said. Spoken like a true professional cleric! No room here for different opinions or varying suggestions. You either toe the line or you’re out, even socially. The professional cleric will clinically sideline and marginalize those priests who are not clones of themselves, and so no original thinking is possible when new thinking to address new situations is desperately called for.
The professional cleric is the original mould for the suffering servant He is the martyr complex incarnate. He is constantly looking for sympathy, and wears a permanent ‘pity me, pity me’ look. He is supersensitive to criticism; it brings tears to his eyes, poor soul. He would not have lasted long in the hurly burly world of the Apostles. He would never have made it out of the upper room. On second thoughts, he would have been too smart for that. He would set up a communication office in the upper room, ensconce himself there, and send out the Apostles. Let them take the heat. One person speaking of one such said he was a great man for the down and out, and, he added, if you’re not down and out, he’d soon make you down and out. Touché.
The professional cleric is always busy, busy always. Busy, busy, busy. Always. Always, I tell you, running around in circles and chasing his own tail. One bereaved widow told me of getting no less than three separate visits from her parish priest the week after her husband’s funeral, each one more doleful than the last. She ended up consoling him. On the fourth visit she flashed the lights on and off several times, and banged doors loudly to make sure he realised somebody was at home. She pointedly did not answer his ring on the door. Eventually he got the message and went away. Phew!
Something as time consuming as a five minute blessing of a house involves a dramatic dig out of the diary, accompanied by much sighing and expressions of weariness and exhaustion, two minutes of page turning, scanning for any gap in the next five weeks, a solemn announcement with a moan that comes deep from the soul that, yes, it might just be possible to do so in three weeks time but just in case give him your mobile, he may have to cancel. Father is inundated with work, God help him. Never let them take you for granted.
This guff about busyness has surely been the biggest bluff pulled by the professional cleric. Ask him to write down the different items he did yesterday that could not be done just as well and indeed better by laypeople, and, apart from saying Mass, there will be a blank page. Yet this myth of busyness has really taken root. If the professional cleric is busy, is it not because he will not delegate, is it not because he is insecure, is it not because he does not trust? Are these not his own personal problems? Is it not time this bluff was called? If there is the great shortage of priests that laypeople are constantly lectured on, is it not time for them to suggest to clerics that they confine themselves to the work that priests only can do. Is this not elementary resource management? Is there any hope we will do that?
The professional cleric has an extraordinary ability to live in fantasyland. He resolutely refuses to see that the sunny uplands are no more. He sees hopeful signs where there are none, in his own fantasy mind. He lives in a false and artificial comfort zone. He does not do reality. Write to him about the deaths of thousands, and he will point out a comma that is misplaced. He is a comma commentator.
He will never ever bring bad news, much less mention problems to those in charge. You’ll end up going backwards. The professional cleric does set pieces only, and leaves broken play to the priests. He has a bunker mentality. Everyone is out to get him. It is them and us. The barbarians are at the gates, pull up the drawbridge, circle the wagons. He has a my country right or wrong mentality. He scurries from sacristy to his house, to carefully selected safe houses and venues with a furtive hunted look on his face. He drives even tiny journeys, and avoids meeting anyone but the super-converted.
Everyone with a different idea from his is negative. This is a favourite word. It saves a lot of debating time. No need to give logical or rational answers. His homilies are at peasant level, and drive people to distraction. He has a self-given dispensation to tell porkies. He excuses himself on the grounds that the truth would be too much a burden for the little people, on the grounds that they could not possibly see the big picture as he can, and because he alone can carry the burden of the world’s cares. The professional cleric is obsessed with secrecy.
He is always giving unsolicited advice, on every subject under the sun. Belonging to the most failing body of people in Ireland constrains him not a bit. The more he fails, the more his confidence grows. He trusts nobody, and must have a finger in every pie. He has an endemic insecurity. He will use anything to get people on line – fear, superstition, illness, false apparitions, bogus so-called healing. He has a Ballinspittle mentality. What matter we became the laughing stock of Europe? Tunnel vision is his.
Has there been any comprehensive study of the harm clericalism has done to the Catholic Church down through the ages? Why are doctorates and dissertations not done on really useful and relevant subjects? Has anyone tried to discover the part it played in the various heresies and schisms, in the fall-out over the date of Easter, the part it played in the Crusades, in the Inquisition, in the Reformation, in Papal elections? What part did it play with Copernicus and Galileo, with the giving of yellow and red cards to some of our best theologians by the dryland sailors of the Vatican bureaucracy? What part does it play in our pusillanimous reaction to authority and titles? What part did it play in the decision-making that led to Humanae Vitae? Surely the validity of the teaching, and not authority should have been the criterion?
Nearer home, we had the Mother and Child Scheme with Dr. Noel Browne. What part did clericalism play in our censorship rules? In the ludicrous ban on Catholics attending Trinity College, Dublin? In relegating women, our most faithful followers, to second-class citizenship? In the vocation crisis?
Because of clericalism many communities worldwide do not have a Sunday Mass. Clericalism, after all, and not Jesus Christ, has ordained that celibacy is compulsory. Is there no end to the damage that puffed up clericalism has done? Did it not play a considerable part in child abuse; the clerical privilege culture giving the offending priests enormous access to children, and the clerical secrecy culture helping them to cover their tracks and get second and even third chances? The common or garden priest was not even consulted, yet we were asked to apologise for the mistakes of the professional clerics. Should the professional clerics apologise to priests for our loss of reputation, character, self esteem? Did they not hopelessly address it? We on the ground took the brunt of the anger, even though we had no part in any decision. Was it not inevitable that our sycophantic leadership criteria would be found out when things got difficult? Is anger not justified?
On a recent visit to Maynooth, I walked down the L-shaped corridor where the class pieces are displayed. In the dim light, and with my failing eyesight, I counted 81 in 1960, the oldest class piece on display. In 1970, the year I was ordained, 38. The latest, the year 2007, had just 4 (yes, four) for Ordination. I’m being negative now again, but the evidence is on the wall for those who will look. Yeats’s memorable phrase about quarrelling with icebergs in a warm sea comes to mind. In case I was dreaming, I walked it again. My footsteps echoed eerily on the deserted corridor that once resounded to hundreds of footsteps. Like the Islandman, our likes will not be there again. As I walked back to the President’s Arch, I was first sad, and then angry. Angry because of what has happened to the priesthood in Ireland. Angry because it has been turned into a caricature of its true self. Angry because in less than half a century the priesthood has gone from being the most desirable to the least desirable. Angry because it is now singularly unattractive. Angry as I walked out into the night rain. In any other profession, would there not have been mass resignations, having presided over such a litany of failure? Has anyone fessed up?
As a disappearing breed, should we priests not be in constant emergency session, looking for solutions? Should the roof not be taken off and no food sent in until we come up with new recommendations? Clericalism and its attendants are, I believe, largely responsible for all but killing the priesthood in Ireland. Those who disagree must put forward different reasons. I do not read any.
The social dimension of the TV programme Father Ted has not yet been fully studied. It certainly struck a chord. It mercilessly pilloried the clerics, who unwittingly provided ample ammunition by their ludicrous antics. People hooted with derision as they recognised reality in the crazy carry-on of these three demented clerics. It was one of the biggest safety valves of the last half-century. It provided huge relief for the whole nation. It summed up in particular the picture young people have. People laughed because they were sick and tired of the pomposity of the professional cleric, and his artificial airs and graces. What a relief to see these ridiculous creatures punctured and deflated. Relief that they were now reduced to purveyors of ceremonial, ritual, and setting. Relief that their power and influence was broken, once and for all. Most exquisite, the preferred method of deflation was ridicule, a much more effective weapon than anger. Revenge is a dish best eaten cold. The Irish people had suffered enough. Did they enjoy their revenge? Did they just? Those who had cast paleness over Irish life for many decades had at last been outed.
But it was clericalism that was outed, I hope, and not the priesthood. In the past, the Irish people have always been able to distinguish between the office and the office-holder. Our only hope is that they still can, and will. Our only hope is that the baby was not thrown out with the bathwater. I am not sure.
So, is the bile rising? Well, are we or are we not on the rocks then? Who put us there? Have we or have we not blown ourselves out of the water? Why are Ordinations down to a tiny trickle? Why have our native young people abandoned ship? Must not the professional clerics take responsibility? Was it not they who made the decisions? Have they not let down the crew? Have they not sailed us into a perfect storm? In more than a decade, have they not failed to sail us out?
Recently I read about parts of France where there is just 1% practising, and that this one percent is made up almost entirely of elderly women, of low self-esteem, and little education. In twenty or thirty years time will we be there? Right now you read of parts of ‘new’ parishes in Dublin where frequency at the sacraments is on this level. And after two thousand years, it all happened on our watch. We have done what the Penal Laws could not do.
The great ship is no longer under way. It is foundering. It is dead in the water, and we are going under without a whimper. If we have to go down, could we not at least go down in the best naval tradition, with all guns firing, so to speak? Is our helplessness and lethargy and selfpity not disgusting? The Tablet lately told of a priest also in France who had charge of thirteen parishes and was given four more. When he protested, the seventeen were reduced to two by disappearing a lot of borders. The response, if any, when he pointed out that he still had seventeen churches was not recorded. Is not this in front of us?
Is it not time that a stake was driven through the heart of clericalism at a cross roads at midnight? Is it not time we threw off the accumulated baggage of two thousand years? Is it not breaking our back? Will anyone defend it? What has it got to do with Christianity? What has it to do with Jesus Christ? What has it to do with the Apostles? Is it not at best amusing and at worst repulsive to young people today? Is it not killing the priesthood? Must it not be put to the sword before it inflicts terminal damage? Are we not in emergency country? Has time not all but run out?
My article is negative? True, but does it not reflect reality? Has not clericalism proved a complete negative? Is this article destructive? Is not clericalism destructive, so what other way could I write? Must you not face reality, however painful? Is facing the reality of the negative not the first painful step to a solution? Is it not time we gathered ourselves out of fantasyland? Walk down past the class-pieces in Maynooth. Look for our native young in any church. If clericalism is not a major obstacle, then what is? How can so many professional clerics favour more of the same when we are haemorrhaging horribly? Have young men not made it plain they will not touch clericalism with the proverbial barge pole? Must it not be major surgery rather than band-aid? What do you think? Do you care?

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  1. Eddie Finnegan says:

    I’m genuinely very sad tonight. Bereaved and bereft. As far as I know I never met Joe McGuane, though we must at times between 1963 and 1965 have been fellow-units (I almost said eunuchs) of the Aula Maxima audience at an improving Bergman film (Ingmar, not Ingrid) or a play produced by Ronan Drury, or in the choir stalls of the Gun Chapel for the ‘Haec Dies quam fecit Dominus’, or in the pretty pointless procession around Joe’s Square (no, not McGuane’s) on Corpus Christi. After the walls went up in the 1880s, Maynooth’s Junior House seminarians mingled with their Elders and Betters only for the big set-piece occasions. Thus, as Joe might tell us, were the gradations of Clericalism and Hierarchy inculcated in the budding ‘clerus clerus’ from his earliest years.
    I read and thoroughly enjoyed Joe’s “The Professional Cleric” in The Furrow five years ago. Theophrastus, eat your liver out! for here the man from Ballycotton and Youghal out-Theophrastuses old Theo’s pin-pointing of his ‘Characters’. Lance-point and length was where Joe beat Theo any day. ‘Trenchant’ is an adjective that’s been used about Joe’s appearances in The Furrow, and indeed it’s a word Joe was fond of himself. As Cloyne’s Trócaire co-ordinator around 2009, he laid into their outdated strategy, as he saw it, gan trócaire. In 2011, he marked his one appearance on this forum by, among other barbs, his doubts about what I think he called ACP’s “paper membership”. In between, his November 2010 Furrow target was not ‘clerus clerus’ but ‘lapsus lapsus’ – or rather the clerical Church’s apparent inability or unwillingness to face the problem presented by said ‘lapsus lapsus’ who keeps relapsing or collapsing back on deck for the odd tasty morsel: “(The Americans) also have an expression, fish or cut bait. There is a similar more trenchant Irish expression but delicacy forbids.” Brendan and a few others here made their responses to ‘Fish or Cut Bait’.
    I’m going to miss Joe McGuane though, in Maynooth terms of yesteryear, I don’t really know my Junior by two years. As we bid him a fair wind and full sail tomorrow – Joe’s maritime parishes in Youghal and Ballycotton made for many a marine metaphor – I hope that he has at least one good friend left in Clerical Cloyne, not intent on climbing the greasy clerical pole. If that good friend would just throw caution to the winds, ignore the new Bishop from Kerry presiding in the corner, forget the Bishop of Meath’s sanctions against eulogy and panegyric except for prominent clerics and poets laureate, get up on his hind legs and read Theophrastus’s Dissection of his most enduring Character, ‘The Professional Cleric’, I think there might be an epiphany of recognition among the congregation, and a wry titter from the man at the centre of it all. Rest in peace, Joe. We’ll miss you.

  2. Eddie Finnegan says:

    Following my comment @1, I have just read of the tragic circumstances of Fr Joe’s death on Thursday evening and of his sister Maura’s death hours later. That he was his sister’s carer and, through his chaplaincy work at St Raphael’s Centre, his brothers’ keeper for many years says more about the man than the adjectives ‘controversial’ and ‘outspoken’ that first come to The Evening Echo’s mind. I have just re-read his post-AGM Reflection 2011. Like his “Professional Cleric” article, this too is still relevant. If a priest today isn’t controversial and outspoken, what is he doing? If a priest member of the ACP isn’t afflicting the comfortable as well as comforting the afflicted within the Association, why is he a member at all?

  3. This is very sad and your sorrow, like many others i’m sure, at Joseph McGuane’s passing is evident. I never heard of Joseph McGuane until I read his article above. My first thought when I read the article was that the baby would not have been thrown out with the bathwater regarding my faith if I had known a priest like him. That he could write an article like this says much about him, that he was his sister’s carer says it all. Caring for others means dealing with the nitty gritty and messiness of life, it is a labour of love. Thanks Eddie for sharing your thoughts and thanks Sean for posting the article.

  4. I am grateful to Seán and the ACP for making it possible for us to read Fr. Joe McGuane’s article. As I don’t get the Furrow I would never have been aware of it otherwise. It must have taken great courage for him to write the piece, God rest his soul. And, also, it should be said, for the Furrow to publish it. I had read critiques of the sinful culture of clericalism written by Fr. Timothy Radcliffe and Fr. Donald Cozzens after the publication of the Murphy Commission Report on clerical sex abuse in the Dublin Archdiocese and they were really powerful pieces. However, I think Fr. Joe’s piece is more powerful still. How he hammers every nail absolutely on the head. And, of course, we all know these guys.
    I suppose the culture of the professional cleric that Fr. Joe described so well is also the root cause of the latest “great scandal” to afflict our church — how our bishops — all our bishops in the English speaking world — failed to stand up for us in the face the outrageous imposition of the seriously flawed new “translation” of our liturgy. Bishop Kevin Dowling in South Africa and Bishop Donald Trautman in the US are the only two exceptions, as far as I know. The rest of them — or at least the vaste majority — would surely have known only too well that it’s imposition was a scandal and that the end product is a disaster — “a pastoral disaster”, I think, were the words Donald Trautman used. Yet none of them had the courage to open their mouths.
    I don’t think we can absolve completely the laity from blame for the reality of clericalism in our church.. Some lay people accept quite happily that model of priesthood. They are those who would resent deeply, among other things, the ACP, its vision and everything it stands for.

  5. Willie Herlihy says:

    I had never heard of Fr Mc Guane before reading his wonderful Furrow article.
    He completely encapsulates the replacement we got in my parish for a wonderful priest who has recently been transferred.
    The man who was transferred did not need to wear the black garb, to endear him to his parishioners, he was one of us and loved by all.
    His homilies were eagerly looked forward to and commented upon widely, because they were relevant to the present day and intellectually stimulating, also they were delivered without recourse to notes.
    My experience of the professional cleric is, he is at home when talking down to people.
    The following two extracts from Fr McGuane’s article neatly sum up our new man. Oh!!!! What a let down.
    “The professional cleric has an extraordinary ability to live in fantasyland. He resolutely refuses to see that the sunny uplands are no more. He sees hopeful signs where there are none, in his own fantasy mind.”
    “His homilies are at peasant level, and drive people to distraction.”

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