Sin of clericalism is at heart of sexual abuse crisis

PRINCIPLE: “In the church all are one in Christ; there is no Greek or Roman, no Jew or Gentile, no male or female”—and no hierarchy of privilege or status or honor conferred by ministerial office or rank alone. All baptized believers immersed in the sacramental life and apostolic works of the Catholic community are to be respected as equal inheritors of the ancient traditions and full participants in the work of redemption, a work accomplished by and through Christ alone. The church, catholic and apostolic, is a graced community of sinners and pilgrims, and those who receive holy orders must never set themselves apart from or above the faithful; to the contrary, the clergy must be subject, like the laity, to the correction and exhortations of all the faithful.

The sexual abuse of children and young adults by a tiny minority of Catholic priests is itself a terrible stain on the institutional church—but the repeated failure of the bishops and other priests to report and remove the perpetrators has magnified and deepened, beyond immediate repair, the erosion of trust and the crisis of faith within the Catholic community.

This moral blindness and outrageous complacency in the face of evil is all the more damning and damaging in that it arises from within a body of Catholic leaders, some of whose most prominent members have been harsh in their judgments of the moral failings of the laity.

Quick to perceive challenges to their authority in the exercise of theological exploration and spiritual creativity, especially among women, they have placed their own “class” of Catholics—the ordained—above recrimination while seldom hesitating to “prune” the church of “dissenters” to their increasingly authoritarian rule. Jealous of their prerogatives as “elites,” they have identified their own often narrow interests with the will of Christ and the good of the church.

This influential subset of the clergy is not the first generation of priests and bishops to mistakenly interpret ordination as a license for ecclesial power over others. Ancient heresies also attempted to establish an elite class within the church, whether by virtue of a presumed “purity” (donatism) or a special knowledge and spiritual status (gnosticism). But today’s clerical elitists preside at a time of institutional peril, when the community of faith desperately needs servants, not princes, to lead and nourish it.

At the heart of the sexual abuse crisis is the sin of clericalism—a constellation of ideas and practices rooted in the conviction that ordination to the priesthood confers a special and privileged status that places the priest above the nonordained baptized by virtue of the sacrament itself, unmoored from its proper setting within the moral life and spiritual pilgrimage of the individual priest.

The status of the priest as alter Christus—another Christ—is today understood as an instant reward of ordination itself rather than grace progressively revealed through years of cultivating the spiritual fruits of the sacrament, among them humility, compassion, and mercy.

How has this malady come to infect the priesthood? We live in a society that seems to celebrate self-indulgence and scorn self-restraint. Many Americans, including many Catholics, are skeptical of obedience to duly constituted authority and other virtues central to the religious life. In some quarters a full-hearted response to the call to holiness arouses suspicion rather than admiration. It is not an easy time to be a priest.

In a well-meaning effort to bolster a priesthood “under siege,” promote vocations, and reinforce fidelity to vows, some very gifted and influential Catholic writers and teachers have fed seminarians and young priests a rich rhetorical feast—e.g., “You are living icons of the eternal priesthood of Jesus Christ.”

Ironically, such rhetoric borrows from the cultural discourse of radical individualism and self-exaltation, which the newly ordained are meant to confront, not replicate. Bolstering young male egos in this way can backfire, fostering a degree of pride and arrogance, especially among the untested and insecure. (Faced with 30-something, baby priest-pastors who sweep into a healthy parish like a hurricane, obliterating every long-suffering DRE or school principal in their path, one is tempted to confront them: “I studied John Paul II, Father, and you are no John Paul II.”)

Mistrust is also at the root of the new and virulent clericalism. Some bishops are convinced that laypeople have become soft, gone over to the dark side, abandoned the faith. There is more than a grain of truth to this diagnosis, perhaps, but the pastoral response has too often been colored by fear and threat rather than by confidence and hope.

Circling the wagons against a hostile world and a laity that cannot be counted on, these enclave priests protect their own, no matter the cost. The non-ordained are once again relegated to coach class.

But this cannot be suffered. Roman Catholicism is a church, not a sect. No head can exist without its body. The faithful are not branches to be pruned but the root that gives life to the great oak.

The recently beatified 19th-century English Cardinal John Henry Newman was right when he said that the clergy—the “1 percent”—would look pretty foolish without the laity—the “99 percent.” And the American Catholic laity is perhaps the most educated and gifted in the history of the church. Clericalism wastes that precious and desperately needed resource.

Happily, the Catholic Church is big enough for sinners of all stripes, ordained and non-ordained. Blessed Pope John XXIII reminded us of this perennial truth when he wisely called for a suspension of excommunications and a renewal of collegiality and affirmation across “ranks” that had become too rigid and stultifying.

Let us pray fervently for a renewal of the church in this spirit of catholic collegiality, and for the recovery of the genuinely apostolic priesthood that must surely help inspire and accompany such a renewal.

Scott Appleby is a professor of history at the University of Notre Dame and the director of the university’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. In 2002 he addressed the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on the sexual abuse crisis. This article appeared as part of a series celebrating the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council.  The first installment of the three-part series appeared in the October 2012 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 77, no. 10, pages 12-17).

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  1. Stephen Edward says:

    The link between a very high proportion of priests who are homosexual and sexual crime against, mainly, adolescent males by clergy has been clearly identified. This scandal is finally being faced and dealt with in the obvious way.

  2. Paddy Banville says:

    Clericalism is such a vague description.

    I really don’t understand the meaning of the word and at times I think its like an imaginary enemy! A malign version of the flying spagetti monster!

    Are the inner dynamics of the human process that produces this condition disimilar to the dynamics that produce farmer-ism, student-ism, Garda-ism, nurse-ism, doctor-ism, teacher-ism, solicitor-ism, barrister-ism or even lay-ism?

    I don’t like such categorization of the human race, beneath such superficial name calling, if you dare to look further, you’ll just find people.

    The central argument here is flawed but the padding is excellent. I can’t argue with the padding. If clericalism is at the heart of clerical abuse (the central argument) how do we explain the other 95% of the problem occuring outside the Catholic Church? It’s not a good idea to view an extensive problem occuring throughout the human race, through a fraction of a percentage of the human population. What might we call that? Something far worse than clericalism!

    Sent from my iPhone

  3. Joe O'Leary says:

    “have shown a causal connection between clericalism and the sexual abuse of children”

    Since clericalism is such a vague expression I think such causality would be impossible to demonstrate. Suppose it to mean “interpreting ordination as a license for ecclesial power over others,” the word “power” here is again vague. Do priests and bishops really see themsleves as exercising “power” over others? All institutions and families tend to “hush up” shameful things — why not begin from that simple observation rather than vamping up unclear notions such as “clericalism” or treating such notions as dogmas?

  4. Gene, perhaps this author has not but others have shown a causal connection between clericalism and the sexual abuse of children.

  5. Joe O'Leary says:

    I do not have a wealth of experience, but I do try to analyze critically things like the Ryan Report and the Murphy Report and their coverage (see my website). By “family” I mean extended family, and the “experience” may be so hushed up that most of the family are unaware of it. If “one in four” is a realistic statistic, it is clear that no families can be excluded.

  6. Mary O Vallely says:

    It’s a very sweeping statement, Joe, to say that all families have experience of child abuse. Perhaps “many” or “some” but not all. It’s almost as if the abuse is an accepted fact and that shocks me. I may have misread you, of course.
    Who do you mean by these politically correct “experts?”
    Can you expand on what you believe to be the “real problems” and what needs to be done? You tease by just giving us a sentence when there is a wealth of experience there which you could share with us and expand perhaps into an article?

  7. Joe O'Leary says:

    I think every institution and family has experience of child abuse and of hushing it up. The vast discourse on clericalism now invented by the politically correct “experts” is a great example of mystification that does nothing at all to address the real problems.

  8. Gene Carr says:

    This is an interesting and probably accurate indictment of the evils of clericalism. But the author has not shown how this clericalism has any causal connection with the abuse issue.

  9. M.P.Burns says:

    I have long believed that the time has come for the abolition of the clerical state in the Church. The mindset of too many among the clergy is revealed in the phrase “reduced to the laity”. Of course we need bishops and priests, but they should regard themselves as members of the “Laos”, or people of God, which is the grace-filled inheritance of us all. If the word “Lay” comes from “Laos”, then those no longer lay cannot be members of God’s people! Perhaps it’s time they rejoined us. Unfortunately, the division of the Church into clerical and lay tends to put us hewers of wood and drawers of water into a category seen as lounging around as layabouts in the laybys of the Church. Any idea of a “lay apostolate” will only really be taken seriously when this pernicious division is abolished.

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