The Cult of Clericalism – we look after ourselves

Chris McDonnell

Catholic Times,  Friday February 1st2019

When we come to discuss clericalism, confusion of language can give rise to many problems. Our common sharing, both priests and laity, of Baptism is the first calling that unites us all. How that is ultimately lived out and experienced marks the individual journey that we must take.

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 perception of priesthood within community. Trust can only be built on experience of reality and it is trust has been severely shaken in recent years. How do we repair the damage done to the Church?

I would suggest 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 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? When honesty overcame acquiescence, talking began.

Partly it was due to the cult of reverence for the clergy of the ordained. They were trusted without hesitation. Clericalism grew in a protective atmosphere, one looking after the other.

Maybe it is in the Seminary formation that we should seek out the roots of clericalism; there are certainly questions that we cannot avoid asking. Such questions relate to the detail of selection procedures to enter, the age of entry and the nature of the experience over the years prior to ordination.

Within the Seminary more emphasis is now placed on human formation, with an honest attempt to test the suitability of those following a journey of discernment. Where there are concerns, of whatever nature, then there is a responsibility to voice them for the benefit of all, none more so than the seminary student himself. After these years of ‘process’ the young priest emerges to the experience of work in a parish. Seamus Heaney describes one such priest with these words.

I saw a young priest, glossy as a blackbird,
as if he had stepped from his anointing
a moment ago; his purple stole and cord
or cincture tied loosely, his polished shoes
unexpectedly secular beneath
a pleated, lace-hemmed alb of linen cloth.

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. A chorus line from one of Springsteen’s songs comes to mind.

We take care of our own
We take care of our own
Wherever this flag’s flown
We take care of our own

It comes not only with the singular way of life but in the honorifics, 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.

It is this ‘otherness’ that must be the focus of our examination. How has it come about and what continues to encourage it? Being an ordained priest should be about service, not status. Arrival in a parish might be new for the priest but he should always remember that he comes to serve an existing community, one that has roots and heritage, a life that goes back many years.

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. Clerics always say: ‘this should be done like this, like this, like this, and you – go away!’” It happens “when the cleric doesn’t have time to listen to those who are suffering, the poor, the sick, the imprisoned: 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.

His position is clear; he will have none of it. For him it is a prime source of damage within the Christian community.

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. The gathering of Bishops with Francis in Rome this February is an important part of this process.


[This is an edited version of a longer article published in the Dominican Journal SPIRITUALITY this month]


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  1. Seamus Ahearne says:

    Re Clericalism:

    My own reaction is somewhat confused. I agree with what is said by many and especially by Chris but I hesitate. The profile; the portrait; the brand; the caste; the profession is damaged. We can easily give in to the caricature that is the cheap cliché, written/spoken about us. We are battered. We are apologetic. We are weary. We are a laughing stock. We can accept the characterization. But there is more to us than that. We can’t forget the MORE.

    In the politics of today’s psychology – we hear much on a ‘positive self-image’; on ‘mindfulness’ and on ‘the Now.’ I cringe a little at this chatter. It can be short-term gibberish. However, there is a point. Clericalism is obviously the down-side of our profession. It is the butt of every observer. We are easy targets. Even Francis has a go. It isn’t quite as bad as his blethering against the Curia in his earlier Advent speech. But it is bad enough. It is easy to lose confidence. Confidence in ‘our business’ and confidence in ourselves as ‘ministers’ is key.

    It is also true that any gathering of clergy (for a funeral or otherwise) – shouts out clearly that we are aging rapidly and looking not just old but very weary and often dishevelled. We are past it. We are dressed up and look as if we don’t know where we are going or even where we have come from. We often revert to childishness when we gather together. We can be so negative. The ‘poor me’ stuff can pour out of us. We see the problems and often don’t accept that we are the problem and have most of the solutions. The solution is local. The Church is local. Rome or Diocese or Pope or Bishop matter only a little. We are more than just museum pieces or relics of the past or dull, dreary left-over empties. We are much more than ‘poor souls’ and a dying breed. We have to concentrate on ‘the more.’

    The very obvious point to be made is this: Every profession has its own language and some its own dress. The language may descend into jargon but it is understandable. We can’t give into to every complaint against us or apologise for existing. ‘Walk Tall’ as Val Doonican used to sing. Be bold. Be brazen. Be upstanding. Never be defensive. Be proud of what we have to offer and what we have been given. Believe in ourselves and the miracle of the message and then that gift of Christ, and the Spirit oozing out of us.

    My own line is that we begin not with what is wrong but with how privileged and wonderful this profession is. We can strip off the garb of superiority and certainty. I think we are humbled and privileged every day. It is what we do each day where we are, that and how we are. This matters. John Bosco used the line ‘Serve the Lord with Gladness.’ Keith Patrick O Brien had this as his motto and lived it. Never mind the flaws and the failures. Dabble in hope and spread it.

    We are dealing with the world of grace and God. We are incarnated into the messy lives of those in our Community. Our Liturgy has to be immersed totally into the language and story of our Community. We are learners each day. We are lost for words throughout each day. We are there. That is it. The Bread of the Community is broken every day. The Song and the Pain of the people is in our guts each day. We can never hide or retire from real life.

    Without being too dramatic – we have a role to play in the theatre of the healing of the lepers. Christ became the outsider and the leper. We have done the same. We are now the outsiders. We were once the Gentlemen. We wore the suits. We had the fat collars. Or the tall hats. We were saluted. We were in charge. What we said was right and the law. Now we have become the poor. We are the ones scoffed at. Life on the periphery and margins of today’s culture is fine. The desert is a place where even occasionally the odd oasis, springs up. If we can’t explode each day a prayer like a psalm (a real Eucharist)from our ministry; something has dried up and there are other places for us to be. If we haven’t the backbone to face the ‘cold’; we may be in the wrong business.

    We look for leaders and can’t find them. But we are the leaders in the matters of faith. We create the language. We are there. We do the dirty jobs. All our potential bishops need to be rolled around in the dirt of today’s world. They may not smell of sheep. But they better smell of real life and mess. Never again should we go searching in the Roman corridors or in the seminaries for leaders. They don’t know the story. That is not the place for incarnational ministers.

    Daniel O Leary wrote beautifully his ‘last will and testament.’ His God was immersed in life. He found grace in the wonders of life and people and nature. His God danced. With his God; he could fall asleep. He also knew that celibacy was a nonsense. It contradicts the incarnation. He had a last rant. He was right.

    But nonetheless, the gift of priesthood; the gift of priesting; the gift of the Church in life, has been colourful and wonderful. Let’s not dump the lot. The excesses of basking in the rigmarole of priesthood is not gone but must be got rid of. The Master. The Big House. The mentality of knowing everything has to go. The codology of ridiculous titles has to be dumped. The waiting for the Master to speak and the bowing and scraping has to be thrown away. Among priests and among some bishops – ‘they have the power ‘or so they think sometimes (Seanachái). The day of pomposity and certainty has passed. All this is good. How is it that the less secure people are; the more certain they become?

    The notion of looking for vocations is also strange. What do we want? Replacements for ourselves? Continuity of structure? There is a need for a new model. The synodal version has to be tried. Not many bishops try it. Not too many priests try it.

    Finally. We need a positive spin. We need spin doctors to sell ourselves. We cannot become what others think we are. We are better than that. The saints are still plentiful and these aren’t the ones canonized. Be Bold. Upright. Strong. Positive. Courageous. Imaginative. All whinging has to be banned. ‘Sub specie aeternitatis’ has to be a banner over us. Be very proud of who we are. Thanks Chris. You did an excellent job. But there is always more to be said. Seamus Ahearne osa

  2. Chris McDonnell says:

    I much appreciate the detailed response by Seamus to my few words on clericalism. As he concludes, there is always more to be said.

    Another person who has written extensively on this question is an American priest, Donald Cozzens, writer-in-residence at John Carroll University in Ohio State, in the US. His two books, ‘Notes from the Underground’ and ‘The changing face of priesthood’, offer a detailed examination of the nature and experience of priesthood.

    In a short piece, published on the ACP website in July 2015, Cozzens suggested that “Clericalism is an attitude found in many (but not all) clergy who have put their status as priests and bishops above their status as baptized 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.”

    It is a delicate matter, passing comment on the life pattern of others. Too easily generalisations can cause hurt. We must tread carefully and be charitable in our use of words.

    Seamus did just that when he posted these few words on ACP in 2013.

    “In everything I do; I recall all the people who have been around long before me – I think of the local community; I think of the real saints of the parish; I think of the work of the sisters everywhere over the years; I think of my own family. We are part of the long stretch of faith down the centuries and down the years and down the by-roads of life. We do live and I live on the shoulders of giants and I am grateful. Yes. The parish is a holy place. I take off my shoes”.

    The article in SPIRITUALITY from which my posting is an edited text hopefully addresses some of these issues in a sensitive way.
    get hold of a copy if you can.

  3. Paddy Ferry says:

    What a well informed, civil and enlightened discussion, lads. Thank you both.
    I have also read both of those books of Donald Cozzens, Chris and we can only call them wonderful. “Freeing Celibacy” is also pretty good.The most recent one that I read, a few years ago now, was “Notes from the Underground” which was published in 2013 and I have been wondering has he published anything more recently. Like many of us he was in despair at that time but that was just before the coming of Francis and I wonder how he is now feeling. Much more hopeful I would guess. One of the most important messages I took from “Notes from the Underground” is that –to use Donald’s words — faith is nothing more than a blind trust in the great mystery of the unseen God. I suppose I always accepted, without question,the whole idea of the certitude of faith. But when you think about it, that is bordering on oxymoron. How innocent we all were! The next question, of course, is what do we understand the reality of the unseen God to be. Tony Flannery’s excellent essay, “The Language of Doctrine” got me thinking –for the first time in my life !! — about that absolutely essential question. So, I am now reading Fr. Diarmuid O’Murchu’s “Incarnation”. Anyway, I digress.

    Something else I accepted without much question –probably because I didn’t really understand what it really was supposed to be — was the concept of ontological superiority. I feel almost embarrassed now that I accepted such nonsense for so long. I wonder what ever happened to that new society of priests formed in England a few years dedicated to the memory of St. Gregory the Great. Those fellas certainly believed strongly in the idea of ontological superiority. There was a move to form a branch in Ireland as well –at an event in Knock, I seem to remember — and Bishop Boyce, then bishop of my home diocese of Raphoe, was prominent in its establishment. Did it ever get off the ground at home, I wonder.

    Seamus, reading above, I get the impression that you were not too keen on Francis’ sensational critique of the Curia in his December 2014 address. I don’t often have to disagree with you, Seamus but I thought it was wonderful. Francis let the cat out of the bag once and for all. Existential Schizophrenia, Spiritual Alzheimers, the Pathology of Power, Deifying their Superiors for their own Advancement and Benefit etc and, of course, a trait he refers to again and again, Narcissism. He was very blunt but I suppose, given what he knew was the reality of what existed in the Vatican, he felt he had to be.
    Thank you, Seamus, for mentioning our old friend, Keith and John Bosco in the same breath. Keith certainly did serve the Lord with gladness. I, and many others, miss him greatly. A Redemptorist friend, who travelled from continental Europe for his funeral said to me at his graveside that while 5% of Keith was weak 95% was wonderful. I was happy to agree with that.
    God rest his soul.
    Good night and God bless.

  4. Kevin Walters says:

    “When we come to discuss clericalism, confusion of language can give rise to many problems”

    No confusion here Merriam-Webster: Clericalism; a policy of maintaining or increasing the ‘power’ of a religious hierarchy; Yes Clericalism is a fundamental problem’, as it is the vehicle that carries our Christian enterprise, which has systematically nullified men of integrity.

    “Trust can only be built on experience of reality and it is trust has been severely shaken in recent years”

    I agree, many today are claiming that homosexuality is at the root of the church’s present problems as in rings of spiritual corruption, they is some truth in this, but is not the systemic nullification of men with strong conviction (Integrity) also applicable in many worldly institutions which has nothing to do with homosexuality, rather it is about control and ‘power’

    Clericalism; simply put, many good men, hemmed in well

    kevin your brother
    In Christ

  5. Darlene Starrs says:

    Well done Chris, Seamus and Paddy. It’s fascinating to me that I wrote a letter to the Pope in October of 2014, saying in a nutshell, that while he could accomplish many things during his Papacy, unless he addressed the dark side of clericalism, he really wouldn’t have cut to the core of the Church’s ills. Who knows maybe he read my letter as I was astonished to see what appeared in December of 2014.

  6. Eugene Sheehan says:

    Paddy, in no.3, feels he digresses by asking “what do we understand the reality of the unseen God to be?” I would argue that this is the question that shines a light on the negative effects of clericalism!
    I do not wish to patronise but God IS Love – not a metaphor FOR Love, and in this Love “we live, and move, and have our being”. Fish do not need “clerics” to show them where the ocean is! They “live, and move and have their being” in it – simply. So much of Jesus’ incarnation is interpreted by the institutional Church as a revelation of God as “A Being” – the “He” pronoun, rather than “Being” – the “I Am” response to Moses.
    The personification of God in popular understanding is perpetuated continually in doctrinal and clerical teaching and preaching throughout Christianity – not just Catholicism, causing many to reject the Christian message as it appears to be meaningless in their lives.
    Last Sunday’s 2nd reading from Corinthians had Paul declare “when I was a child, I used to talk like a child…..but now I’m a man, I’ve put childish ways behind me…”. I believe that clericalism is an obstacle to an evolved, mature understanding of faith and the oxygen of clericalism is a theology that sets a living experience of God as being beyond the everyday person – the fish, seemingly, need to “find” the sea!

  7. Sean O'Conaill says:

    #6 Right on the nail, Eugene, apart from the second word in the following:

    “The personification of God in popular understanding is perpetuated continually in doctrinal and clerical teaching and preaching throughout Christianity – not just Catholicism, causing many to reject the Christian message as it appears to be meaningless in their lives.”

    As love is always personal, ‘personification’ is the wrong word for the conception of God as a ‘being’ who is both distant from and different from us – ‘out there somewhere’. Denial of ‘personhood’ to God is to make God ‘impersonal’, i.e. incapable of tender love. Bishop John Shelby Spong makes the same sad mistake in his tendency to patronise Jesus for referring to a loving ‘Father’.

    Far better to say that there are dangers in seeing God as ‘just another person somewhere else’ rather than as the source and essence of personal love – the ‘sea’ in which we ‘live and move and have our being’.

    Even as I was growing up in Dublin I was aware of God as mystery and as love, simply from the way my parents related to me. God is both ‘personal’ and NOT ‘someone out there, separate from me’.

    To clearly identify ‘clericalism’ I tend to remember a (possibly apocryphal) story I was once told about Maynooth from someone who had passed through it. He said that when approaching ordination his cohort was once given the following advice on how to comport themselves in their parishes after weekday Mass:

    “Just read the Irish Times, twiddle your thumbs – and then make sure at all times to maintain the mystery of the priesthood!”

    Did it not always make sense to accompany the black suit and collar with an aloofness that could imply untellable understanding of mysteries way beyond the unordained? The same divinely privileged understanding is implied by the avoidance of occasions for awkward questions that typifies most secular priests today. As I have related here earlier, the last time I requested an opportunity to discuss his homily with a priest in my parish he told me: ‘I’m not authorised to do that.’

    No wonder the New Evangelisation hangs fire in such a situation – when with one in every ten teenagers in NI suffering from a diagnosable mental illness (often relating to bullying) our clergy cannot see that Jesus too was being bullied and tell our young people, with deep conviction, that this was to reveal how ‘the world’ behaves, and how Jesus nevertheless became the cornerstone of the church – and will be with them in every trial.

  8. Pat Collinson says:

    The biggest problem with Clericalism, in my humble opinion, is that many lay people have now ‘caught up’ with the clergy in terms of theological training. They are as highly educated and in some cases, more so. This is a joy for many clerics and religious, but a terrific threat to others, who perceive it to in some great degree, usurp their power. They are not used to being held to account when their teaching is pre-Vatican 11 or erroneous.

    Until these well educated ‘teachers and preachers’ are welcomed into the ministry – both men and women – we will continue to have these problems. Why would a priest deny a person in their flock, to preach at Mass – especially if they knew they were gifted.

    Why are lay women/men not represented in ALL decision making situations when women make up 50% of the congregation. This has nothing to do with the ordained priesthood. After all technically speaking, there has not been an impediment to lay women/men being Cardinals. Well not until the recent past.

    If the church were so much more inclusive, I think these ‘protective’ clerics would see how much they could be cared for by their brothers and sisters; there would be no need to build a wall around themselves.

  9. Eugene Sheehan says:

    Sean, I offer a quote from Bishop John Shelby Spong that articulates more accurately my point about the dangers of clericalism:
    “When any human group decides that they can define God, the outcome is always predictable. The “true faith,” once defined, must then be defended against all critics, and it must also then be forced upon all people—“for their own good, lest their souls be in jeopardy.”
    ― John Shelby Spong, Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy: A Journey into a New Christianity Through the Doorway of Matthew’s Gospel.

    I do not deny there is a great need for people who are trained in spirituality, an understanding of scripture etc. who will enable others to “swim” in the mystery of God, to become conscious of the Divine as the ground of their being, so much a part of the contemplative tradition of the Church.
    But do we need an ordained priesthood, other than the priesthood of the baptised? If not, then we are wasting our time and energy debating vocations, celibacy and women priests!

  10. Darlene Starrs says:

    Eugene, you have presented the next most urgent question of the day…Do we require an ordained priesthood?…Here we must find a courageous and insightful theologian or theologians who are willing to take a very honest and critical examination of the theology of Thomas Aquinas. It’s the keeping of Thomas Aquinas’s theology that keeps this ordained priesthood in tact. I am somewhat removed from the latest theological insights. Is there a professional theologian or theologians who are devoted to honestly critiquing the theology of Thomas Aquinas? Thomas Aquinas’s theology needs to be revisited and examined for the post Vatican II Church so that we can move with greater confidence into the assertion and conviction that the Church does not require a priesthood as we have known it, Who out there among theologians has a new brilliance to lead us, the Church, to a new wisdom about the priesthood? We need to do this if we are to find a way to deal with clericalism but also to find a new direction for the Church, the subject of another thread. I believe this is why we haven’t been able to move forward with the trajectory of Vatican II, and that is because we are clinging to the priesthood as we have known it….and it’s not just about only having men as priests…it’s about the fallacy of ordination and it’s function and merits…period. The Church of the future will be about the priesthood of all believers….not that we wouldn’t have appointed ministers…but.. hopefully, the community with appointed ministers would be equal and reflective of the whole Church’s responsibility to serve in the person of Christ. Retaining the priesthood as we have known it is what has prevented the full expression of a Vatican II Church and so we need to examine the assumptions and underpinnings that keeps that priesthood in place and that has a whole lot to do with the theology of Thomas Aquinas. Who are the theologians that will take this on?

  11. Sean O'Conaill says:

    #9 “But do we need an ordained priesthood, other than the priesthood of the baptised? If not, then we are wasting our time and energy debating vocations, celibacy and women priests!”

    That question stuck in my mind while I dealt with other preoccupations, Eugene.

    I strongly now believe that ordination in Ireland has become a licence to ignore the questions and misgivings that arise over the past three decades and over the current church crisis, including the power retained in the church by ‘ordained’ clergy.

    I woke up this morning asking myself ‘why are you taking that lot seriously, given (1) all that has happened and (2) clerical denial of any opportunity for radical questioning of it all?’

    And then I stopped taking that lot seriously! The Irish expression ‘chancers’ comes to mind.

    To those members of the ordained elite who are up for discussion of the question Eugene raises I will raise my hat and turn up for that discussion. To the rest I say ‘Too late guys. Toto has pulled the curtain to reveal the phony who masquerades as the Wizard of Oz.’

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