The Obstacle to rooting out Clericalism – the clergy


The Elephant in the Room; The clergy

Russell Pollitt SJ

“It seems the younger priests emerging from seminaries, here and elsewhere, are getting better (or worse!) at demanding full allegiance from the laity,” said an email I received this week.

Last Saturday the Archbishop of Johannesburg, Buti Tlhagale, preached about his woes – and sufferings – as a diocesan bishop at the first profession of a religious sister. He reportedly said that some priests “regard the money of the parish as their own, like Zuma with state funds, it is their own little piggy bank.”

Here is the burgeoning question: When will we deal with the elephant in the room – the clergy? Pope Francis has condemned ‘clericalism’. One of the big systemic problems in the Catholic Church is us, the clergy. Yet, this is not being addressed. If anything needs urgent reform it is the current archaic formation system that is failing dismally. Two seminary professors write an article worth reading in CommonwealMagazine entitled “The Reform Seminaries Need”.

Many lay people too have bought into the clerical caste and so aid and abet clericalism. Our ecclesiology needs serious rethinking.

People often talk about how they are treated by those in (and those who support) the clerical caste. One priest stopped children from serving at Sunday Mass because he hadn’t seen them at Mass the week before. In the sacristy he told them that they could not serve as they had missed Mass and needed to go to confession first. He assumed they had missed Mass — is his the only parish? He assumed they hadn’t been to confession — is he the only confessor in town?

A priest refused to say a weekly Mass for a local school and forbade the school from asking another priest to celebrate Mass in ‘my territory’. He said he could only celebrate Mass once a month at the school.

Another newly minted priest, starting out in a parish, stopped a religious woman who has been in religious life for over 50 years, from doing a communion service for the sick and infirm (as she had done for many years).

Yet another priest told a woman whose marriage was a real source of unhappiness (for too many reasons to write here), that even if she cried herself to sleep every night and woke up in the same state every morning, she had no choice but to make the marriage work. This was her “cross” in life!

There are many good priests who have given their lives generously and at great cost to the service of others. There are, it seems, a growing number of us priests who would be better off heading-up dictatorial fiefdoms. These pastoral issues don’t even begin to address the mismanagement of resources. Priests have, for many people, become the weekly cross they bear.

Unless there is considerable attention given to reforming the way priests are trained and carefully discerning who is put forward for ordained ministry, we are in great danger of becoming more like the Pharisees Jesus was so often at odds with.



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  1. Mary Vallely says:

    Well, that was refreshing to read because it was written by a priest who has acknowledged the absolute arrogance of SOME of his ordained brethren. The examples given of that dismissive, arrogant behaviour are of course appalling and a cause for anger.

    Since clericalism is a disease that affects many of the laity as well I suggest we lay people learn to stand up to that unChrist like behaviour and refuse to be treated like lesser human beings. We have to complain, agitate if necessary, write letters to line managers and if necessary take to the media. It has been going on for too long. We are all equal in God’s eyes but not seemingly in the eyes of SOME of these ‘ontologically changed’ mini dictators.
    “Aux armes”, citizens, but do so in a firm but charitable and peaceful manner, of course. We MUST challenge meanness and obnoxiousness and arrogance.

    This clerical culture, or clericalism, is the most commonly identified contributor to the causality of abuse as Thomas P. Doyle states in a hard hitting article in the link below. Well worth reading. Fr Thomas P. Doyle is a highly respected, courageous advocate for survivors of clerical abuse and his words need to be heard AND heeded.

  2. Paddy Ferry says:

    Surely the problem begins at ordination when a newly ordained man believes he is now somehow “ontologically superior”. Surely that is the first piece of nonsense that has to be binned. Great credit to our moderator for sharing this article with us on this site.

  3. Sean O'Conaill says:

    The ACP constitution includes:

    “Full implementation of the vision and teaching of the Second Vatican Council, with special emphasis on:

    the primacy of the individual conscience.
    the status and active participation of all the baptised.
    the task of establishing a Church where all believers will be treated as equal.

    “A redesigning of Ministry in the Church, in order to incorporate the gifts, wisdom and expertise of the entire faith community, male and female.

    “A re-structuring of the governing system of the Church, basing it on service rather than on power, and encouraging at every level a culture of consultation and transparency, particularly in the appointment of Church leaders.”

    Yet I am still waiting for a response to my request of March 25th, for an ACP statement of policy on those aspects of Canon Law that enable a PP to dispense entirely with a pastoral council or any other lay structure aimed at developing continuous lay involvement in the development of the parish.

    At present, canonically, there is no way in which a lay community that has attended the same chapel for generations can confidently organise itself in the event of a decision that it will no longer have a resident priest – and there are surely many such communities awaiting such a decision throughout the country.

    Who in the ACP is thinking about this – the question of continuity in the face of what can only be called de-clericalisation? Dependence upon reform-from-above, and fear of the Catholic right – are these the factors that prevent the ACP from turning aspiration into policy and action? If so can we expect it to leave any legacy of ‘redesigned Ministry’ whatsoever?

  4. Joe O'Leary says:

    Sean, no doubt the ACP is fully in agreement, and would disagree with those aspects of Canon Law you note. But the problem may be that any protests against Canon Law are very difficult to make stick. One needs to be a qualified canon lawyers to have any chance of being listened to at all, and the ACP may not have any canon lawyers. Mary McAleese has devoted herself to querying church policies and practices on the basis of her legal expertise, and might be able to take up this issue as well. But stonewalling from those who have their hands on “power” is a huge obstacle.

    The canon law issue could be bypassed if the ACP urged a practical code on parish councils and lay empowerment, in alliance with committed laity. Does this not come up at the assemblies of the ACP and the ACI?

  5. Lloyd Allan MacPherson says:

    Sean, do what you want and feel is necessary – the last time I checked Pope Francis inverted the hierarchical structure in the Church, confirming it in October of 2015. So according to this, he is giving you an authority in a hierarchy that is there to serve you.

    I wrote a song about it in March of that same year – it was picked up by a Celine Dion collaborator in Montreal in 2018. “Stare Down” was a call for the inversion of the hierarchical structures we’ve grown to accept in society. They’ve led us here, where we stand. “If change is unspoken – we’ll never speak – reborn in this wilderness, the top of our peak – FROM THE BOTTOM TO THE TOP, WE’RE ALL ABOUT TO GO – and our stare down won’t look away.”

    According to this, the Pope is calling for the revolution you, yourself are looking to establish. Establish it and don’t ask permission to do so – you don’t need it.

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