Clericalism: The Death of Priesthood

George Wilson, S.J.’s 2008 book addressed the problem of clericalism flagged by Bishop Emile-Josef de Smedt of Bruges, Belgium early on during the Second Vatican Council together with triumphalism and legalism.

Clericalism is very much in discussion these days, provoked largely by Pope Francis. In many ways it is his bete noire. An AUSCP Working Group is addressing the matter this year after our 2018 Assembly approved that focus.

George Wilson, S.J.’s 2008 book addressed the problem of clericalism flagged by Bishop Emile-Josef de Smedt of Bruges, Belgium early on during the Second Vatican Council together with triumphalism and legalism.

All priests are infected with this disease of clericalism, and many lay persons as well. This August Commonweal cited Cardinal Blase Cupich’s reference to “attitudes of power, privilege and entitlement” among the ordained and “a structure that protects them from accountability.” Cupich will be a keynoter at AUSCP’s 2019 Assembly in St. Louis which will explore God’s Priestly People: The Baptized and The Ordained.

Nicole Trahan, a Marianist Sister and National Director of Vocations for her community, cites both Pope St. Gregory the Great and St. Thomas Aquinas’ connecting such attitudes with pride. She suggests that the root of it all is the theology of ordination and the structures of priesthood. She also cites the Catechism of the Catholic Church Article 1548’s assertion that a priest is truly made “like to the high priest and possesses the authority to act in the power and place of the person of Christ himself.” That, she writes, makes it difficult for lay persons to hold a priest to some accountability. (National Catholic Reporter, October 5-18, 2018, pp.12 &13)

In the September 21-October 4, 2018 edition of NCR, Sr. Nancy Sylvester, IHM of Monroe MI and director of the Institute for Communal Contemplation and Dialogue, recounts how she brought the victims of abuse to contemplative prayer. Her prayer led to “anger over the abuse of power in the church … exercised through the lens of a hierarchical system” which posits that men have the power and women are largely excluded. Her anger “deepened” as she pondered the coupling of the inferiority of women with the church’s teaching about sexuality “framed within a theology and a psychology of dualism that saw the human body as dangerous and in need of being brought under control.”

Sylvester goes on to say that many women today refuse to be seen as inferior or submissive to men. Rather they know themselves as “equally capable of making decisions and acting as moral agents.” She further reflects that “unhealthy understanding of one’s body, one’s sexuality; power over others and male superiority; and the belief that women are less than men are all interlocked.”

Her contemplation brought the whole clerical male establishment into view and enabled her to see them also as victims consenting “to the privileges of a historical worldview that has sanctioned a theology and a clerical structure that is now destroying the credibility of the church as a moral leader.” She cried. As her prayer continued, she breathed in and absorbed the pain, then breathed out gifts of transformation she imagined to be needed for clergy to “let go of all the privileged trappings.”

All of us caught up in this diseased disposition need to undertake such contemplative prayer toward transformation. Contemplation is a priority in AUSCP’s Mission strategy.