Defining Clericalism

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine and Life Oct 2002

Betty is a widow in her eighties, living alone in a rural parish in the north of Ireland.  Contacting me after reading some of my work she tells me of her bewilderment with a succession of local clergy who have passed through her life since Vatican II.  One anecdote stands out.

Sometime about 1975 her young local curate came to call, with a visiting curate friend of the same age.  Her own priest drew the visitor’s attention to a picture of the Sacred Heart sitting in an alcove in her living room wall.

“Very nice,” said the visiting priest, turning to Betty “but if I were you I would take that picture out and put in a clock!”

What kind of mindset, I ask myself, would consider that a spiritually defensible sally – somehow reconcilable with basic courtesy and this man’s own pastoral responsibility?  What did it say about his attitude to women per se, especially older women?  What did it reveal about the reasons for the suspicion many lay Catholics had, and have, towards the changes that followed – and didn’t follow – Vatican II?

There is certainly behind it a presumption of the priest’s role as one of expert adviser in all matters of religion, as well as a presumption of Betty’s incompetence in such matters.  The relationship it was intended to establish was one of knowledgeable teacher to backward pupil – despite the difference in ages.  Humour, doubtless, was intended also.  This man was, perhaps, on the crest of his own conception of the new wave that had emerged out of Vatican II – and saw this particular devotion as one of the old wineskins that could not carry the new wine that he now carried.  Whatever that was, Betty has, understandably, no recollection.

For Betty remembers this sally for what it was – a gratuitous insult delivered by a priest in her own home.  Knowing as I do what the Sacred Heart on the wall symbolised for Catholic families of her generation and place – the gracious presence in the humblest home of God’s personal love  – I was totally at a loss to express what I felt.  Especially about the misrepresentation of what Vatican II had to offer people like Betty in terms of self-respect and spiritual affirmation.   The story will always remain for me a classic example of how the disease of clericalism could seek to exploit even all that was good and liberating in Vatican II, and, by emphasising the unassailable superiority of the priest’s own role, keep the Irish Church in a state of spiritual and intellectual paralysis.

I tell this story because another of my articles provoked an irate anonymous letter from another priest, who explained that my writing was an expression of nothing more than an irrational ‘spasm of anger’ working its way through the Church at this time.  Clericalism, ‘whatever that may be’, was not the problem.

Convinced that clericalism is the essence of all of the problems that now face us, I have wondered since exactly how I would define it.  Tentatively, and for wider consideration, I suggest this:  The abuse of priestly expertise and authority to maintain clerical dominance of the people of God, by maintaining the dependence and inertia of laity.

Betty also helps me map at least one of the typical stratagems used in this cause.  Called by all the hierarchy at one of the many peaks of violence in NI  to devise a public service for peace in the town, a good proportion of her parish assembled to hear the parish priest expatiate on this.  It soon became clear that he didn’t want such a service, for his address consisted mainly of the same simple sentence repeated at least thrice for emphasis:  “We pray in for peace, we don’t pray out.”

The crassness of the example helps to reveal the rhetorical stratagem:  the assertion of a logical antithesis where none exists – in this case between private and public prayer.  We can call this the use of false antithesis to undermine a project one dislikes.  Who will dare to question such an antithesis if a parish priest – with years of seminary training behind him – feels ready to place all of his authority behind it?

Betty, unwisely, dared.  “Why can’t we do both?”

The response was uncompromising and angry: “Mrs Doherty, you are naïve.”

The assembled laity didn’t agree, and said so.  They elected a committee that included Betty to devise such a public service, respectfully appointing the parish priest to convene this committee.  He never did so.  On one occasion, spotting Betty waiting to ask him why, he retraced his steps and left the parish church by another route.   No peace service was held in the parish on that occasion.

I do not need to emphasise the demoralising – the antispiritual – effects of behaviour such as this.  Intended to raise up, spiritual authority was used to do precisely the reverse – to deny the competence of laity even in so simple and innocuous a matter, and to blast the earliest shoots of lay initiative and maturity on the vine.

“Naïve” was an especially destructive term – aimed, Betty thought, at her own lack of the kind of education that had allowed the priest to arrive at the false antithesis he had so confidently stated.  So some years later when her diocese organised a course in Catholic adult education she eagerly signed up, attending weekly lectures over two years.

Then she took stock, wondering what use she might make of her new knowledge.  Anxious not to venture into controversial areas where she might conflict with the views of a new parish priest, she drew up a written summary of the more interesting things she had learned – including the archaic autonomy of individual bishops – and added some supplementary questions of her own.  She passed this on to the parish priest, asking for his confirmation or rebuttal of its contents.

He never either returned it or discussed it with her, eventually simply apologising, without explanation, for his inability to do so.  His attitude was one that told her that she was really a bit of an eccentric for bothering her head about such matters.

This story perfectly illustrates the bind that laity are in at present.  Anxious not to be disrespectful towards clergy, they find that their deference is pocketed as the priest’s traditional due – without reciprocal respect.  Yet if they challenge this, they instinctively feel sure that this challenge will be interpreted as disrespectful.  This is the root source of the deep anger that many laity now feel and express to one another – the fact that they are faced with a stark choice between their traditional infantile role of deference to clergy, and complete alienation from the church.  And this in turn reveals another element of clericalism – its tendency to regard the priest as the personification of the church, and the layperson as necessarily deficient and dependent – essentially a second class Catholic, and certainly not worth listening to.

These three stories outline the reasons for Betty’s present bewilderment.  What is her role in the Church?  How is she to confidently express her own faith, in her own environment?  What is the point of lay personal education if clergy cannot acknowledge it?

While incidents such as these occurred close at hand, Betty was meanwhile collecting press cuttings that mapped the national and international controversies of Catholicism, beginning about 1968 with Humanae Vitae.  She was sure that God was calling her to develop her own comprehension of her own role as a Catholic lay woman in her own parish, but bewildered by the failure of her local church and clergy to offer any scope for discovering this.  She wondered, and still wonders, why this was.

I would ask the hierarchical and clerical church the very same question.  As part of the high stone wall they have erected against any change, they sometimes poignantly depict the simplicity of traditional untutored Irish faith, and the danger of disturbing it.  Betty, in her eighties, is far more deeply disturbed by something else:  about being patronised and insulted by clergy whose whole concept of their own role was one that simply did not allow for the ‘radical equality’ the Church says it is in business to uphold.

Having had an often very different experience of clergy I can only empathise with her, and ask again for the revolution in secular clerical attitudes towards laity the whole church needs in Ireland if our churches are not to decay into discos and bingo halls.

At the core of such a revolution is basic integrity.  If the purpose of the Church is to raise the entire human race to an understanding of its spiritual dignity, why is this dignity not available now to lay people who have been Catholic all their lives, and who wish to gather together to discuss – with clergy – the radical problems facing their church?  Especially the prospect of radical discontinuity of the faith in the lifetime of their own children?

If there is a genuine fear of theological heterodoxy or even schism emerging from any such process, where is the faith of the clergy?  Those lay people I know who are most anxious to be active as Catholics have no driving interest in theological controversy.  They simply want the freedom to express their own grasp of the creed – that it declares that no-one is outside the love and compassion of God.  They greatly respect those priests who greatly respect them, but find the rest insufferable, whatever theological flag they travel under.

Another lay acquaintance from an urban setting describes a parish situation in which two priests are in constant rivalry with one another, but totally unaware of this as a spiritual failing.  Rivalry, arrogance and ambition are clearly as great a temptation for a priest as for anyone else – but this seems not to have been part of the training of secular clergy in Ireland.  Instead the bottom line seems to be: keep control – as though that was ever part of the Gospels.

Which means that many committed Irish Catholics cannot now confidently affirm the integrity of their own leaders.  Reconciled to a process of decay that must eventually deprive those leaders of the clerical power they still cling to, they wonder how long this will take.

Betty Doherty (not her real name, of course) has paid a high price for Father’s amour propre – her own diminishment and disillusionment.  I am sure there are many such in Ireland – many women especially.  They deserve documentation, as they too are the poor in spirit whose humiliation is the price of the egotism of the world.

Clericalism in the end is simply priestly worldliness – the priest’s use of his office and expertise to flatter and empower himself.  Our church will never be free of it – or healthy and renascent – until it is faced, acknowledged, and repudiated by clergy themselves as a distortion and diminishment of their ministry.

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