Revitalising the Catholic Church in Ireland: II – Clericalism

Sean O’Conaill © Reality 2004

Jean Vanier tells the story of a young woman whose radiant happiness caught the attention of a visitor to the L’Arche community that was her home. The visitor asked Vanier why she was always so joyful. He explained that upon her arrival she had been assured that God loved her for herself. She had believed this immediately, and had never lost that belief. Like most L’Arche residents, she was intellectually disadvantaged but was nevertheless capable of lifting the spirits of everyone she met.

I suspect that most Irish Catholics who have weathered the shocks of the past decade will have done so for similar reasons. Their church gave them from the start a sense of their own dignity as beloved children of God and it is into this sheltering reality they retreat when the disasters of life threaten to overwhelm them. That shelter is maintained above all by those who have given themselves completely to its service – especially our priests.

Because the circumstances call for constructive criticism, I need to affirm here first of all my own unrepayable debt to the Irish Catholic priesthood. They did far more than provide me with a basic education. At key moments of my life individual priests have helped me to rise to severe challenges to faith and self-belief, and helped me grow way beyond my expectations. A few instances of clerical severity and pomposity have been far outnumbered by instances of care and encouragement.

Above all, these men bore witness to the presence of God in the world this world that now increasingly finds God an inconvenience. Strikingly, many intelligent people who have tried hard to live without God are now looking for spirituality as though this can exist entirely without any religious faith. My own spirituality is grounded firmly upon the truths I was taught by priests: that there is indeed a personal God, a spiritual being with whom I can communicate through prayer and sacrament. I would not have believed this if I had not experienced the freely-given support and compassion of priests in my own deepest crises.

However, these same priests have conveyed to me an understanding of the equality of dignity conveyed by baptism, as well as the responsibility this imparts. This understanding, and this sense of personal responsibility, has been increasingly challenged over the past three decades by a church system that privileges clergy above laity, and leaves the latter with no clearly defined or dignified role as laity. That system sees lay people principally as needy clients of an expert professional elite, rather than as recipients of the same gifts of the Holy Spirit including, often, wisdom. Because the business of the priest is salvation (i.e. spiritual healing and enlightenment) the system tends to impose upon him an impossible demand – to appear to be never in need of healing or enlightenment himself.

It is this unequal expert-client relationship that lies at the root of the major problems we now face in Ireland – simply because it demands too much of clergy, and (more important) far too little of laity. It is essentially this problem of clericalism – the myth of the priest as a super-Catholic and super-Christian – that has exposed the church to the public humiliations of the period since 1992.

To begin with, there would not have been any major scandals in the Irish Church over the period 1992-2003 if clergy had not been expected to be (because the system represented them as) superior icons of Christ – especially in the area of sexual morality. It was this that made Bishop Casey’s exposure such a sensation in 1992 that he could not face the media consequences.

It was also the status of the priest as an unquestionable authority that gave a small minority of predatory priests unbounded access to children. Trained never to question the priest, parents simply could not allow themselves any reservations about handing over teenage children to impromptu clerical care – even overnight. And children who suffered the consequences could not then, for the very same reason, find any way of communicating what had happened. (“Me mother would have murdered me if I had said that about the priest!”)

In his autobiography Altar Boy, Andrew Madden, a victim of clerical abuse, writes of his early experience of church:

“The people stood up because the priest was so holy and important!”

That was why Andrew, even while he was being abused, was glad to be an altar boy:

“Neighbours, friends and others got to see me with the priest up close. I felt good.”

Clearly, for Andrew, priests were in every respect superior to lay people. He could not separate in his mind the importance of the priest’s role from the human person who filled that role. His abuser exploited this naivety mercilessly.

Furthermore, we now know that bishops could not have erred in secretly protecting and shuffling errant priests had they not felt compelled to avoid scandal at almost any cost. Occasional priestly moral failure is, we also now know, both an historical reality and a future inevitability. It is especially scandalous only because of the myth (and theological error) of clerical infallibility and triumph over sin. It will be scandalous in future only if that myth (and error) continues to be upheld.

It is time that our bishops emphasised that ordination does not make priests sinless or asexual – or intellectually infallible. Ireland would be a far healthier place today if this had been emphasised long before 1992, when it began to become obvious. Many pastoral letters have been written on far less important matters.

There are other reasons this myth needs to be abandoned forever at this time. Especially this: it is the fundamental reason for the alienation of so many Irish males from the church.

To put it as simply as possible, we males can’t stand being talked down to weekly by other males who often seem to claim not only an exclusive expertise in interpreting the gospels for our own times, but unlimited licence to use them against us. Now that the area of sexuality has become unsafe, we notice that some priests have moved on to other fields of complaint, for example materialism. As the excess consumption of material goods is driven above all by the desire for social status, the typical parish priest’s consciousness of his own social status – expressed eloquently in modes of accommodation and transport – tends to deprive his message of moral impact. We have all heard the lesson of the mote and the beam too often to be unable to apply it ourselves. Unconvinced and alienated by this kind of unthinking moralism, we males tend to opt out, leaving religion to the priest and the wife.

On the other hand, most lay people respond immediately to priestly humility, and recognise it for what it is – a sign of a deeper spirituality. Far from weakening the bond between clergy and laity, such an attitude is in itself the most important homily a priest can deliver at this time.

I began my teaching career in a school whose oldest teacher, an elderly nun, had a most unusual way of dealing with an unresponsive French class. She would read a short passage of French, pause uncertainly, and then knit her brows and mutter to herself:  “I wonder what that means!”  She did this so convincingly that she immediately deprived the class of any sense of inferiority, creating an atmosphere in which someone would venture a suggestion. It mightn’t be correct, but the barriers to collaboration – the basis of all successful teaching and learning – would then be down, and the class could proceed.

It is for this reason that the myth of the all-knowing and sinless priest is a fundamental barrier to the development of the church, and especially to the development of lay competence and responsibility within it. People learn and develop most quickly for vocational reasons – to empower themselves to fill a responsible and clearly understood role. A church that trains its priests to be in control in all essential matters of faith is effectively training its laity to be dependent, incompetent, intellectually lazy and childish because only that passive and needy role will fully satisfy the priest’s expectation that he both can, and must, be dominant.

And so we get the exasperating myth of the priest as church superman – theologian, manager, accountant, philosopher, historian, catechist, liturgist, celebrant, confessor, ecclesiologist, evangelist, entertainer, canon lawyer, moral paragon, facilitator – and unfailing pulpit authority on everything under the sun, from Aromatherapy to Zoroaster.

The title ‘Father’ is hallowed by centuries of use, but to many lay people it now seems to define their own unchangeable status in the church – as children who must never dare to grow up – especially in understanding and expressing their faith. So we waver between deference and resentment – unable to distinguish deference from genuine respect. We will express our exasperation over this freely to one another – but hesitate to express a critical opinion directly to a priest.

As a teacher of history for thirty years I am firmly convinced that this problem arises out of an inability at the summit of the church to escape from an idealistic vision of the relationship between priest and people that developed after the Council of Trent (1545-63). In that vision an educated and disciplined clerical elite would train laity above all in obedience. The clerical-lay pyramid would mimic the social pyramid, dominated by an educated and aristocratic landowning elite. Bishops would be spiritual grandees, priests would share in their social and spiritual eminence, and lay people would defer to them as such – all the more necessary because of their lack of education.

It is out of this vision of church that clericalism emerges. A priest acquaintance once expressed it to me as follows: “We priests are the last of the landed gentry!” He meant that many priests had never accommodated themselves fully to the principle of social equality, and lived sheltered lives at the expense of underlings. The anticlericalism of many, many Irish lay people today arises out of this perception that many clergy – including some bishops – still expect the kind of deference that landed gentry expected from the peasant masses in the eighteenth century.

But Ireland’s progress in less than two centuries from the abject horrors of the Famine to the heady rewards of the Celtic Tiger has made this vision of church a critical liability in confronting secularism – the belief that religion is essentially a barrier to human development. Our media commentators have mostly fallen in line with this worldview although often educated in Catholic schools. They have done so because – fatally – they perceived that secularism gave them more dignity and intellectual respect than their own church, and because clergy could preserve the myth of their own superiority only through aloofness and secrecy. Nothing more was required to set the stage for the media disasters we have seen.

But secularism doesn’t understand that the competition it encourages leaves many people even more exposed to danger and exclusion. It doesn’t understand either that social inequality arises out of the competitive impulse itself – our unfailing desire to be greater than one another, despite all our talk about equality. It is this desire that is the chief target of the Gospels, and the source of all victimisation. It is also the source of the appalling lack of respect that Irish media people increasingly show for one another, and of the violence that threatens us all.

As Pope John Paul II himself said in 1980, the secular ideals of 1789 – liberty, equality and fraternity – are basically and originally Christian ideals. We Catholics will move our country towards them only by rediscovering together the spiritual wisdom and humility of the Gospels, priests and laypeople together. Without that, as voting figures and youth cynicism increasingly show, Irish democracy itself will fail.

And especially we need to learn what that young woman learned in L’Arche: that the consciousness of being loved by God can transform all of us from seekers of status to beacons of welcome and inspiration. Almost all we lay people need is the lay faith of Jean Vanier – the faith that led him to provide shelter for the ones that a Godless science would prefer us to abandon even before birth.

Deeply torn by the undeserved humiliation of most of our priests, we lay people await only a signal to grow into a new role – as collaborators in a wide variety of ministries. Some of these will care for all the victims of a shallow secularism, from the depressed to the aimlessly addicted. Collaborating easily with people of other faiths in building a society based upon mutual respect, we lay people will be Catholics, and proud of it – but not subordinates – because Jesus called us into brotherhood and sisterhood, not servility, resentment and passivity.

Most of our priests are now more than ready for this relationship too.

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