After Ferns: Clericalism Must Go!

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality Jan 2006

“Bishops placed the interest of the church ahead of children …”
(The Ferns Report, Page 256)

Although everyone knows what Judge Murphy and his colleagues meant by this verdict on two former bishops of Ferns, there is something strange and contradictory – even outrageous – about it also.

First, those children, and their parents, were also full members of the church – so the church itself, as a society of human beings, was grievously harmed by what those bishops did, or failed to do.

Second, the Irish Catholic church, as a community of faith, has never been so grievously hurt – not even by the Cromwellian persecution. If we cannot trust that our bishops – whose banner is ‘the faith’ – will put the basic law of the church before everything else – the law of love – then our faith too will be deeply challenged. Had those bishops deliberately set out to injure ‘the faith’ they could not have been more effective.

So, if it wasn’t ‘the church’, what interest exactly was it that those bishops placed ahead of children?

It cannot have been Catholic teaching, because the church has always taught that the family is the basic social unit. For over four decades now it has also taught that all are equal in dignity. In favouring erring priests before children, those bishops were denying, not upholding, strict Catholic teaching.

What interest was it, then, that they placed ahead of children?

We discover what it was by reflecting that it had to do not with revealing the truth, but with concealing it. What was it that was concealed?

We all know what it was now – because the Ferns report reveals it beyond question.

Catholic ordination – the distinctive badge of Catholic clergy – does not guarantee sinlessness or virtue in those who receive it.

Most importantly, ordination does not guarantee sexual abstinence – true celibacy – to those who receive it. It is clear now, in fact, that some of our clergy have sought ordination precisely because it has allowed them to prey upon children, sexually.

It is clear also that, faced with this reality, bishops have, far more often than not, sought to conceal that truth from the wider church – as though it was diametrically opposed to faith itself.

Yet nowhere does the church officially teach that the sacrament of ordination is a guarantee of virtue, or even celibacy. That odd notion has always been contradicted by experience anyway. Yet, for some strange reason, bishops have nevertheless felt obliged to preserve it – at the expense of children.

The reason is clericalism – the felt obligation, transmitted for centuries in the culture of the church, to uphold the myth of the moral and intellectual superiority of clergy.

Clericalism is the root of the Catholic clerical child abuse scandal – for three reasons.

First, clericalism empowers the abusive priest and disempowers his victims. This is proven by many of the stories told in the Ferns report, reflected in the summation on page 261:

“Frequently it is the respect in which the abuser is held which affords the opportunity of perpetrating the crime….”

The unquestioning respect in which clergy have been held in Ireland rests squarely on clericalism – taught to children by the attitudes and behaviour of their parents and teachers. Put simply, the priest was the man of God, the one closest to God whom the child should trust implicitly to give access to grace, the gift of God.

Clericalism deliberately cultivates an attitude of deference to clergy. Deference – the habit of submission and compliance – gave abusive clergy virtually total power over their child victims.

Second, clericalism gave abusive priests power also over the families of those children. Irish mothers especially have tended to feel honoured that any priest would “take an interest in our Johnny” – even if ‘Johnny’ was asked to stay in the care of the priest overnight. It could not enter parents’ heads that the priest could do any harm – illustrated in the poignant story of a mother who denied to the Ferns inquiry that an abusive priest could have molested her daughter, even though he sometimes occupied the same bed!

Why could it not enter their heads? Because Irish Catholicism has so far not properly distinguished between faith in God and faith in clergy. For far too many Irish Catholics, to doubt the priest was as grave a sin as to doubt God – and our church leaders have found it all too convenient to leave this confusion intact. It is the root of Catholic deference – and deference is – or rather was – the root of much of the social power of the clerical church in Ireland.

Third, it was clericalism also that presented the bishop with the opportunity, and the obligation, to protect the myth of clerical sinlessness. It gave him that opportunity because it always counselled lay people to give the priest – and the bishop – the benefit of any doubt. It gave him the obligation to do so, because the power to which the bishop believed himself to be above all accountable – the papacy – is clericalist also – intent on ruling the church through clergy, and on protecting the myth of clerical sinlessness.

Nothing else can fully explain the virtually universal failure of Catholic bishops throughout the world to deal effectively with clerical child sexual abuse. Or the failure of the Vatican to deal with it also. Or the failure of both to give lay people the structures they have needed for forty years to develop their own role and mission in their own church.

Yet so far, regrettably, no Catholic bishop has identified clericalism as a primary factor in the problem – as the reason for the lack of integrity in our leadership. This is the real measure of the failure of the leaders of our church to grasp the nettle.

It is also the measure of the challenge facing the current papacy on this issue. It is of first importance for the recovery of the church that the myth of clergy be expressly contradicted in church teaching. We need, as a matter of great urgency, an encyclical against clericalism – an encyclical that will emphasise that faith in God does not require faith in clergy also – or deference either.

But there is the problem. The power of the church in the developing world is largely based upon clericalism also. Clericalism flourishes wherever there is a clear educational gap between the priest and the bulk of his congregation. And Rome tends to point to the developing world as evidence of the continuing health of the church – even to the extent of proposing that the priest shortage in the west could be supplied from Africa!

So it seems unlikely that clericalism will be tackled as a problem by the church leadership soon.

But meanwhile in Ireland, as elsewhere, we must develop a church culture that is safe for children. This surely must involve the warning of every child, at an early age, that no adult is to be deferred to when personal boundaries are at stake. To make sure the child is clear on what ‘no adult’ means, we must deliberately and expressly abandon the Irish Catholic habit of automatic deference to clergy.

Can our bishops rise to the challenge of telling us this? Will they be allowed to?

Who can say? Given the extraordinary slowness with which our bishops have learned anything in recent decades, it seems likely that there will be continuing tension between the needs of child protection, and the clericalist bias that has so endangered our children since Vatican II.

Catholic adults – lay and clerical – will need to pray hard to negotiate this minefield without further pain and grief.

However, there is great comfort to be gained in the realisation that although ordination does not guarantee virtue, most of our priests are virtuous anyway.

The reason is that they do obey the basic law of the church – the law of love. And pray hard for that virtue of virtues. That is why they are, mostly, genuinely loved by their people also.

Clericalism will not be needed to hold the Irish church together if we let truth and love, and prayer, and the sacraments, do so instead. If our bishops cannot rise to the challenge of teaching us this, we – priests and people – must rise to the challenge of teaching it to them.

For, whatever else may happen, the death of Catholic clericalism in Ireland is now assured. Our Irish Catholic church will either survive – and flourish – without it, or perish with it.

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