Get rid of the clergy — But keep Holy Orders: clericalismis a structural problem with deep historical roots

By Joe Holland in La Croix, 14 April 2018

In their fascinating exchange on the clergy (“Imagine There’s No Clergy”), William M. Shea and David Cloutier seem unable to distinguish the “clerical state” from the “sacrament of orders.” One author appears to seek elimination of both for the sake of evangelical renewal, while the other appears to seek preservation of both for the same reason.

Contrary to what appears to be the argument of both authors, the “sacrament of orders” and the “clerical state” are historically distinct and institutionally separable.

During its first three centuries, the Greek-speaking church developed and sustained the “sacrament of orders” for episcopoi, presbyteroi, and diaconoi (bishops, presbyters, and deacons). But there was as yet no “clerical state.” That came only in the fourth century, through the Constantinian fusion of the Catholic Church with the Roman Imperial State.

In that fusion, the leadership of the Roman Empire transferred imperial “hierarchical” privileges from the pagan priesthood to the ordained servant-leaders of the Catholic Church.

The new imperial “clergy” were legally empowered to rule over the non-clerical “laity.” Prior to this development, the entire church (meaning both ordained servant-leaders and the entire membership) had been understood as both sacredly lay (the holy laos) and as divinely chosen (the holy kleros).

Since the sacrament of orders and the clerical state are historically distinct, the former having existed for three centuries without the latter, that means they are also institutionally separable.

Indeed, in the Western Church canon law recognizes the distinction between the sacrament of orders and the clerical state. When Roman Catholic priests decide to marry, they may apply for a “reduction” to the lay state.

This reduction removes them from the clerical state but, according to official church teaching, they remain ordained priests “ontologically.”

In short, the sacrament of orders is of apostolic origin, while the “clerical state” is a fourth-century legal construction by the Roman Empire.

Later, in the eleventh century, the Western Catholic clergy were further segregated from the laity when the papacy imposed mandatory celibacy on all diocesan presbyters and bishops in the West. (By so doing, the papacy also forced many wives of bishops and presbyters into homelessness, slavery, or even suicide. See Anne Llewellyn Barstow’s book Married Priests and the Reforming Papacy.)

Then, in the sixteenth century, the Council of Trent segregated the clergy still more by mandating formation in monastery-like clerical seminaries.

These structures uprooted candidates for ordination from their original lay communities of kinship and friendship, prepared them to become part of a “chosen” clerical caste, and molded them for work as interchangeable parts within a standardized and often-impersonal ecclesiastical bureaucracy.

Today, across the Americas and elsewhere, Western Catholics are flooding out of often stagnant Catholic parishes into more dynamic Evangelical and Pentecostal congregations, whose pastors long ago returned to the original apostolic model of non-clerical and lay servant-leadership.

In general, these lay pastors relate much more effectively to the lay experiences and spiritual needs of the wider laos that they serve.

Of course, from a Catholic perspective, these churches also suffer from serious theological problems, including biblical literalism and the so-called “Gospel of Prosperity.”

And all too often these churches support patriarchy and authoritarian governments. But the Catholic Church can still learn from their non-clerical model of pastoral ministry, with its clear roots in the presbyterate of the early church.

The clerical enculturations of the Roman Catholic presbyterate, which have developed in stages since the fourth century, now need to be dismantled for the sake of twenty-first-century global evangelization.

The sacrament of orders needs to be rescued from the legal overlay of clericalism that today blocks its spiritual power and fosters a bureaucratized caste system.

At the same time, the entire Catholic laos needs to recover its apostolic mission and sacred identity, which clericalism has frequently obscured. Declericalizing the Western Church would not secularize it — or desacramentalize it, as David Cloutier fears.

On the contrary, it would return the church to its roots and remind it that the entire laos is sacred and chosen.

Pope Francis has rightly challenged “clericalism” across the Western Church, but he seems to regard it only as a problem of attitude. Rather, it is a structural problem with deep historical roots, and one that reproduces itself from one generation to the next.

If we are serious about moving beyond clericalism, and not just lamenting it, we can begin by distinguishing between the sacrament of orders, which we still need, and the clerical state, which we would be better off without.

Joe Holland is the author of The Cruel Eleventh-Century Imposition of Western Clerical Celibacy (Pacem in Terris Press).

Excerpt from earlier article in La Croix

As a culture clericalism displays a world view in which the Catholic Church is a self-sufficient world. Its security, reputation and internal relationships are the centre of attention.

Within the Church relationships are hierarchical, and the difference between grades is in practice seen as more important than what Catholics have in common.

The relationships are also often authoritarian: bishops and priests are fearful of Rome, formal in their relationships with one another, and priests are prescriptive in their relationship to the laity. Clergy feel no need to consult the laity in matters of liturgy, finances and policy.

The boundaries between the Church and the world outside are strongly marked, as are the boundaries between faithful and unfaithful Catholics. In all these respects clericalism is a culture of control that privileges secrecy.

Like any culture, clericalism finds expression in a network of relationships. They are relationships of people with the material world: through distinctive everyday and liturgical dress, for example, distinctive church arrangements, and distinctive liturgical artefacts.

They are also relationships between people: both those between individuals and especially those mediated through institutions. The latter include forms of address, of remuneration, of formation of children and adults, of the disposition of space, of processes of involving people in decision making and governance, of customs, of imagining the history of parish, diocesan and national church.

The institutional relationships are particularly important because they are often simply taken for granted as necessary and inevitable. They shape what participants see and how they see it.

They also create patterns of expectation of how clergy and laity will speak and behave to each, will express or conceal disagreement, respond to injustice, accept direction and view the outside world.

In an undiluted clerical culture (which of course does not exist) all bishops will automatically follow Roman instructions and all priests will be formed to obey their bishops unthinkingly.

They will also be a reliable channel for communicating to the laity instructions by the Pope and Roman officials about liturgy, dress and ethical issues. Priests and bishops will find advancement by being reliable and unquestioning and by resolutely defending the Church and its interests.

The laity will be formed to obey their authoritative parish priests and to be silent about concerns they may have with their behaviour. If they confront the clergy they will be seen as unreliable; if they leave the church their dereliction will be seen to have justified the clerical culture.

An authoritarian and controlling network of relationships of this kind generates fear, timidity and a disengagement that can be rationalised as virtue. For bishops, priests and laity to act in ways that conflict with the norms of their culture will require courage and perseverance.

In practice many Catholics, both clergy and laity, have not accepted these expectations. They question, they confront, they represent, they talk together, they disagree. Any network of relationships is mercifully full of holes and of disconnections. Even a strong clerical culture does not control everybody’s behaviour.

For that reason it is difficult to assess the precise part played by clericalism in criminal behaviour, including clerical sexual abuse, and its cover up in the Catholic Church.

Many elements of complex relationships are involved. I am not persuaded that there is a strong causal correlation between the culture and offending. Some serial abusers seem to have been poster boys for this culture. Others seem to have strongly rejected it.

A stronger case can be made that clericalism enables such crimes as sexual abuse and theft to be covered up and for criminal actions to be repeated. Deference and timidity in the face of authority make it more likely that lay people will turn a blind eye to signs of criminal behaviour by priests or people employed by the church.

The desire to protect the reputation of the church also makes it more likely that a bishop will place the reputation of the church above the welfare of people affected by crime, and so allow offenders to move from one parish to another where they can reoffend.

Regardless of whether clericalism can be proved to be causally linked to clerical crime, however, such a culture certainly shapes a network of stunted relationships that are deficient whether judged by human or Christian values. It will inevitably produce poor fruit.

Andrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

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