Clericalism poses the question: How are all Catholics complicit in a culture in which abuse is rampant?

What, in particular, went wrong with Catholic culture in the United States during the 20th century?

Excerpt from America Magazine (Aug 2018) on Clerical Privilege

One (albeit still inadequate) starting point for answering this question was offered by Pope Francis when he recently repeated his warnings against what he calls the culture of “clericalism,” in which fullness of spiritual attainment is seen as largely reserved to ordained religious leaders. In this conception of church, clerics are viewed as the only real, full examples of religious life, while lay people mostly occupy a second-best, helper status.

Clericalism in the Catholic Church, Francis tells us, “nullifies the personality of Christians” and “leads to the functionalization of the laity, treating them as ‘errand boys [or girls].’” Clericalism does this by treating priests as beatified ministers merely by dint of the formal role that they occupy in the church. From the vantage point of clericalism, priests appear to be nearly magical beings, holier than the rest of us, capable of greater moral perfection, insight, wisdom and fortitude.

Francis notes that clericalism is not only perpetuated by priests but also reinforced by many lay people. In an overly clericalized church, priests are not in open, equal, vulnerable human relationships with their flock. Instead, they are isolated by their own moral and spiritual status. Rather than a laity that might know its priests as human beings (and thereby see warning signs and intervene when abuse is suspected), parishioners see the priest as a shaman or a guru.

But Francis notes that this tendency subverts traditional Christianity, which holds that priests are servants of the laity and not the other way around. Clericalism is thus tied to a top-down, overly authoritarian configuration of church. For this reason, Francis sees a link between a culture of clericalism and the lack of transparency so characteristic of the abuse in Pennsylvania. As Francis wrote in his recent letter in response to the grand jury report: “To say ‘no’ to abuse is to say an emphatic ‘no’ to all forms of clericalism.”

Criticism of clericalism is difficult for many Catholics to accept because it moves past the (albeit fully justified) accusation of chief perpetrators and into questions of distributed responsibility. Clericalism poses the question: How are all Catholics complicit in a culture in which abuse is rampant? Perhaps all Catholics can do something about clericalism by creating church communities that are made up of real, thick relationships and not the guru-like distance created by clericalism.

It will be important, in the effort to combat a culture of clericalism, to learn from past mistakes. One of these mistakes has been to assume that clericalism is overcome by simple, formal gestures of social inclusion. As the vivid and disturbing story of one abuse survivor teaches us, it is possible to invite the parish priest over for dinner several times a month and still have a completely clericalized and quasi-authoritarian set of relations.

Overcoming clericalism means creating open, transparent and equal relationships between priests and laity. Such a community is willing to allow moral correction of priests by the laity and not simply the correction of laity by priests. Such a community is open and willing to learn from all its members.

Only a community of greater human relationships and transparency will be able to spot and root out abusive behavior. Where clericalism hides the psychology of the priest behind a veil of pseudo-beatification, Francis asks us to look realistically at the human beings in front of us and respond accordingly. Likewise, priests seized by a mentality of clericalism need to renounce the pride of a special divinity or holiness and (like Christ) instead seek to become more deeply human.

It is also important to recognize that clericalism creates a culture in which nonabusing priests cannot openly apologize or be seen as morally flawed. In the effort to appear as immovably perfect as a Byzantine icon, priests no longer have a way to discuss their own moral limitations frankly. They become captives of their own false beatification. This is the real grain of truth behind the important insight that completely morally debased priests are able to blackmail those who have broken their promises of celibacy in consensual relations with adults. Only a priest who is the captive of an inflated notion of moral superiority is unable to live through the humiliation of the revelation of his own human flaws—and only a community that refuses to wrestle with the humanity of its priests is able to put the blinders up and therefore live amid unacceptable, intolerable abuses that are hidden from view.

I do not pretend this is a complete or adequate analysis of what went wrong with American Catholicism in the 20th century. But we must move past reductive and unhelpful accounts of the sources of abuse that scapegoat maleness, celibacy and homosexuality by turns. Pope Francis is offering one place for deeper inquiry into how to repair Catholic culture. A failure to heed the warning will lead to the reproduction of the very conditions that made this violence possible in the first place. As Francis exhorts, Catholics need to work together to generate a new culture and renew the church—to create “solidarity and commitment to a culture of care that says ‘never again’ to every form of abuse.”

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