Giving value to the common priesthood to overcome patterns of domination via clericalism

By Fr. Gaston Piétri, Diocese of Ajaccio on the island of Corsica, theologian, in LaCroix, January 2019

A community that wishes to be democratic can only remain viable if it shares power fairly. But the exercise of this power may take many different forms.

For a long time, religious confessions, including the Catholic Church, saw the distribution of political power in terms of direct or indirect power.

The reason that the 19th century French statesman Léon Gambetta said that “clericalism is the enemy” was because he saw freedom from ecclesial power as the principal objective in the battle for public freedom.

The term “clericalism” was not invented by chance. In the context of historically Catholic French society, it referred to a situation in which Church power was assimilated to that of clerics or priests.

Similarly, as he faces up to the difficult problem of clerical sex abuse, Pope Francis has condemned clericalism on the basis of an analogy between the Church’s former hold over society and what was or remains of the power of priests in the Church itself.

In fact, we cannot dissociate our view of the Church’s relationship with society from the way that we perceive the relationship between priests and lay faithful in the Church. Hence, the use of the term “clericalism” to clearly designate abuses of power.

Nevertheless, when Vatican II postulated “equality of all” as a principle of life in the Church (Lumen Gentium, §31), it did so on the basis of recognizing the difference between roles.

Reference to these differences was based on a secular reflex and so people continued to often think in terms of superiority of one role over the other.

It was as if the superiority of some over others — that is, of priests over lay people — amounted to a way of ensuring the superiority of the spirituality over the temporal sphere.

Pope Boniface VIII had adopted this concept in his 1302 papal bull, Unam Sanctam, to legitimize the subordination of political power to Church authority.

But the situation has changed since then, as has the language.

But how far is it possible to go, not only regarding mentality but also roles, so as to ensure equality amid these differences? That is the issue that we still face.

The reason is because sacramental ordination, which needed to be reaffirmed against Luther, served and still serves to legitimize a form of superiority effacing the concept of the “Christian being,” which remains the radical foundation of existence for believers in Christ.

The result is that this conception of priesthood has led to a peaceful confiscation of power by priests.

Hence, in people’s minds, the only thing that is recognized as belonging to lay Christians remains a kind of delegation of power by priests when it should be resolutely founded on the common priesthood of the baptized.

So it is difficult to overcome the feeling of deep-rooted “domination” against which the Apostle Peter warned warned all those who received the ministry by the imposition of hands (I Peter, 5, 1ff.).

The aim therefore needs to be to ensure the exercise of our common responsibility in the unique priesthood of Christ (Letter to the Hebrews, 9, 11-14). But we still do not understand clearly how to achieve this.

When the Church incorporated the whole of society, the difference between the fact of being a Christian and not being a Christian was hidden as a visible and significant reality in society to some extent.

And it seems that the Church was progressively led to replace this differentiation with an excessive emphasis on the difference between priests and lay people.

Socially speaking, this had the effect of identifying the Church with its clergy.

Anything that gives value to the common priesthood, particularly for newcomers to the faith and to baptism, is therefore worthy of a vigorous pastoral pedagogical effort.

For a long period, a positive desire to better express the vocation of lay Christians led to the creation of the category of the “laity.”

Unfortunately, this kind of partition giving the world to lay people and the Church to clerics also gave the impression that the Church remained something belonging to the clergy. But Christians together are all responsible for serving God’s plan in the world.

Gaston Piétri, a priest of the Diocese of Ajaccio on the island of Corsica, is a theologian and former adjunct secretary-general of the French Bishops’ Conference.

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