On clericalism and reform, in La Croix (fall 2018)

Published Oct. 9, 2018.

…As Christianity grew it became more organized. St Paul lists various ways members helped each other in his letter to the Corinthians. Different members had different talents which they used to serve the community.

Quite early, these were formalized as ministries. The Latin word for to designate or direct is “ordinare.” The problem with translating this into English as “ordain” is that it carries sacral overtones not in the Latin original.

The elders (presbyters) of the early Christian community emerged as leaders along similar lines to the synagogue. Presiding over the Eucharist became reserved to them. Over time that role became sacralised; and their routine designation (or ordination) became a consecration. The priest was not only the elder. He was a sacred person.

The price paid by the clergy was pride and arrogance and a presumption of entitlement, which made them a cast which dominated rather than served — that enforced rather than led. It created two ranks of Christians.

Clergy ranks have been breaking down for a long time. Priests have left in large numbers. Others have been dismissed due to scandal. Clerical sex abuse has de-authorized priests and, more so, bishops. Yet other former priests are working formally and informally in church ministries. The “priest forever” tag just doesn’t hold any more.

There are plenty of suggestions as to how to eliminate clericalism: A conversion of heart in the clergy from power to service. Changing the lifestyle and curriculum of seminaries so that they cease to be academies of clericalism. Selecting only proved pastors as bishops. But none of these will work without re-visiting the underpinning theology of the seal.

The theology of the seal has passed its use by date. A priest is no more sacred than any other baptized Christian. His or her designation to lead the Eucharist should arise from a calling by the Church; and any rite of designation a true ordination – not a consecration – by the community. His retaining of that ministry should be at the pleasure of the community.

Leadership of the community should be a quite separate ministry filled by someone competent and willing to do it. As the seal fractures, a more varied and adaptable community can be born.

Eric Hodgens is a senior priest in Melbourne, Australia.

By Massimo Faggioli in La Croix, Oct 2018, excerpt from https://international.la-croix.com/news/the-new-two-orders-of-christians/8577

…In the 12th century, the initiator of “modern” canon law, Gratian, said that there are two kinds of Christians (“duo genera Christianorum”) – the ordained and the laity. He was not referring to the ability to marry or celebrate Mass as that which separates the ordained from the laity.

Rather, he was referring to the distinction between those who can manage Church finances and resources (the ordained) and those who cannot (the laity).

We are now in a Church that is trying to get rid, for theological reasons, of this dualistic understanding of authority and power in the Church – what Francis refers to often as “clericalism.”

And in reality the line dividing the clergy from the laity has been blurred for a long time now — having become a canonical distinction says little about what the clergy and the laity have in common and what separates them.

But we are now witnessing a new type of “duo genera Christianorum” — those who have money (and can thereby influence in the Church) and those who do not.

This is creating a new clericalism of money and even dividing the Church in one same nation (today, the United States). But it also threatens to create an even deeper division between the rich churches and the poor ones.

This Catholic plutocracy is already one of the major factors in the rift between Pope Francis and some sectors of U.S. Catholicism.

Money is indeed talking in the business of Catholicism today. It is not at all clear if there is another kind of currency that can influence the Church and in a different direction.

Given all this, the canonization of Oscar Romero next Sunday could not come at a more crucial time.

Follow me on Twitter @MassimoFaggioli

By Denis Moreau, a Catholic philosopher who teaches at the University of Nantes, 22 Oct 2018

Dear Catholic brothers and sisters in distress, know that I am one of you. Confronted by the repeated scandals of pedophilia and of sexual abuses that have been committed and covered up, I have found myself – for the first time in 50 years of being a Catholic – shaken and distraught in my relationship with my Church.

There is, within its very heart, a range of systematic dysfunctioning, a terrible cancer of extremely grave sin. Either we didn’t know about it… or we didn’t want to know about it and fight against it.

I’d like you to know, too, that I do not think I would have been able to write this text if the pope, under these circumstances, had not exhorted the “people of God” to speak up.

The Church has erred – and all the more seriously because it had the theological tools to conceptualize and, therefore, to prevent these horrors. We should read again the parable of the good grain and the chaff (Mt 13:24-30).

It is often given a personal interpretation: the field represents the heart of each of us, where good and evil co-exist. Does this field not also represent the Church?

What John Paul II called a “structure of sin” has taken root within the Church. There is something rotten in the house of God.

This also points towards original sin, and how we have perhaps too naively forgotten about it, just as we have failed to take seriously the idea of the devil – who must be rejoicing to see the Church so soiled and defiled.

In the matter of sexuality, as in all matters of significance, people – including Christians – are capable of being their best or their worst.

How can we get out of this unbelievable quagmire? If I knew of a miraculous solution, I would revealed it long ago. However, I believe that perhaps there are two ways out of the mess.

My starting point would be the dazzling affirmation by Jesus, which guides my life as a philosopher: “The truth shall set you free” (Jn 8: 32).

The Church should be prepared to experience a historic moment of truth. It will be difficult. But it will be necessary to accept bad news that is true, rather than good news that is false; to accept a very unpleasant reality rather than pious lies or comfortable approximations.

The time must end for half-measures, convenient little arrangements, shameful cover-ups, and dirt quietly swept under the rug. Even if it is extraordinarily difficult to bear, everything – beginning with the worst of the worst – must be brought into the light.

Let us, in a grand act of hope, wager that our sinking into the dark waters of sin will stop when we touch – at last, and in order to pull ourselves up to the surface – the rock of truth.

In order to achieve this truth, could the Church not have the courage, lucidity and humility to ask for help from those outside itself? It must now be admitted that, treating – as we have thus far – these sexual abuse problems “internally,” within ecclesial frameworks, institutions and procedures, is not effective.

This is what Francis is saying when he denounces “clericalism” and “self-referentiality.”

It is as if the Church has, in an insidious and paradoxical manner, succumbed to a heresy that it has condemned for 16 centuries: Pelagianism. That is, believing that one can save oneself, with one’s own resources.

Today, this failing has led us to one of those times of despair and abandonment, where the cry “Save us, we are dying” (Mt 8: 25) rings out.

From the Christian perspective, this cry must be addressed to the God of Grace. But from the human point of view, perhaps it is through society, through the external, detached, rational rather than spiritual, objective and critical examination of people who are not members of the Church, that God can save the Church from the dysfunctioning within it.

The Church has shown that it is incapable, on its own, of bringing to light and dealing with this dysfunctioning.

In France, some people have spoken of creating a parliamentary commission of inquiry. This is an idea in the right direction, but a commission like this would risk (re)plunging us into inextricable theological-political confusion.

However, we could seek help extensively from people of goodwill who are not in the Church, people who are both benevolent and who wish to help the Church, but without any complacency with regard to its errors: lay people and, above all, “decent people,” not necessarily Christian, who are experts of all kind in human beings (psychiatrists, psychologists, sociologists etc.).

We often say, and not always wisely, the old adage: “no salvation outside the Church.” Today, the salvation of the endangered Church could come from outside it.

I do not want to end without speaking of my friends who are priests: good priests, who are generous and chaste, who give their lives to others through their love of Christ.

The generalized suspicion being currently cast over the priesthood is their cross. Let us love them, help them, and pray for them. They, too, are the good grain.

From Brother Michael Davide Semeraro, a Benedictine monk from the Koinonia of the Visitation monastery at Rhêmes Notre-Dame in the Aosta Valley in northern Italy.

The Christian community is currently experiencing a great sense of unease.

The most important issue facing the Church is not who is responsible for these scandals but what these scandals — particularly the abuse of children — reveal about its manner of being.

So the Church needs to seek not just solutions to the inappropriate behavior of its priests but also to ask itself probing questions about the deep-rooted causes.

“Zero tolerance” is totally inadequate unless it is backed up by a radical desire to review our way of working in the Church, particularly in the exercise of ordained ministries.

The Church has risked operating more like a religious institution than a community of faith. This ambiguity has allowed things to enter by the window that the Gospel endeavors to expel via the door, i.e. its sacred character.

What we are experiencing today is an indication of the bitter consequences arising from making sacred certain functions that in reality are and should remain services.

The identification between the ministry of serving the life of a community and the personal identity of an ordained minister has led to a series of abuses. As well as being criminal, this in reality amounts to a posture that contradicts the Gospel, even though it may appear profoundly “religious.”

Now, the Church is paying the price for re-modeling its religious and sacred functioning.

Its way of working has resulted in the creation of a caste — a clerical caste — that encompasses not only the clergy but has also clericalized lay people.

Like the Pharisees and Sadducees of Jesus’ time, this caste is tempted to make use of the Gospel for its own purposes rather than to serve it.

If we reflect deeply on all these issues, the Gospel with its demands for liberty, equality and universal fraternity will be the ruin of such a Church.

Without the Gospel, all this could continue as in the past. But the Gospel imposes a conversion that includes facing criticism from elsewhere.

This needs to become the basis for a serious and generous repositioning of the Christian community.

Re-placing the Gospel at the center of the life of the Church involves recognizing a fundamental error, namely having played down the call to be a community of brothers and sisters at the service of humanity and not a “religio” like others.

It is not dogmatic or ritual baggage that will make a difference. What is needed is a re-positioning that consists in renouncing all privileges that flow from the demand for an investiture from on high.

What is needed instead is a positioning that privileges the relationship with the other, which may go as far as getting down on one’s knees to serve him or her.

How much are we really doing to renounce all forms of clericalism and even machismo? As long as we fail to renounce the abuses of exclusivism and exclusion, it will be extremely difficult to heal the sickness caused by the sexual abuse crisis as well as by abuses of power and conscience.

A Church that begins from the Gospel is a Church stripped of itself. This also means renouncing the creation of an exclusive caste that arrogates to itself the right to exclude others on the basis of its vocation and investiture from on high.

In reality, such change can only come from below. The events that have occurred as well as the greater understanding that we have of the Gospel require that we must not limit ourselves to simply making patchwork repairs (Mk 2:21).

On the contrary, we need to launch ourselves joyfully towards the horizon of a re-foundation.

All this can only be achieved if we first accept the relativization of a whole series of institutions and ways of working, which, while they have been useful — at least in part — until now, are probably no longer appropriate.

There are two aspects that are not just urgent but also revealing of the very real desire to move beyond nostalgia for ourselves to nostalgia for the Kingdom of God, which has just destabilized us.

These are the role of the woman in the life of the Church and the move from a theology of mortification to a theology of pleasure.

In each instance, our manner of understanding sexuality, as a sign of our way of appreciating our humanity and entering into relationship, is the key to the vault of a willingness — or not — to accept current anthropological changes, not as a threat, but as an opportunity.

This does not imply relativizing priestly celibacy or the chastity of consecrated religious in an ideological manner but rather of re-placing them within the radical and total goodness of our humanity.

This needs to be done without any unnecessary and sometimes damaging exaltation of the renouncement involved in celibacy as a source of excellence.

This will enable us to continue to live as we did in the past — including in celibacy — but with a new freedom and responsibility that still needs to be developed — at least in part — not only so that it can be lived out interiorly, but so that it is also comprehensible from the outside.



…Archbishop Flynn was no healer, we learned.  He was the USCCB’s damage-control guy. In 1986, Flynn went to Lafayette and killed the bad publicity.

He said he’d visited all the families of the abused there. He hadn’t. He said he’d got the abusers out of ministry. He hadn’t. He got the media to think he had, but focused on getting the records sealed by court order. The scandal went quiet—but it was the quiet of a muzzle, not of healing.

When Flynn came to Minnesota, he did the same. We pew-sitters were led to believe the scandal ended here because Flynn’s policies solved the problem. In fact, it ended because Flynn’s legal team convinced a court that Minnesota’s statute of limitations on sex crimes barred most lawsuits.

Flynn drafted the Dallas Charter, but he never bothered much with following it. In 2004, the diocese found pornographic images on Fr. Jonathan Shelley’s computer.

To some, it seemed to be child porn; others considered it only “borderline illegal.” The borderline caucus won, and Flynn kept Shelley in ministry. That same year, Fr. Daniel Conlin provided marriage counseling to two of his parishioners, then fathered a child with the wife.

Flynn removed Conlin from the parish…and transferred him to the marriage tribunal, where he came into contact with more vulnerable women. All of this and more was covered up.

Archbishop Nienstedt mostly continued the lax practices of his predecessors. While more proactive than Flynn, Nienstedt still fell far short of church policy and law. Nienstedt made one excellent choice: he appointed Chancellor Jennifer Haselberger, a canonist devoted to interpreting ecclesial law as written—not bending it to favor Roman collars.

When Haselberger rediscovered Fr. Shelley’s “borderline illegal” porn in 2011 and showed Nienstedt, chancery officials spent more than a year debating what to do, instead of just calling the police. As similar cases mounted, Haselberger resigned and blew the whistle.

Our beloved myth exploded. Twin Cities Catholics like me came face-to-face with an unpleasant fact: the orthodox Good Clerics hadn’t taken over from the Bad “Spirit of Vatican II” Clerics and cleaned house. The Good Clerics were buddies with the Bad Clerics.

They did everything in their power to protect the Bad Clerics—even violating moral, civil, and canon law on their behalf. We’d believed there were two sides in the Church: orthodoxy and heresy. We often cheered for the clerics on our “team” and booed the other guys. But we were wrong. Everyone in the chancery was working together…against us.

I know there are good priests. There may even be good bishops. But don’t trust your instincts. I knew most of the people in our diocesan crisis.

Reading the depositions, I saw old family friends pitted against each other. My childhood babysitter called the priest who used to be so sweet to us kids at the big parties a liar and an obstructionist.

The man I worked for in college closed ranks with my wife’s childhood pastor to protect the priest who celebrated my wedding from the scrutiny of my alma mater. I never saw any of this coming.

Their orthodoxy (or lack thereof) had nothing to do with it. My judgment of their character (or lack thereof) missed the mark. There was only one consistent pattern: the closer they were to power, the more my shepherds collaborated to keep the sheep deaf, dumb, and victimized.

One could blame all this on some kind of network of unchaste priests and their allies, who supposedly work to shield one another from accountability while undermining Catholic teaching on sexuality—a so-called “lavender mafia.”

Or one could blame it all on clerical celibacy and sexual repression. A rumor circulated for years that Archbishop Nienstedt cruised for gay sex and punished priests who refused his advances.

Most of us scoffed at this rumor as an obvious smear. But a 2014 investigation into Nienstedt’s past revealed so much evidence that Auxiliary Bishops Piché and Cozzens concluded Nienstedt should resign and immediately flew to Washington to confer with papal nuncio Carlo Viganò.

Instead, the nuncio ordered the investigation be drastically narrowed. (Viganò fiercely disputes suggestions that this was tantamount to ending the investigation.) Fr. Christopher Wenthe, while serving as my associate pastor, told a vulnerable woman about the difficulties of his vow of celibacy, just before abusing her in my childhood parish’s rectory.

Yet when A. W. Richard Sipe articulated how a priestly culture of secret unchastity created space for child abuse, people like me dismissed him as an anti-Catholic kook.

So, yes, in our scandal, as in many others, you can point to some malefactors who fit the “heresy” narrative and others who fit the “repression” explanation.

But there are many more who don’t fit either. I’ve never heard anyone suggest that Archbishop Flynn was unchaste, yet his indifference toward victims was depraved. Likewise the nuncio.

Vicar General Peter Laird was an up-and-coming communications-savvy “John Paul II” priest, an exemplar of the new generation. Yet, like so many other chancery clerics (the “transitional presbyterate,” as Haselberger memorably put it), Laird consistently downplayed the risks of keeping problem priests in circulation.

They were Team Chancery. We were Team Lay. They played to win. 

Political contingency, not scriptural necessity

Modern priests live with priests, learn with priests, work with priests, die with priests. They’re expected to form no permanent ties with any single parish or community, because reassignment looms. They vow celibacy, so other clerics become their (dysfunctional) family.

The bishop can cut their pay, give them vacation, reassign them to Siberia, put them up for promotion…anything, for any or no reason, without recourse.

Priests have relatively few rights, often lack means to exercise them, and are conditioned in seminary to accept indignities, even evil, as “holy obedience.” Absolute power over priests corrupts the bishops, and absolute submission does no favors to priests.

Theoretically, the Holy See is supervising, but there are more than three thousand ordinaries reporting directly to the pope. I don’t know about you, but in my workplace no one person is allowed to manage more than a dozen direct reports.

More than that, and management becomes distracted and ineffective. With so much on its plate, Rome won’t intervene, and probably won’t even notice, unless someone is convicted of a crime. Besides, a few well-cultivated contacts in today’s Rome will get you a lot further up the career ladder than holiness.

Power flows from the top of the hierarchy down through overt and covert cliques. Powerful clerics are accountable to those cliques, not to the faithful. The laity are needed only for their wallets.

The structure I have just described could hardly be better at catalyzing abuse. Look at Cardinals Egan and McCarrick. One was considered conservative, the other liberal, but both were notorious on abuse—and St. John Paul gave both the red hat.

How about Cardinal Mahony and Cardinal Pell? Archbishops Finn, Wilson, and Bruskewitz? Or Cardinal Law, the great conservative prelate whose punishment was promotion?

The same story unfolds today in HondurasChile, and Australia. Now we’ve learned from Pennsylvania that dozens of bishops, perhaps a cardinal, are implicated in a broad, deep, clerical conspiracy—a conspiracy that was well established years before my old scapegoats, Vatican II and the sexual revolution, were around to take the blame. This crisis was not caused by Marty Haugen tunes and the Land O’ Lakes statement.

At the root of this crisis is structure—the particular way church governance has calcified in the past couple of centuries. That structure has to go.

Portions of the church’s structure are divinely instituted, so their reform is neither possible nor desirable. But most of the details were dreamed up by humans. Those can change. Consider the College of Cardinals.

It evolved from political contingency, not scriptural necessity. Pope Francis could dismiss it tomorrow and ask half-a-dozen ordinary Catholics to choose his successor instead.

Three consecutive papacies have run aground trying to reform the Curia, which grew in parallel with the College of Cardinals. Perhaps it is time for the Curia to simply dissolve. 

The modern, insular seminary

Consider mandatory clerical celibacy. It’s only a thousand years old. As recently as 867, Pope Adrian II’s still-living wife and daughter accompanied him to the Lateran Palace upon his election.

Or consider the seminary, den of so many recent iniquities. The modern, insular seminary was born at Trent, a mere five centuries ago.

Consider the auxiliary bishop, who “leads” the flock of a fictitious “titular see” while actually assigned to help another bishop lead his flock. This novelty was invented under Pope Leo X just before the Reformation. The idea of a bishop leading a non-existent see would have baffled the fathers of the church.

But it helped dioceses get very, very big. In England, in 1086, the entire country had around 1.7 million residents, and, by my count, twenty dioceses: about 85,000 people per diocese.

Today, the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis alone has 3.1 million residents, of whom nearly 850,000 are Catholic. In medieval times, our diocese would be split into ten, twenty, even forty smaller dioceses, with scaled-down bishops who’d have no choice but to share “the smell of the sheep.”

Instead, with help from the auxiliaries, the archbishop is able to run his unthinkably large and unaccountable archdiocese more like a corporation—a corporation desperate to protect its assets. And the Twin Cities is not even close to the worst of the mega-dioceses.

Consider, finally, the appointment of bishops. They have always required the consent of the pope, but have typically been selected by others. Bishops, especially in the patristic era, were often elected by their own dioceses or by their brother bishops (a practice that continues in the East).

St. Ambrose was made bishop of Milan by acclamation of the laity before he was even baptized! Even in the nineteenth century, the first terna used by the pope to select American bishops came from the priests of the diocese.

Direct papal selection, mainly on the advice of the nuncio and the Congregation of Bishops, is pretty new—and clearly isn’t working well. Among other things, the older system encouraged bishops to be promoted from within the diocese to serve the diocese for life.

The new system sees far more bishops imported from a thousand miles away, then exported again when a job in a more prestigious diocese opens up.

I note these changeable things not to endorse any one of them in particular, but rather to make clear that structural change is possible. Moreover, some structural change is necessary.

This crisis calls for radical changes like those of St. Gregory the Great. The mechanisms that turn clerics against their flocks cannot be broken otherwise.

New policies, new preaching, and new personnel aren’t enough. They would help, but the Saint Paul Archdiocese is proof: if we do not reform the church’s fundamentally clericalist structure, the abuse scandal will just happen again, and again, and again.

James J. Heaney is a software engineer in Saint Paul, Minnesota. His work has appeared at Crisis, Aleteia, and the Federalist.

This article first appeared in Commonweal Magazine.


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