How to combat clericalism? Many laypeople remain convinced that an ‘interior renovation’ of the baptized will not suffice to remedy the clerical abuses of power condemned by the pope

Despite the affirmation of equal dignity of all baptized at the Council, “we have remained a prisoner of the old hierarchy between the teaching Church (priests) and the taught Church (the faithful).”

Anne-Bénédicte Hoffner, LaCroix, January 31, 2019

Laypeople and priests, during a workshop in France, have reflected on their experience of the exercise of authority in parishes and dioceses, highlighting the lack of regulations regarding governance in the Church.

The Catholic Institute of Paris hosted the training workshop on “Governance in the Church: Who decides and why?” on Jan. 28. Fifty priests and laypeople gathered to tackle the question.

Father Bruno Becker, who is responsible for formation programs in his diocese, is looking for proposals on how to build a “less clerical Church.”

Having twice been a member of a parish animation team, a participant wants to understand why her initial experience was so rich, being based on “collegiality and co-responsibility” between priest and laypeople, while the second was extremely painful and punctuated by a power struggle “with the new parish priest.”

In a similar vein, another participant, who is a catechetics leader in her diocese, now wonders whether it is “best to try to move forward without saying anything,” after she faced refusals and delays from her superiors with respect to projects that were eventually completed.

The exercise of authority clearly remains an issue in the Church as elsewhere in society.

Each participant had a positive or negative experience of their own to share and the small group discussions quickly extended into the breaks.

“Many pastoral leaders have felt wounded because of poorly handled governance problems,” program organizer, Marie-Laure Rochette, said in her introductory remarks, which seemed to find an echo among the leaders of dioceses, parishes and Church movements present.

High expectations

Pope Francis’ “Letter to the People of God” at the end of August condemning “clericalism” as an “anomalous way of conceiving authority in the Church” has created powerful expectations.

Priests as well as lay people now want to understand the “changes initiated” and the “resistances” that it has unleashed, desiring, like the pope, to commit to “the ecclesial and social transformation that we need so badly.”

What to do? And where to start?

Asked to explain the process followed by a general chapter of the Congregation of the Divine Providence of St. Jean de Bassel, Sister Agnes Lang emphasized the centuries of experience of men and women religious in the exercise and regulation of authority and “their functioning which is ultimately highly democratic.”

During a general chapter, which decides on the major orientations that will bind congregation superiors, “supreme authority” is vested in “all members (who) have the same rights and duties, from the superior general to the young sister elected,” said Sister Lang.

Still prisoners of the old hierarchy

“We have not reached that stage in our dioceses!” whispered a pastoral leader during Sister Lang’s presentation.

The model is not easily transplantable into a diocesan church since Vatican II increased the power of the local bishop.

Despite the affirmation of equal dignity of all baptized at the Council, “we have remained a prisoner of the old hierarchy between the teaching Church (priests) and the taught Church (the faithful),” concluded Oratorian Father Luc Forestier, director of the department of dogmatic and fundamental theology at the Theologicum of the Catholic Institute of Paris.

Although religious congregations have many highly formalized regulations, this is “much less so in dioceses and parishes, which are more subject to the arbitrary rule of the pastor,” commented Marie-Laure Rochette, the person responsible for ongoing formation at the Catholic Institute of Paris and who organized the seminar.

Despite this, how to achieve a path for “moving forward together?” Outside of ordained ministries that are reserved to men, what other forms of “legitimacy” can be promoted?

“During the Synod in our Diocese of Créteil, some delegates were elected, which gave them legitimacy to express themselves and later to implement synod orientations,” one participant observed.

Another participant, who is involved in Caritas France (Secours catholique) as well as in the pastoral care of family members who have lost their loved ones, believes that it is her theological training rather than her “seniority” that has lent her “authority” in the parish.

Meanwhile, others remain unsatisfied, convinced that an “interior renovation” of the baptized will not suffice to remedy the abuses of power, conscience and sexual abuse condemned by the pope.

“Are there theological sites for thinking about the reform of the Church? Is ecumenism still a path?” asked one participant, adding to the list of questions for a future workshop.

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