Excerpt from Rethinking the Diversity of Ministries to Overcome Clericalism, La Croix, May 2019
Pope Francis explained in his Letter to the People of God that the problem of clericalism and abusiveness goes beyond a few individuals. It is a system of power in the Church, which has promoted a “culture of abuse,” one of the sources of which is clericalism.
A historical presentation by Nicole Lemaître observed that clericalism in its present form is primarily a historical construct that owes a great deal to the Council of Trent. It developed from the 18th century in a “Catholic radicalization” that concentrated all sacred functions on ordained priests, beginning with the Eucharist and confession.
The French school of spirituality of de Berulle and Olier, in particular, developed the concept of the ideal priest – the “holy priest” – above the faithful and identified with Christ. The main method of combating clericalism and undoubtedly the most immediate thus needs to be based on improvements to canon law, including punishing such abuses.
But as Belgian canonist Alphonse Borras noted humorously, “the primary reflex of a bishop is to seek a civil lawyer, ignoring his own internal judicial experts.” The stress on mercy has also resulted in forgetting that canon law may have a punitive aspect. It also lacks spaces for regulating ecclesial structures that would allow the reporting of serious dysfunction. In a similar vein, Marie-Jo Thiel pointed to a culture of secrecy and the absence of transparency of processes and decisions.
Diversity of roles
Another more theological approach could be based on spiritual freedom and the correct exercise of “spiritual power” by priests.
Archbishop Eric de Moulin-Beaufort of Reims, the president-elect of the Bishops Conference of France, presented a reflection on the personality of the “pastor.”
“There is only one true pastor, Christ,” he said, criticizing priests who mistake themselves for the Pastor.
The “sheep,” that is, the faithful, are also concerned here, Archbishop de Moulin-Beaufort said, and should not fall into submissiveness or idolatry with respect to the ordained ministries.
Nevertheless, while the current conception of the priesthood owes much to history, it is undoubtedly possible to rethink the current definition.
Canonist Thibault Joubert emphasized the significance placed on the person of the priest to the detriment of that of the bishop and other ministries.
“We have had a theology of the sacrament of orders that is too focused on the priesthood,” he argued.
“Currently, there still exists a tension between two theologies of ministry, with the first centered on the sacerdotal figure of the priest and the other beginning from the organic plurality of ministries under the presidency of the bishop,” he noted. In a way, the progressive concentration on the priest of tasks originally shared among a great variety of sacred roles has obscured the diversity of roles in Catholicism. This is a lack in pluralism that has helped feed the abuses of power that the Church has experienced.