Over at Inside Catholic, Russell Shaw has an article about clericalism. The indication is that it is the first of many, which is good, because the article doesn’t exactly confront clericalism directly, but does an end run via the growth of ecclesial lay ministry.
Clericalism, however, is not an affirmation of these sacred realities but a caricature. It fosters an ecclesiastical caste system in which clerics comprise the dominant elite, with lay people serving as a passive, inert mass of spear-carriers tasked with receiving clerical tutelage and doing what they’re told. This upstairs-downstairs way of understanding relationships and roles in the Church extends even to the spiritual life: priests are called to be saints, lay people are called to satisfy the legalistic minimum of Christian life and scrape by into purgatory.
Even while absorbing these clericalist views, of course, the laity traditionally have entertained certain contrary perspectives. Think of the robust anticlericalism of Chaucer. Or consider a line in Edwin O’Connor’s splendid pre-Vatican II novel The Edge of Sadness. “Probably in no other walk of life [besides the priesthood],” the priest-narrator remarks, “is a young man so often and so humbly approached by his elders and asked for his advice. Which, by the way, is almost always received gratefully and forgotten promptly.”
So, where does Catholic clericalism come from?
At bottom, it comes from erroneous thinking about vocation. The fundamental, and profoundly mistaken, idea behind it does much to explain the apparent shortage of new vocations to the priesthood and religious life and the persistent failure of carefully planned programs to recruit them. (As I’ve remarked elsewhere, there’s no shortage of vocations in the Catholic Church. What we have today is a shortage of vocational discernment, with accompanying disastrous results. But that’s another story.)
The bad idea at the heart of clericalism equates “vocation” with “state in life.” A state in life is a large, overall framework of commitment within which different people choose to live their Christians lives. State in life is one meaning of “vocation,” but not the only one.
Starting from that mistake, bad thinking about vocation then makes the great leap of supposing that the only real vocation worthy of that name is the clerical state in life. Those whom God doesn’t call to be priests (or, by extension, religious) — the laity, that is — may have a vocation in some weak, analogical sense, but they don’t have the vocation that’s the gold standard for everything else — the vocation to be a priest. All other callings are evaluated by how well or poorly they approximate the clerical norm.
So what Shaw is saying here is that by establishing priesthood (and, I’d add, religious life in general) as the norm of holiness and vocation, all other roles in the Church as well as expressions of living out one’s baptism are imagined in relationship to that.
The consequences which Shaw deplores in this article are those which have occupied him consistently: the implication that so many of us have lived with, the understanding that the ideal Christian way of life is one that is “involved in Church.” Three stories:
1) When I was in college, I was super-involved in the college campus ministry. Those of us who were in leadership were consistently frustrated with one of the priests on staff who was never around that much, who spent his time out on campus, in the dorms and frat houses and so on. One day he said to us, “Not everyone is a Church Person. You guys are, and that’s great. But not everyone wants to spend all their time at church activities. They need to be ministered to, too.”
A lightbulb moment for me that stuck – even (gasp) 30 years later.
2) Later in life, when I was an adult and at some probably useless meeting at church, a woman in her 50’s said to the gathered group, “I don’t know what’s wrong. I’ve done everything. I’ve been on every committee, I’ve helped plan liturgies, I’ve volunteered in the office…but I still feel like there’s something missing spiritually inside me…”
3) Yet a few years later I was sitting in Mass on a Sunday designated as Ministry Sunday. Outside, on one side of the church, were arrayed the various parish ministries with their picture boards and sign-up sheets. At the end of Mass, the priest got up and said sternly, “The Ministry Fair is on the south side of the church. Some of you will choose to exit through the north doors and avoid the ministry fair. If you do that, I am telling you – You may not consider yourself a Catholic Christian.”
You think I’m kidding? That I’m making it up? Swear to God, I’m not. It was the closest I’ve ever come to walking out of Mass. That and the Easter Sunday Mass six years ago in which the presiding Franciscan ad-libbed the entire Mass from beginning to end, an astonishing feat. Again, not kidding.
MInd you – none of that is told to disparage lay ministry, either professional or volunteer. Heck, that’s what I do. Those who sniff at the very idea of lay ministry are living in a dreamland in which children are magically catechized, music simply materializes in the air during Mass, and the homebound and hospitalized in a parish of 2,000 families are visited by one of the two (if that) teleporting priests on staff.
No, what is at issue is that sensibility that formed those of us who came of age in the 70’s – the idea that the greatest expression of the Christian life is to be “involved” in your parish or diocese, and that that is the measure of the “strength” or “vitality” of a parish – how many committee meetings fill up how many meeting rooms every night of the week – rather than the idea that the greatest expression of the Christian life is to listen to Christ and bring his love and truth to wherever you are, whatever you are doing in the world.
Which is Shaw’s point, exactly. By measuring ourselves against religious, and using that as our yardstick, we are buying into a clericalist mindset.
I have a couple of quibbles. Not quibbles exactly, but points I think need deeper exploration.
If we’re going to grapple with clericalism as Shaw defines and expands on it, we have to face the fact that historically, this promotion of the clerical state as superior is not anything new. It is woven deep into Catholic sensibilities, reaching back to the beginnings of asceticism in the fourth century, if not earlier. I’m sure we will have some commentors argue (and feel free to do so) that Shaw is wrong in this sense and that the Catholic tradition, neatly summarized in the old Baltimore Catechism illustration in which the caption below a picture of a married person says “Good” and that under a religious says “Better” makes complete sense.
That was, in fact, one particular target of the Protestant Reformers, especially vivid in Luther – to dismantle that theology which privileged celibate vowed religious life as automatically and unquestioningly one which brought one closer to God and God’s will than the lay state.
In other words, this is not a recent development, it is assumed in much of Catholic theological and spiritual thinking and to confront that makes some nervous, convinced that the next inevitable step to that kind of reconsideration is giant puppets looking over my shoulder as I’m forced to clap a new Church into being next time I go to Mass.
My other point relates more to clericalism itself. As I said, focusing on the “clericalization of the laity” is good and important, but really not the center of the problem, as I’m assuming Shaw’s forthcoming book Nothing To Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church will make clear.
I actually don’t think truly helpful discussions about clericalism in the Catholic Church can happen without considering:
1) The reality and shape of clericalism in other Christian denominations. The primary point of comparison would be with those bodies that have some sort of hierarchical structure and ordained ministers for whom a sacerdotal function is primary – Orthodox, Episcopal, even perhaps Lutheran. But I think it’s worth talking about in the context of bodies with looser structures and less liturgical emphasis as well. What is the shape and form of clericalism in evangelical churches?
2) Mandatory celibacy has to be taken into account – which is where #1 becomes important, again. Clericalism exists in churches with married ordained ministers. How does the reality differ in a body in which celibacy is a mark of (most) ordained ministry? It would be even instructive to look at Orthodoxy and Eastern Rite Catholicism in which bishops must be celibate. How does that work into a clericalist stew?
3) The flip side – or perhaps just another dimension of clericalism in its contemporary form is, in my opinion, the infantilization of the clergy, both by bishops who treat priests like children and the laity whose attitude towards priests is often marked by a sort of pity and an implication that they are somehow, not fully formed adult human beings.
4) I was quite struck by one of the comments on Shaw’s article over at Inside Catholic in which a commentor said:
It always concerns me when an issue is presented as something to be solved. Shaw’s image of the sick man, as clear and expressive as it is, does not serve this particular issue well. Clericalism will always be with us. It can never be “solved.”
Trying to “solve” it can only feed the frenzy of anti-clericalism. It is better to identify its characteristics and seek to lessen them, in a word, contain them.
I thought that was pretty smart, and it fits into my theory that “everything will get screwed up eventually. Our job is not to seek perfection, but be aware of and honest about our limitations and the possibility of sin and failure and try to mitigate against it in our structures and methods.”
5) Finally, this: We’re all talking about clericalism. We’re mostly laity. I’m pretty interested in hearing about clericalism from, you know..clerics. Are we just imagining things? From the inside, is what we’re calling clericalism perceived as a problem, or just business and usual? Is this conversation missing anything from your perspective?