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“Clericalism! Clericalism! Clericalism!”

This is the cry of the People of God, resounding seemingly everywhere in the Catholic Church in the wake of the latest explosion of the clergy abuse scandal as we look for culprits and causes to vanquish in order to finally put an end to this eternal crisis.

Clericalism is certainly an easy target. The scandal is about clerics, after all, and just attach an “ism” to the word and you describe the kind of cultural ideology that would seem to create and justify the “old boys network” – a phrase I myself have often used – that undergirds this self-protection racket. “Clericalism, whether fostered by priests themselves or by lay persons, leads to an excision in the ecclesial body that supports and helps to perpetuate many of the evils that we are condemning today,” as Pope Francis wrote in his “Letter to the People of God” on the abuse crisis last August. “To say ‘no’ to abuse is to say an emphatic ‘no’ to all forms of clericalism.”

But how well do we understand what “clericalism” really is and how it has infected our ecclesial life? Fed up with the halting progress toward transparency and accountability, we long for speedy and easy solutions – a “magic bullet” to resolve the problems and move ahead.

The difficulty is that there is no single cause, or solution, to the problem of abuse and the greater scandal of episcopal concealment and dissembling. Single-issue advocates naturally like to focus on their favorite hobbyhorse as the cause: It’s gay priests! No, it’s too much celibacy! No, it’s not enough women!

Clericalism is, in fact, a potentially useful category for engaging the wider ecclesial reform that is required, because it is really an umbrella term that encompasses so many of the various fields that feed into the abuse dynamic. Seminary formation, the theology of the priesthood and the sacraments, ecclesiology, the office of the bishop and the role of lay people must all be reviewed and perhaps recast or reinterpreted. Sex abuse is not just about sex, not even mainly about sex, but is always tied, as Francis says, to “the abuse of power and the abuse of conscience.”

“Sacramental power,” as Francis wrote in The Joy of the Gospel, should not become “too closely aligned with power in general,” he said. “Jesus did not tell the apostles to form an exclusive and elite group.”

The dysfunctional power dynamic has been the entry point of most of the insightful critiques and examinations of the clericalism phenomenon. I would note in particular a conference organized by the Strasbourg Faculty of Theology in April. One of the main themes to emerge there was the historical contingency of clericalism, which largely grew from the reforms of the Council or Trent and was then intensified by reactions against the challenges of the modern world.

The lesson of history is encouraging: If the Church was able to foster clericalism, then the Church could also be able to root it out. But it’s also worth thinking about the internal social and political dynamics that have grown up around clericalism, and which may not necessarily yield to theological rethinking.

For example, the counterpoint to the standard explanation of clericalism that always stands out to me is that so many of the clerics – bishops and cardinals, really – who have been either accused of abuse or of covering for abusers were not so much co-conspirators as they were deadly rivals who would have done almost anything to destroy a competitor. And they often did so, as well as derailing the promise of many good priests and bishops who declined to take part in the game or just weren’t good at it. Most of this venomous infighting takes place in secret, but it also spills into the public arena on occasion. This isn’t just covering for each other; it is a vicious competition among those who see the church as their playing field and power as a prize to be won.

From that point of view, Archbishop Vigano’s famous j’accuse against Francis last year was really an instance of clericalism on display rather than a brave act of whistleblowing. He told only half-truths, concealing much about his own sins and those of his friends, while trying to bring down his foes.

Whether in secret or in public, clerical culture corrupts those who indulge in it and damages the ecclesial body politic in insidious ways that we don’t always see. Think of the good bishops who never gain influence because they won’t play the game, or the good priests who will never become bishops, or the good men who will never become priests because they are turned off by it all – or others who enter the priesthood because they are drawn to ecclesial power. And think of the lay people who can also be tempted by the lure of playing a role in the clerical game – or those who would be disgusted and dissuaded from entering ministry.

I was reflecting on all this a few weeks ago in a conversation with my friend David Cloutier, a theologian at the Catholic University of America, who said he was intrigued by the “village mentality” of clerical culture and how “these relationships were less bureaucratic/impersonal and more personal/reciprocal – in the same ways that relations in small towns are both good and bad because they are ‘small town relations.’” That bears exploring, David said, as we try to “demystify” clericalism and move beyond simple power structure explanations and toward an examination of “informal relationships” that can be the lifeblood of a true community – but also poison in the bloodstream.

The Vatican, certainly, and by extension the 5,000 or so members of the hierarchy, is nothing if not a global village. Clericalism has existed since the beginning, when the Apostles began arguing among themselves as to which of them was the greatest. According to Luke, Jesus didn’t try to pacify them with a power-sharing agreement or throw up his hands and walk away (much as he would have been justified in doing so). Instead, he showed them a child and said: “Whoever receives this child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me. For the one who is least among all of you is the one who is the greatest.”

That didn’t end the jockeying for power and position, of course. But it’s a simple precept that should guide us as we rebuild our Church.

David Gibson is a journalist and author and director of the Center on Religion and Culture at Fordham University.


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