Mark Shea over at Catholic Exchange today offers a piece on clericalism and links it to the women’s ordination movement saying in essence that the female who longs for ordination is just displaying another form of clericalism in a clerical culture.

What drives the push for women’s ordination is the thoroughly clericalist notion that the only real Catholic is an ordained Catholic. Since women cannot be ordained, it therefore follows (in the mind of the clericalist) that women can never be fully a part of the life of the Church. Coupled with that is the clericalist confusion of the priestly office with the Throne of Power. Again and again, the rhetoric of women’s ordination gives away the game when advocates say, “Men have the power in the Church and women deserve to have power too.” In other words, it’s all about Power.

Well, isn’t it? If Mr. Shea doesn’t think that the majority of Catholics don’t think that the ordained priest isn’t the most important person in the church in their mind than I have some swampland in Florida to sell him.

The problem isn’t that people long for power. The problem is that a few people have ALL the power and that even fewer of those people in power ABUSE that power. if you don’t have ANY power in the church because people in power keep others from being in positions where decisions get made then that’s a big deal. And if in general, women and lay men (if I do say so myself) are not viewed as powerful by the majority of the people they serve than can they really exercise effective ministry if they are called into those valid roles in the church?

Shea would have us believe that the longing is the problem–when in fact, it is the culture of clericalism that is pre-existent and that has been abused that creates the longing for power in culture where people feel that they don’t have ANY.

To be clear: I’m not saying that women and lay men should have ALL the power (and God knows that there are many lay people who are horrible clericalists in their own right) but certainly priests shouldn’t retain all the power either.

But Shea’s point is that priests seemingly in his mind DON’T have all the power:

The way to healing the crippling disease of clericalism is to recover the Church’s understanding of our dignity as fully Catholic laypeople. This means not only understanding the ordained office and what it does and does not confer, but also understanding our dignity as baptized laypeople and our own absolutely vital place in the Church and, most especially, in the world. At the altar, the priest rightly presides. His proper sphere is the sanctuary and the rightly ordered worship of the Church. But in the world (that is, the 99.99999% of human life that happens outside the sanctuary), we laypeople preside. It is time we stopped fighting over the tiny amount of real estate that is not given to us by God and focused our energies on our monumental task of bringing the gospel to people no priest, bishop or Pope will ever meet—the people we see every day.

Ok, some better points here, but let me offer a few other caveats.

One is that pastors are always in charge. Even when the business manager really runs the affairs of the parish and even when a really organized pastoral associate is the pastors “boss” and keeps everything in order, the pastor is still the one with the title.

And in the eyes of the faithful, that’s often and unfortunately all that matters.

A person who is a legitimate leader in the church–almost none would call them a “minister” in the church. And when asked questions about the church’s teaching many would turn to a priest over a layperson with an M.A. , M.Div or even a D.Min or Ph.D. and ask a priest if the person’s viewpoint were correct–even if the person did their thesis or dissertation on the very topic discussed. And when the priest may even be incorrect or misinformed on a topic–or simply hold an archaic view that the church no longer holds–their word remains law for the majority of the faithful.

However, the need exists for legitimate lay ministers to be empowered by the clerical culture that holds that power–or people in the pews will not make the translation, that indeed, these people are people who are active in ministry. Pastoral Associates need to be viewed as someone who people can go to with questions about the parish. Campus Ministers, experts in retreats, social justice, etc. all need to be assisted in being approached by the common faithful that they serve by the pastor and his brother priests.

Otherwise, people don’t accept these ministers, as such.

I’ve been lucky enough to work with a number of people who have no problem in sharing their power. They realize that everyone has different gifts and that all of those gifts, as St. Paul reminds us come from the same spirit. It is in employing those gifts for the Kingdom of God that we all are called into Priesthood. All of us.

However, what is given to all is also sacramentalized only by SOME. And yet, the call to ministry, a DIFFERENT call than the one to priesthood, is a call that the majority of people who work in parishes have responded to.

And yet…many of those people are often deprived of power by those who have the power. For example:

How many lay ministers lose their job because a Bishop comes in and decides that he just wants to replace them with priests from a another country or with a more conservative order of nuns?

How many pastoral associates have to pick up and leave because a new pastor comes in and cleans house arbitrarily?

When a new pastor has trouble working with his 4 or 5 pastoral associates why doesn’t he have to go to get further training to learn how to better manage the staff without alienating them and other parishioners?

When a pastoral council gets disbanded by the pastor, why does that same council not have any power to fight that decision?

When a priest is an awful preacher but someone on the pastoral team is a gifted one, why aren’t they allowed to preach at mass?

Fortunately for me, I have no such problems. I work with a great pastor who is smart enough to allow all of us here at St Joseph’s to use our gifts for the good of our parish community.

But… in far too many other places, clericalism is alive and well.

Tomorrow: a further point on technology and ministry.

0 thoughts on “Is Clericalism Alive and Well?”
  1. I agree with you and Shea that clericalism is a real scourge, one that finds different forms of expression, but is still an abuse of the priest’s position precisely because clericalism is an abuse that takes the form of power. And really messes things up ecclesiologically in so doing!
    Shea has got it 100% right on this issue: people have gotten so hung up on the “power” question that ordination is seen as a human right, and an upside-down view of the Church is perpetuated by the most unlikely types! The mission of the laity to leaven the world with the Gospel is compromised, because our most theologically talented laity seem to be channeled into Church structures instead of dispersed into a culture which is starving for crumbs of the Gospel.
    I just read this description of the mission of the laity today, and it rings so true:
    “The issue is the Church in the world, not a radiating of the Church’s holiness into the profane world, but the leavening of the world from within in order to make visible God’s glory which still shines in the world.”*
    The fixation with the altar is a distraction from the real work of the Church, where the priesthood is meant to be a servant of the laity.

    *(Henrici, “A sketch of Balthasar’s life” from a long-ago article in Communio)

    1. Sure, Sr Anne and thanks for the comment.

      But my point is more that the average person in the pew is the one that is hung up on this as well. Not merely people “seeking power”. Actually I think a better word to use other than power here is “respect”.

      If women who were pastoral associates were viewed with some semblance of respect then they wouldn’t feel like they don’t get any and misconstrue that with “if only I were ordained then I’d get respect.”

      Which I know many priests who would laugh and say “if ordination is all it took!”

  2. Clericalism is a tough one to get a handle on. It seems to be a blanket to cover whatever parishioners don’t like. Some on a parish council feel serving is an exercise in futility because of “clericalism.” (The pastor knows what he’s going to do before he asks the council’s advice.) Every time a parishioner doesn’t get his request for “whatever,” it’s clericalism.

  3. This, I confess, gets my dander up as they say. From a purely logical stance, Mr. Shea’s argument falls. The call to ordination is no more necessarily a grab for power for women than for men (not to say that does not ever happen, but some gents wish ordination for the same desire for power). But where it gets truly absurd is when one looks at communities that have not closed ordination from women. In churches which have had a couple of decades now of women ministers, only now are the higher offices being opened for them. It is a really dumb way of getting power. If the Vatican where to start ordaining women tomorrow, that first generation are not destined for power and prestige. No doubt any “power” would be far out of reach of these pioneers. Much better for the power hungry lasses to get Ph.D.’s and professorships. Of course, I hold the heretical view that it is God who calls in both men and women, though rarely do we humans have pure motives even when inspired by the divine Spirit.

    Despite my added complaint against Mr. Shea, I do appreciate your point about the ambiguous or even hostile regard a lot of us over-educated lay ministers are held in – not always certainly, but I get tired of being patronized by clergy who have the exact same education I got. And of course, I am as human as my clergy brethren – I have found myself in turn patronizing those without the fancy degrees, as though they could not possibly have a valid opinion (as it turns out, in the case I am thinking of, I was very definitely wrong, and had to apologize!). I wish I never did that, and try not to, but, male or female, humans are human, and sin is sin…

  4. Really excellent post, Mike.

    I’ve just lived through one of the most clerical pastor/bosses I’ve ever encountered. He has been reassigned as of July 1 and our cluster is still reeling and shell-shocked from his years here. I’ve got stories that would curl your hair (er, yeah–;).

    Suffice to say power or lack of it engages and motivates many people.

  5. Mark Shea is right on the money. The way canon law structures power in the institutional church, each pastor is a petty dictator with little or no recourse for the laity whether the pastor’s decisions are right or wrong, competent or idotic. The situation with bishops is worse. We have a petty tyrant in the Venice, FL, diocese who has imposed his right-wing view of parish life throughout southwest Florida and fired everyone who disagrees with him. Then, coward that he is, he denies that these are his decisions and claims they were made by the local clergy.
    We need to go back to the early church where clergy were selected by the local church, as were bishops. We got St. Ambrose and St. Augustine that way. We got Frank Dewane and John Law through the present system.

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