For the Best Take on Clericalism I Know

Read Russell Shaw’s terrific book To Hunt, To Shoot, To Entertain. Clericalism is, quite simply, the notion that only ordained and religious are “real Catholics”. With that idea comes a host of other bad ideas, such as “Father is always right”, “Never complain if a bishop does it” and “Don’t question anything a priest or bishop does”. Don’t think for a moment that these are “conservative” sins. The most clerical people I know have been staunchly repressive and oppressive dissenters and despisers of Church teaching who use their office to muzzle any attempt to question them when they wreckovate a Church or improve the liturgy into a festival of Wayne Newton’s greatest hits. Clericalist liberals routinely smear Catholics who take seriously the teaching of the Church as “rigid” or “unprogressive” or what not. Indeed, just yesterday, the tireless Fr. McBrien was doing just this: explaining that taking Paul at something like his word concerning the incompatibility of homosexual practice with Christian morality is “fundamentalist“. Watching people like this slap down honest questions and humiliate kind folks in parish meetings who timidly wonder why the Mary statue was dynamited or the tabernacle was moved to the lavatory is an education in the sly brutality that the human heart is capable of. Hearing them selectively cite canon law in order to silence and squelch voices raised in favor of, oh, using the Catechism or quoting the Holy Father is a sensation not unlike watching Michael Dukakis in a tank or Hillary Clinton baking chocolate chip cookies. For such people, the watchword is “Question the Tradition, but don’t you dare question me!”

Second, don’t think for a moment that these are exclusively the sins of clergy. Laypeople can be some of the most clerical on earth. This is, as Shaw points out, one of the reasons for the alleged “crisis” over women priests. If you hold that only priests are “real Catholics” then, of course, it follows that no woman is a “real Catholic” and the only way women can become real Catholics is by ordination. But if you hold the Church’s actual teaching and recognize that the ordained office is but one of many offices (and not a “more important” office than the lay office) then there is no sense in talking about women being “excluded from ministry” just as there is no sense in complaing that men were “excluded from” the Virgin Birth. There is an ocean of ministry and all the women in the world and all the men besides could labor their whole lives and not perform it all. The real desire here is not ministry: it’s power. Clericalists see the priesthood as a place of power and hunger for it. But Jesus saw the priesthood as a place of service.

It’s this conception of the ordained office as a place of power that’s gotten us where we are. Creeps like Shanley used their office to dominate and abuse kids. Bishops, many of them thorough-going clericalists as well (such as this eminently bad bishop), also saw the office as a place of power and, when that power was threatened by the Heaven-heard cries of victims, attacked the victims and protected the power.

Faithful laypeople are called to obey their bishops (unless the bishop, like O’Connell of Palm Beach, specifically commands something, such as “Remove your pants and bend over” which is clearly contrary to the teaching of Jesus). They are called to honor their bishops. But they are not called to approve every damn fool stupid and evil thing the bishop or priest does come hell or high water. In cases such as the Archdiocese of Boston or the Archdiocese of LA or the diocese of Phoenix or the other multiplying examples of stupid, possibly criminal, absolutely sinful abuse, neglect, and victimization of children and others, the bishops have got to be held to account in light of the Tradition. We laypeople have got to do it. If you live in dioceses where the bishops have behaved this way and are continuing to not make amends, tithe to anything but the diocesan appeal until they get their act together.

But mark that: we laypeople have to hold them to account in light of the Tradition, not in light of the tenets of the People’s Democratic Republic of Heaven, nor in light of what other clericalists like Richard McBrien say, nor in light of what Bill Keller and other haters of the gospel say, nor in light of what the “Repeal Vatican II!” crowd says. The way out of this is by returning to the Holy Gospel of Jesus Christ, pure and undefiled, not by the myriad paths away from it proposed by Call to Action, or the Society of St. Pius X, or the NY Times Editorial board, or Rev. Bubba Joe “The Roman Church is the Antichrist” Suggs. Bishops! Give us the Catholic Faith!

Say it with me: Bishops! Give us the Catholic Faith!