Father Knows Best?

Have you ever been in one of those parishes where ‘Father knows best’? It may not be a parish. It may be a diocese or an monastery. When the priest or bishop or abbot is all powerful watch out. Mark Shea writes here on the evils of clericalism, and as usual, he comes at the problem with clarity and charity. His article set me thinking about a whole angle on clericalism which I have never really heard discussed: the psychological.

What exactly is going on when the dog collar rule? What is happening when excessive clericalism takes root? What is going on when a father figure takes charge and everyone obeys meekly and dares not criticize? All sorts of weird things happen. The ‘faithful’ obey outwardly and submit to father, but they start to gossip and talk and criticize behind his back. They make jokes at his expense and talk about how they are going to defy him or rebel against him. Then when it comes to it they still go back and obey him and furthermore, they often make excuses for him and defend him against the criticisms of others.

What is happening is that they are not behaving as adults. People who, in every other sphere of their life, behave as responsible adults revert to childish behavior, swinging between servile subservience and attempts at rebellion. There was some sort of pop psychology book out years ago which pointed out that, in relationships, we are either ‘adult’ or ‘child’ and that grown ups should be in ‘adult’ to ‘adult’ relationships, but that we often revert to ‘child’ for all sorts of reasons, and when we are ‘child’ to an ‘adult’ it is invariably unhealthy because one person is dominating and the other is being dominated, and that usually both parties agree to this unhealthy relationship.

This symbiosis is  an unwritten, un discussed contract. In a parish or abbey or diocese the domineering father attracts those who wish to revert to ‘child’ because they find the authority figure to be re-assuring. Strong Daddy makes them feel happy and secure. This is especially likely to happen in the area of religion where people too often revert to a childish sense of unthinking dependence anyway. An immature understanding of God the Father makes it more complicated so that some immature Christians remain in a perpetual Sunday School form of their religion because it is comforting.

A dominating priestly personality will take advantage of these weaknesses and surround himself with immature Christians who are more than happy to be his meek little ‘children’. Worse than that, they will actually support the whole unhealthy relationship by putting ‘father’ up on a pedestal, make him into their own pet plaster saint and fawn all over him whenever he appears. “Ohhh Faaather this!” and “Ohhh Faaather that!” They’re not adoring him because he’s adorable. They’re adoring what they want a priest to be because if they believe his is that sort of priest they will feel better. The priest, in the meantime (especially if he is, himself, immature) will believe the fiction, love the adulation and the whole sick cycle gets worse and worse.

Of  course this problem is not peculiarly Catholic. Protestants do it too, and I expect other religions treat their leadership the same way. Wherever it occurs it’s sick. It’s immature and its dangerous. It’s really like a cult, not true religion. What the ‘faithful’ have done is make their priest or pastor into their god, and what he has done is colluded with them. Both parties perpetrate the lie in order to escape the real challenge of growing up in God and the difficult challenge of being real.

This is the underlying problem with clericalism, and while the priests and bishops are often blamed for being clericalists, they would not get away with it without the laypeople playing the game with them. Both sides are sick, and mature priests will do everything they can to understand this cycle and break it. The problem is, the people often do not want their priests to break the deal. The expect father to be superman. They want him to maintain the fiction. They don’t really want him to be human. They prefer their perfect plaster saint because he perpetuates the fiction and makes them feel comfortable.

That’s why a priest who tries to get the people out of the comfort zone will often be unpopular. What’s required is for both the priest and the people to be on a spiritual adventure together. Both must be looking and learning every day. Both must be challenged and challenging every day. The faithful must love and respect and honor their Father in God, but they mustn’t be lickspittles, toadies and spiritually immature. The priest, for his part, but serve them as their father in a true fatherly spirit–never lording it over them, but seeking every day in true humility to be the servant of the servants of God.

About Fr. Dwight Longenecker
  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11613482544313044210 Paul

    Very well said Father!I come from a Dutch Catholic upbringing and maintain that this very clericalism did untold harm. A PP could and would over-ride the decision of the mayor if he wanted to. Vatican 2 loosened the bonds and strictures and people voted with their feet. Very sad but the result of that strict control exercised over simple people over generations. An oversimplification perhaps but the proof of the pudding……….

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06624317806947588259 Rachel Gray

    That's an interesting take! Thanks Father.

  • http://iwka.wordpress.com/ iwka

    Unfortunately, I would say, that "all knowing" clergy is a norm in Poland. The hope comes with post-Vatican communities and fellowships as these are the exceptions, where the priests are functioning as a part of properly understood Body of Christ.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11057105098385429202 Leaving the Legion

    As a member of a religious congregation, actually working to leave the congregation, I understand perfectly how this "Father Dependence" works against personal maturity. In part, people who have not reached maturity in their formative family years will seek a strong father figure to cling to. When a priest is all powerful, and is reassigned by his bishop or superior, the uproar of the flock it tremendous. But when the priest is a true shepherd who brings his flock to spiritual and human maturity, he is appreciated and given a warm goodbye filled with best wishes.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10097995155866981660 Paul Siena

    I agree with you intuitions, but to be developed further we do have to remember a priest IS a Father in the orientation he has sacramentally and spiritually to the people of God. There is a good and genuine dependency that permits both the faithful and the priest to come into the meaning of their proper roles in the body of Christ. The priest carries authority to build up and serve, that authority is from God, it needs respect and devotion. It is not to dominate, gain his own personal ascendency, or clone his personality into his parishioners. Missing a Pastor who is moved is not always a sign he was a clericalist, there are so many stories of saints whom townspeople rebelled to bring them back- why? Because holiness inspires, attracts, supports but never dominates- now that is a true Father who changes hearts!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12746127431922685446 JD Curtis

    Fascinating how you delve into the psychological aspect of this.Keep fighting the good fight!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06962374096401238994 shadowlands

    Great post Father, made me think about my own approaches to men of God.As a sinner who's most comforting verse in scripture is the bit where Jesus speaks about sins being forgiven seventy times seven, (Matthew 18:22) the grace/gift/need I hold most powerful in a priest are the words spoken at pentecost, "Who's sins you forgive, they are forgiven, who's sins you retain, they are retained!"Boy, do I love and need my priests, grumpy or gleeful.I like to think long term, eternally type long term. Guess I'm an immature submissive rebel type. Then again, I am also a woman. I have known very bossy men, and have fawned like a numnut over a couple of popular priests.If you pray the Rosary for a priest, regularly, Our Lady will give you her love for him. She begins to show you a love for them, as sons, her sons. A different kind of respect begins to grow, rooted in truth, not fear, or self seeking reasons.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10065798213115341398 Simon

    Excessive Clericalism is bad. Cheerfully granted. But it strikes me that the pendulum has already swung away from it, and has in fact swung too far in the opposite direction, to the point where the more pervasive problem today is not the overvaluing of holy orders but its undervaluing. We see this trend in both ordinary, workaday detail, and in extraordinary events. In our parish, which is not enormous (Rick Warren's lobby probably seats more), we routinely have six EMHCs, and no less routinely, the line to receive from Father is visibly shorter than the lines for the EMHCs. I find neither of these things comprehensible. And we have reached a point where disobedience to and disdain for the bishops has reached epidemic levels; witness Fr. Z's "magisterium of nuns" or the ludicrous criticism of Bp. Olstead. (Suddenly Weigel's "congregationalist ultramontanism" looks optimistic.) We are practically marinating in a culture of dissent and indifference that is incompatible with proper respect for clerics.As we should not put clergy on a pedestal, nor should we bury them. I have never seen high-handed clerical behavior, but I do see a pervasive devaluing of the special role of clerics, and that strikes me as no less dangerous.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16828626285395161596 Elsasser SC

    Check this passage from Conversations with God (St Josemaria in the 1960s)http://www.escrivaworks.org/book/conversations-point-12.htmAll those who exercise the priestly ministry in the Church should always be careful to respect the autonomy which a Catholic layman needs, so that he will not find himself in a position of inferiority in relation to his fellow laymen, and can carry out efficiently his own apostolic task in the middle of the world. It seems to me that many fail to understand that the freedom of the children of God is compatible with strict obedience to the Church's precepts and teachings.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01306017321460701751 Paul

    A great piece, predominantly because it plays to my prejudices :) But seriously, the more worrying sort of Clericalism is the non-traditional sort. The dissenter who tries to show he's hip and with it: breaking the rules, 'charismatic', 'kind to everyone', etc..He's a sort of James Dean character that the laity swoon over. Yet, boy is he in control – because the laity don't see it happening. He's merely feeding their narcissism, and so nobody complains.But, more importantly, they think he's helping them 'grow in the Lord', because they 'feel more spiritual' and are 'at one'. They feel they're 'being fed', when it's merely 'happy meals' and ice cream…

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15571554907399914529 Joseph D’Hippolito

    Fr. Longnecker, this sounds like the all-too-familiar prescription of "blaming the laity" when something is wrong with the clergy or the ecclesiastical system. Of course, the laity play a role in this mess but the fact is that "clericalism" starts with the prelates and clergy. Both form a self-contained, self-benighted organization that demands excessive deference from those below, views itself as permanently entitled, encourages ambition and arrogance among their own members and eschews accountability from either above or below. That organizational style reflects the European tendency toward centralized, bureaucratic governance from the days of the Roman Empire to the days of the secular totalitarians to these days of the European Union.None of these traits reflects the demands that Jesus gave his disciples in John 13 to reject power and prestige, and to consider self-abnegating service as the ultimate expression of holding authority in His name.This has nothing to do with "apostolic succession." This has everything to do with the all-too-human tendency to acquire power at any cost. Unless, the Church confronts this tendency and engages in radical structural reform, it not only will be doomed on this planet but also condemned by a holy, righteous God that it has blasphemed for centuries.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01306017321460701751 Paul

    @Joseph D'HippolitoIsn't the aggression in the tone of your post an attempt to assert yourself and your own ideas as superior?Doesn't it make your post sound rather hypocritical?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01306017321460701751 Paul

    Thinking on it, and to make it quite clear, I can't see much "self-abnegating service" – the virtue to which you point as being quintessential – in your post.Or are you just being 'cruel to be kind'? (Which I'm sure many of the people you target in your piece would claim as their motive, too.)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01306017321460701751 Paul

    By the way – but totally off topic – when's your revised 'More Christianity' due for release please, Fr D?I'm looking forward to getting it!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15571554907399914529 Joseph D’Hippolito

    Paul, if you're interested in "tone," I suggest you read Ezekiel 34 and Matthew 23, then check back with me.Why don't you address the issues I raise instead of hiding behind concerns about "tone"?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01306017321460701751 Paul

    So Joseph,Do you arrogate to yourself the role of a great prophet or Christ himself?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01306017321460701751 Paul

    Oh, and what issues?I read the unsubstantiated rant of a troll.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07689710636549223681 Tom

    Interesting but is this really the problem today?There are so few priests with personalities that would cause this problem in the laity that people like Shea easily fill a void in their lives often with only confidence as a substitute for qualifications and authority.Nature abhors a vacuum and so hot air is a least better than nothing.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15571554907399914529 Joseph D’Hippolito

    Paul, as far as being a "prophet" is concerned, all of God's people are called upon to be "prophets" when they see evil — especially evil under the cover of church authority.I guess you wouldn't be too thrilled with the likes of Catherine of Siena, Francis of Assisi or Desiderius Erasmus, faithful Catholics all, who fought against clerical evil in their midst.Besides, if you're not willing to address the issues I mention, then you are a coward.Tom, it's interesting that you mention Shea and the phrase, "hot air is better than nothing." Shea aggregates more authority to himself than is warranted, as his response to people who disagree with him demonstrates. But regardless of the views of Shea, Akin, Keating, et al, the fact that they "fill a void" means that a legitimate void exists, and the people primarily responsible for filling it aren't doing their jobs!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07689710636549223681 Tom

    As we born and bred clericalists say at our favourite game.. BINGO!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07689710636549223681 Tom

    "the fact that they "fill a void" means that a legitimate void exists, and the people primarily responsible for filling it aren't doing their jobs! "As we born and bred clericalists say at our favourite game.. BINGO!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09251087160722264433 Taming Author Greg

    So beautifully expressed. I have seen this phenomenon and yet did not have the words to capture exactly what was taking place. You have done so in a very helpful way. Thanks.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07689710636549223681 Tom

    Something to keep in mind when the clericalism charge gets tossed aroundhttp://www.latinmassmagazine.com/articles/articles_emasculation.html


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