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.