Home Essays Articles by Michael Whelan SM, PhD Sexual Abuse and the Catholic System – Clericalism

Sexual Abuse and the Catholic System – Clericalism

“To the pastors alone has been given the full power of teaching, judging, directing; on the faithful has been imposed the duty of following these teachings, of submitting with docility to these judgments.” (Cited in The Catholic Weekly, September 19, 1993, quoting The Freeman’s Journal, September 12, 1885.)

I use the term clericalism here with particular reference to the Catholic Church as a human system. Clericalism is not to be identified simply with being a cleric. Some clerics succumb to it, others do not. Indeed, some who are not clerics succumb to it. The latter, however are more supporters than practitioners and are not our particular concern in this brief reflection.

Clericalism is born of two forces: desire for power and desire for privilege. In a word, clericalism is an attitude, supported by a way of thinking, that seeks and expects both power and privilege to be given simply because one is a cleric. The Tablet editorial summed it up recently in reference to the comments of Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, a member of the official Vatican visitation team sent to Ireland:

(Archbishop Dolan) said in a lecture at Maynooth this week that to regard the priesthood as a route to power, authority, privilege and entitlement was to be guilty of clericalism, ‘and it is a vice, a sin.'”
(The Tablet, June 5, 2010, 2.)

The most
obvious and immediate manifestations of clericalism are generally found in the
desire for privilege. The most
destructive and insidious manifestations of clericalism are generally found in
the desire for power.

Within the
Catholic Church, there are structures that support and protect and in certain
circumstances can even nurture, clericalism.
However, I am inclined to think that the real issue to be dealt with
here is not so much the structures – though something must be done there – but
the attitudes and ways of thinking.
Clericalism would be easily dealt with if it was only or even primarily
a matter of structure.

In fact,
clericalism is an expression of a very deep and primitive urge in us all. Power and privilege seem to be attractive to
most people in most circumstances most of the time. It takes a particular maturity and moral
sensibility to live and work within any group without being in some way touched
by the lure of privilege and power.

It ought not
surprise us therefore if we find this occurring in the Catholic Church. That said, when the lure of privilege and
power assume too much of the energy of Christian ministry, it is particularly
sad and particularly dangerous. Anything
in the system that fosters this or simply permits this, has got to be seriously
examined. This sense of entitlement to
power and privilege is so patently at odds with the life and teaching of
Jesus. Recall for example Jesus’
instructions on renunciation (Matthew 10:37-39) and leadership with service
(Mark 9:33-37).

Further, and
perhaps more immediately worrying, is that this sense of entitlement to power
and privilege – especially when it is implicitly or explicitly affirmed by the
system – can be very attractive to inadequate personalities and/or those who
are seeking refuge from the serious demands of being an adult in the world
and/or those who are bent on “being someone important” in eyes of society.

A human
system that is significantly influenced in its organizational processes by the
seductive forces of power and privilege – especially in the name of God – can
become immune to the truth. That is,
until tragedy overtakes it.

There is a
great irony here. So much depends on the
priest in the Catholic system. When you
have a priest of integrity, faith, generosity, competence and the willingness
and ability to get along well enough with people, the structures are such
within the Catholic Church that you tend to have a very good community as a
result. This must be acknowledged in
passing lest it seem that I am suggesting that, just because someone serves
within the Catholic Church as a cleric, he must be caught up in
clericalism. That is simply not true.

is suggested by the statement of Pope Leo XIII (1878-1903) used as the epigraph
to this reflection. Below are some
further statements from the modern era that suggest that an atmosphere
prevailed within the Catholic Church system coming into the middle of the 20th
century that did foster clericalism.

Pope Leo
XIII more than once made it very clear that the clergy were a privileged group
in the Church:

It is beyond
dispute and quite unambiguously clear , that two ranks exist in the Church that
are quite different in nature: the pastor and the flock. In other words, the leader and the
people. The first of these two ranks has
the rank of teaching, governing and directing people in life, and establishing
the necessary rules. The other has the
duty of submitting itself to the former, obeying him, carrying out his orders
and paying him honour. (Cited by Bishop
Geoffrey Robinson in a presentation given at the inaugural Catalyst Dinner,
Hunters Hill, April 1996.)

I believe
that this – and the following statements – does more than simply assign roles
and the appropriate authority to go with the roles. It is a statement that suggests power and
privilege belong to the clerics in contrast to the laity.

One of the
very helpful steps the Second Vatican Council took was to recognize that
baptism is the primary reality for us all.
Whereas Canon Law and official Catholic Church documents spoke often of
“subjects” when speaking of the laity, we are now more likely to speak of “the
baptized,” meaning all the people of God.
In drawing our attention to the primacy of baptism, the Council set a
solid ground for the Catholic Church to begin addressing the insidious problem
of clericalism as it had never been able to do since the 5th century
when clericalism began to be a serious issue.
Jean Leclercq cites Yves Congar:

The change
which affected the priesthood at that time (ie in the 5th century)
was itself a consequence of an even deeper change: one which affected
ecclesiology as a whole. Mentalities passed
from a conception of the ‘Church, community of Christians’ to one which
accepted the distance between the lay people and the Church of the
clerics’. (Jean Leclercq, “The
Priesthood in the Patristic and Medieval Church,” The Christian Priesthood, edited by Nicholas Lash and Joseph
Rhymer, Dimesnion Books, 1970, 75.)

The pope who
immediately followed Pope Leo XIII, Pope St Pius X (1903-1914), spoke in a
similar way to his predecessor:

In the
hierarchy alone reside the power and the authority necessary to move and direct
all the members of the society to its end.
As for the many, they have no other right than to let themselves be
guided and so follow their pastor as an obedient flock. (Cited by Bishop Geoffrey Robinson, op cit.)

The 1913
publication of the Catholic Encyclopaedia,
under its entry for Laity
follows this same line of thinking:

The word
laity is opposed to clergy. The laity
and clergy, or clerics, belong to the same society, but do not occupy the same
rank. The laity are the members of this
society who remain where they were placed by baptism, while the clergy, even if
only tonsured, have been raised by ordination to a higher class, and placed in
the sacred hierarchy. The Church is a
perfect society, though all therein are not equal; it is composed of two kinds
of members (see canon “Duo sunt”, vii, Caus. 12, Q. i, of uncertain
origin): in the first place, those who are the depositaries of sacred or
spiritual authority under its triple aspect, government, teaching, and worship,
i.e. the clergy, the sacred hierarchy established by Divine law (Conc. Trid.,
Sess. XXIII, can. vi); in the second place, those over whom this power is
exercised, who are governed, taught, and sanctified, the Christian people, the
laity; though for that matter clerics also, considered as individuals, are
governed, taught, and sanctified. But
the laity are not the depositaries of spiritual power; they are the flock confided
to the care of the shepherds, the disciples who are instructed in the Word of
God, the subjects who are guided by the successors of the Apostles towards
their last end, which is eternal life.
Such is the constitution which Our Savior has given to His Church. (The 1913 Catholic
Encyclopaedia. Available online.)

The setting
up of the Second Vatican Council is instructive. Before the first session in 1962, about 2,850
invitations were sent out to all those who, according to Canon Law, had the
right to participate fully. These were all
men and, as far as I am aware, all clerics.
Superiors General of Congregations of men who were not clerics were
invited but they were observers, not participants.

For a
gathering that purported to speak as and for the Catholic Church, it was a
little incongruous that about 99.9% of the Catholic Church membership – that
is, the laity – were not given a voice.
In the Second Session (1963) “some distinguished laymen” were admitted
as observers.

After the
“distinguished laymen” came to that Second Session, Bishop John Wright from
Pittsburgh remarked that laity can no longer be regarded as “foot soldiers for
the clergy.” (Carmel McEnroy, Guests In Their Own House: The Women of
Vatican II, A Crossroad Book, 1996, 34.
This book is highly recommended.).

It was not
until the Third Session (1964) that women were admitted as observers. This was not achieved without a good deal of
tense debate and backroom lobbying – for and against – from within the Council
itself, especially by Léon-Josef Cardinal Suenens, Archbishop of Malines,

One of the
Protestant observers at the First Session in October 1962, Douglas Horton,
noted in his diary that the whole meeting of some 3,000 people in St Peter’s
had “an air of artificiality” about it, “and the main reason for this is that
there is not a single woman in the whole company.” (Cited by Carmel McEnroy, 13-14.) That “air of artificiality” should have been
more troubling to more Catholics than it obviously was at the time.

within the Catholic Church has been very destructive. It has led to a more or less closed system
within the system and controlling the system.
That inner more or less closed system has been subject to little
effective accountability. This, I
believe, is probably the most destructive manifestation of clericalism – power
and privilege when they gain a foothold can be both clever and tenacious in
defending their position. In the
Catholic Church the defence is typically carried out under the heading of
“tradition,” with the implicit warning that any departure from this way is a
departure from the person and teaching of Jesus himself.

Because of
clericalism, secrecy has too often become systematized, often in misguided
efforts to protect the good name of the Church.
Of course there is reason for secrecy at times. There is also reason for seeking to protect
the good name of the Church. But there
is no good reason for these steps when the primary motivation is to hide
something that should not be hidden, to avoid facing something that must be

The Catholic
Church, so heavily influenced by clericalism, too often presented itself –
implicitly or explicitly – as knowing the answers to all life’s serious
questions. It could have appeared to
outsiders – even some insiders – as an organization unwilling to engage men and
women of good will in a joint pursuit of truth because it already held the
truth. There have been times when it has
seemed poised on the precipice of merely being little more than an artificial
fabrication arising, not so much from a vigorous and honest conversation with
the Gospel and the world, but from political manoeuvring and an unquestioned
and unquestioning expectation of power and privilege.

whose competence and/or maturity and/or intentions and/or motivation were
questionable, were sometimes drawn to the clerical life because it promised
power and privilege. These individuals
then too often gained undue and unhelpful influence in the community. A particularly ugly example of this has been
exposed in the Catholic Church in Ireland.

Finally, I
suggest the strong resistance by some within the Catholic Church today to
conversation/dialogue – as promoted by Pope Paul VI in his encyclical Ecclesiam Suam and the Second Vatican
Council – and to the practical application of the principles of subsidiarity
and collegiality, point to clericalism.
More concretely, the seeming inability of the Vatican to make the Synod
of Bishops, instituted by Pope Paul VI, function as an effective part of
ongoing governance of the Church, the unwillingness of Rome to re-think the law
of celibacy for priests, the terrible ambiguity with regard to women in the
Church, the secrecy and constraints with which new bishops are appointed and
the clumsy handling of the media recently by the Vatican, all suggest that
clericalism is still a very serious issue for the Catholic Church today.