ANDREW HAMILTON. Clerical culture produces poor fruit.

In a recent ‘Eureka Street’ article, I remarked that in the Catholic Church clericalism is a pejorative term. I tried also to identify some of the attitudes and behaviour associated with people regarded as clericalist. The article sparked a lively conversation.

Some contributors criticised me for focusing on individuals and not on the more insidious culture of clericalism. The criticism was justified, and in this article I shall reflect on the culture and its byproducts.

As a culture clericalism displays a world view in which the Catholic Church is a self-sufficient world. Its security, reputation and internal relationships are the centre of attention. Within the Church relationships are hierarchical, and the difference between grades is in practice seen as more important than what Catholics have in common.

The relationships are also often authoritarian: bishops and priests are fearful of Rome, formal in their relationships with one another, and priests are prescriptive in their relationship to the laity. Clergy feel no need to consult the laity in matters of liturgy, finances and policy. The boundaries between the Church and the world outside are strongly marked, as are the boundaries between faithful and unfaithful Catholics. In all these respects clericalism is a culture of control that privileges secrecy.

Like any culture, clericalism finds expression in a network of relationships. They are relationships of people with the material world: through distinctive everyday and liturgical dress, for example, distinctive church arrangements, and distinctive liturgical artefacts.

They are also relationships between people: both those between individuals and especially those mediated through institutions. The latter include forms of address, of remuneration, of formation of children and adults, of the disposition of space, of processes of involving people in decision making and governance, of customs, of imagining the history of parish, diocesan and national church.

The institutional relationships are particularly important because they are often simply taken for granted as necessary and inevitable. They shape what participants see and how they see it. They also create patterns of expectation of how clergy and laity will speak and behave to each, will express or conceal disagreement, respond to injustice, accept direction and view the outside world.

“An authoritarian and controlling network of relationships of this kind generates fear, timidity and a disengagement that can be rationalised as virtue.”

In an undiluted clerical culture (which of course does not exist) all bishops will automatically follow Roman instructions and all priests will be formed to obey their bishops unthinkingly. They will also be a reliable channel for communicating to the laity instructions by the Pope and Roman officials about liturgy, dress and ethical issues. Priests and bishops will find advancement by being reliable and unquestioning and by resolutely defending the Church and its interests.

The laity will be formed to obey their authoritative parish priests and to be silent about concerns they may have with their behaviour. If they confront the clergy they will be seen as unreliable; if they leave the church their dereliction will be seen to have justified the clerical culture.

An authoritarian and controlling network of relationships of this kind generates fear, timidity and a disengagement that can be rationalised as virtue. For bishops, priests and laity to act in ways that conflict with the norms of their culture will require courage and perseverance.

In practice many Catholics, both clergy and laity, have not accepted these expectations. They question, they confront, they represent, they talk together, they disagree. Any network of relationships is mercifully full of holes and of disconnections. Even a strong clerical culture does not control everybody’s behaviour.

For that reason it is difficult to assess the precise part played by clericalism in criminal behaviour, including clerical sexual abuse, and its cover up in the Catholic Church. Many elements of complex relationships are involved. I am not persuaded that there is a strong causal correlation between the culture and offending. Some serial abusers seem to have been poster boys for this culture. Others seem to have strongly rejected it.

A stronger case can be made that clericalism enables such crimes as sexual abuse and theft to be covered up and for criminal actions to be repeated. Deference and timidity in the face of authority make it more likely that lay people will turn a blind eye to signs of criminal behaviour by priests or people employed by the church. The desire to protect the reputation of the church also makes it more likely that a bishop will place the reputation of the church above the welfare of people affected by crime, and so allow offenders to move from one parish to another where they can reoffend.

Regardless of whether clericalism can be proved to be causally linked to clerical crime, however, such a culture certainly shapes a network of stunted relationships that are deficient whether judged by human or Christian values. It will inevitably produce poor fruit.

This article was first published in Eureka Street. 

Andrew Hamilton is cosulting editor of Eureka Street.


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7 Responses to ANDREW HAMILTON. Clerical culture produces poor fruit.

  1. Jane Walton says:

    Thanks Fr Andrew for your article. What interests me is the response of the laity, not only to clerical sexual abuse and its cover up, but more particularly how I can proceed as an effective ongoing agent for change within this culture. I found this statement helpful and grounding: “Unquestioning loyalty to the institution, to the hierarchy and to the Pope should no longer be espoused as a fine Catholic attribute” Frank Brennan SJ Chief Executive Officer, Catholic Social Services. 2018

  2. Peter (PJ) Johnstone says:

    A pertinent 1963 quote from Yves Congar, one of the most important Catholic theologians of the 20th century and who recognised that clericalism is contrary to the essence of Christianity:
    “We (the clergy) are still a long way from reaping the consequences of the rediscovery, which we have all made in principle, of the fact that the whole Church is a single people of God and that she is made up of the faithful as well as the clergy. We have an idea we feel implicity and, without admitting it, unconsciously that the Church is the clergy and that the faithful are only our clients and beneficiaries. This terrible concept has been built into so many of our structures and habits that it seems to be taken for granted and beyond change. It is a betrayal of the truth. A great deal still remains to be done to declericalize our conceptions of the Church (without jeopardizing her hierarchical structures), and to put the clergy back where they belong, in the place of member-servants.” (Power and Poverty in the Church. The Renewal and Understanding of Service (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2016 (1963), p.139)

  3. John Challis says:

    In Nov. 1940 the new archbishop of Sydney, Norman Thomas(later cardinal)Gilroy addressed an audience of 4000 loyal Catholics at a civic reception in Sydney Town Hall as follows:
    ” A bishop works principally through his priests.They are the captains of the army of which he is the general.The bishop rules the diocese, the priest rules the parish.You live in a parish, you are subjects of your parish priest.Be exact, scrupulously exact, in fulfilling your obligations as parishioners” ( quoted by John Luttrell in his new biography : “Gilroy: An Obedient Life”

    Herein lies the source of clericalism – a pre-Vatican II military model of the church.
    Regrettably it still seems to be the mindset of many bishops and priests, and even laity!

  4. Michael D. Breen says:

    “I am not persuaded that there is a strong causal correlation between the culture and offending.” Maybe you are not persuaded, Andrew; but if abuse is an abuse of power there is the connection. Tibetan Buddhists recently has a problem with their leader to whom they had given too much power. And then there is Bill Clinton, or Weinstein… What your article does not describe is the climate, the assumptions of the culture breathed in with every breath in a dependent culture. Dependent cultures are always dysfunctional. Group Dynamics 101. People give away their power to get something, look at how they bow to doctors, or bank managers. Much of your article is about sexual abuse which is a good example but not the nub of the matter and I apologize if that sounds callous. Many who could have helped with church reform have left. They are still able to pray, benefit from the New Testament and behave decently. But as Rosmini asked in the 19th century how can those raised in such a culture see it for what it is or reform it? Lay Catholics seem inordinately unwilling to take back power. Superstition? But no one is going to give it to them. Perhaps more basic progress would be made by asking did Christ want a church? What kind of structure would genuinely support Christians to practice what they believe? And what is the difference between a cult and a healthy group? Much of what is said about clericalism seems just like the failures of cults. And how is Faith superior to superstition?

  5. Joan Murphy says:

    While I appreciate your much-needed erudite dissection of clericalism, whether by cleric, religious or lay person, I feel that it is but a subset of the all persuasive Male Privilege and Entitlement. Clericalism sits alongside white male privilege, black male privilege and others and until this primordial elephant in the room is recognised for what it is, clericalism and the rest won’t be eliminated.

  6. Gregan McMahon says:

    “Priests will be formed to obey”….”The laity will be formed to obey”: one of the essential features of a clerical culture is its use of a private language, often using ordinary words in such a way as to be difficult for outsiders to understand. I fear you have fallen into a trap here. The language of the clergy used to be called seminarese and it needed to be learnt in the same way as legalese was if you were to keep up. Plain English is an equaliser.

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