ANNE O’BRIEN. Clericalism is alive and well in the Catholic Church

Sep 12, 2017

The Royal Commission has provided few grounds for optimism concerning the future of the Catholic Church in Australia. The institution is moribund and its leaders are unable or unwilling to face reality.

Despite the history of criminal negligence dating back decades, Church leaders have absolved themselves from responsibility for the shocking manner in which victims have been treated. Bishops, clergy and religious have shown inadequate and insufficient compunction concerning such criminal behaviour: they owed allegiance solely to the Vatican and to no one else, neither their own Catholic community nor civil society.

During Case 50, Ms Gail Furness, Counsel Assisting, and other members of the Commission grilled five Metropolitans Archbishops. Almost unwittingly these archbishops admitted that the sexual abuse scandal was both a catastrophic failure of leadership, and represented criminal negligence of the duty of care for innocent children.

Both Ms Furness and Justice Peter McClellan stressed that all the apologies, publication of practices, policies and guidelines would not be sufficient to eradicate child sexual abuse by clergy. The Archbishops had to address the leadership failure, understand why it had happened, and implement changes.

Archbishop Costelloe of Perth perceived the Church as being special, unique, a law unto itself, immune from criticism and scrutiny. Brisbane Archbishop Coleridge argued that Church structures are fixed in stone and the Australian Bishops are not able to change governance structures. However, Christ neither willed nor established any structures.

Archbishop Fisher of Sydney conceded that their self-absorption was designed to protect themselves, to prevent scandal, avoid people thinking less of the clergy, the bishops, the religious, or the institution. Nowhere during Case 50 was there any mention of Jesus’ teaching on causing innocent children to be scandalised: It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble.

Francis Sullivan, CEO of the Truth, Justice and Healing Council, has stated that child sexual abuse has broken the heart of the Church. Not only was there ‘brand damage’ but also a high level of distrust in the bishops: 50 percent of those who attend church weekly consider them ‘untrustworthy’, as do 70 percent of those who identify themselves as Catholics.

This breakdown in relationship between the Catholic people and their bishops is now almost irreparable. The Church has lost its roots. It no longer subscribes to St Paul’s teaching that the Christian community is a society of equals where leadership is elected by the community’s assent free from patriarchal notions of social determinism or patronage. Clericalism has eroded this original vision of Church so that it has more in common with pre-Christian tribalism than with Christ.


The ‘evil’ of Clericalism

Clericalism is a deviant culture of social elitism, entitlement and privilege which developed out of a particular theological understanding whereby, at ordination, a man’s very being is elevated to a level of existence superior to that of other human beings. The grades of hierarchical rank, status and power are integral to this distorted culture. Although many priests would probably reject these notions now, Clericalism, nonetheless, has had an extremely negative impact on Catholic life for centuries.

Clericalism has led to appalling misuses of power: lack of accountability, no shared responsibility, and no transparency at every level of Church life.

This ‘evil’ as Pope Francis has described it, is a key characteristic of the clerical caste whose teaching has often shaped the thinking of many lay adherents. Fr. Richard Rohr comments:

Once we saw the clerical state as a place of advancement …once ordination was not a form of initiation but a continuation of patriarchal patterns, the authentic preaching of the Gospel became the exception rather than the norm… like a secret social contract between clergy and laity…We agree not to tell you anything that would make you uncomfortable, and you will keep coming to our services  (‘Jesus’ Invitation: Follow Me,’ Center for Action and Contemplation, October 16, 2016).

An over-inflated understanding of priesthood along with a narrow, restricted theology of ministry has resulted in a sacramental famine in this country and abroad. Occasional stories about clerical misuse of church funds and an over indulgent lifestyle have caused scandal. The culture of misogyny, which lies at the heart of Clericalism, is a causal factor in denying diaconal and priestly ordination to women, and in shutting them out the highest levels of governance in the Church.

The lack of dynamic leadership exists from the highest level to many of the parish clergy. Most priests are aging and many are demoralized. Parishes are being closed or amalgamated, and people are denied the sacramental and pastoral care necessary for a healthy Church. It will take several generations for the Church to regenerate even with the most enlightened solutions. There is no guarantee that this will eventuate.

The Church exists primarily in parishes. Catholics have left the Church in droves: approximately only ten percent are regular Mass-goers and this number is expected to decrease.

Sr Joan Chittister makes clear that ‘Religion is not for its own sake. It is not for the sake of organization or hierarchy, social order or social status. The purpose of religion is to lead us beyond even itself to union with God…’

Many Catholics have been indoctrinated into a rule book mentality about the Church and not been led to the person of Christ and his Gospel. The leaders of the Church interviewed at the Royal Commission gave no indication that their duty was to assist us to ever-deepening union with the God of Jesus in our daily lives.

The Church teaches that Sacraments lead us to union with the God of Jesus. But very few Catholics would support this tenet. To the contrary, clerics have often used the Sacraments to impose its laws on its members, thereby alienating us further. You don’t believe me?

Examine the requirements demanded for reception of baptism; for attendance at Mass and communion; for the celebration of funerals. Catholics are bypassing the Church and choosing civil celebrants for the celebration of their marriages, funerals and naming ceremonies.

What happens when parents want to enrol their child in a Catholic school? Think of the torments that have often encumbered a ‘mixed marriage’? Have our Sacraments really led us to experience the presence of Jesus and God in our lives? Have they sometimes been burdensome?


Alienation and powerlessness of the laity

No wonder many Catholics feel alienated from the Catholic Church. They have lost their sense of belonging to a life-giving community. Sometimes this situation has been exacerbated due to the appointment of a parish clergy. While open to priests of other cultures, parishioners can experience real problems arising from the language and culture of clerical appointees. Difficulties can arise in the areas of finance and consultation with parishioners who are often deprived of an effective voice in the running of their local communities, and who have little or no recourse to mediation in many cases. Inexperienced clergy sometimes assume a competence that they do not possess. Where there is an absence of competence and communication between the priest and school staff, much harm can be done. Complaints to headquarters seldom give cause for hope. Secrecy is the order of the day!

The question of seminarians, seminary training and post-ordination registration and supervision was very relevant to the Royal Commissioners. Readiness for a life of celibacy was debated. The Archbishops gave no evidence of any overall supervision of clergy.

No one appears to want to address real issues and possible solutions. Clericalism is the elephant in the room. By and large, members of the clerical caste have given us no grounds for confidence in their leadership – at any level.

Paul G. Power offers characteristics of leaders:

Truly effective leaders create a vision to which others can commit, empower the members of the organization to work responsibly towards attainment of that vision, hold them accountable for the outcome and acknowledge their efforts through considered recognition, praise and reward (InPsych, 39, 4, August 2017).

Using Power’s insights, whom could you nominate to lead the Church at the diocesan, archdiocesan and parish level?

 Francis Sullivan warns that if engaged and informed Catholics don’t continue to push for change then the reactionaries will overcome and nothing will change. He stressed that this is a very dangerous time for the Catholic Church in Australia: our Church as a religion could become a marginalized rump, stripped of credibility and relevance.

Sullivan continues: ‘We need a stringent policy of putting the right people, with the right skills, in the right places all the time…we cannot afford the blunders of incompetent administration, advisors and minders…[nor] the fumbled attempts to use spin and PR to protect and cotton wool Church leaders from facing the consequences of their actions, or in many cases, inactions.’

Episcopal conferences must take up the offer of Pope Francis to explore the idea of ordaining ‘viri probati,’ mature, educated laymen to the priesthood. Women must be appointed to senior positions within the governance of the Catholic Church in Australia. We need bold and visionary leaders to take up the invitation of the Royal Commission to examine closely and critically the issues related to obligatory celibacy in the priesthood and the ‘rationale’ of seminary formation. With the ordination of viri probati, current seminary issues would virtually evaporate.

 If the requirements of celibacy and male sexual identity were removed, we would have little difficulty in firing up our parishes. The laity, on the whole, are ready and waiting for new options.


Anne O’Brien is a former Sister of St Joseph where she taught at both primary and secondary levels. Since then she has worked in The Catholic Education Office of Victoria, and in two Melbourne parishes. She is a registered psychologist and civil celebrant.

This article is a modified form of Governance and Culture: the Catholic Church in Australia’ published in The Swag, February 25 2017.

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