PETER DAY. ‘The smell of the sheep’ (Pope Francis)

Feb 20, 2017

It should be noted that the intention of this reflection is not to play ‘the man’ (bishops, clerics), but rather ‘the ball’ (church governance, culture): to shine a light on a deeper and systemic illness that needs root and branch reform. Without such reform we will continue to produce fertile ground for the abuse of power, of which sexual abuse is a catastrophic symptom. 

The catastrophe that is sexual abuse in the Catholic Church and the cultural factors that have contributed to it are seriously complex, and unravelling the mess will take a generation… or two, or three!

One readily identifiable and accepted contributor to this disaster is clericalism. In essence, the abusive wielding of power by clergy – lording it over others, rather than serving them.

As Lord Acton said insightfully over a century ago, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

And while many of our bishops seem genuinely keen to eradicate this dysfunctional power imbalance; is it not the case that the very culture in which they find themselves is at the heart of the problem? For instance, the process of selecting bishops is, itself, clericalism writ large: a series of generally secret actions bereft of transparency and overseen by a select few ordained males. It is emblematic of the Catholic hierarchical project; one that, for the most part, totally ignores and sidelines the people of God, thus, trashing the Vatican 11 notion of “the priesthood of the baptised”.

Our Bishops, if reluctantly so for some, are afforded much power within the church. And while many are sensible and prudent in wielding said power, that’s more down to the particular personality of the man, rather than the existence of imbedded governance and oversight structures that demand accountability and rein-in the potential for autocratic rule.

This patriarchal backdrop also ensures the continued and abject marginalisation of half the Catholic population: women, who have no say at all in the governance of the universal church beyond the odd managerial position which, again, comes down to the particular disposition of the bishop in charge. Bearing in mind, these managers are employees of the bishops and, regardless of the significance, or nature of their role; they can never be equal partners in the governance of dioceses. Ultimately, power always rests with the ordained man – and it’s the same in parishes. Thus, approximately 500 million Catholics ‘don’t get to vote’.

Imagine if there were a law excluding women from being members of the government’s Cabinet; excluding them from shaping our nation as equal partners – indeed, untenable.

It might reasonably be said, then, that like some of our decent, well-intentioned politicians, our equally decent and well-intentioned bishops have been marinating for too long in a culture of privilege and comfort and power – the three main ingredients of clericalism.

It’s as if our Shepherds have been agisted in different, verdant paddocks; ones impervious to drought; thus, they have lost the sense of the smell of the sheep – and don’t the sheep know it.

What is it, for instance, about the public utterances of some of our leaders that leave people saying, “They just don’t get it?”

Why this gulf between pastors and the people they are called to serve?

Perhaps we need to turn to a couple of other “Whys?” to help explain the divide.

Why these honorifics for men who seek to follow Christ, the one who emptied himself and became a slave:  Excellency; Your Grace; My Lord; The Most Reverend; The Very Reverend?

Why these symbols of power for those who are called to follow the One who so utterly rejected power:  Large pectoral crosses; triumphal vestments; tall Mitres, and ‘gold-plated’ Croziers? 

Is there not a lesson in Pope Francis’s refusal to take on so many of the trappings and entitlements afforded those in power: be it his accommodation, the car he drives, or the simple vestments he wears? 

Indeed, clericalism is a sickness that Pope Francis has been tackling head-on since his inauguration in March 2013. And he got onto the front foot early, excoriating his Curia during a Christmas address in 2014, listing a number of ailments that he said were undermining their calling to be, first and foremost, men of God.

One ailment he highlighted was what he called, existential schizophrenia: ‘It’s the sickness of those who live a double life; one of hypocrisy that is typical of mediocre and progressive spiritual emptiness that academic degrees cannot fill. It’s a sickness that often affects those who, abandoning pastoral service, limit themselves to bureaucratic work, losing contact with reality and concrete people.’

For Pope Francis, central to breaking down this clericalism – this corporatisation of the institution – is a radical dream: a church which is bruised hurting and dirty from going to the streets – going to the margins.

I want a Church which is poor and for the poor. They have much to teach us… We need to let ourselves be evangelized by them.” (Evangelii Gaudium, no. 198)

To put it bluntly, perhaps our leaders need to spend less time in airport lounges and offices, and more time on the ground – in ‘soup kitchens’: a new marinade flavoured by the smell of the sheep, especially the poorest and most vulnerable of them.

By allowing the smell of the sheep to lead them, our shepherds would be better equipped to avoid the culture-trap that spawns princes and corporate-types. 

It feels like a terribly sad thing to say, but the evidence is out: the Church, which we dearly love, is sick to its institutional core. It has a nasty, though very treatable cancer that is being fed by a pervasive clericalism. And, unless we treat it aggressively and decisively, the cancer will metastasise – and we will continue to be a church that re-crucifies Christ over and over: just ask the children and their families who’ve been scourged and nailed to crosses by religious brutes and cowards.

So, where to from here; how to reclaim the servant leadership of Christ?

Well, we know from pastoral experience, especially in the area of addictions, that it is only when we reach rock bottom – that place of powerlessness, despair and humiliation – that true and lasting change is possible. In acknowledging its inner demons and shame, the church, like the addict, is ripe for conversion. The drug of choice in this case is power and, like most other insidious ‘substances’, it has a deep and enduring hold on the addict.

So, how to detox? How to rehabilitate?

We might do well to turn to the wisdom of the first Four Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous:

  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
  4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves. 

This journey to conversion must also be underpinned by a commitment to embrace fully the following disposition:

After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you?  You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am.  So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.  For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. (John 13: 13-15) 

In other words, the ordained hierarchy of the Catholic Church needs to divest itself of power – that insidious drug that has taken it to the precipice – and share it more substantially with the body of the Church in governance, strategic decision making, financial supervisions, selection of office holders. The simple fact is that the Catholic Church is trapped in an administrative prison that may have been developed long ago to correct abuses of former ages. But today, it is inflicting its own abuse on the capacity of the church to do its job – preach the Gospel in word and deed.

This divesting will entail, among other things, the Church humbly submitting to the wisdom of the secular world which has much to teach it about sound governance – i.e. the benefits of Incorporation, Board structures that hold CEOs to account and rein-in power, the importance of gender balance for institutions, etc.

Indeed, new and sound governance is where the rubber hits the road and where the Church’s detoxification begins. It is a telling comment on how the Church is run from Rome that, in Italian, there is no word for accountability!

To change this, here are a few of suggestions – by no means all new – that may well require some Canon Law tinkering. But that’s okay, because such tinkering will help counter those who resolutely ‘cling to human traditions and not God’s’:

  • That the watchwords of sound governance – transparency and accountability – be institutionalised in the conduct of the Church’s clerical governance in everything from the selection of bishops and diocesan office holders to parish priests;
  • That the Pope pursues a policy of filling the ranks of his civil service – the Curia – with women, including their employment as heads of Dicasteries or the bureaucracies that manage the Vatican’s activities;
  • That bishops include women as diocesan Consultors, or establish new structures that allow women to share governance of the diocese beyond managerial roles;
  • That the selection of bishops include serious input from the laity in the way that corporations, universities, judicial benches and other organizations do – advertising positions and the desired qualities of candidates selected by a known group of assessors whose own capacities are also declared;
  • That parishioners be part of the process in appointing parish priests which is not hard to do: identify the critical needs of a community; nominate the characteristics required of its leader; specify what capacities are needed in the pastor; review and assess the applicants. In other words, treat pastoral appointments the way any position is advertised, specified, assessed and made in just about every industry today;
  • That there be mandated yearly reviews of priestly and episcopal performance conducted by an appropriately qualified and properly representative bodies; this may also feed into a lay led diocesan body – i.e. a human resources team that has oversight powers, along with the bishop, concerning priestly accountability and health (physical and pastoral);
  • That celibacy become optional – in fact, already there are married Catholic priests in Australia: those men who, for differing reasons, have resigned from their ministry within the Anglican Communion. Beyond the stunting effect it has on the emotional growth of some priests, it needlessly diminishes the pool the Church has to draw on for its priests. There continues to be quite a bit of institutional denial around this topic. Like marriage, celibacy, is fraught: very few do it well always, many battle on in good faith, but fall down every now and then, while a tiny minority do it very badly always. Celibacy, like marriage, is not for everyone.

But celibacy has wider significance. It is a bulwark of the clericalism that the Pope rightly identifies as a cancer killing the Church. While it is generally accepted that celibacy is not a causal factor in sexual abuse, it may well be an aggravating one.

In the Catholic context, for instance, celibacy – the great counter-cultural sacrifice – has bestowed upon Catholic priests and religious a sort of mystique: a perceived super-natural separateness. Thus, “Father is special; closer to God than the rest of us – he simply wouldn’t do that.” No wonder the children, and parents… and others weren’t believed!

In the end, Jesus Christ, who, himself, experienced abuse and humiliation at the hands of religious leaders, has left us an eternal and living legacy; a profound responsibility: to walk humbly and gently alongside others, especially the most vulnerable, whatever the cost.

The above are extracts from an article which can be found at

Peter Day is a Catholic Priest in Canberra.                  



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