ROBERT MICKENS. How serious is Pope Francis about eradicating clericalism?

Even after waging war on clericalism there’s little evidence to show that the pope has dramatically changed the attitude of the clericalists in the Church. 

A few years ago, a number of so-called “traditionalist” Catholics, especially those among the clergy, voiced anger with Pope Francis when it was reported he had quietly decreed that priests under the age of 65 were no longer to be given the honorary title of “monsignor.”

It was a feeble, first step in trying to put a stop to ecclesiastical careerism and the culture of clericalism so evident in the Church. But it was only a half-measure, at best.

It is said that the pope wanted to do away with this honorifica altogether, but faced stiff opposition from some at the Vatican and others in the Church’s hierarchy.

In fact, Francis caved into their demands and agreed that the new disposition would not apply to priests serving in the Roman Curia or the Holy See’s diplomatic corps.

This incident should serve as a reminder of how difficult it is going to be to “say an emphatic ‘no’ to all forms of clericalism,” as Francis tells us we must in his recent “Letter to the People of God.”

The letter, which was published this past Aug. 20, identifies “clericalism” as one of the major factors that has allowed priests to abuse young people and permitted bishops to keep such crimes a secret for so long.

But let’s not place the blame only on the men in Holy Orders. As the pope rightly points out, one doesn’t have to be a member of the clergy to be a clericalist:

Clericalism, whether fostered by priests themselves or by lay persons, leads to an excision in the ecclesial body that supports and helps to perpetuate many of the evils that we are condemning today.

Still, it’s not clear that Francis fully understands just how “emphatic” and profound that “no” to “all forms of clericalism” will have to be in order to eradicate it from the Body of Christ.

Because as the laicized priest and author, James Carroll, noted some days ago in The New Yorker: “(Francis) is woefully in the grip of male-dominated, celibate clericalism, even though he criticizes it.”

Unfortunately, Carroll is correct. Francis is in the grip of clericalism. And so is the entire Church.

Clericalism is a badly mutated gene in our Catholic DNA. It’s a disease that manifests itself at the very top of the ecclesiastical hierarchy with “papolatry” (the exaggerated worship and semi-divinization of the pope).

And it shows up throughout the entire pyramid structure of Church authority, beginning at its base — the seminary, the port of entry into a unique caste of men who see themselves as set apart (as ontologically different, special, more holy, etc..) from the rest of the baptized faithful.

But clericalism could not flourish, as it clearly has for many centuries, without the compliance and complicity of the laity.

This is why Pope Francis is again right to acknowledge, as he does in his recent letter, that “every one of the baptized should feel involved in the ecclesial and social change that we so greatly need” to eradicate clericalism.

“It is impossible to think of a conversion of our activity as a Church that does not include the active participation of all the members of God’s People,” he said.

“This is clearly seen in a peculiar way of understanding the Church’s authority… (as is) the case with clericalism, an approach that not only nullifies the character of Christians, but also tends to diminish and undervalue the baptismal grace that the Holy Spirit has placed in the heart of our people’,” the pope said.

How can this be corrected? How can there be a “conversion of our activity as a Church,” which one suspects is the pope’s code for saying “reform our structures of ecclesial authority”?

Francis has insisted from the very start of his ministry as Bishop of Rome that this begins with the “reform of the attitude” or mentality.

“The structural and organizational reforms are secondary — that is, they come afterward,” he said in 2013 in his first major interview.

However, even after waging war on clericalism for these past five-and-a-half years, there’s little evidence to show that the pope has dramatically changed the attitude of the clericalists in the Church. In fact, they have only stiffened their resolve to defend the clergy’s rights and privileges.

One of the most comprehensive explanations of clericalism is offered by a religious priest in Ireland who was censured by the Vatican’s doctrinal office several years ago.

Here are just a few of the features of clericalism, which he lists:

It is to belong to, and to see oneself as belonging to, an exclusive club – male, hierarchical, and celibate – that is closed and secretive, part of a system of privilege, deference and power… The lay point of view isn’t taken seriously. Members of the clerical caste, those on the upper rungs of the hierarchical ladder, are the ones who have a monopoly on wisdom and of access to the Holy Spirit….

Clericalism thrives on power and is sustained by it. It is a strong believer in accountability – but only upwards, not downwards…. Lay people and ordinary clergy do not have to be consulted – and seldom are….

Clericalism has no time for dialogue and debate. It regards those who talk about renewal in the church as dangerous, and as having a liberal agenda…

Thus, it should be no surprise that the clericalists — found among both the ordained and lay faithful at all levels of church and society — are the Catholics who oppose Pope Francis.

Donald Cozzens, a priest and former seminary rector from Cleveland (Ohio) has also written extensively on clericalism. He calls it a “cancer crippling the Catholic world” and claims it “is so deeply embedded in our past and present church fabric that we need a careful pre-surgery examination” before we can remove it.

In an essay from 2015, Cozzens describes the phenomenon like this:

Clericalism is an attitude found in many (but not all) clergy who put their status as priests and bishops above their status as baptized disciples of Jesus Christ. In doing so, a sense of privilege and entitlement emerges in their individual and collective psyche.

This, in turn, breeds a corps of ecclesiastical elites who think they’re unlike the rest of the faithful.

Cozzens offers three initial steps toward removing the disease or at least putting it in remission:

1) Seminarians must be taught that priestly ordination is rooted in baptism, not above or apart from it;

2) Titles — even “Father” — may have their place, but they must never be insisted upon; and

3) Mandatory priestly celibacy must be “revisited” because its “inherent burdens… lead some clergy to a sense of entitlement and privilege, hallmarks of clericalism.”

These are all important steps. But they are unlikely to remove the disease of clericalism. For that to happen, more radical measures must be taken.

Some of them will demand a return to practices and lifestyles that were present in the first centuries of Christianity. And all measure must be reflective of more faithful adherence to the challenging message of the Gospels.

First, the entire essence of ministries in the Church must be revisioned by recognizing that the Holy Spirits distributes gifts differently and freely to all the baptized — including women and men, married and unmarried alike.

The entire People of God (and not just the bishops) has the right and responsibility for carefully discerning which of its members are called to which particular ministries — that includes those admitted to Holy Orders.

Second, the seminary system as it currently exists must be abolished. Like so many institutions in the Church it has become anachronistic, dysfunctional and totally inadequate for our time.

Third, all structures that encourage ambition for higher office or foster clerical “careerism” need to be eliminated.

But don’t be mistaken. This will be fought tooth and nail, even though the elimination of such structures and practice would entail nothing more than being more faithful to the earliest practices and teachings of the Christian Church.

In this area, at least five things must be done.

1) All ecclesiastical titles such as Eminence, Excellency, My Lord etc. must be abolished immediately.

2) The Bishop from Rome should not be called Holy Father. This is the title of the first person in the Blessed Trinity and is used to refer to God in the Eucharistic Prayer at Mass. It should no longer be used to refer to the pope.

3) The Church must restore the ancient practice of “one bishop, one diocese.” A bishop is said to be wedded to his diocese, and this supposedly is the justification for his wearing a ring. But many bishops have headed up to three or four (and even five) different dioceses in their “career.”

To be more faithful to the Church’s oldest traditions, a person should be bishop to only one diocese and never be moved. This would have an immediate effect on curbing careerism.

4) In this same light, the office of auxiliary or titular bishop should be abolished.

5) The College of Cardinals, which is of human invention and arose from a social and ecclesial context that no longer exists, must be abolished.

There is no other institution in the Catholic Church that embodies all the characteristics of clericalism than this elite body. It is no wonder that Pope Francis has refused to name woman cardinals based on his belief that it would only “clericalize” them?

Is this all just a pipe dream? It could be.

But the very fact that it even appears so is a sad testimony to how embedded clericalism has become within the fiber of the Church. Because most of the customs, institutions and habits that foment it are absolutely non-essential to the nature of the Church or the expression of Christian faith.

That we find it so difficult to admit this is a sure sign that the Church is in serious need of reform.

This article was published by La Croix International on the 21st of September 2018. It was written by Robert Mickens. 


Robert Mickens, LCI Editor in Chief, has lived, studied and worked in Rome for 30 years. Over that time he has studied at the Gregorian University, worked at Vatican Radio and been the Rome correspondent for the London Tablet. He regularly comments on CNN, the BBC and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. His famous Letter From Rome, brings his unparalleled experience as senior Vatican correspondent for the London Tablet and founding editor of Global Pulse Magazine.

This entry was posted in Religion and Faith. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to ROBERT MICKENS. How serious is Pope Francis about eradicating clericalism?

  1. carey burke says:

    Mgr John Tracey Ellis, always in a clerical suit and collar, enjoyed the the papal nod that came with his title. But these features didn’t ensnare the man: a historian who had no truck with lip service to indolent and incompetent senior clergy: he mined the past in search of authenticity and was not daunted in naming the scandalous and exposing hypocrisy.
    Giovanni Montini lived most of his life at the centre of the clerical world, while Oscar Romero found a path out of the episcopal palace and into the midst of his people. But, in separate ways, both have done more than most in enabling the future of the church.
    As well known figures, these three clerics and their legacies speak of the more complex dimensions which attend Robert Mickens current focus. The evils of clericalism deserve excoriation but sound and fury rhetoric won’t succeed.

  2. Kieran Tapsell says:

    Pope Francis’ statement that structural and organization reforms are secondary to a “reform of attitude” is curious, because it reflects what might be the situation in a democratic society, not in a monarchy that is the Catholic Church. To take a recent example, the change in attitude in Australian society about same sex marriage had to occur before there was a change in the law. This is the situation even without a plebiscite because members of a parliament are answerable to the electorate. In a monarchical society like the Church, the pope is answerable to no one. If there has to be a change in attitude before there can be structural changes, then the only attitude that has to changed is his. Robert Mickens and James Carroll are correct in accusing Francis of being in the grip of clericalism. Canon law is dripping with clericalism in prohibiting lay people (and therefore women) from holding purely administrative and judicial posts. It is even more apparent when protecting clergy with the pontifical secret over child sexual abuse (it doesn’t apply to lay people). Yet Francis, as a member of the Italian bishops conference did not demur when its president in 2014 announced that allegations of child sexual abuse by clergy would not be reported to the civil authorities because Italian law did not require it under the Lateran Treaty. If he follows canon law, he will cover up child sexual abuse in his own diocese of Rome. Francis is right about the need for a change in attitude, but the attitude that has to be changed is his. He can demonstrate that by getting his pen out and signing decrees adopting the recommendations of the Royal Commission for changes to canon law.

  3. Kevin Treston says:

    I would like to strongly agree with Garry Everett’s response. Unless the theology of priesthood removes the ontologically different dimension, a dimension which is an historical aberration to a ministry of service, clericalism will flourish. The ontologically different dimension to priesthood is an open doorway to a culture of clericalism. A holistic theology of priesthood must also be gender inclusive.

  4. Garry Everett says:

    Thanks Robert for a constructive and solution-offering contribution on the issue of clericalism Your analysis is supported by many male authors, both ordained and lay. However, it is interesting to note that it has been the contributions of two women, both religious sisters, that has added a new dimension to our understanding of clericalism.
    Franciscan sister Ilia Delio, and Benedictine sister Joan Chittister have both nominated the Church’s theology as the root cause of clericalism They have exposed the theological proposition of a priest being ontologically different, as being a key factor in the development of clericalism’s justification of power and privilege. I believe they are correct, but not complete. I suspect there is a great deal of the Church’s theology that supports clericalism.
    If a priest stands in the person of Christ, then how we view Christ and his mission underpins much of the theological developments over the centuries. If Christ is predominantly the saviour then so is the priest. If Christ was a sacrifice for sin, then so is father. However, once inconsistencies appear in theological reasoning, then they have to be accounted for in some way that is credible. The first Vatican Council (c.1870) protected the Pope by making him infallible. What has the Church done theologically to make sure that priests and bishops remain protected species?
    The two religious sisters have lifted the lid on the most productive line of investigation.
    Clericalism owes its power not just to the structures created by the hierarchy, but mostly to the faulty theololgy which has protected clergy and laity alike from “doing a new thing”.

Comments are closed.