TERRY LAIDLER. ‘Catholic Clericalism’

I heard the Archbishop of Brisbane, Mark Coleridge, a man I counted as a good friend many years ago when I too was a Catholic priest, speaking to Fran Kelly on RN Breakfast yesterday [https://tinyurl.com/rn170207]. Rightly, in my opinion, he identified “clericalism” as important among the cultural factors that contributed to the appalling scale and nature of abuse among Catholic clergy revealed by the Royal Commission. But I wonder if he really understands what clericalism is.  

Asked about absolute confessional secrecy, and the ordination of women, Mark said correctly that current practice in both regards was “non-negotiable”, but he did not go on to say why. I will — they are non-negotiable because a group of male clerics who have power in the Catholic church say so. No matter that others within and without the church hold different views, no matter what evidence might show that each contributes to the disease at the core of the problem, these things cannot be spoken about or better alternative approaches found. And those who try to broach the issues are ignored or ostracised or simply wrong. This is what clericalism is.

At another stage, Fran Kelly asked Mark Coleridge about whether abusers were still to be found among the Catholic clergy. Again, frankly and honestly in my view, he said he could give no guarantees they were not. Clericalism is part of the reason that he cannot. The whole of the conceptual framing of the Catholic view of ministry is predicated on structures of power. According to the Catholic church’s own law, “those who have received sacred orders are qualified for the power of governance”. Priests and bishops are ordained for life and they form parts of the ranks of a hierarchy (sacred rule) at the top of which is the Holy See (a seat of power) that “is judged by no one”.

So, in fact, the reason the guarantee cannot be given is simple, not complex as Mark Coleridge also suggested: regardless of incompetence, misconduct or crime, priests and bishops cannot simply be sacked. This is why the comparison with others in leadership positions in the church (even the women in the examples Mark gave) is spurious: they can be sacked by the clergymen who appoint them and too often they have been when they questioned such behaviour by those who hold the “real” leadership positions.

The Royal Commission itself has had examples of clericalism at its source and apex in, for example, the Vatican’s response to requests for information about its dealings regarding Australian clergy abusers that were “not appropriate” when they impacted on the “internal deliberations” of a “sovereign” state. What remains to be seen in the coming weeks is not if clericalism is part of the problem or how many times this is said, but whether those who construct it and are entangled in it can see this and articulate operational strategies to disestablish it.

Terry Laidler is a former Catholic priest and radio broadcaster whose main work now is in the field of forensic psychology.  


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7 Responses to TERRY LAIDLER. ‘Catholic Clericalism’

  1. Edward Fido says:

    Great article Terry. I doubt whether you could speak as freely if you were still a cleric. Rome is still, in essence, an authoritarian ecclesiastical monarchy whose powers the Stuart Kings would’ve envied. The Vatican response you detail is a result of its authoritarian nature. The question is “Will it ever change?” The answer is “Probably not without the spiritual and psychological equivalent of a Force 10 earthquake.” Mark Coleredge is a good guy and obviously genuinely deeply shocked by the enormity of what the Royal Commission into Institutional Child Abuse has revealed. His Anglican counterpart in Brisbane has had enormous success in both weeding out paedophiles and reconciling and reimbursing victims. He too could not guarantee he has completely weeded out paedophiles.

  2. Lynne Newington says:

    As an ex priest, no better person [safely at arms length] to size it all up.

  3. The Archbishop is in the Royal Commission’s witness box today. I am finding his answers a curious mixture of clear exposition and blind preference for canon law to be superordinate to Australian civil law. Is there any future for an institution that believes it is above the laws of the country in which it is situated?

  4. Stuart Magee says:

    It would assist the debate if the concept of Clericalism, which is obscure and possibly debatable, was put to one side so that we might deal directly with the matters it is said to incorporate.

    • Joan Seymour says:

      The concept isn’t really obscure or debatable, Stuart. Clericalism means rule reserved exclusively to the ordained. This is actually what ‘hierarchy’ means, too. Many members of the hierarchy, including the present Pope, recognize the huge problems caused by clericalism and are trying to unpick it – but if you’ve ever tried to unpick a Fair Isle jumper, stitch by stitch, you’ll know how difficult and slow this is.

  5. Dr John CARMODY says:

    This is a very sensible assessment of the situation.
    The very notion of a religious organisation being a “sovereign state” (as the Vatican or “Holy See” certainly sees itself is absurd. But this matter of terminology (and the way people think of themselves and the organisation) is important. When so many clerics refer to “The Church” it is not at all in ways which the Second Vatican Council considered: specifically as “the People of God” that is, the entirety of its membership whether laity (the majority) of clerics. Rather, when such Professionals” say “The Church”, they mean the corporation, the centralised, hierarchical organisational — and essentially depersonalised — structure. This it no more the truth than when university Vice-Chancellors refer to “the University” but really mean — not the staff and students — their administrative group.
    Which brings us to the conundrum at the heart of this piece: how can such an organisation, which is at such odds with so many “Australian values” (as they are often called) expect to escape scrutiny, let alone receive all of the money and preference which current national law and practice afford? In particular, how can the “leaders” of this organisation expect that 50% of the Australian population (the women whom it excludes so habitually and relentlessly — as the article reminds us) will consider to allow this irrational and demeaning exclusionary behaviour to continue?

  6. Jim KABLE says:

    Thanks for this explanation of the unspeakable and unchallengeable which lie at the heart or as the basis of clericalism.

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