TERRY LAIDLER. ‘Catholic Clericalism’

Feb 8, 2017

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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