(This is Neil.) Let me first congratulate Todd and his family for completing their move to Iowa. I trust that Todd will post soon enough about hearing whispers while walking through a cornfield.
We often talk about “clericalism” on this blog. Here I’d like to ask: What do we mean when we speak of “clericalism”? I suspect that we’ll find that “clericalism” is an unexpectedly – and perhaps hopelessly – complicated word. Even assuming that we are speaking with some degree of precision, “clericalism” seems to have various possible meanings:
First, clericalism might refer to a clerical contempt for laypeople whose lives seem to be spiritually undemanding, or, in the case of “nominal” Catholics, possibly unintelligible and even parasitic. Fr Paul Stanosz has written that the priestly training in nine seminaries that he studied “tended to impart a ‘clerical difference,’ a sense of specialness that led the seminarians to see themselves as not only separate but also superior to laypeople” (“Seminarians Today,” Commonweal 8/12/05). And see here for a brief but memorable report of two seminarians from different institutions referring to “lay trash.” This clericalism may or may not be distinguishable from the sort of contempt that a frustrated professor might have towards her more mediocre students or that an artist might have towards a general public seemingly indifferent to cultural values.
Second, clericalism can refer to certain forms of narcissism or immaturity that seem to flourish in the clerical state. Rod Dreher once corresponded with a former priest who warned of the consequences of constantly being reminded by parishioners of “everything you’ve given up for us” and internalizing a dangerous sense of entitlement. (Stanosz notes that today’s priests are “celebrities,” at least in a certain subculture.) And, sadly, we are all aware of the consequences of arrested sexual development.
Finally, clericalism can refer to a clerical “culture of secrecy” in which misbehavior or illegal activities are tacitly encouraged – or at least widespread – to the point where any priest who would consider becoming a critic or whistle-blower risks self-destruction. Thus, exposure is a remote possibility. As A. Richard Sipe writes, “Where is a priest who wants to stay in his ministry to go with complaints of sexual harassment from his boss—a bishop or cardinal? To go outside the clerical system will make him a pariah or destroy his ministry altogether. Within the system there is no recourse.”
I don’t wish to deny that these forms of clericalism have existed, quite possibly still exist, and are worth rationally discussing. But I don’t want to do that right here. Instead, I want to talk about another form of clericalism – a theological error that can afflict both the clergy and laypeople. I will draw on an early article by the philosopher Charles Taylor that first appeared in the Downside Review in 1960 (“Clericalism”). This form of clericalism begins with a liturgical problem.
Taylor writes, “In [the] reduction of the laity to passive bystanders where they should be active participants, we have what might be called the paradigm manifestation of clericalism.” We hasten to define “active participation”: not merely a generic “doing things” or paying attention, but being conscious that one is “offering the Immaculate Victim, not only through the hands of the priest, but also with him” (Sacrosanctum Concilium 48). (See my post here.) When this role of the laity is obscured, it becomes a collection of accidental fragments. And Sunday Mass “often becomes a place where people assemble, paradoxically enough, for private devotions.” The laity ceases to be a people with a collective role.
Obviously, then, we have a situation in which there is a very large gap between the clergy, whose role is emphasized, and the laity, which retains no real collective role. This corresponds to a very large gap between the church and the world. Taylor notes that the laity is supposed to be “the link between the Church and the world.” (At the Liturgy, this presumably would happen through the offering up of praise, laypeople presenting the bread and wine, and the voicing of petitions.) But the laity simply cannot serve as a link between church and world if it is not a people, but merely a collection of anonymous individuals who cultivate hidden private devotions during the Mass. The church consequently finds itself estranged from the world.
There are two possible results of this estrangement. Both are unhappy. The church might simply ignore the world, protesting against only the most horrendous injustices and demanding only what is necessary to maintain church buildings and instruct the faithful. Taylor finds this problematic. Is there no theological significance to a “growth in culture, civilization and productive potential”? Can we really say that “there is no striving in created things themselves towards that unity and completeness which can in the final analysis only be given by God”? On the other hand, the church might adopt a theocratic position. After all, if the world doesn’t really matter, why should we give space for the ambiguities of “human development” or “human freedom”? Furthermore, if the world has no real importance, is there any point to “secular” history and recalcitrant nature, or can they be bent, here and now, to the will of God?
These two results might seem extreme. But, Taylor says, we can see the church moving from non-intervention to minor forms of theocratic interference and back again. This movement retains a consistency in seeing little importance in the non-ecclesial, temporal world. Thus, Taylor writes in 1960, the church doesn’t seem to care enough to speak out clearly on the use of nuclear weapons. But the church has opposed even sensible land reform policies that would have come at its expense, because it hasn’t been able to acknowledge the importance of any sort of non-ecclesial, “secular” purpose for the land.
Besides all this, there is another danger from clericalism. If the world only matters as a backdrop for ecclesial activities, the laity’s vocation of offering “all that man will have realized” to God is relatively unimportant. “Thus, the role of the laity is seen as the negative one of not infringing a certain law.” Some laymen and laywomen might truly be exceptional, “but there is no sense that this is the normal vocation of the laity.” To the clericalist, there is only one task in the world – to expand the church, but this is accomplished through a division of labor. “The layman saves himself, the priest saves others as well,” meaning that the priest will always overshadow the layman.
But why has clericalism come to pass? In a word: defensiveness. The Catholic Church reacted against Conciliar and Gallican protests against the hierarchical nature of the church. And, of course, it reacted against the Reformation, defending the hierarchy. The Counter-Reformation defense could be anti-humanist: “For the Jesuits were, and are, great educators, but at the same time their attempt to do the ends of God with the means of man betrays a certain lack of respect for these means …” And, so, the church survived, but at the cost of alienation from society and appearing to preach the impossibility or at least irrelevance of “human betterment.”
What was (and is) to be done? We should return to where we began and the liturgical problem. The worshipping community is not merely the priest and accidental spectators: it is one community, offering the “Immaculate Victim.” The laity, to put it simply, must not fade from view.
Your turn: What do we mean when we speak of clericalism?