Can Clerical Deviance Be Prevented?

(This is Neil) I would much rather post on other things, but this is the sort of issue that requires some coverage. Clerical malfeasance is now predictable but still shocking. This is not merely, I think, because of the warranted charge of hypocrisy. The close proximity of consecration and molestation, apparent holiness and very real corruption, seems to call into question the sacred itself. We can perceive the mystery and inaccessibility of the sacred as counterfeit or even as a secretive threat, always needing exposure to put our suspicions to rest. But is this inevitable? Can anything be done, as Liam asks, “to significantly reduce the likelihood of recurrence anywhere in the system”?

I would like to very tentatively propose some answers, based on parts of the sociologist Anson Shupe’s very interesting recent book, Rogue Clerics: The Social Problem of Clergy Deviance. I should add that I’m not sure if Professor Shupe would approve of this post, because I do want to take it in a theological direction that certainly isn’t in the book.

Put bluntly, I want to suggest that the church becomes a potentially dangerous institution when it secularizes. I hasten to say that I don’t mean that secular intellectuals are to blame for clerical deviance. Furthermore, I don’t imagine that we can prevent clerical deviance by eliminating some sort of secular contamination from the supposed purity of Catholic doctrine and practice. For the purposes of this post, following Rowan Williams, I want to define secularism as essentially functionalism. In a secularized church, clerical activity becomes a “calculation about functions” – the priest has clearly defined aims to realize, and the other participants in ecclesial life “are understood in terms of how they further or obstruct those aims.” The priest must secure the “acceptance of propositions which determine acceptable behavior” (and belief), and resolve other problems threatening the influence and smooth operation of the institutional church. This might seem theologically questionable, but I realize that it doesn’t yet seem poisonous.

But, in the secularized picture that I’ve drawn, we see that priests have become the brokers of social exchange. They effectively negotiate for adherence to doctrine and institutional loyalty (and prestige and influence) in exchange for what Shupe, following Stark and Bainbridge, calls “supernaturally-based general compensators” (“divine protection or intervention, serenity of the mind and soul, even salvation and immortality”). This is their function.

Shupe suggests that the priest-brokers, like any brokers, are subject to what Robert Michels called “the iron law of oligarchy”: “the existence of immanent oligarchic tendencies in every kind of human organization which strives for the attainment of definite ends” (my emphasis).

This occurs because of three components of organizational development. First, Michels claims that in all evolving large organizations, the leadership will simply be unable to maintain regular contact and dialogue with the members. Second, the leadership becomes functionally “invisible” to the members. Third, the leadership emancipates itself from any accountability to the members, who come to feel inadequate to evaluate them. This emancipation causes the fostering of certain attitudes in the leadership – Shupe writes of a “sense of omniscience,” conceit, and “an exaggerated sense of confidence and righteousness.” The leadership – here the priest-brokers – become a “closed caste” (my emphasis).

The leadership – our priest-brokers – must engage in “ongoing authority maintenance,” not least because they associate their own fiduciary authority with God’s authority. Shupe, here following Amitai Etzioni’s A Comparative Analysis of Complex Organizations, suggests that they make use of three techniques to minimize accountability. We can connect all with at least potential corruption.

First, they use their normative control over “symbolic rewards and deprivations.” For instance, Archbishop Elden Curtiss wrote to an eighty-year old woman who complained about the cover-up of clergy abuse, “The church has enough troubles defending herself against non-Catholic attacks without having to contend with disloyal Catholics.” Sometimes, Shupe says, they use a rhetoric of “reconciliation” that is a “pseudo-balm to assuage victims without fundamentally altering power inequities or opportunity structures that further such abuse.” Second, the priest-brokers can use remunerative tactics. Jason Berry and the late Gerald Renner wrote, “For survivors, the church that promised a path to salvation had betrayed them twice over – first as children, when they suffered sexual invasion; then, as adults, when they saw bishops or religious superiors acting like lawyers.”

Finally, they use coercive tactics. Jeanne Miller, the Chicago parent of an adolescent male abused by a parish priest wrote:

For two years, my husband and I and the remaining single mother who initially reported the abuse to us fought through the courts to have Father restricted from his ministry with children. On March 30, 1983, we met with the archdiocesan chancellor, Fr. Richard Keating (now bishop of Arlington, Virginia [now deceased – N]) in the basement boiler room of St. Theresa’s rectory, Palatine, Illinois, who told us that if we pursued the matter we could be excommunicated for violating canon law. It was a horrible threat …

Thus, nothing changes and clerical deviance continues. This might sound depressingly familiar.

Shupe suggests that oligarchic control should be resisted through “the reclamation of democratic rights.” I would like to suggest that if his reframing of religion becomes accurate – and, at times, it does – something has already gone terribly wrong. Shupe summarizes his framing:

[We should see] the sacred institution as grounded in social exchanges between mortals and the divine, with priests/rabbis/pastors as the power brokers between the two parties. These brokers, who create elaborate hierarchies of authority as they professionalize their niches, serve literally as the expert go-betweens, a role which provides them with considerable influence over the laypersons dependent on their fiduciary wisdom.

The priest-brokers become an oligarchic “closed caste” that obtains compliance in using Etzioni’s three tactics.

The question then becomes how Shupe’s reframing shouldn’t describe the church – that is, how it only describes a secularized church. This can only be brief. I would begin by suggesting that the church doesn’t exist to achieve definite ends – so priests can’t be considered to have functions. The church is sacrament, which means that in and behind the community of believers, the loving God is encountered. As Rowan Williams notes, “God’s seeing of the world and the self is very strictly incommensurable with any specific human perspective,” because God’s seeing represents “unrestricted time, total self-investment.” Thus, if the church is where God is encountered, it must become a place of self-renunciation, where, through the transformation brought about through contemplation and practice, our human agendas and functions are revealed as limited before “God’s seeing.” Even language is not a tool for the church to prescribe and control, because, in prayer, language yields to silence.

Furthermore, priests shouldn’t be recognizable as brokers of spiritual resources. The priest’s supposed site of power – the altar – should show his lack of possession over God’s presence. He does not celebrate alone, and, in the East, without an exchange of forgiveness with the people, there can be no Eucharist.  The priest does not thank God in his own name, alongside the people, but in their name. The priest does not consecrate the Eucharist through his own power, but acts in place of Christ. As the Orthodox bishop Kallistos Ware writes, “It can even be said that the ministerial priest possesses, as priest, no identity of his own; it is his vocation to be transparent, for his priesthood exists solely in order to render Christ present.” We can go on to say that the priest cannot refuse to offer the Eucharist “on behalf of all and for all,” meaning everyone. And he cannot refuse to give Communion to anyone for personal reasons. As Metropolitan John (Zizioulas) writes, “Eucharistic communion permits only one kind of exclusion: the exclusion of exclusion: all those things that involve rejection and division, which in principle distort Trinitarian faith.” (And even excommunication is never meant to be more than medicinal.) We can also say that, since the Eucharist is eschatological, it reveals any ecclesial self-definition or boundary as provisional and unsuitable for use in an exercise of “authority management.” In the Eucharist, the priest dispossesses himself for God and others.

And, lastly, the concept of priests standing apart from the people as a “closed caste” should be unrecognizable. Russell Shaw, late of the USCCB, has written:

Recognition that clericalism is a fact should encourage priests to internalize the message of Section 47 of Pope John Paul’s apostolic exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis (1992). In the context of ecclesial communion, the pope declares, the priest is first and foremost (”above all”) an equal among equals. That means being “a brother among brothers”–committed to “co-responsibility in the one common mission of salvation” and sincerely appreciative of “all the charisms and tasks which the Spirit gives believers for the building up of the church.”

This would mean that priestly identity is an intensified capacity for brotherhood, which would mean regular contact and dialogue with his brothers and sisters, as they, together, try to experience “God’s seeing of the world.”

Basically, then, I would like to say that any time the church can be understood to have a definite aim and functions, we have a problem. The clergy will become brokers, follow the “iron law of oligarchy,” and the resulting clerical “sense of omniscience,” conceit, and “exaggerated sense of confidence and righteousness,” will result in a secretive culture of deviance. (Of course, this development will always be significantly worse than in the “secular” world because of the perceived worth of supernatural “compensatories.”)

This is speculative. What do you think? Can the damage caused by clerical deviance – spiritual and otherwise – be prevented? (This post can be read as pessimistic.)

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
This entry was posted in Neil. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Can Clerical Deviance Be Prevented?

  1. Liam says:

    I would suggest that we be clear about what the opposite of secularism is: theosis or sanctification. The purpose of the priest is emptying to allow more fully a holy being, and holy doing flows from that and allows for further emptying. Being precedes doing. But doing is easier to “manage” and thus gets more attention (even from me, impliedly, in the comment of mine to which you linked).

    I would also suggest that, for the Western church, the exemplum of St Benedict as a model not only for an abbot or religious superior but as a spiritual father of a spiritual family generally – including bishops – merits continued development especially against the model spiritual monarchy that has tended to ape secular monarchy. (Monarchy not being an epithet in Greek theology, of course!) Orders of religious women may have particular riches to offer here (not all, of course: certainly abbesses and prioresses have never had a special exemption from the temptations of secularized monarchy), but many orders of men (and laity) have their own insights. One offers sees Dominicans as somehow more authoritarian than Franciscans, for example, but it was St Dominic and not St Francis who incarnated the last being first in a special way the Dominicans have in privileging their newest members, IIRC.

  2. Neil says:

    Dear Liam,

    I agree that a discussion of theosis or sanctification can be very useful here, although, strictly speaking, neither is the “opposite” of secularism. We should take care, I want to add, to avoid a semi-Pelagian concept of sanctification as the process of assisting in the church’s realization of clearly defined aims (e.g., “being a good Catholic”). That would put us back at the source of the problem.

    I also agree that models from religious can be helpful for thinking about ecclesiology. Of course, becoming a monk or friar involves vows that baptism does not. And neither Benedict nor Francis were ordained. So not all our answers can be found here. But it is certainly a good place to look.



  3. Liam says:

    Well, Francis was ostensibly and reluctantly ordained a deacon for appearance’s sake.

    I meant sanctification more in the sense of theosis – the increasing indwelling of the holy – rather than things we do to become better [x].

  4. Neil says:

    Dear Liam,

    Thanks again. I forgot about Francis’ ordination to the diaconate. But I still wonder if models from religious life in late antiquity or the medieval period can address the thorny issue of contempotary clergy-laity relations. Religious life wasn’t necessarily meant for priests, and our theology of the priesthood fully developed after both Benedict and Francis. (But the models from religious life are very useful more generally.)

    Take care,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s