The Personalist Project

Accessed on September 27, 2023 - 1:22:05

Clericalism is the air we breath

Katie van Schaijik, Sep 15, 2020

The hypothetical case I raised a couple posts below is happening in the here and now. At mass recently, the pastor of our summertime church* announced that one of our priests is retiring and won't be replaced. The parish, which—due to dwindling numbers of both clergy and practicing Catholics in the diocese—is already a consolidation of several smaller parishes will now have only two priests instead of three. There will have to be a "restructuring," he said, to include fewer masses.

I've mentioned this pastor before. He's youngish (I'm guessing early 40s), and radiantly faith-filled, ardent, and committed. He loves God and loves being a priest. His service to his flock is generous and heartfelt. So he took time and care with his announcement. He assured us that he's come up with a proposal based on his best sense of our welfare; that it's being reviewed by a diocesan canon lawyer and a committee of people with relevant expertise; that the bishop, who will ultimately be making the decision, is a thoughtful man, who will listen carefully to the pastor, since the pastor is the one who best knows the situation on the ground. He (the pastor) understands that this won't be easy; that we'll all need to be patient and forbearing during the transition. But he promised us, with manifest sincerity, that he will be transparent throughout. He will keep us informed regularly and as soon as possible. He will update us every week...

It's as if it didn't even occur to him that the laity should have a part in the decision-making. So thoroughgoing and unselfaware is his clericalist habit of mind that he seems to believe that a promise of transparency amounts to going the extra mile in showing love and respect for the laity. 

I can't stress enough that my judgment isn't against this priest personally, but rather against his formation—the same clericalist mold that has formed practically all Catholic souls for generations at least. Jules said to me after mass, "His total obliviousness is almost endearing." I agree. This particular priest obviously intends nothing but good. Which, besides timeliness, is what makes the example so apt and helpful.

The clericalism I'm opposing isn't about the ill-will of a few. Rather, in the parlance of the day, it's systemic.** It's the air we breath as Catholics. Not withstanding our good intentions to the contrary, we've been set up for the dysfunction we're suffering. We've been taught to think of priests as governors and superiors whom the laity are responsible to respect and obey as subordinates.

It's understandable, humanly and historically. It's not without its theological and doctrinal justification. As a result, for many, the empowerment of the laity I'm proposing is unthinkable and undesirable. They're worried it would involve the undoing of a divinely-instituted hierarchy, an unacceptable subversion of Church teaching, and practical chaos in parish life. I totally understand.

But, through my posts on this subject and in the manual I'm working on, I'm trying to persuade fellow Catholics that it doesn't, in fact, involve those things. I do it primarily by way of an analogy with marriage. 

Think about it with me:

Until fairly recently, all Catholics were formed into a hierarchical view of Christian marriage. The husband has authority over his wife. She is his subordinate. It's his role to lead (though with an attitude of loving service!); it's her role to submit to his leadership.

When modern developments began to make this view controversial, many good Catholics doubled down on it. They were naturally alarmed over the negative effects of the militant feminism they saw gaining sway in society. It seemed nothing other than an attack on God's design for the family. They demonstrated their case using Scripture and papal documents, including Ephesians 5 and the 1930 encyclical Casti Connubii. I'm not mocking; I was one of them. I once sincerely held and preached this view. It seemed to me the biblical and only possible answer to the real evils of feminism.

Note how exactly it so far parallels the normal Catholic understanding of the respective roles of clergy and laity in the Church—an understanding likewise apparently bolstered by tradition. Note that the forces against it, too, appear wantonly destructive and sinister. They are against the priesthood. They want to destroy the Church.

But now consider what happened over the course of the last several decades respecting marriage. Instead of rejecting feminism wholesale, the way most us conservatives were doing, John Paul II fearlessly "encountered" it. He "listened" to it.  And, in his Theology of the Body, he not only sifted its wheat from its chaff, but he positively and dramatically advanced Church teaching on marriage under its influence. 

How exactly? In essence, while rejecting (on personalist and exegetical grounds) both a hierarchical relation between men and women and an androgynous elimination of sexual difference, it elevated wives to a position of equal dignity and co-responsibility with their husbands in marriage. It replaced the hierarchical, externalist model of relating with a model of reciprocal and wholly personal self-giving. And it showed that far from representing a rupture with Scripture and Tradition this "new" teaching on marriage was actually a deeper and fuller articulation of the Deposit of Faith.

The divine mysteries themselves are unchanging, but our understanding of them constantly deepens and gets refined under grace and in light of human experience,***  including bad experiences. In short, JP II's magisterial teaching established that among persons, according to God's original design, love and fecundity come from the reciprocal self-giving of complementary opposites. The one up/one down tendency of the human condition is the legacy of the fall.

So, far from prescribing a hierarchical model of marriage, Ephesians 5 (interpreted rightly) actually demonstrates how the gospel, in "a great mystery," overcomes the master/slave dynamic of the fall and replaces it with the dynamic of redemption. The total, reciprocal union of man and woman in marriage is the earthy icon of divine love and the model for all inter-personal relating. It's the source of all new life.

I'm proposing that the Church is in the midst of an analogous development of our understanding of right relations between clergy and laity, which, after all, according to Scripture and Tradition, are meant to be spousal. The Church is the Bride of Christ; the body of believers, as a body, is, we can say, in a sense, the wife of the priesthood.

That deep theological and anthropological mystery isn't reflected in our current parish life, though, is it? We are set up rather to reflect almost exclusively the shepherd/sheep metaphor. The laity are passive, unequal, dependent. The pastor is in charge. The more docile we are the better.

Of course this metaphor too is based in Scripture. I'm not against it any more than I'm against submission as such. JP II never said wives are no longer called to submit to their husbands. (That would have been a rupture.) Rather, he said, husbands are also called to submit to their wives, because, to be a Christian (to be a person, really) is to be called to service. The interpretative key to Ephesians 5, says John Paul II, is given in verse 21: "defer to one another."

Likewise, I'm not calling for the shepherd/sheep metaphor to be eradicated; I'm calling for it to be properly relativized and contextualized by other biblical metaphors, including especially the prime metaphor of marriage.

So, we're looking at different levels of adjustment, and a three-step development in ecclesial life and thought. 

1) We have to adjust our conventional understanding of marriage to achieve the greater depth and fullness of ToB, according to which the relation between man and woman is a reciprocal, fruitful union of love.

2) We have to adjust our understanding of relations between clergy and laity to reflect the marriage metaphor. Relations between clergy and laity should be a fruitful, reciprocal union of love, not an externalist, hierarchical relation.

3) We have to adjust our ecclesial structures and habits so that they capture and embody that new understanding.

Note how this has already been happening for a long time regarding women and marriage. Not that long ago in Christian societies, women could not own property or attend university or work in most professions or vote. Less than 100 years ago, the brilliant, original thinker Edith Stein, who received a doctorate summa cum laude under one of the most distinguished professors in Germany, couldn't get a post teaching philosophy except at a girls' high school. In the 1960's, Catholic universities prohibited women to teach either philosophy or theology. None of that is true anymore. Nor is the idea that wives owe their husbands obedience a normal part of Catholic marriage. Rather, husbands and wives "defer to one other." And, look!, it didn't cause chaos. Chaos is never the result of mutual deference and service. Rather, it's the result of the master/slave dynamic, and the violent backlash against it. Militant, atheistic feminism is a a backlash against the injustices of male chauvinism, for instance.

To the worry that my proposal will abolish the priesthood, let me say: As a layman, I don't favor the abolition of the priesthood with its unique powers and gifts any more than, as a woman, I favor the abolition of masculinity. I cherish my husband's masculinity. I absolutely rely on it. It makes me feel safe and secure and free to be myself with all my imperfections and shortfalls. I also cherish the priesthood and rely on it completely to sacramentalize my life and apostolate. I want to see it enhanced and perfected, not diminished.

The "more perfect union" I'm envisioning between clergy and laity in parish life entails complementarity as much as it does reciprocity.

Anyway. I have much more to say, as always. But I'll leave this here for now.


*" Summertime church" doesn't quite capture our relation to the parish. I've been going to its masses for nearly 50 years—far longer than either of us has regularly gone anywhere else. And we were married there. I can't say I've ever felt like a proper parishioner. But I haven't felt that anywhere else either. It's a sad fact that I have a much stronger sense of belonging to the local 12-step group I've been attending sporadically for 5 years than I've ever had at any Catholic parish. Which speaks to the problem I've been trying to address.

** BTW, I don't agree with the Black Lives Matter movement when it accuses the US of systemic racism, unless it's the reverse racism of Affirmative Action policies, etc. I'd say rather that our society, like all societies, is not entirely free from residual racism, which should be addressed in the same way we address all our moral faults, viz., through culture, not coercion. Legal slavery IS systemic racism. The Jim Crow laws were too. Sharia Law is an example of systemic sexism. 

*** For those with a scholarly bent, moral theologian John Grabowski—a fellow FUS alum and professor at Catholic U—has written what was for me the definitive essay on this topic. “Mutual Submission and Trinitarian Self-Giving.” Angelicum 74 (1997): 489-512.