The Personalist Project

Accessed on December 04, 2022 - 12:32:34

Overcoming clericalism

Katie van Schaijik, Jun 06, 2015

I was rejoiced to find Archbishop Chaput taking on clericalism in remarks he shared with brother priests at their annual convocation in May.

Whenever someone asks for my sense of the Archdiocese that's been our spiritual home for 8 years now, I always say the same thing: It's doctrinally sound (thanks be to God!), but wretchedly clericalistic. Religious and laity both are sorely afflicted.

Clericalism is, in essence, a paternalistic approach to relations between the clergy and the laity. The clergy are in charge; the laity's role is to "pay, pray and obey."

That's a bit of an exaggeration of course. Things aren't that bad. But they're pretty bad. To show what I mean, I'll give two general examples and two specific examples from my experience in the Archdiocese.

1) Homilies that seem addressed to a congregation of fourth graders. The priest is the teacher; we are the children. He tells a cutesy anecdote or two, then gives us little explanations and instructions designed to make the faith accessible for beginners. Nothing in the tone or content expresses a due awareness of the fact that the church is likely full of mature Catholics, many of whom are highly educated in their faith—some more educated than the priests (and deacons). They don't need instruction, but preaching of the kind Pope Francis calls for in the Gospel of Joy.

I can hear the reply coming (I've been getting it all my life): "Not everyone is as educated as you are, Katie. A lot of people never even got basic catechetics." I know that. (Quit condescending already!) Some lay Catholics need instruction. But nobody needs patronizing; no adults should be addressed as if they're children. And all Catholics, regardless of our level of maturity and knowledge need good preaching. Good preaching, like the Scriptures it's about, should be "shallow enough for an ant to wade in and deep enough for an elephant to swim in." 

One of the problems we're dealing with, though, is that an alarming number of priests come across as serious cases of arrested development. They don't seem to have matured properly as human beings. I hope the Archbishop will find a way to address this problem at the seminary and beyond. Among my suggestions would be to encourage much more interaction between priests and laity on the level of true friendship.

I also think quite a lot of priests would benefit from Adult Children of Alcoholics or similar programs that can help them get in better touch with their humanity. (I am coming around to the opinion that nearly all post-World War II Catholics were raised in dysfunction, including those who came from devout, intact families. It has to do, I'm pretty sure, with 3 things 1) the paternalism, externalism and legalism, endemic in the pre-conciliar church; 2) a Jansenist streak especially prominent in Irish Catholicism, and 3) emotional repression and rampant alcoholism in the generation that went to war.)

2) Horribly bureaucratic and burdensome religious education programs. The parents aren't deferred to as the prime educators of their children; our views and concerns and feedback are not sought; we are again treated like fourth graders. We're expected to do as we're told, fulfill the requirements; volunteer for various events; make sure our children jump through all the hoops; stifle their complaints about how head-bangingly boring the classes are; raise no substantive issues, cooperate; get with the program. Be grateful.

So depressingly bad did Jules and I find the religious education programs at our parish (even though they're orthodox and full of sincere, generous, good-intentioned people) that we were seriously concerned that making our children participate would cause them to  lose their faith. We didn't want them to get the impression that being Catholic is all about rules and tedium and bureaucracy. It's suppose to be about abundant life; it's supposed to be full of joy. You would never guess that from parish life, though. Alas. (Happily, so far our older children have all made the choice to get confirmed on their own, while they were away at school—one in high school, two in college.)

Those are two general instances of clericalism in the local church. Here are two specific cases:

1) Our youngest son attended the parish school for first and second grade. The parish frequently holds fundraisers for the school, and touts the excellence of the Catholic education it offers. We really wanted to love it, but to us it seemed academically mediocre and painfully hidebound culturally. (Our son's teacher told us the classwork was too easy for him, and she had no way of letting him move ahead independently.) We had concerns and ideas, but there was nowhere to air them. The school established monthly "round-table discussions" on set topics between parents and staff. But we were admonished in advance, "These are not gripe sessions." I thought, "Okay, so where do we go with our gripes?" Where do parents have genuine input? Where is there open discussion of issues and problems? We got the distinct impression that our volunteering was welcome, but not our real influence. When we pulled our son out and enrolled him in public school instead, no one called to ask why. Six months later, we got a form letter and a survey asking for our feedback and assuring us of the school's commitment to offering the best education in the area. I thought, "This is lying denial. They don't want feedback; they just want to pretend to themselves that they want it. If they really wanted it, they would have called six months ago and met with us face to face." 

2) Several years ago, we asked for an appointment with our pastor (who has since been made a bishop in another diocese.) We wanted to introduce ourselves, tell him about the Personalist Project, and discuss ways of collaborating that would serve both our work and the life of the parish. Maybe our classes and lectures could be announced in the bulletin; maybe we could use the parish hall for events; maybe he could introduce us to the Knights of Columbus... The pastor met with us, but he expressed no interest at all in who we are and what we had to offer. Zero. He didn't ask about our background, competence, or plans; he didn't ask what he could do to support us; he didn't say what we might do to help the parish. On the contrary, his manner and tone were all indifference and condescension. He had nothing to offer, except for a piece of unsolicited marketing advise, "First of all, it's a terrible name." Shortly thereafter he began his "increased giving" campaign.

Remembering it makes me mad. And I could give lots more examples.

So, as I said, I was rejoiced to see that Archbishop Chaput sees the problem and is trying to address it. 

A good priest loves his parishioners. He listens to their counsel, respects their abilities and adjusts his life to the needs of those he serves.  He treats them as equals.  He keeps them fully and honestly informed.  And he also learns to live with their criticism, and to genuinely share his leadership without giving up his authority as a pastor. It can be done.

Yes, exactly (though I wish he had added something like, "responds to their legitimate concerns and supports their good initiatives.")

But then he said this, which I liked less:

If we priests want to be true shepherds, we need to form active Catholic apostles in our people.  That means shaping real lay leaders. 

That seems to me to veer too much in the clericalistic direction. In my experience, what is wanted is not so much priests thinking it's their role to "form" and "shape" lay leaders. Rather, they should be on the lookout for the lay leaders already present in their congregations, and put themselves at their service—not so they can take over the sacramental life of the parish, but so that their initiatives can flourish. It will mean that priests have to stop thinking of themselves as the ones who organize and run everything, while calling on the laity to "get involved" with funding and volunteering. Rather, they should realize that the laity are, in a way, the Church.

Meanwhile, the laity will have to learn to step up in our vocation to sanctify the world and build a civilization of love.