I was recently handed an article from the March, 2008 edition of the magazine “First Things”. The piece is entitled “Clerical Scandal and the Scandal of Clericalism”. Richard John Neuhaus discusses the topic of clericalism via Russell Shaw’s books, To Hunt, To Shoot, To Entertain: Clericalism and the Catholic Communion and Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church.
Neuhaus highlights the scandal through Russell’s expertise gained through his former position as an official spokesman for the United States bishops’ conference. Neuhaus states: “[Shaw] has ample experience with the secretive ways of church leaders who, as the old saw has it, think that the chief and maybe only role of the laity is to pray, pay, and obey.” The Germans say: “Der Mensch denkt; Gott lenkt.” (Man thinks; God leads). The cynical Catholic layman who sees through the pretense in respect to priestly clericalism might opt for the same phrase re-punctuated by Bertold Brecht: “Der Mensch denkt, Gott lenkt.” (Man thinks that God leads). This is not to say, as Neuhaus also makes clear, that there is no room in the church for some modicum of confidentiality and secrecy, which is allowed for, according to the article, “both canonically and in pastoral common sense.” There’s the clincher. Canonically, we understand as a given. The pastoral common sense part, however, is another matter. One may observe of the cleric: “He just can’t see the forest for the Roman Catholic trees.” The puzzling phrase heard from the pulpit by this author’s ears, and by at least 1000 others at a local devotional celebration last year that one can determine the spiritual worthiness of a congregation by two things: 1) the length of penitents in the confession line and 2) by the amount of cash in the collection plate each week is a full, active, and conscious example of that proverbial (yet erroneous) role of the laity to “pray, pay, and obey.” I pose this: So what if we don’t? Do we lose heaven? Is the priest one of those mythic Fates, dropping our salvation from a spindle like a thread, to be cut off by the sacerdotal shears when our pennies don’t ring loudly enough in his discretionary fund, or if we don’t enumerate our transgressions to his satisfaction? How are we to reconcile the notion of the laity as the “Populus Dei”? Did the Roman Missal get it wrong? Or are we laymen such as neophyte freemasons not allowed an illicit glance into the secret ecclesial texts meant only for the eyes of the more deeply initiated? This evokes that legendary image of Luther’s chained Bible in the university library. Consider this metaphor: There is a gate set up across a path, but instead of its being connected to a fence, the gate stands alone. The gate keeper must convince travelers that a real fence extends from either side of his gate, and that each much pass through the gate to continue his journey after paying the proper toll. One day, a clever traveler thumbs his nose at the gatekeeper, walks around the gate and continues along the path. The gatekeeper becomes angry and impotently curses the traveler. There is so much information available nowadays for our common sense (and logic) to be so confounded as to yield to clericalism. In the past it was easier for the Fates to conceal the texts of Canon Law, to digest Holy Scripture, spinning their yarns in secrecy, vacationing atop Mt. Sinai until they feel inclined to descend the height, commandments in one hand, turkey drumstick in the other, declaring with a great belch the latest mandates hashed out in the great tent of meeting. These days are long gone. Liturgical rubrics and copies of Canon Law are readily available. Need we even mention the corpus of Catholic teaching at everyone’s fingertips in the Catechism of the Catholic Church? Mysterium non est. Clericalism is a magic spell that transforms the rude swain destined for the churchyard into the Great and Wonderful Oz. Whereas true political nobility is inherited, ecclesial nobility is bestowed. A greased palm does not create a duke. Christ himself came to earth not to be served, but to serve. Washing 12 pairs of clean feet on Maundy Thursday just isn’t enough to convince us once a year of the sincerity exercised by the fellow with the ewer and basin. A priest is not a noble. He’s a servant. “In persona Christi” he cries. “I stand in the person of Christ!” Good try, but not exactly. Thank goodness that term only refers to the consecration of the communion elements, and not everyday life, just as the concept of papal infallibility pertains only to the teachings on faith and morals. The pope can not walk on water, and a priest in his everyday life is hardly a personification of the Son of God. Shroud-clad skeleton Death in the bishop tableau of the ancient Totentanz mural in Lübeck reminds the richly mitred, coped, and brocaded: “Du lehnst dich ümbsonst auff deinen Hirtenstab./ Zerbricht das schwache Rohr, so taumelstu ins Grab.” (In vain you lean upon your shepherd’s staff. When that weak little reed breaks apart, so you will tumble into the grave.)
The clergyman caught in the clerical trap succumbs to his own human frailty which contorts and redefines the Christian goal “to be like Christ”. A fiddle back and lacy alb make a Christ as ineffectively as platform shoes and a wig make a Louis. Let us not forget: mental hospitals throughout the country are packed with lunatics who believe they are Jesus, and church parishes should not be safe exiles for the mentally unstable. Were there no lessons learned from the life of the divine Caligula? His horse was a made a senator by God’s command.
Neuhaus continues: “Shaw is also well aware that the Church is not constituted as a democracy, as he also knows how frequently the observation that the Church is not a democracy is misused to avoid addressing the problem of clericalism.” There must be a balance. Democracy the Church ain’t. Yet a tyranny she also ain’t. Thank God Christ wasn’t a cleric, drunk on his sudden acquisition of power by virtue of his personage. When confronted by the woman caught in adultery, we may have seen Him charge the mob to use filthy seductress for target practice. A humble priest is a good thing. He is a pastor of his flock. He leads them, he gives them council, he is the caretaker of souls. And then there are these: he comes from unfortunate circumstances, the next had few opportunities as a child, the other was the butt of jokes, this one his high school teachers labeled a sissy, that fell madly in love with his best friend, yet felt shame for his unnatural yearning, this one is so horrendously homely, there would be no chance he could ever take a wife: one kiss, then death! These budding clerics look to the priesthood for a way to get back at humanity for being handed the short end of the stick: each is the ugly duckling who wins the beauty pageant. These are the sociopaths who misuse the monarchial construction of the Church and transform their corners of the kingdom into their own, personal tyrannies. Coupled with their superiors’ self-expedient unwillingness to keep their underlings in check, they allow these priest-tyrants to ply their craft. Neuhaus quotes Shaw: “By clericalism I mean an elitist mindset, together with structures and patterns of behavior corresponding to it, which takes it for granted that clerics – in the Catholic context, mainly bishops and priests – are intrinsically superior to the other members of the Church and deserve automatic deference. Passivity and dependence are the laity’s lot.” Thus can all manner of sins be concealed under the rubric of “pastoral reasons”, including the misuse of one’s office to justify the abuse of souls in the guise of pastoral care, the clichéd “wolf in sheep’s clothing”. A Roman priest asked his congregation recently, “Why do you hate me? Why do you run from me?” His response to this rhetorical question was that the people are shy to speak to a man in a Roman collar. It’s not the collar. It’s the man. We are no longer taught, and rightly so, to esteem a man simply for his vesture or because of his job. We can wash the blood off the hands of a serial killer and dress him in a well tailored suit. We can revere the businessman for his prowess at making millions and allowing his employees to amass healthy retirement benefits. And then, we hear of Enron. Legendary Fr. Rossi, Latin teacher for years at a Catholic boys school, was immortalized for many reasons in the memories of his colleagues and students alike. He was a wise teacher, and knew that there were some boys who simply could not and would never be able to wrap their minds around the complexity of the Latin language. Their studies would always be lacking, and they would always fall short. His response when questioned about these fellows when their records never improved, regardless of his fine teaching: “Well, sir, you just can’t shine shit.”
Neuhaus recounts the story that when Pope Benedict XVI was ordained to the priesthood, his town mounted a huge celebration (found in the Pope’s memoir entitled Milestones). Father Ratzinger, when seeing the celebratory reception kept telling himself, “This is not for you.” How wise! Here is a man who looked upon his ordination the right way: he was made a priest in order to serve. Not to be served. It wasn’t about his wants and likes. Isn’t it fascinating how such a humble priest ascends, eventually, the throne of Peter? What the young Father Ratzinger did was not unlike the triumphal entrance of an ancient Roman general into his city. “Sic transit gloria mundi” someone would whisper into his ear: thus the glory of the world passes away. It was a charge: don’t get caught up in all the hoopla. And most of all, don’t think it’s all about you. For the cleric, it is all about him. By ordination, he adopts the false and dangerous mindset that he has been elevated to super-human status. The judge of a good pastoral leader is not in how well he orders others, changes things around to suit himself, how effective he is in getting his way, how well he can engage in cover-up’s to protect his own mistakes and the reality of his lineage, or how well his superiors protect him and themselves from his own vanity. The good judge of pastoral leadership is based upon how he cares for his flock as Christ would care for them. Does he search out the lost sheep, or can he not be bothered by the wretched beast who failed to follow his lead? Is he willing to sacrifice for his flock out of sincerity or is he forgoing his Popeye’s Chicken on Fridays simply because he needs to show his congregants he can go for long-periods without food, so that they may all be impressed by his ability to fast (might I suggest a review of the Holy Gospel of Ash Wednesday?). My understanding is that boa constrictors also are able to go long periods between feedings. Perhaps this is a common trait among serpents.
Neuhaus, and I agree with him, uses the term “neurotic” within the context of the clerics and the scandal of clericalism. He writes: “…Shaw addresses the long, long aftermath of the trusteeship controversies of more than a hundred years ago. With great difficulty, the bishops turned back the efforts of some Catholic laity to establish in this country a Protestant ecclesiology of congregational independence and lay control. A persuasive argument can be made that the bishops succeeded all too well. And parish pastors, too, who understand themselves to be bishops, or even popes, in their own domain frequently exhibit a neurotic vigilance against the real or imagined ghost of trusteeism.” The last thing a cleric wants is for the laity to be in charge. Not only would they gain direct knowledge of what is going on, they would be in a position to speak out against it. The cleric is an empire builder who surrounds himself with yes-men, who in committee can reach consensus even before any argument is heard. A no-vote against the cleric spells removal from the inner circle. “You may believe anything you like, as long as you agree with me. Blessed assurance: vengeance is mine!” When this comes from a priest, that priest, despite the collar, is acting immorally, holding over the heads of his innocent flock their own salvation as ransom for their loyalty. Pray, Pay, and Obey.
Then, after the clerical dust settles, we stand staring at the sky like the men of Galilee, wondering why once devout and dedicated Catholics suddenly leave the Church as a result. Clericalism is a malignancy which through its relativistic forgiveness both of priestly and episcopal scelera, gives credence and weight to the writings of the 16th century reformers, who themselves spoke no blasphemy or heresy, but who themselves had unmasked the clerical beast, to the benefit of millions of faithful worldwide who since 1517 have cast off that despicable yoke. Clericalism enables, rewards, and conceals all forms of mistreatment and abuse of the laity – need we be reminded of Gerhard Müller’s disgusting remarks in attempt to exonerate himself from blame in the recent sexual abuse scandal in the diocese of Regensburg, or of a certain Boston bishop who was handed a Roman plum for acting similarly. Clericalism transforms “Mother Church” from the bride of Christ into a beastly, carnivorous vagina dentata, both at the parish level by those who do the dirty work, and by those in diocesan administrations who, for their own safety’s sake, choose not to address this scandalous evil.