Clericalism as a Cultural Pattern: Aiding and Abetting Abuse

Michael Horan

Clericalism, like racism or sexism, festers within cultures and inside individual imaginations. Clericalism is based on social location in the Catholic church’s cultural system for both worship and governance, a system developed a millennium ago. Theologian Paul Lakeland asserts that all isms at their root are moved by a belief in the lesser humanity of the oppressed group. You know when you are adversely affected by an ism, but you hardly notice it if the ism benefits you. Just as sexism or racism privileges men over women and whites over all others in society at large, the cultural logic of clericalism privileges ordained men, some of whom know and acknowledge their privilege, and some of whom do not. Women in their offices and workplaces know when men are prejudging them or their work because they are women. Men have to work hard to notice it, to become aware and awake and conscious, the first steps toward change. Persons of color know when white people are tentative with them, or render them invisible, or overcompensate with niceness to mask discomfort. We, white people, have had to reckon with the fact that our whiteness bestows privilege, advantage, preferential treatment in a multicolored world, all by the arrangement of our white ancestors, and by our own collusion today. So is the case with Catholic clergy and laity, who benefit, knowingly or unknowingly, from clericalism.
Sometimes the system that bestows the privilege is accommodated, even defended, by those who are oppressed by that system. Just as racism and sexism become internalized in the very people that these systems devalue and discount, some of us lay Catholics internalize clericalism. When that happens, we behave our way into thinking that lies about our moral and spiritual inferiority are true. Sadly, we lay people in the Catholic church have been colluding with dysfunction that we re-invent one gesture and accommodation at a time. There are many forms of abuse, not all of them sexual, but the clergy-lay divide in Catholicism functions as the backdrop to all of them. Let’s begin with the cover-up of sexual abuse and then consider a more subtle form of clericalism, found in the church’s double-speak about the sacramental life.

Clericalism and Sexual Abuse
As a Catholic, as a lay pastoral theologian and educator who observes and wonders why things in Catholicism are as they are, I share the reaction of many other people, religious or not, who continue to be astonished by the decades-long cascade of revelations about the cover-up of abuse by Catholic priests. In many ways, the cover-up of any abuse is a second abuse, salt in the wound of the survivor. In the Catholic church’s sorry history the cover-ups reveal something profound and heinous about the cultural logic of Catholicism itself. The criminality and pathology of sexual abuse is one thing, and the institution-wide cover-up is another. I continue to ask, as many people do about our Catholic Church: What were they thinking? Pope Francis provides some insight into what they were thinking, or at least to the source of clericalism, a topic that he has mentioned at least a handful of times in formal addresses. In an opening address in autumn 2018, he described the source of clericalism this way: “Clericalism arises from an elitist and exclusivist vision of vocation that interprets the ministry received as a power to be exercised rather than as a free and generous service to be given.”

Within the cultural logic of clericalism, and I would contend only within that “logic”, can one understand the strong and pervasive Catholic pattern of the cover-up of abuse. Let’s briefly review the features of the cover-up before moving on.

Assisted by the FBI, the Grand Jury of the state of Pennsylvania released a report in 2018 that named some strategies and patterns shown to exist in the cover-ups, as chronicled clearly within the secret archives of each diocese. These are the patterns in Pennsylvania, but they ring true for many more places and situations: First, change the vocabulary (don’t call it rape, but inappropriate behavior or boundary issues); second, have the perpetrator evaluated by his peers and his progress partially measured by his self-report; third, assign him to a paid leave at a center (often run by his peers) and then reassign him to a parish based on their evaluation. Fourth, do not disclose anything to the parish congregation, tell them Father X is away for a retreat or due to nervous exhaustion, and do not acknowledge even to the parents of the victims if Father X has any prior history of preying upon minors. And in the words of the Grand Jury report:

Finally and above all, don’t tell the police. Child sexual abuse…is and has for all relevant times been a crime. But don’t treat it that way; handle it like a personnel matter, “in house.” (Grand Jury Report, my emphasis)

This is perhaps the most vexing part of the abuse crisis in the Catholic church: the revelation that bishops and priests who aced their Ethics courses in seminary had also learned to keep extensive secret personnel files on abusers, they knew a great deal, covered it up, and did so over a long period of time and for many cases (300 priests and 1000 survivors in Pennsylvania alone). How could they keep secret files and watch those files grow thicker, and NOT ask larger questions? What cultural assumptions could have allowed these men – themselves not pedophiles – to imagine and treat the lay victims as collateral damage for what they called the value of “avoiding scandal” in a “personnel” matter? If sexual abuse is treated as a “personnel matter” then what personnel matter? Certainly not the people of God, and not the children.
While Pope Francis’ words are stirring in their insistence on seeing ministry as service and not power, the polity of Catholicism and the requirements of priesthood shore up clericalism rather than challenge it. Indeed hierarchy and scarcity feed the culture of clericalism. In a hierarchy, you always look up, you report up, you kiss up. Accountability goes only one way. This is itself an abuse of the gospel message of Jesus, an accommodation to a culture a millennium ago. If the primary metaphor for ministry is power, not service, then the primary service is rendered to those in power.

And because there are a finite number of members sharing similar power, enculturated into that league through a common seminary preparation apart from the laypeople, the recruits develop a comradery and identity in relationship to themselves and not to the larger church which they will serve. Such comradery is not unlike other old boys’ clubs inside any number of professions, where the network is built on mystique and exclusion, and skewed toward male success. Examples can be found in the medical and legal professions, among tenured academics, and within police departments. These are only a few examples, but it is important to note that at least these professions require recertification, board oversight, ongoing education, meaningful annual performance reviews, and disciplinary board hearings. And while these professions still have not fully integrated women, at least they admit women to their ranks. Catholic priesthood has no such built-in professional requirements, only suggestions for continuing education. It does have a vigorous seminary recruitment program, but with low admission rates due to its requirements of maleness and celibacy. Based in a theology that makes each priest a priest forever, Catholicism has accommodated to the scarcity in numbers of priests, while insisting that the sacraments are essential. The theology of the priesthood and the very sacraments of the church set up clericalism.

Clericalism and Access to the Holy
Lacking knowledge of the global yoga community, I can only guess whether there are parallels between the cultural logic of Catholicism and that of the world of yoga. In a Catholic church that invests a lot in its sacramental rituals, the clergy is essential to accessing the Holy, indeed they are regarded as the conduit, if not the functional equivalent, of God. A recent page-one story in the New York Times (June 7, 2020) featured a Boston priest anointing a dying COVID patient, the priest stands in protected gear at a distance from the patient’s bed, anointing with oil but without contact. The author of the article writes: “Many Catholics have spent their entire lives trusting that in their most difficult hours a priest, and through him God, would come to their aid.” (my emphasis)

While theologians may not talk like this, the New York Times does, and the popular imagination of Catholics ratifies the notion that the sacraments are the sine qua non of the spiritual life. To be sure, Catholicism has a rich mystical tradition, an array of popular religious practices, a devotion to the communion of saints, a strong bent toward social justice, all these and more, in addition to official sacramental rituals. But the popular measure of a “practicing Catholic” does not foreground mysticism or social justice. No, the working definition of a practicing Catholic is someone who participates in the sacraments, and except for baptism in danger of death, you need a priest to make the sacraments happen. Catholicism is a cultural system that at least since the Reformation 500 years ago has emphasized its commitment to official public worship, and shaped its identity through the sacramental life, especially the Catholic Mass. While sacramental rituals have organically developed throughout Christian history, their codification and a certain legalism around them became concrete after the Protestant reform. Softened some by new language at Vatican Council II, there still exists in the theology of priesthood a heavy emphasis on the sacramental, indeed ontological power of the priest to confect the Eucharist and thus “make the Mass happen.”

Teachings about the primacy of the sacramental life might not be counted as abusive if people were not denied the sacraments. But priests are scarce in many parts of the world, and they are aging and diminishing in number, or at minimum, they are stretched thin. This is true in many parts of the United States, where dioceses appoint the same priest to multiple churches. The priests are spread too thin. We know there are Catholics who would like to serve in priestly ministry. But they are either of the wrong gender, wrong marital status, or both, and thus are denied admission. So there is a sacramental shortage in Catholicism to accommodate the admission requirements for the priesthood (maleness and celibacy).

Unlike other guilds that have been dominated by men, this guild is legitimated in its exclusion of women by a theology that is circular in its logic: Only a priest can lead and “make” the sacrament happen, yet these sacraments are necessary for the life of the community. The institution arranges for sacramental scarcity and even has rituals for use in the absence of a priest when people gather for Mass. But these are considered “plan B” accommodations, not sacraments. If Catholic people have to go without these sacraments because there is no priest, then there is sometimes a dispensation from requirements to practice them. But with few exceptions (deacons at weddings and funerals), the sacraments cannot be done without a priest. This makes clergy a precious commodity even as it makes sacramental worship either a rare privilege or an unreachable goal.

Here Catholicism and yoga may have similar logics: HOW to access the holy becomes deeply enmeshed with the question of WHO can access the holy. The theology of priesthood developed in part and over time to shore up the integrity of the rituals that access the holy. The conferral of Catholic ordination is a lifelong conferral, signaling a change in being (ontology). When priestly ordination requirements regulate the economy of sacraments, actually promoting sacramental scarcity while the church preaches the necessity of sacraments, then the church appears both abusive and abused. And when this situation goes on for generations, it is hard to disagree with Pope Francis’ description of clericalism, arising from “an elitist vision of vocation” and from the “triumph of power over service” as the essential condition for ministry. The engine that drives priestly identity is not ministry, but a sacramental theology that enshrines priestly power. What were those bishops and other leaders thinking when they reassigned a pedophile priest? They were formed in the logic that people are starving for access to the holy, and there are so few priests. Any priest is better than none. And even a bad one is better than a layperson.
Take an example from real-time. Notice that local Catholic parishes in COVID season are live-streaming Masses for people to watch. This is not Eucharist as the New Testament describes it, nor is it anything close to the meal from which it is derived. The community is not there to break bread, instead, viewers watch the priest break bread and eat. Some Catholic churches have responded with more creative interactive prayer experiences (via Zoom) during sheltering in place. But the majority of Catholic parishes have been using live-stream or even pre-recorded rituals, with either no congregation or a very limited one. This odd practice only further concretizes and legitimates the passive place of lay people whose only role is to tune in. This practice makes clear who is essential to the sacramental life: clergy are necessary to make the sacrament of Eucharist happen, with or without the people present. We, laypeople, are expedient, we can watch while others eat. The ritual regimen is bound up with the clerical culture, and they perpetuate each other, at the expense of the people of God.


Dr. Michael Horan is Professor of Theological Studies (Religious Education and Pastoral
Theology) at Loyola Marymount University, where he has directed the Master’s degree program,
chaired the Department of Theological Studies, and served as Associate Dean of Liberal Arts.
His research interests lie in practices that promote lay ministries in Catholic parishes.

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