|We need to ask ourselves if this is the model|
of Church that will advance evangelization
in the 21st century
This will be my final warning about the dangers of the clerical culture that is undermining the health of the Church today, though in several upcoming entries I will treat of anti-clericalism in the sixteenth century and how it opened the door to mass defections from the Catholic Church to the Protestant Reformers. And it is that reason—the effect that clericalism and the reaction to it, anticlericalism, have on the unity of the Church—why I have spent so much time on the problems of clerical culture in the contemporary Catholic Church in North America and the English speaking world. The abuse of priestly authority is creating a very dangerous situation as respect for the priesthood falls fast, and as priests alienate the faithful by clinging to the artificiality of a clerical identity and role in a Church and society that is moving beyond hierarchical models.
It is the clerical mentality that has steered the Catholic Church in the United States—among various nations—on such a disastrous and ill-advised path by which it attempted to “handle” the sex-abuse crisis instead of meeting it with transparency and dialogue. If one person is to be blamed—and of course it is never the fault of a single individual—but historically, if there is one person who touched the match to the fuse, it is Bernard Law, the former Cardinal-Archbishop of Boston. His Eminence’s arrogance when confronted by the misdeeds of some of his clergy enraged not only the people of Boston but people—Catholic and non-Catholic alike—across the United States and that anger spread like wildfire from diocese to diocese. It has continued to spread beyond the United States and has now become a serious issue in many European countries. The Cardinal was so convinced of the inviolability of the Church and his personal rank that he foolishly thought he was answerable to neither the civil and criminal law nor to public opinion. No one today, no one, not even the Pope himself, is above being judged by public opinion. There was a time when the Church declared that no one was suited to sit in judgment of the Roman Pontiff, but those days are over. Fit or not, Catholics and non-Catholics alike will not be deprived of their opportunity to critique. We can claim the Church and its prelates are above such judgment; we can protest it; we can even dismiss it, but in the end we had better wake up and smell the coffee. The great unwashed sits in judgment on the Prince of the Apostles and all his little violet-clad princelings and passes judgment. The Court of heaven may ignore earthly judgments, but the Church, as a visible and historical presence must realize that its day of being a law unto itself is over. King Louis is dead and millions of Madames deFarge are knitting away as the mitered heads are tumbreled to the guillotine of public opinion. And it is public opinion, not the rights and privileges of the past, that will determine the fate of the Church in society. The sooner that the clergy realize that the day of privilege and unearned respect is over the sooner we, as Church, can get on with our mission.
Anti-clericalism is a very important monitor of danger for the Church. Distrust of or discontent with the clergy undermines the Church as an institution and alienates people from the practice of the faith.
In the opening session of the Second Vatican Council, Bishop Emile DeSmedt of Bruges, Belgium, said that the Church had to renounce the “Clericalism, Triumphalism, and Juridicism” of past centuries. The late Cardinal Avery Dulles expanded on this quite a bit in his book The Catholicity of the Church. We need to listen to these contemporary prophets. The clerical culture that Archbishop Martin and Bishop Cupich denounced (see blog entries for May 10, 13, and 15 ) is a cancer in the Church that is devouring the very heart of the Gospel from within the Body of Christ. This does not mean that priests should not wear clerical garb or that titles of respect need to be abandoned. It does mean that priests or bishops who need such trappings to know who they are and what their mission is need to be removed from ministry until they get the help they need to be healthy functioning adults capable of working collaboratively in a Church that recognizes the maturity and giftedness of each individual not in light of what sacraments they have received but according to the charisms with which the Holy Spirit has endowed them. We need to see that just as Church structures evolved and changed over the centuries to empower the Church—the entire Body of Christ—to achieve its mission, so too today the Church is changing and evolving to keep pace with the saving work God has called it to in today’s world. To live is to change, declared Cardinal Newman, and to be perfect is to have changed often.