the clericalism of the laity

Jamie L. Manson has written another thought-provoking blog on the National Catholic Reporter web-site. In Priest`s pornography case reveals clericalism of the laity , she challenges the laity for remaining silent in the midst of the abuse scandals. She claims that even progressive voices are hesitant to openly challenge and report priests, and blames it on the “internalized clericalism of the laity.” Even when the evidence is staring us in the face, we are as guilty as clerics in giving the offending priest a “pass.”

Is this true? We have heard of the stories of days gone by, when a child’s word was seldom believed. Even when it was believed, a family was too ashamed or afraid to openly accuse the priest. But have we not moved beyond the old protectiveness of our clergy?

In my own parish life, I have never had to experience the unique betrayal of a sexually abusing priest. But I have experienced the effects of authoritarianism and abuse of power. I have seen some past priests treat a parish as their own fiefdom, bullying others to do their will. Parish councils and finance and liturgy committees were mere pawns, ensuring that all Father’s plans and wishes would be fulfilled.

I have also seen the diocesan-wide effects of a now long-gone bishop who was absolutely crazed with control. In his last years he had heads rolling among clergy and laity alike.

These priests and bishop were also abusers, though not sexually. And what did we do? Well, those of us who spoke out quickly found ourselves on the margins. Friends shared our feelings of anger and injustice, but felt they could do nothing beyond offering a shoulder to cry on. Priest friends, while sympathetic, distanced themselves from the situation out of fear for their own positions.

Since then, I have sat back and observed how a parish reacts to a pastor who abuses their power. The one constant seems to be that most of the faithful inner circle remains faithful. Oh, they will grumble mightily about how difficult Father is to work with. But they will continue to do his bidding. On Sunday morning, he is still surrounded by his minions. During the busy liturgical seasons, he still obsessively controls every detail despite the extra time and energy required of already over-worked volunteers.

And then it came to me. It`s so simple. The reason that priests can behave badly and get away with it, is because we enable them! And when we do, are we any better than the priests and bishops who cover up the abuses of their fellow clergy? My wise husband is fond of saying that a person can only have power if you give it to them. When will we learn to just say no?!

Manson concludes her article with the following,

As the tales of the institutional church’s deception and negligence continue to mount, lay Catholics must stop making themselves subservient to their imagined notions of the power of the hierarchy, and must instead allow themselves to be channels of the power of God that is made manifest through sacrifice, courage, and truthfulness.

They must recognize how their internalized clericalism may be impeding their prophetic participation in the Spirit’s unfolding work in our church.





2 thoughts on “the clericalism of the laity

  1. When you see the “clericalism of the laity” manifest itself in instances where people are actually observing potential sexual abuse of children, one can only imagine how clericalism plays out in the daily operation of church organizations. I remember once sitting in a meeting with church employees where the lay person in charge did all the talking. I thought to myself “O.K. these people are introverts”. Because I spoke up at this meeting someone took me aside afterwards and explained protocol, “only the person in charge speaks”. It was then that I fully realized the “old Irish pastors” from the pre-Vatican II Church were not dead. They continue working in church settings and are now dressed, like lay women and men.

    I think that clericalism is the model of leadership that is very deeply ingrained in the Church and lay people in leadership step into a clerical system that they must somehow put on. Many priests and bishops are intimidated by the competency and skills of lay leaders. So, to gain acceptance and approval, and to not be more threatening, lay people at least initially and with reluctance buy into the existing system that is modeled for them. Soon after some appear to really enjoy the power clericalism brings.

    A lot of “clericalism” appears to me to be unhealthy male characteristics. Earlier this week on this blog we saw this vividly demonstrated by Raymond Burke with images of him wearing the tallest hat, and longest cape, with the deepest of red garments, and caring the biggest staff. Image someone’s self image in the Church being based on how big their hat is.

  2. As always, thanks for your insights Ray! It`s so true that you don`t have to be a member of the clergy to buy into the clerical style of leadership. I know of a parish that, in the absence of a priest, was was administrated by a religious sister. Her authoritarianism and controlling ways took every one by surprise.

    I suppose it is a problem with leadership every where. It`s just that we have a name for it in the church. When, oh when, will more leaders realize that their role is one of service….not to be served!

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