The Fight against Clericalism Takes a Dangerous Turn

“Clericalism” has been a favorite buzzword of Pope Francis almost since the inception of his pontificate. He wields it like a Swiss army knife, applying it to every problem he doesn’t have a sufficient alternative explanation for. (There’s also not a little irony in his use of the term, but that’s par for the course.) Most recently, he leveled the vaguely defined charge of clericalism at the sexual abuse crisis. In his “Letter to the People of God” in August of 2018, Francis said, “Clericalism, whether fostered by priests themselves or by lay persons, leads to an excision in the ecclesial body that supports and helps to perpetuate many of the evils that we are condemning today. To say ‘no’ to abuse is to say an emphatic ‘no’ to all forms of clericalism.”

Since then, among exasperated Catholics, the word has turned into a sort of universal euphemism for sexual perversity among the clergy — as in, “Did you hear about the two priests who were caught committing clericalism together in the back seat of a car down in Florida?”

It should be said, all jokes aside, that there is a component of clericalism in the way priestly sexual abuse has been handled. This can be seen in the good old boys club, protect our own above all else, hide criminal actions behind the façade of concern for scandal approach to priestly abuse. Clericalism reared its ugly head when situations were made to quietly go away by bishops without adequate punishment or protection against future offenses; when priests were shuffled from place to place with no warning to the faithful; or when, as the former pope said in his recent letter, “Rome and the Roman canonists” reached the conclusion that a “temporary suspension from priestly office had to be sufficient to bring about purification and clarification” in priests accused of these heinous crimes.

But the pushback against clericalism carries with it its own dangers, and a recent pair of articles from La Croix International brings some of them into stark relief.

The first, entitled simply “Combating Clericalism,” is an interview about a colloquium held at the University of Strasbourg about “The Temptation of Clericalism” on April 25 and 26. Thibault Joubert, a layman, canon lawyer, and member of the theology faculty at Strasbourg, was one of the co-organizers of the event. He tells La Croix that “Pope Francis’ denunciation of clericalism as being largely responsible for the sexual abuse committed by members of the clergy” was what inspired the meeting, with the intention of tackling the supposed clericalism problem. Joubert says that “the extent to which the pope’s words evoked strong reactions” is enough to prove that the issue of clericalism is “a crucial matter”:

Certain bishops and cardinals — who consider the causes of abuse to be external — prefer to deflect the reformative character of the pope’s words by blaming moral decadence and homosexuality.

What Francis wants to demonstrate is that, on the contrary, the Church gives rise structurally to psychological, spiritual and sexual abuse.

As a side note, it’s interesting to observe how freely pro-Francis theologians now feel that they can take gratuitous swipes at the former pope, who, in his recent letter, blamed clerical abuse, in part, on a “collapse” of moral theology that “rendered the Church defenseless” against societal changes that came along with the sexual revolution. Benedict also mentioned the problem of “homosexual cliques” in the seminary.

While the names of several of the “experts” Joubert invited to the symposium were not familiar to me, one was: Professor Marie-Jo Thiel, who made news when she was appointed to the newly reconstructed Pontifical Academy for Life, despite the fact that she rejects Church teaching on the intrinsic disorder of homosexual acts and the Catholic prohibition against contraception.

“Without doubt,” Joubert continues, “this polarization within the Church hierarchy corresponds largely to the one between the defenders of a ‘fortress Church’ and partisans of a ‘field hospital’ Church.” (We can guess with reasonable hope of accuracy which camp Joubert and Thiel fall into.)

The second article is a follow-up on the conference, and in it we learn that in a presentation by French historian Nicole Lemaître, it was asserted that

… clericalism in its present form is primarily a historical construct that owes a great deal to the Council of Trent.

It developed from the 18th century in a “Catholic radicalization” that concentrated all sacred functions on ordained priests, beginning with the Eucharist and confession.

The French school of spirituality of de Berulle and Olier, in particular, developed the concept of the ideal priest — the “holy priest” — above the faithful and identified with Christ.

The main method of combating clericalism and undoubtedly the most immediate thus needs to be based on improvements to canon law, including punishing such abuses.

Let’s parse that a little.

Clericalism is a problem derived from the Council of Trent? Well, tilting at Trent would serve more than a few purposes in the modern Church, wouldn’t it?

The idea that it is some form of Catholic “radicalism” to “concentrate all sacred functions on ordained priests, beginning with the Eucharist and confession” is, not to put too fine a point on it, utterly absurd. It is an argument for the emasculation of the priesthood — an out and out adulteration of the ordained priest’s participation in Christ’s marriage to the Church, His mystical bride.

But if this is clericalism, we can see why fingers are pointing at the Council of Trent, which condemns this very idea:

Session 24, CANON I. — If any one saith, that there is not in the New Testament a visible and external priesthood; or that there is not any power of consecrating and offering the true body and blood of the Lord, and of forgiving and retaining sins; but only an office and bare ministry of preaching the Gospel, or, that those who do not preach are not priests at all; let him be anathema.

Moving on, we find that the notion that there is something wrong with the idea of a “holy priest” being above the faithful and identified with Christ was, in its essence, also condemned there. The following passage is about the superiority of the consecrated virginal state, but it speaks to the larger issue. A vocation to the religious life, whether we like it or not, is a higher calling — and the priest acts as alter Christus. Here’s what Trent has to say on the idea of the religious life being of a higher order:

Council of Trent, Session 24, canon 10: “If anyone says that the married state surpasses that of virginity or celibacy, and that it is not better and more blessed to remain in virginity or celibacy than to be united in matrimony, let him be anathema.

These attacks on the sacramental priesthood, of course, aren’t the only reasons to make an enemy of Trent. As Joubert noted in his anticipatory interview about the colloquium:

We will also reflect on the liturgy (with Michel Steinmetz from Strasbourg Archdiocese) as the place where clericalism is both manifested and corrected.

And there you have it. A theme oft-repeated, but making itself felt again. We know, of course, that they’re not talking about “Ordinary Form” liturgies. Clericalism isn’t a word one hears in reference to such things. Where do we hear it? How about in the opening paragraph of this 2017 piece by Matthew Schmitz?

Last week, in a speech to Italian liturgists, Pope Francis appeared to set in stone the liturgical changes that came at the time of Vatican II. “After this magisterium, after this long journey,” he said, “we can affirm with certainty and with magisterial authority that the liturgical reform is irreversible.” Liberal commentators celebrated his comments as a blow to the “the re-emergence of a certain neo-clericalism with its formalism” and rejoiced that the “restorationist movement in liturgy is being reversed”.

Or how about this, from John Monaco?

Another claim made by some is that the Latin Mass promotes clericalism, that is, the belief that the priest is somehow better, holier, or more important than the people assembled. Their basis for this is in the priest’s facing ad orientem, towards the east…

Or this oldie-but-certainly-not-goodie from Ross Douthat, who says (in 2007, anyway) that he’s “generally sympathetic to those cheering the restatement (or, since it was never technically banned, the promotion of) the Tridentine Rite; however:

I also think that shifting to the vernacular was the right decision overall, however badly implemented; I think that the attempt to increase lay participation in the Mass, however dreadful many of its fruits, was a necessary and long-overdue step in a Church that still has a serious problem with clericalism…

These are just a few quick Google results in no particular order. If you go looking for “clericalism” in the context of liturgy, it’s almost always a code word for “those mean old meanie priests who offer the traditional Latin Mass.”

The people railing hardest against “clericalism,” unsurprisingly enough, are usually those most furiously channeling their inner Martin Luthers into the Church — attacking liturgy, sacraments, and sacramental priesthood alike. (It’s really no wonder they don’t like Trent; it was called in opposition to Luther’s so-called “reforms.”)

Joubert thinks it important to “move away from the hyper-spiritualization of the priest,” and that “the quintessential Christian life is the baptismal life in its ordinary character: this is the place of life in the Spirit.”

He believes that “the progressive concentration on the priest of tasks originally shared among a great variety of sacred roles” has not only “obscured the diversity of roles in Catholicism” but also “helped feed the abuses of power that the Church has experienced.”

First of all, no. What we do not need is more worldly, less spiritual priests. What we do not need is more blurring of the lines between the ordained and baptismal priesthoods. We’ve had plenty of those in the past half-century, and it’s time for our ersatz sacramental theology to grow the heck up. If there are structures identifiable with clericalism that shield predator priests, fine, pull a Hans Urs Von Balthasar and “raze the bastions.” But we need an enhanced sense of the sacredness of the priesthood to help us combat this evil, not the diminution thereof.

It’s easy to dismiss this as just another mini-conference of progressive theologians in the faith-wasteland that is Europe in 2019, but I’m worried about just how high these currents of thought run in the anti-clericalist circles within the Church. Amoris Laetitia 159, for example, took similar aim at the elevated role of sacred virginity as well, a fact that was flagged as a potential heresy in a theological censures document put together by an international coalition of Catholic scholars in 2016. Is Thibault Joubert speaking the same language as Pope Francis when he aims to take out our conception of the sacred priesthood at the knees?

And then there’s this gem. Writing for La Croix, Isabelle de Gaulmyn concedes at the beginning of her article on the Strasbourg colloquium that:

“Clericalism is the enemy!” was the mantra of [French] anticlerical Republicans during the late 19th century. Curiously, the slogan has now become a favorite among Catholics in relation to ecclesial dysfunction.

Anticlericalism in France. It’s a ghoulish (but perhaps not inaccurate) comparison, especially just after watching Notre Dame Cathedral burn. Anticlericalism had progressed by the late 19th century to the point where Catholicism was being publicly mocked and legally extricated from civic life, but a more raw and visceral strain manifested in France a hundred years prior during the Reign of Terror. At that time, anticlericalists were busy butchering Catholic clergy and religious, desecrating churches, and enthroning the goddess of reason in the place of God.

This time around, it’s not the clergy being being butchered, but the Faith itself. In parish after parish, in sermon after sermon, in liturgy after liturgy, conference after conference, and synod after synod, the fires of Catholicism are being stamped out in the hearts of men, led by the moderns who think they know so much more than their forebears in faith.

Of course, if one looks at one of the famous enlightenment anti-Catholics — Voltaire — we find, perhaps, a hermeneutic key to understanding this return to anti-clerical sentiment:

Doubtless they are strengthened in their belief because they have heard of Voltaire’s cry, ” Ecrasez l’infame !” “Crush the Infamous One!” By “Infamous One” he certainly meant the Church, but when Voltaire first penned these words (he would write them numerous times) they were not a call for revolution. They were more an expression of intense personal frustration. It outraged his sense of man as a “free” being that there should exist an institution of such power and influence — the Church — that its precepts, codified in law and buttressed by custom, could set limits on anyone’s behavior, beginning with his own.

If this is the direction the new ecclesiastical anti-clericalism is heading, we’d best be prepared.

This post has been updated.

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