Clericalism, Abuse, and the Identity of Priests

Author: Louis J. Cameli

The abuse crisis in the Catholic Church has appropriately triggered soul-searching in the Church. We must be about justice, healing, and prevention. There is no question about that. At the same time, we will move forward in these directions only if we first have an understanding of what has happened and who we are. My suggestion is that we examine the three terms in the title of this article: clericalism, abuse, and the identity of priests. A deeper understanding of these terms will not resolve all the questions and challenges we face, but it can set us on firmer footing as we try to go forward.

Is clericalism really at the root of the abuse crisis?

As the abuse crisis has unfolded, some commentators have identified clericalism as the cause of both sexual misconduct with minors and the subsequent cover-ups that allow the abuse to go unreported and unpunished. Everything, however, really depends on understanding what clericalism is. As I understand it, clericalism means a sense of belonging to a cohort that identifies itself as privileged and exempt from standards of decency and morality to which others are held. This clericalism enables abuse to happen. Clericalism, again in the context of Church but in the aftermath of abuse, also means having a misplaced sense of responsibility to protect institutional interests from damage, to maintain the institution’s superior and privileged reputation, and to do this at all costs. In this way, clericalism also enables the cover-up of abuse to happen.

What I have identified here as clericalism seems to accurately describe a phenomenon that we have been grappling with as a beleaguered and shamed Church. And yet, although clericalism offers us an accurate description of troubling experience, it may not get at the cause of abuse and its cover-up. A deeper and more universal human substratum is at work.

One of my brothers worked for a number of years as a federal prosecutor both in the civil and criminal divisions. He came in touch with the dark edges of the human condition. He came to a conclusion about the origin and cause of criminal behavior. It all stems, as he identified it, from a sense of entitlement. With this mindset of entitlement, I can claim this person’s life or this person’s property, because it really is mine to have or mine to dispose of as I wish. Entitlement, especially coupled with psychological underdevelopment or outright psychopathology, precipitates abuse. It is then, first and foremost, a great act of injustice visited upon victims. This pattern has been at work in the Church, but it is obviously not limited to the Church. Entitlement is what the #MeToo movement has revealed, what fueled the Ponzi schemes of Bcrnie Madoff, and what lies at the heart of gang violence and murder in the business of drug dealing.

Take this another step. Consider institutional entitlement, the need to save face, and couple it with inept management. That is the formula for cover-ups. Again, the Church offers a startlingly clear example of the despicable cover-up process. Even so, the Church is not the only institution engaged in cover-ups rooted in entitlement. Think, for example, of Boeing and the recent corporate maneuvers around the 737-Max or Volkswagen and pollution controls.

There are two haunting refrains that signal the fall from grace whether in the Church or in the world: "It’s mine for the taking” and “Save the brand.” These arc the catchphrases of entitlement that lead us into sin and crime and its cover-up.

There certainly are priests who feel that by their social-religious position they are a cut above everyone else. They come off as pompous, and they want to be privileged in their interactions with mere mortals and exempt from accountability. That is obvious clericalism, and it is obnoxious. But is it the root of the abusive behaviors? I am convinced that within manifest clericalism (and sometimes outside of it) lurks a real root. It is a sense of entitlement, the entitlement that underlies human misbehavior with others and criminal activity. Significant practical consequences follow from identifying the root of abuse in entitlement.

If we focus exclusively on clericalism and its connection to abuse, the whole tragic matter seems to be about a single and odd species, the clericalist cleric. And our response and efforts at prevention will miss the deeper, more significant mark — a perilous human proclivity to take what does not belong to us (life, property, innocence, whatever) and then to protect ourselves through deceptive cover-ups. Let me be very specific. Theodore McCarrick, among high-level members of the church hierarchy, would not have been considered particularly clericalist. He had an easy, one might even say, somewhat left-ward leaning and democratic style in his interactions with others and in public presentations of himself. He was very much in favor of collaboration with lay people. He was not obnoxious, he was charming. What McCarrick did do, however, was to take what did not belong to him, because he felt entitled. Additionally, for McCarrick and other perpetrators, their amazing and enraging lack of remorse is not specifically tied to clericalism, but it is certainly consistent with entitlement. In the end, we can affirm a connection between abuse and clericalism. That clericalism, however, encases a more malevolent and dangerous sense of entitlement.

The abuse of young people, Pope Francis has said, is a human problem. He means, I think, that the problem of abuse extends well beyond clergy and well beyond the Church, although it has been tragically and dramatically evident in clergy and in the Church. Entitlement is the universal substratum of that human problem.

Entitlement in abusive priests and other criminals, no doubt, has psychological dimensions. I cannot directly speak to that (although I think it would be very useful to screen for it in prospective priesthood candidates rather than focusing on the objects of sexual desire). From the perspective of faith, however, I do know that the sense of entitlement that leads to damaging and destructive behavior is a disavowal of grace. No one can truly live in a world of grace and, at the same time, feel entitled to make unjust claims on others. Persons who are truly aware of the absolute primacy of grace in their lives know their indebtedness to God and are eternally grateful. The countersign to entitlement is gratitude.

Do attempts to eliminate clericalism damage efforts to foster a strong sense of priestly identity?

Eliminating clericalism that can encase entitlement and so contribute to abusive behavior is a very good project. At the same time, deconstructing clericalism cannot be about or even be perceived as diluting priestly identity, the distinctive sense of being a priest for others. And this is very important to consider in our current context. A younger generation of priests today, for example, would be particularly sensitive to this possible dilution of identity. We can begin to understand what this means by considering priestly identity in itself, the turbulent history of priestly identity during the past fifty years, and finally some current experience among clergy.

Priests should have a strong and clear professional and spiritual identity that enables them to be properly focused in their service to God’s people. In other words, each priest needs to claim who he is, what he does, and for what purpose. This is a matter of identity, ministry, and mission. The majority of people strongly opposed to clericalism still want their priests to be well grounded in identity, ministry, and mission. For others, however, it is not just a matter of eliminating clericalism, it also means eliminating priesthood and, of course, all remnants of priestly identity, as a recent Atlantic article by James Carroll proposed. How did we arrive at this point? To answer this question, we need to briefly visit the history of priesthood these past fifty years or so.

Before the Second Vatican Council, there was no question about priestly identity. Ordination brought with it an indelible (and distinctive) sacramental character as well as the power to consecrate and to absolve. Everything was quite clear. Then came the Second Vatican Council. Its teaching unequivocally re-affirmed the distinctiveness of ordained ministry. At the same time, because the Council situated clergy in the larger context of all the baptized people of God, some felt free to blur lines that marked off the ordained and the non-ordained. This did not represent an accurate interpretation of the Council’s teaching, but it was a popular one in some quarters. That meant a dilution of priests’ identity.

The process of dilution occurred very quickly after the Council. By 1971 a synod of bishops was summoned to deal with the ministerial or ordained priesthood. That synod addressed these startling questions: “Does the priestly ministry have any specific nature? Is this ministry necessary? Is the priesthood incapable of being lost? What does being a priest mean today?” (The Ministerial Priesthood, n. 4) Consequences of this dilution of identity followed: fewer candidates presenting themselves for priesthood, those already ordained departing from ministry in significant numbers, and priests often haunted by the question of how they fit in the Church and the world.

Across the 80’s and 90’s during the pontificate of Saint John Paul II, there were many efforts to shore up priestly identity that culminated in the apostolic exhortation Pastores dabo vobis (I will give you shepherds) in 1992. John Paul II sought to recoup and renew a sense of priestly identity by situating priests in a series of relationships to the Trinity, to Jesus, to the Church, to the people served, to the mission, and to other priests.

Since the time of Pastores dabo vobis and well into the beginning of the next century, seminarians (often encouraged by their seminary programs) and more recently ordained priests wanted a clearer sense of their priestly identity. Often this meant claiming and reclaiming distinctive markers from the past, a retrieval that frequently raised the eyebrows among older priest peers and that could cause divisions in presbyterates. These markers included distinctive vesture (clerical attire worn all the time, older style vestments), the insistence on using formal titles of address (“Father”), a preoccupation with orthodoxy (translated as a formalistic conformity to the Catechism and the Code of Canon Law), and a punctilious celebration of liturgical rituals sometimes drawing from the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite. Some clergy have defended these practices as ways to promote and consolidate priestly identity amid all the fluctuations of our post-modern world. Other clergy, often older, viewed these external trappings dimly and saw a resurgence of clericalism, a privileged cast set apart.

Then we arrive in our own moment. Pope Francis has wanted to set a direction for priestly identity, but clearly he has eschewed linking that identity with externals. For him, a priest is never more himself as priest than when he is conformed to Jesus the servant who goes out to the margins. The Holy Father’s Ignatian background leads him to see priests as “contemplatives in action,” men wedded entirely to the mission to bring Jesus to the world. Priestly identity, as he envisions it, is fundamentally an apostolic identity, a sense of self in mission. In some but not all quarters, this vision of priestly identity is taking hold. Given the kind of self-emptying in mission that this identity requires, no one could accuse the Pope of fostering clericalism as he encourages this approach. In fact, his vision rides directly against any currents of privilege, careerism, and — of course — of entitlement. It remains to be seen how this sense of priestly identity will take hold of priests in the Church.

We can return to the lead question of this section: do attempts to eliminate clericalism damage efforts to foster a strong sense of priestly identity? No, not necessarily. If a renewed sense of priestly identity rooted in the relational model of Saint John Paul II and the apostolic-missionary model of Pope Francis takes hold, then identity can be strong and the privileged and isolating clericalism that can encase entitlement is eliminated. If, on the other hand, priestly identity is tightly wound about the accoutrements of priestly office, then there is reason for unease for priests who find their core identity in these elements.

Toxic clericalism impedes the mission and ministry of the Church. Tragically, it can encase a sense of entitlement that triggers abuse. The elimination of clericalism summons us to re-imagine relationships in the Church.

How can we re-envision the relationships of priests and the People of God?

If we want to eliminate clericalism and a sense of clergy entitlement, while firming up a genuine sense of identity for priests, we ought to turn to a theme that has occupied the Church’s attention in recent years — the family. The relationships of bishops, priests, and people are often framed in family language: father, son, brother. Although this usage should not be taken literally, it is more than simply metaphorical. There are real family-like relationships in the Church that deserve our attention. They can enable us to meet, work, and live with each other in a right and holy way. These relationships also echo synodality — going on the road together — to which Pope Francis has called the Church.

In 2015, I spoke to the assembly of the National Federation of Priests’ Councils, and my topic was: “Who Am I Now? Father, Son, Brother — Making Sense of Priests’ Complex Web of Relationships to Bishops, People, and Each Other.” Church documents speak of bishops as fathers and brothers to their priests, who are, in turn, sons and brothers to their bishops. These documents also speak of priests as fathers to the people entrusted to their care as well as brothers to these same people, who are priests’ brothers and sisters. It does seem to be quite a tangle of relationships. There is, however, a sacramental logic in all of this, a logic captured, for example, in the Second Vatican Council’s Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests, n. 9, which reads:

“Even though the priests of the new law by reason of the sacrament of Order fulfill the preeminent and essential function of father and teacher among the People of God and on their behalf, still they are disciples of the Lord along with all the faithful and have been made partakers of his kingdom by God, who has called them by his grace. Priests, in common with all who have been reborn in the font of baptism, are brothers among brothers [and sisters] as members of the same Body of Christ which all are commanded to build up.”

In 1968, French theologian Pierre Colin offered a reflection on this same decree and revealingly entitled it Le Pretre: Un homme “mis a part” mais non “séparé” [The Priest: A man “set apart” but not “separated”]. His point of departure is this passage from the Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests, n. 3: “The priests of the New Testament are, it is true, by their vocation to ordination, set apart in some way in the midst of the People of God, but this is not in order that they should be separated from that people or from any man, but that they should be completely consecrated to the task for which God chooses them.”

Colin’s point is to emphasize the relational heart of priesthood and priestly ministry. That relational center offers a way of navigating a distinctive identity for priests who, at the same time, are humanly and spiritually linked to the people of God and, indeed, to humanity at large. And so, at a foundational level, identity is kept and the possibility of clericalism can be undercut.

At first glance, the relational underpinnings of priesthood may seem unexceptional, even a commonplace. In fact, that is not at all true. From the time of the Council of Trent until the Second Vatican Council, the distinctive markers of priests rested essentially in special powers to consecrate the eucharistic elements, to forgive sins, and to exercise jurisdiction. With the Council, relationships became paramount. In the first place, this means relationship to Jesus Christ. Priests are empowered to act in the name and person of Jesus Christ head and shepherd of the Church (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, n. 10; Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests, n. 2). The relational dimension then unfolds in the Church. Ordination situates priests in a relationship with their bishop and other priests in a presbyterate. Finally, they are in an essential and mutually ordered relationship with all the baptized. The Constitution on the Church says, the common priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial or hierarchical priesthood are ... ordered one to another; each in its own proper way shares in the one priesthood of Christ” (n. 10). In simpler language, in the Church, it makes no sense to have priests without people or people without priests.

The familial-relational language of priest as father-son-brother captures the essential conviction that priests’ lives are constituted by multiple relationships. It also shores up a sense of identity while avoiding the traps of clericalism and entitlement. Existentially, however, there is a catch in all of this. Priests need to be relationally nimble. In other words, their relational world and their relationships are not statically fixed but are dynamic realities that regularly require shifting and adjustment. Perhaps a simple example can illustrate this important point. When priests pronounce the words of consecration in the Eucharist they stand most clearly in their relationship to Jesus Christ (agere in persona Christi). Then, almost immediately after the elevation of the Eucharist, they genuflect. In that genuflection they are one with all the assembled believers with whom they are in relationship. At that moment of genuflection, they act in adoration and gratitude with the entire assembly (agere in persona populi).

If, indeed, priests are fathers-sons-brothers in the family of God and that is essential both for their identity and the avoidance of clericalism-entitlement, then these relationships become an important key in continuing discernment. These relationships can craft an examination of conscience grounded in the realities of daily life: how am I living and relating? Are the particular elements of my ministry and life properly aligned? How do I deal with investments of time and energy? How do I manage my affective world and how does that connect with getting things done to fulfill my mission? And the most fundamental question that underlies the others, am I truly embedded in the family of God as father-son-brother, so that I am intimately engaged with the people entrusted to me and so that — in the words of Pope Francis — I carry “the smell of the sheep”?


The magnitude of the abuse crisis in the Catholic Church — the injury done to innocent victims, the breakdown of trust among Catholic people, and the failure to take effective action in the face of all the damage — all this presses us to find answers: how could this have happened? What are the causes? How do we avoid anything like this in the future? Where is the path to restoring justice and finding healing? Although we would all like to find a single simple answer to the many questions, there is none to be found. It is not just clericalism, not just psychopathology, not just institutional dysfunction, not just a presenting opportunity (John Jay study), not just surrender to sinful tendencies, although there is a piece of truth in each of these factors. The consistent and central factor, I have suggested, is a sense of entitlement encased in clericalism. And remediating that factor must move forward in a way that respects the identity of clergy and even shores it up in more authentic ways. A genuine realignment of the way that priests relate to people and to each other and to bishops could then foster the prevention of abuse in the future. And in all the sadness of this hour, that would truly be a great grace.

L'Osservatore Romano
30 August 2019
Page 6/7