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Clericalism: Death of the Priesthood by Fr. George Wilson SJ

Joined: 10 Sep 2006
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This is the kind of book one reads with a “highlighter” pen. Most of us don’t even know the word “Clericalism” (presumption of superiority among the ordained and of inferiority among the laity), let alone use it in polite conversation. Clericalism as a concept is found in many occupations such as doctor, lawyer, law enforcement, and military, not only when related to the church. The “laity” looks at the “ordained” of those professions and dares not challenge. This book, by Jesuit priest, Father George B. Wilson, S. J., just published in 2008, has much to say on the current situation in the church between the ordained and laity, going well beyond priest as perpetrator and laity as victim. Although he does touch on the priest * abuse scandal, in one long chapter, unfolding like a play in which Clericalism had a role at every stage, the book deals with the much wider dysfunction in lay/ordained relationships. Abuse refers to a wide range of behaviors, with resultant strain on individuals’ relationships to their pastor and parish, needing deliberate action and significant time to overcome.

A problem of BOTH the Ordained and of the Laity: A key tenet of the author’s book is that BOTH groups are at fault; each has accepted a role that is unexamined and unchallenged. He writes: “…we reduce our lay faithful to passive recipients of the holy actions of the ordained, diminishing the dignity that should rightly be theirs by virtue of their baptism and confirmation.” “Clericalism …is ….a seduction that carries its own allure for every last one of us, ordained or lay.” The laity under the thumb of clericalism “forgo, quite unconsciously, their potential for growth, regressing to a state of unwarranted dependency when in every other dimension of their lives they function as quite mature adults.” He continues: “The destructive impact is multiplied when the laity becomes complicit in their own disempowerment by allowing the situation to continue by default.” We cannot change others; we can only change ourselves, but “Simply looking away and enabling the continuation of harmful behaviors becomes a failure of love on our part.” He summarizes: “The call for justice and the demands of love are not contradictory.”

Clergyhoods are all about power: Father Wilson writes: “Membership in a … clerical fraternity … adds significantly to the risk of abusive behavior, actively perpetrated or passively accepted.” “The focus is … on the collective ego of the clergy body” [rather than on the servanthood to which Christ called His disciples.]
The Author goes on: “Clergy groups develop a secret world that is quite impenetrable. Transparency is not come by easily, even when what might be concealed are clearly criminal acts. The separation involved in clergyhood can make the clergy act as if they are not subject to the laws that the rest of society is obliged to respect.”

Changing the Clericalized Personality: Father Wilson writes: “An ordained … who has allowed himself … to become clericalized has taken the low road and exhibits all the worst characteristics of a debased clergyhood: ….Hypersensitivity to critique of one’s performance; focus on external image in place of personal integrity and service; assumed self-importance accompanied by denigration and marginalization of the laity; secrecy and nonaccountability; attitudes of superiority – any or all are in evidence.” Wilson points out: the virus of creeping infallibilism would lead to every village pastor being seen—and seeing himself—as infallible.” Father Wilson’s advice to the ordained trying to avoid or to recover from the intoxication of Clericalism is 4-fold [simplified]:
• Faithfully proclaim the WORD, not with rhetorical eloquence, but with LOVE. Not with “I” but “we.”
• Be a person of prayer. Don't preside “over” but “within.” Interdependence, not superiority. Joy rather than mechanics. Be vulnerable before God in liturgy. Allow the Spirit to move.
• Be a true leader; call forth the community’s gifts, do not waste people. Effectively communicate.
• Have the security to trust people, to listen, to delegate. Some clerics don’t trust “out of an exaggerated, clericalized sense of their own importance.” The key requirement is the leader’s inner security.

The author’s additional points on Leadership are worth noting: “At the deepest level, the prime requisite of leadership is the commitment to stay at the table with the community…to share …together in honesty.” “If the one called to lead does not bring the energies of the community together, it will exist as merely a collectivity of disparate interests. …. A good leader will create forums of all sorts….exactly the risk that the clericalized avoid at all costs…but if the leader does not take that risk, the collectivity will never experience its full voice and become a community.” Wilson continues: “Someone who has not received from the community the power to lead remains simply the holder of a chair; an incumbent. … Leadership is accepted on the basis of performance. …An incumbent who is interiorly ruled by fear will use all his … wits to rein in the chaos of uncertainty, and that very effort at control will only beget a defensive stance in the members.” Without such leadership, the author goes on to discuss, members effectively disengage. But the Laity can’t change the Clericalists, nor can the Clericalists change the Laity. Please turn over for the author’s recommendations to the Laity.

Recommendations to the Laity: The author explains why some of the fault is the Laity’s and therefore each and every member has an obligation to fix what’s broken.
“…it can require great maturity to retain focus on the inherent equality of all human persons….And both share responsibility for the resulting situation, the clergy for resting on their privileges or even demanding the privileges they’ve been given, and the laity for accepting a demeaning definition of their self-worth.” Fr. Wilson continues: “The ordained can buy into such an illusion and the laity maintain it. The result is that they both draw the conclusion that laity are second-class citizens in the realm of the spirit, that the One whom Jesus called Father is less near to them by virtue of their lay status. If that becomes the prevailing mindset, the harm to the community of faith is great indeed.”

Wilson persists: “…the laity are seen – and have allowed themselves to be seen—as the recipients of the good services of their pastoral ministers rather than as peer collaborators in the single mission of the Christian community. …When someone has been in such a position of lower standing and impotence and desires to move beyond it, it becomes easy to place all responsibility for changing the situation on the other party…it can be a formula for inaction and clinging to a mantle of victimhood….and settle for licking our wounds instead of claiming our dignity as persons. So the author’s key recommendation is for the laity to ACT in this matter. “The one who has been in the inferior position does not have the luxury of waiting until the other party initiates the change.” Action means refusing “to be a victim” and acting instead “out of a deeper sense of self worth.”

Recommendations to the Laity include:
• Commitment to Study the Word. A “Ph.D. layman” may only have “a third grade spirituality…It is a cop-out for the faithful to allow themselves to be held hostage to pastors…”
• Participation in Common Worship: “Most of our people have been subjected to a formula-centered catechesis more suited to turn them into mummies than flesh-and-blood partners in a love affair.”
• Growth in Spiritual Maturity: “Mature adults know how to stay at the table and show respect without backing down, as any successful marriage demonstrates.” Serve community needs.
• Active Participation in the Faith Community: “Transformation of the present culture cannot be the burden of isolated individuals only.” “A de-clericalized church will cost us all but it promises the highest fulfillment.”
The author’s work incorporates the well-tested rule that following “best practices” brings the best results.
Laity’s Right to Take Action: Father Wilson writes: “When past injustices have been reported and there has been no redress, it is a perfectly honorable next step to coalesce scattered individual forces and form a united front. No one should be faulted for choosing it.” And that also applies to other abuse that is not *, as well. Wilson writes: “…if the victims [of priests’ * abuse] had not organized, nothing would have changed. The diseased culture would have prevailed….The decision to bring the conflict into the U.S. judicial system was made in good faith by victims who were frustrated by their inability to engage their local bishop in meaningful personal dialogue.”

“It is quite appropriate for those who have been victimized to seek legal remedies for the wrongs done to them….Whether that approach can offer a reasonable hope of satisfaction, however, remains a prudential judgment only the victims can make. If they choose to exercise their right by pursuing that route out of love for the church they deserve the support of the faithful. Apart from the legal order the only other available approach is for laypeople to appeal as sisters and brothers directly to the person of the bishop for admission of his responsibility…..Experience tells us, sadly, that it offers less hope of success.”

What Happens When Laity Begins to Oppose Clericalism? The impact of Clericalism goes well beyond the individual. “When clericalization is allowed to flourish…the impact can be devastating … for the whole faith community …” “For the individual who risks acting out a different paradigm, the cost in terms of rejection by the players who want to continue with the reassuring story may be high.” “Conflict is inevitable… with other people who still need the support that comes from the traditional scripts…One result is the increase of tension or even open conflict. As the early adopters…begin to shed their accustomed attitudes and behave toward one another in new ways, the late adopters who are more wedded to the traditional can be expected to react negatively….Conversion at any level is costly,… more so when the patterns to be changed have been ideologically identified as God’s will. …we have all created and maintained the clerical culture which clouds our church’s proclamation of the Gospel. We have all played superior-inferior. And we will each have to work hard to unearth in ourselves the sinful dynamics at work in its continuance.”

LOVE is Fr. Wilson’s key point on both recommendation lists. “Ordination is not graduation from the call to holiness.” Priests AND laity are wounded, often by each other. “It calls above all –as all genuine love does—for honest confrontation with tough realities…. clergy that love the people they serve, and a people who love [them]…will not be seduced by the poisonous fruit of clericalization… Every last one of us has personal work ahead.”
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Clericalism: Death of the Priesthood by Fr. George Wilson SJ
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