Russell Shaw on Clericalism—relevant for the Legion of Christ scandals

relevant to the Legion of Christ scandals

Clericalism and the Sex Abuse Scandal

by Russell Shaw

“America” Magazine

3 June 2002


Clericalism in the Catholic Church is something like the pattern

in the wallpaper: it’s been there so long you don’t see it anymore.

That may be why, amid all the demands for change in response

to the scandal of clergy sex abuse, more has not been heard

about clericalism and the need to get rid of it once and for all. Yet

clericalism and the clericalist culture are at the heart of this

noxious episode.


Clericalism does not cause sex abuse, of course, any more than

sex abuse causes clericalism. But when sex abuse occurs in a

clericalist context, the situation takes on a distinctively clericalist

coloration that makes matters worse. In the present crisis, it is

painfully clear that attitudes and ways of doing things associated

with clerical elitism often came into play when priests were

found to have engaged in abuse. As a result, what already was a

tragedy for individuals became in time a world-class disaster for

the church.


How is it possible that bishops who, angry rhetoric aside, are

known to be conscientious, intelligent churchmen made the

horrendous mistakes some repeatedly made in dealing with

wayward priests? The only credible answer to that question is

that these bishops were acting according to the prevailing

clericalist assumptions and procedures for handling priests who

get into trouble: protect them to the point of coddling them, give

them time off, therapy and new assignments, hush things up,

keep knowledge of the mess confined within a very limited

clerical circle. Here is all the confirmation anyone could want for

Eugene Kennedy’s observation that the clericalist code “shielded

men from responsibility and covered for them when they fell or



Bishops who responded in this manner to sex abuse by priests

were doing what made perfectly good sense within the clericalist

system in which they too had been socialized and whose rules

they knew only too well. They desired to be good servants of the

church; but whenever problems arose, they served the system

instead. And, as might have been predicted, this system built on

falsehood and illusion betrayed them in the end–them and

everybody else.


Clericalism is linked to power. Initially, generosity moves men to

pursue a calling to the priesthood. But sometimes the generous

impulse is corrupted along the way by a taste for unearned

authority, deference and the absence of significant

accountability. One thinks of the Boston priest in Edwin

O’Connor’s The Edge of Sadness, who remarks, “Probably in no

other walk of life is a young man so often and so humbly

approached by his elders and asked for his advice.” Although

O’Connor was writing about the Catholics of an earlier

generation, even today many Catholic lay people share the

clericalist assumptions held by many, though not all, of their



The clericalist culture is variously described as a caste system,

a fraternity, a club. All of these terms fit. In part, clericalism is the

clergy’s special mode of succumbing to two dangerous errors

that threaten all professions: the perversion of solidarity among

colleagues and low expectations with regard to professional



In a special way, however, clericalism is rooted in the idea that in

whatever pertains to religion, it is the right and the responsibility

of clerics to make the decisions and give the orders, and the job

of lay people to carry them out. At a deep level it is spiritual

snobbery reflecting the assumption that the clerical state in and

of itself makes clerics spiritually superior to the laity. A mistaken

idea of vocation is at work here–the idea that the calling to

ordained ministry is superior to all other vocations.


There are several things wrong with that, not least the fact that it

ignores the reality of personal vocation. Before the Second

Vatican Council, Pope John Paul II points out, it was generally

supposed that vocation mainly or even exclusively referred to a

calling to the priesthood or religious life. Now we know better.

The pope expressed it this way in his Message for the World Day

of Prayer for Vocations (May 6, 2001): “Within the Christian

community, each person must rediscover his or her own

personal vocation and respond to it with generosity. Every life is

a vocation, and every believer is invited to cooperate in the

building up of the church.”


As leaders of the church seek solutions to the crisis brought on

by revelations of clergy sex abuse and its mishandling by some

bishops, what should be done? Many things, of course, with

priority given to a significant tightening-up of procedures for

dealing with such cases when they arise and, better yet, to

preventing them from arising at all. As steps go forward to make

it easier to expel priest-abusers, conduct the second apostolic

visitation of American seminaries in 20 years and otherwise

address this crisis, the bishops must confront the problem of

clericalism that did so much to make it the calamity it is.


This must begin with the recognition that clericalism is pervasive

in the church. Ugly enough in itself, the present scandal is only a

symptom of systemic corruption. Denial of that unpleasant fact is

a luxury Catholics no longer can afford. If the opportunity to

eliminate clericalism is missed now, when the need is so

obvious, clericalism will help to shape fresh disasters in the

future–if not sex abuse, something else.


Recognition that clericalism is a fact should encourage priests

to internalize the message of Section 47 of Pope John Paul’s

apostolic exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis (1992). In the context

of ecclesial communion, the pope declares, the priest is first and

foremost (“above all”) an equal among equals. That means

being “a brother among brothers”–committed to

“co-responsibility in the one common mission of salvation” and

sincerely appreciative of “all the charisms and tasks which the

Spirit gives believers for the building up of the church.”


The pastors of the church also must take a great deal more

seriously than they have done up to now the implications of

accountability and openness. How often since Vatican II has it

been said that the exercise of authority in the church is a ministry

of service! But if service is not to be paternalistic, accountability is

essential. And accountability that is genuine, not just for show,

will require an end to the secrecy that even now often serves as

an instrument of clerical manipulation and control in the conduct

of ecclesiastical affairs.


But more than accountability and openness are required.

Decision-making in the church needs a careful rethinking. Lay

people should have voice and vote regarding finances at the

parish, diocesan and national levels along with a direct say in

identifying candidates for positions like pastor and bishop. They,

not clerics, should be the ones who set and carry out the public

policy agenda of the church–an innovation fully in line with the

letter and the spirit of Vatican II and particularly necessary at a

time when the sex abuse scandal has gravely weakened the

church’s already waning capacity to act effectively in this area.


Some may object that changes of these kinds would require

changes in canon law. There is an obvious answer: change it.


Important as structural changes are, however, changes on the

level of faith and its living out are even more necessary. These

include much wider acceptance than now of the idea that the

church is a communion, a hierarchically organized body with a

diversity of offices and roles in which all members are equal in

dignity and all have roles in its mission, and a much livelier

appreciation than most now possess of the implications of

personal vocation.


A friend of mine whose love for and loyalty to the church are well

beyond the ordinary tells a story that should be pondered for

what it says about the present crisis and its clericalist roots.


Back around 1985, when the scandal of clergy sex abuse had

just come to light for the first time in Lafayette, La., he and some

lay friends were chatting about the situation with several priests.

All were staunch Catholics. All were devoted to the church. My

friend recalled the conversation:


Every cleric there thought that priests who had committed sexual

abuse should be sent off for treatment and put back into some

kind of service, at least restricted service as a chaplain or some

kind of low-level administrative job. All the lay people thought that

was a bad idea. I argued that if a priest has been guilty of

sexually abusing a child, even once, he should be out, since

such acts are a gross betrayal of the laity’s trust. But all of the

priests tended to be more concerned with the erring cleric.



Those were good priests, too. But they were imbued with a

clericalist mentality very much as those good plantation owners

in the pre-Civil War South who treated their slaves well were

imbued with racism.


That is a very strong statement. Perhaps it is too strong. But

church leaders should grasp the fact that this is how some of

their best and brightest now think.



By Russell Shaw.

Russell Shaw is the former secretary for public affairs at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.



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