Simply Be the Church: Our Response to Clericalism

A few weeks ago, I offered some reflections on Pope Francis’ confession of “shame and sorrow” in the face of the sexual abuse crisis in light of his rootedness in the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius. I’m grateful that many seem to have found help in these reflections, and I believe that the Pope’s subsequent publication of his Letter to the People of God confirms many of the insights I tried to share.

There has been some confusion as to why, in this letter, Pope Francis is asking us to fast. Many of those with whom I have spoken associate fasting with being punished for their personal sinfulness, and so their response has been: “I am not the one who did something wrong, why should I be punished?” But fasting serves a very different, twofold, purpose: fasting is practiced by many people, both religious and non-religious, because it helps to clear the mind and shake the body from its lethargy; and fasting, when it takes a form like the “hunger strike,” can raise awareness of injustice and be an expression of solidarity with the unjust suffering of others. By fasting in solidarity with the victims of abuse among us in the Church, we enliven our conscience and shake off the lethargy that can set in because of our daily struggles and the weight of bad news in the world and the Church. It is a way of keeping the poor and the marginalized at the center of our concern as God’s People, which is a basic requirement of our mission in Christ. This is becoming especially important as political factions try to use the scandal to their own ends, once again instrumentalizing the suffering of the victims of abuse. We must not fall prey to this.

The more important part of the Pope’s message to us in this letter is his call to combat clericalism in the Church. Here again, many have expressed confusion that Pope Francis seems to suggest that all members of the Body of Christ are infected with clericalism. Surely this is a disease of the clergy alone?

It seems to me that discussions of clericalism in response to the Pope’s letter are falling into two broad categories: those that understand the problem as one of personal evil and those who understand it as a question of transforming institutional structures. The first kind of discussion makes of clericalism a subset of seeking after honours and succumbing to pride. And so the solutions proposed include punishing individuals who have covered up past abuses, calling for the resignation of others, proposing retreats and prayer exercises for members of the clergy, and so on. All of these measures are surely helpful to restore justice and convert sinners. But they do not get at the larger cultural and social forces that allowed individuals to act in such destructive ways.

The second kind of discussion tries to get at precisely this social and structural dimension by calling for new laws and new structures, for the elimination of the distinction between the lay and clerical states in canon law, for establishing independent boards and tribunals and so on. Again, many of these elements are surely helpful for institutionalizing just procedures and practices, not just to get redress for victims, but also to ensure the ongoing common good of the Body of Christ. But if we have learned anything from this scandal, it is that no matter how good our structures and laws may be, certain people will try to get around them; the danger with a purely structural response is overwhelming bureaucratization.

Both kinds of discussion leave out an essential factor: the reality of community or group life. Sociologists and students of group dynamics tell us that groups and communities are very real entities that are more than the sum of their membership. A group or community has a life and a power all its own that emerges from the ongoing commitment and collaboration of its members. This is why the metaphor of the human body is so helpful and gets used so often to describe the life and work of a group: individual body parts can perform certain tasks, but what the body can do with the contributions of each of its parts is much greater than the mere sum total of what each part contributes. A community becomes a community when it achieves a stable and ongoing equilibrium between accomplishing a common task that has brought its members together and nourishing the relationships that bind the members together. Focus only on the task, and relationships will sicken and the group will fall apart; focus only on relationships, and the group will lose its sense of purpose and slowly become an end in itself, cut off from reality.

Pope Francis’ understanding of clericalism as a disease that affects the whole Church takes the reality of community seriously. Clericalism distorts relationships in community and seeks to impose a single autocratic structure upon them. At the same time, clericalism poisons and manipulates the free commitment of the members of the community, which is the source of the community’s life and energy. A group’s power, its ability to act in the world and fulfill its purpose, is the fruit of the free commitment of its members to that common purpose. Healthy leadership does not try to arrogate the community’s power to itself and dispose of it as a personal possession, but facilitates and manages the free commitment of the group’s members. Depending on circumstances, this will require a range of leadership styles at different times: sometimes commanding, sometimes coaching, sometimes democratic, sometimes making way for the gifts of another, and so on. By limiting the range of relationships, and freezing leadership into one mode, clericalism attacks the healthy functioning of communities and of the Church as a whole.

Clericalism also, Pope Francis insists, distorts the Church’s relationship to its mission in the world. Energy that should be spent orienting and empowering the body to serve Christ’s mission of healing and reconciliation is instead wasted on preserving distorted ways of functioning as a body. Here, the analogy of clericalism as a cancer that affects even healthy cells in the body, robbing them of the energy they need to continue functioning and flourishing, is particularly apt.

By locating the reality of clericalism at the level of community, the Pope is not denying the reality of personal sin or the need for structural reform; but he is pointing the way forward to a human-sized and humanizing solution. I believe he is trying to empower the people of God to exercise their free commitment to Christ’s mission and claim back their agency in the Church. He is trying to shed light on the fact that the members of the Body of Christ are not powerless to act.

What might such action look like? Where does the communal conversion, the healing of clericalism as a disease of the whole body, begin? It begins in local communities, at the base. It begins with members of the community involving themselves in the ongoing tasks that empower the local parish and diocese to serve Christ’s mission to the poor and the powerless: serving the needs of the liturgical and sacramental life of the community, participating actively in the administration of the parish’s goods, and so on. It means accompanying the pastor and empowering him to develop a range of leadership styles, sometimes affirming him, sometimes challenging him compassionately, sometimes reminding him to let the natural leadership of this or that parish member flourish. In my own experience of parish life, the priest and the pastor long for such engagement with their community, and welcome it. It means attending diocesan synods and taking them seriously, writing to the bishop not just to complain but also to thank him. It means accepting the truth that in Christ we are not powerless, that we are full members of the people of God and that no one can take that away, and then to act with patience, compassion and hope out of this truth. It means being, here and now in the place where we find ourselves, the Church we want to see come to birth everywhere.

There will be resistance, there will be stumbling, there will be much learning on all sides. But we will become more and more conformed to the image and likeness of the one whose mission we serve.

Gilles Mongeau, S.J.

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