The Fallacy of Clericalism

By Rev. Thomas Doyle

Thomas Doyle is a Roman Catholic priest, a Dominican, a military chaplain and a canon lawyer. In 1984 he issued a strong warning on the dangers of the sex abuse within the Catholic Church, which was ignored but later became recognized as prophetic. The following was an address given by Fr. Doyle at the Voice of the Faithful conference on July 20, 2002.

What we have experienced in our lifetime is a disaster the horror and destruction of which is perhaps rivaled by the bloodshed of the Inquisition, but which certainly makes the indulgence-selling scam and related corruption of the Reformation pale by comparison. For decades and even centuries, the rape and pillage of children, adolescents, and young adults in our midst at the hands of the clergy has been allowed to not only happen but to flourish. The physical and emotional plunder has been intensified by the spiritual devastation brought on by the aggressive refusal to face the truth.

Honest men and women, Catholic and not, have repeatedly asked. Why? Since the first public explosion of abuse in our era in 1984, people from all walks of contemporary life have been searching for believable answers and have been met with continued frustration.

The despicable saga of clergy and religious sexual abuse is not the essence of the problem. It is a symptom of a deeper, much more pervasive and destructive disease that is nearly fatal in nature: the fallacy of clericalism.

The primary symptom of this virus is the delusion that the clergy are somehow above the laity, deserving of unquestioned privilege and stature, the keepers of our salvation and the guarantors of our favor with the Lord. The deadliest symptom, however, is the unbridled addiction to power.

The horror of this sex abuse debacle cannot be adequately described, nor its devastating effects accurately measured. No public apologies, no new policy statement, no set of elaborate procedures, no widespread purges of suspected or confirmed clergy abusers will ever come close to repairing the immeasurable damage that has been done to the bodies, emotions and souls of the victims, the survivors and indeed the entire Christian community.

Yet out of this nightmare there has emerged a beacon of hope. It is the realization that we must have a deep, probing and painful scrutiny of the governmental system that has caused this to happen, joined by a firm commitment to bring about a real change.

This widespread and deeply ingrained abuse of power by the hierarchical leadership of our Church has been sustained and even encouraged by the myth that what is good for that tiny minority, the clergy, is identified with what is good for the Church. The Church, according to this erroneous way of thinking, is the clergy and the hierarchy. But they have lost sight of the Christ-given reality that the Church is US. Its most vital and important members are not those who wear the elaborate robes and sit on the thrones of power, but the marginalized, the hurting, the rejected, and the abused. What we see happening around us are the initial death throes of the medieval monarchical model of the church. This was and is an institutional Church that was based on the belief that a small, select minority of the educated, the privileged, and the powerful was called by Almighty God to manage the temporal and spiritual lives of the faceless masses, on the presumption that their unlettered and squalid state meant that they were ignorant and incapable of discerning their spiritual destiny. This is 2002 and not 1302, and that model is based on a myth that is long dead, if in fact it was ever remotely grounded in a sliver of reality.

We are often told that this model is based on God’s will, grounded in an interpretation of Christ’s action in giving the “Keys to the Kingdom” to St. Peter. Rather than depend totally on this statement as the rationale for the hierarchical system which was later invested with all of the trappings of monarchy, there is another statement of Christ that is a more accurate reflection of His vision for human government. We find it in Mark’s Gospel:

You know that in the world the recognized rulers lord it over their subjects, and their great men make them feel the weight of authority. This is not the way with you: among you, whoever wants to be great must be your servant, and whoever wants to be the first must be the willing slave of all. (Mark 10:41-43)

For centuries, the only form of government most people knew was monarchy. Even today there are countries throughout the world that are either monarchies or dictatorships. But the Church is not any ordinary society. Although its temporal leadership could perhaps conceive of no other form than monarchy, it is entirely possible that God’s vision was more expansive. If we listen to the words of Christ and especially learn from his actions, we see looming up that word that strikes fear and trembling in churchmen – democracy! Why? Because it surely is evident that this was the reality that Christ lived by in his ministry. Why the fear and trepidation? Because to accept democracy means to shed the deep seated misconception that to serve means to control.

The terrible disaster that we are living through has proven beyond any doubt the need for all Catholics and indeed all Christians to abandon the magical thinking about the hierarchy and clergy that sustains the medieval paradigm. We must accept the great risk involved in accepting Christ’s challenge to lead by serving. The hierarchical system appears to have lost its ability to do this. You, we, must take up the challenge.

The strength, credibility and effectiveness of true church leadership does not need to be fortified by way of multi-million dollar public relations firms. It does not need to ally itself with high priced lawyers as a backup or even a front line. We live in the hope that we will see a church that is a Christ-centered community of equal believers first, and a political structure second. This hope is within our grasp and within our vision.

Is clericalism and its co-dependent spouse, a monarchical hierarchy, part of the Divine Plan? Hardly! We need only look to the unequivocal words and actions of Christ. We need to try Christ’s radical egalitarianism. Where do we begin?

We must all accept the responsibility for our own spiritual growth. It is painful to grow from religious infancy to spiritual adulthood but we must accept this pain to someday rejoice in the freedom the Lord promised. We can no longer depend on a magical notion of the sacraments and the priests and bishops who administer them. By sustaining the erroneous magical thinking about the sacraments we also sustain the false notion of the power that clerics hold over the believers.

We must stop enabling, through our continued financial support, the very power structures and office holders who have been largely responsible for the horrific consequences of the cover-up of widespread sexual abuse. Rather we must, in truth and in charity, do our utmost to help free them from these terrible chains of addiction to power and control!

We must challenge ourselves and everyone who is a part of the church to abandon the notion that the Church is a kingdom made up of a series of fiefdoms called dioceses. There is no longer any justification for timidity and deference to the very structures and leaders who have betrayed us. Our church has been hijacked and we want it back!

We must challenge any deacon, priest or bishop who voices his support for the victims and survivors and who hopes for a re-vivified church to not simply talk, but act!

We must keep this wonderful, hopeful spirit alive. The pope, the cardinals and the bishops and indeed millions have been praying for relief from this crisis … praying for a new dawn. We believe that our prayers are being answered and the new dawn is breaking, and a sure sign of it is here today. This Spirit of God is really alive and well and staying involved! It is here and it is moving through all of you. We cannot stifle or short-circuit this Spirit by factionalism, narrowness or power struggles.

For years, this sex abuse nightmare has caused so many of us to question everything we knew and believed about our Church, and even to wonder if the Lord cared. The response of the people to the victims, to the survivors and indeed to the whole Catholic community as we painfully live through this tragedy, is a response to God’s promptings. It is the most eloquent and convincing proof that our Lord is with us and He cares.

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