Ending the culture of clericalism

By Bishop W. Shawn McKnight

Click here to see a video of Bishop McKnight and Chancery staff members leading a Rosary for healing and protection for people affected by sexual abuse.

At the conclusion of the retreat earlier this month convoked by our Holy Father, Pope Francis, for the bishops of the United States in light of the clergy sexual abuse crisis, I returned to Missouri with a heightened awareness of the Holy Spirit working among us.

Jesus taught that we must die to our old self in order to bring about the new. Just as gold is purified by fire, so too our faith is purified by trials and testing.

It seems to me that the entire Church is undergoing a time of purification and renewal; we are experiencing the Cross of Good Friday with hope for the Easter Sunday yet to come.

In these days of crisis, the Holy Spirit is leading us to die to false notions of what it means to be Church, to a false understanding of the relationship between the ordained and the baptized, and to a false sense of what it means to be in authentic communion with one another and the Church of the Apostles.

With our growing awareness of the abuse of power manifested in the sexual abuse crisis, we are experiencing the pangs of dying to a false way of exercising ecclesial leadership in our Church.

Authentic, genuine communion never requires clericalism in order to be preserved. In fact, clericalism only leads to greater division.

Clericalism is a word used quite often by Catholics, including Pope Francis, these days. What is meant by clericalism? For me, a significant example of clericalism is when a member of the clergy — whether a deacon, priest, bishop, archbishop or cardinal — uses his position in the Church to wield power for personal gain.

Wielding power is a form of domination, and it is different from the exercise of genuine leadership. And it is entirely un-Christian.

With a special outpouring of the Holy Spirit in the Sacrament of Holy Orders, a man is given spiritual authority and power through his configuration to Christ to serve the apostolic communion of the Church.

Leadership and authority are necessary for any human organization, including the Church. Only with good leadership and authority can the spiritual gifts and charisms of all the baptized be engaged and brought into harmonious action in the Church’s life and mission. We would be a chaotic mess without them.

Power and authority are part of God’s plan for the Church; but the way in which they are exercised and carried out is our concern. The Gospels relate that many people marveled at Jesus’ ability to speak “with authority,” even though He was only the son of a poor carpenter. We need more, not less, of this kind of authority that Jesus shared with His Church.

Unity among the diversity of charisms of people was a concern for St. Paul for the early Church in Corinth (see 1 Corinthians 12:4-11).

We know from Paul’s letters that everyone has a role to play in the Church, and the fundamental duty of the clergy is to foster, promote and coordinate the exercise of the gifts of the whole People of God.

But when we clergy use our position to manipulate or hurt others, to serve our own desires or selfish interests, real Christian leadership is not provided. Instead, we are abusive and domineering, and that is clericalism.

Clericalism can appear in many forms, such as when a pastor makes an important decision for the parish unilaterally without proper consultation, or when a bishop decides not to be transparent about sexual abuse in the Church and minimizes its traumatic effects on victims.

 Often, these decisions come from a false sense of authority. A pastor may think he knows best, and that he does not need to know other people’s opinions or perspectives. A bishop may believe he needs to protect the reputation of other clergy or himself “for the good of the Church,” to prevent scandal.

Sadly, we continue to learn about more of these situations. In early January, The Washington Post reported that the Opus Dei society, a global Catholic community, covered up the allegations of sexual misconduct by one of its prominent priests, Father C. John McCloskey.

A few days later, The Washington Post reported Cardinal Donald Wuerl lied about his knowledge of allegations of sexual misconduct by Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, and that the Cardinal reported the abuse to Rome as early as 2004.

They knew, and nothing was done because of a culture of clericalism.

In both cases, victims and other Catholics who respect these men have talked about how their faith has been shaken by the cover-up. The spokesman for Opus Dei told the reporter, “It’s an argument that is no longer tenable — this ‘Let’s quiet things over so priests can continue to do good.’”

Likewise, the man allegedly abused by Archbishop McCarrick noted, “Reading the document, I felt Wuerl did the right thing. But that good feeling of what he had done has been overshadowed completely by his lying about his knowledge of that.”

Too often, I fear, we in Church leadership have a false sense of what it means to preserve the communion in the Church. Instead of being concerned about staying in communion with Christ, the teaching of the Apostles, and with all the baptized, some have been concerned more about protecting reputations and preserving the idea that clergy cannot fail.

The Second Vatican Council called Catholics back to our roots, to a renewed understanding of what God is asking us to be as a Church.

I believe the way out of this mess we are in, which at its root is a self-centered abuse of power by our leaders, is to intensify our efforts to implement the decisions of the Second Vatican Council.

This is not a time for greater polarization, as we are already stressed to the breaking point. The left and right, conservatives and liberals, should not use this time of crisis to try to press causes not found in the formal teachings of the Council.

Instead, we should redouble our efforts at implementing the call of the Council to engage the laity fully in the life and mission of the Church in order to build communion, to be the Church God created us to be.

In 2000, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) spoke about the reception of the Second Vatican Council and addressed how the Church’s teachings were politicized, its leadership self-centered, and how we can lose our sense of connection with God.

He said, “In fact, a Church that exists for herself alone is superfluous. And people notice it immediately. The crisis of the Church as it is reflected in the concept of People of God is a ‘crisis of God’; it is the consequence of abandoning the essential. What remains is merely a struggle for power. There is enough of this elsewhere in the world, there is no need of the Church for this.”

The renewal of the Church demands each one of us, lay or ordained, to commit to personal holiness. We must avoid a “crisis of God” by living in communion with Him and one another.

Renewal will require us to experience the death of some of the old ways of acting and thinking about our Church and ourselves.

For those locked in a struggle for power and domination, now is the time to contemplate what the call to holiness means.

Our baptismal call, so simple yet so easy to forget, is to love one another as Christ loves us.

In these desperate times, our world needs the beauty of our Catholic faith to shine vividly in the everyday lives of the members of our Church, in the laity and the clergy.

We need the support of one another to be the Christians we claim to be.