Clericalism: The culture that enables abuse and insists on hiding it

IMAGE: CNS photo/Paul Haring

By Cindy Wooden

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Pope Francis blamed “clericalism”
in the Catholic Church for creating a culture where criminal abuse was
widespread and extraordinary efforts were made to keep the crimes hidden.

Throughout his pontificate, Pope Francis has targeted clericalism
as an illness in the church, an ailment that pretends “the church”
means “priests and bishops,” that ignores or minimizes the God-given grace
and talents of laypeople and that emphasizes the authority of clerics over
their obligation of service.

“To say ‘no’ to abuse is to say an emphatic ‘no’ to all
forms of clericalism,” the pope wrote in a letter Aug. 20 to all Catholics.

Clericalism, he said, involves trying “to replace or
silence or ignore or reduce the people of God to small elites,” generally
the clerics.

Kathleen Sprows Cummings, a professor of history at the
University of Notre Dame and author of an Aug. 17 New York Times op-ed piece on
the abuse scandal, told Catholic News Service, “I was blown away” by
the pope’s focus on clericalism as the problem, “because that’s what I

What was different with the Pennsylvania grand jury report,
she said, was not just the overwhelming scale and magnitude of abuse, “but
that it really indicted the culture — the culture of clericalism — that
allowed this abuse to continue and allowed it to be hidden.”

“It’s not just ‘a few bad apples,’ as we used to say,
but it’s this entire culture that makes it possible,” Cummings said.

Natalia Imperatori-Lee, a professor of theology at Manhattan
College, told CNS: “There is no doubt that clericalism is at the root of
the abuse crisis. Clericalism is isolating and insular — it cuts off the ‘oxygen’
of genuine solidarity and sharing-of-life with laypeople by creating a separate
class, even a separate caste, within the church.”

When people create “small elites” as Pope Francis
called them, she said, “the temptation is to preserve ‘us’ and ‘our
vision/lives/privilege’ at the expense of ‘them’ — the laity, ‘those who don’t
understand,’ ‘those who aren’t burdened the way we are.'”

For more than two decades, Russell Shaw, an author and
writer, has been warning of the disaster clericalism poses for the church. His
book, “To Hunt, To Shoot, To Entertain: Clericalism and the Catholic Laity,”
was published in 1993.

Writing Aug. 6 for Angelus News, the news site of the
Archdiocese of Los Angeles, Shaw looked particularly at accusations of sexual
abuse and misconduct leveled against now-Archbishop Theodore E. McCarrick.

“Clericalism doesn’t totally account for what happened,”
he wrote in Angelus. “But it is an important part of the explanation, and
it’s essential that we understand how that was so,” particularly in
explaining how the archbishop was able to rise so high in the church’s hierarchy.

Giving any kind of integrity to a church investigation of the
scandal will require the participation of laypeople, Shaw wrote, because
“it would be a serious mistake to investigate the damage done by
clericalism in a clericalist manner.”

Australia’s Royal Commission Into Institutional Responses to
Child Sexual Abuse issued its report last December after five years of hearings
and investigations, and it concluded that “clericalism is at the center of
a tightly interconnected cluster of contributing factors” to abuse within
the Catholic Church.

“Clericalism is linked to a sense of entitlement,
superiority and exclusion, and abuse of power,” the report said.

In addition, it said, “clericalism caused some bishops
and religious superiors to identify with perpetrators of child sexual abuse
rather than victims and their families.”

The bishops of Australia plan to release a formal response
to the report at the end of August. But in the meantime, Archbishop Mark
Coleridge of Brisbane, conference president, told CNS that while the report is
“essentially a secular eye upon church,” it “seems to me fairly
accurate to claim that ‘clericalism is at the center of a tightly
interconnected cluster of contributing factors.'”

“In seeking to combat clericalism,” he said,
“we need to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water. Clearly,
it requires a radical revision of how we recruit and prepare candidates for ordination.
Much has changed in our seminaries, but one has to wonder whether seminaries
are the place or way to train men for the priesthood now.

“There will also have to be a change in the culture
associated with the Catholic priesthood, which of course is more easily said
than done,” he continued in an email response to questions. “Part of
that change will involve proper professional supervision for the sake of
greater accountability, but also a greater sharing of responsibility with laypeople — which in turn requires a reconsideration of our structures of

“It will also involve a serious and practical
consideration of the diagnosis of clericalism offered by Pope Francis over the
years of his pontificate — a diagnosis which is both disruptive and consoling,
just like the Holy Spirit,” Archbishop Coleridge wrote. “To accept
and act upon that diagnosis won’t in any way diminish the priesthood — as some
fear — but will show what the priesthood can be in the very different
circumstances we now face.”

The Royal Commission report also tried to tackle some
Catholic theology, claiming, “The theological notion that the priest
undergoes an ‘ontological change’ at ordination, so that he is different to
ordinary human beings and permanently a priest, is a dangerous component of the
culture of clericalism. The notion that the priest is a sacred person
contributed to exaggerated levels of unregulated power and trust which
perpetrators of child sexual abuse were able to exploit.”

Archbishop Coleridge said his acceptance of the idea of
clericalism as a contributing factor to the abuse crisis obviously does not
mean he accepts the Royal Commission’s understanding of the theology of holy

The phrase “ontological change” is what the church
uses to describe what happens in ordination, he said; it affirms that “God
actually does something in ordination, something which reaches into the depths
of a man’s being” and that “once a man is ordained, his relationships
with other people and with God are radically and permanently changed.”

So, while teaching that ordination brings a permanent change
can contribute to clericalism, it does not have to, the archbishop said.

Imperatori-Lee also mentioned the teaching when commenting
to CNS on how clericalism can infect the laity as well as priests and bishops.

“The laity, told repeatedly that the priest is special
and uniquely holy — ‘ontological change,’ ‘indelible mark’ — is not inclined
to believe the clergy capable of sin,” she said, “and then when these
allegations arise, and are corroborated, the breakdown in trust is irreparable.”

“There are ways in which clericalism hurts everyone,”
she said: “The laity is victimized and infantilized; the clergy is
isolated and expected to be superhuman.”

Marie Collins, an abuse survivor and former member of the
Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, also welcomed the pope’s
aim at clericalism.

Tweeting Aug. 20, she said, “The condemnation of
clericalism in the letter is good to see, as it plays a big part in the ignoring
of the laity, survivors and experts. It gives rise to the ease with which
church leaders can feel comfortable protecting fellow clerics despite their
crimes against children.”

– – –

Follow Wooden on Twitter: @Cindy_Wooden

– – –

Copyright © 2018 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. All rights reserved. Republishing or redistributing of CNS content, including by framing or similar means without prior permission, is prohibited. You may link to stories on our public site. This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. To request permission for republishing or redistributing of CNS content, please contact permissions at

Original Article