Clericalism Versus Religion

By Aloysious Mowe
The Nut Graph (Maylasia)
October 10, 2008

I GAVE a presentation a couple of weeks ago on some of the problems associated with so-called Islamic finance and its roots in the shariah. After the session, a professor of political science said to me: "It's such an insoluble problem. I don't know how Islam can resolve the issues and difficulties in its law and practice. At least the Catholic church has a clear structure of authority so that decisions can be made that are binding on everyone."

He clearly regarded the hierarchical structure in the Catholic church, with its pope, bishops, and priests ruling the church from above, as a positive element in its governance and decision-making.

The problem with hierarchical structures is that the people at the top begin to see themselves as superior in some way to those below. We have this phenomenon in civil society. The people we elect to Parliament to serve us in government are mysteriously transformed into Datuks and Tuns, who go about in Mercedes Benzes and always seem to end up wealthier than the rakyat. The convention of calling the workers in government offices "civil servants" seems to many of us, given the usual state of the "service", to be an abuse of language.

The Catholic clergy are prone to fall into the sin of clericalism, that is, regarding themselves as special and superior members of a class within the church.

One of the traditional titles of the Pope is servus servorum dei, the servant of the servants of God. This should be a title that all Catholic priests embrace as a reminder of our true calling, to be of service to God's people. One would be forgiven, however, for thinking that the servants have in fact become the masters. Priests become members of a class within the church with access to certain powers and knowledge not given to other members of the church.

Emblem of the Papacy

Like the ministers in government we get special titles: "Father", "Monsignor", "Your Lordship", "Your Eminence" (and sometimes in Malaysia even "Datuk" and "Tan Sri"). We have special garments that we wear at ceremonies, and there is even a daily "uniform", often called "clerical dress", that sets us apart from others.

Clericalism is not a phenomenon purely promoted by priests themselves. There is a culture within the church of automatically deferring to priests and putting us on a pedestal. The maxim that people should have to earn respect never seems to apply to members of the clergy (or, for that matter, to government ministers, judges, and royalty). We get told over and over again by people in our parishes: "Oh Father, you have given up so much for God."

Emblem of the Papacy (Public domain)

Once this is repeated to us often enough, we can develop a sense of entitlement. Catholics spoil their priests. Parishioners in the airline industry upgrade us on aircraft to business or first-class seats. We are taken to dinner in the best restaurants. We soon expect to have the best of everything.


That sense of entitlement leads us to believe that we can behave in any way we like. I have heard bishops blaming the phenomenon of sexual abuse of children by Catholic clergy on the greater degree of sexual permissiveness in the world today. This is errant nonsense. The majority of the cases that have come to light seem to have happened 30 to 40 years ago, or even further back in time, as can be seen from the ages of the perpetrators who have been brought to book.

I believe that clericalism, coupled with the kind of arrested sexual development that can occur when you deny your basic sexual identity, can be found to be at the root of much of the terrible abuse that has occurred. The automatic trust and respect given to priests by their people also meant that parents unquestioningly and recklessly trusted them with their children.

Clericalism, like any caste system, also seeks to protect its own, and to preserve its privileged position. Bishops regularly moved priests who were sexual abusers from one place to another, and kept their crimes secret, on the grounds that they were protecting the reputation of the church and the image of the priesthood. Those priests went on to abuse children over and over again in each new location.

Gender bias

The male clergy jealously guards its caste privileges against inroads by women, denying that they can be priests on the grounds that a priest must be in persona Christi, mirroring Jesus Christ and standing in his place. Since Jesus was a man, only men are deemed capable of fulfilling this office.

How far are we supposed to push this? Must all priests then be circumcised, as Jesus was, and from Palestine, as he was? What about length of hair? Height? It is a ludicrous piece of reasoning that has resulted in men having all the key positions of authority, and women being relegated to the role of workers and worshippers, but never decision-makers.

I once was told by a priest who had previously worked in a bank that, just as bank employees who take a pay cheque from the bank should never publicly criticise its management, priests should never criticise any aspect of the church and its teachings. It is an unfortunate and dangerous analogy (especially given the state of the world's banking system today).

The church is not a perfect institution: it is always on a journey towards the truth, finite humanity struggling to discover the ways of an infinite God. And it is, like all human institutions, semper reformanda, always reforming itself.

Of mice and men

It is perhaps then not such a bad thing that Sunni Islam, at least, does not have the kind of hierarchical structure of authority that has bred the sin of clericalism in the Catholic church. Otherwise the opinions of the ulama would have a weight that would bring Islam into disrepute.

It must be a relief to all Muslims that someone like the Saudi Sheikh Muhammad al-Munajid has no authority to speak for Muslims everywhere. Last month, in a religious affairs programme on al-Majd TV, the sheikh said that mice were instruments of Satan, and he condemned the positive depiction of mice in popular culture as seen in the Tom and Jerry cartoons and the character of Mickey Mouse. He proceeded to declare that Mickey Mouse should be killed.

It may be problematic for even the most ardent of Sheikh Muhammad's followers to kill a fictional and animated character. However, no such difficulties lie in the way of those who would wish to accord authority to the opinions of the chief justice of Saudi Arabia's highest court, who recently declared that the owners of television stations that broadcast "immoral" programmes should be killed.

When Sheikh Saleh al-Luhaidan's remarks were condemned by other Saudi clerics, he went on television to say that he had not meant to encourage murder. The station owners, he clarified, should be brought to trial and sentenced to death, after which they could be legally killed. So that's all right then.



Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.