Seven Steps Towards Ending Clericalism

By William M. Shea
Patheos blog
August 09, 2019

Answers to serious questions, especially political ones, tend to multiply and to develop and change over time. I began a spectrum slide from William Buckley-Barry Goldwater small-government Republican politics some sixty years ago and have landed in the past few years in the mystery called democratic socialism. I wish I could say that I slid on the basis of pure knowledge but I admit to my slide being a matter largely of opinion, belief and social conviction. In political matters too much is involved to call any one position simply true. The best one can do is call it “informed opinion.” I should be immune, then, to the foolhardiness of suggesting any definitive answer to the question of reform in the Catholic Church. Think of the other possible answers, says my conscience, and then I blush. For example, there is a lot to be said for the episcopal form of church governance.

Think of the complications of understanding a church with a two thousand year history in which many answers to the issue of governance have been tried and in which each form has been subject to abuse and even failure, often extraordinary. None had proved perfect or even reasonably and consistently successful. So my antipathy to the monarchical system of government atop the Catholic Church is a matter of opinion. Like my years’ long slide into democratic socialism, my gradual slide into governmental reform in the church started small with Cardinal Patrick O’Boyle’s crushing of any dissent in the archdiocese of Washington from Pope Paul’s tragic mistake in the matter of contraception (1968).  Is there really only one Catholic voice?  Can Pope Paul be wrong and pope at the same time? Ultimately, some forty years later, I decided that monarchy, even in the church, is absurd and the dying remnant of the Empire.

Having already expressed the unCatholic conviction that the “the church” is a community of communities before it is a church or the church, an assembly of equals in Christ, not a monarchy or a hierarchy established by heavenly decree, I would like to follow up by marking off a few steps that ought to be taken to make the ideal of the community of Christian communities concrete:

An Independent Judiciary which excludes interference by other ecclesiastical governmental officers and which is capable of adjudicating all responsible charges against church governmental officers. The Judiciary ought to rest on a constitutional bill of judicial rights covering all the baptized with no addendum for a clergy.

 Careerism:  Keep administrators where they are, in the dioceses in which they were elected or appointed, and keep pastors in their parishes. The wish to change a pastor’s own situation by “going up higher” has become a curse. The curse of “translation”  of bishops from diocesan see to see was recognized at the Council of Trent and condemned but alas not eliminated there.  Recently Cardinal Gantin wrote a powerful memo condemning it in the contemporary church. The father  or mother should stay with the family and not go flitting off to another family. In a Catholic marriage this would be labeled bigamy or divorce.

Clericalism: The current functions of bishop and priest can be carried out in many different configurations and under different titles.  However, there should be no distinction in the church between the clergy and laity. The various missions and ministries should be functions assigned to some Christians for some time. Christian teaching and practices on which this division is based or based on it should be eliminated. Such divisions developed in the body of Christ by decisions made in the social history of the church and preserved in and by bureaucracies.

Getting Rid of the Ontological Sign:  The division between clergy and laity is reinforced by the doctrine that the sacrament of orders causes a ‘sign’ to be placed on the soul of the recipient marking them eternally as clergy with a special status in the church, in the Kingdom of God, and even in Hell should they go there. The ministers are simply Christians who share, like all Christians, in the priesthood, the prophetic office and the rule of Christ and who are called and accepted by the community to a specific service such as presiding at the Eucharistic table.  Baptism/Confirmation is the only “sign” of Christian conversion and dedication that the church needs. No one is forever a minister, an overseer, a prophet, a teacher.  Keep ontology out of this discussion of ministry.

The Accoutrements of ‘Sacred’ Office:  All of the distinctive marks of the lower and higher clergy which serve to distinguish them from the Christian people and one another are to be abandoned. Thus the functions of presiding at the Eucharistic table, and preaching to and teaching the Christian people (all necessary communal functions) are not to be marked by accoutrements, special dress, peculiar hats, rings made of precious metal and vestments. Priests and bishops are to dress no differently than worshipping and working Christian men and women, any more than Jesus so distinguished Himself from apostles and disciples, or the latter distinguished themselves from one another. So also all ecclesiastical titles and distinctions.

Ending Christendom: All church law is applicable to all Christians in the same way. All Christians and practitioners of other religions are equally subject to the civil laws proper to their culture. Ministers of the gospel are in no way distinct before the law, civil or ecclesiastical.  When they commit crimes they are to be treated as criminals.

Gender Distinction:  Call women and married men to preside over the Eucharist and become pastors and administrators. Their exclusion is the most glaring bit of false traditionalism in the episcopal and papal playbook. In this matter the highly selective clerical memory called “Tradition” masks misogynism and archaic views of purity.

These seven items are crucial to the reform of the contemporary Catholic Church. Of course they might well be called hyper-puritanism but then the Puritans weren’t entirely fools.


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