Tuesday, January 11, 2011


I've been a bit slow in responding to Bishop Burns' comments on Clericalism that caused a bit of a stir on the blogosphere before Christmas.

Bishop Burns' condemnation of Clericalism, and his acknowledgement of its role in pedophilia, is extremely welcome. What has surprised some people is the way he describes the phenomenon. Here's the money quote: referring to clerical sex abuse, he says:

I'm more convinced that it grew out of the clericalism of the past. That clericalism risks raising its head today among those who again are looking for identity in status, not service. They want to be treated differently. There are those who set high standards of morality for lay people, while they blatantly violate those same standards themselves. There are those who go to extremes to express the Mass in a particular way, whether it is in the Ordinary Form or Extraordinary Form, in a so-called VAT II rite or Tridentine Rile, through the "People's Mass" or the "Priest's Mass". Some want to put the priest on a pedestal, whilst the people are consigned to be privileged spectators outside the rails. Flamboyant modes of liturgical vestments and rubrical gestures abound. Women are denied all ministries at Mass: doing the Readings, the serving, the Bidding Prayers, and taking Communion to the Sick. To many in our Church and beyond, this comes across as triumphalism and male domination. This clericalism conceals the fact that the Church as an institution has often acted in collusion with what I can only regard as structural sinfulness. It has paid dearly for it and is untrue to its humble Founder, Jesus Christ.

When the priest imposes his personality on the liturgy, so that it becomes not the liturgy of the Church but a creation of a particular individual. As Bishop Burns says, that is Clericalism.

When the priest is surrounded by a phallanx of clericalised lay assistants who derive their authority from him, but make him inaccessible to everyone else and make his decisions (or theirs) impossible to question. This is surely part of what Bishop Burns means by putting the priest on a pedestal, and he's right, that is Clericalism.

But is the reaction against these things Clericalism too? The reaction against the Mass being a projection of the priest's personality, and against the takeover of parishes by a 'minor clergy', an elite of self-asserive lay people? Surely you can't have it both ways. The quoted text seems to be getting into a bit of a muddle here.

The faithful and clergy attached to the Church's liturgical traditions have had a lot of experience of Clericalism over the years. The abuse of power; authorities ignoring rules or applying them rigorously when it suits them; priests and bishops refusing to answer letters or have meetings; arbitrary decisions which one isn't allowed to question; demands for unthinking obedience in areas outside the competence of the person in authority; all that sort of thing. On the abuse of clerical prestige and authority this Real Catholic TV video illustrates the point.

I'm not sure about the US-style 'direct action' he recommends at the end, but you can understand the frustration.

So no, Traditionlists aren't inclined to Clericalism as a rule; sometimes we are accused of Clericalism, sometimes of the opposite, but then you can't please everyone.

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