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Clergy and laypeople collaborate to confront clericalism

Joint News Release from Association of U.S. Catholic Priests and Voice of the Faithful
For Immediate Release, Aug. 15, 2019   

Clergy and laypeople collaborate to confront clericalism

Pope Francis condemns clericalism, repeatedly. Catholic commentators decry it. Theologians and church historians examine its roots. Now, in a significant collaboration, the Association of U.S. Catholic Priests and Voice of the Faithful have examined the ways clericalism emerges from the clerical culture, generating complex problems facing the Roman Catholic Church today, and they suggest ways to combat it.

Their document, “Confronting the Systemic Dysfunction of Clericalism,” was approved at the AUSCP June 2019 Assembly, where guest speaker Dr. Richard Gaillardetz called it “very informative, even visionary.” Keynote speaker Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago, noting the real-life examples reported, said it was “nothing less than a catalogue of horrors chronicling imperial pronouncements, put-downs, claims of privileges, entitlements and exemptions from accountability, but also a culture so pervasive that, sadly, many of the laity have come to accept it as normal and yes, even have cooperated in maintaining it.”

Real-life examples are central to the report and a significant contribution to the study of clericalism today. As the writers note, “We typically encounter clericalism as an experience. Using only scholarly definitions and explanations when discussing clericalism cannot communicate this lived experience of clericalism in the Church. To fully understand clericalism, we also must hear the voices of those who experience abuse of power.”

One experience  describes a confrontation between a laywoman and a visiting priest in Boston during a 2003 meeting. “We must fix this [sex abuse] because we are the Church,” the laywoman said. The visiting priest replied, “YOU are not the Church,” and pointing to his Roman collar, declared, “WE are the Church.”

In another example, a new pastor announced that he would personally choose pastoral council members and no one would be allowed to disagree with him. In yet another, a seminarian criticized the pastor for his monthly blessing service because it differed from what the seminary practiced.

If these examples seem to focus blame on the clergy or an insulated hierarchy or any group or faction within the universal church, the document will not allow such a conclusion. Clericalism is not simply a problem of clerics, and the authors cite experiences where lay people enable such behavior.

Clericalism is toxic to all the baptized, they note. When lay people encounter clericalism: “They find another parish; they leave the Church; they never speak up again in meetings with priests; they abdicate all decision-making to the priest; they become audiences rather that participants in the parish’s life and sideline observers within the Church. Or all of the above. They abdicate their baptismal responsibilities.”

Priests may suffer, too, from unrealistic expectations stifling their human development. It is manifested in “overwork, isolation, loneliness, unrelieved stress, the expectation that he and he alone will handle all the parish business and be responsible for all the parish problems.”

The document delves into the culture of the diocesan priesthood and characteristics that help incubate clericalism: the hierarchical and patriarchal structure of the church, its requirements for celibacy, an ordination that is said to confer an ontological change, an education separated from the daily lives of laypeople, distinctive clothing and liturgical dress. Clerics also receive privileges of lifestyle and compensation not available to the people to whom they minister. The final section of the paper describes options for confronting clericalism.

“Our aim,” the AUSCP and VOTF writers say, “has been to raise the consciousness
of readers to the expressions of clericalism and its problems. Clericalism betrays the teachings of the scriptures and ignores the best practices of the first three centuries of Christian faith and life. Both clerics and lay persons can be afflicted with the disease. Both are often unaware that their mode and manner, their self-understanding, and their sense of ministry have wandered far from the example of Jesus … [We]” hope that our words help us all rise to the challenge of today in confronting and ultimately removing as many vestiges as possible of the clericalism that harms us all.”

Cardinal Cupich emphasized a similar conclusion: “Clericalism can only be confronted by reclaiming the authenticity of the conversion we are called to in Baptism.”

The team preparing the report worked with input from clergy and laypeople across the United States, modeling the synodality Pope Francis urges as one way to address clericalism’s damage. Following its completion, the white paper also was endorsed by FutureChurch, another organization that includes both priests and lay people.

Lead writers for “Confronting the Systemic Dysfunction of Clericalism” were Rev. Kevin Clinton, AUSCP Past Chair of the Leadership Team, retired pastor, Archdiocese of St. Paul–Minneapolis; and Ms. Donna B. Doucette, Executive Director, Voice of the Faithful, member of Paulist Center Community, Archdiocese of Boston.

Contributors on the Working Group under the auspices of AUSCP were Rev. Gerry Bechard, AUSCP, pastor of Sts. Simon and Jude Parish, Archdiocese of Detroit; Ms. Alvera Bell, parishioner of St. Paul the Apostle Parish, Diocese of Youngstown; Mr. David Bell, parishioner of St. Paul the Apostle Parish, Diocese of Youngstown; Rev. Bernard R. Bonnot, AUSCP Executive Director, retired pastor in the Diocese of Youngstown; and Rev. Tom Ogg, AUSCP, retired pastor, Diocese of Cheyenne, Worldwide Marriage Encounter―U.S. Ecclesial Priest.

N.B. “Confronting the Systemic Dysfunction of Clericalism” can be read and downloaded at http://www.votf.org/AUSCP-Projects/Systemic%20Dysfunction%20Clericalism.pdf. Strategies for addressing clericalism in local faith communities can be found in “The BridgeDialogues: Laity & Clergy Reimaging the Church” at http://www.votf.org/content/priest-and-lay-reform-organizations-take-clerical-culture, which is a collaborative effort of AUSCP, FutureChurch and VOTF.


Contact: Donna B. Doucette, Executive Director, dbdoucette@votf.org
Voice of the Faithful®: Voice of the Faithful® is a worldwide movement of faithful Roman Catholics working to support survivors of clergy sexual abuse, support priests of integrity and increase the laity’s role in reforming administrative structures that have failed. VOTF’s mission is to provide a prayerful voice, attentive to the Spirit, through which the faithful can actively participate in the governance and guidance of the Catholic Church. More information is at votf.org.

Contact: Kevin Clinton, kevin@kevindome.com, Paul Leingang, prleingang@gmail.com
Association of U.S. Catholic Priests: AUSCP serves the People of God in parishes and other ministries. We seek to add a priest’s voice to the public conversation within our pilgrim church, among bishops and lay persons, vowed religious, ordained deacons and others. Our concerns are your concerns: good liturgy, social justice, the role of women in our church, immigration policies that reflect Gospel values, the dignity of all human lives, and a Church that welcomes all the People of God. Our mission is to be an association of U.S. Catholic priests offering mutual support and a collegial voice through dialogue, contemplation and prophetic action on issues affecting Church and society. Our vision is to be a Priest’s Voice of Hope and Joy within our Pilgrim Church. More information is at uscatholicpriests.org.