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What ‘clericalism’ really looks like

Peter Kwasniewski Peter Kwasniewski Follow Dr. Peter

October 5, 2018 (LifeSiteNews) – Lately we are hearing a great deal from the pope, his collaborators, and his allies about the dangers of “clericalism” in the Catholic Church, as they attempt to steer the conversation away from the cause of the vast majority of sexual abuse cases (the psychological disorder of homosexuality) and to lay the blame on structural and institutional factors that play into their liberal narrative of a Church in need of radical reformation in its teachings connected with sexuality (e.g., ordination of women, clerical celibacy, regularization of divorcees, normalization of homosexual relationships).

In a perfect expression of this mentality, Bishop Felix Genn of Münster recently remarked: “I can tell you firmly: I do not want pre-conciliar clerical guys and I will not ordain them.” The language used here connects with a frequent theme in Pope Francis’s preaching, namely, that before the Council the Church was segregated into first-class citizens (clergy) and second-class citizens (laity), the former lording it over the latter; and that the phenomenon of traditionalism today is characterized by the same false ecclesiology. In this respect he shows himself a perfect son of the 1970s, when it was fashionable to grant a monopoly to the expression “People of God” in a quasi-Marxist, democratic, secularized sense.

I was thinking about all this recently as I watched the way parishioners at my local parish—an oratory of the Institute of Christ the King, Sovereign Priest—behave towards the priest as he processes down the aisle for Holy Mass. The faithful first make the sign of the cross as the Cross passes by, and then they bow towards the priest—not because he is this or that particular man, wielding authority over other men, but because he represents Christ the High Priest who offers the one saving sacrifice that unites all of us to Him and to one another. The very fact that the priest is clothed with a cope and later with a chasuble, and that he faces eastwards at the altar, shows very clearly that he is actively and powerfully standing in for Christ, clothed in the garments of His priesthood, with his own individuality hidden and his office exalted. In this way the faithful are paying homage to their Lord, not to a mere creature.

The same can be said for other pious customs of tradition-loving Catholics, such as kissing a newly-ordained priest’s hands when receiving his first blessing, or kneeling for his blessing. In so acting, we recognize in the priest in front of us an efficacious sign of the One whose blessing he has been empowered, by holy orders, to impart. This is not clericalism; this is simply Catholicism.

What, on the other hand, does clericalism really look like? Let me suggest six ways it manifests itself in the Catholic Church today.

1. When a priest, contradicting nearly 2,000 years of unanimous tradition in the apostolic churches of the East and the West, faces the people at Mass (versus populum), he unavoidably imposes himself on them as the principal actor in the liturgy, standing “over against” the passive congregation. In this way the message is transmitted—whether the priest intends it or not—that he is the center of attention, the facilitator and even the validator of the assembled faithful. This is an efficacious sign of clericalism if ever there has been one. When a priest faces eastwards, on the contrary, the attention is focused more on the liturgical rite and on the altar, crucifix, or reredos that may dominate the sanctuary as a reminder of the supreme Sacrifice of Calvary. All in common, oriented in a single direction, offer a single prayer together. This is the antithesis of clericalism, and may explain why so many clergy fed on the “spirit of Vatican II” are vehemently opposed to its recovery.

2. When a priest says “call me Fr. Jimmy,” acts casually, tells lots of jokes and stories from the pulpit, and “doesn’t stand on ceremony,” he is in fact promoting a cult of the individual personality, the cult of Jimmy, rather than humbly accepting his God-given office or role in the Church as the impersonal minister of the Lord Jesus, one of a million that God will make use of in the span of history. A certain respect or reverence towards the priest is in fact crucial not only for the laity but also (and perhaps especially) for the priest, if they are to understand the seriousness of their respective tasks in the world and in the liturgy. An informal or casual manner of celebrating the liturgy, which rests on a lack of living faith in the awesome holiness of the sacred mysteries, is a terrible scourge of clericalism that causes countless laity to wince from week to week.

3. On the other hand, when clergy extend traditionally clerical ministries to lay people (e.g., extraordinary ministers of holy communion), they are perpetuating the false view that the only worthwhile, validating “work” for a Catholic is to be busy in the sanctuary. This is one of the worst manifestations of clericalism. The proper role of the laity is not to substitute as “straw ministers” but to sanctify the world outside of the church building, as many popes have taught and as Vatican II reiterated. The lay faithful are responsible for imbuing family life, their culture, their civil society, with the radiant truths of the Faith—a task that is noble, indispensable, and rewarding. The proper role of the clergy is and has always been to dedicate themselves to prayer, the sacred liturgy, the sacraments, and preaching. When clergy become social activists and laity become mini-priests, all is thrown into confusion, and we lose the beauty of the Mystical Body of Christ with its graceful hierarchical order that reflects the ranks of angels and saints in the heavenly Jerusalem.

4. When priests, bishops, and even the pope ignore or hold in contempt the legitimate aspirations and needs of the faithful or of their subordinate clergy; when only the pope, only his collaborators, only his allies, know what is best for everyone else, regardless of education, competency, or expertise—we are facing another notorious form of clericalism, which could be summed up as: “My way or the highway.” This, sadly, is something we have seen continually during the pontificate of Francis, who seems to think it a virtue to ignore cardinals, bishops, priests, and hundreds of thousands of laity when they express their (quite understandable!) concerns about certain of his teachings and actions. We also see it in parishes where a young parochial vicar, desirous of reintroducing beauty and tradition, is gagged or hamstrung by an older priest who “knows better.” St. Benedict was wise to recognize that “God often reveals what is better to the younger” (Rule, ch. 3).

5. When bishops or priests want to intrude their personal theological opinions into their preaching and writing, rather than following and handing down the common and traditional teaching of the Church, we are certainly dealing with a particularly acidic form of clericalism.

6. When the pope appoints ambitious men as bishops and curial officials instead of imitating great reforming popes who scoured observant monasteries and parishes for humble, holy, orthodox candidates, or when people entrusted with proposing episcopal candidates fail in their grave charge, they are flexing the muscles of a clericalism that becomes mightier the more successful the ambitious are. It is like a disease that feeds upon itself. We can see, from the St. Gallen “mafia” to the McCarrick scandal to the Viganò exposé, how flourishing this form of clericalism is in the Church today—and, ironically, most of all in those who have made an incoherent notion of “clericalism” a diverting screen behind which they think to hide.

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Peter Kwasniewski

Peter Kwasniewski holds a B.A. in Liberal Arts from Thomas Aquinas College and an M.A. and Ph.D. in Philosophy from The Catholic University of America. After teaching at the International Theological Institute in Austria and for the Franciscan University of Steubenville’s Austrian Program, he joined the founding team of Wyoming Catholic College in Lander, Wyoming, where he taught theology, philosophy, music, and art history, and directed the choir and schola. He is now a full-time author, speaker, editor, publisher, and composer.

Dr. Kwasniewski has published seven books, including Sacred Choral Works (Corpus Christi Watershed, 2014); Resurgent in the Midst of Crisis (Angelico, 2014); Noble Beauty, Transcendent Holiness (Angelico, 2017); A Reader in Catholic Social Teaching (Cluny, 2017); and Tradition and Sanity (Angelico, 2018). Resurgent in the Midst of Crisis has been published in Czech, Polish, German, and Portuguese, and will soon appear in Spanish and Belarusian.

Kwasniewski is a scholar of The Aquinas Institute in Green Bay, which is publishing the Opera Omnia of the Angelic Doctor, a Fellow of the Albertus Magnus Center for Scholastic Studies, and a Senior Fellow of the St. Paul Center. He has published over 750 articles on Thomistic thought, sacramental and liturgical theology, the history and aesthetics of music, and the social doctrine of the Church. 

For news, information, article links, sacred music, and the home of Os Justi Press, please visit his personal website, www.peterkwasniewski.com.