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Ultimate clericalism: It’s not what you think…

Ultimate clericalism: It’s not what you think…

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bioarticlesemail ) | Nov 07, 2023

Perhaps twenty or thirty years ago I went to confession to a priest in a neighboring parish where the lines were a bit shorter. I have conveniently forgotten the sin I had to confess, but as I was confessing it, I also mentioned something about the circumstances. The priest immediately cut me short and told me sternly not to say anything more than the minimum necessary. I asked, “But what if I have some question about the relevance of the circumstances to the gravity of the sin?” He answered in a tone that was little short of yelling: “I will determine what may be relevant!” I responded, “But what if I don’t agree that I shouldn’t mention something that you have not yet heard?” Then he told me, point blank, that I could choose to leave without absolution and go to another priest.

This was a confession that had taken well under a minute, even with the “give and take”. Of course, being me, there was no way I was going to stand in another line, so I just chuckled, said “Yes, Father”, received absolution, and came away with a good story (about an anonymous priest of course). I am not particularly sensitive, and I have never lacked confidence, so this did not particularly bother me. But I came away wondering how much this priest was harming more sensitive souls.

I presume that this was a priest with a somewhat troubled personality, and I was not surprised that in a very short time he disappeared from the diocese. But setting aside all more sympathetic explanations for a moment, we might well say that this priest was exhibiting a certain kind of clericalism—the kind that we characterize (with or without warrant) as old-fashioned—that is, the brusque “I am in charge, we do things my way here, and don’t you forget it” kind.

It may be something very much like this, applied to the manifold situations in priestly work, that Pope Francis consistently denounces as clericalism. I mean the sin of the priest for whom the attitude is typically “my way or the highway”, the priest without an appropriate flexibility regarding non-essentials, the priest who never admits that his own typical approach to the orchestration of parish life is not the only legitimate approach, the priest without a certain willingness to sacrifice the psychological convenience of his own preferences.

Unfortunately, I also think Francis regards unwavering clarity about Catholic faith and morals to be a symptom of the same problem, though of course that cannot be the case. Only a very bad priest avoids speaking the truth when Catholic faith and morals are called into question. Of course, every priest with the courage to speak the truth needs also to learn when to speak it forcefully and argumentatively, and when to speak it with tenderness and even invisible tears, hoping for the grace of interior clarity in the sinner, and prayerfully pleading for a change of heart.

So far, so good. But regardless of the different ways in which a priest can fall into “clericalism”, the very worst sort of clericalism is for a priest to use his authority to speak about faith and morals in a way that that does not match the teachings of the Church which he sacramentally and pastorally represents.

Changing faith and morals

When my wife was at a public college and participating in some of the activities of the campus Newman Center, she found that the priest in charge of the Center made no secret of his disagreement with the teachings of the Church he was supposed to serve. On one occasion, when this priest was speaking to a group of students about the Mass, it became clearer and clearer that he was avoiding any statement which reaffirmed the Catholic belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. So finally she asked him point blank whether he believed that the consecrated bread and wine really became the Body and Blood of Christ. In response, he denied the Real Presence.

And this is the worst form of clericalism.

The greatest of all the sins under the heading of “clericalism” is any abuse of office which deliberately undermines confidence in what the Church teaches about Christ, about Christ’s continued ministry to us through the Church, and about the manner of life He calls us to live. It is precisely because the priest is consecrated to act in persona Christi, and because he is also the official representative of the Church in the particular ecclesiastical assignment accorded to him, that it is a gross betrayal of his responsibility to assume a stance of superiority to Christ and the Church by teaching or administering the sacraments in any way which undermines what the Church herself has commissioned him to do.

This is the very point that Pope Francis seems frequently to overlook: The worst clericalism is not to have an unpleasing personality or a laziness in ministry. The worst clericalism is for the priest to assume an authority he does not possess when it comes to teaching what Christ and the Church have consecrated him to teach and administering the sacraments in the manner and circumstances in which Christ and the Church have specified that they are to be administered.

In other words, the greatest sins of clericalism do not occur when the priest inadvertently allows the limits of his personality to be exposed, but when the priest deliberately arrogates to himself authority over the the deposit of faith, the moral law and the administration of the sacraments. There was an epidemic of that throughout the West, and especially on college campuses, beginning in the mid-1960s, an epidemic that still rages in many places today, perhaps most consistently in Jesuit universities in the West, but also in dioceses, religious orders, and publishing houses which remain in the grip of the secularist flight from reality.

The sin against the Holy Spirit

The ultimate clericalist sin is not that a bishop or priest has an abrasive personality, not that he is lazy, and not that he is at times guilty of occasional moral failings. No, the ultimate clericalist sin is to assume a superiority to the authentic message and the authentic mercy which each bishop and priest has been entrusted to communicate not only in his own person but at times also in the very person of Christ. It is a normal human failing to occasionally teach, preach or even administer the sacraments with less than perfect care and clarity. But it is the proverbial sin against the Holy Spirit to do any of these things in defiance of what Christ and the Church say that the truth is, in defiance of what the preaching is supposed to illuminate, and in defiance of what the sacraments are to make present and transformative in our lives.

No, the ultimate clericalist sin is not to let deficiencies of personality or lack of ministerial care obscure the message of Christ and the Church. The ultimate clericalism is to deliberately arrogate to oneself the right to deny or change the message of Christ and the Church. The ultimate clericalism is not to be annoying in some ministerial way, but to curry favor by pretending to an authority over Christ and the Church which no priest can ever possess.

So let us make no mistake about the tendentious discussions of clericalism which are so common today: The ultimate clericalism is to assume the authority to call truth falsehood and falsehood truth—or to claim that good is evil, and evil good. This is in fact the great blasphemy, the great sin against the Holy Spirit which may not be forgiven. It is the sin of one who, despite having been given all that Christ and the Church can give, attributes Catholic teaching to Satan, and uses his own position in the Catholic Church to proclaim Satan’s lies as truth.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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