Does Clericalism Explain Corruption?


Another Catholic bishop is in the headlines this week because of corruption revelations and, as usual, the story had to break in the secular media because we, in the Church, don’t have the proper mechanisms or fortitude to deal with the corruption that is calcified from within.

And I’m not going to go into the details of this particular case, because I want to discuss something more wide reaching than that which is this notion that clericalism is to blame. At every turn of scandal, authorities, including the Pope, continue to tell us that these are symptoms of clericalism.

And if we’re going to examine the value of this interpretation, we should probably have an idea of what we mean by clericalism because this is a big part of the problem with this explanation. The word gets haphazardly tossed out there without any clarification of what it means.

So, if by clericalism, we mean that there is a climate in the Church in which the clergy are treated with inordinate amounts of deference, honor, and privilege, then ok, there might be something worth exploring there.

But if we simply mean that there are distinctions between the clergy and the laity in which the clergy are given certain roles of leadership and authority that the laity do not, then I’m not really on board with that.

From the very first days of the Church, there have always been distinct roles within it. The clergy are our spiritual fathers and, as such, should be headed for the wisdom and guidance that their vocation is meant to inspire. Now, that doesn’t mean that every priest is more moral or wise than you or me, but that doesn’t mean that we should not have dedicated clerical roles.

It just means that we should be diligent in choosing and forming those who assume such roles. But getting back to the former definition of clericalism, I think any reasonable person can agree that a climate that treats anyone in a manner that will inflate their egos can create problems. And if you spend enough time in the Church, it isn’t hard to see how problematic this can be. When I’ve been in meetings or conversations in which a bishop is present, you can tell people aren’t acting like themselves and I’m guilty of this too.

And if a bishop or priest is persistently saturated in a climate of obsequiousness, I can understand why that would distort their own sense of identity and reality and I can see how this can lead to struggles with narcissism and entitlement.

But just because a temptation exists, doesn’t mean that it must be acquiesced to. For example, the internet is full of temptation and while that may make it harder to resist, it doesn’t mean that good people will inevitably choose to consume it.

If your spouse catches you looking at something dirty online and you respond by saying, it’s not my fault the internet exists, I don’t think you’d gain a lot of sympathy.

And this is my first problem with the clericalism explanation. We are summarizing the problem of human failure by blaming external factors. It’s like blaming bad behaviour on bad weather. It doesn’t account for the moral choices that individuals make and are responsible for.

Like, where’s the corollary between honor and respect and abuse. It doesn’t follow. When a good person is shown honor and respect, they receive it with humility and grace. When a bad person receives honor and respect, it only stirs their appetite for more and that can quickly progress into some degenerate behaviour. But if it does, the presence of honor and respect should not be to blame.

The fact that the person receiving it was morally corrupt is to blame. Clericalism may account for certain kinds of temptations, but it doesn’t account for why people give in to those temptations. And the more we simply throw this trite buzzword out there to account for our problems, the less satisfied people who want actual change are going to be.

It’s too easy to recite perfunctory platitudes every time a cleric gets caught groping around in the money jar or the seminary.

The second problem I have with the current reigning explanation of clericalism, is that, as Catholics, we shouldn’t have to grasp for external explanations for moral corruption. Our own teachings are quite clear in telling us why these things happen and they’re summarized for us in the Catechism which you can check out in the sections regarding the fall, and human freedom and I’ll close with this choice excerpt.

“As long as freedom has not bound itself definitively to its ultimate good which is God, there is the possibility of choosing between good and evil, and thus of growing in perfection or of failing and sinning. This freedom characterizes properly human acts. It is the basis of praise or blame, merit or reproach.”

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