Rethinking the diversity of ministries to overcome clericalism
At a time when institutions have become the object of a serious crisis of confidence, there is risk of an internal form of 'anticlericalism' developing among Catholics.
Poster for the conference
A conference organized by the Strasbourg Faculty of Theology has examined several possibilities for re-balancing the power of priests and lay people.
"Clericalism is the enemy!" was the mantra of anticlerical Republicans during the late 19th century. Curiously, the slogan has now become a favorite among Catholics in relation to ecclesial dysfunction.
Hence, the title of a conference organized by the Theology Faculty of Strasbourg at the end of April addressing the highly relevant theme, "The temptation of clericalism."
Speakers from several disciplines, including history, theology and canon law, examined clericalism from various points and began to offer the beginnings of a response to the issue.
In light of both the sexual abuse and abuse of power issues, "if action is taken, it needs to go further in order to promote a re-think of the institution and attempt to establish paths for reform," commented Archbishop Luc Ravel of Strasbourg in his introduction to the conference.
The reason for this, as Pope Francis explained in his Letter to the People of God, is that the problem goes beyond a few individuals. It is a system of power in the Church, which has promoted a "culture of abuse," one of the sources of which is clericalism.
The risk of 'Church populism'
But what is clericalism? Canonists refer to a poor adjustment in the relationship between priests and lay people or of an "elitist and exclusive vision" of the vocation of the priest, to adopt Pope Francis' expression.
At a time when institutions in general have become the object of a serious crisis of confidence, there is a risk of an internal form of "anticlericalism" developing among Catholics, which would challenge all forms of hierarchy in a kind of "Church populism" and would suppress intermediary bodies.
A historical presentation by Nicole Lemaître offered reassurance on this point, observing that clericalism in its present form is primarily a historical construct that owes a great deal to the Council of Trent.
It developed from the 18th century in a "Catholic radicalization" that concentrated all sacred functions on ordained priests, beginning with the Eucharist and confession.
The French school of spirituality of de Berulle and Olier, in particular, developed the concept of the ideal priest – the "holy priest" – above the faithful and identified with Christ.
The main method of combating clericalism and undoubtedly the most immediate thus needs to be based on improvements to canon law, including punishing such abuses.
But as Belgian canonist Alphonse Borras noted humorously, "the primary reflex of a bishop is to seek a civil lawyer, ignoring his own internal judicial experts."
The stress on mercy has also resulted in forgetting that canon law may have a punitive aspect. It also lacks spaces for regulating ecclesial structures that would allow the reporting of serious dysfunction.
In a similar vein, Marie-Jo Thiel pointed to a culture of secrecy and the absence of transparency of processes and decisions.
Diversity of roles
Another more theological approach could be based on spiritual freedom and the correct exercise of "spiritual power" by priests.
Archbishop Eric de Moulin-Beaufort of Reims, the president-elect of the Bishops Conference of France, presented a reflection on the personality of the "pastor."
"There is only one true pastor, Christ," he said, criticizing priests who mistake themselves for the Pastor.
The "sheep," that is, the faithful, are also concerned here, Archbishop de Moulin-Beaufort said, and should not fall into submissiveness or idolatry with respect to the ordained ministries.
Nevertheless, while the current conception of the priesthood owes much to history, it is undoubtedly possible to rethink the current definition.
Canonist Thibault Joubert emphasized the significance placed on the person of the priest to the detriment of that of the bishop and other ministries.
"We have had a theology of the sacrament of orders that is too focused on the priesthood," he argued.
"Currently, there still exists a tension between two theologies of ministry, with the first centered on the sacerdotal figure of the priest and the other beginning from the organic plurality of ministries under the presidency of the bishop," he noted.
In a way, the progressive concentration on the priest of tasks originally shared among a great variety of sacred roles has obscured the diversity of roles in Catholicism.
This is a lack in pluralism that has helped feed the abuses of power that the Church has experienced.