//CLERICALISM: Where it comes from and why it stays

CLERICALISM: Where it comes from and why it stays

Clericalism describes the cronyism and cloistered political environment of Catholic priests, and their loyalty to the feudal system of Rome. Jesuits are present in this environment too, both as perpetrators and as victims.

Most professional bodies are closely knit and safeguard their interests jealously. They resist public investigation, and keep a tight control over their image in the media, especially about their finances.

If this is true of doctors, lawyers, architects and teachers, it is even truer of one of the oldest professions of them all: the Catholic clergy.

Obedience in a feudal system
The clergy – and once again I include Jesuits among them – are a professional group too, well protected by canon law, trained in obedience, pledged to lifelong celibacy, and dedicated to the upkeep and expansion of the Roman Catholic Church.

They are a class apart, even to ordinary Catholics. Traditionally, devout mothers longed for their sons to join this class. They called it “being close to God”.

These good women only glimpsed half the truth. The clergy are indeed those ‘who are called’ (whence, ‘vocation’) to serve in the Church. Over the centuries, however, these servants have become the bosses instead. The service of Christ and the faithful has slowly changed into a self-seeking career.

What does the Roman feudal system demand of its followers? Firstly, thought control. Uniformity in thought and belief is most important. This affects not just the ordinary faithful, but specially the thinkers, scholars and theologians, whose every innovative thought or research finding requires an ecclesiastical imprimatur (“let it be printed”).

Does clericalism only affect the diocesan clergy? By no means. Religious orders are as much infected, loyalty to the Pope being a badge of honour. Even fifty years after the Second Vatican Council, things have not changed that much for us here in India. The ‘us’ refers to the Jesuits of course, for in the closed system which was the Roman Church of yesterday – and which still lingers — the Jesuits prided themselves (as their founder ardently wished) to be more obedient and more loyal than anyone else. As Pope Pius XI primly put it: “You’ve got to be a Pope to appreciate the value of the Jesuits.”

The other area of feudal control was finances: the way in which the Church establishment, not just in the Vatican, but also in every large diocese, handles big money, enjoys tax exemptions and is accountable to no one. This is the quintessential clericalist position. “Ask no questions, and you’ll be told no lies.” Most of us live in democracies today, and we’re rightly agitated when the government wastes our hard-earned tax monies. Why is it so difficult then to introduce financial responsibility into our churches?

The Clericalist attitude to Women
The typical clericalist attitude to women may be described in two words: narcissistic and patriarchal.

Narcissism means ‘self-centred’. In the Greek myth, from which the term originates, Narcissus was the handsome youth who fell in love with his image in a pond. Similarly, the self-centred cleric only sees how he is affected by whatever happens. He has no thought for others. He is the most important person in his world. He is definitely not altruistic, and usually shows a glaring insensitivity.

Today psychologists would call this a serious deficiency of “emotional intelligence”, which is the ability to recognize our own feelings and those of others, to motivate ourselves, to manage our emotions as well as our relationships.

Typically, the ‘emotionally impoverished’ person must be “right at any cost”, sets unrealistic goals, has the insatiable need to be publicly recognized, is pre-occupied with appearances, and needs to be seen as perfect. A sketch of your Parish Priest? Your school Principal? Your Superior?

In the context of the Catholic Church, this narcissism shows itself in patriarchy and misogyny.

Patriarchy – “the rule of the father”, of men, is not particular to the Catholic Church. It is found in various ways in different cultures and through different epochs. Briefly, it implies that men are better than women, and so should rule and guide women in every respect. It also implies that women should be dependent on men – as in that much-quoted line from the Hindu Manusmriti: “when young, upon her father; as a mature woman, upon her husband; as an aged woman, upon her son.”

Arguably then, most religious attitudes are patriarchal, be these Judaic, Christian, Islamic or Hindu. For as the American theologian, Rosemary Ruether, put it, “Where God is seen as father, there the father becomes god.” If this is so, it’s not surprising that clericalism should have strongly patriarchal cast, which is expressed not just in the petty harassment of women in the day-to-day running of a church (sexist jokes and demands for free service in the parish, for example), but also in more significant ideological issues (the ordination of women to the priesthood, promoting women to executive roles).

From patriarchy to misogyny (the fear and hatred of women) is just a small step.

Once again, misogyny is not unique to the Catholic Church or to the clergy. It is found wherever patriarchy is present. There is something deeply irrational in this fear of women and how they will “spoil” men – especially young men who have dedicated their lives to God’s service in lifelong celibacy. For part of clerical – formation, has been to inculcate and reinforce a ‘healthy distance’ from women as equal partners in living out one’s vocation; and even more, as equal partners in a democratic society.

If things are changing today, they are changing very slowly, for we still live in a country where the average woman is seen as bhog ki cheez (as a former President of the country described her, “a thing to be seized and enjoyed”), and India today is probably the most unsafe country in the world for women.

Does such misogyny in the Church stem from a defective formation of young seminarians? Probably. It’s not just a matter of inadequate sexual information, and a false idea of purity and virginity, but there is also the implicit teaching that “we priests are more than you, laity, will ever be.” Here begins the idea of entitlement which is so much part of the clericalist attitude.

That so many priests and laypersons still take this entitlement for granted only shows us how far the indoctrination has gone. For all education which does not permit the freedom to challenge and question, is a form of indoctrination.

The sense of entitlement is also predatory, as the disgraceful chapter of paedophile priests in Europe and America has revealed. We in India have not yet been afflicted publicly with paedophilia, but the sexual assaults of priests on women are our own contribution to this legacy of shame.

In recent years the sexual-abuse scandals in the Catholic Church have revealed yet another aspect of clericalism: impunity. Even if found guilty, as a priest I know I can get away. We protect our own. Bishops and other church leaders cover up the wrongdoing of clergy under their leadership. The law of omerta, the oath of silence taken to the boss, is still enforced in the Catholic Church. It is power, not truth, which calls the shots.

Let me refer to the comments of Thomas Doyle OP, the American canon lawyer who has fought so courageously and tenaciously on behalf of the victims of the paedophile scandals in the USA. He writes,

“There is a deeply rooted sickness in the institutional Catholic Church, and widespread sexual and physical abuse is a major symptom — but not the only symptom.

The incredible brain washing is a major symptom as well – the fact that educated, professional adults who otherwise function competently in the real world suddenly revert to childishness when they walk into the church culture. This emotional and spiritual immaturity may provide a certain degree of security grounded in the comfort of knowing that someone else is making the spiritual decisions for us… but there is a downside, and it is this: this widespread immaturity, which is essential to clerical control, and here I include control by religious women, is also responsible for the emotional and spiritual devastation of the countless victims. Blind acceptance of the illusion of integrity on the part of clergy, bishops and religious is a special kind of narcissistic selfishness. The time has long passed where we can look aside at the harm done in the name of religion.

If we continue to ignore or minimize this, we assure the continuation of the mentality and belief system that enabled widespread abuse. Is this the “church” we want to be part of? Is this the “Body of Christ?”

And what about India?
Clericalism is an aspect of the institutional Church, and as long as the Church as institution continues as the dominant template, clericalism will flourish. And in this country, even more so.

Not so long ago, a certain Provincial Superior in a letter to the South Asian Assistancy agonized over “the three great viruses” which were playing havoc with the Jesuits of South Asia. He named them as “regionalism and parochial factions, financial malpractice, and the sexual abuse of women.” Put in another way, this is clericalism with an Indian Jesuit face.

Take a look around: the predominant characteristic in Indian society is khandaan, parivaar, biradari. In other words: family, caste, tribe, and clan. European missionaries may have left their homes on a distant Continent but Indian Jesuits carry their families around in their pocket – or more accurately – on their Smartphone. We protect and nurture our own.

Is there then no way out? Not unless we depress our institutional identity, and recover our sense of evangelical community – a small group of men and women, joyful in their witness to the Lord, frugal in their way of living (“live simply, so that others can simply live”), and courageous in confronting the powers of this world. This, you will notice, is what the early disciples were. We need to recover their charism, their gift. We need to discover anew “the cost of discipleship” in our modern age.

Will we as Jesuits regain the resilience we’ve always been known for? Will we be able to bounce back?

The author lives at Campion School, Colaba, Mumbai, where he is writer-in-residence.