Sunday, April 2, 2017

April 3, 2017: The Evil of Clericalism

April 3, 2017
MONDAY, Lent week five

The Evil of Clericalism

The Responsorial (Psalm 23) declares all fears false except separation from God: “Though I walk in the valley of darkness, I fear no evil; for you are at my side.

Daniel 13: 1-62 is a painful story to read today, and it raises painful issues. The villains are “elders,” which in Greek is presbyteros, the word which became “priest” in English. In the context of our world, the men who tried to rape Susanna were priests. Worse than that, they were “judges,” which makes them closer to bishops. Although Suzanna was a married woman, we cannot read this without feeling the shadow of the disgrace that Catholic priests and bishops brought upon the Church through commission, collusion or cover-up in the recently unveiled horror of child-abuse.

The relevance and practical value of the story for us lies in the reason why Susanna was found guilty. With her unblemished reputation, the people might not have accepted the testimony of two ordinary men, But her accusers had the credibility that two bishops or cardinals would have in a Church hearing today. Any lawyer will tell you that, although justice is supposed to be blind, justice through a jury can be swayed by the prestige of the witnesses.

The child-abuse horror is a story of clericalism, defined as the unmerited assumption that priests and bishops are somehow more sacred and more holy than ordinary people. Priests could prey on children because the children were in awe of them as representatives of God. Parents reported abusers to the bishop because they thought priests too sacred to be handed over to the police. And they trusted — mistakenly — that the bishop would handle the matter on a higher, holier level than the government. No one knows what the bishops thought, because before the Irish exposure none was ever made accountable, even by the Pope. Like the judges who accused Susanna, they were initially assumed to be beyond reproach. Hopefully, we will never make that mistake again.

We have learned a bitter lesson. In God’s human-divine Church, no rank, position, function, even sacramentally bestowed, makes anyone holier or more to be trusted a-priori than anyone else. Our theology tells us the sacraments produce their result independently of the holiness of the minister. That also should tell us the holiness of the minister is not to be presumed. What Jesus said of true and false prophets is also true of good and bad clerics: “You will know them by their fruits.”[1]

In John 8: 1-11 Jesus shows us that it is also wrong to presume anyone is “bad,” even a sinner “caught in the act” of adultery. Jesus said to the woman, “I do not condemn you.” But he did condemn the action: “From now on, avoid this sin.” No matter what we do, Jesus will not forsake us: Though I walk in the valley of darkness... you are at my side.

Initiative: Put aside prejudice, whether for or against any person. Speak truth.


[1] Matthew 7:15-20.

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