Related: Catholic issues, Women, Women's Leadership

Clericalism’s Comeuppance


stained glass

Shortly after I became Trinity’s president, some time in 1990, I attended a breakfast with numerous Catholic bishops and priests.  I cannot remember the occasion, but I do remember being the only woman sitting at a table with several bishops who talked quietly among themselves.  Feeling a bit awkward in such august company, I chatted up Trinity and they nodded politely while tucking into their scrambled eggs.  Trying to find a topic to engage them in conversation, I then mentioned how great I would be if there could be some kind of educational program for new Catholic college presidents (today there are such programs, but none back then) like me who did not have much background in Theology or ecclesiastical structure.  A shudder ran around the table.  The bishop across from me put down his fork, gave me a sharp stare above his rimless glasses, and muttered, “My dear, we expect our Catholic presidents to KNOW these things!”

Chastened, I stared at my eggs and finished the breakfast in silence.  I understood the bishop’s rebuke clearly:  here I was — a woman, a lay woman, trained as a lawyer not a theologian — somehow the likes of me wound up at his table and he was having none of it.  I was a skunk at that clerical party, and was distinctly unwelcome.

As the waves of scandal broke over the Roman Catholic Church this summer — the revelations about sexual harassment and abuse committed by former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the Pennsylvania grand jury report on priests abusing children and bishops covering up the crimes, the release of a letter by former papal nuncio Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano with  numerous spurious claims about Pope Francis and others in the hierarchy — as these waves crashed against the bulwark of the Church, a number of commentators, including Pope Francis, himself, pointed to the culture of clericalism as the root cause of so much of the Church’s problems.  The Pope wrote in a Letter to the People of God in August:

“It is impossible to think of a conversion of our activity as a Church that does not include the active participation of all the members of God’s People.  Indeed, whenever we have tried to replace, or silence, or ignore, or reduce the People of God to small elites, we end up creating communities, projects, theological approaches, spiritualities and structures without roots, without memory, without faces, without bodies and ultimately, without lives.[2]  This is clearly seen in a peculiar way of understanding the Church’s authority, one common in many communities where sexual abuse and the abuse of power and conscience have occurred.  Such is the case with clericalism, an approach that “not only nullifies the character of Christians, but also tends to diminish and undervalue the baptismal grace that the Holy Spirit has placed in the heart of our people”.[3]   Clericalism, whether fostered by priests themselves or by lay persons, leads to an excision in the ecclesial body that supports and helps to perpetuate many of the evils that we are condemning today.  To say “no” to abuse is to say an emphatic “no” to all forms of clericalism.”  (Pope Francis, Letter to the People of God)

Clericalism exalts the ordained hierarchy and attributes to priests, bishops, cardinals and the pope a level of power and authority that diminishes all others associated with the Church.  Clericalism blinds the hierarchy to the experiences and insights, potential wisdom and even genuine authority of those who are not ordained.  Clericalism is not really interested in what others know or experience but expects all others to adhere without question to the rules pronounced by the hierarchs.  Clericalism is not interested in what others have to say, unless what is said is dissent, which then evokes condemnation.

I understand the problem of clericalism all too well, having labored in various ministries in the Church’s vineyard for my entire professional life, and yet, somehow always feeling like the outsider, that young female college president rebuked for being an ignorant intruder.  Lay persons, and particularly women (including religious women who are also considered “lay” in the clerical discussion), run the ministries, teach the children, heal the sick, comfort the dying, but are not welcome in the inner sanctum.   We stare across the stained glass curtain wondering what is going on in there.  When a pane shatters, as the summer 2018 scandals have done, we behold the wreck inside, a venerable institution severely damaged by its own stewards.

Clericalism has fostered the abuses of power inherent in the crimes of child sex abuse and abuse of adult victims as well.  Clericalism is the only reason I can imagine that prevented seminarians from doing what guys otherwise might have done, namely, hauling off and punching the lights out of McCarrick when he insisted on sharing his bed with them.  Why didn’t any one of them blow the whistle on the bishop?  Were they so blinded by their own desire to become priests that they would not risk the anger and possible retaliation by the leader of the clerical club?  I have no way of knowing the true psychology of each victim, but from the outside it appears to be so.

And how did bishops get away with moving predator priests from parish to parish?  For the same reasons that so many allegedly knew about McCarrick and said nothing, the culture of clericalism is intolerant of whistle blowers.  Ambition is so powerful that it blinds common sense and permanently debilitates any hope for integrity.

While all lay Catholics might feel excluded from the clerical culture, the exclusion of women, in particular, has blinded the hierarchy to the kinds of sensitivities and life experiences that women bring to the formation of any human community.  Popes have written about the “special” nature of women in somewhat patronizing terms (another example of the problem of clericalism), but what is certainly true is that as the mothers and primary teachers of the children, women have acutely sensitive insights and knowledge about human life and relationships.  For this reason, the exclusion of women from the culture of the Church hierarchy makes the men deaf and blind to the kinds of interventions that women might make, interventions that might have saved some of the children from abuse, interventions that might have led to more humane and less rigid ecclesiastical decisions on matters related to human sexuality, among others.  The Church structure walls off the voice of women, a silence that we now can see is profoundly perilous for the institution.

Writing in the New York Times on August 17, Notre Dame Professor Kathleen Sprows Cummings noted that she used to be of the “place at the table” view of women, trying to get a seat to work on change from the inside.  The Pennsylvania grand jury report radicalized her view, and now she is in favor of revolution, writing that,“We need to rip off the tablecloth, hurl the china against a wall and replace the crystal with something less ostentatious, more resilient and, for the love of God, safer for children.”

The bishop whom I encountered at breakfast in 1990 is long deceased.  But if I were to have such a dismissive reaction from a bishop today, I might rip off the tablecloth and hurl my scrambled eggs at him, at least figuratively.  I have come to the same place as Professor Cummings, believing that nothing short of a revolution in the Church structure and culture, including engagement of women in the hierarchy, will heal the wounds, atone for the crimes, remake the Church as truly the community of the whole People of God.  What might that look like?  I will have further thoughts on this in my next blog.

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4 Responses to Clericalism’s Comeuppance

  1. Pingback: An Open Letter to the Pope and Bishops at the Clergy Sex Abuse Summit | President's Office - Trinity Washington University

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Patricia A. McGuire, President, Trinity, 125 Michigan Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20017
Phone: 202.884.9050   Email: