Fr Frank O’Dea SSS

What is Clericalism?

Clericalism is the notion that clerics are superior to the laity and are entitled to privileges.

Examples abound . . .

A friend of mine went overseas and when the plane landed, a big black limousine was waiting on the tarmac for the bishop who was on board. Everyone else had to walk to the terminal!

In the current translation of the missal, the prayer after the presentation of the gifts says, ‘Pray, brothers and sisters, that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God, the almighty Father.’ This implies that it is primarily the priest’s sacrifice with the laity added as an afterthought. However, the Latin says ‘sacrificium’ nostrum which means ‘our sacrifice.’ This was the translation used previously. Yet, the new translation was hailed as being more faithful to the Latin. It appears that clericalism takes precedence over the literal translation.

There was an Australasian synod some years ago and the bishops of Australia were told by Vatican officials that the Australian spirit of egalitarianism must not obscure the fact that clerics are different to the laity.

Pope Francis has often condemned clericalism as an evil in the church. Just two examples:

Clericalism nullifies the personality of Christians treating the laity as errand boys and girls.

I remember the famous expression ‘It is the hour of the laity’, but it seems that the clock has stopped. Watching the People of God is to remember that we all entered the Church as laity.

No Clericalism in Early Church

The apostle Peter writes, ‘But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.’ (1 Peter 2:9). See also Revelation 1:6.

Every baptised person belongs to this royal priesthood.

Immediately after a person is baptised with water, he/she is anointed with the oil of chrism when the celebrant says, ‘God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ has freed you from sin, given you a new birth water and the Holy Spirit. He now anoints you with the chrism of salvation. As Christ was anointed priest, prophet and king, so may you live always as a member of his body, sharing everlasting life.’

When I point out to people that if you are baptised you are a priest, they find it hard to believe. This matter is rarely taught.

In the early church there was no clericalism because everyone was recognised as a priest:

There is simply no special class, order or caste of professional ministers. Neither are there superiors over against inferiors, nor rulers over against subjects. (Brian Gleeson CP, Ordained Persons and their Ministries: New Testament Foundations and Variations, Australian ejournal of Theology 7, p. 4)

For centuries it was believed, and even taught as church doctrine, that Jesus ordained the Twelve at the Last Supper. There is no evidence of this whatsoever. A woman theologian gave a lecture and at the end, a bishop rebuked her for not saying that Jesus ordained the Twelve. With tongue in cheek, she replied, ‘My dear bishop, Jesus did not ordain anybody at the last Supper – he had other things on his mind.’

What Jesus had in mind was the institution of the Eucharist, his passion, death and resurrection.

Jesus did not leave us a blueprint of how the church should be governed except to appoint Peter as the head with power to bind and loose. (Matthew 16:19)

We regard Pentecost as the birthday of the church, and the details of government evolved over time.

Evolution of Government

In the very beginning, in the times of the apostles, there was no central authority, no Vatican, no pope and communication was very slow. Communities established their own model of leadership. The very first Christians still considered they were Jews but followers of Jesus. They belonged to a ‘Jesus movement’ within Judaism.

The followers of Jesus did not see any need for priests to offer sacrifice.

Consequently, what we find in the pages of the NT is a complete discontinuity, a complete break, between the Israelite priesthood as it had evolved by the time of Jesus, and the Christian leaders, workers, co-workers and ministers, spoken of in the NT. (Gleeson, p. 2)

Communities need leadership.

What evolved was three kinds of leadership. Firstly, the ‘overseer’ with the Greek name ‘episcopos’. The overseer was assisted by ‘presbyters’ and ‘deacons’. We have to be careful not to equate these words with our modern use. For example, from episcopos we have episcopal which means related to bishop but bishop in those days was quite different to the present day bishop.

‘Presbyter’ and ‘episcopos’ were interchangeable which makes the matter quite complicated.

None of these leaders were called priests — there were no ordinations.

The leaders baptised newcomers and presided at the Eucharist without being ‘ordained’:

The New Testament offers no unambiguous evidence for ‘ordination’, though the gesture of the laying on of hands is found in contexts that suggest commissioning for a missionary task. Similarly, the New Testament does not link ministry with sacramental leadership (e.g. eucharistic presidency). (Nathan Mitchell OSB, Mission and Ministry, Michael Glazier inc. Delaware, 1982, p. 198)

Laying on of hands was used for the healing of the sick and for sending people on a mission — a practice still used today.

Raymond Brown, renowned scripture scholar reinforces the idea that the early church did not ordain priests:

Nowhere in the New Testament are church presbyters or bishops called priests; that development came for bishops in the second century, and later for presbyters. It is interesting that 1 Peter speaks of a general “royal priesthood” (2:9) and of ‘presbyters’ (5:1) but makes no connection between them. (Raymond Brown, The Churches the Apostles Left Behind, Paulist Press New York, 1984, p. 80 footnote.)

The leaders of the early communities provided guidance for their members as they endeavoured to follow Jesus’ teachings.

Some leaders were chosen by Paul, some by the elders.

Paul wrote to Timothy, ‘Do not neglect the gift which was given to you through prophecy with the laying on of hands by the council of elders.’ (1 Timothy 4:14)

The overseer (episcopos) became the principal leader of the communities.

The overseer and deacon are the main functional roles within the community, complimented by those of teacher, presbyter, deaconess and widow. As time passes, however, the role of overseer comes to absorb the roles of teacher and prophet. (Michael L. Papesh, Clerical Culture: Contradiction and Transformation : The Culture of the Diocesan Priests of the United States Catholic Church, Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2004, p. 23)

The deacon is the overseer’s social minister, responsibility for the administration, financial support, and practical care of the needy. (Papesh, p. 23)

The overseer became a full time leader and presided at the Eucharist.

The late first century and early second century letters of Clement, one of the overseers in Rome, and of Ignatius, overseer of Antioch, witness to the increasing emphasis on the overseer, elected from among the elders as the full time leader of the Christian community. (Papesh, p. 23)

How did Ordination Creep in?

It evolved under certain pressures.

Ordination was a term used by the Romans for appointment to an office.

‘Ordained ministry in the Church, in fact, is the outcome of an evolution and a development of patterns of ministry in the NT.’ (Gleeson, June 2006, p. 1)

One of the pressures came from converts from Judaism who found it hard to forget the idea of having priests to offer sacrifice.

By the third century the overseer’s role is starting to be cast in priest terms because the community wishes to have priests like other Roman religions do. The Old Testament priesthood gradually becomes the model of what the overseer role ought to be, which is exactly opposite to the first and second generation’s understanding (Papesh, p. 23)

To provide priests, the overseers were ordained to offer sacrifice. A special ritual was developed for ordination

As the number of Christians grew, the overseer needed help to administer to the communities, so presbyters were also ordained.

Eucharist as Sacrifice

The result of the pressures mentioned above was that the Eucharist was understood only or at least principally as sacrifice.

One writer goes so far as to say:

Though the church has always taught that the Mass is not a re-crucifixion of Christ, that he does not suffer and die again, it has been difficult for theologians to describe how the Mass can be properly called a sacrifice. (Paul Bernier SSS, Emmanuel, July/August 2011, p. 316)

This may be an extreme view.

At the Last Supper Jesus said ‘Do this in memory of me’. ‘This’ was the meal he was having with the Twelve. To my way of thinking the Eucharist is primarily a meal, spiritual nourishment, in which the whole community participates in brotherhood and sisterhood which we call communion.

The earliest Eucharist prayers were short prayers of Praise and Thanksgiving, so Praise and Thanksgiving were recognised as an important aspect of the Eucharist. (See: Mass without Words of Consecration)

Also from earliest times the Eucharist was recognised as a sacrament of Reconciliation.

It is a grave error to focus on just one aspect of the Eucharist, such as sacrifice though this mistake persisted for centuries till recent times. When I was young the Eucharist was always referred to as the ‘Sacrifice of the Mass’.

Seeing the Eucharist as sacrifice led to the ordination of priests who were then seen as separate and superior to the laity. This in turn led to bishops being even more superior.

Eventually some theologians decided that ordination produced an ontological change, a change that penetrated to the very essence of one’s being. Of course, there’s no way of proving it by a physical procedure such as X ray. It’s simply an intellectual concept, and I find it very hard to believe.

The church followed the Roman practice of administration, creating parishes and dioceses.

Bishops Gain Power

Bishops gained more power when Christianity was proclaimed as the state religion in 381, thus separating them even further from the laity.

Then when the Roman Empire began to crumble with the invasion of the so-called barbarians, the church officials stepped in to fill the gap in administration, thus gaining even more power.

Clericalism took a giant step forward at this time.

Bishops also began to wear ornate vestments and adopted titles such as Your Grace and My Lord. This is contrary to Jesus’ instruction, ‘Call no one on earth your father, for you have one Father, the one in heaven.’ (Matthew 23:9)

Eventually, the bishop’s residence was called a palace, cardinals were called Your Eminence and named Princes of the Church. Today it costs $30,000 to outfit a bishop! I can’t imagine Jesus wearing the regalia that our bishops wear.

The head gear for a bishop is called a mitre. It developed from the headdress of the officials of the Eastern Roman empire. The earliest evidence of its use is from the eleventh century. It’s now used by all bishops in the Western Church.

A more bizarre explanation is that the mitre developed from the head gear adopted by the priests of ancient Babylon where the ‘fish-God’ Dagon was worshipped. The priests wore a robe shaped like a fish, and the hat was like the open mouth of the fish pointing upward. Too bizarre to be true?

Dagon – the ‘fish-God’. Artist: Janice McBride (2018).

The clerical system became solidly established in the church. Bishops were chosen for their fidelity to the system rather than holiness or pastoral abilities. Those who might rock the barque of Peter were not on the list of possible candidates

From about the third century to about the ninth, bishops were elected by the people and priests. After that the laity had no say in the election of bishops, and still have virtually no say today. (See: Democracy in the Church)

Bishop Vincent Long OFM Conv. of Parramatta, New South Wales, describes how a seminary in Chicago has seven steps up to the altar. On each step is written the name of each of the seven Holy Orders. He says:

Each step would create an ever-growing chasm between the candidate and the people. It dawned on me that these vestiges of the Tridentine model of priesthood are powerful symbols of the clerical class . . . I hold that it is time for this exalted model of priesthood to be consigned to the past. Instead, we must rediscover the specific and full charism of the priesthood within the matrix of the universal priesthood of the faithful.’ (Address by Bishop Vincent Long OFM Conv. to the Manly [Seminary] Reunion at Lidcombe, New South Wales, August 30, 2017)

Members of the hierarchy should be models of living as Jesus lived, marked by simplicity, caring for the poor, reaching out to the disabled.

During the several decades before Pope Francis, I used to wonder why the hierarchy did not seem to be following the gospels but gave the impression they were more interested in power and wealth. This was disturbingly puzzling for me.

Today bishops and priests have been knocked off the pedestal where they once enjoyed so much privilege and power principally because of the sex abuse crisis.

However, it must be stated very emphatically there have been very many holy and pastoral priests and bishops over the centuries, and still are today.

Making Decisions

Today the church is in possibly the biggest crisis in its history.

Yet times of crisis are also times for significant change. We must now make the best possible use of this opportunity.

One of the most important changes must be to restore the influence of the laity who form probably ninety-nine percent of the church membership. Vatican II decreed that the church is the ‘People of God’.

There is a huge amount of talent among the laity which is not being mined to benefit the church. This is a tragedy. Vast numbers of laity now have degrees and doctorates in theology, scripture, canon law etc. Apart from this scholarship, they have a lived experience of the world, society, marriage and family.

Experience is a vital ingredient in decision making.

Bishops, cardinals and popes may know all the rules and regulations of canon law but without lived experience, their decision making can be fatally flawed. Humanae vitae, the decision to forbid contraception, is a prime example. Pope Paul VI had a committee to assist him in making the decision. Many of them were lay women and men. The laity’s advice was to allow contraception, but Paul VI ignored it, and made his own decision leading to disastrous consequences.

We would have a much better church if the experience of lay women and men was drawn on.

Vatican II spoke of the Priesthood of the Faithful but the connection between the Priesthood of the Faithful and the Ordained Priesthood has never been clarified.

Pope Francis has been encouraging the value of synods where the laity and the hierarchy dialoguing together can decide on a future direction for the church. A synod or plenary council will take place in Australia in 2020. This is a wonderful opportunity to make the church more relevant in the twenty first century.

Can we return to the way things were in the early centuries?

If not, we could at least take the early church as a model and rebuild the church according to that model adapted to the twenty first century.

It is absolutely vital to get back to the teachings of Jesus.

We need leaders who are living the way of Jesus so that they inspire the laity.

The age of clericalism is over, and the clock for the hour of the laity must be restarted with a new battery which the Holy Spirit will supply if we allow him.