ACTA Westminster Reports

  • Laurie Clarke
  • (Updated )

On 14 November, A Call to Action (ACTA) Westminster held an evening meeting to discuss 'Clericalism - Out from Under'. The event took place at Maria Fidelis School in north London. Speakers were: Michael Walsh and Michael Murphy. Laurie Clarke also reports on the recent ACTA National Conference in Cardiff.

'Reflections on Pope Francis and Clericalism' - Excerpts from a talk by Michael Walsh

From the seminary to the grave, very many Catholic priests have a close relationship only with their colleagues in the ministry. They form a tightly-knit brotherhood, so it is not surprising that they defend each other, and that their failings, which may be well-known to their fellow clergy and the bishop, are covered up both out of loyalty and misplaced friendship as well as out of a desire to preserve the reputation of the only institution which gives their lives meaning.

Pope Francis was elected in 2013 with a mandate to reform the papal administration. A blogger, writing for the National Catholic Reporter some six weeks after Francis's election, commented about the Pope's lifestyle, that "He is preaching almost daily a powerful, silent sermon denouncing the scourge of clericalism. It's the simple way he lives; his decision to move into the visitors' quarters and eat his meals with them; his lack of interest in pomp and pageantry."

In October 2016 the Jesuits held a General Congregation to elect a new Superior for the Order. During the course of it, the Jesuit Pope came along for a question and answer session, during which he spoke about clericalism: "Clericalism, which is one of the most serious illnesses that the Church has, distances itself from poverty. Clericalism is rich. If it is not rich in money, it is rich in pride. But it is rich: there is in clericalism an attachment to possession. It does not allow itself to be nurtured by mother poverty. It does not allow itself to be guarded by the wall of poverty. Clericalism does not allow growth, it does not allow the power of baptism to grow."

In Buenos Aires, Pope Francis said at a meeting of women religious: "I had this experience: a good priest came to me and said, 'I have a very good layperson in my parish: he does this and that, he knows how to organise things. … Shall we make him a deacon?' Francis said he emphatically rejected that idea. 'No! Let him remain a layperson."

In a Crux piece, Jack Valero, quotes Pope Francis from an interview he gave in 2011 when still archbishop of Buenos Aires: "we priests tend to clericalise lay people. And the lay people - not all of them, but many - ask us on their knees to clericalise them, because it's easier to be an altar server than a protagonist in a lay vocation."

Some might feel that the laity are well represented through ecclesial movements, but the vast majority of the laity do not belong to any of these groups and have no means of representing their views to the Church hierarchy either at the national or the international level. Italian theologian Massimo Faggioli comments in the latest issue of Commonweal: "there is little point in replacing the old clericalism of the ordained with a new clericalism of lay men and women who have proven themselves as extra Catholic by belonging to some favoured group within the church."

If I may return to the remarks I made at the beginning, about how tight-knit clerical camaraderie has perforce become. This is partly because of celibacy, perhaps, but more so, I would suggest, because of the seminary system. Seminaries were an important innovation at the Council of Trent, but they have by now served their purpose. Like cardinals, they too have become an anachronism. Priests should be educated, not in seminaries, but in a university context alongside lay people. That was, of course, the Heythrop model. It was a model that, with some honourable exceptions, the bishops of England and Wales were loath to support.

How do we proceed? Another favourite word of the Pope is 'Synod' I propose that ACTA campaigns nationally for a synod of the Church in England and Wales. One that has lay representation as well as clerical, one that mirrors the synod on youth which has just taken place in Rome though, if I may say so without appearing ageist, with a touch less emphasis on youth.

Clericalism - the Death of Priesthood by George B Wilson SJ - A Summary of the book for discussion - Excerpts from a talk by Michael Murphy

'Clergy' is a sociological term which refers to people whom society recognises as having expertise in a particular area. Society develops a whole range of such groups covering the wide variety of needs of that society - doctors, lawyers, military, religious leader, etc. Clergy are a group who have power, based on knowledge. .A clerical culture includes ritual practices, beliefs and language as well as a number of sometimes unconscious attitudes. A clerical culture can either enable or imprison people. The culture is maintained not only by those within the group but also by those (laity) outside the group who need them. 'Clericalism' is a state of affairs in which the worst aspects of the group culture flourish. The irony of having this system within the Christian community is that Jesus questioned it among the scribes and Pharisees.

In the New Testament, the word 'priest' is only used to refer to the whole community of believers or to Jesus himself. The community did single out individuals who were gifted to be apostles, teachers evangelists - but never priests. The community had leaders for example for assemblies - Eucharistic or otherwise - not called priest and not set apart from the other. Priesthood involves actions flowing from a conversion brought about by the Holy Spirit and the taking on of the mind and heart of Jesus Priesthood is a way of life, and as the Second Vatican Council in Lumen Gentium taught that everyone by their baptism is called to be holy, this means that they all share in the priesthood of the community.

Clericalism enabled the abuse tragedy. Abuse begins with a single act involving only two participants. The same clerical culture that shaped the actions of the offending priest also shaped the reaction of the child. The parents and others had told the child to put the priest on a pedestal. The victim confides in another person - a parent, a friend or another priest. They may go to the authorities, or they may not. Then the Bishop becomes involved. Many Bishops acted appropriately and wisely. Others acted after taking what they judged to be sufficient steps to minimize the likelihood of further acts of abuse, but the steps they took were often naïve and misguided. The victims enlist the aid of another guild, the lawyers. A whole new set of parameters become involved - the civil law versus ecclesiastical law. And the approach of civil lawyers is different from a pastoral approach . Then the media become involved. Their reporting shapes our perceptions.

The final chapters of the book explore approaches to transforming the Church and eliminating clericalism. There are preventive measures - eg a charter and zero tolerance approach agreed in relation to future claims of sexual abuse. Such a charter is preventative but provides no deeper analysis of the cultural patterns that enabled the abuse in the first place. Secondly there are attempts to change organizational structures and encourage greater dialogue and an atmosphere of shared responsibility. Finally, the author's preferred approach is cultural transformation which aims at transforming the clerical culture itself. Everyone will have to stop playing old roles; transformation will take time; it is a shared responsibility; and the transformation will involve conflict. We should draw on good practice among clergy and laity today.

Finally, there are some key areas where the ordained and the laity have complementary roles which could slowly shift and become more mutually inter-active, mutually supportive and shared. These areas include:

Proclaiming the Word and Studying the Word
Presiding at Common Worship and participating in common worship
Guiding in matters of the spirit and growth in spiritual maturity
Leading the Faith Community and active participation in the Faith Community

ACTA National Conference - Report by Laurie Clarke

The ACTA National Conference took place on 20 October 2018 at St David's Sixth Form College, Cardiff. The theme was 'It will always be a Pentecost in the Church', and refers to a sermon of St Oscar Romero in which he called for a process of continuous spiritual renewal. The Church needs to be open to the Spirit, to read the signs of the times and respond to the new challenges of the age.

The first speaker was Gemma Simmons who is a sister of the Congregation of Jesus and a very good communicator - she spoke easily and simply.. She reminded us that we are all priest, prophet and king and she enlarged on these roles - all underscored by Pope Francis' writings. The Church had suffered a devastating loss of credibility because of the sex abuse scandals and the solution could only come from a Church that embraced the poor and the marginalised.

Anna Abrams spoke on the need for a commitment to ecclesial ethics to mirror the professional ethical standards that are an essential part of the secular. Anna said there was a need to review some aspects of the training of priests, religious and permanent deacons to ensure that they understood the expectations of wider society in terms of transparency and accountability.

We then heard from four young people - two said there was not the natural recognition of equality for women in the Church that was reflected in the secular world. The third young person was more positive and felt the synod was creating the expectation of progress in making the church more responsive to the aspirations of young people. A fourth young person said that in her experience 'the Church does not sow seeds - it shoots bullets at us.'

In the afternoon we split into three random groups and the speakers moved from group to group discussing a range of issues linked to the morning's presentations.

The conference was held in St David's Sixth Form College and I must say that we were well looked after by three student ambassadors who guided us from one venue to the next.

For more information about ACTA see:

Tags: A Call to Action, ACTA, Michael Walsh, Michael Murphy, Laurie Clarke

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