Clericalism and culture

The perceptive among the regulars here will have noted that I have a mild mania at the moment for a long-time favourite Catholic writer and theologian, Frank Sheed. Recently circumstances have only afforded occasional dips into the charming yet vigorous memoir of Frank and his wife, Maisie Ward, by their author-son, Wilfrid Sheed. Taking a stroll in the 20+˚C sunshine, said memoir in hand, Wilfrid had arrived at the narration of the family’s move, early in World War II, to the United States to found an American outpost of the family publishing concern, Sheed & Ward, but which was to become home for them all. Wilfrid begins this section by explaining the difference between the Catholic Church in England and in the States in the 1940s. It bears extensive, though necessarily selective, quotation here:

America’s many freedoms have not always and everywhere included the freedom to think. For Catholics before Vatican II, the land of the free was preeminently the land of Sister Says—except, of course, for Sister, for whom it was the land of Father Says. For “Frank Sheed says” to wedge itself into this prim hierarchy would require a more sinuous effort even than getting the English to pay attention to a papist…

… the English view of the clergy was rather more relaxed. Evelyn Waugh, putting it most starkly, claimed that it was the duty of the educated classes to keep the clergy in its place. Or to hear from a less antic voice: “Authority is intolerable but indispensable,” said Grandfather Wilfrid Ward…

“Rome says” was tolerable to English Catholics, because somebody had to say: the alternative was being chaos or the insipidity of Anglicanism. But “Sister” barely existed to them as an intellectual concept, capable of saying anything, and “Father” was primarily a liaison figure with the Mind of the Church, as good or bad at it as his talent allowed him to be. One might in a pinch bend one’s will to a bishop, but if some lower clergyman began talking rot, one simply looked for another one. At least for company: any damn fool could dispense the sacraments.

There was, its being England, an element of class in all this… When a priest came calling in America, it was a very big deal. The best of everything was trotted out for him, although he usually didn’t look as if he strictly needed it, and he was deferred to in everything…

In America, Father was the teacher once and forever… And although some of them were denser than their immigrant charges [ie in the parochial school system]—and physically savage in ratio—one assimilated that fact very early on and continued to accept their authority—because the alternative would be chaos and Unitarianism…

In a colonial situation, like the American, any questioning of the status quo is much more dangerous than at home, because with its fragile, partly make-believe roots a foreign entity like the Church can be swept away overnight by some other wandering craze. In England one felt so close to Rome that one could almost reach out and touch it. And Rome was what one worried about, not its flunkies and emissaries. Vatican Council I, with its definition of papal infallibility, was excruciatingly serious; but not some parochial twit denouncing the welfare state over your brandy. (Who does he think takes care of him, the poor dear?) Thus the priest-caller in England, while not quite a stage vicar wringing his hands between his knees, was a far cry from the plump know-it-alls of America.


Wilfrid Sheed, circa 1990

This selective though lengthy quotation—but an engagingly readable one, hopefully—should have managed to make a distinction clear to you: the place of the clergy in England was not identical as that of the clergy in America. Recusant England had managed for centuries with narrow and lengthened supply lines to Rome, served by a relative handful of beleaguered clergy. The Catholic gentry owned most of the local churches, since they were mostly rooms in their homes, only later emerging into freestanding, if often discreetly disguised, buildings. Thus, they had had to make do themselves. It was, as Wilfrid suggests, largely a matter of class. The nineteenth-century influx of Irish Catholics, roughly coinciding with Catholic emancipation and the restoration of the hierarchy, changed the balance of things, though the recusant ethos still marks the English Church.

However, the Church in America, as in Australia, was far more the creation of the Irish, who brought their own ethos to the life of the Church. More often than not of the lower classes, they were used to tugging the forelock to their social superiors. Their clergy were often not that much superior in class, but in penal Ireland they were superior in status, a status largely conferred on them by the people. It was the clergy who kept the Faith alive for them, and who championed their cause in the face of an unsympathetic and often hostile culture.

Even more, in frontier societies like America and Australia there is little scope for pussyfooting around, little time for the discernment and application of nuance. Things had to be done, and their was precious little with which to do it. The lower classes were by their situation unorganised and unfunded, so it took those of wealth, education and simple panache to take charge and move the thing forward. No wonder the colonial clergy were so highly esteemed: they built up the Church from nothing. Even in old Catholic Europe, which had a deference for clergy, it was never a craven servility. They accepted that the clergy were by their office sacred persons (if not quite sacred intellects), but only within the exercise of that office. Should they step outside their office they were treated with far less deference.

So when we hear drivel about clericalism we should be on our guard and engage our brains. Being a cleric, I am sensitive to the charge of clericalism, and sad to say, for some people clerical equates to clericalist. Sadder still, some self-loathing clergy have adopted this attitude themselves, shedding clerical dress and certain other clerical externals so as to escape the charge of clericalism. No matter these chaps have often manifested the same authoritarian, even dictatorial, attitude that is ascribed to the clericalist.

The straw man of clericalism has been hoisted high in the child-abuse crisis. If only we could change the clericalist, celibate, patriarchal clergy all would be well. At its extreme we have seen some places where “the people” pressure their clergy to dress like any lay person (but not their police, their army, their nurses, their railway staff!); and deny them the basic courtesy of their titles, feeling free to meet a priest they have only just met by his first name, and to do so as a right; and take their priestly ministry as just one among many new “ministries” in the Church, barely allowing it the status even of primus inter pares. And of course, at its extreme, we have the spectre of misguided, to put it nicely, women ordaining each other as “Catholic priests”. Which rather raises the spectre of clericalism again: why do these women need to be priests if priesthood is now just one ministry among many, and to be denuded of any real power and importance in this brave new church of the empowered laity. Laicism is the nothing but the clericalism they abhor reconstructed. It is not unrelated that this brave new church has far fewer practising laity than the Church of 50 years ago, and far fewer clergy.

In practice, the “empowered laity” tend to be a subset of the whole, a clique of pushy, often bitter and dissatisfied, people who lay down the law to their fellows far more than any priest or bishops has done for decades, even centuries. It is all about power, and when we hear clericalism used to explain or deride something or someone, we can be fairly sure the speaker feels that he or she does not have the power s/he wants. Most often in my experience those who shout clericalism loudest are those who most resent the (paltry it must be said) power and privilege of the clergy. “Why should they have all the fun?! I should be able to as well!” So the firing of accusations of clericalism is often just a thin veil for the speaker’s self-assertion and selfishness.

Self-assertion and selfishness can be found in the clergy. But not only in the clergy. A sense of entitlement of privilege can be found in some of the clergy. But not only in the clergy. The real issue here is human sinfulness and the cultures which promote its expression in one form rather than another. Is clericalism to blame for child abuse? No. More abuse occurs in the home, and there are just as many abusers, yea more, among married Protestant clergy, teachers, youth leaders, scoutmasters, gym coaches, etc.

The real issue is sin and the context that allows some to sin and get away with it, to sin grievously and still get away with it. The culture of the BBC allowed Sir Jimmy Saville to abuse children, with full malice aforethought over several decades and almost in the open. It is too great a stretch to blame clericalism here. Rather we should accuse human sin, abetted by a particular culture that felt it had more to gain by turning a blind eye to it. The same blind eyes were turned in Protestant churches as well as the Catholic, and in schools, sports teams, and even broadcasters. It is the culture, and the sinfulness it abets, that we need to examine, not the straw man of clericalism.

We find ourselves back with Jesus and his warning about motes and logs. And also back with him in his warning about trees, and their nexus between their fruitfulness and their goodness or badness. The anti-clericalism of the modern era is intimately involved with the developments that have left us with largely empty, echoing churches, monasteries and seminaries. Good fruit?

It strikes me that the recusant English Church, for all its imperfections and limitations, developed a sensible attitude to the clergy. Let them behave like clergy, and they will be treated with the respect their office merits. But begin “talking rot” like a “parochial twit” outside their station and the people would find another to have round to tea. In the context of the Church and its sacred mission, the clergy had the weightier voice, though not beyond the occasional challenge. The potential downsides are clear enough too: clergy should probably keep out of party politics but they still have a duty to teach about social ills and social responsibilities. If these are too quickly labelled political then a neutered clergy will result, or a bolshie one!

Yet, it is unlikely such a Church would have tolerated clergy abusing their children, yet they would not have screamed “clericalism” and stormed off to the papers. More likely they would have expected a clerical cad to do the decent thing and get himself hence. In cultures like the Australian and the American, which placed their clergy indeed on pedestals, an unfortunate but not inexplicable result of the clergy’s leading role in pioneer societies, building up the infant local Church and defending the interests of its faithful. Alas, the higher they were raised, the mightier would be their fall. Ireland is testimony to that.

There are many other issues that come to mind but are best left to others. The larger phenomenon of the sixties and its effect on the Church, for example, needs extensive and searching analysis. Suffice it to say that, with regard to clergy and indeed to anyone, the more you support them in healthy and constructive ways, the more you get from them, to the benefit of the whole. Some clerical cads are born; some are made, not least by the disappointments and frustrations that attend them. The clergy no less than layperson needs the support of others to weather the storms and emerge unscathed and even, God willing, stronger and better for it.

Perhaps a fitting conclusion, if not totally apt, is the section following that quoted above, from Wilfrid Sheed’s memoir of his parents:

Frank Sheed hit the United States with a very useful collection of attitudes about all this: Irish enough to reverence the clergy as such—and Irish-Australian enough to be cynical about them; and now totally English (and monarchical) enough to respect the office totally and take the man as he found him. Having swallowed the royal family, he had no real difficulty with the American clergy. His running mental reservation about them is preserved in a story he used to tell about one bishop kissing another’s ring.”Oh you needn’t do that,” dimples the younger of the two. “It’s not you I’m kissing,” growls the veteran, “it’s your bloody office.”

Who, Pope Francis might ask, was the humbler?

A clericalist abbess?


One thought on “Clericalism and culture

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.