Clericalism and the Crisis of the Church

When Steve Skojec and Cardinal Marx Agree

It’s not news to anyone who’s been paying attention that the broadly-Catholic world is in a state of crisis. If you’re interested in the long history of how we got to this point, there are plenty of places to look, but that’s not what this essay is about. This essay is about what’s happening right now — today.

Two things have happened very recently that seem unrelated, but which actually have a great deal to do with one another, and with this crisis. The first is a personal blog post written by Steve Skojec,1 editor of One Peter Five, which went viral and opened an Internet-wide conversation in the broadly-Catholic world about the unique plight of a marginalized and overlooked minority in the Catholic Church: traditionally-minded laypeople, concerned with piety, integrity, and orthodoxy in faith and morals. The second is the letter of resignation tendered by Reinhard Cardinal Marx2 to Pope Francis, who subsequently rejected it.3

The Problem of Clericalism

On the face of it, Skojec’s gut-wrenching gripe against systemic abuses fueled by clericalism, perpetrated by ecclesiastical authorities on both the Left and the Right of discipline, faith, and morals, may seem like its own issue, but it’s not. Skojec is being painfully honest about how he’s experienced the Church, and how it’s felt to be him in the midst of it all, but the problem from which his experiences arise — the problem on the side of the Church — isn’t just his own. Clericalism is a problem both Cardinal Marx and Pope Francis himself are fond of naming, even if Marx insists that both he and Francis bear the guilt of it.

But what is “clericalism,” really? As I understand the term, “clericalism” is an attitude both toward and of the professed religious and the clergy according to which the clerical and religious states are seen to constitute a kind of aristocracy in which the members of it bear no responsibility to the laity or to anyone in the hierarchy ranking lower than themselves. “Clericalism” is, thus, an institution-centric, top-down, managerial ecclesiology that serves the interests and values of those within the institutional structure of the Church, not the laity. It makes the clergy immune from critique or repercussions for their actions from anyone they’re in a position to injure, with the result that the “aristocrat” only possesses authority, rights, and privileges but bears no meaningful responsibility, while the laity — the peasants — bear only responsibility, but possess no meaningful authority, rights, or privileges, and enjoy only those avenues of redress that those against whom they might seek it will allow.

As we know, however, it’s one thing to say you’re open to criticism, as almost anyone will; it’s another thing entirely to be open to criticism. That’s a very rare thing, especially, ironically, for those used to being immune from it.

But clericalism, remember, is a two-sided attitude, as Francis himself points out. Not only those served by it but also those served up by it have to buy into the viewpoint if it’s going to work.

Skojec’s Blog Post

In illustration of this problem, Skojec references a litany of terrible news on which he’s reported and commented, year after year, with no let-up, and how, in each episode, each new glimmer of hope that reform would come faded away like all the glimmers of hope before. These were matters touching on everything from liturgy to doctrine, to morals, to finance, and to general governance. Skojec describes an institution that can’t fix itself because the only people who have the authority to do so are themselves the problem: the clerics.

And it’s not just big-picture, generalized abuses Skojec is concerned about. It’s concrete and personal. Throughout his life, he’s been subjected to manipulation and deep psychological trauma at the hands of priests and religious, and finally, without prior discussion, his children were denied the sacraments — sacraments the Church teaches are necessary for salvation — by a priest he thought he could count on, in a parish at which, at last, he’d felt at home.

Skojec basically describes a kind of co-dependent relationship with an abusive institutional structure, and the picture he paints is so candid and raw that one sees him not only as a single individual with his own unique experiences but as a type — one example of many like him.

It makes me think of the epilogue from that old New York police drama, “The Naked City”: “There are eight million stories in the Naked City; this has been one of them.”

I want to make clear that Skojec doesn’t claim to have personally experienced sexual abuse at the hands of a priest, a bishop, or a religious, but that’s not the only kind of abuse there is, and in a Church in which one kind of abuse can happen (and has), other kinds of abuse shouldn’t surprise us.

Skojec’s story is a kind of biopic of a man preyed upon by authority figures in the Church precisely because he cared so much about it. He was taken advantage of, manipulated, guilted, and shamed into compliance, shut up and shunted aside, by one cleric after another, decade after decade, wherever he went, who used his fidelity to the Church, his sense of piety, and his conscientiousness against him. As so many others like him, he could be treated this way because those who abused him knew he would always comply in the end. He would always obey. He would always take it. He would never walk away.

Skojec’s story and choices, whatever they will be, are his own. But he’s drawn attention to a problem much larger than his own. He’s drawn attention to the fact that the most faithful members of the Church are also, if we’re being honest, the most marginalized, and that this happens on account of a two-sided systemic attitude that threatens to substitute, as he puts it, an ideology or “crippled religion,” for the True Religion.

Mere Catholics

Now, in speaking here of “the most faithful members of the Church,” I’m not equating this group with what we call “trads.” I don’t think Skojec would either. My definition (and I suspect Skojec’s, but I’ll let him speak for himself) is broader than that. Adapting a phrase from C.S. Lewis, let’s call them “Mere Catholics.”

I’m talking about those who, if asked whether they affirm or deny any given point of the Church’s perennial teaching on faith or morals would say they affirm, every time, and who make decisions every day based on those teachings, even at cost to their own social, economic, or physical well-being. Many of them are “trads”; many can’t be classified that way, and many “trads” aren’t “Mere Catholics.”

Mere Catholics aren’t a homogeneous group, in other words. They entertain different theological opinions and make different prudential judgments on a wide range of issues within the bounds of orthodoxy. Not all of them are Roman Catholic. The Catholic Church has its Eastern rites as well.

Some Mere Catholics are devoted to the Rosary, others to the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, others to the Jesus Prayer, and still others to any of the countless pious prayers and practices the Church, in her perennial wisdom has recommended to the faithful from her treasury of grace. Mere Catholics even manifest some variety of preference in liturgical style, even within their respective rites. But they all seek a life framed by the sacraments, reverently celebrated, and they would all take the Oath of Fidelity,4 because they can genuinely say that they “firmly accept and hold each and everything definitively proposed by the Church regarding teaching on faith and morals.”

As I said, this group is a minority in the Church, and I’ve explained elsewhere how we can tell, and how small a minority it likely is.5

Least Likely to Be Heard

It’s true that the Church’s constant teaching and tradition, by definition, favor traditionally-minded, conscientious Catholics — “Mere Catholics” — but the plain truth is that the relationship these people have to the Church in whose defense they would gladly lay down their lives is radically asymmetric. The custodians of the Church, taken as a whole, simply don’t make these people a pastoral priority, and they haven’t done so for as long as I can remember. I’m 53.

Why don’t they? The answer, again, seems to be clericalism. Mere Catholics are, once more, a minuscule minority of the visible Church and you don’t really have to appease them because they see the unity of the Church as a non-negotiable value. They won’t leave no matter what you do to them. The most they’ll do is migrate to another parish.

By contrast, the heterodox majority in the Church are rather prone to leaving. So, when they’re unhappy, they get results. Again, clericalism only works if both sides buy in. As a consequence, the heterodox majority have the leverage, and most of the Church’s historic institutions have been almost completely secularized to the point at which Mere Catholics don’t feel welcome in them.

Take the case of Riley Soares,6 who was expelled from Newman College, a Jesuit college in Australia led by President William Kabira, an LGBTQ activist who’s openly gay. Soares, who himself experiences same-sex attraction but seeks to live in conformity with Church teaching, was expelled for defending that teaching on human sexuality. The forces of the secular culture rose up against him and, to appease them, the Administration forced him out the door.

By contrast, take this familiar story, reported by Church Militant,7 recounting the marginalization of students and parents in an Augustinian school in the Archdiocese of Detroit, when they complained that the school had been promoting the LGBTQ agenda and normalizing gender theory in its curriculum, as well as treating the Eucharist with impiety rising to the level of desecration.

Were there promises to undertake “a full investigation”? Were there assurances that measures would be put in place to guarantee that nothing like what was reported here would ever happen again, or that the institution takes seriously its duty to address any offense its actions may have caused to the sensibilities of those who’d brought the grievance?

No. Basically, no one cares what they think or what offends them. They’re the people who need to adjust.

And this how it goes nearly every time. Are there exceptions? Sure, but they’re exceptions — rare exceptions, comparatively speaking.

If we ask, for example, who’s the least likely person in the parish or in the diocese or in the school community to get what he wants, it’s not the person who thinks Protestants should be admitted to Communion at Catholic liturgies or that extraordinary ministers should give formal blessings or that laypeople should routinely officiate at the graveside. It’s the guy who wants the liturgy to be prayed ad orientem and to receive Communion on the tongue while kneeling at an altar rail, because doing so feels reverent and his usual experience doesn’t. The least likely person in the parish to get what she wants isn’t the woman who thinks the Church needs to be more welcoming to same-sex couples or that the Church should “respect people’s consciences” about birth control or abortion. It’s the woman who wants to hear the priest say from the pulpit that same-sex marriage, contraception, and abortion, are all grave evils, as known to us in the natural moral law and as revealed by God in Scripture and the constant teaching and tradition of the Church, and that no Catholic could support such things in good conscience. It’s the young man, like Riley Soares, who wants to explain why, as a Catholic, he won’t just give in to his urges, regardless of what the culture around him is clamoring for him to do.

It’s a rare thing when Mere Catholics get what they want, and when they do, the priest who gave it to them usually ends up in hot water, eventually. The outcry from the World almost always outweighs the flood of support that comes from the Mere Catholic community. They beg the bishop to let the priest keep tending the flock whose needs are being met by him. They demand only the pious and conscientious celebration of the sacraments and a gospel that invites the World, for their own good, to be conformed to Christ. They lament, by contrast, the usual fare and the usual result: liturgical banality and a flimsy, vapid, pseudo-gospel full of platitudes any atheist might just as easily affirm — in other words, a “gospel” that invites the Church to be conformed to the World.

Cardinal Marx’s Resignation

So, by now, you may be wondering what connection I see between Skojec’s complaint and Cardinal Marx’s letter of resignation to Pope Francis. Marx is hardly known as a champion of the Mere Catholic.

To get at the connection, we should understand that Cardinal Marx tendered his resignation as an act of self-imposed accountability in the wake of the sexual abuse and misconduct scandals that have plagued the Church for the past two decades. That noted, the species of abuse behind his decision to hold himself accountable isn’t the issue for me, but the fact that abuse took place while he was in charge of things. For Marx, that abuse was allowed to go uncorrected, unreported, and unpunished, and to metastasize, because of a cultural climate in the Church that insulated the perpetrators from meaningful consequences. It’s just as applicable to Skojec’s case as it is to anyone else’s.

So, I think I finally understand this claim, which I once thought absurd, that, at the heart of the sexual abuse crisis in the Church lay the specter of clericalism. Many of my readers probably think this assertion relatively new, but it’s not. Francis only made the association in August of 2018,8 but Russell Shaw mentioned it in an article in America in 2002,9 when John Paul II was still pope.

The connection between abuse in the Church and clericalism has been frequently mischaracterized by its critics. No one, including Francis, has ever claimed that clericalism was the cause of the concrete acts that occurred, but instead, that it lay at the heart of the climate of enablement and coverup that persisted for decades before the scandal began to emerge and didn’t end once it finally came to light. Pope Francis suggested that the attitude of privilege worked in the case of those sad events much as it did in the darker corners of other, purely secular aristocracies. Because the victims of the abuse were seen to belong to a lower caste than the abuser, and, to that extent, were depersonalized, the offense itself may have been seen as comparatively less significant than it was, such as when certain ignoble nobles might have counted themselves entitled to have their way with the help.

In any event, that seems to be Francis’ suggestion about what this attitude of clericalism entails and how it may have been a factor in the long saga he was addressing. He reiterates this opinion in his letter of response to Cardinal Marx, rejecting his resignation, but Marx clearly shares the view, and that’s why he decided to resign in the first place.

What’s notable about Marx’s decision is that it doesn’t come on the heels of a public outcry directed against him, personally. Rather, he determined on his own that because he, himself, occupied a leadership position as a bishop in the Church, and for a long time, a bishop, specifically, of a major archdiocese, he represents the Church and bears the guilt of what went wrong. He expresses the view that the Church’s leadership have persistently failed to accept this view of things, and in tendering his resignation, he seeks to take the first steps to major reform by modeling for other bishops what it looks like to say “no” to clericalism.

He writes:

The investigations and reports of the last ten years have consistently shown that there have been many personal failures and administrative mistakes but also institutional or “systemic” failure. The recent debates have shown that some members of the Church refuse to believe that there is a shared responsibility in this respect and that the Church as an institution is hence also to be blamed for what has happened and therefore disapprove of discussing reforms and renewal in the context of the sexual abuse crisis. I firmly have a different opinion. Both aspects have to be considered: mistakes for which you are personally responsible and the institutional failure which requires changes and a reform of the Church.

As I said before, there are many forms of abuse, and where one is found, others shouldn’t surprise us. So, it doesn’t matter that Marx is talking about sexual abuse. He could be talking about any one of the eight-million stories in the Naked City, where the Mere Catholics live and work and worship.

A Point of Confluence

I exaggerate only a little when I say that, perhaps for the first time, Skojec and Marx agree on something. Where I and Skojec would disagree with Marx, of course, is in his insistence that the so-called “synodal path” by which the German church seems determined to join the ranks of Liberal Protestantism, is the only way forward. But perhaps Marx is right in saying that we’ve reached a “dead end” in the direction we’ve been going and need to make a turn, somehow. Attitudes and expectations need to change so behavior can, too, and the Church could get back to doing what Christ established it to do — preach the Good News of Salvation and provide the means Christ offers for embracing it.

That means an end to clericalism because, apparently, clericalism works against this purpose. Both the clergy and the laity have to change the way they think about themselves in relation to one another. To be sure, Christ gave us the bishops and the Petrine Office. If you’re a Mere Catholic, that’s what you believe. But there’s nothing in the constitution of the Church as established by Christ that requires anything resembling an aristocracy or an imperial papacy.

The Uncertain Road Ahead

Again, even if temporal models of ecclesial culture need to be reconceived and new directions taken, I’m certain that the “synodal path” is the wrong one. It’s based on the model of a modern representative democracy, from what I can tell. And, like the aristocracies of Medieval and Renaissance Europe or the Imperial structure of Ancient Rome, that’s also a secular form of government, not something essential to the Church. This time, however, it’s not only one that’s outmoded, it’s intrinsically incompatible with a Catholic ecclesiology in any historical or cultural context, and it’s already proven to be an abject failure in other ecclesial contexts in which it’s been tried.

I don’t think Marx fully understands the whole problem, either. I don’t think he perceives the marginalization of the Mere Catholic at the hands of people like himself, who seem only to want to build a Church for everyone else. But, details aside, Marx recognizes that something’s wrong and needs to be fixed — that the bishops played the major part in squandering their reputation as moral authorities both in the Church and in the secular society, and that they must assume the proportionate share of responsibility for the damage. That might just be the one issue on which the two ends of the Catholic spectrum agree, and, in my opinion, Marx deserves to be commended in this.

It’s ironic that, in his letter rejecting Cardinal Marx’s resignation, Pope Francis agreed with everything Marx had said to justify his decision to tender it, including Marx’s assessment that the Church has reached a “dead end,” and including his suggestion that, in a very real sense, every bishop of the Church bears a share of the responsibility for the evils perpetrated by her ministers both personally and systemically, and needs to be held to account for it. But, in rejecting his resignation, Francis effectively nullifies the practical value of that very confession.

It’s like when a public servant declares that he takes “full responsibility” and, in so doing, escapes any accountability whatsoever. What practical meaning do words like “take responsibility” and “held to account,” actually possess if, in the end, nothing changes after they’ve been uttered, and the only cost to be extracted is the salt in the wounds of those whose grievances still go unredressed? To be sure, the Church has to place mercy and forgiveness at the forefront of her mission, but can’t we argue that Francis has denied Marx the opportunity to do the honorable thing, just when the Church — when the Naked City — needed most to see a bishop do just that and set a new standard for his brothers in ministry to follow?

I’m reminded of the story of a Jewish man who fell in love with his employee, whom he subsequently married. She asked him for an advance on her pay and she used it, right in front of his eyes, to provide for a homeless man whom they’d both just passed on the street. Even though he felt chastened by her compassion in the face of his own callousness to his fellow human being’s suffering, and even though he’d determined then and there to marry her, he let her pay him back. He let her bear the cost herself. Why? She was performing a mitzvah, and he didn’t want to—he just couldn’t—take that away from her.

That’s not what happened here.

It’s far too soon to tell what solutions the Holy Spirit will introduce to the Church, but he rarely works in a way unconnected, somehow, with the human agents whom he prompts through various modes and means. Skojec’s end-of-rope confession and Marx’s end-of-road resignation, even if it has been rejected, are just the sort of events the Holy Spirit might be inclined to use as a catalyst. And there’s reason for hope.

When the Israelites were fleeing Pharaoh and his charioteers, they came to a dead end, too. Then the Holy Spirit opened a road where they’d least imagined one would be. Perhaps something like that will happen again.

  1. Steve Skojec, “Against Crippled Religion,” The Skojec File, May 25 2021. skojecfile.steveskojec.com/p/against-crippled-religion.
  2. Reinhard Cardinal Marx, Letter to the Holy Father, 21 May 2021. www.erzbistum-muenchen.de/cms-media/media-55270420.PDF.
  3. Lettera del Santo Padre inviata in data odierna all’Em.mo Card. Reinhard Marx, 10 June 2021, https://press.vatican.va/content/salastampa/it/bollettino/pubblico/2021/06/10/0372/00815.html#ted.
  4. https://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_19880701_professio-fidei_en.html.
  5. Dr. Richard H. Bulzacchelli, “The Invisible Schism, Part II: The Heterodox Majority,” Catholic Studies Academy, Dec 14 2020. catholicstudiesacademy.com/the-invisible-schism-part-2/.
  6. “Jesuit college boots Catholic student for defending Catholic teaching on homosexuality,” Life Site, February 10 2020. www.lifesitenews.com/opinion/jesuit-college-boots-catholic-student-for-defending-catholic-teaching-on-homosexuality.
  7. Anita Carey, “Michigan Catholic School Caught Promoting Gay Agenda,” Church Militant, October 7 2017. www.churchmilitant.com/news/article/catholic-high-school-promotes-gay-agenda.
  8. Letter of the Holy Father Francis to the People of God, 20 August 2018. https://press.vatican.va/content/salastampa/en/bollettino/pubblico/2018/08/20/180820a.html.
  9. Russell Shaw, “Clericalism and the Sex Abuse Scandal,” America, June 3 2002. www.americamagazine.org/issue/375/article/clericalism-and-sex-abuse-scandal.
Richard H. Bulzacchelli, STD About Richard H. Bulzacchelli, STD

Dr. Richard H. Bulzacchelli is Lecturer in Theology at Catholic Studies Academy and Senior Fellow with the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology. Widely published, he taught philosophy at Saint Francis University in Loretto, PA, from 2002–04, and theology at Aquinas College in Nashville, TN, from 2004–18, where he held the rank of associate professor. He is the author of “Elohim Created”: A New Look at the First Creation Narrative (Aggiornamento, 2012).

Comments

  1. Avatar Tom McGuire says:

    Richard,

    Wonderful to read your description of the way Steve Skojec and Cardinal Marx agree on the need for change. What seems missing in the description of the need for change is the responsibility of laypeople.

    I take responsibility for my own acceptance of ‘clericalism’, even though I recognize it is the work of evil in the Church. My example: I was in the chair of a meeting of laypeople and a Bishop. The Bishop did something that was clearly disrespectful to the laypeople in the meeting. I kept silent, rather than bring the situation to the attention of other bishops, what we laypeople experienced. My excuse, nothing will be done about it so why take the trouble to report. This is a way I supported ‘clericalism’ in the past.

    What Pope Francis is calling for is not democracy, but a way of being Church that recognizes each member of the Body of Christ has a role to play, in which there is no room for one class of people to dominate or control any other members.

    I am now in my 80s, and remember going into a gathering of priests as a young teen ager and hearing the pastor of a neighbouring parish say to a room full of cigar smoking priests: ” What you got to do, is tell them what to do and they will do it.” This way will, as you I am certain, agree is not the WAY of Jesus.

    • Your point is valid, I would say. And Skojec’s own piece comes down on the same side, I think. I alluded to this point when I said that you need buy-in on both ends for clericalism to work. In the case of “Mere Catholics,” they accept the fact that Christ instituted a hierarchical authority in the Church, so they go along. The mistake they make is to act as if this structure entitles those who hold authority to abuse that authority and the people for the sake of whose salvation they exercise it–or, more precisely, to imagine that because Christ willed the authority structure its every exercise is pleasing to him and obliges us, morally, as if Christ’s promise that the Church would never fail equates to an assurance that his pastors are always right, which is obviously false. So, yes. I generally agree with your point.

  2. Avatar Susan Schudt says:

    You completely lost me at the CM reference. One must assume that CM is reporting facts about what happened at that Augustinian school versus opinions and assumptions when one uses their “reporting” as an example of how mere Catholics are not respected by the clerics in the Church.

    CM is a perfect example of how people can take a few facts and draw completely erroneous conclusions from them. This referenced article is nearly completely wrong about what happened and so are your statements about those involved and your conclusions.

    I wish your article had not included that reference. It’s like using the National Enquirer for one’s news.

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