From there Paul and Barnabas sailed to Antioch, where they had been commended to the grace of God for the work they had now accomplished.  And when they arrived, they called the Church together and reported what God had done with them and how he had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles.  Then they spent no little time with the disciples.

Acts 14: 26-28

In the current issue of The Atlantic, the cover story is by James Carroll who boldly asserts that the only future for the Roman Catholic Church is the abolishing of the priesthood. In this he echoes an argument made several years ago by the historian Garry Wills in his book Why Priests. While he would, probably not come to the same conclusions, Pope Francis himself has stated that clericalism is the foundational cause of what we call today the sexual abuse crisis in the Church.

Today we read in Acts of Paul and Barnabas arriving in Antioch and, first thing, calling together the Church and reporting “what God had done with them and how he had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles.” They, then, “spent no little time with the disciples.” What is striking in this account is what would seem to Catholics the inverted line of accountability here. Paul, an Apostle, and his companion Barnabas are sent by the Apostles themselves to proclaim the good news to the Gentiles. Yet, when they arrive in the midst of the Church of Antioch they report, as accountable, to the assembly. Their ministry, in the name of the Church, requires of them to be accountable to the Church, which is the assembly of believers.

What we term clericalism is a social structure that removes the presbyters from the communion and makes of them a unique and superior class, one supposedly accountable only to those superior in the hierarchy as unique representatives of God. Those of this clerical caste are set apart from and superior to the others. They do not do what “laypeople’ do and are not, as Paul himself was, reliant on their own labor to provide for themselves. They are supposedly endowed with power and with wisdom not attainable by the ordinary members of the Church. Perhaps most importantly, their “authority” does not come from the Church itself, the community of believers, but somehow from some direct line from the Divine through the Bishop.

All of this understanding, as we see in Acts, does not originate in the earliest Church. It develops over time, taking a form that is influenced by the monarchical structures of European culture. To be sure, there are arguably structural advantages to some forms of hierarchy. Yet, we experience in our time the result of its greatest weakness. As Wendell Berry puts it, in the context of American slavery, “The notion that one is too good to do what it is necessary for ‘somebody’ to do is always weakening.”

Many years ago, a very good person who was a diocesan priest shared with me some of the struggles he was experiencing in his life. He explained his struggles by describing an experience he would sometimes have as he vested for mass on Sunday morning. He said that as he put on his vestments, “They would feel as heavy as lead on my back.” I believe he was describing the burden he felt by having to wear his “priestly identity.” He experienced the transference onto himself of the expectations, needs, fears, and desires of his congregants, and he knew that he was not who they saw him to be. After much struggle this man remains a priest, and a very good one, to this day. Yet, he is able to be so while also being himself, in truth, by not confusing his “clerical identity” with his real one.

This man’s experience makes clear, I hope, that  none of this is intended as a personal criticism of the many fine people, all men in the Roman tradition, who exercise the service of priesthood in the Church. Rather it is intended as a caution to all of us and to the social structures we create. We human beings are always looking for magical ways to escape the conflicts and frustrations of being human, of our own lives of desire and repulsion, of love and hate, of generosity and selfishness. We wish to be like the gods that we create, that are, unlike us, all virtuous, all powerful, and all sufficient unto themselves. We are prone to create idealized forms of ourselves, and to attempt to create social structures in which perfection is possible, a perfection that, because we know it to be impossible to us, we devise as Divinely ordained.

The “clericalism” problem lies, then, in its inhumanity, its refusal to conform to the truths of our human condition. It is because priests came to be seen as not suffering the sinfulness and complexities of ordinary lay people, they they were trusted in ways that others may not have been. It is because the priests themselves were called to project an identity of infallibility and flawlessness in the world that they too often became dissociated from their own actual lives, personal struggles and human needs. It is because this caste of people was unduly revered and held above others by their flocks that they inevitably had to come crashing to earth.

For one human being to have power of any kind over another is a very dangerous position. So much of what Jesus teaches to his disciples is his schooling of them in how they are to exercise leadership. Jesus very much understands that if we are given any kind of authority over others, we must keep reminding ourselves that we are the least of all and the servant of all. The reason for this is due to what Friedrich Nietzsche recognized as “the will to power.” We experience gratification in having power and control over others. We feel significant when we are looked up to and revered by others. So, we readily forget, in this gratification, that we are no more than any other. We begin, often albeit unconsciously, to develop a sense of our own privilege and entitlement over others.

Now none of this is new, and the “clericalized” Church continues to read the gospels and to proclaim Jesus’ teaching. The problem is that it unrealistically takes Jesus’ teaching as a matter of merely personal development in virtue. It fails to recognize the social dimension of the teaching. We have all known wonderful, holy, wise and generous priests. What all of them had in common, however, was that they were with, among, and accountable to the community of which they were a part.  And they were a part of the community, not its head. Only Jesus is that. In my own religious community, which is obviously within the Roman Catholic tradition and structure, we are now attempting to reform our understanding of the lines of accountability. We have discovered that, as formed in our clerical tradition, we have been programmed to make the designated authorities responsible for our lives and ourselves as accountable to them. It is very difficult, not only in theory but in formation of mind and heart, to turn this around, to realize that, if our group is to be the truly vibrant and creative witness to the gospel it is called to be, we all must be responsible and our leaders must be accountable to us.

It is a violation of our very identities as “ekklesia, brotherhood, sisterhood” to have an elite or privileged class.  As communities we are a body of members with varying talents and services to offer, all as gifts “of the one Spirit.”  Each of us with those gifts,  however, are also human beings with our own strength and weaknesses, our own propensities to power as well as service.  So, “ekklesia” can only exist through mutual responsibility and accountability.  The problem here, of course, is that community, collaboration, dialogue, and discernment is so much less efficient than hierarchy.  How easy, practically if not humanly, to believe that God speaks through the superior person.  In many years of living in community, however, I can attest to how much possibility for good, for response to God’s will for the world, has been lost by the silencing of the voices of the many.  

Unless we are checked, our own unconscious demands for power and for recognition, our own ambitions and compulsions, will drive us, if we are so empowered, to pursue our own agendas, confusing those for the right and the good.  Thus, no less than Paul and Barnabas upon arriving in Antioch, before all else, give a report to the Church about what they have been doing in the Church’s name.  From the corporate world, to the governmental halls of power, to the Church, we have witnessed the disaster that results from a lack of accountability.  For human beings, any power or even influence over others must be accepted in fear and trembling, a fear not so much of failure as of the kind of success that would violently impose our will on others and the world.  Jesus says to have authority means to be the servant of all.  Those with authority must practice that service by coming continually before “the Church” to account for themselves and their fidelity to the charge the community, the Church, has given them. To receive authority is not to be removed from “the common” condition.  It is not to become a “superior” being.  In fact, it is to be placed in the frightening position of having to face everything within oneself that is sourced in our unconscious pride and drive for power and dominance.  

The “clericalism” problem is the failure to take into account the above, that is, the truth of our humanity and its drive to create a false and superior identity.  It is a failure to take adequately to heart the teaching of Jesus about authority as service, about how we must consider ourselves not more but less when asked to undertake leadership.   As a social structure, clericalism fails to support the growing formation in the vision and words of Jesus and instead supports the false and prideful structures of our consciousness.  It is only by living “in solidarity and availability among the people” and by being continually accountable to the community that leaders can learn to serve as Jesus taught.

The notion that one is too good to do what it is necessary for somebody to do is always weakening.  The unwillingness, or the inability, to dirty one’s hands in one’s own service is a serious flaw of character.  But in a society that sense of superiority can cut off a whole class or a whole race from its most necessary experience.  For one thing, it can curtail or distort a society’s sense of the means, and of the importance of the means, of getting work done; it prolongs and ramifies the life and effect of pernicious abstractions.

Wendell Berry, The Hidden Wound, p. 106

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