Cardinal Blase J. Cupich

Clericalism: an infection that can be cured

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

To read this column in Spanish, click here.

Last year, I asked the Archdiocesan Women’s Committee, which is part of the Archdiocesan Pastoral Council, to offer their insights, after consulting with women in their parishes, about how they experience clericalism.

As I said to them at the time, clericalism is a form of elitism that finds its way into the life of all organizations and institutions. Daily headlines and news reports offer countless examples of people who claim an elite status in society, entitling them to prerogatives and exempting them from being called to account for their behavior.

Yet, while elitism is not peculiar to the church, when it infects the priesthood there are unique consequences that injure the life of the ecclesial community, given how it undermines the very core of the Gospel and the meaning of baptism.

As I read the report of the AWC, which chronicles the experiences of laypeople being ignored, put down and excluded, it became clear that what was most concerning to them was the scandal that it brought to the church and to priesthood itself. These women were quite pronounced in stating that they were enriched and nourished by the pastoral care and generous service of priests — and, yet, scandalized by the behavior of some priests.

They know firsthand the value priests offer the church in their faithful service to the people of God and it is this value they want to protect by calling the church to address clericalism with forthrightness and determination. They understand that we need a pastoral approach, knowing that it does little good to rail against experiences of clericalism in the church which, sadly, are legion, and leave it at that, as if shouting will accomplish anything.

Their insights helped me to prepare a talk that I gave to a group of priests last month in St. Louis ( I challenged priests to take the lead in combating any form of elitism in their ranks, first of all by being in touch with their baptism.

I reminded them of something a bishop at the Second Vatican Council said during the debate on the document on priesthood: “Ordination does not annihilate one’s baptism.” His point was that priests are to live by the demands of the Gospel just like everyone else. There are no exemptions when it comes to the call to holiness. In fact, a priest has to make fidelity to his call to holiness received at baptism the centerpiece of his ministry as a priest.

A call to baptismal fidelity is all the more important as the church continues to address the sexual-abuse crisis. Both the abuse and the cover-up by leaders highlight how clericalism enables the lie of a double life.

Those who abuse have convinced themselves that they can misuse their position and power even violently to get what they want, all the while maintaining that they can live by one set of expectations and rules that are different from those required of the rest of the Christian family. Those who cover up these crimes also claim prerogatives and exemptions from accountability for the ordained, even if that means ignoring the harm done to the people they have been sent to serve and protect as shepherds who guard the sheep.

If we are serious about ridding the church of any form of elitism, a task that is all the more urgent in view of the abuse crisis, priests have to challenge each other to take the lead and return to the demands of their baptism, which calls them to live the life God shares with us.

As the baptismal formula makes clear, we receive the very life of the trinitarian God when we are baptized. This involves a conversion, a turning away from any tendency to try to save ourselves by the means of our limited humanity, which Paul refers to as a fleshly existence. For any of us, but especially we priests, there has to be a firm commitment to reject any approach to life that involves accumulating power, possessions and prestige to save ourselves. 

A gifted preacher some years ago wrote that the life of the Trinity reveals the meaning of perfect love, for in God there is an “I” and a “you,” but not a “mine” and “yours.” Pope Benedict XVI writes in “Deus Caritas Est” that God the Father gives over everything except the name “Father.” In God there is ego without egoism. Accepting the life of the Trinity in whom we are baptized is about becoming an “I” without claiming what is mine and that means dying to the notion that we can possess and control our own lives.

Of course, we know this is the core of our faith, and yet there are just too many instances in the lives of priests and bishops that remind us that it has not been fully embraced, particularly as privileges and entitlements are expected and exemptions from accountability are claimed. Does a bishop really live the life of the Trinity given in baptism if he organizes his whole life around saving himself by the accumulation of power, possession and prestige? Does a priest really live the trinitarian life of baptism if he is fixated on his position, privilege and claims of entitlement?

I am convinced that the more priests and all of us continually turn away from the tendency of egoism, of trying to save ourselves by our own power, possessions, privileges, we will rid our church of all forms of elitism and entitlement.

What gives me hope is that there are so many of our priests who have nothing to do with a clericalist mentality. We should keep in mind their countless acts of loving and generous service. I know of priests who have donated kidneys and parts of their livers to parishioners, who have given of their own resources to people in need and in some cases organized among their presbyterates a fund to help cover counseling for victim-survivors.

But I am also given hope by the witness of our laypeople, especially the members of the AWC and APC, who care enough about the church and the priesthood to raise their voices and become involved in the renewal of the church so needed in our time. They too are taking seriously their baptismal call to holiness.

That common call to holiness should be the meeting point as we take up this task of bringing good order to the church, for as the theologian Richard Gaillardetz succinctly reminds us, “The primary ordering in the church comes in baptism. We start with what we share before what distinguishes us.”


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