The curse of clericalism haunts and hurts

Parishioners seek negotiation and fairness, trust and support.  Instead, they are faced with coercion, threats and isolation …

by Jane Anderson

This time last year our parish was a healthy, vibrant community that encouraged people to take responsibility for and actively participate in ministry.  Diversity abounded: those with conservative, centrist and progressive attitudes all found a home. 

At the helm was a parish priest with his pastoral team who believed in Vatican II and its spirit of inclusivity and collaboration, and although the reins of the institutional church were felt, the message was the necessity for renewal. 

That was last year. 

Since then we have had to deal with the mischief and mayhem of clericalism, an unprofessional and uncompromising policy that preserves or expands the power and prestige of clergy over laity and of particular clergy at the expense of others. 

In practice, clericalism frequently deprives the community of knowledge, skills, networks and service. 

In August 2005, the parish priest made it known that he was going to retire, preferably within our regional city as had the previous diocesan parish priest and a former assistant priest.  However, the Bishop and the district Superior of the religious order to which the priest belongs prohibited him from living or ministering in the city, despite the congregation’s retirement policy allowing for that option.  It was claimed by these church leaders that his staying on would not be fair to the new parish priest. The assistant priest, soon to be promoted, also discretely mentioned that his confrere should leave.  

Parishioners and wider community members were incredulous that church leadership could not accommodate the priest’s simple request or deal graciously with a 70-year-old man seeking retirement.  

Consequently, more than 40 parishioners, 10 per cent of the regular mass-going population, and other concerned persons wrote or personally contacted the Bishop and the Superior.  Most asked for dialogue.  In return they received patronising monologues via pro forma letters that failed to engage with the issues raised. 

At the beginning of December, the parish priest retired to an isolated rural township two hours drive from our city. 

A few weeks later, a close friend of the retired priest died and his widow requested he preside over the funeral.  The request was denied by church leadership but it seemed to act as a catalyst. 

The Bishop, apparently determined to put an end to the flow of correspondence, issued a statement on Christmas Day to all parishioners and visitors that misinformed them about the situation and misrepresented the retired priest. The statement also disparaged those parishioners who had rallied around the priest. 

In effect, the heavy-handed and seasonally-inappropriate action aggravated matters and widened the pool of bewildered people.  [The Bishop later acknowledged mistakes but refused to publicly correct them and then washed his hands of the matter: it was the religious order’s affair.] 

In February, the Bishop came to install the new parish priest.  The Superior also made an unexpected appearance.  Informed parishioners were flabbergasted, even more so when they discovered that the retired priest was not told of the visit and blamed for not attending the installation despite not being invited and banned from doing ministry.  Furthermore, neither church leader set aside time to meet with those parishioners still reeling from the unfolding events. 

In April, the Assistant Superior General visited, listened without discussion and advised that parishioners should get on with their lives and be united, reinforcing the idea that the religious order’s leadership is only prepared to give top-down directives without engaging local concerns.

In May, a “friendly group” was dispatched to solve “the problem”.  Yes, they were willing to listen to local grievances and once more letters were written and several groups of parishioners arranged to meet the three clerics, hoping that resolution and reconciliation might be achieved. 

The first result was  another pro forma letter that failed to respond to what was being requested.  One hundred and twenty-two people subsequently replied in a joint communication, reiterating their appeals to the religious order: justice and pastoral care for the retired parish priest; an apology to the priest and parishioners for the mismanagement and suffering incurred; the urgent need to repair the tarnished reputation of the Church within the wider community; an approach that respects and treats the laity as adult thinking Catholics, and an opportunity for healing damaged relationships between the parish and the religious order.

[Some parishioners, while agreeing with the collective action, preferred not to sign because of fear for their jobs, being refused communion, and not being able to get a replacement priest.]

The second result was the disclosure of the current parish priest’s requests to have his confrere removed from the place where he had retired, and not return to our parish until 2009.  Those requests were supported by the “friendly group” and reinforced by ongoing threats of penury, deportation and suspension.

A number of parishioners have long held the view that the current parish priest is the instigator of the retired priest’s miseries and their frustrations.  But why?

The current parish priest emigrated from East Africa four years ago, bringing with him different theological understandings shaped by patronage, a social system that reveals itself in the exercise of a cultic model of priesthood that prefers a clear separation of clergy from the laity emphasised through liturgical rubrics and uniform practices.  His preference for this model has favoured certain groups familiar with patronage and hyper-conservatives who are not engaged with the challenges posed by Vatican II. 

Patronage, however, is in stark contrast to the inclusivity practiced by his predecessor.  This partly suggests why the current parish priest might want his confrere expelled, and why some centrist and progressive parishioners now believe their contributions to the life and well-being of the parish are diminished. 

Secondly, a comment made by the current parish priest suggests another reason: “all colonialists are criminals”.  The retired priest was a missionary for three decades, service that included caring for the victims of war and famine in Biafra and military coups in Sierra Leone.  But such service is implicated in the colonialist machinery, a system the current parish priest evidently resents.  Several parishioners, migrants from Europe, also have experienced his antagonism, signalling what they regard as “reverse colonialism”.

Cultural differences may also come into play.  Africans prioritise community and tend to avoid confrontation; in contrast, Australians emphasise the individual and express their opinions.  While it might be acceptable for the current parish priest to work behind the scenes to remove his presumed rival in Africa, in Australia it is regarded as “devious”. 

Further, Africans uphold patriarchy, which permits the dominant current parish priest to have authority over the subordinate retired priest.  Conversely, Australians practice egalitarianism, which promotes equal rights and opportunities, including the right to chose where one can live. 

This cultural mismatch likewise explains why several of my parish sisters consider some behaviours of the current parish priest to be sexist; for example, some women’s ideas and advice have not been taken seriously until ratified by a male parishioner.

Fourthly, the shortage of priests has ensured that clerics can pick and chose assignments, apparently giving licence to the current parish priest to exercise and expect that his preference for having his confrere removed be acted upon by church leaders.  The clergy famine also militates against parishioners raising concerns about who leads our community.

The current parish priest’s preference has now been expressed twice.  It seems that church leaders have presumed that if the retired priest, who is now of little practical use to the diocese and religious order, were transferred again “the problem” would be fixed. But despatching the priest scapegoat has done nothing to relieve the real problems that frustrate our parish; rather, it has entrenched them. 

Throughout this protracted, exhausting and painful episode, where much time, resources and goodwill have been expended and wasted, many parishioners have seriously questioned their faith: they cannot believe such injustice and lack of compassion can occur in our Church. 

Consequently, some have withdrawn financial contributions and resigned from particular ministries.  Mass attendance has significantly diminished.  The fall out has not ended. 

Moreover, increasing numbers of parishioners are exasperated and dispirited by church leaders who refuse to deal with grass roots issues at the local level and contemporise their way of relating to people, a change that would entail: negotiation and fairness, not coercion and threats; shared responsibility, not clerical privilege; respect, not denigration; transparency and accountability, not minimising, denying and blaming; trust and support, not isolation. 

Meanwhile, aggrieved parishioners continue to ask that mercy and truth embrace, and justice and peace kiss (Psalm 85).  But that plea is being ignored by the curse of clericalism that continues to haunt and hurt us. 

Dr Jane Anderson is a practising Catholic and anthropologist with a research interest in developments within the Roman Catholic priesthood.  She is also the author of Priests in Love: Australian Catholic Clergy and Their Intimate Relationships, John Garratt Publishing, 2005. 



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