Respondeo: On Clericalism

priest-collarThe response to my column “Lead Us Not Into Clericalism” (10/21) has been a mixture of those whose experiences resonated with what was described in the piece and those who have taken to defending the trappings of a clerical lifestyle including the wearing of fancy vestments and use of titles. A sampling of some letters to the editor and Internet comments about the column can be found in the November 18, 2013 issue of America.

There are several things that I believe merit additional comment from me. Unfortunately, with about a 700-word spatial limit, there’s only so much that can be said in a single column. I’ve waited to let the dust settle, meanwhile observing the responses and reading the feedback across various media. Some of the strongest resistance has come from the “blogosphere,” while some of the most supportive and encouraging responses have come in the form of private emails, letters, and Facebook messages. What readers have picked up on and what they have offered in response has been enlightening.

Attire and Titles

There has been a surprising amount of discussion, primarily on blogs by diocesan priests, about clergy attire, vesture, and titles (for example, “Titles and Cassocks and Vestments, oh my!” and “The False Charge of Clericalism”). The attention paid to these themes in themselves is surprising to me (and to many readers) because nowhere in the column do I claim that any of these things are inherently problematic. In fact, there is only one mention of vestments or titles at all and the point is that some priests “appear to be more concernedabout titles, clerical attire, fancy vestments, distance between themselves and their parishioners, and they focus more on what makes them distinctive than on their vocation to wash the feet of others (Jn 13:14–17), to lead with humility and to show the compassionate face of God to all.”

The attire and the titles are a problem, I suggest, because they can be seen as ends in themselves and that far too much attention is given to what is distinctive about the clerical lifestyle than what is shared in common as baptized Christians and fellow members of the Body of Christ, which is the Church.

Nevertheless, it is striking that there would be so much energy poured into defending the uniqueness in clothing styles and the instance on titles – some suggesting that clerical titles be used even among family and friends. The question for reflection is whether or not how we dress, how we interact with others, how we introduce ourselves, and what we expect from the people with and for whom we minister breaks down barriers to relationship or adds unnecessary barricades to potential relationships.

For every person that is drawn to initiate a friendly chat with a Roman-Collar-wearing clergyman at the bank, there are others for whom that social symbol is a barrier to genuine human relationship. Does the church need priests appearing distinctively at all times? Or does the church need disciples of Christ, who minister by their presence, word, and sacrament? You don’t need to wear a cassock to the grocery store to reveal the compassionate face of God to your sisters and brothers in the community. If you think you do, then you might want to ask yourself why.

Conservative v. Liberal, Progressive v. Traditional, and Other Polarizations

Every response to this column that has included the claim that clericalism is “not just about conservatives” (or some iteration of that assertion) is absolutely correct. However, in the spirit of America’s new vision following the article by editor-in-chief Matt Malone, SJ, “Pursuing The Truth In Love” (6/3-10), I never used any of the following words in my column: conservative, liberal, progressive, or traditional. Not once. I never made a claim about what ecclesiastical or political self-identifying moniker those who exhibit signs of clericalism appropriate. I only mentioned a relative age group: young priests.

Yet, these polarizing terms have appeared frequently in the online comments, letters to the editor, Facebook replies, and, especially, on blogs. In retrospect, for it was never my direct intention to do so, this column seems to have served as a clericalism “Rorschach test.” Each reader projected his or her own biases and presumptions about who constituted the clerical class about which I was writing. This has left me thinking a lot about how deeply ingrained some of this polarizing discourse and these presuppositions surrounding Catholic clergy in the United States really are.

The Other Responses

I have also seen some comments on the America website, Facebook, and elsewhere that suggest clericalism is not a reality, that it is some fiction propagated by “(fill in the blank) types of Catholics.” While I cannot share the private emails and Facebook messages sent to me in the days and weeks after the column was published, I think it’s important to express that this topic of clericalism struck a chord not just with those who wish to defend some vision of a clerical lifestyle, but it also resonated with those who find themselves struggling daily with the burdens of this cultural phenomenon. I received notes from diocesan and religious priests, lay staff at parishes and major United States diocese, seminarians, and others who identified this reality. I heard from priests, seminarians, or staff in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, the Archdiocese of Newark, St. Joseph’s Seminary in Dunwoodie (Archdiocese of New York), and the North American College in Rome, just to name a few.

Every single one of the emails or messages expressed an appreciation that the topic of clericalism was being discussed openly, but each also expressed the complications of being situated within a culture where clericalism was often present and, especially for the seminarians, pressures to conform were felt. This does not mean that there isn’t hope. Many of these notes included references to the hope for change in culture and attitude signaled by Pope Francis in recent months. It is a hope that I likewise share.

I still maintain that hope expressed at the end of my column: “Eight months into Pope Francis’ pontificate, I sense that he is challenging the whole church, but especially its ordained members, to a similar way of living. His call for humbler and more generous priests is a call to work against a culture of clericalism. It is a call for priests and bishops, young and old, to remember that their baptism is what matters most.”

This post was originally published at America magazine.

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6 Responses to “Respondeo: On Clericalism”

  1. leinanik@hawaii.rr.com Says:

    Father Horan-

    I am one who does not feel any connection to any priests- mostly because of negative experiences many years ago and having none in the family. Oh for a real-life Blackie Ryan! But, it has nothing to so with vestments. I do find the church’s use of resources to decorate rather than support people in need over the top, but that’s just me. I find, also that today most priests have taken to using their title with their first name, perhaps in an attempt to be more informal. As we say where I live, whatevah. What really bothers me is the inability of our priests to speak English clearly. Our pastor, although from the Philippines, usually comes across fairly clearly. But our poor, apparently shy but sincere assistant from the same place can’t be understood at mass, not more than 1 word in 10, and it is very frustrating not to know what he is saying. I pretty much fall asleep during his masses. (I wish they would print in the bulletin the prayers they use for each mass. But, that takes up more room and they have cut the bulletin down a lot.) All our priests who show up are from that diocese, which is wonderful for our Filipino parishioners, especially those who come lately from there. But, for us standard English-speakers only, it is sometimes very difficult when their English is so poor, especially for those of us who are older and hear less clearly anyway. I do live in America, after all. Thank you for letting me sound off! God bless. Leinani

  2. Dear Father,
    As one of those who responded on Twitter, I think it is important to say, as before, it’s not about the vestments, it’s about the attitude of the person wearing them. I would prefer a priest wearing a full soutane who visits the ill, cares for the poor and is faithful in administration of the sacraments to a “plain clothes” cleric who is content to remain in his office, expecting the faithful to seek him out. It is all about the motives and attitudes of the priest in question. Young priests often desire being “set apart” from the faithful and reflect this in their obsession with the height of their collar (I confess, I was once such a priest) but, with grace, one learns what is really important. Your article was an important observation.

  3. I just do not care what one wears or does not wear when they go to the banks or to the grocery stores. Myself, I am very much aware of the presence and the power of clericalism in the Church, and I find it dreadful. And very much appreciate this article and the one before it.
    Nonetheless, I wanted to point out a few elements (in this article) that could mislead the readers:
    You say: “For every person that is drawn to initiate a friendly chat with a Roman-Collar-wearing clergyman at the bank, there are others for whom that social symbol is a barrier to genuine human relationship. Does the church need priests appearing distinctively at all times?” My answer is: YES, the Church needs priests (all) to be and appear distinctly at all times. When is the proper time to be/appear as a priest and when is the proper time to take a break from priesthood?Maybe we have different starting points. Here is my assumption: “at every time, I should be the same person I make people believe I am.” There you have it. This is not to say that I should always wear clerical attires. What I mean is that whether I am wearing it or not, it should NEVER be dictated by the fear of driving people away or attracting people.
    My question is this: why would anyone be disturbed by a Roman-Collar? The answer might be that they just do not care or that they do not like it. Well, there are many other things about Christian faith that the majority of people today do not like. Should we abandon that too? Ex: Many people think the Bible is damaging for the lives of people in the modern world; should we burn our bibles? Also, I would like to point out that every genuine relationship a priest can have with someone he HAS TO DO IT AS A PRIEST (and this might involve wearing his best shirt). There is no time one becomes a priest and then another time he has to make sure he does not offend. If there are people who are offended because priests wear clerical attires, then we should wonder whether the problem is not on the other side, rather than on the side of the priest, who happens to be who he is. Do not classify me yet! I find clericalism dreadful, and it has many sides. EX: When someone thinks wearing a clerical shirt will make others feel lower or ignored, the basic assumption for such reasoning might be that being a priest is a higher way of being Christian (and that can be as damaging as those wearing cassocks to show off).
    I am often afraid that we might have ideas according to which “we are priests/Christians privately, and when we are in public, we should avoiding appearing as such.” (I am not suggesting you say this, but one could feel that kind of understanding of Christian life). Faith is not a private matter, and if the vestments one wears are worn with the spirit of charity and selfless/genuine concern for others, I do not think we should worry about that very much. Actually, if one has to hide his shirt just to avoid driving others out, then we wonder if there is no sign of hidden clericalism taking refuge behind some alleged desire to “look normal.” Why worry if the shirt is not what defines the priest? Why even assume it can be cause for preventing genuine dialogue (if you really mean GENUINE)? I have to stop here, having said something I found necessary.
    Here is an afterthought: do you believe a crucifix can disturb some people? It does. Why still keep them?
    Father, make no mistake! Whether you wear clerical shirts or not, there will always be people who will not be happy (and you text that I quoted above suggests that).
    In conclusion, the fact that some people might be offended by clerical shirts should not be mentioned in good article like this, because it weakens its argument. Thank you, dear brother for raising an issue that is dear to my heart.

  4. John Pitarresi Says:

    Thought provoking. Not sure about the vestments/Roman collar deal. If you’re a priest you’re a priest you’re a priest, if you’re a cop you’re a cop, if you’re a soldier you’re soldier. If someone is offended by the uniform, that’s on them. Then it’s, what kind of priest-cop-soldier are you? Good stuff, Dan. Makes you think.

  5. Michael Johnson Says:

    Your comments on ecclesiastical attire rightly point out both the dangers and the value of wearing ecclesiastical attire. You make the point that priests do not always need to wear “distinctive” clothing, a point with which I agree. Yet, I would argue that (assuming most people in the grocery store are unfamiliar with the priest, with ~10% of Catholics attended weekly celebrations of the Holy Mass) the distinctive garb is a very, very basic way to reveal the presence of God.

    Although your point on polarization is well-taken, that section seems rife with defensiveness and ad hominum arguments against your critics. Using polarizing terms does not invalidate their arguments. Your avoidance of such terms neither proves your arguments, nor makes your arguments any more “moderate” or balanced.

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