The 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.