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What Precisely Is Pope Francis Driving At With Clericalism?

September 28, 2018 Frontpage No Comments

By Shaun Kenney

Pope Francis seems to be taking great aim at clericalism as of late. To an American ear, it sounds rather tinny, much like “gorn” has a sort of woody connotation (extra points if you get the reference). After all, the laity isn’t guilty of clericalism. We didn’t create this crisis in 2018, and we certainly didn’t bring this crisis to a head in 2002 during the “Long Lent.”
So what precisely is Pope Francis driving at? One thing to consider is that, when mentioning clericalism, he is indeed taking direct aim at the American cardinals and speaking through history while doing so, and in a typically Jesuitical manner, taking out two birds with one stone.
A short hop into the time machine to 1848 should do the trick. Tens of thousands of Irish are streaming off the boats and trickling into the ports of New England, bringing their language, history, resentments, and yes — their priests. Good men they were, too. A good number of them were sent to this country from Ireland, where proper training and proper methods of education could be imparted onto this young mission church.
Enter the figure of the great Paul Cardinal Cullen of Dublin, Ireland’s first cardinal and the man responsible not only for the restoration of the Catholic faith on the Emerald Isle, but who also ensured that the Catholic faith traveled with the Irish diaspora throughout the British Empire in places like South Africa, Australia, Canada, and yes even to American shores.
Cullen was a man of his times, one whose formation occurred after the great upheavals of the French Revolution and the revolutions that swept Europe in 1848. This same French Revolutionary terror that had inspired Girondists and Jacobins alike had also inspired the French conqueror Napoleon Bonaparte who imprisoned the Pope to destroy the Church.
Catholic Europe knew its enemies: Freemasonry and revolution. Thus the papacy would become a bulwark against French republicanism through a defense of papal authority and reaction. Old orders would be observed; innovations would be cast out.
For the Irish, its peculiar links with the French also brought along with it French errors, one of which was a tendency towards Jansenism, a heresy that bedeviled French Catholicism for much of the 17th century. This Jansenist undercurrent sharpened the distinctions between the faithful and the unfaithful. Combined with the disciplined and hard-nosed leadership of Cullen, the Catholic Church of Ireland shifted from being a ragtag collection of vagabond priests to pillars of authority in their own communities. Respected, powerful, and influential, the creeping influence of clericalism began to have its effect.
Now these Jansenist undercurrents also enable a different set of ills. While the Jansenist theological errors were condemned as heretical, their minor traditions seemed to linger within Irish qua American Catholicism. One of these traditions? Clericalism — or the heightened position of religious within society.
For a protestant America, why wouldn’t the Irish have looked to their priests and bishops? After all, it was Fr. McGivney who created the Knights of Columbus, the same army of Our Lady who battered the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s. It was Cardinal Gibbons who fought the anti-Catholic “Blaine Laws” regarding public education which are still in existence even to this day. It was Bishop Fulton J. Sheen who spoke to Catholic families during prime time television.
As strangers in a strange land, Catholics were still second class citizens in America, having to fight two world wars and demonstrate our open commitment against Communism before Jack Kennedy could darken the towers of the White House. Who else but our priests could lead our communities?
Yet this clericalism came at a price. While many good and faithful men and women took up the religious life, we now know that during the 1950s and 1960s that men who should never have become priests were indeed given holy orders. Clericalism begat clericalism, and rather than stripping these wolves and laicizing them on the spot, the Catholic hierarchy in the United States chose to believe they could handle it on their own. After all, they were the priests. They were the bishops. They ran the seminaries. . . .
Except they were not the owners. They weren’t even renters. They were supposed to be shepherds — and they failed us miserably.
What Cardinal Cullen had built throughout the English-speaking world was an Irish Catholicism well suited to survive in a Protestant-majority America (or a Protestant-dominated Ireland, for that matter). To Cullen’s credit, his ultramontanism was perfectly suited for the heady days of the First Vatican Council where an assertion of the Holy Father’s spiritual power at a time where the Holy See’s temporal power was exhausted set the stage for greater heights for men such as Pope Leo XIII.
Yet this very strength also proved to be an inherent weakness, as the same zealous leadership that made Catholicism so robust in a largely anti-Catholic English-speaking world proved to be a source of hubris, its arrogance contributing first to the crimes of sexual abuse during the mid-to-late 20th century, then feeding into the cover-up of the early 21st century. Two scandals; one source.
Of course, this is by no means a whitewash of Francis’ approach to the entire scandal (as longtime readers will know). But it is an attempt to put into context how the Vatican (and most European Catholics) view American Catholics as a sort of backwater — the “Wild West” as it were. One suspects that Francis is trying to take aim towards the clericalism of those who perpetrated the scandal itself, though albeit far too gently for the pew-sitting faithful in the U.S. who are victims of their overt reliance on discretion.
Facts should be made plain. The clericalism we face here in the U.S. isn’t one of starched collars and polished shoes. Rather, it is rooted in a much more dangerous pattern of intrinsically disordered sexual desires that in turn were covered up by men more concerned with preferment and promotion than holiness and the sacraments. Condemning clericalism may indeed be the right medicine in its proper context, but a much stronger dose is required. Time will not heal this wound without some sort of accounting among the American cardinals, preferably with new wineskins to replace the old.

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As of writing, Pope Francis has issued a new document outlining a new status for the Synod of Bishops. Alarmingly enough, Francis has raised the profile of the synod from an advisory body into something more akin to a parliament — one with a general secretary, a method of passing forward changes to the Magisterium with consensus, and then forwarding them to the Pope for his consent to be published and promulgation.
One is reminded of Francis’s predecessor Benedict XVI, where he warns that truth cannot be put to a majority vote. Yet here we are with what is in effect an annual synodal parliament, precisely the opposite of what Francis said he wanted in the aftermath of the contested 2015 Synod on the Family that produced the hotly contested Amoris Laetita in 2016 — dubia and everything.
As with so many things with the pontificate of Pope Francis, one simply struggles to understand what and why. When John Cardinal Newman proposed the idea of development of doctrine, I am far from certain that he had this in mind. Silence and discernment, one supposes.

+ + +

Of course, I am succeeding (but not replacing) the inestimable Mr. James K. Fitzpatrick for the First Teachers column. Please feel free to send any correspondence for First Teachers to Shaun Kenney, c/o First Teachers, 5289 Venable Road, Kents Store, Virginia 23084 — or if it is easier, simply send me an e-mail with First Teachers in the subject line to:

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