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Clericalism & Corruption

Who is the church for? And, what is it for?
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A Catholic reader writes:

As an older guy who went through almost all of seminary, and who has remained well within the Church’s administrative structure, I wanted to offer you a couple of quick thoughts to consider and explore.

1. Celibacy — but not what you think. It’s not that celibacy creates or attracts perverts, it’s that it creates a sense of entitlement. How? I have heard this logic among seminarians and priests again and again when alone among members of the “club” of fellow clergy: I’ve given up the chance of a spouse (which is a laugh as most couldn’t land a partner for life if their lives depended on it), so I am entitled to compensation, in the form of THIS. What’s “this?” Well, that depends: a secretary. a housekeeper and a cook to care for their needs like a spoiled infant, even though there is only one priest living in the rectory; massive remodeling construction for that same rectory of one because the faux marble in the bathroom is not of sufficient quality; dinner out at the best local restaurants 7 nights a week; four trips to Europe a year; a solid month’s vacation, plus a week’s retreat, plus “conferences” off here and there throughout the year; a little playtime on the side with a guy or girl or two; or five; or pretty soon daily mass is more the interruption of the lifestyle than the playtime is. That’s why I have thought the greater scandal is not the sex stuff…its the wider and deeper and more acceptable problem of a lot of rags to riches losers who couldn’t hold a regular job but live a high life on the parishioners’ dimes and congratulate themselves on their exalted spiritual state to boot.

2. Accountability. Not the SNAP stuff of uncomfortable secrets. I mean this: every dime the archdiocese of New York (for instance) has is a donation, largely from hardworking working class Joes and Janes in the pews. Every inch of real estate was bought for the archdiocese of New York by them. The priests salaries, health insurance, retirement, and living expenses is paid by them. Yet, as a religious organization, neither the archdiocese, nor any of its parishes, nor any of its schools or other institutions ever files a 990 with the IRS, no board of trustees votes to approve a land sale or purchase, no contract is publicly vetted, no audit is made public. Yes, there are “trustees” of various of these entities, but they are all really just the archbishop (for instance, every parish has five trustees under state law: the archbishop himself, the vicar general whom he has selected, the pastor whom he appoints, and two lay trustees, chosen by the archbishop and usually chosen for their lack of business, accounting or legal background and their amiable malleability). When priests are assigned to a parish, or a contract is let, or a new wing for the luxurious priests’ retirement home is built, at no time do the people who will be served by this or who are paying for it get a chance to even offer advice, a public discussion or any assurance that their money is not simply being pocketed by the vicar general. When Dolan borrowed $100 million for his victims compensation fund, or decided to spent $185 million renovating the cathedral, he consulted nobody outside of his own office, provided no proof the contracts were fairly bid, disclosed nothing of the legal ramifications of the debt. Shut up, he explained.

3. Who owns it all? That’s the pattern here. This is “ours.” This institutional church really is for the clergy. We owe you laity nothing…who are you to question, or expect a say, or expect answers? We gave it all up to be priests, now you owe us, individually and as a clerical body.

4. Hence, we lie. The archdiocese is in the middle of a capital campaign. That means, they say, they went deep into each parish, found all the major capital expenses that will soon come up, and are raising funds as a unified effort for them all. Hence, they say, we went into the parish, decided the church needs a new roof, a new boiler, etc. Once we had the list, we assigned that parish an amount of money to raise, and we’re doing this across the board at all of the parishes simultaneously. Aha, but wait. Read the fine print on the parish flyer. A quarter of the money goes to the archdiocese. Another quarter goes to pay off debts — debts which the parish owes to the archdiocese. So HALF they money is for the archdiocese. The parish projects themselves — wait a second…we “need” a new truck for the janitor? We need a second handicapped ramp? No: the parish, one discovers, was told how much to raise for the archdiocese and then forced to find or concoct an equal amount of parish projects to justify the whole campaign. And all this money for the central offices of the archdiocese is for…what? Shut up.

5. So Terrible Ted is the least of it. Look up Father Peter Miqueli — almost a week of stories at the top of the New York Daily News before he was reassigned, and his status remains unresolved (look up the blogs on Miqueli, too, to find the center of THAT’s rat’s nest high up in the archdiocese). Look up Father Zuhlsdorf, another priest-without-portfolio whose ministry is flying to Rome to have lunch regularly, wearing silly clothes, and bitching about nobody being conservative enough.

That’s an important point. This is not just the hippy-dippy guys who were ordained in the 1970s and think priesthood is masses with wonderbread and self-awareness workshops. They WERE the problem. Now, much much more its the young guys, born after Vatican II but who long in their pre-natal memories for a Church where everyone spoke fluent Latin all the time and whose primary idea of ministry is digging up 19th century obscure bits of ecclesiastical tailoring to flounce around in — as if wearing some Italian grandmother’s nightmare of a nightgown of lace as a surplice makes a sacrament more valid, or as if Christ’s overriding concern is the length of the sides of your chasuble or if the mark of self-forgetful love of God’s people is the size of the wings on your biretta.

What the Church needs, and the hierarchy couldn’t care less about, is a real drive to find young men who are quite intellectually bright (not pseudo-intellectuals, as most seminarians are today), who are a little bothered at the end of each day wondering if they have truly lived the spiritual and corporal works of mercy as fully as they should (remember Matthew 25, where this is the only criteria at the last judgment), who do or at least want to see Christ in each person who is put in their path at each moment of each day, to whom it would never occur to live better or more comfortably than the average working-class father of three, and who treat the parish as belonging to Christ not themselves and each dime as belonging to the parishioners, not themselves.

Thoughts, readers? He’s talking about clericalism and its fruits. As a conservative who every now and then looks at Fr. Zuhlsdorf’s blog, I don’t like to see him brought up here, but this reader might well have a point. I learned the hard way to resist seeing the Church’s problems through ideological eyes. Reader CatherineNY, who lives in the Archdiocese of New York and who is a conservative, often talks about the blindness on the right-wing side of the Church.

By the way, I’m not going to publish triumphalist Protestant comments that say, “And this is why Catholicism is false.” Catholicism may or may not be false, but not because of what the reader has said here. If you feel the calling to respond to this post with something that says, “This just goes to show that my church is superior,” save yourself the trouble, because I’m not going to post it. If, however, you post something along those lines in a humble spirit of, “This is what our tradition has learned that is helpful in combatting this stuff,” then I’ll consider it.

I’m interested in sociological insights from within all religious institutions — that is, how certain destructive  tendencies become lodged within the bureaucratic apparatus. I invite readers who are Protestant or Orthodox (or any other religion) to offer insights about their own traditions in this regard. How do the religious teachings of one’s  church or tradition lend themselves to being exploited in the particular ways this reader above details?

What, for example, does Evangelical clericalism look like? We know that the Reformation came about in large part as a protest against a privileged and corrupt Catholic clergy. But Protestants have the unfortunate problem of also being human beings, which is to say, subject to corruption. There has never been a foolproof system devised to prevent the human stain from setting into the fabric of any church.  How it manifests within the leadership (and followership!) of various churches depends on the structure within which it manifests. I find that interesting. Watching Southern Baptists deal with the clericalism surrounding the powerful personality of Paige Patterson was an education.

Understand, I don’t have anything to say about Orthodoxy not because I believe that Orthodox is free of clericalism and corruption, but because I simply don’t know enough.  One advantage of having worshiped for most of my years as an Orthodox in dirt-poor parishes is that there’s never been enough money or power to corrupt. But I have no doubt at all that the bigger and richer the Orthodox church, the more likely that particularly Orthodox forms of corruption would emerge — and surely have done. If you’re an Orthodox Christian with insight on this, please speak up.

Finally, I posted this over the weekend:


I was thinking about the abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, but not only that, or them. My cynical view of the people in the pews — all Christians, not just Catholics — is that above all, they want peace of mind. They’re not going to stand up to a corrupt machine if doing so unsettles their routine. The Gospel story about Jesus freeing the demoniacs by sending the demons into the swine, and the people of the nearby village reacting by begging Jesus to get out of town — that’s us! We would rather live with bondage to sin and wrongdoing as long as it’s familiar than change. A Catholic priest told me once that if he actually preached Catholic doctrine, his congregation would drive him out. A Protestant pastor told me that the congregation at his large, affluent church is scared to death of all kinds of threats in the world, but that the last thing they want to do is to look into their own hearts, and confront the corruption therein. That would require them to change, and that’s the last thing anybody wants to do.

UPDATE: This from an e-mail I received from a Catholic reader who taught seminary:

The analysis you post from the person in NY about clericalism is spot-on. And sad. That’s the reality I’ve seen over the years, the reality I knew intimately, and up close.

Yes, there many holy priests serving the church in simplicity – but the vast majority of the Hierarchy is as described. When reading that analysis, I couldn’t help but think – “I must know this guy, his description is amazingly accurate.”

I recall leaving a late night meeting in the Vatican. I got lost wandering the hallways. As I came through one hallway, I heard voices around the bend and further up. It was a well-known Spanish Bishop flirting with a Swiss Guard named Marcel. I stopped and listened, my Italian being decent enough to understand. The Bishop wanted the Swiss Guard to come by his apartment some time.

Easily 2/3 of the seminarians I’ve taught are homosexual – this from their own admission. Some, although few, try to adhere to the church’s teaching. And I know many of these are not successful, but keep trying. Sadly, the large majority simply assume they’ll live sexually active lives — secret ones — with a partner, or special friend, or whatever. This is not assumption, this is based on personal sharing and direct observation – on reality.

A priest failing to live his vows is one thing. A priest taking those vows with a wink and “promise” is quite another. But as your NY commentator observes, the secrecy, the games, the silent alliances, the power circles that grow around such — this is what’s corrupting the church — and causing other problems.

I recall an evening in 2000, just before the scandals broke, sitting with several seminarians, a priest or two – nice people, mostly gay, honest with me. I asked an interesting question – “What would happen if the church condoned same-sex marriage?” Meaning, what would happen to the seminaries, clerics, etc.

Despite nearly everyone being gay, they were almost all opposed. Why? Because, as one older cleric noted, “It would change what we’ve got going.” It would ruin the subculture.

UPDATE.2: A young priest named Kenneth Kirkman posts:

The People of God are absolutely right to expect holy priests. They are absolutely right to feel hurt and betrayed when priests not only fail to live up to their calling, but live in a mockery of it. So let a young priest say this: we are inheriting a world that was messed up by our elders, and we’re not doing a great job at fixing it. We were baptized into a Church that by its actions and omissions was severely morally compromised. Because we are sinners, we haven’t fixed either of those, and introduced a few problems of our own making. We need to fix those. Many of us are trying. And we need help. But I don’t think the quoted response provides it.

The screeds against young priests have long since become tiresome. And I have to say, based on the Reader’s comments, it would appear he’s about as preoccupied with what they’re wearing as they are! Sure, there are too many recently ordained priests who overdo it on the sartorial splendor- but recall the cultural world in which they were raised, one in which materialism rules the rhythms of their existence and where, lacking a notion of a stable personal identity that is discovered and strengthened, one is created by expression. Those same men would reject this notion intellectually, of course, but it’s the water in which they have been swimming for most of their lives. And when they get to seminary, they are not encouraged to grow beyond that; they are challenged, called out, sometimes insulted and demeaned. If objections are made to the way they present themselves, they are ideological objections, phrased most frequently as “Well, we don’t do those things anymore.” or “We, as Church, have gotten rid of that; now stay in your lane.” What they do not experience, and what I was fortunate enough to experience, was the sort of guidance that says: “You’re a sinner like me, but you’re a good guy. You have your preferences, theological, liturgical, intellectual, musical, whatever; they might be different than mine, but we’ll see where they come from. If they’re not going to hold you back, well and good. If they make you less effective, we’ll work on them.”

Too often, mentoring was taken up by individuals who had significant issues of their own to deal with and quite obviously were not dealing with them well. To that sort of mentor, an ideologically opposed candidate became a problem to be fixed. So for those same seminarians who went in a little vestment-obsessed (and let’s be honest; young is stupid- I think anyone coming into an organization is drawn at least partly by superficial things that attract them, but they can grow and develop to appreciate the depth of what the Church is about. I’m young too, so I get that) they came out the same way, only furtive and suspicious about it. The lesson they had learned implicitly from these same mentors who would cry “Clericalism!” at the sight of a fiddleback chasuble was that when they were ordained, they could do as they like, just as their mentors did. And if you think it’s only vestments that that applies to, think again. The notion that any sort of fidelity to, say, Humane Vitae beyond paying it lip service was problematic existed for quite a while and still exists in some seminaries. Mentioning Veritatis Splendor in the wrong company could be more of a faux pas than out and out blasphemy. And the reason? “That’s not where the people are at.” Spending too much time in the chapel? Also “problematic”. Like you can put a number on something like that. Requesting Eucharistic adoration, something that may have happened from time to time in days of yore? Practically taboo in many places until recently. So some men learned to be faithful and quiet; they learned to be disciplined, accountable, honest, and upright, with the help of God’s grace, even when their own personalities may have hindered them. Others didn’t. They’re not the same, and they shouldn’t be put in the same category because they’re both young and inexperienced.

A Catholic reader wrote: ” I’ve given up the chance of a spouse (which is a laugh as most couldn’t land a partner for life if their lives depended on it), so I am entitled to compensation, in the form of THIS.” So this is a decent point to caution about, but it’s embedded in a careless, insulting generalization that takes away a lot of its convincing force. There are certainly socially awkward seminarians and priests who couldn’t find anyone to marry them if they won the lottery. Most? Come on. That’s a dig, and nothing but a dig. And let’s consider for a moment how great the rest of their coëvals are doing in the marriage market… what’s the divorce rate up to now? This cheap shot is further compounded by: “a lot of rags to riches losers who couldn’t hold a regular job but live a high life on the parishioners’ dimes and congratulate themselves on their exalted spiritual state to boot.” It doesn’t matter how much of an exception one makes to generalizations like this, as in “Well sure, some are okay.” If this were the implicit attitude my parish took towards me, I’d want to be away for a month of the year, too. The insight that men can approach celibacy with a compensatory mindset, which is spiritually fatal, is quite correct; are we, then, part of “a class of insulated, sexual dysfunctional clerics” until we prove ourselves otherwise? How do you disprove that? Ostentatious, public self-abnegation? Celibacy no more creates a sense of entitlement than it creates perverts.

Do we have to look sidelong at the prospect of taking a retreat lest we run foul of this sort of suspicion? Do we need the permission of this reader to go to a conference for our own professional development? Sure, we can isolate ourselves by putting ourselves on an antique silver clerical pedestal. But don’t you think this sort of stereotype, so magisterially pronounced and disdainfully applied, leaves us feeling isolated as well?

It is legitimate and necessary to call out bad priests who are behaving destructively and screwing up the Church. But if that effort results in trampling down the wheat with the chaff, who wins? For many of us younger priests, we don’t want praise, accolades, and the deference due minor nobility. We are willing and happy to work with lay men and women, and we know that we will have to do so more and more to keep things going. But we would also rather not have our reputation set for us by the mindset the reader expresses before we’ve ever arrived in our parishes. And I don’t think it’s much to ask that we be taken on the merits, as individuals, rather than as representatives of a “class” that’s as much a mental production as it is a representation of who we are.



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