Is the Church a “society of un-equals” ?

clergy (teachers, rulers, and sanctifiers)  laity (led, taught, and sanctified).

Clergy and Laity

In 1 Peter 5, the author explicitly warns the early Church leaders: “I exhort the presbyters among you, as a fellow presbyter and witness to the sufferings of Christ and one who has a share in the glory to be revealed. ”Tend the flock of God in your midst, [overseeing] not by constraint but willingly, as God would have it, not for shameful profit but eagerly. Do not lord it over those assigned to you, but be examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd is revealed, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. Likewise, you younger members, be subject to the presbyters. And all of you, clothe yourselves with humility in your dealings with one another, for:

“God opposes the proud.” but bestows favor on the humble.”

Once Christianity became the religion of Rome in the 4rh century, the presbyter (elder or pastor)  and episkopos (overseer or bishop) became the “lording agents”  of the Roman Empire. Remember, the Roman emperor, Constantine, played an influential role in the proclamation of the Edict of Milan in 313, which declared tolerance for Christianity in the Roman Empire. He convoked the First Council of Nicaea in 325, which produced the statement of Christian belief known as the Nicene Creed. The papal claim to temporal power in the High Middle Ages was based on the fabricated Donation of Constantine. transferred authority over Rome and the western part of the Roman Empire to the Pope. Power, Fame, and Fortune become the attributes of clericalism which was fabricated on the structure of Rome’s senate and governing style not on the early Church’s leadership of communities led by the apostles, including Paul, Barnabus, Appolos and Ignatius of Antioch.

We know that bishops, including the bishop of Rome, were elected by the people in the early days of the church. Later in Rome, the Roman Senate was sometimes involved in selecting popes prior to the creation of the College of Cardinals”, writes Tom Reese, “Not surprisingly, the cardinals for many centuries saw themselves as successors to the Roman Senate, and until the revision of the Code of Canon Law in 1983, the College of Cardinals was referred to in church law as a senate. Diocese” was a territorial division in the Roman Empire. “Curia” was the Roman Senate or where it met. “Dicastery” was a court or judgment hall.” NCR, Political Models for the Papacy 2014

Marcus Borg, the scripture scholar wrote:

“In the first third of the 300s, as the Roman emperor Constantine legalized Christianity and then became its patron, Pope Sylvester, the bishop of Rome from 314-335, had a dream. He understood it to mean, ‘Now is poison poured into the church.’ I owe my awareness of Sylvester’s dream to a lecture by Douglas John Hall, one of the most important theologians of our time. Delivered at Emmanuel College in the University of Toronto in October of this year, its title was “The Future of the Church.” The story, Hall notes, is a later Christian legend. Sylvester may never have had such a dream. But it reflects a realization on the part of whoever created the legend and those who repeated it that something poisonous began to happen to Christianity when it became allied with a dominant culture.

The image of a poisoned church, a poisoned Christianity, is striking. It refers to what might be called “the cultural captivity of the church” – namely, Christianity co-opted by and conformed to the conventions of culture, which most often have been about dominance, power, and wealth.”

The cultural captivity of Christianity – the poison of Sylvester’s dream -continues to shape American Christians (and Christians in many other countries). We cannot avoid being shaped by the culture in which we grow up and live. But we can be more or less conscious of the way we have been shaped by our time and place, and more or less conscious of how Christianity’s vision of the way things should be may be quite different”    https://www.patheos.com/blogs/marcusborg/

The Culture of Clericalism

In his groundbreaking book, Clericalism: The Death of Priesthood, Geroge Wilson, S.J. writes, “Our love for this warty old Church demands of us that we recognize  clericalism where it exists, and work against it in favor of the priesthood to which we are called by virtue of our baptism.”

Cultures are a mix of factors: beliefs, art, music, ethnicity, religious and social ceremonies, as well secular everyday practices, language, and rituals. Uniforms, titles, symbols, practices, and customs shape us at home and at church and within religious and secular activities.

Participating in any group gives one a status that can impress others depending on the importance and significance of the group. Police, fire personnel, sports teams, entertainment celebrities, and even priests, rabbis, doctors, professors, and many more positions of notoriety can cause extreme admiration and even deference to them. Religious leaders are at the top of the status ladder because they represent God, Jesus and other spiritual powers. That power becomes a key to opening the doors of special prerogatives, privileges, and honor.

For the Catholic clergy, dress, address, as in titles like “Father, Reverend, Monsignor, Excellency, and Eminence, imply an importance or status that dare not be ignored or insulted by lack of protocol. Members of the clergy, therefore, have an allegiance to one another to uphold that status no matter what and the people they influence or lead usually expect grand entitlement for them. They are proud of their leaders who display such grandeur and ostentatious trappings. Simplicity in such a culture as ours can indicate inferiority or lack of esteem.

As long as those outside the culture of clericalism reinforce that status by affirming it with extreme admiration and attention, the members of the clergy will be reluctant to give up that status.

One’s Personna or Mask aka costume and demeanor as well as their title or position in the group brings with it a certain trust and power that is hard to resist. For the priest, the collar, cassock, and the title, allow him to automatically receive a place of honor and privilege among the faithful. Some say that this trust and power were contributing factors to the sexual abuse of children by some members of the clergy. 

Contrast this with the example of Jesus

Referring to the Pharisees, Jesus said, “Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues;  they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others.“But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers.” Mt 23:5-8

Referring to himself:  “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am.  Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.” John 13:13-14 

The clergy need to reflect on how Jesus wanted his disciples to appear, not as officials or intimidating authorities but as servants.

Sending his disciples out to do their ministry, “He told them: “Take nothing for the journey—no staff, no bag, no bread, no money, no extra shirt. Whatever house you enter, stay there until you leave that town.”  Lk 9:3-4 

At another time, “Then Jesus asked his disciples, “When I sent you out that time without purse, bag, or shoes, did you lack anything?” “Not a thing,” they answered.” 

Both of these passages imply minimal necessities needed for their ministry. The simplicity of their apparel, demeanor, and actions would enhance their evangelizing efforts and attract others to follow Jesus. Yet for most of the time from the Roman Empire onward, the clergy have exhibited power, notoriety, and wealth as well as privilege.

Meanwhile, as the Catholic Church merged with the state and entered into the era of the Holy Roman Empire of Christendom, papal temporal power became prevalent under Charlemagne. And even later in the “High Middle Ages”  it expanded under the Gregorian Reform.

The Gregorian Reforms were a series of reforms initiated by Pope Gregory VII and the circle he formed in the papal curia, c. 1050–80, which dealt with the moral integrity and independence of the clergy from the responsibilities and concerns of their families since most were married.

One such reform was the imposition of clerical celibacy on the bishops and presbyters. This caused much consternation as the plight of the wives and children became a huge scandal.  Benedictine monastic practices were used to justify such separation of family members for the good of the Church and Christendom. This caused a major division between the clergy and the laity. The lust and greed of the papal power spread among the clergy as somewhat of a reward for the trials and tribulations of the newly celibate clergy.

Then because the Reformation impacted the Church in such a negative way, the Magisterium felt it necessary to convene, the Council of Trent, and the Counter-Reformation began to tighten the rules and regulations for the clergy and the laity to avoid heresy and the influence from a society that was no longer purely Roman Catholic. 

Those aspiring to the priesthood were resigned to a monastic-like spirituality and regulations that began with the candidates attending a diocesan seminary where such isolation would enable an indoctrination and training into the ways and manners of the clerical state. This was the way to encourage a celibate lifestyle that was missing from  Protestant ministers. This would solidify the separation between the clergy and the laity which was rejected by the Protestant Reformation.

St. Charles Borromeo Seminary for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Hence the Roman Catholic Church has remained the bulwark of authoritarian conservatism, clericalism, and patriarchy with a hierarchical structure that “lords it over” the laity despite the efforts of two major Vatican Councils. Reforms resulting from both these councils began to slowly change the stance of the Church in most matters pertaining to the training of seminarians, religious, and laity. Parochial education on all levels continued the indoctrination of Catholics to defend the Faith from Protestantism but failed to provide adults with the necessary religious skills to live as a disciple in the 20th century. Each council contributed to the development of two major components of the Magisterium: the first to the development of Canon Law and the second to the composition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Other Vatican II impacts were realized in the Liturgy, Ministries, and parish life and structure. Women were allowed to be appointed or chosen as catechists, lectors, cantors, and Eucharistic ministers. Male or female business managers were then hired for most parishes at the recommendation of newly formed Parish Councils who convened regularly to offer advice and assistance to the pastor in his administration and care of the parish church and its numerous facilities.

Yet resistance to Vatican II began almost immediately after the council concluded. Some of the Faithful, as well as the clergy, resented the changes that brought an end to some of the regal accoutrements of the clergy,and hierarchy as well as  the celebration of the Liturgy. The cassock and suit was replaced by the black shirt and colar, the lace albs and expensive vestments and robes were modified. The “altar of sacrifice” had become the “Table of the Lord”, the “Chalice” was then referred to as the “Cup of Salvation”, the “Throne” of the celebrant was now the “Presider’s Chair” and modern architecture for new church buildings replaced Gothic structures of old. These changes upset Catholic traditionalists who preferred the old Church.

Under Pope Benedict XVI some of the liturgical language was changed back to its pre-Council form and the reigns were tightened on the clerical training in seminaries which had become more like the Catholic Universities than monastic enclaves to instill a separation from the secular world.

Today, the Catholic Church is facing a crisis. In many countries, Mass attendance is down and a growing number of young Catholics are leaving the church. In addition to these challenges, fewer and fewer men are willing to enter the priesthood and women to the religious life.This trend, which began long before the clergy sex abuse scandal, is raising questions as to whether or not the church needs to reconsider its insistence on a male, celibate priesthood.

And, of course, there are many other concerns that the church might want to address – for example, whether the 98 percent of practicing Catholics who use “artificial means” of contraception – meaning anything other than the rhythm method – are sinners.

With the election of Pope Francis, a Jesuit, Vatican II teachings and pastoral attitudes were restored much to the dismay of many of the conservative laity and even Philanthropists including some clergy, bishops and cardinals. Pope Francis, for example, is well-known for decisions that emphasize simplicity and modesty. For example, he moved to a more simple apartment and is driven  in an ordinary Fiat automobile.  His compassion and empathy for those who don’t conform to Catholic teachings has been seen as acceptance of the non-conformists and caused some opposition.

Finally, the abuse scandal, the political involvement of the American Catholic Church in the last two elections, the strong opposition to women priests, and now the determination to prevent Pro-Choice politicians from receiving Communion could become the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

The need for more change and more lay participation in the leadership of the Catholic Church, and women priests is more obvious than ever but this could unleash a schism of great proportions. There seems to be a great divide in Catholcism reminiscent of the Protestant Reformation which took place in the 1500s. Since then Several Protestant Churches have even split from the main body of their denomination as well. This too could be the future of the Catholic Church. 

As the world turns the Churches too must turn to be more relevant to the people of new generations. Otherwise evangelization becomes ineffective to an ever changing society. 

Jesus was confronting the traditionalists of his day. He was introducing a new way of practicing the Jewish religion.

“No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch will pull away from the garment, making the tear worse.Neither do people pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.” Mt 9:16-17

“Perhaps Jesus has part of the solution for the Catholic Church with his approach to solving controversy and division: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” Mt 7:21 and  

“Beware of false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit.… Mt 7:16-17

The Church, the Body of Christ, the People of God, need another Pentecost. The old must die and that can be hard and even horrific as was the crucifixion. But the resurrection can only happen after the old dies. The uncertainty of our times causes much confusion and even doubt. Yet Jesus has the answer.

“Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever believes in me will do the works that I do, and will do greater ones than these, because I am going to the Father” (John 14:12). “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to be with you always, the Spirit of truth, which the world cannot accept, because it neither sees nor knows it. But you know it, because it remains with you, and will be in you. I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me, because I live and you will live. On that day you will realize that I am in my Father and you are in me and I in you.” 

Keep the Faith BUT share it as well!

About Dr. Ernie Sherretta, D. Min.

Retired Director of Religious Education for the Catholic Church since 2014, granted a B.A. in Philosophy from St. Charles Seminary, an M.A. in Religious Studies from St. Charles Seminary, an M.A. in Counseling Psychology from Immaculata University, and a Doctor of Ministry from the Lutheran Theological Seminary. Spiritual Well-Being Counselor
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