Clericalism & Governance

Bishop Charles reflects on the "seismic experience" of the recent gathering for New Zealand priests. He shares his thoughts on the need for a radical change in governance, in order to reject clericalism and embrace authentic leadership of the Church.

Once every five years the priests in New Zealand meet nationally for a professional development week. This time it was in Christchurch. And the experience was seismic.

No priest or Bishop could have left that week unshaken.  The two input speakers – each very different from the other – shook us to the core. Take your pick of the Titanic sinking or the Bismarck rudder-less going round in circles, the images of the Church (the barque of Peter) presented to us were brutally raw.

A central thesis of one of the speakers was that the festering wound of sexual abuse of minors, points to a wider and deeper fault-line running through the Church (something which historically has been seen as a mighty force and now is experienced as a pathetic weakness): clericalism.

Clericalism is the appropriation by a clerical caste of what is proper to all the baptized. More simply put, it’s a club mentality which renders the baptised subservient to preening priests.

I loathe clericalism. It makes me shudder. It’s a hangover from tribal forms of priesthood – where castes were set aside for temple service – found in the Old testament, and which morphed into a culture of ‘superiority’ or entitlement, or as Jesus himself put it:  “Lording it over others” –see Mathew 20:25 and 1 Peter 5:3).

Clericalism isn’t an isolated phenomenon; it has close cousins. Misogyny, sexism, bullying, racism, paternalism, are also pathetic attempts to Lord it over others. Misogyny parading as theological orthodoxy is a particularly toxic example.

Of course this does not mean to say that organisations, including the Church, don’t need strong leaders. Indeed, in times of crisis good leadership or governance is essential.

That’s where we are stuck though, going around in circles. So much ordinary leadership as well as formal governance in the Church has been tied to ordination and thus to priests and Bishops.

So where to next? Fresh theological study of baptism as a source of or, better put, call to leadership is already underway. We do not need to wait for its conclusions before we bring about change.

Pope Francis’s reform of the Church started with a bow; his is not primarily a theological reform. It is an attitudinal reform. He bowed to the world from the balcony of St Peter’s on the night of his election and instead of ‘telling us…’ he ‘asked us…’ please bless me, bless pray for me. He spoke not ‘at’ but ‘with’ us, the baptised the universal Church indeed all humanity. This is a reform of the heart. Let us not underestimate its power for good. After all, clericalism is not a theology. It’s a pathology. A pathology of arrogance and ignorance that has been a tumour in the Church for too long.

But back to governance or leadership. I like to use the metaphor of the table. Who sits at the table? This shifts discussion from laws and protocols to people and vision, from power and authority to gifts and talents, from in-groups and sycophancy to diversity and creative thinking.

In Aotearoa we can point to some good examples within the Church. For example the Finance and Management Council of the Palmy Diocese, to which I am accountable, is chaired by a woman farmer and has diverse membership. Diversity is of course not about simply ticking “difference boxes”; it is about taking seriously the recognition that any governance structure needs a range of insights and experiences and intuitions at the table.

What about our Bishops table? It too needs to be broad. Diversity at a table does not mean that any one stops being who they are. When I sit at our Bishops’ table, or any other table including kitchen tables, I sit there 100% as myself and therefore 100% as one who serves as a Bishop. Someone else’s presence doesn’t undermine me, doesn’t dampen my voice as a Bishop or belittle my contribution. The presence of others in fact enhances me and saves us (Bishops) from the high risk of group monologue.

How could it be threatening or undermining if we Bishops actually had at our table prolonged korero or discussion – inching towards shared insight (Dei Verbum 8) and policy and planning – with Māori, with women, with young leaders, with representatives of the tens of thousands of Catholics who in this land and Church we love, no longer sit at the table of the Lord on a Sunday?

May I conclude by recommending to you an opinion piece written by a key worker in the Palmerston North Diocesan office, Dave Mullin. It’s entitled Six Men in a Leaky Boat (Split Enz fans will be smiling!) and while entirely his own article is also the fruit of chats we have had. Read it here.

With humility, may our conversations and listening across the Diocese grow, as we seek to include ourselves in Pope Francis’ reform of the heart of the Church.



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