Sunday, October 28, 2012

On Clericalism: Priests as Servants or Little Lords? Implications for Gay Rights Discussion

Following its conference in September, the group Voice of the Faithful has made available at its website a number of documents from the conference.  One of these, which came to those interested in VOTF's work by email last week, is entitled "The Clerical Culture Within the Catholic Church."  

This document asks about the connections between a "clerical culture of elitism" and the abuse crisis in the Catholic church.  It cites research done by Dean Hoge which leaps out at me:

The late Dean Hoge, director of Catholic University’s Life Cycle Institute, asked priests, “Does ordination confer on the priest a new status which makes him essentially different from the laity?” As of 2001, 70-95% of the serving priests under 55 years of age—the so-called John Paul II priests—agreed strongly or somewhat strongly with this statement; they identified with this "cultic model of priesthood."
Priests older than 55 years, however, tended to hold a "servant leader model" of their vocation. This latter is the model set by Jesus when he washed the feet of the Apostles and told them to do likewise.

I find these research findings important (and, frankly, disturbing) for a number of reasons:

1. First, they appear to substantiate something that many people have noted at an anecdotal level--namely, that priests whose clerical formation occurred in the period during and immediately after Vatican II have a quite different mentality about their clerical vocation than do priests formed during the "reform of the reform" of John Paul II and Benedict. 
2. The difference in the two mentalities is sharply delineated around the definition of the priest as someone "essentially different" from layfolks due to his ordination.  Priests formed in the period before the reforms of Vatican II were, to all intents and purposes, thwarted by John Paul II and Benedict apparently do not buy into the notion that ordination provides priests with an "ontological status" different from that of the laity.  Priests of the restorationist moment do buy into that notion. 
3. These two understandings of the clerical vocation have different practical and real-life applications.  As the VOTF document notes, one of the two understandings is in line with Jesus's notion of servant leadership.  The other is not.

In my posting yesterday about Fr. Emmett Coyne's book A Theology of Fear, I noted that I've recently been involved in blog discussions at the National Catholic Reporter site in which various Catholic bloggers are, as they themselves freely admit, logging en masse into NCR discussions about gay issues to post comments that seek to depict their fellow Catholics who support gay rights as defective Catholics.  I noted a comment in one of these discussion threads in which one contributor informed me that she/he and her/his group didn't "like" me, and were determined to communicate this to me.

Both the adolescent nature of this comment and the behavior of this group which is clearly working as a group on any thread that NCR opens to discuss gay issues suggest to me that those engaged in this bullying groupthink behavior are younger Catholics.  These bloggers appear to be younger Catholics who have the notion that they're engaged in a holy mission when they work together to inform Catholics who support the rights of LGBT people that they have departed from Catholic truth and Catholic community.

And they appear to have support among some younger Catholic priests, if the usernames employed by members of this group are real indicators of the identity of those employing the usernames.  Though I know full well that it's futile to engage people who don't intend to think (and who appear to believe that the bible they're so confident they alone know says "whoa to those" when it says "woe to those"), I do keep talking.

I do so because it seems important to me that someone push back against these younger Catholics' attempt to misrepresent Catholic social teaching as disdainful of the human rights of vulnerable, targeted minority groups.  If no one challenges this misrepresentation of Catholic social teaching, then it's allowed to appear in the public space of important Catholic blogs like NCR as normative Catholic social teaching.

And so in the past day or so, I've had an exchange with a "Fr. Daniel" at an NCR thread following an article by Dan Morris-Young which notes that Catholics in Washington state have purchased full-page ads noting their support--as Catholics--for marriage equality.   My exchange with Fr. Daniel centers on the concept of the sensus fidelium--on the question of who represents authentic Catholic doctrinal or moral teaching, when a sizable number of the laity disagree with what the magisterium tells us to think about issues like contraception or same-sex marriage.

In essence, Fr. Daniel's position appears to be that "the church" = the hierarchy.  And so when the sensus fidelium, the conscience of the lay faithful based on our graced experience as we live the Christian life, differs from what the hierarchy dictates to us, we are dividing the body of Christ and pitting our inauthentic conscience against the authentic teaching of the magisterium.

I don't know precisely who Fr. Daniel is.  I can't even say for certain that he is a priest.  It's easy for me or anyone else to ascertain from his Disqus posting history that he first used Disqus with the username Fr. Daniel three months ago, when he posted a comment following an op-ed piece in the Register Citizen of Litchfield, CT, and he hadn't posted anything through Disqus at any site until he jumped into the NCR thread in the last two days to set me straight about the sensus fidelium.

He seems, in other words, to be associated with the group of younger Catholics now monitoring (trolling is the more accurate word) any NCR thread about gay issues to impose their notion of orthodoxy on fellow Catholics who dissent from their understanding of gay issues.  If he's not a member of the group, he's definitely in support of them.

And on that basis--though I may well be wrong--I conclude that if Fr. Daniel is, in fact, a priest, he's a younger priest.  And his self-understanding seems consonant with that of many younger priests who imagine that they themselves are the church, and lay Catholics who may not buy the party line they preach are simply no longer real Catholics, good Catholics.

I'd suggest that when a majority of American Catholics now support the right of gay and lesbian citizens to civil marriage, the American Catholic church is headed into some rough waters, when younger priests and their true-believing younger Catholic supporters--a dwindling number, in American Catholicism, as vast numbers of younger Catholics simply walk away--imagine that they and they alone understand and possess the truth, even if they don't know "whoa" from "woe."

And that the majority of American Catholics are, for all intents and purposes, heretics due to their acceptance of contraception and their affirmation of the human rights of their gay brothers and sisters . . . .

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