Is Catholic Clerical Culture Tainted by Idolatry?

I watched expectantly as a parish priest stood with both hands placed firmly on the podium, as though we would have to carry both him and the podium if we wanted to pick him up and toss him out the door. The protective stance is warranted, I suppose, when clerics find themselves the punching bag of everybody who has come to detest the Church. Likely, the most painful punches come from those parishioners who just refuse to go away and let their local church get along without them. It might even be possible to feel sorry for a priest who feels vulnerable when facing what potentially could be a hostile crowd of people.

But then this priest announced in a ringing tone, lifted by the strength of his convictions, “When I stand up here, I stand in persona Christi. I stand here in the person of Christ!” A few people in the congregation vigorously nodded their assent. I could almost hear them whispering, “It’s about time the priests took back control of this parish! Things have gotten out of hand! I want the Church of my childhood back! We knew who was in charge then. We knew what was expected of us. Obedience. Silence.”

Many Catholics were and are taught that priests have special divine powers that other members of the Church do not have. These powers endow them with authority over everyone else – authority that is divine in its origin. That authority is not granted by the community of the parish – it is bestowed upon the priest by God directly through the clerical establishment, at the moment the bishop lays hands upon the candidate’s head. This is one of the reasons we are taught that the Church is not a democracy. We don’t get to vote for, or hire, our priests. We don’t get to fire them either.

The sacrament of Holy Orders sets the priest apart from the rest of the congregation as one who can stand in persona Christi. Because of the “charism” he receives, he can celebrate the mass, perform the rituals and deliver the interpretation of the gospel known as the homily. Even though there may be people in the congregation with a great deal more theological education than the priest, those people have not received the sacrament conferred upon them by the bishop and so they must sit and listen like everyone else.

This divine charism of the sacrament of Holy Orders does not work with women, according to the authorities that oversee the clerical establishment. It would just flow down and run right off, perhaps, if that isn’t too crazy an image to suggest. It wouldn’t “take” because God does not want women to be priests. In the absence of the opportunity to take clerical roles, women have traditionally taken the roles of caregivers, providers, nurturers, nurses, teachers and companions to the poor and needy. These roles actually sound a lot more like ones that a person standing in for Christ would assume, don’t they? It may be time to ask if the way the role of the clerical priest has been shaped, according to custom and tradition, has led to the tainting of the whole clerical system by a form of idolatry that traps the priest and the congregation into extremely unhealthy and possibly sinful dispositions towards God’s power. Are priests ordained with power that fuels self-aggrandizement or self-sacrifice? Does this power inspire pride or humility? Can priests become idols? What kind of divine power did Jesus teach about and demonstrate? We all know proud priests and humble ones, but what does the clerical culture communicate?

If women were suddenly able to be ordained, it would be evidence that the institution of clergy is a human institution, sinful and in need of constant reform. If it is divinely ordained, it is certainly not a flawless institution in a state of divine perfection. It can and must be constantly renewing.

In what seems like a contradiction between theory and practice, the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church teaches that idolatry “consists in divinizing what is not God. Man commits idolatry whenever he honours and reveres a creature in place of God…” (CCC, 2113). The same catechism says that the priest “has the authority to act in the power and place of the person of Christ himself.” (CCC 1548). Is Christ God? If the priest is considered a stand-in for Christ that suggests something perilously close to idolatry. Many people believe the priest is the mediator of divine authority and many clerics do not resist this idea. While we can set about changing this culture, there is something important to acknowledge. The sin of idolatry does not rest with the idol. It is the sin of the people who regard the priest as literally standing in the place of God.

Could it be that the real reason why women are not allowed to become ordained is the simple fact of this idolatrous association which has come to pass because of the predominantly male imagery of God in Catholic theology? Women cannot “stand in” for a male God, because they do not physiologically resemble that God. Sound crazy? That this is the real reason why women can’t be ordained seems to make more sense to me than the argument that the human Jesus didn’t choose women to be leaders and therefore he wouldn’t choose women now to fill those roles. Times have changed. But here’s another matter to consider. Many Catholics would say that even though things change “here on earth,” God is immutable, which is a way of saying that God, by God’s very nature, does not change. What God was and what God did in 1 C.E. is the same as what God was and what God will do today and tomorrow. Therefore, if God didn’t choose women in 1 C.E. to fill certain roles, there is certainly no way God will do that today or tomorrow. God chose and chooses men as priests. End of story.

One problem with that is that Jesus never made any mention of an all-male priestly caste as an institutional dimension of God’s reign. In fact, he was often radically opposed to the corrupt clerical system present in his own context because of their self-aggrandizing and immoral conduct. He seemed much more concerned with getting the idea across that each and every creature – including humans, sparrows and lilies – was in the present care of the living God and that their needs were supplied for them through this creative presence. The God-reality is communicated through the action of each and every follower – give food, give a drink, visit, clothe, be just. In other words, don’t focus as much on yourself as you focus on others. This will be evidence that you are a person of faith and trust and hope. People who are busy caring for others are obviously able to do so because their own basic needs have been met. Knowing this is living in faith.

We humans seem to be prone to idolatry, and the clerical culture has often been our golden calf. Recognizing that fact, we might try turning our attention to the homeless, the poor, the sick, the vulnerable and the marginalized people in our societies. If idolatry is an ever-present danger, treating these people with reverence and honour and letting them stand in for the person of Christ seems like a better option than making an institutionally powerful figure an idol. The crucified Jesus never exercised coercive power over others and the only obedience he ever demanded of us was to transcend our self-love in order to love one another in fulfillment of God’s command.


About Kathryn Perry

Kathryn Perry, MDiv, is an alumna of Regis College, Toronto. She is the author of The Courage To Dare: The Spirituality of Catherine Donnelly, Founder of the Sisters of Service (Novalis 2013).
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One Response to Is Catholic Clerical Culture Tainted by Idolatry?

  1. Janice Gillis says:

    Kathy, It is a wonder that you did not lose your breakfast and supper from the night before. I will get back to more later. you are doing a good thing I hope there is plenty of positive response. How can people want the church of their childhood. You won’t find that in Quebec and Ireland. Peace Janice

    Date: Sat, 4 May 2013 17:00:35 +0000 To:

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