Dismantling clericalism


A Catholic bishop’s testimony to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in Australia makes a powerful case for the dismantling of clericalism and the promotion of a new model of church as a communion of equals.

Bishop Vincent Long is the first bishop of Vietnamese background in Australia.  He arrived in Australia in 1981, having spent 18 months in a refugee camp in Malaysia, was ordained priest in 1989 and ordained bishop in 2011.  He became Bishop of the diocese of Paramatta, a district of Sydney, in 2016.  It was in his capacity as a Catholic bishop that he recently appeared before the Royal Commission into Institutional Response to Child Sexual Abuse in Australia.  Answering questions put to him by members of the commission, he made a number of comments that reveal him to be a bishop with exceptional insight into the nature of child sexual abuse and the consequent need for a radical reform of the Church today.

Bishop Long accepted that there were insufficient seminarians in the diocesan seminary to meet ‘replacement needs’.  Pressed on the trend among some younger priests and seminarians to adopt a more traditional approach to wearing clerical garb, he says this is largely a ‘by-product’ of the pontificates of Popes John-Paul II and Benedict XVI.  Referring to ‘clericalism’, Bishop Long sees this as a ‘by-product’ of the model of Church  as ‘a perfect society’ with ‘a neat, almost divinely inspired, pecking order… heavily tilted towards the ordained’.  He goes on to say, ‘we need to dismantle that model of Church…I think we need to examine seriously the kind of model of Church where it promotes the superiority of the ordained and it facilitates that power imbalance between the ordained and the non-ordained, which in turn facilitates that attitude of clericalism’.

Staying on the theme of clericalism, Bishop Long said, ‘I think there’s a link between compulsory celibacy and clericalism in that compulsory celibacy is an act of setting apart the ordained.  It’s creating that power distance between the ordained and the non-ordained.  In so far as it is an instrument of subjugation or subservience…of the laity, it is wrong and it has to be reviewed’.

He calls in question the habit of addressing priests as ‘father’ and bishops as ‘Your Lordship’, which he claims places the lay person as ‘a lower-ranking person’.  If we are to ‘dismantle clericalism,’ he adds, ‘we need to look at the honorific titles, privileges and institutional dynamics…that breed clerical superiority and elitism’.  He cringes when people kiss his ring or address him as ‘Your Lordship’, believing that this manifests and reinforces ‘a certain infantilisation of the laity’.

Asked if he had observed any changes in the behaviour of the clergy leading to the kind of situation he wishes to come about, the bishop says that ‘Pope Francis is certainly leading in that direction’.  As for himself, he is attempting to promote the Church as a communion, as a discipleship of equals, that emphasises relationships rather than power.  ‘I feel that’s where we should be headed to’.

Responding to questions around the way in which the Church is governed, Bishop Long says, ‘the marginalisation of women and the laity is part of this culture of clericalism that contributes not insignificantly to the sexual abuse crisis, and I think that if we are serious about reform, this is one of the areas that we need to look at’.

Getting to the heart of the matter, Bishop Long observes that ‘Accountability in the perfect Church model only works upwards.  You’re accountable only to the person above you…  There’s no accountability that reaches outwards or downwards, and that’s the critical problem, as far as I see it…  The laity have no meaningful or direct participation in the appointment, supervision and even removal of the parish priest.  I think that needs to change.  Or even at the episcopal level, the appointment, supervision and removal of a bishop is virtually excluded from the faithful…  That needs to be examined if we are serious about creating a new culture of accountability in the Church today’.

Bishop Long agreed with one of his questioners that the Church would have fared much better if it had only adopted the recommendations of Vatican II concerning the creation of parish and pastoral councils – that would have helped to ensure that Church leaders would have been informed about what was going on and ‘also assisted the way in which they might have responded to claims’ of sexual abuse.  In a series of questions, he puts his finger on the basic needs of today’s Church: ‘what do we do in terms of empowering the people?  What do we do in terms of addressing the power imbalance between the ordained and the non-ordained?  What do we do about the full participation of the faithful, and women in particular, in the governance structures of the Church?…  These are serious issues that need to be addressed if we are to come clean of this abuse crisis, because it’s not just the symptoms on the surface but what lies underneath it, I think it’s harder to address what lies underneath the phenomenon than to address what’s on the surface’.

Bishop Long concluded his comments by saying that ‘the problem of clericalism can’t just be addressed at a diocesan level.  It has to be addressed at the whole Church level because the whole Church is embroiled in a certain model of being Church… which is not just no longer relevant, but can contribute to the abetting of the sexual abuse precisely because of the attendant issue of clericalism, which is integral to that model of Church’.

In his final comments to the Commission, Bishop Long revealed that he had been a victim of sexual abuse by clergy when he first came to Australia, aged 20, and this has had a powerful impact on him and motivated him to ‘walk in the shoes of other victims and really endeavour to attain justice and dignity for them’.

Reading Bishop Long’s responses to the questions put to him by members of the Royal Commission, I felt I had been presented with a coherent and powerful argument that truly engaged with the horrific issue of clerical sexual abuse.  There was no attempt to duck the features of the Church that helped to make this abuse possible and to cover up its consequences.  Bishop Long sees more clearly than most other bishops and clerics the paramount need to rid the church of clericalism; and sees further that to do so requires the dismantling of a model of the Church as a so-called ‘perfect society’ and the promotion a new model of the Church as a communion of equals.  This is a call for a root and branch reform of the Church which may not be welcomed by everybody, but it is one, I believe, we need to espouse if the Church is not only to survive but also to prosper in the future.  It would be good to think that there are other bishops willing to listen to what Bishop Long has argued so clearly and willing also to take the reforming actions he considers necessary.

Joe Fitzpatrick is a writer and former priest of the Motherwell Diocese in good standing with the Church.

Feb/Mar 2020

In June 2019 Open House held a conference exploring possible new directions for the Catholic Church in Scotland. See conference papers.

Open House also held a conference on the role of lay people in the governance of the Catholic Church in November 2013. See conference papers.