Voices less heard


 A parish priest reflects on the emergence of a new anti clericalism within the church in Scotland, and ask what kind of priests we want.


In the last edition of Open House, Mary Cullen presented Joe Hollands’s analysis of how the form of the institutional church is moulded by a tensive relationship with the current of history.  An indubitable dimension of that, which we have all encountered, is the imbalance of a hierarchical and clerically dominant church.  Since Holland’s work ends with the death of Pius XII, Mary’s reflection brings us to the eve of Vatican II.  Yet the acceleration of communication and the dialectic of history have unleashed all the force of a tsunami, part explaining the destabilised, confusing times in which we find ourselves as people, and as church.

These last five decades since Vatican II have seen massive cultural shifts, influencing the ongoing process of reception – or rejection – of Vatican II.  Its 50th anniversary prompted a raft of published analysis.  Among the most concise and passionate was Massimo Faggioli’s Vatican II, The Battle for Meaning, a telling title.

One theatre of conflict, articulated by recent contributors such as Mary, Werner Jeanrond and others, is the identification of a resurgent neo-clericalism – here too in Scotland.  This concerns me deeply – how could it not – I am a clergyman?  I do not want to offer either an apologia nor seek sympathy for the poor put upon priest.  But I need to highlight strands of this new clericalism in order to suggest there is abroad a growing reaction to it, and what it feels like to be caught in that mix.

In highlighting hallmarks of neo-clericalism I have experienced, I need to avoid offering a subjective opinion and so will only describe those corroborated scientifically in John Weaver’s study, Thirty Three Good Men.

The dominant image of priest is of one who is separate from The People (kudosh) and therefore holy(ier?)  Another marker is of ‘Teacher’, possessing what ‘The Taught’, the laity, do not have.  Professor Eamonn Casey describes this ‘operative model’, where the greatest emphasis is on the cultic role of the priest, most evident in a revisionist approach to the reform of the liturgy.  In this operative model, there is little interest in ecumenical dialogue.  More worrying is the denial that the sexual abuse scandal is a current, shared responsibility.  Rather abuse is relegated to history and blame apportioned to the faulty, conciliar vision of priesthood.

All these positions fly in the face of the liturgical, ecumenical and ecclesiological reforms of the Council, as well as reframing a ‘them and us’ culture.  Of course there will be a discomfort with such a style of ministry, so it is no wonder I detect a frustration in recent pages of Open House.  However, there are other consequences of this shift that have not been given similar attention.  To put it frankly, on the back of this clericalism there is, I believe, a new evident anticlericalism.

This phenomenon has a long history, even if outside the scope of Mary Cullen’s analysis of Holland.  In the face of this anti clericalism there is a group, described by Barry O’Sullivan as ‘the fourth victim’, the group of priests who are not abusers, nor formed in the dominant operative model of priesthood.  They are the ‘voices less-heard’.

In his letter (Unity in Diversity, Open House, April, 2017)) Peter McBride describes what I suspect this group is experiencing.  Here ‘the squeezed middle’ is trapped between ineffective leadership, elitist clericalism and – to quote McBride – the radically different ecclesiologies of our congregations.  Please let me be clear.  I am not suggesting that this group is perfect or free of the taint of clericalism, nor am I writing a eulogy for deference.  I do, however, want to express something of the fear, of intimidation and isolation that affect many who are motivated by a vision of Communio, an equal and collaborative church.  The ‘fourth victim’ has as his first forum of ministry a pastoral, parish context.  But there no longer seems to be a shared urgency to evangelise, reach out to or engage the disaffected.  What need is there for a culture of dialogue when the new dogmatism proclaims that we have the answers?  You need only listen?

There is a first obvious and inevitable anti-clericalism that rides on the back of the still-accumulating scandal of abuse and its disastrous episcopal mishandling.  But that anti-clericalism has spawned a more general manifestation.  There is that disregard for clergy that comes from what Willy Slavin describes as generations of ‘low grade abuse’.  Not sexual or specific, but just the cumulative effect of priests treating people in a shoddy way in the past.  Everyone will have anecdotes that bear this out.  This general mistreatment – high or low grade – is, I think, a major factor in the haemorrhaging of church attendance which is accelerating.  (‘Six out of ten Scots have rejected organised faith’ the leader article; London Times, 1st July, 2017).

There is, second, an anti-clericalism of detached apathy.  It is not even actively hostile, but is simply disinterested and apathetic, evidenced by a huge gap between ‘Church’ and people.  Let me offer one of many anecdotes to illustrate this.  A family asked me to bury their mother, but not with all the fuss; just a priest to ‘do something at the crem’.  Such a residual cultural connection is patently a moment of evangelising and demands a ‘made-up’ liturgy.  The ritual language offers little for such a reality, so people create their own language; hand-written poems, roses; secular, sentimental, often improbable music.  But at this funeral, as I committed their mum to be cremated and the curtains closed, I became aware, in the packed crematorium, only three of us whispered the Lord’s Prayer.  This, sadly, is not an isolated experience, so deep is the chasm between us.  If I am mourning anything it is not deference but relevance, connection.

In the face of this disconnected irrelevance, we are hampered by another subtle, dangerous anti-clericalism, that which exists within the body of the clergy ourselves.  I admit a discomfort with those who advocate a return to a Tridentine Liturgy and a way of being priest that I do not recognise – of having the answers, whose ministries are scaffolded by law and dogma.  By contrast, there is elitism among other clergy that dismisses those regarded as less sound, less Catholic and less traditional, whose ministries are formed by experience and circumstance.  Even among those still-bothered Catholics I detect, if not quite a full-blown anti-clericalism, then at least an exasperation and frustration with the clergy, all of us lumped together!

I opined some time ago in Open House my disappointment with the Archdiocese of Glasgow’s vocation promotion video, Do this in Memory of Me.  It shows a gold-and-lace bedecked priest at the altar of a neo-gothic church; there are no shots of priest and people in the same frame.  By contrast, the recently screened BBC drama series Broken shows the priest in almost every single shot with people.  Jimmy McGovern’s drama, meticulously researched and powerfully written, offers a televisual version of Pope Francis’ oft-quoted soundbite, ‘taking on the smell of the sheep’.

While one depicts an operative priesthood, the relational model in Broken catalysed for me an urgent dilemma.  What kind of priest do we want – need – to serve what kind of church in these complex times?  More than just being at the mercy of the tsunami of history, crises, clericalism and its antithesis, is it not time that the ‘voices less-heard’ speak out – even to one another?  Perhaps, as in Ireland and elsewhere, can we not explore forming an association of clergy of like mind and vision, however informal, that supports the squeezed middle?  I offer this refection not as an academic musing but as an invitation to anyone who is prepared to engage in such a dialogue.


Jim Lawlor is parish priest of Immaculate Conception parish in Glasgow.



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.