The National Catholic Review

When my fellow columnist Daniel P. Horan, O.F.M., stirred up a hornet’s nest with his column on clericalism a few months back, I followed the conversation with great interest. To be fair, my curiosity had little to do with Father Horan’s assertion that there is a cultivated sense of separateness among some young clergy (an observation I agree with). Nor was I particularly focused on the many comments criticizing or defending clerical wardrobe choices, issues of Catholic identity and so on.

What struck me was how disconnected I felt from the entire conversation surrounding clericalism. It felt as if an intramural discussion was taking place in an arena whose attendance numbers continue to dwindle. Who were these people with such passionate, high expectations or bitter disappointments regarding their parish priests? The sad reality for me and countless others I know who remain connected to Catholicism is that, for better or worse, our expectations of the clergy are much more modest. The bar is set pretty low.

In my experience, the issues many Catholics face at the parish level have little to do with whether the preaching is inspired or the liturgies are beautifully executed. They aren’t particularly exercised over clerical attire either. “For my family and friends who want to raise their kids Catholic,” a woman who works in church circles told me, “clericalism isn’t even on their radar. Gen-Xers and millennials don’t have the deference for clergy—or the expectations—our parents did.” She told me her own expectations were low. People feel it’s a nice bonus to have simply a reasonably healthy and balanced priest with some pastoral gifts.

It’s a sad state of affairs that I’ve heard echoed over and over even among young clergy. “It continues to surprise me,” a recently ordained Carmelite told me. “If you are real, relatable and make an effort to be relevant to parishioners’ lives, you are a rock star.” Another priest who has filled in at numerous parishes for 10 years told me, “People seem to be so hungry for something more. If you can offer them anything that connects their personal lives to the Gospel, they are incredibly appreciative.”

To be sure, this is not an ideal situation. Those of us who hope that Pope Francis’ popularity will inspire a younger generation to enter our doors or lapsed Catholics to return would do well to ask ourselves difficult questions: What are we inviting them to? Are we simply welcoming them back to a church that reminds them why they left in the first place?

Given the circumstances, it might appear to church outsiders that those of us still inside are suffering from some form of ecclesiastical Stockholm syndrome. I would argue that we are a sign of hope.

We are still here because we know, at some fundamental level, that we long for something sacred beyond ourselves and our lives. We might not entirely understand that sacredness, but we believe that approaching it in community and participating in it sacramentally is important. We are “remnant Catholics” of a different sort. When, at times, we are faced with clergy who fall short of our expectations, we are forced to be—in a twisted nod to Hazel Motes in “Wise Blood”—a Holy Church in Spite of the Church.

Of course, we need good priests as leaders and pastors. Make no mistake; there are still plenty of priests who are real, relatable and relevant, and our love for them is familial and fierce. In fact, a growing number of us are part of a nascent “pilgrim church” that journeys far outside our local parish boundaries to attend Mass and find spiritual nourishment with them and the communities they lead.

As the pope said regarding clericalism, we need more “shepherds living with the smell of the sheep.” For those who are waiting for these shepherds to arrive, it will be important to remind ourselves that the sheep, ultimately, don’t exist for the sake of the shepherd.

It also helps to remember that this challenge isn’t new. Back in 1959, Flannery O’Connor described an exchange with a relative’s non-Catholic husband, who entered the church after years of attending Mass with his wife. When asked what finally changed his mind, he said, “The sermons were so horrible, [I] knew there must be something else there to make the people come.”

Bill McGarvey is a musician and writer. He's the author of The Freshman Survival Guide, owner of and was the longtime editor in chief of


Egberto Bermudez | 2/2/2014 - 9:38pm

Let's take a prayer break, Bill McGarvey mentioned in one of his comments that in one of his interviews Pope Francis proposes the image of the Church as "a field hospital after the battle." There is definitely a sense of urgency in his words and the Church is more than a debating society: it doesn't make sense to pass all your time infighting in the sacristy while Rome burns. Pope Francis began his Pontificate by asking the people to pray for him. This month of February, in his missionary intentions he is asking us to pray for: Collaboration in Evangelization. That priests, religious, and lay people may work together with generosity. Therefore, let us pray for this and for all of us.
Also, I would like to share an article by Michael Garvey "Still Catholic"
Fr. Greely has a point when he says that we are and remain Catholic because of the stories, and I would add that because of the Story, yes, with capital S. I think we like stories with a happy ending but we also know that most of the stories with a happy ending are perhaps false or pure fiction. Nevertheless, the only shot that we have at a Story with a real happy ending is Christ's life, death and Resurrection. Hence, we all would like to incorporate our own personal stories with all its peaks and valleys, light and darkness, joys and sorrows, with all our brokenness to the true Story with a real happy ending through the Church. As Michael Garvey says in his article:
"We are not promised that they [popes,bishops and priests] (and we) won't sin again and again and again, only that He will always forgive. [...]What we are promised is that the One who told Moses so frightfully "no one can look upon me and live" now offers Himself to us as food. What we are promised is his presence in the Eucharist, his mercy in our sorrow, his welcome as we lie dying. What we are promised is that He loves us, and that, if we only bring ourselves to ask, He will bless us with a ravenous hunger for intimacy with Himself.That He will save us, in other words."

Michael Barberi | 2/3/2014 - 4:42pm


Thanks for emphasizing the most important and larger "Story". It is indeed the issue that many of the commenters on this blog have been also expressing. In serving and loving others, we love and serve Christ.

However, I ask: "If the church must be like a field hospital after battle, healing the wounds of its faithful and going out to find those who have been hurt, excluded and fallen away", as Pope Francis has said, then: Who are those hurt with wounds needing healing? I propose they are: the large percentage of Catholics that are divorced and remarried who cannot enter into the sacrament of reconciliation, or receive the body and blood of Christ and His healing grace; they are those who are born with a same sex orientation and wish to enter into a loving, faithful and life-long fruitful relationship and want to be full members of the Catholic Church and do God's work; they are the husbands who have HIV-AIDS who want to express marital love for their spouses through sexual intercourse while using a condom in order to safe-guard their spouse from a deadly disease; they are also the church's young Catholics many of whom have fallen away from the church and are spiritual but not religious…they want more welcoming church with moral teachings that are understandable and intellectually and spiritually persuasive.

We all need God's forgiveness and the Story with the real happy ending secured through Christ's life, death and Resurrection and the healing nature of His body, blood, soul and divinity in the Eucharist.

Bill McGarvey | 2/2/2014 - 1:51pm

Thanks Egberto, for sharing Garvey's article. I liked his take on the eucharist and our brokenness.

Michael Barberi | 1/27/2014 - 4:35pm


I loved it, especially the ending story about why someone remains Catholic. Very funny, but true.
Thanks for this.

Bill Mazzella | 1/26/2014 - 11:57pm

Great discussion. Sorry that I found it so late. Augustine, I believe, is the main culprit which made the official church more important than the Gospel. The paradox is that the stress on doctrine leads to mediocrity Because if one believes that as long as one believes all that the magisterium dictates salvation is assured there is hardly need to practice the Sermon on the Mount. This is why some historians believe that Augustine introduced mediocrity to the church. As long as one was Catholic one was in good standing with the Lord. Never mind that Augustine used the government to coerce the Donatists to join his group of churches. As long as they were in they were saved from the danger of perishing. This is clericalism at his worst. I maintain that Augustine has caused this terrible distortion in the church. Preferring conformity over conscience and the Beatitudes. Then came the obsession with sacralizing priest because they held the Sacraments and the keys to the kingdom.

Tim O'Leary | 1/27/2014 - 11:44pm

Bill - I think you have it in for St. Augustine based on some unreliable sources, or at least radically revisionist historians who dislike Augustine a lot. James T. O'Donnell has spent much of his life denigrating Augustine's character as well as his teachings (He also denigrates the resurrection, original sin and many other Christian beliefs). Robert Markus was a convert to a very liberal form of Roman Catholicism. No doubt very smart men, but they do have a skewed view of the great Saint.

Your quotes seem to trivialize the importance of doctrine. Jesus said the Truth would set us free. True doctrine is liberating, false doctrine is enslaving. That is why it is so important. The fact that your sources think doctrinal differences mean little or nothing (differences only in buildings) should make you wary of their truth claims.

For example, you say Augustine pioneered redirecting alms away from the poor. But the tithing, when it was preached by the Church Fathers centuries before Augustine, intended the money to go to the Church (the Bishop) and the Church would make the decision of its distribution to the poor. Here is an ancient quote, from the third-century (est. 230 AD) document Didascalia Apostolorum:

"Set aside part offerings and tithes and first fruits to Christ, the true High Priest, and to His ministers, even tithes of salvation to Him. . . . Today the oblations are offered through the bishops to the Lord God. For they are your high priests; but the priests and Levites are now the presbyters and deacons, and the orphans and widows. . . . Your fruits and the work of your hands present to him, that you may be blessed; your first fruits and your tithes and your vows and your part offerings give to him; for he has need of them that he may be sustained, and that he may dispense also to those who are in want, to each as is just for him.”

Finally, the Pelagians and Donatists were hyper-moralists, the former believing in salvation through rigorous self-improvement (good works without grace) and not through the saving sacrifice of Christ, and the latter tied the validity of the sacraments to the holiness of the clergy. Both of these heresies would have cut off millions from the saving grace of Christ. There is a lot more to poverty than the lack of physical goods.

Bill Mazzella | 1/28/2014 - 8:11am


I am really surprised that you discount Markus and O'Donnell. You said nothing about my major source--Peter Brown. Here is Brown on the paradigm change of giving to the poor.

"Let us, therefore, linger a little on the implications of the cluster of expectations that gathered around the wealth of the church and its relation to the care of the poor. What exactly did contemporaries mean when they spoke of the estates of the church as the “patrimonies of the poor”? In this, we are dealing with the construction of a model of society that carried a considerable imaginative charge, derived from very real preoccupations in society at large. These preoccupations were shared by both those who administered the wealth of the church and those who contributed to that wealth as donors. In the long run, it had palpable effects, on the ground, for the deployment of wealth by the bishops. For it soaked the routine administration of the wealth of the church with a pathos and a sense of the untouchable that was lacking in any form of lay landownership. In the first place, the notion that the wealth of the church was the wealth of the poor was mobilized to ensure that the administration of church lands was kept clean. To disperse , embezzle, or misuse these properties was to rob the innumerable, helpless persons for whom this wealth was said to be held in trust. Appeals to the rights of the poor brought to bear a heavy language of disapprobation on erring bishops and clergymen. The very last Senatus consultum of which we know was issued by the Senate of Rome in 532 .

Brown, Peter (2012-09-02). Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD (p. 507). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
It was inscribed on marble plaques that were set up in the great courtyard of Saint Peter’s. It concerned church property. It warned competing candidates in an upcoming papal election that they should not mortgage the lands of the church for funds to support their election campaigns: “In such a way the properties of the poor are burdened with debt so as to pay for election promises.” In the opinion of the Senate of Rome , to rob the poor in this manner was unpardonable. But the appeal to the notion of the poor as the victims par excellence of the misuse and appropriation of church wealth derived its power from yet wider concerns. In the canons of the councils of fifth- and sixth-century Gaul we can see the emergence of a distinctive discourse that linked the integrity of church property to the perpetual rights of the poor. Those who robbed the church of its lands— both those who directly appropriated church property and those who held back bequests made to the church by members of their family— were deemed to be nothing less than necatores pauperum, “murderers of the poor.” They were solemnly cursed. At the council of Tours in 567 bishops and their clergy were urged to gather together so as to chant the solemn malediction of Psalm 108 in unison against such defaulters: Because he did not remember to show mercy but persecuted the poor and needy and sought to kill the broken hearted (Psalm 108 [109]: 15). 17 Everyone knew who the broken hearted were. They were not the poor gathered in the courtyard of the church but the bishop and his clergy whose rights (exercised on behalf of the poor) had been flouted."

Tim O'Leary | 1/28/2014 - 11:04am

Bill - I believe it is very important to know what biases your sources bring to the table, what beliefs they have in Jesus Christ and His Church and if they look at everything through a particular lens. A person who thinks Jesus was a "good man" but not God or doubts that the Catholic Church is still today Christ's Mystical Body will necessarily view Christianity and Christians through a very different lens than a believer. So will someone who thinks His founding of a Church was basically a failure (if it went off the rails so early).

For example, your comments focus only on one aspect of the Sermon on the Mount - the money part. Peter Brown (Eye of the Needle, etc) appears also to focus on that, to the detriment of the rest. It's not that money for the poor is not important. It is just that Christianity cannot be reduced to that, as the promoters of Liberation Theology tried to do. Money does not save. Money certainly was not the major focus of St. Augustine. He spoke about a lot of things, but his major concern was for peoples' eternal salvation, not their temporal sustenance.

As to clerics misusing funds they collected for the poor, I agree it happened, though it probably was much worse in the 9th, 10th and 11th centuries (when married clergy were building up fortunes for their families). They were sinful men. Power corrupts. Notice today how governments always talk about being custodians for the poor, but the money typically goes to their political supporters to get them re-elected. The Communists were the ultimate frauds in this regard (New Age Hypocrites!). In every country they controlled, the poor increased and a new elite of party officials amassed power and wealth for themselves.

I am very much a proponent of Subsidiarity as the most effective way to enact Solidarity with the poor. It is the best way to minimize corruption, waste and abuse, and get them the most assistance. But, this topic is for a different blog.

Bill Mazzella | 1/28/2014 - 1:16pm


I am just amazed how you respond with opinions rather than relate to the facts. Is Peter Brown an unbeliever also? You just cannot say these writers were prejudiced without citing the particulars and showing how they are wrong. Catholic historians, in general, are very poor historians. (Except for O'Malley) Their history is more doctrine based than fact based. That a-priori mindset seems to be what you are following in your opinion responses.

Stephen Benson | 1/28/2014 - 5:31pm

"Catholic historians, in general, are very poor historians..." That’s about as truthful as me asserting that anyone named “Mazzella” is a poor historian.

I too can play the role of a trickster, but let’s not confuse reality with fantasy.

Tim O'Leary | 1/28/2014 - 3:19pm

Bill - is it a fact that "Catholic historians, in general, are very poor historians," or an opinion? Is it a fact that "the stress on doctrine leads to mediocrity" or an opinion? Or is it a fact that "the pedophilia scandal took so long to unravel" because 'the bishops wanted to protect priestly "divinity." or are these opinions. Your arguments and those experts you quote are solely expressing opinions, not facts.

In any case, I would put Peter Brown in a different category than your other two authors. Whatever biases he has will be more nuanced than the other two. While I do not know his exact denomination or beliefs he refers to himself as a Protestant (Wikipedia says Scots-Irish Protestant) raised in Catholic Ireland, and that he was influenced by his friend Michael Foucault when he taught at Berkeley. Here is a very friendly interview

There is a great point in the interview about the difference between preaching and pastoral work, where the former is strict and firm, and the latter is softer and more lenient. This is what Brown thinks Augustine was.

Bill Mazzella | 1/29/2014 - 5:42am

Tim, where is your evidence that james O'Donnell panned basic beliefs like the Resurrection? Unless you can show otherwise, Marcus, O'Donnell and Brown are more factual, learned, scholarly than any Catholic historian. There are Catholic theologians like Kung who get ir right. And O'Malley. But in general they succumb to the magisterium and lie about history. Show me different.
Augustine approved violence towards other Christians. That is enough to knock him out. There is just no excusing that.

Tim O'Leary | 1/29/2014 - 5:42pm

Bill - "Any Catholic Historian." I guess you therefore exclude O'Donnell as a Catholic. And bringing up Hans Kung and Michael O'Malley would suggest your test is not degree of historical accuracy but liberal theology and theological dissent. So, you have a religious test for an historian. Do you really believe that anyone who supports the Magisterium is a liar? Good to know your bias.

While you are knocking out Augustine ( a somewhat coercive statement in itself), you might also do the same for Aquinas, most popes and all the Protestant reformers (excluding the Quakers and Amish). Maybe, even Jesus? - Mt10:34 "Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword."

Bill Mazzella | 1/29/2014 - 9:19pm

I continue to find it astonishing that you give not facts but opinion. True I expressed opinions at times during this discusstion. But I gave direct quotes from Augustine, Peter Brown and Marcus. You gave zero facts and now end it with ad hominems. I am really disappointed to find that your sole argument is from authority. An authority which has erred many times.

Stephen Benson | 1/27/2014 - 2:55pm

“Augustine, …made the official church more important than the Gospel.” An interesting claim, is there a citation from St. Augustine’s writings that you are using to support your claim?

““…if one believes that as long as one believes all that the magisterium dictates salvation is assured…” Are you implying that the Catholic Church teaches this belief?

““This is why some historians believe that Augustine introduced mediocrity…” Which historians?

““I maintain that Augustine has caused this terrible distortion in the church. Preferring conformity over conscience and the Beatitudes.” Interesting claim. A question: does conscience conform to anything?

““Then came the obsession with sacralizing priest because they held the Sacraments and the keys to the kingdom.” Seriously… so is it your contention that Christians invented the idea that priests are sacred? I wonder if those that belonged to the tribe of Levi were aware of that?

Bill Mazzella | 1/27/2014 - 7:32pm

““Then came the obsession with sacralizing priest because they held the Sacraments and the keys to the kingdom.” Seriously… so is it your contention that Christians invented the idea that priests are sacred? I wonder if those that belonged to the tribe of Levi were aware of that?

Stephen, Christians did not invent this idea. But they did not have to continue it.

Stephen Benson | 1/27/2014 - 11:46pm

"...they did not have to continue it." Do you have some special knowledge/and or proof that supports this extremely interesting opinion?

Bill Mazzella | 1/28/2014 - 8:24am


Andrew Greeley talks about this a lot. We were taught in the seminary that to criticize a priest, especially a bishop, was almost sacraligious. This is why the pedophilia scandal took so long to unravel. The bishops wanted to protect priestly "divinity." Only the Boston Globe which was not intimidated by a dominating clergy unraveled the fiasco. The priests hands were particularly divinized. Peter and Paul never dominated the way the clergy developed.Somebody quoted Greeley above. In that same article Greeley wrote:
" I’ll never stop being Catholic,
despite the fact that many of the current leaders of the institutional
church are corrupt thugs, from the parish right up to the Vatican."

That is truthful and desacralization. Francis follows along these lines by noting how many priests become "monsters'' by dogmatic and repressive training.

Stephen Benson | 1/28/2014 - 10:53am

Bill, are you conflating “sacralize” with “deify”?

Bill Mazzella | 1/28/2014 - 1:21pm


Sacralization leads to deification. I am not confusing them. Holding priests up as sacred has turned too many of them into monsters. It is like the standing absolves them of responsibility and makes them think they are better than others. Set apart becomes superior.

Stephen Benson | 1/28/2014 - 5:10pm

Hmm…would it be fair to say that if I rephrase your claim as follows that it is loyal to the heart of your objection? “All those who think they have power eventually think they are gods?” So, out of curiosity, what’s your proposed solution?

It seems to me that George Orwell’s Animal Farm examines a utopian solution that some people thought might resolve the problem you are railing against. Now, if you have a new and different solution that keeps all the factors (and not just some of the factors) that makes a human person a human person, then I would like to hear it. ; )

I’ve also had my share of awful experiences with narcissists (priests, politicians, supervisors, men, women, etc., etc.,) but I make a clear distinction between the “office” and the “idiot holding the office for the moment.”

Stephen Benson | 1/28/2014 - 12:27am

P.S. don't forget to answer the other questions I posed Bill.

Bill Mazzella | 1/27/2014 - 7:13pm

Stephen, Re: Historians
If you read my posts here you would have seen that Marcus was one of the historians. Peter Brown is another. Alos read O'Donnell. Marcus also calls this age, the fourth century through the 6th, the Age of Hypocrisy. "As saints became ubiquitous, they also changed their functions. In the
early Christian community the living faithful prayed to God for their dead;
now the dead saint is asked to pray for the living: a whole new liturgy came
into being. As the martyr is , literally, detached from the place of his
martyrdom and made present wherever his relics have become the center of a
cult, so relics began to be seen in a new way.....relics soon became
themselves, the seats of holy power, God's preferred channels for miraculous
action. A new nexus of social relationships centered around their shrines;
their cult provided ways of securing social cohesion in the locality, and
one of the means on which bishops depended to consolidate their authority."
Robert Marcus. The Oxford History of Christianity.pg90.

Stephen Benson | 1/28/2014 - 12:21am

Yes, I read your quite fascinating comments now.

"Marcus also calls this age, the fourth century through the 6th, the Age of Hypocrisy." ha, ha, ha, I needed a good laugh before going to sleep - thanks. BTW, was there ever an age that did not have hypocrisy?

Let's see, didn't the Holy Spirit descend on the Church at Pentecost? The same Holy Spirit that someone who is both God and man described as follows: "But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come."

And wasn't He helping the Church resolve the Arian Crisis and the Monophysite Crisis; wasn't He involved with the birth of Monasticism? Did He guide the Church after the fall of Rome? Did He help and sustain St. Patrick, St. Ambrose of Milan, St. Augustine, St. Jerome, St. John Chrysostom, etc.?

I think this is really taking us off topic and I definitely enjoy playing several rounds of "historical ping-pong" but that often turn out to be a futile game - is that something you really want to play? To what end?

Lastly, in my opinion, it is often vital to read books by many authors in order to get holistic picture of what might have happened during a particular period in the past. So, for example, have you read "The Building of Christendom" by Warren H. Carroll, particularly volume 2 since it covers the period you are exploring?

And yes, I read some of the books you've cited.

Bill Mazzella | 1/28/2014 - 8:29am


Read Brown's book "Eye of the Needle." It answers many of your questions.
What made the 4th century the age of hypocrisy was that for the first time Christians were looking to live through holy men rather than practicing the Beatitudes themselves. As if the Saint would get them to heaven rather than their own behavior. Re-read the Marcus quote. The paradigm change is significant.

Stephen Benson | 1/28/2014 - 10:55am

Bill - If I wanted to have a discussion with Brown, etc., I’d communicate with them. My questions are directed to you and your claims/assertions.

As I asked in a previous comment, what’s your goal? What are the premises you accept as true behind your claims? Or better, what premises prompt you accept conjectures as facts and why do you promote those conjectures as fact?

I don’t mind that you have biases or an “agenda” (we all do) but don’t hide them/it behind extravagant and lofty quotes. Be proud of your “agenda” and state it clearly and in the open.

Tim O'Leary | 1/27/2014 - 2:50pm

Bill – I would agree that the Church can appear much more accommodating of men’s weaknesses than Jesus appears in the Gospels (although many people less familiar with the Gospel texts surprisingly think the opposite). The Lord frequently used absolutes or extremes - plucking out an eye to avoid sin, the consequences of using the word “fool” or just having lustful thoughts, the camel and the eye of a needle, the evil of hypocrites, and some of the urgencies regarding the necessity of Baptism and the Eucharist for salvation that I mentioned below. But he also stressed forgiveness and mercy (forgiving 7x7).

St. Paul also sometimes followed Jesus’ lead in using harsh words (1 Cor 6:9 “Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God”). But, he too was softer when he discussed the importance of sanctifying grace, even in relation to his own weakness: (“Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. 2 Cor 12:8).

However, I would not agree with your use of the term “mediocrity” or “clericalism.” Rather, it is the type of softness that we might associate with a loving mother when the father lays down the law. And the Lord did say that Mother Church had the power to bind and loose. I certainly would not associate the softness with St. Augustine, who is rarely thought to be so lenient. I would not at all think this softness a symptom of clericalism. It is not as if the clerics in the Early Church Fathers were exempting themselves from the strictures. And the demands for sacraments, the handing on of the keys and the power to bind and loose are all in the Gospels.

Bill Mazzella | 1/27/2014 - 3:17pm


I am not against forgiveness. We are all sinners . Augustine forgave only if you were orthodox. This is a major error. Unfortunately, much of the West followed him The Sermon on the Mount was considered only advisory. While the Nicene Creed was di rigeur. The other major error that Augustine, his contemporairies and thereafter was to demand that alms be given to the church or pastors rather than directly to the poor. Thus facilitating the building boom , which lasts to our time, and the enrichment of the clerical class to the detriment of the poor.
We are talking about a paradigm change in the fourth century that shifted the focus to doctrine over the Sermon on the Mount.

Bill McGarvey | 1/27/2014 - 2:13am

Thanks for your comment Bill. I have nowhere near the knowlege of Augustine to even begin to agree or disagree with your assesment though. Perhaps someone else on here who is more familiar with the history can comment?

Bill Mazzella | 1/27/2014 - 11:02am

Bill, Note this letter to Pelagius how Augustine will tolerate "burn with envy" and concern about wealth as long as one belongs to the right church. Augustine's letter to Pelagius:"A
man of good works who acts from the faith which works through love, who
indulges his incontinence within the decent bounds of marriage, who both exacts
and renders the debt of the flesh and sleeps with his wife--though only with
his wife!--and does so not only for the sake of bringing forth offspring, but
even for sheer pleasure....who will put up with wrongs done to him with less
than complete patience, but burn with angry desire for revenge...who guards
what he possesses and gives alms, though not very generously, who does not
take another's goods but defends his own in a court of law--ecclesiastical not
civil.(such a man) on account of his right faith in
God...,acknowledging his own ignominy and giving the glory to God," 'such a man',
Markus adds, 'will depart this life and and be received into the company of
the saints destined to remain with Christ.'

Marcus uses the word 'tolerance' of mediocrity. If he is saying
these words to indicate that this is what the Pelagians preach against then I
side with the Pelagians except for the part about not having pleasure with ones
spouse in sexual union. O'Donnell quoting the same letter to the Pelagians
comments: "The ordinary man, Augustine, is sure will go to heaven, because he
goes to the right church and has the right faith." O'Donnell further states
that Augustine is saying that "other men just like this one but who happen to
find themselves in church buildings of which Augustine disapproves will not
be treated so kindly." Pg 270 Augustine a Biography. It is like all one has to do is belong to the right church and crertain behavior is not a problem. That is mediocrity.

Here is Augustine on forcing other Christians to join the Catholic church.
nisi hoc terrore perculisi -- under the terror of this danger---Augustine on saying that many Donatists would not have changed their minds unless they were forced (under the terror of this danger) to join the CAtholic Church. His point: Forcing them enables them to convert. Ep93.5.17

Bill McGarvey | 1/24/2014 - 3:20am

While I appreciate--and have done my best to follow--all the passionate conversation my column has generated, I must confess that my comment regarding Fr. Horan's original column on clericalism feeling like "an intramural discussion...taking place in an arena whose attendance numbers continue to dwindle" could just as easily be applied to much of the discussion taking place here.

Arguments over clericalism don't feel all that removed from the rhetorical rabbit hole that debates over heirarchies of truth, the catechism, the nature of dissent etc etc can lead us into. I start to get the creeping feeling that Rome is burning and we are busy handing out fiddles as fast as possible.

Again, that isn't meant to denigrate the role of the catechism and doctrinal debate, it is simply meant to put them into perspective. The temptation to reduce the Catholic faith to these elements is akin to reducing the Sistene Chapel to a conversation about pigments and color theory. It can be interesting in certain contexts but it is hardly transformative. It may tickle the intellect but it doesn't capture the imagination.

In Pope Francis' America interview he stated that he sees the Church "as a field hospital after a battle. It’s pointless to ask a seriously injured patient whether his cholesterol or blood sugar levels are high! It’s his wounds that need to be healed." That sense of urgency is absolutely essential now. I pray that we have the good sense to stock our proverbial field hospital with provisions for the critically wounded and not endless cases of Lipitor.

Michael Barberi | 1/24/2014 - 4:32pm


I read your article signal/noise and found it spot on, especially your comment "It is why the moment I finish typing this I need to close this screen and go “do” some religion instead of just talking about it."

We should never turn our eyes, ears and mind off from the bigger message to love God and neighbor for we love God by serving others especially the poor. In my local parish their is a ministry to the Nazareth Orphanage in Tecate, Mexico. People ask me why do I go there? I tell them there is no better place to met Christ. You see Him in the weathered faces of the three nuns who care for 55 poor orphan children; you see Him in the smiles of the children who welcome you. You also hear Christ especially around Christmas time when the children will sing for you before they open the presents that we bring them.

If you don't see or hear Christ, you will certainly feel him. All you have to do is look around while you are painting and repairing things at the orphanage toward your fellow Catholics who are working along with you. It is hard to describe, but there is a connection between you and others and Christ and His Spirit that flows between, over, under and through all that are there.

So, I wholeheartedly agree with you Bill that it is in "doing religion" that is most important to our Catholic religion. Nevertheless, we should not minimize the most important work of theologians. Clearly the theological debate for the past 50 years has been heated. However, in theological discussions we all "do good work" when we strive to move a respectful conversation forward toward a better understanding of truth. This is also a call by God as well and in some ways is "doing religion". What we must guard against is too much excessiveness, disrespect, and certitude for we never fully see the complete truth.

I thank you for your comments and the article on signal/noise. We should never lose of focus on loving God and neighbor…and in "doing religion"…even if we debate in agreement and disagreement.

Bill McGarvey | 1/25/2014 - 12:37am

Thanks Michael...

Tim O'Leary | 1/24/2014 - 7:30pm

Michael - I agree with everything you say in this comment and especially your way of seeing, hearing and feeling Christ and loving Christ in the children and nuns at the Orphanage. Opposing arguments can melt away when we come face to face with love.

Stephen Benson | 1/24/2014 - 11:37am

I wonder if it’s this medium (a blog) that encourages “intermural discussions”? I am saying this because when I work with people in person I spend a lot of time stressing that our goal is to become “intentional disciples” of Jesus Christ, the God/man who is deeply, passionately, and unconditionally in love with us.

And, if this medium lends itself to that, as I suspect, then what can we do to change that problem?

As I wrote to Michael below, I see everything as a catechetical issue because of my training and calling and that’s why I focus on making sure that the personnel in the “field hospital” are properly trained, otherwise they will do more harm than good.

And it’s for that reason that I continually focus on these three questions – personally and professionally - How does God make Himself present today? How does He speak to humanity? How does He manifest His “love pushed to the extreme,” which we so badly need?

I appreciate your humor Bill and I thank you for giving us the space to have this dialogue.

Bill McGarvey | 1/24/2014 - 12:06pm

I think you're onto something, Stephen, with your observation: "I wonder if it’s this medium (a blog) that encourages “intramural discussions”?"

The web in general has been an enormous gift in terms of democratizing conversation so all voices are heard but it has its limits. I wrote about that very dilemma in my column "Signal/Noise" back in November. I'm sometimes reminded of a quote I love from Elvis Costello (or Frank Zappa or Martin Mull?) "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture." I love our ability to discuss all manner of things here about faith and religion but it isn't the same thing as actually living faith and 'doing' religion, which is far more compelling to the countless millions who see little evidence to confound their hunch that religion is an irrelevant artifact from a pre-scientific age.


Stephen Benson | 1/24/2014 - 1:03pm

Wow – your column “Signal/Noise” is great – really great Bill, particularly this sentence: “It is why the lives we lead say more about us than our words ever could.” Thanks for linking to it because I hadn’t seen it.

BTW, I was laughing so hard at this sentence because it is so true: “Sometimes I feel as if we’ve fallen in love with our hammers instead of the homes they can help us build.”

Bill McGarvey | 1/25/2014 - 12:38am

Really glad you liked it Stephen...especially glad you got some good laughs as well! ;)

Tim O'Leary | 1/24/2014 - 9:26am

Bill - the "field hospital" analogy resonated strongly with me as well. But I interpreted Pope Francis as saying we must focus on the lethal wounds first. I took it to mean the Good News of Salvation, not a fix to the Church's organizational problems. So, the arguments about clericalism, women priests, married priests, prayer translations, music quality, etc. seemed to me to be the endless cases of Lipitor. Jesus's words are full of urgent appeals to personal repentance and turning away from sin, to Baptism and the Eucharist ("Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God."; "unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you").

Luke begins chapter 13 with a quote from Jesus: “There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”

But, of course, not everyone agrees what is urgent and what is important. And people can get very worked up about minor things that irritate. Frankly, it is easier for us all (me included) to focus on things outside ourselves, to fix things that don't require a personal change - a metanoia.

Carolyn Disco | 1/24/2014 - 12:09am

Thank you heartily to Michael Barberi, Anne Chapman, Joseph J, Jim McCrea - hope I remember all commenters who give me hope and sound a note of welcome.

Chastisement about dissent gets absolutely nowhere, IMHO. You cannot argue someone into the truth, you can only love them into it. And I believe what is true is not necessarily determined by every hierarchical pronouncement. History is replete with examples.

Quote from Benedict XVI when he was Cardinal Ratzinger, courtesy of Joseph J in 2011:

“Over the pope as the expression of the binding claim of ecclesiastical authority there still stands one’s own conscience, which must be obeyed before all else, if necessary even against the requirement of ecclesiastical authority.

This emphasis on the individual, whose conscience confronts him with a supreme and ultimate tribunal [God], and one which in the last resort is beyond the claim of external social groups, even of the official Church, also establishes a principle in opposition to increasing totalitarianism. Genuine ecclesiastical obedience is distinguished from any totalitarian claim which cannot accept any ultimate obligation of this kind beyond the reach of its dominating will.”

Joseph Ratzinger, Part I, Chapter 1, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Vol. V of COMMENTARY ON THE DOCUMENTS OF VATICAN II, ed. Herbert Vorgrimler (New York: Herder and Herder, 1969, p. 134)

I am responsible to God in prayer for my decisions and need always humbly seek His guidance in more than a bit of trembling.

For their part, priests and bishops can no longer rule by fear, claiming by their actions, if not words, an ontological superiority over non-clerics. Thank God more and more laity are growing up on that score, though I see a dispiriting resurgence of clericalist attitudes among younger clergy; IOW regression toward a cultic model of priesthood.

I believe clericalism is the poison behind the abuse crisis where those supposed to protect the innocent chose "willful blindness, conscious ignorance and flagrant indifference" to the dangers priests posed to children, in order to protect themselves. The quote is from our state attorney general in a planned indictment of the diocese for child endangerment, wherein the bishop had to admit sufficient evidence for conviction in order to avoid prosecution. He smartly did so. Working with survivors was my wake-up call.

Carolyn Disco | 1/24/2014 - 2:23am

Past time for all to wake up about the cover-ups of bishops. Why have none been sanctioned in any way? News released just this past week:

St. Paul/Minneapolis – comprehensive report of cover-up by archbishops. Nienstedt is a disgrace to his office; no wonder his canonist resigned in disgust last April.

“Secret accounts paid for clergy misconduct but left church open to financial abuse”

Chicago - took 8 years to get 6,000 documents released for fewer than half of abusers there; victims came forward on George's watch. He belongs in prison for child endangerment.

“In Files, a History of Sexual Abuse by Priests in Chicago Archdiocese”

Moral authority? None.

Michael Barberi | 1/21/2014 - 3:17pm

There is an undercurrent in some of these thread comments about a certain absoluteness of the term faithfulness. While I have expressed some of my thoughts, both independently and in connection with others, I find missing any discussion of a hierarchy of truth either in the articles of faith or in moral norms. Some adhere to a strict adherence to every Church teaching, while others have issues with some moral norms, claimed as moral absolutes.

I wonder how important are the beliefs in transubstantiation or the assumption of Mary or her perpetual virginity, that Protestants do not ascribe to, are critical to one's "salvation"? I accept many of these teachings but do not believe that a Protestant who lives a life in accordance with the Gospel, like most Catholics, but does not believe in such Catholic teachings, lacks sufficient grace for their salvation, while a similarly situated Catholic somehow possesses something more for their salvation merely because they believe in such teachings.

Make no mistake about what I am saying. There are certain teachings that are fundamentally necessary for one's salvation. I am not preaching dissension or that Catholics should pick and choose the teachings that suit their station in life. I question the lack of any discussion about a hierarchy of truth, the belief that the RCC is the "only certain way" to salvation, and the "certitude" that a Catholic is only faithful unless they believe in every Church teaching.

Carolyn Disco | 1/23/2014 - 11:48pm

Amen, Amen.

Stephen Benson | 1/23/2014 - 5:03pm

I’ve been doing some research on your point in this comment and I have discovered that Dr. William E. May in his article “Authority and Dissent in the Catholic Church” wrote the following, which I think relates to your point very well. (Please note the section I have bolded below). So, perhaps, if you are saying what Dr. May is saying we have a common ground that we can build on – and that would make me very happy since it’s always vital to build on the positive.

Keep in mind that I am a catechist by training and so I see everything as a catechetical issue, which I don’t think is a bad thing! I realize, however, that you and others may not have the starting point that I do.

4. The response due moral teachings authoritatively but not infallibly proposed
I have argued that the central core of Catholic moral teaching has been infallibly proposed by the ordinary magisterium. Even if one were to disagree with this argument (which I believe is sound), one must acknowledge that the magisterium does teach with a more than merely human authority on moral questions. Moreover, it proposes moral norms not as legalistic rules but as truths of Christian life. Moral teachings authoritatively but not infallibly proposed as true are binding upon the consciences of the faithful, including pope, bishops, theologians, and ordinary laypeople. All the faithful are to give these teachings a religious submission (obsequium religiosum) of will and mind. Teachings authoritatively proposed are proposed as true, not as opinions or “prudential guidelines.”

Still, such teachings are not infallibly proposed; they are not proposed as “definitively to be held.” This raises the question of the nature of the “religious submission” of will and mind and the question of dissent. Precisely what does this entail?

5. The nature of the “obsequium religiosum” and the question of dissent
It is interesting to note that the term “dissent” did not appear in theological literature prior to the end of Vatican Council II. The “approved” manuals to which the three bishops, who wanted Lumen gentium 25 to say something about the nature of the "obsequium religiosum" required for teaching authoritatively but not infallibly proposed, were referred did not speak of legitimate theological dissent from such teaching. Rather, they recognized that a theologian (or other well-informed Catholic) might not in conscience be able to give internal assent to some teachings. They thus spoke of “withholding assent” and raising questions, but this is a far cry from “dissent.”

The Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has addressed this matter. It recognized that theologians (and others) might question not only the form but even the substantive content of some authoritatively proposed magisterial teachings. It held that it is permissible in such instances to withhold assent, to raise questions (and present them to the magisterium), to discuss the issues with other theologians (and be humble enough to accept criticism of one’s own views by them). Theologians (and others) can propose their views as hypotheses to be considered and tested by other theologians and ultimately to be judged by those who have, within the Church, the solemn obligation of settling disputes and speaking the mind of Christ.

But it taught one is not giving a true "obsequium religiosum" if one dissents from magisterial teaching and proposes one’s own position as a position that the faithful are at liberty to follow, substituting it for the teaching of the magisterium. But this is precisely what has been occurring. Dissent of this kind is not compatible with the obsequium religiosum. In fact, those who dissent in this way really usurp the teaching office of bishops and popes. Theologians, insofar as they are theologians, are not pastors in the Church. When they instruct the faithful that the teachings of those who are pastors in the Church (the pope and bishops) are false and that the faithful can put those teachings aside and put in their place their own theological opinions, they are harming the Church and arrogantly assuming for themselves the pastoral role of pope and bishops.

Dissent, understood in this sense, is thus completely incompatible with the obsequium religiosum required for teachings authoritatively but not infallibly proposed.

Michael Barberi | 1/23/2014 - 6:37pm


Thank you for your comment.

There is much disagreement within the Church regarding what teachings are infallible and non-infallible. Orsey's book, mentioned later, discusses this issue in more detail. There are many others.

I rarely, if ever, use the term "dissent" when describing my position on certain moral norms. To me, it is a perforative term that divides rather than solidifies us. I always refer to my own "disagreement" with certain moral teachings based on legitimate philosophical and theological reasons. It is a decision of my "informed" conscience and being "informed" is an on-going lifetime of education and reflection. People who disagree with certain moral teachings based on their informed conscience must be guided by what it means to inform one's conscience. At a minimum this means:

> giving respect and priority to the Church teaching,
> adequately educating oneself on the issue under consideration until there are no more questions to be asked,
> continuing to educate oneself on the subject for new scholarship and God's grace continues to help us make the right moral decisions,
> praying and frequently receiving the sacraments of reconciliation and Eucharist,
> seeking the constant guidance of both theological experts and priestly spiritual advisors, and
> striving to be humble and open-minded for we all do not see the truth fully or completely.

The Church teaches that one must never go against one's informed conscience. This does not mean picking and choosing the teachings that suit one's station in life. If a Catholic disagrees with a moral teaching of the Church they must be prepared to stand before Christ and make an accounting of their disagreement.

Nothing I have said was meant to propose that my own judgment in good conscience is to be held by the faithful, substituting it for the teaching of the magisterium. I am merely expressing my views as others do on America Magazine.

There are many good books on this broad subject. A few suggestions would be: Teaching with Authority by Richard Gaillaretz; A History of Catholic Moral Theology in the Twenieth Century, by James F. Keenan; Moral Theology No. 6: Dissent in the Church edited by Charles Curran and Richard McCormick; Conscience, edited by Charles Curran; Receiving the Council by Ladislas Orsey; The Crisis of Authority in Catholic Modernity by Michael J. Lacey and Francis Oakley; and Why You Can Disagree and Remain a Faithful Catholic by Philip S. Kaufman. For more on the Church's official position regarding sexual ethics (where there is most disagreement) I also suggest Catholic Sexual Ethics by Rev. Ronald Lawler, Joseph Boyle and William E. May. Of course, these are only a few of the many good books on the market today.

I like the title of Kaufman's book "Whey You Can Disagree and Remain a Faithful Catholic" because it captures one aspect of my thought. However, it took me many years of study, prayer and counsel, before I could say my conscience was at least starting to be informed, despite the fact that we never truly see the complete truth and our conscience is always being informed. I hope this provides more clarity regarding my previous posting.

Stephen Benson | 1/24/2014 - 11:38am

Thank you for your comment Michael and please call me Stephen. And thank you for the reminder that some words carry a tremendous “pejorative weight” and can, therefore, derail a dialogue - something I easily forget.

Your comment about disagreement reminded me of one of my favorite documents of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI:

Dear Brothers, during the days when I first had the idea of writing this letter, by chance, during a visit to the Roman Seminary, I had to interpret and comment on Galatians 5:13-15. I was surprised at the directness with which that passage speaks to us about the present moment: “Do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love be servants of one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’. But if you bite and devour one another, take heed that you are not consumed by one another.” I am always tempted to see these words as another of the rhetorical excesses which we occasionally find in Saint Paul. To some extent that may also be the case. But sad to say, this “biting and devouring” also exists in the Church today, as expression of a poorly understood freedom. Should we be surprised that we too are no better than the Galatians? That at the very least we are threatened by the same temptations? That we must always learn anew the proper use of freedom? And that we must always learn anew the supreme priority, which is love?”

Michael Barberi | 1/24/2014 - 3:55pm


All of our discussions, beliefs and disagreements, must be put into context so that we do not lose the greater commandment to love God and neighbor. We often get into the details about doctrine, etc, but as long as its purpose is to move a respectful conversation forward toward a better understanding of truth, then we need not overly worry over comparisons with history. The is much truth about an excessive and irresponsible use of freedom. However, as the wise saying goes, the inappropriate use of things like freedom, should not take away from the legitimate use of freedom by the rest of us. In this regard the virtues are a good guiding principle.

Tim O'Leary | 1/17/2014 - 10:28pm

I thank Stephen Benson for his comments below. He reminds us that being a Christian is first of all, before any doctrinal understanding, an encounter with the person of Jesus Christ, and a commitment to follow him and all He teaches, no matter where it leads. I am a Catholic because I am convinced the Roman Catholic Church is Jesus's mystical body and His authentic teacher - the only Church on earth with the keys.

I do not want to expand the ever narrowing thread below but do want to get to a distinction between judging an idea or opinion or fact vs. judging the soul of a person.

Bill. In the quotes you use regarding the Creed, notice the repetitive use of "begin." If a Catholic leaves the practice of the Catholic faith for a Protestant denomination or a SBNR mentality, they can still hold the Nicene Creed in total. They might deny the efficacy of Baptism, or Communion or the truth of the whole moral law or the teaching authority of the Magisterium and all the Councils after 381 and still hold fully to the Nicene Creed. We have no hope of reaching those who leave the Church if we don't listen to why they left or don't recognize they left at all. Again, a loss of faith, or a change in belief, is a much more charitable judgment than to think they willfully abandoned the faith or succumbed to apathy or indifference.

Anne. Your use of the term faith might be apt if it intends to mean a non-Catholic Christian or at least a follower of Jesus. Protestant and Spiritual But Not Religious (SBNR) folk do not have an accepted common doctrinal understanding of anything, beyond, perhaps that Jesus was God (or at least, for the SBNRs, was a very good man). The Catholic faith is considerably more binding than that. I was speaking of the distancing from the Roman Catholic Faith as taught by the successors of Peter. But it is good to know your meaning as well so we can distinguish what is what.

I also think it is very important, especially in discussions, to distinguish judging the guilt of a person's soul (the speck-log metaphor Jesus warned against), from judging the factual claims, the logic or reasoning of a person's statement. I think Pope Francis makes this distinction when he condemns, for example, clericalism. He is not judging priests as individuals but warning them (and lay people) of an incorrect understanding of the priestly role. He is not judging the souls of the rich (who among us is not rich compared to the truly deprived in Africa or Asia?) when he strongly preaches a preferential provision for the poor. Similarly, he can condemn a system of gay marriage or gay adoption or gay sex while refraining from judging the state of a person's soul who is living a homosexual life. But, not everyone can see his clear distinctions between judging the sin and not the sinner.

The discussion on judging going on in this thread is not even of this type. It relates to possible reasons why people stopped believing that the Catholic faith and it's sacramental grace might be essential for salvation (if one believes the Catholic Church is the true Church). I would say that loss of faith is the most charitable interpretation (as opposed to willful rejection). If someone says they no longer believe it necessary, it is surely not wrong to recognize that. It is part of listening, a lack of which some complain about on this blog. If someone comes up with a novel or Reformation-like concept of the Eucharist, or Predestination, or a modern Protestant-light concept of sexual ethics it is a completely non-judgmental and appropriate intellectual judgment to point out that a view is not Catholic or to point to a logical or doctrinal contradiction or historical deviation. No discussion could go very far without these intellectual judgments of one another's points or positions.


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