Post-Clerical Catholics

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.

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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.”

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Stephen Benson
3 years 9 months ago
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.
Bill Mazzella
3 years 10 months ago
““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
3 years 10 months ago
"...they did not have to continue it." Do you have some special knowledge/and or proof that supports this extremely interesting opinion?
Stephen Benson
3 years 10 months ago
P.S. don't forget to answer the other questions I posed Bill.
Bill Mazzella
3 years 9 months ago
Stephen, 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
3 years 9 months ago
Bill, are you conflating “sacralize” with “deify”?
Bill Mazzella
3 years 9 months ago
Stephen, 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
3 years 9 months ago
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.”
Tim O'Leary
3 years 10 months ago
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
3 years 9 months ago
Tim, 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
3 years 9 months ago
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
3 years 9 months ago
Tim, 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.
Tim O'Leary
3 years 9 months ago
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 http://www.albertmohler.com/2013/03/25/the-making-of-christianity-in-the-west-a-conversation-with-peter-brown-transcript/ 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
3 years 9 months ago
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
3 years 9 months ago
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
3 years 9 months ago
Tim, 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
3 years 9 months ago
"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.
Tom Helwick
3 years 10 months ago
I ran across this essay by the late Andrew Greeley addressing the question of why we are Catholic and why we stay Catholic. http://www.nytimes.com/1994/07/10/magazine/why-do-catholics-stay-in-the-church-because-of-the-stories.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm
Michael Barberi
3 years 10 months ago
Tom, I loved it, especially the ending story about why someone remains Catholic. Very funny, but true. Thanks for this.
Egberto Bermudez
3 years 9 months ago
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" http://magazine.nd.edu/news/44918/ 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."
Bill McGarvey
3 years 9 months ago

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

Michael Barberi
3 years 9 months ago
Egberto, 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.

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