Exceptionalism: failing to learn from history

(Gay priest Bart writes on the impact of the culture of clericalism on the Church):

Exceptionalism (Wikipedia; Collins English Dictionary) is the perception that a country, society, institution, movement, or time period is “exceptional” (i.e., unusual or extraordinary) in some way and thus does not need to conform to normal rules or general principles. In recent decades, we heard more often of the term “American exceptionalism”, but really this word has a long pedigree, with British and Soviet exceptionalism being other recent examples. The perception behind exceptionalism is not dissimilar to that belief which holds that certain companies or institutions are too big to fail. The last decade disproved  this perception in a horrific way, first with the Enron collapse, and then more recently with the collapse of Lehman Brothers (and with it the whole banking sector), followed by the bailing-out of a corporation that used to boast a product output that was larger than the GDP of most countries: General Motors. As I sat reading Terry’s Thoughts on Popular Revolutions: in Egypt, in South Africa – in the Church, I couldn’t but help remembering that the Catholic Church promotes its own brand of exceptionalism. I would like to share a couple of thoughts on this point with my readers.

Catholicism locks onto a cluster of foundational principles, the most important being the following:

1.      The belief that the Church is established by Jesus Christ, who also promised that he would be with it till the end of time (Matthew 16:18-19; 28:20);

2.      The belief in the unifying, leadership role of Peter the Apostle and his successor, the Pope, the bishop of Rome (Matthew 16:18-19); and

3.      The belief that the one Church of Jesus Christ – “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic” (Nicene Creed) – subsists in the Catholic Church. The Second Vatican Council, in n. 8 of the Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium, stated that “this Church, constituted and organized as a society in this present, world, subsists in the Catholic Church, governed by the Successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him, although many elements of sanctification and truth can be found outside her structure; such elements, as gifts properly belonging to the Church of Christ, impel towards Catholic unity.”



Image by Waka Jawaka via Flickr

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Catholicism seems to have built a very complex structure round the above points, to a degree that it is hard to see what today’s monarchical autocracy has in common with a certain carpenter from Nazareth, and his fisherman friend Peter. Even if one were to make allowance for a 2000 year history, there is still too much that just doesn’t fit in with the Gospel. This doesn’t mean that I am disagreeing with the above principles. Rather, it’s the way they have been interpreted that has, in my view, led to Catholic exceptionalism – and the present crisis. The writing was already on the wall when Pius IX insisted in the 19th century to move forward with the dogma on papal infallibility. He is famously quoted as saying, “I am the church! I am the tradition!” The breath of fresh air that was the Second Vatican Council began to turn decidedly stale in the pontificate of John Paul II, who embarked on a global campaign to stamp his own mark on the Church. The defining characteristic, if one bothered to see through all the glitz and pageantry of the numerous papal visits, was that of a reactionary, triumphalist Church. His right-hand man back then – Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger – emerged from his shadow to become the present Pope, Benedict XVI. In so many ways, the present Pope has intensified the reversal process, what with his medieval-court fashion; his rapprochement with the anti-Vatican II, schismatic SPX society; his work to bring back to life the Tridentine Mass; his bending backward to welcome Anglican clergy who agitated against certain reforms in the Anglican Church, giving these newcomers a status not given to other loyal Catholics (not including Opus Dei members, who have been given similar privileges), that of a personal prelature; the list is endless. But if there isone word I would choose to describe the spirit of the age (in the Catholic Church, that is) then it has to be: clericalism.

The mentality that the leadership of a religious organisation with a one billion plus membership cannot be wrong because God is on our side, because we can claim apostolic succession, because we are infallible and woe to those who say otherwise is what drives clericalism in the Catholic Church today. It’s hard to define clericalism in a couple of words; we’re talking of modes of relating, behavioural patterns, manner of dress, liturgical preferences, as well as certain status symbols (such as titles), all of which underline the special status of the clergy, especially the higher clergy. There is also a strong tendency to viewing the priesthood as cultic. Exclusivity (read: separateness, elitism) is the name of the game. It’s not so difficult to see the connection between clericalism and Catholic exceptionalism. It is my view (and not just mine) that it is this clericalist mentality that lies behind the way the Church has handled (or rather, mishandled) the problem of clerical sexual abuse. The secrecy, lies, and cover-ups are intended to protect the name of the Church, or rather of its leadership – even at the expense of the most vulnerable members of the same Church. That those in the leadership think they can continue to do so with impunity doesn’t abode well. Too big to fail?

The clerical sexual abuse scandals should have served as a wake-up call, a need to make a thorough self-examination and reform. There seems to be little sign of this deep reform at present, more like a blame-shifting exercise. It pains me as a priest to see members of our Church leave because they cannot stomach the institutionalised hypocrisy they see. Some leave for other churches or religions, others simply call it a day and will have nothing more to do with organised religion. We will have to give an account for this loss one day.

To a Church that may be basing its exceptionalism on a certain reading of Scripture, I have this to say. The very same Bible gives a stark account of how God treats this type of behaviour. The Church need look no further than to the example that the Bible gives: the exceptionalism of the Israelites in the Old Testament and in Jesus’ own days. The leadership of God’s people (kings and priests) thought that God would continue to bless them no matter what. “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord!” (Jeremiah 7:4) was a vain attempt to justify their vain religion. Not once but twice was the Temple destroyed, and with it the cultic priesthood, a reminder that for God there are no sacred cows, nor does God support idolatry, even if it is a religion. Judaism moved on but was thoroughly transformed in the process. When one looks at our history, particularly the two major schisms, with the East first, and within the Western church later, I really have to ask myself what shape will a so-called revolution take if those in the upper echelons of our Church fail to read the mood of their membership. Ecclesia semper reformanda is as pertinent today as ever.


Image by Spartacus007 via Flickr

Suggested reading:

From Inquisition to Freedom:Seven Prominent Catholics and Their Struggle With the Varican (Paul Collins, editor)

The Silence of Sodom: Homosexuality in Modern Catholicism (Mark D Jordan)

Gay Catholic Priests And Clerical Sexual Misconduct: Breaking The Silence (Donald L Boisvert & Robert E Goss, editors)

Vows of Silence: The Abuse of Power in the Papacy of John Paul II (Jason Berry & Gerald Renner)

Why the Catholic Church Needs Vatican III (T P O’Mahony)

Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes (Eamonn Duffy)

Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church (Bishop Geoffrey Robinson)

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