The Tragedy of Neo-Clericalism

The Tragedy of Neo-Clericalism

By John Mallon

Michael H. Brown, a journalist whose books on Marian apparitions are widely popular in the contemporary Marian movement, unearthed an interview given by Sister Lucia, the surviving seer of Fatima, to a Father Augustine Fuentes on December 26, 1957.  Brown reports that in the course of this interview Sister Lucia told Father Fuentes that the devil "was especially after those planning on entering the priesthood.  He was making them delay or cancel their entrance into the religious vocation, while among the laypeople Satan was removing all enthusiasm for sacrifices and dedication to God." (The Final Hour; by Michael H. Brown, 1992, Faith Publishing Co., Milford, OH; p. 107)

If this statement is accurate, it refers to the generation of clergy ordained in the early 1960s or during the Second Vatican Council, a generation of clergy which was to see widespread dissent among the ranks and large scale defections from the priesthood in the years following the Council.  Those who stayed are now middle aged (and older) priests, and some are bishops.

While these men were being ordained, John Kennedy was in the White House signaling the long hoped for assimilation of Catholics into American society.  It was a heady time to be young, American and Catholic.  I recall this generation of seminarians from my boyhood when my mother worked at a Benedictine monastery which functioned as a Latin School for young men going on to the seminary.  I recall her coming home from work shocked one day around the time Pope John XXIII called for the Council because she heard some of the seminarians rejoicing with exclamations like, "Oh, boy!  Now we'll be able to get married!"  It was to be only one of many unfounded hopes many of this generation presumed would be fulfilled by the Council.

The Kennedy years sadly ended in Dallas, and in the years that followed social activism was to become the business of the young, including young priests and religious.  Everything that went before was to be overturned, because this was a new generation.  But as time wore on through the 60s the generation of young priests and religious were to be largely sheltered from an aspect of the 60s from which their secular brethren were not, an aspect which was the natural end of the ideology driving the 60s generation: sex, drugs and Rock 'n' Roll.  

The young priests and religious were protected by rectory life, convent life, and monastic life from going over the cliff of intoxication and debauchery as many of their secular counterparts did.  Instead, they were left on the precipice of idealism—adhering to the ideology but not having drunk it to the dregs.  This is not to say that some priests and nuns did not "catch up" with various forms of so-called "liberation" and radicalism, but they did so at a time when their secular peers were emerging from what they came to recognize as youthful excesses.

G. K. Chesterton is widely quoted as saying, "He who marries the spirit of the age becomes a widower in the next."  In the 1990s it is hard to imagine a more poignant—if not pathetic—illustration of this principle than the middle-aged-plus "liberal" priest clinging to the 60s dream.  Simply put, most ordinary people recognize that the 60s "vision" or "dream" has failed.  One of its chief credentials, youthfulness, has long since faded.  Yet, many liberal priests of this generation refuse to acknowledge it.  This blatant refusal could be likened to the way an old man refuses to accept that he is no longer young and dresses and acts in a way that makes other people embarrassed for him.  

Obviously, this does not apply to all priests of this generation.  Many work diligently, quietly and humbly simply taking care of their people and are happy doing it.  But the man I am describing has undeniably come to represent a recognizable type in the Church in the United States.

Had vocation statistics remained constant, there would be ample numbers of younger clergy to chuckle at the "old priests" who grumble about how things were in the old days as countless generations of young clergy have done before them.  But the numbers did not remain constant, and, without this balance, we find middle-aged-plus clergy still attempting to impose 60s progressivism on congregations who simply don't want it.  It is a sad sight.  The man preaching "relevance" has become irrelevant.  He did not notice that while he was doggedly trying to "drag the Church kicking and screaming into the 20th century," the Church, under the ever youthful leadership of John Paul II had leapfrogged over him into the new millennium.  To be a "progressive" in the 60s sense today is not to be progressive at all.  It is to be an anachronism.  The vague sense of this irrelevance—while refusing to acknowledge it—is a form of denial, the tension of which can lead to pastoral abuses.  "Relevance" in this context is akin to tolerance.  Some priests are willing to tolerate anything in their parishes except orthodoxy.  A priest who has countenanced all manner of liturgical silliness will positively bristle at the mere mention of a Tridintine Mass being held in the diocese, indult or no indult.  The intolerance practiced by the liberal clergy has become breathtaking, and is more and more expressed in open hostility.

Young couples seeking to learn about Natural Family Planning get barked at by the aging progressive who is still proud—and will not let go—of his dissent from Humanae Vitae, despite hard evidence of the effectiveness of NFP and the dangers of artificial birth control.  Parishioners—usually younger than he—objecting to liturgical abuses get verbally lashed or ridiculed for daring to speak out.  Those preferring to receive Holy Communion on the tongue are derided as thinking they are holier than everybody else.  Sarcasm with parishioners has become commonplace: "That all depends on what you mean by traditional..."  

Ordinarily, these kinds of outbursts which can be traumatic to a parishioner, could be written off as Father having a bad day, and not worth mentioning, were it not that these reports are becoming more and more commonplace—as those of orthodox belief and practice across the nation who observe and compare notes on Church trends can testify.  It is epidemic.

The priest caught in this cycle may be a "control freak."  Obsessed with control, he needs to head every diocesan committee, form new committees and boards, vote on the priests' council, chair every meeting, and block the bishop at every turn when it comes to any organized attempt at implementing orthodoxy, ready to shoot the messenger of anyone in favor of it.  This priest is now a "mega-priest" with a plum parish, and his involvement in feverish bureaucratic activity trying to run the diocese, including the bishop, occurs at the expense of his people.  This is neo-clericalism.

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger offers some insight into the academic history which contributed to this ironic situation in his book, Called to Communion (Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 1996).  Ratzinger offers a brief aerial view of Biblical exegesis in the 20th century.  Describing the ideological landscape of the period which he calls "the neoliberal world of the West," he says we see "a revamping of the old framework which breaks up the Old Testament into priests and prophets ... in this view, [there are] priests, cult, institution and law, on the one hand, and prophecy, charism and creative freedom, on the other.  In this view, priests, cult and institution appear as negative factors that must be overcome.  Jesus, on the other hand, supposedly stands in the prophetic line and fulfills it in antithesis to the priesthood, which is said to have done away with him as it had the prophets."  We saw this view put into practice in the early 70s when the priests doffed their clerical clothing and wanted to be called by their first names instead of "Father," and, when clerical attire was required, a sport coat of varying shade or pattern replaced the traditional black suit, thus marking his individuality and distinctiveness from the "institution."  He wished to be seen as "prophet" not priest.

Ratzinger goes on to demonstrate how "this new version of liberalism was quite susceptible to being a Marxist-oriented interpretation of the Bible.  The opposition between priests and prophets became a cipher for the class struggle, which is taken to be the law of history."  Ratzinger then describes the ecclesiological ramifications of this view: "it is fitted into the dialectical framework already set up by the division of the Bible into priests and prophets, which is then conflated with a corresponding distinction between institution and people.  In accordance with this model, the 'popular Church' is pitted against the institutional or 'official Church'.  This 'popular Church' is ceaselessly born out of the people and in this way carries forward Jesus' cause: his struggle against institutions and their oppressive power for the sake of a new and free society that will be the 'Kingdom'."  Then Ratzinger identifies our problem.  The aerial view he has sketched shows us that "above all it makes evident that the chief exegetical models are borrowed from the thought pattern of the respective period.  Thus we get at the truth by extracting from the individual theories their element of contemporary ideology" (pp. 17-19; emphasis added).

Cardinal Lustiger of Paris summed it up very succinctly when he described the media play made by Bishop Jacques Galliot, removed from his diocese for his dissent, as an attempt to portray himself as a "little Jesus" against the "big bad wolf" of the Church.

Here we see the plight of the liberal priest in the 90s.  In a poetic twist, he has gone from being the self-styled prophet of his younger years aligning himself with "the people" against "the institution" into being the institutional man trying in a vain attempt to retain his identity as "prophet."  As time passed, however, the people were more and more aligning themselves with the two towering prophets of our time, Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger, who, far from being institutional figures as defined by the liberal/Marxist ideology, are speaking directly to the hearts of the people, while the liberal priest has become an institutional man at odds with the institution, awash in middle management bureaucracy still trying to play the prophet to times which have moved beyond him.  He has lost his identity.

As the three decades wore on, the ideology producing incessant but increasingly hollow rhetoric for "social justice" has been shown to have undeniable ties to Marxist thought.  The fall of Communism in 1989 signaled a crisis for the liberal American religious and clergy, the ramifications of which they have still not fully absorbed.  The theological heroes of the American Catholic Left, the Boff brothers and others—the pillars of liberation theology—the theology of fashion in the 80s—fell into discredit leaving the religious Left ideologically orphaned, or, to use Chesterton's phrase, widowed.

Having concentrated their entire careers on a this-worldly "social gospel," they are unprepared to meet the spiritual hunger of today's Catholic.  With this inadequacy we see a flight from spirituality.  The priest rushes out after daily Mass, curiously irritated when the prayer ladies of the parish ask him to stay and pray the rosary with them.  Don't they know about all the important meetings he has to go to?  Rather than patient guidance for their people concerning the spiritual realm, these priests will bitterly resent any talk of apparitions, spiritual gifts, or other spiritual phenomena, sharply rebuking or ridiculing parishioners involved with them rather than explaining the distinctions involved.  One wonders if they are able to offer such guidance.  This raises the life-or-death question for any priest: Does he pray?

The flight from spirituality—if it doesn't lead them to alcohol—or worse—can lead them to the flight into bureaucracy, and increasingly ugly ecclesiastical politics.  Their time is well spent, they feel, lobbying relentlessly—even ruthlessly—for the dismissal of an uppity lay employee in the chancery who is attracting people to orthodoxy.  Such lay employees, they will tell you, "are arrogant.  You can't work with them."  Getting rid of such people is far more important than listening to parishioners who annoy them with requests for adoration of the Blessed Sacrament—parishioners who may have been stirred up by such lay employees.  He is a "company man" but hostile to headquarters—in this case Rome.  

His hostility to Rome set in while he was trying to push the Church to "get with the times."  During this effort the liberal cleric became hopelessly stuck in the past. He reminisces about the good old days of the early 60s, and how the Church has gone wrong and "turned back the clock" by refusing to listen to him.  Perhaps most cruelly of all, he has become what he once hated.  The days when his generation mercilessly booted out the "old-fashioned priests" are now coming around to him in the cruel rhythm of life as the young view him and those like him as "60s leftovers," out of touch with John Paul II and the New Evangelization.  

Consequently, the Neo-clericalist despises Pope John Paul II and is confounded by his overwhelming appeal to the young.  He knows the Holy Father did an end run around him and won the hearts of the youth without consulting him—as collegiality demands.  He would have advised the pope that the youth don't want timeless moral truth—it turns them off—they want relevance.  The neo-clericalist fails to see that timeless moral truth is of the utmost relevance to today's youth, having grown up in the moral wreckage left to them by the 60s generation.  Clergy blind to see this still manage to consider themselves the vanguard—"the cutting edge"—but have been left in the backwash without realizing it.

That the Holy Father should win the over the youth precisely with orthodoxy is unfathomable to the neo-clericalist because religious liberalism has spent 35 years diluting and dismissing hard teachings to attract the youth.  It is typical of the generational conceit of the 60s generation to fail to recognize that at some point they were no longer the younger generation.  The youth born into the ruins left by the 60s generation were indeed sheep without a shepherd until John Paul II came to collect them. 

One tragedy—and terrible waste—of neo-clericalism is that if the energy spent on hatred for orthodoxy and attempting to block and silence its proponents were spent on proclaiming the Gospel and ministering to those who hunger for authentic Catholicism, lives and souls would be saved, seminaries would be full, as would our Masses on Sunday—and even weekdays.  The harvest has never been more ripe, but it will not be harvested with a rehash of what has been diluted, tried and failed in the mistakes of the last three decades.  Today's faithful laypeople know this from experience.  Only the Way, the Truth and the Life will bring in the sheaves.

Another tragedy of neo-clericalism involves the priest himself.  Someday he will have to give answer for what he has been doing all these years. No matter how he avoids the question, on some level, he must know something went wrong, because somewhere deep down under the layers of ideology, bureaucracy and anger there is a priest—a priest who was once a young man, the oils still fresh, fully intending to do the work of Jesus, and with dreams and hopes for a future of saving the world.  He also carried—and still carries—the very human and understandable hope of being loved by his people for doing so.  Liberalism, so seemingly innocent back then, seemed the way to build a new world and a new Church to go with it.  You can see these qualities in these once young men by looking through the photo archives of the early 60s in any American diocese.  Fresh-faced, toothy-smiled, well-scrubbed young men, barely out of adolescence, with the angular features of youth, shiny cheeks, flat-top crew-cuts and horn rimmed glasses.  Camelot seemed here to stay, and no one dreamed it would end so soon.  American middle class life was at its zenith and they all wanted to be assigned to the inner city to bring it up to speed.  Social justice was the great quest and Catholic piety and spirituality just seemed old fashioned. Vatican II, they thought, gave them permission to chuck it all.  The presumption was that things would only get better and better, but Camelot died and things went downhill fast, calling not for cheerful pert-young-liberal optimism but the virtue of Christian hope through the darkness that followed.  No one dreamed that in 30 years Western society would be almost completely at odds with much of what Christianity stands for as a result of that once-cheerful liberalism.

The young progressive priest of the 60s put his faith in the times. While demanding that the Church "move with the times" he neglected to do so himself, and the times became frozen for him rather than something fluid.  He has failed to notice that his Weltanschauung has become everybody else's memory.  He honestly thinks he must still rescue the Church from the dinosaurs of tradition but doesn't understand why they are younger than he is.  Where enthusiastic young people today are discovering and rediscovering the beauty and excitement of the Church and her teachings which have fired the hearts of the saints and martyrs, he sees only "old church," and is missing the New Spring, the New Pentecost, the true fruition of the Second Vatican Council.  Perhaps he has forgotten that it is not the Church that must be saved from itself by him, but he who must be saved from himself by his Saviour.

John Mallon is Contributing Editor of Inside the Vatican magazine and writes from Oklahoma City.