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Tradition as an antidote to liberalism and clerical abuse

Reflecting on a new book by Michel Camdessus and others entitled “Transformer L’Eglise Catholique” [Transforming the Catholic Church], Patrick Giddy explains how individualism fuels clericalism. A different approach to vocational discernment drawing on the traditions of the pre-modern Church — could stem some of the current ecclesial abuses.

Our liberal, enlightened culture prioritizes individual agency. Modern culture predicates human fulfillment on the freedom of each person to make decisions about their unique path in life. As Jesuit philosopher Bernard Lonergan puts it, there comes a time when individuals decide for themselves that they are going to decide for themselves. We encourage and celebrate this in our children. It is one of our society’s key values.

Yet there is a shadow side to this greater individualism: a loss of a sense of belonging to a community. In previous ages, identity was framed by social relations – as someone’s son, or brother, or daughter, or uncle, or member of a village or of a profession. Identity was largely formed by the influences and gifts that each person received and taking one’s place within that society was to assume that identity by shouldering duties and obligations. In this concept of identity, the “porous self” fuses with the identity of the community.

In previous ages, identity was framed by social relations.

This runs counter to the modern understanding of the “buffered self” in which all community-based influences become selective. Identity comes from within and the individual can choose to embrace or discard some or all aspects of membership to a community. Membership of society is seen as a contract, freely entered into, whereby the individual receives “rights”.

This is the “neo-liberal” model of society. Everyone has equal rights, so it is “just”. But the justice it expresses reveals a blindspot, namely that the whole set of social arrangements is founded on the need to consider the rights of all. This is nothing more than the idea of ubuntu, a pre-modern idea in which we are through others. The buffered self therefore is contained within the rubric of the equal rights of others, that is, the rules of the game, to which everyone is subject. This provides an oversight function to keep societies in check.

Notions of identity shape the approach to priestly vocation

In the case of the Catholic Church what we seem to have is a fusion of the pre-modern idea of how social arrangements are structured— hierarchically rather than democratically — and the modern idea of a subjectively motivated vocational path to priesthood. This gives rise to a deeply interior conviction of a calling which can place the individual in a position of (unquestioned!) power over others in the hierarchy. This is what Pope Francis has termed as “clericalism”, an unhealthy obsession with one’s own status in the Church.

Michel Camdessus and others argue that this is the origin of sex abuse cover-ups. There is a loss of any oversight function that regulates the rights of all the members within the ecclesial community.

A very different approach to vocations is outlined by Hervé Legrand, O.P., in an Appendix to the book. He argues that the problem of this dangerously unregulated power could be corrected by recognizing that we have lost something by abandoning traditional vocation theology as the call of God mediated by the call of the Church.

Throughout the first millennium, and well beyond that, individuals did not express the desire to join the priesthood. All the texts, including papal instructions, attest that vocation is conferred through the desire of the communities to ordain a particular Christian as their pastor, a desire that must always be respected, if necessary by force on the new ordinand.

Throughout the first millennium, and well beyond that, individuals did not express the desire to join the priesthood.

Thus St Léo prescribes to Anastasius of Thessalonica: “anyone who has to preside over everyone must be chosen by everyone,” and reminds the bishops of the province of Arles “that they do not ordain someone bishop, against the wishes of the Christians, and without them having expressly asked for him.”

In the early 20th century what becomes decisive, on the other hand, is that the individual has an intimate persuasion that he is called by God.  Pius XI now required the verification by an oath taken on the Holy Gospels. The candidate must swear to “spontaneously desiring and wanting ordination with full and complete freedom because I experience and I feel that I am really called by God”. 

The Code of Canon Law of 1983 constantly speaks about the candidates at ordination, even giving them a quasi-right to be ordained. This shift of emphasis is, however, contradicted by the rubric at ordination, where the first sentence addressed to the bishop is:  “Father, the holy Church asks you to ordain this person deacon/priest/bishop.”

This unprecedented innovation prioritizes the subjects and no longer the object or purpose of the ministry. It paralyzes the bishops’ duty to choose pastors where the need is evident. When “intimate persuasion” is lacking, the seminaries simply close, resulting in the current chronic shortage of clergy throughout the world. This requirement for ordination also discourages those who, according to the testimony of the faithful and members of the clergy, have the appropriate spiritual and human skills.

A different approach to discerning a vocational calling

We could find a balance by taking as the starting point of the sequence leading to ordination, not the process of an individual Christian, but the fact that the Church cannot do without pastors. Concretely, the local church is encouraged to think about the type of pastor it needs that best serves the Gospel and Church of God. The community then identifies people who live an exemplary Christian life and possess the skills required to become pastors. The onus is on the local Church to call these individuals to ministry.

The local church is encouraged to think about the type of pastor it needs that best serves the Gospel and Church of God.

The local Church stands to gain because it is no longer limited to a small pool of volunteers who feel that God is calling them to the priesthood. The future ordinands also benefit because they express their freedom — not by volunteering at the end of a complex process of introspection — but in consent to the call of other Christians who know them well and assure them of their support.

This may seem to appear Utopian but the model has already been proven through the success in reestablishing the permanent diaconate. Most of the dioceses in France, finding that there is some reluctance for candidates to come forward spontaneously, have set up procedures involving lay people, local clergy, and representatives of the bishop, to identify deacons by analysing local needs and identifying suitable candidates, whom they then call upon. Those people who until then had not felt themselves “to have a vocation,” understand that the call of the Church is the solid criterion of their vocation.

It would therefore be worthwhile to enrich the current practice in ways that are practical in today’s society. For example, priests could be married like deacons; because it would not be good that they were all retired, they would have a suitable economic status, working part-time and ministering part-time. It would also be wise for them to exercise their ministry in teams. They could also benefit from the continuing education that is necessary and easily accessible today.

If clergy were called in this way and exercised their ministry under the conditions envisaged, would not such priests be less inclined to clericalism?

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.

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Patrick Giddy
Patrick Giddy is a research associate in the School of Religion and Philosophy at UKZN, and a member of the Cape Town branch of We Are All Church SA. He studied philosophy at UCT and Stellenbosch, and theology with the Dominicans in Oxford. Previously he taught philosophy at the University of Lesotho.

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