Lay Clericalism and Clerical Laicism

by Alan Fimister

There has been much confusion and some argument (at least implied) during the present crisis as to whether clericalism or homosexuality lies behind the grotesque abuses and crimes that have come to light. It is apparently assumed that ‘clericalism’ is the ‘liberal’ answer and ‘homosexuality’ the ‘conservative’ one. I cannot speak for conservatives as I am an orthodox Catholic and not a conservative.  Orthodox Catholics have no stake in defending clericalism, although conservatives might. ‘Conservatives’ in modern parlance are merely right-wing liberals, and clericalism is most comfortable with liberalism. For why should I care what a liberal priest has to say? If he does not represent two thousand years of unbroken apostolic tradition then he is just a perjured middle-aged man in whose opinions I have no interest. For the opinions of a liberal cleric to be of any significance, the clergy must be infused with an idolatrous authority as oracles of the ever changing pantheos. Liberalism within the Church needs clericalism to survive. It is the air it breathes.

There is indeed a sense in which ‘clericalism’ makes the Church vulnerable to paedophile rings that use a falsely understood authority as a cover for their crimes. Such rings have exploited both liberal clericalists who disapprove of clerical celibacy and accept homosexuality and are willing to overlook abuse to maintain the reputation of their faction, and also conservative clericalists who are willing to cover things up for the sake of the prestige of the clergy. Such paedophile rings tend to favour modernism, because it is easier for non-believers to simulate but also include among their adherents clerics who have chosen to adopt conservatism as a career strategy. A necessary condition to overcoming the crisis is therefore a return to a proper understanding of the clergy, in their dependence on tradition, and a proper understanding of the laity as the part of the Church charged with the wielding of the temporal sword. In other words, a return to integralism.

And yet, it is often asserted that the (dogmatically mandatory and definitively anti-liberal) desire to fulfil the ‘moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ’ (integralism) is an expression of clericalism. This is exactly the opposite of the case. The mediaeval doctrine of the ‘two swords’ precisely holds that the clergy are forbidden (save in necessity) to wield temporal power. For while both swords belong to Peter he is forbidden to use the temporal sword (see: John 18:11). As that incorrigible old liberal Acton observed ‘power tends to corrupt’ and so as St Gelasius explains:

Christ, mindful of human frailty, regulated with an excellent disposition what pertained to the salvation of his people. Thus he distinguished between the offices of both powers according to their own proper activities and separate dignities, wanting his people to be saved by healthful humility and not carried away again by human pride, so that Christian emperors would need priests for attaining eternal life, and priests would avail themselves of imperial regulations in the conduct of temporal affairs.

The sphere of the temporal, the sphere of the laity, is the sphere of indifferent matters. Consequently, the clergy like the modern international human rights tribunals (phantom limbs of the mediaeval papacy) may intervene in the temporal only ratione peccati, only when the temporal strays from its sphere into conflict with natural or divine law. The acceptance of the separation of church and state by the clergy is in effect the abolition of the lay vocation. And this abolition has fueled, paradoxically, a version of clericalism:  The attempt to turn the laity into little clerics ‘ministers of holy communion’, ‘greeters’ etc. is a pathetic attempt to find a place for them on the fringes of the clerical order which the laicist cleric now identifies with the Church herself. Conversely, the clergy pontificate about technical and indifferent questions of the temporal order. It is a form of simony, the oldest of all heresies, insinuating a false proportion between the natural and the supernatural (a blasphemous doctrine well expressed by the sin of sodom). The laity must attend to temporal matters lest the suspicion arise that the clergy seek the care of spiritual things for sake of temporal goods. As Vatican II says “the effort to infuse a Christian spirit into the mentality, customs, laws, and structures of the community in which one lives, is so much the duty and responsibility of the laity that it can never be performed properly by others.” The laity therefore should not abrogate their proper role and part in directing the temporal toward the supernatural.

It is not part of the doctrine of integralism that the clergy wield the temporal sword. In fact, this is a departure from the norm according to the pure doctrine as solemnly expressed in Unam Sanctam. It is, rather, precisely the separation of Church and state which encourages the insolent depravity of so many contemporary priests and bishops. Although liberalism gives lip-service to the truth that the church cannot be reduced to clerics (‘we are church’), it actually requires that reduction (for liberalism can give no other reason to care what the clerics have to say), and further requires that the temporal and supernatural orders be severed. This idea that the clergy are the Church discourages the laity from taking responsibility for the Church’s actions and reputation and from scrutinising the clergy as they should, as (potentially unworthy) servants of Christ’s faithful. So deeply embedded is this idea – that the clergy are the church – that one hears it constantly in the way ordinary Catholics talk. They often say ‘the church has done’ or ‘the church says’ this or that, when it is merely this or that cleric who has done it or said it. I might say ‘the United Kingdom is leaving the European Union’ but I would never say ‘the UK just smiled at me as it handed me my passport back’ because I understand the passport official is merely a servant of the United Kingdom and only acts on its behalf insofar as he acts in direct pursuance of his legal duties. That is because I think of myself as (no less than the passport official) a member and citizen of this realm.

Clericalism and the separation of Church and state go hand in hand. The Church is thought of by the clericalist layman as external to himself, as a body from which he receives services and instructions but of which he is not an integral part and thus, insufficiently identifying himself with the ecclesiastical body, he exaggeratedly identifies the cleric with it and gives the clergy the loyalty that belongs only to the One who is King of both. When he is betrayed he consequently feels tempted to renounce his loyalty to Christ and His Church.

As so often the Rzeczpospolita forces us to think outside of the bubble of Anglo-French history and culture. A Polish friend of mine once argued to me (after a bishop there suffered some disgrace) that this was the difference between scandal and the reaction to it in Poland and Ireland. For the Pole a clerical scandal is a sign that ‘we’ have failed to keep an eye on things and operate reasonably and correctly, for the Irishman a clerical scandal is a sign ‘the Church’ has let him down.

R. W. Southern famously asserted that ‘The identification of the church with the whole of organized society is the fundamental feature which distinguishes the Middle Ages from earlier and later periods of history’. This identification is the temporal state to which the Church Militant must constantly tend in virtue of the Lord’s own commission to ‘make disciples of all nations’. If it is obscured, the identity of the Church herself is concealed and her eternal mission gravely impeded.

The de facto abandonment of integralism has not empowered the laity; it has infantilised them and corrupted the clerical order.

Header Image: Dante speaks to the upside-down figure of Pope Nicholas III among the Simoniacs (Source).