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The role of clericalism in the current crisis

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, in recent remarks, was right in what he affirmed with respect to the crisis. But I think he was wrong in what he denied.

Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput smiles during an address at the Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, Ohio, March 27, 2019. (CNS photo/courtesy Pontifical College Josephinum)

The Archbishop of Philadelphia, Charles J. Chaput, recently delivered remarks that focused on the leadership crisis in the Church. The churchman — a leader widely respected and admired for good reason — was right in what he affirmed with respect to the crisis. He was wrong in what he denied.

Archbishop Chaput gave the Pio Laghi Lecture at the Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, Ohio, on March 27th. Titled “Facing the Future with Hope and Joy”, Archbishop Chaput’s remarks were a powerful testimony, and dead-on right in everything they affirmed.

They were a clarion call.

“In 2019, even the simplest acts of faith, such as setting time aside on Sunday morning to worship the Lord, are more and more obviously contra mundum, against the world,” Archbishop Chaput said, and that’s right. “This means our faith is now more costly, but also more visible, and thus more powerful.” That is true, too, even and especially in places like the United States and most of the developed world, where we are yet free and at ease.

His call for fearlessness in facing the process of institutional harrowing that the crisis of leadership is accelerating, but not causing, was hard and heady. “[F]or committed believers it’s an exhilarating time, too, because we’re being pushed back onto the foundations of our faith, the enduring sources of truth and life,” he said, right again. “We still need budgets, and we can’t escape meetings. The Church was instituted by Christ, which means she’s an institution, a living body of the faithful ordered toward worship of God and service in the world.”

“But in this time of sifting,” Archbishop Chaput continued, “a great deal of dead weight is being stripped away. We’re being driven closer to the one, simple truth from which the Church draws her purpose and strength: God incarnate in Christ, the author of our salvation and life eternal.”

Archbishop Chaput was right again when he frankly acknowledged that anger is an appropriate, healthy, and necessary response to the state of the Church in the present, especially insofar as her clerical and hierarchical leadership culture is concerned.

“[M]uch of the anger in the Church today is righteous and healthy,” he said. “As Pope Francis said just last month, ‘[I]n people’s justified anger, the Church sees the reflection of the wrath of God, betrayed and insulted’ by deceitful clergy and religious.” He went on to say we need that anger, only we need to channel it properly. “What we do with that anger, though, determines whether it becomes a medicine or a poison.”

Archbishop Chaput missed the mark, however, when he denied that clericalism is at the heart of the crisis facing the Church. “Clerical privilege is not the problem,” he said. “Clericalism may be a factor in the sexual abuse of minors, but no parent I know – and I hear from a lot of them – sees that as the main issue.” That misses the point, which is not that “clericalism” makes men abuse children, but that the culture of clerical privilege is a driver of corruption and rot.

Archbishop Chaput went on to say, “Not naming the real problem for what it is, a pattern of predatory homosexuality and a failure to weed that out from Church life, is an act of self-delusion.” Now, some 80% of reported abuse cases in the United States involving legal minors were ones in which a cleric assaulted or molested a pubescent or post-pubescent male. Only willful obtuseness can keep one from seeing the connection.

Still, predatory homosexuality does not account for the rape of women religious, or for the systematic coverup of all manner of abuse, or for the appalling silence of bishops and priests in the face of the paralysis and moral bankruptcy in Church leadership corporately considered.

In a piece for the Catholic Herald last summer, I argued that there would still be a crisis of moral culture in the clergy almost as bad as the one we have now, even if we discovered all the perverts and expelled them from the clerical state, and caught all the abusers and threw them into jail. The reason is that:

[T]he motor of the clerical culture we have right now – and this is true across the board, top to bottom, without respect to ideological leanings or theological inclination – is the intrinsically perverse libido dominandi (will to power), rather than a perversion of the libido coeundi (sex drive). The former makes use of the latter, and the latter is often a consequence of the former. But the only way men given over to the latter gain any power or place in any society is by addiction to and direction of the former. Therefore the underlying problem is power.

Whether motivated by cowardice or cravenness or culpable blindness, clerics unwilling publicly to denounce not only the abuse of minors, but every kind of moral turpitude in the clerical ranks, are complicit — knowingly or otherwise — in perpetuating the culture that has brought us to this point of crisis.

Real, lasting renewal requires cultural transformation — and that requires personal conversion — and that requires institutional reform. Law follows culture, but law also drives culture. Hard though it is to hear, the perverse lifestyles of too many clerics — high and low — are only a major symptom of the disease. They are not the true root cause of our affliction. The Church’s leadership culture is warped: bent to the preservation of power.

Archbishop Chaput was right when he said, “This is a moment of privilege and opportunity, not defeat.  Reverence for the past is a good thing, but clinging to structures and assumptions that no longer have life is not.”

We need to work together — all of us, of every age and sex and state of life in the Church — to reform our institutions so that they help us get men in leadership who are resistant to the constant and inevitable blandishments and allure of power, and keep men given over to those blandishments and that allure from doing too much damage when, as must happen, they do get into powerful positions.

Archbishop Chaput was right again when he said in conclusion:

We’ve been given the gift of being part of God’s work to rebuild — and build better — the witness of his Church in the world.  So let’s pray for each other, and thank God for each other; and lift up our hearts to pursue the mission, and create the future, that God intends.

(The opinions expressed in this essay are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the CWR editors or of any Ignatius Press staff.)

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About Christopher R. Altieri 245 Articles
Christopher R. Altieri is a journalist, editor and author of three books, including Reading the News Without Losing Your Faith (Catholic Truth Society, 2021). He is contributing editor to Catholic World Report.


  1. Cardinal Chaput and Altieri are both right. But wait, there’s more…
    Clericalism is the problem (Altieri), but so too is lust, and especially infiltration by the homosexual culture (Chaput). But all of us are also missing the point when we speak of a “crisis”—an academic and graspable concept inspired by the historian Toynbee.

    The novelty and the “issue” is one of unadulterated (so to speak) treachery. Consider this from St. Augustine:

    “But to return to the word ‘lust’. As lust for revenge is called anger, so lust for money is avarice, lust to win at any price is obstinacy, lust for bragging is vanity. And there are still many other kinds of lust, some with names and some without. For example, it would be difficult to find a specific name for that lust for domination (City of God, Book XIV, Ch. 15).

    Difficult to find a specific name? To compartmentalize lust as “clericalism” is the epitome of clericalism! Domineering clericalism is simply a breed of lust (6th and 9th Commandment)—and a capital sin with its tentacles (testicles?) in all the others.
    Why exclude all the other commandments (?): idolatry for sure (1st), and sacrilegious reception of the sacraments (2nd), probably swearing falsely (3rd), then slandering of the victims (the 8th), PTSD destruction of lives with some suicides, plus lying to oneself about the meaning of “celibacy” (5th), the aligned secular redefinition of the “family” and “marriage” (4th), oh yes, lost/stolen innocence (7th)…and, again, the 9th: “Thou shall not covet your neighbor’s wife or his…ass (!)…” (Exodus 20:17)!

    Finally, it is said from on high that sexual sins are not the worst of the litter. Probably true theologically and even practically and culpably, but what then of Our Lady of Fatima who at the eye-to-eye level warned that “more souls go to hell over sins of the flesh than any other.”

    Oh what a tangled web we weave…

    • Chaput is not a Cardinal and with 5 months and 22 days until he submits his mandatory resignation – which will likely be accepted by the Peronist Pontiff on the very same day – he never will be.

  2. In therapeutic use of self (psychiatric care/psychological counseling), a “why” question is considered non-therapeutic…and yet we ask “why” so often (we think we sound more sophisticated, insightful, even “more Christian”)…and yes, we ask “why” so often in the midst of the scandal in the Church.

    What’s to “understand?” I have stopped asking “why.” Very suddenly, starting today? I have no need for analysis. Something has come over me, as they say. I no longer care to debate whether “clericalism” or homosexuality in the clergy is at fault or someone’s lousy prayer life or the Devil. By God’s Grace, no more asking “why” for me here.

    I will recall the words every day so forgotten by the world and our own Church and yes by myself: (Matt.16:26) “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world but lose his very soul.”

    I have arrived at one answer to “why”: I encourage any and all victims of abuse and their families to go directly to the civil authorities…and to report attempts at abuse as well… directly to the civil authorities, directly to law enforcement.

    St. Michael the Archangel, pray for us.

  3. Hey guys! Let’s not get to analytical about this. I think the solution is much more simple than the article and the above comments suggest. One, we must root out active homosexuality beginning with the seminaries and working our way up. Any candidate with the least inclination toward homosexuality is NOT fit for the priesthood. Period. Two, but along with that, what ever happened to humility? persons in positions of authority has been “throwing their weight around” since there has been institutions. Call this “throwing their weight around” what you will. When it comes down to it a humble person learns to avoid such behavior. Humility is a virtue we all need to pray for and pray for hard! No humility, no holiness, no holiness, no holiness no Heaven. Humility must be taught in the seminaries and VALUED by those in the Church making decisions concerning who get what position. The most treasured attribute of a priest, I think, is humility. You can see it in their actions and hear it in their homilies.

    • Amen to that! When the word of God fills the homily, I see humility and obedience in the homilist. So blessed to have met many priests in my life with those qualities.

    • Exactly. The humble priest studies the Word of God and explains the Word to his parishioners. The humble priest celebrates Mass knowing that the heavenly court is manifest and conducts himself accordingly. The humble priest charitably leads the faithful toward the heavenly home by guiding them along the narrow path.

  4. It is (as others comments have leaned toward) a poison cocktail of both idolatry (clericalism) and unchastity (including homosexual acts, adultery and fornication…the latter 2 amply represented by the appalling fraud Bishop Kieran Conroy If England).

    And so – both problems must be dealt with.

    And boldly called out, condemned and attacked incessantly. It is a constant war…it will never end…until Christ The Judge comes in the Day of Wrath.

    However, I do think that Chris Altieri is putting his finger on priorities, and hence the need for a 2-pronged approach which realizes which sins rule the others.

    Here is why: the Commandments put our behavior toward God first, and our behavior toward our fellow man second. This is also echoed in Jesus’ affirmation of the Great Commandment.

    Thus, it seems that it follows that the lust for power (the idolatry of clericalism) must be the most powerful evil, as it is the offense against the First and Greatest Commandment. And the sexually corrupt cult of unchastity (the McCarrick Establishment’s “spirit of Vatican II”) is the slave and poison ladled out by the idolators of “the Spirit of Vatican II.”

    To fight and defeat both together is a necessity, but to win a fight, we must know our enemy. I believe that Mr. Altieri is on balance offering the more complete understanding.

    Let us remember that the unrepentant power-player Ex-Cardinal
    McCarrick lived out both sins, and the former is what so long enabled his brazen abusiveness in the latter.
    Let us defeat this evil, in the name of Christ The King, who died to save us from our slavery to sin, and having risen from the dead, commands us to fight against the Gates of Hell, and bash them open.

  5. Paint it any color you want. Excuse and explain it any way you want. Study it all you want. But the bottom line is a) the clerics used their position and power to sinful advantage, and b) other clerics used their positions to cover-up the crimes and transfer the culprits.

    That makes it systemic and systematic. With the Pope not using his authority to oust every last one of the accused, then the conclusion is that the institution is simply playing the long-game — wait it out, let time pass, we’ll continue as we have for decades and centuries.

    • Jake suggests, on the 4th Aril, that the Pope should oust every one of the accused clerics. Well.. that means that all the accused men are assumed guilty simply by being accused. Sounds to me like Jake has channeled his anger the wrong way. Because his anger is not good medicine, it won’t heal. But it would create a standard in which everybody is assumed guilty, simply by being accused. That’s a toxic brew, which would only make things worse.

  6. Here’s the deal. Simplistic as it may be from my perch out here on the farm. Lack of conscience and refusal to avoid sin, whether homosexuality, abusing little boys or whatever, If you are a Catholic cleric or studying to be one you shouldn’t have to have millions of blathering words about anything sexual.For eon’s of time this sin has affected our beautiful faith and I’m sick of hearing about it. This is why our church is being persecuted, prosecuted, and putrified. From the top down? KNOCK IT OFF! Observe your vows or get out. “Get thee behind me Satan!”

  7. “His call for fearlessness in facing the process of institutional harrowing that the crisis of leadership is accelerating, but not causing, was hard and heady. “[F]or committed believers it’s an exhilarating time, too, because we’re being pushed back onto the foundations of our faith, the enduring sources of truth and life,…”

    That’s like saying “We’re being overrun! But look at the bright side, it’s a target rich environment!

    “Much of the anger in the Church today is righteous and healthy,…”
    “…only we need to channel it properly. “What we do with that anger, though, determines whether it becomes a medicine or a poison.”

    Begs the practical question, just what is the rank and file lay Catholic supposed to do, but pray? What can I do practically speaking to effect change? Storm the Archbishop’s office? To what end? The most power that I wield is as an usher at Latin Mass. As it is I am having a devil of a time just trying to have the Extraordinary Form celebrated at my home/childhood parish, so far with zero success.

    Please, Church leaders, stop telling us to do something when you know good and well that you all hold ALL of the power and the laity hold absolutely none. If ever “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” applied it is within the ordained leadership of the Catholic Church.

    Obviously I am angry (and without apology I will add) but what frustrates me the most is that I have yet to find a way, a practical temporal way that I can effect change. I am not part of the problem so in that regard I am not part of the solution. I am a sinner in need of forgiveness but I NEVER abused my position or power as an officer of United States Marines. Much of my anger and disgust is based upon witnessing the abuse of office that characterizes this whole “clericalism” disaster.

    In all sincerity I issue an open question to the clergy and I beg an answer: Just what do you propose that the laity do with our anger? Just what do you expect us to do, temporally speaking? How exactly am I to channel my anger properly? Pray, answer me.

    • Excellent question Joseph M.

      Being a retired military officer, and having spent 25 years obeying and being obeyed, I feel the same anger.

      And I regard every single solitary Bishop and Cardinal with suspicion FIRST, and will not relent in that suspicion, without the rarely displayed episcopal witness to Christ My King. Archbishop Chaput has my trust, and the minority of Bishops who are like him.

      The rest have only my prayers, and my unrelenting opposition to every act and word they do and say.

  8. Archbishop Chaput was correct in regard to the role of homosexuality in origin of the sexual abuse crisis.

    The response to the sexual crisis, with McCarrick as but one of many examples, has been profoundly weak and disappointing because of the refusal to recognize the scientific findings that clearly identify homosexuality in priests as a leading factor in the crisis.

    The attempt of priests, bishops and cardinals to blame the sexual abuse crisis on clericalism is an effort to coverup the real cause of the crisis, that is, the homosexual abuse of adolescent males by narcissistic clergy.

    Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the prefect emeritus of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith responded to the clericalism theory in a recent interview. He stated, “The large majority of such abuses are not due to the sacrament of holy orders, but to sexual incontinence, a false understanding of sexuality, not respecting the Sixth Commandment.

    In response to the failure of Church leaders to identify homosexuality as a factor, he responded:
    “I think they don’t want to confront the true reasons for sexual abuse of minors, of boys and young men, and want to make their own agenda. They’re against celibacy, against the Sixth Commandment, and therefore they instrumentalize abuse and this terrible situation for their own agenda.”

  9. Whatever Catholics would like to attribute the causes to, why not ask practising homosexual priests to leave gracefully….

  10. It seems that commentary regarding the cause of the abuse scandal in the Church ping-pongs between clericalism and homosexuality. But, to paraphrase Scripture, the causes are legion.

    Certainly clericalism plays a role, but under several guises. One is the abuse of power, in the same sense as when an older family member abuses his or her power to harm a child. The abuse lies in the misuse of the relationship itself, taking advantage of the natural respect and deference a child gives to a parent, uncle, aunt, priest, etc.

    The abuse of privilege is another aspect of clericalism: the access to children afforded to parents, relatives, and members of the clergy becomes a doorway to abuse for those who want to manipulate the child.

    One could include an abuse of opportunity as well. The amount of unscheduled time – subject to very little, if any, supervision – that priests have is more than most other vocations. It’s supposed to be used for service, to be available at a moment’s notice to a dying parishioner or a desperate penitent. Yet a priest, if he wants to, can avoid the duties and responsibilities of his ministry, and he will not be checked. Novelists like J. F. Powers have memorialized the priest who drinks and watches tv all day. A priest bent on harming children can use such “free” time horrendously.

    Underlying all aspects of clericalism is a deeply-embedded cultural attitude within the Church: that a priest (bishop, pope) is different and holier than ordinary men and women. Nothing could be further from the truth. The priest is set aside for service to the people, and he certainly deserves respect and appropriate deference for his role. But he is also a fellow sinner, a man among men. Yet clergy and laity alike have willingly placed the priest on a pedestal. Clergy do so because they like “seats of honor” and “greetings in the public square.” Laity do so because they feel it absolves them from making effort in the way of holiness: “I’m not a priest; I can’t be expected to follow Jesus so closely.”

    The scandal exposes the lie of clericalism, but clericalsim alone is not the cause of the scandal. After all, a priest (or bishop) who thinks the church checking account is his to use or who changes Mass times to fit his personal schedule rather than the people’s is also guilty of clericalism.

    Other factors contributed to the scandal as well. Acting on homosexual attraction played a part in many of the abuse cases that have come to light. This does not mean that homosexuals, ipso facto, are abusers or that homosexuality alone is the cause, but the all-male priesthood and its access to male children provided a perfect environment for those priests who acted on their attractions.

    Other more personal factors have yet to be explored fully. For example, can we learn from the childhood experiences of priest abusers themselves? There seems to be some connection between childhood trauma and the abuse a priest commits. The trauma a priest suffered in his own childhood includes not only sexual abuse but also violence or parental neglect.

    In the ongoing debate, as it’s being played out in public at least, there seems to be a rush to name a single cause, and it doesn’t help that most proponents fall into one or the other of the old, ideological camps. Conservatives blame homosexuality, as if the Church culture in general has no part to play. And liberals want to remove homosexuality from the debate, as if the abuse springs from clericalism alone. No one seems to think that perhaps the entire Church culture needs a thorough cleansing.

    One thing is certain: the polarization we have now is not going to help. Victim groups have called for less words and more actions. Who can blame them? One action headed in the right direction is to reject all scapegoating. The scandal came about through many wrongs, personal and institutional. The response needs to be just as multifaceted: discovering and understanding all causes of abuse; protecting children; transforming Church culture; following Jesus. Good and healthy debate also can be part of the response, but real transformation comes from immediate and ongoing correction.

  11. Without going back to the New Testament emphasis of the Holy Spirit in the epistles, there is no solution to the lust problem, whatever form it takes. The fruit of the Spirit contains the peace and strength to deal with lust (Galatians 5:22-23). The Church misses this by emphasizing other things that will not solve the problem; and are not their purpose.

  12. I don’t disagree with the comments that a great portion of the solution is to rid the church of sexually active priests who engage in acts of sodomy, which is a human behavior, not an identity. Sodomy is the behavior that is cited in all traditional church documents and the Scripture as an offense to God. Disguising sodomy a “right” rather than as what it truly is, namely rape, keeps society and the church constantly on the defensive to demonstrate why rape is not a right of the few privileged within the church and culture because of an identity. I agree with the comments that those who advocate for same-sex behaviors classically viewed as rape are committed by selfish narcissistic priests and this evidence shows up in the pageantry at mass, and endless homilies about the life of the priest rather than the life of Christ, not to mention the self-serving advocating for all homosexual “rights” within the culture and the church. Everyone is tired of it.

    That said, what are we going to replace these narcissistic, self-centered, priests who insist on the right to sexually impose beliefs and behaviors on the laity as a “right” due to their privileged identity with?

    Have we all forgotten what a truly humble and prayerful cleric looks like? The Dominican priest in my parish dresses in the classical white robe tied with a rosary bead, goes barefoot year-round, leads prayer opportunities, opens the church to adoration, hosts the largest meal to the homeless in the city, spends hours two or three days a week in the confessional two or three hours at a time, hosts lay-lead enrichment theology courses, spends hours taking communion to the local hospitals and nursing homes for the sick and dying, often strangers. The lay-lead rosary has gone from 5 people reciting it once a week, to daily recitation with over 50 people participating at the end of each daily mass. The homilies preached are rich, truthful, and focused on Christ and how to live a holy life. He has made the Christian experience a thirst that can only be quench by being united with Christ, now and forever. Since being a pastor for only three years, the parish has doubled in size. In the midst of all the confusion within the greater church, saints walk among us and this Dominican priest is modeling this. But, it seems to being found in a return to the traditional Catholicism of another era, when prayer and disciplines (fasting) were the order of the day.

    Until we as laity begin to follow the saints among us, and until we adopt the behaviors we so crave, the church cannot and will not change. God is still with us and will help us meet this challenge to join the “communion of saints.”

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