Monday, February 4, 2013

An airing of concerns

This entry has absolutely nothing to do with hunting. I wrote the below entry in the wake of the Msgr. Wallin scandal breaking in the Diocese of Bridgeport. Compared to the open airing of the Church's documents in the Archdiocese of LA, that is small potatoes. However, more mistakes are being made, including right now in New Jersey, and the unhealthy root cause of these issues is not being addressed. The unhealthy root cause of the issue is the clerical culture of the Church, which is at this time dysfunctional, and the problem needs to be addressed with bravery and honesty. My words mean very little. In fact, they mean nothing. However, I feel many faithful Catholics are feeling this way, and we need the courage to say it.

Clericalism and Msgr. Wallin

The demands of an authentic and healthy love require us, when we see dysfunction in those we love, to speak out. Now, in the Church, is one of those times. Now in the society at large is one of those times. There are too many irresponsible voices, too much noise, and not enough discernment and careful thought. It is time for change.

The vast majority of the priests in this state (and everywhere) are amazing men. I in no way wish to cause them pain, and my concerns are not in any way about them.  My concern involves a problem bigger than us all.  This problem materialized most recently in the sad story of Msgr. Wallin in the Diocese of Bridgeport, but the problem has a history which stretches back to many cases of tragically ignored, denied, or hidden abuse of minors by priests. However, it is not just about sex abuse, which has been thankfully been tamped down. It is also about finances, and Church governance, and the role of the laity.

How could problems or hints of serious things amiss among our clergy be ignored, or if not ignored, somehow tragically mishandled, again?  And again? And again?

I believe that clericalism is at the core of our dysfunctional response to these challenges.

What is clericalism? Does it exist? Is it a problem? As lay people do we even have a right to think about it, let alone write about it?  Are we lay people a part of the problem, somehow unhealthily relating to and encouraging a dysfunctional ecclesial environment?

I think the answer to these questions is that yes, clericalism most certainly does exist. Yes, it is probably the greatest challenge facing the Church in the United States today. As lay people we participate in it and even thrive on it in a codependent and dysfunctional way, so we not only have a right, but a duty, to think about it, name it, and write about it. If we don't we will simply continue to see scandal heaped on scandal until the Church's message and witness to the culture becomes entirely irrelevant.

Let's begin with what clericalism is not. Clericalism is not the teaching authority of the Church, nor is it the role of bishops as successors to the apostles, nor is it the sacramental character of the Church. That authority is essential to a healthy Christian understanding of the world, and it centrally important to the functioning of the Church. We cannot do well in the world apart from the body of Christ, which is the Church. Neither is clericalism the notion that priests are changed by virtue of their ordination. Clericalism is not the male only priesthood, which is something the Popes have said is ordained by Christ and impossible to change.

The constant demands to change these things (which have been ongoing since 1400AD) have perhaps made the Church increasingly defensive. It may be this defensiveness that has given rise to the thing called clericalism that is doing such damage. In and of themselves however, clericalism they are not.

If the aforementioned characteristics of the Church are not clericalism, then what is?  Clericalism is the viewpoint that priests and clergy are the center of the Church, and everyone else is passively along for the ride, offering adoring and silent prayer support for our heroes. We laity are the disposable "bit players" in salvation history. The "real" Church is the priests.  Clericalism is the viewpoint that laity are not to think, question, write, ponder, or take action towards injustice when an injustice is perceived within the Church. Clericalism is the viewpoint that the laity are not fit to comment on or participate in parish finances, or make reasoned complaints when there is a legitimate reason to criticize. Perhaps most nefarious, clericalism is the viewpoint that priests and Bishops are essential, while laity are incidental, or even disposable.

This is not just a religious problem though, and we Catholics are not special. Clericalism's counterpart in the secular United States is the celebrity culture, which turns otherwise mature people into passive observers of other people's melodrama, taking sides and cheering from the sidelines. Secularists chose their own cults and their own tribes, with their own "plaster saints." This is not a religious problem, but a maturity problem. It is self evident to this observer that social media only exacerbates our collective codependence and celebrity worship, and makes it worse.

Yet, that cannot be an excuse.

The response of many in the Diocese of Bridgeport to the Msgr. Wallin scandal has been more of the same. We are told to pray about it. Move on. Nothing to see here. Isn't it sad? Support out priests! The poor man! All of this as if there is not a crying need for change and reform that seems so blatantly obvious to everyone except those most inside the Church.

The way that the diocese has responded to this situation is broken, and is indicative of a broken culture. It is a culture that is still broken, desperately so, and despite the scandals to rock our Church, there have been no meaningful cultural changes to the way we look at and think about the priesthood. Yes, there are new reporting procedures in place. As a Catholic father I feel my children are very safe at Church functions and with Church personnel. But as the case of Msgr. Wallin (and other situations) clearly shows, our reflecting on this topic has not gone deep enough, and the meaningful discussions that are called for are not occurring.

My initial response to reading about Msgr. Wallin was to say that Archbishop of Baltimore, William Lori, and his predecessor, Edward Egan, are somewhat at fault for this situation. By failing to address situations such as Msgr. Wallin’s in a forthright and functional way, both men have engaged in scandalous conduct that diminishes the moral authority they hold. Therefore, I felt that Bishop Lori, at a minimum, had a duty to apologize and address the situation. The reaction to this surprised me.

I know many who read this will accuse me of being uncharitable towards our shepherds, and are feeling very defensive of our Church. We all have our fears right now. If the Church were persecuted, I pray I would have the temerity to suffer whatever trials would come, and not lose my identity or fidelity to our Catholic faith. The Church faces an increasingly hostile culture, one that elevates the immoral and calls it moral. (Abortion is the greatest example of this cultural decay.) Yet, I firmly believe that we need to move past the point of being defensive, and instead be proactive. The time for change has come.

There is a reason why we must move, and act. That reason is love. Love requires us to name that which is dysfunctional. Love requires us to deal with reality. It requires us to be open, and honest, as opposed to secretive and conniving. The time has come for change.

For those non-Catholics reading this trying to make sense of it, the first thing to understand is that the priesthood is not a job. We are not protestants. The clergy are not in a profession. The priesthood is a vocation. Becoming a priest isn't like becoming an employee somewhere. Rather, it is like getting married.Thus it is different than speaking about how we deal with employees and employers.

In discussing the nature and potential solutions to clericalism and its ensuing dysfunction within the Church, a parallel should be made.  The parallel is not how an organization should treat an employee, but rather how a family will treat a member: how a spouse will treat a wife or husband.

If this is the case, then I think it is clear that the Church in the case of Msgr. Wallin, under the leadership of now Archbishop Lori, operated very much like a dysfunctional family would. Let's look at Wallin's actions from the point of view of the marriage vocation.

Let's assume a hypothetical husband sinned against his marriage the way Msgr. Wallin did against his vows.

Said husband would have a) cheated on his wife b) started doing drugs. c) possibly started dealing drugs around the kids, d) been (at the very least) verbally and emotionally abusive towards all of them.

This is an exact parallel.

To mimic the actions of the Diocese of Bridgeport regarding Msgr. Wallin said wife would a) say nothing at first... definitely keep it quiet from friends and family to avoid embarrassment and scandal. b) fight DCF actions to protect the children, c) complain about an aggressive nation state when the government tried to take custody, arguing to all who would listen that her family was being persecuted. d) maybe send her husband away for a little while, and give him some money too... just until it all blew over.

That is, to put it mildly, a dysfunctional response.

What the hypothetical wife (the Church) could have done:

Separated from her husband immediately and take the kids with her. Immediately reached out to her support network, and her (and his, depending on her relationship with them, their level of codependency and self-delusion etc.) family. Assuming he wasn't a danger to her, she could have scheduled an intervention to get everything out in the open. SHe could have sought means of doing all this where she would be safe, relying on charities and shelters or family members.

She would then set up a plan to move forward. To heal the marriage, the husband would have to agree to substance abuse counseling, psychological counseling, and oversight while swearing to never touch drugs again. If he refused or denied he had a problem, she should walk away, even call the police and inform them of his illegal activities (as anyone who has experienced addiction knows, it is necessary to first hit “rock bottom” before one is able to admit and desire help and sobriety.)

 This is hard. A Christian would always keep the door open to reconciliation and true reform (being a Christian is not easy)  But it would be the right thing to do. Would some family members attack her? Would some people in his (or even her) family stand with him and call her all sorts of vicious names?  Would she have to go through hell?  Would people talk?  Would it be embarrassing? Yes, yes, yes.... But she would be doing the right thing for the right reasons.

There are few actions more painful than an intervention such as this. I know because I have seen them first hand. They also have the power to transform and change lives and heal families. I have seen this too.  Courageously loving actions like these have the power to restore sobriety, and sanity, in people.

The case of Msgr. Wallin shows a Church failing to function. It is easy to, after the fact, criticize what those in authority have done. However, in a case such as this, what the Church should have done, just based on the information they had, seems very different to what they ended up doing.

Any of the following actions, or all of them together, could have been much more heathy for the Church in the long run.

Msgr. Wallin could have been suspended immediately when his conduct came to light. Diocesan leadership (the Bishop) could have gone to the parish, and come as clean as possible with the people. Leaders could have asked Wallin's flock to pray for him, and let them know that he was suspected of habitually breaking his vows in a very serious way, serious enough to merit this disciplinary action. The Bishop could have said that Msgr. Wallin was leaving his responsibilities to them for days and days at a time, and that such things were not acceptable, thus he was being removed from ministry for the time being.

This hypothetical course of action stands in stark contrast to telling the community that Msgr. Wallin was granted a "sabbatical" for time to “think”. A sabbatical is what you grant to a college professor who is writing a book, not someone who has scandalously broken their commitments to employer, let alone a priest who has abused the trust of his flock!

Leaders could have explained that, for privacy, parishioners would not be informed of what Wallin had actually done at this time. In all honesty they could have at that time assured parishioners that to the best of their knowledge, no laws were broken, and no children were in danger. However, an investigation could have been ongoing, including a thorough audit of all parish finances.  Would this really have disquieted the faithful?  OR could such honesty and communication assured the faithful that the Church was still functioning despite the struggles of one of its priests.

 Msgr. Wallin could have been placed on "administrative leave" pending the results of said investigation, and a canon lawyer provided to him to advise him and protect him while the Diocese aggressively worked to leave no stone unturned in its investigation. Should he have refused to submit to all this and walked away? Payments from the diocese could have been stopped, and the process started for laicization.

This isn't rocket science. It is basic oversight of persons in responsibility 101. If the Bishop (or Diocesan officials) actually took such action, maybe they could have nipped the drug dealing in the bud, and actually have helped the man.

If the Church was acting like a functional family, and a highly functional spouse, their actions would have been very different from the codependent "sweep it under the rug and don't rock the boat" course they took. The Church right now is like a dysfunctional co-dependent family and that must stop.

It is therefore past time for a cultural change. The biggest thing preventing us from becoming a more functional family: clericalism.

If priests and clergy are the center of the Church, and everyone else is passively along for the ride, offering adoring and silent prayer support for our heroes, then we will seek to defend our heroes no matter what, even when what is needed is soul searching and some movement towards real change.  We will try and protect ourselves when priests fall by pretending they don't. We will not take appropriate action when behavior such as Msgr. Wallin's first comes to light.

If the laity are not to think, question, write, ponder, or take action towards injustice when an injustice is perceived within the Church, then clergy, who are human beings, will take the path of least resistance, doing whatever is comfortable, and that means not taking bold action and making life hard for themselves. Situations like Msgr. Wallin's will be handled quietly, in ways to "avoid scandal." If the laity are not fit to direct parish finances, or make reasoned complaints when there is a legitimate reason to criticize, then priests can do whatever they want with the money we give them, including spending it on questionable endeavors, or worse, misappropriating it. If only priests and Bishops are essential, while laity are incidental, or even disposable, then what does it matter what laity think or say? They are just along for the ride anyway.

How much open communication do we truly have in our Church? Do the Bishops you know deal with criticism in a healthy manner? If we write or call with a concern, do they or a representative even respond? Is there anything like a "two way street" when it comes to communication and openness?

How do we change? Here is the mature answer: I don't know. I only know it is time for a conversation to occur about how we relate to each other as the Church. We need to start asking questions about why these things keep happening. This is more than just policies and procedures; we have done and are doing that, and things HAVE gotten better from that perspective. But there is still something deeply dysfunctional at our core. Everything, from seminary formation, and especially what psychological training and counseling are required (and not required) needs to be looked at closely as we move forward. Lay formation needs to be addressed. Catechetical programs and their emphasis need to be examined. We need to do soul searching. Something isn't working. I don't care what side of the ideological Catholic divide one is on, everyone should be able to agree that right now there is something dysfunctional here. For love of our Church, the body of which every one of us is a member, isn't it time to address it?


  1. I think clericalism is the core issue, and unfortunately it will remain just that, the core issue. It's the elephant in the room no one wants to acknowledge is there. Clergy don't want a change, nor do laity. Sure, maybe a few from both sides do, but hardly enough to make a difference. Change occurs when our Comfort Zone becomes uncomfortable. Clergy and laity are pretty comfortable in spite of all the obvious problems. So, my despondent prediction is:keep on expecting more of the same. Hope I'm wrong!

  2. I would love to feature your article on my blog, if you can tell me how to do that.

    1. Thank you so much for the kind offer! We'll chat! God bless you

  3. No no no, it is not a "kind offer", but a most self-interested one. I don't find people writing about clericalism all over the place, or looking at priestly dysfunctional performance as clericalism. Clericalism is hardly ever a word I hear on people's lips. So when someone writes about it, actually takes the bull by the horns and wrestles with it even though he may get gored, I want that associated with my attempts to say something on the issue too.


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