The following is a transcript of a Raised Catholic podcast episode.
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Today is episode 148: The Gospel vs Clericalism
Hi friends. As part one of the 16th Ordinary General Assembly, or the Synod on Synodality, draws to a close, we are yet to hear very much of what was discussed during their weeks together, but Pope Francis did take the opportunity to offer some remarks on the need to respect and honor the faith and insight of all baptized Catholics. He elevated the voice and experience of women in the church, and he had some harsh words, and not for the first time, about clericalism.
Pope Francis said, “Clericalism is a whip, it is a scourge, it is a form of worldliness that defiles and damages the face of the Lord’s bride, the church,” “It enslaves God’s holy and faithful people.”
Pope Francis referred to the “scandal” of young priests going into ecclesiastical tailor shops in Rome “rushing to try on cassocks and hats or albs with lace,” maybe as a focus on their appearance over their vocation.
Nevertheless, he said, “the people of God, the holy faithful people of God, go forward with patience and humility enduring the scorn, mistreatment and marginalization on the part of institutionalized clericalism.”
Now like Pope Francis, I have been a vocal critic of clericalism, and if you’ve listened to this podcast, that is probably not news to you. I’ll link a few related episodes of Raised Catholic for you in the show notes, but in case you’re unclear on what clericalism is, here’s a helpful definition.
The Association of U.S. Catholic Priests defines clericalism as “an expectation, leading to abuses of power, that ordained ministers are better than and should be over everyone else among the People of God.” Who among us has not met a priest who openly believes that they’re better or holier than “other people”? Maybe we even believe that, even though you’ll not find a place in the Catechism which states that priests are more holy than you, I promise! And clericalism is truly dangerous for the Body of Christ because according to Psychology Today, “It prevents healthy checks and balances and corrective feedback that is needed to maintain thoughtful and productive decision making.” Well, we see where all of that has led us, and leads us, still.
Pope Francis’ remark about the young priests rushing into Rome’s ecclesiastical tailor shops had me thinking about what modern clericalism and the American turn toward traditional practices have in common and that is what I call ‘outside the cup’ concerns: what people and things look likeversus what we are.
In Matthew chapter 23, Jesus has quite a few words for the hypocritical and self-focused religious leaders of his day. I’ll link that chapter for you so you can read the whole thing, but in this passage, he focuses on the danger of making the outside beautiful while neglecting the interior life. Jesus says,
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.”
Oof, Jesus does not mess around.
Now friends, please hear me. I am not criticizing any person or people who lean toward clericalism or traditional faith practices. We’re all one family and we’re all on a journey after all. But the emphasis of both of these movements on the external: on what we wear both inside and outside of church, on formal and ostentatious prayer postures (even praying in Latin, a language most of us don’t even understand), an emphasis on the aesthetics of a church service over service to our brothers and sisters, on disqualifying any musical instrument at mass but organ, on ‘gatekeeping’ the church for people whose lives they consider ‘good’ or ‘clean’ enough to enter in, on amassing earthly and political power in the church and the culture under the dark cloak of Christian nationalism – well, these practices are just fundamentally anti-Jesus. And Jesus, like Pope Francis, says so – loud and clear, over and over again in the Gospels.
In contrast to calling for lengthy and verbose prayers in Latin, Jesus might say, “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. Truly I tell you, they already have their full reward. But when you pray, go into your inner room, shut your door, and pray to your Father, who is unseen. And your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
In answer to making the House of God into a club for likeminded churchy people while discouraging or barring others either by word or deed, Jesus might actually have a whole lot of things to say, but one of them would surely be, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”
Jesus was the one who spoke words of love to the Woman at the Well, a societal outcast despised by both the religious leaders and the community, and who became the first evangelist for the Good News. I can almost guarantee that that woman was not dressed ‘appropriately’ for that job, whatever that might mean, but here we are, millenia later, still talking about her. Jesus gathered diverse people, both men and women, from differing walks of life, to become his friends and followers, and He did not care one bit about what they wore or the traditional beauty of the spaces in which they gathered. I hope it’s not news to you that the wedding garment that Jesus talks about in Matthew chapter 22 does not refer to actual clothes but actually to the free gift of the righteousness of Christ that covers us. But I do wonder if Jesus might have asked of those young priests rushing to Rome’s ecclesiastical tailor shops, “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?”
Jesus was a rule-breaker. He was the one who led His disciples to eat grain and heal people on the Sabbath, always putting human people before the letter of the law. And in contrast to the religious leaders who “tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them,” Jesus came that we might have life, and have it to the full.
Humble, self-sacrificial Jesus is the antithesis of clericalism and the ‘traditional’ Catholic culture’s focus on the externals or the ‘outside of the cup’. To these, He might say, “Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others.”
In contrast, Jesus is the Good Shepherd. He says,
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me – just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd. The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.”
So, as we start to synthesize the fruit of what has come from the first part of the Synod on Synodality, I hope we can continue to be led by the Holy Spirit toward the abundance of what Jesus really has for us in our lives of faith. Friends, there is just no doubt about it that we are facing unprecedented challenges right now as a church, a world, and a country, and it can be easy to lose hope. Believe me, I know. I sometimes feel like we’re all playing at life as though these are ‘normal times’ – making plans for the future even though no one has any idea about what that future might bring. But if Christians of every stripe and denomination will turn our eyes upon Jesus and be clear about remembering what He actually taught and Who He actually is, then maybe we can unlock the hope that we have in Him, find the peace that passes understanding, and we can finally work together to make this Church one that reflects Him.
The Good Shepherd. Our loving Savior. Oh, friend, how He loves us.
Thanks so much for being with me today, friend. If you need me, you can find me on Instagram @kerrycampbellwrites, at Substack at kerrycampbellwrites.substack.com, or on my website at kerrycampbell.org. Thanks so much for rating, reviewing, subscribing and most importantly, sharing this podcast with a friend. That really makes a difference in growing our community, so thanks. If you’d like to support this podcast financially, there are a couple of ways for you to do that in the show notes, along with some resources related to today’s episode, so do check all of that out, but before we go, let’s pray together.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, amen.
Well, friend, this song has been on my heart this week so I thought I would close today by sharing a little of it with you here.
Turn your eyes upon Jesus
Look full in His wonderful face
And the things of Earth will grow strangely dim
In the light of His glory and grace
Thanks for listening today, friend. Have a good week. I’ll see you next time.
This week we contrast what Pope Francis calls the “scourge” of clericalism and the American trend of ‘rad-trad’ or ‘traditional’ Catholicism with what Jesus actually taught in the Gospels. I hope this episode is helpful to you.
If you’d like to connect with me, find me on Instagram, at my website, or on Substack. If you’d like to help support this podcast financially, there’s a way to do just that on my page at buymeacoffee.com! Thanks for sharing, subscribing, rating, and reviewing, as this helps our community to grow.
Thanks as always to my friend, Peter Vaughan-Vail, for providing the beautiful harp music you hear in this and every episode.
Here are some resources I hope will help you to engage with this week’s topic in a deeper way for yourself:
1. Article: On the Pope’s comments on clericalism from ABC News
2. Article: Pope Francis intervenes at the Synod, calling clericalism a ‘scourge’ that ‘enslaves’ God’s people from America Magazine
3. Raised Catholic ep. 4 (link and transcript): Is It Okay to Question
4. Raised Catholic ep. 22 (link and transcript): Deconstructing Catholic
5. Raised Catholic ep. 29 (link and transcript): What is Faith:
6. Raised Catholic ep. 119 (link and transcript): Who God Actually Is
7. Lyric video: Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus, by Lauren Daigle