Clericalism, Anti-Clericalism, and Mimetic Rivalry

So on Friday, the 2nd reader for my thesis articulated something that he saw in my chapter section that I had not.

In the particular bit of my paper he referred to, I had used the language of the ordained as dispensers of grace, to which he responded:

….how to develop a relationship between the ordained and the non-ordained that is not a rivalry — I take it that that is what happens when the ordained are fonts of grace and the non-ordained are receivers.

And my head exploded.

Because oh, my gosh, he’s *right* — that framing illuminates so much!!

So this post is my first attempt to work through the issue he has raised. It is still very much a work in progress.

First, I admit that I have always tended to have a rather anti-clerical chip on my shoulder. It’s plagued me through many of my direct, substantive interactions with clergy; and, I just realized, it’s confined to the clergy of my own faith tradition, the Catholic church. I have no issues at all with ministers, priests, or bishops from *other* Christian traditions. That right there is highly suggestive that the underlying dynamic is about rivalry.

The basic setup of ordination as a sacrament that confers an ontological change potentially sets up the classic double bind for laypeople: be like me, but not too much like me. The clergy are presented to us not only as leaders but as models. (Whether explicitly or not, because that’s how mimetic desire works.) What they visibly value will evoke a corresponding desire in us. If they are jealous of the status conferred on them by ordination, that acts as an acquisitive gesture: This is mine! You can’t have it! and so of course, we want it even more.

Likewise, if the laity are visibly jealous of the clergy’s status, *that* acts as an acquisitive gesture: You have that, and I want it! which can evoke a jealous response in the clergy even if they hadn’t been feeling jealous in the first place. Either action can set off a dynamic of mimetic rivalry between ordained and non-ordained.

So clericalism is the other side of the same coin. Clericalism is the state in which clergy are valued — by clergy and lay, alike — simply because they are clergy: and not just valued, but deferred to, presumed expert, preferred to laypeople for any church-related activity. For example: when a parish priest without specialized theological training disagrees with a lay theologian in his area of expertise, and everyone else in the room defers to the priest’s opinion because Father must be right, that’s clericalism. This is mimesis without rivalry, which can occur when the mimetic model (the priest) is perceived to be too far above the subject (the layperson) for rivalry to be possible.

While this is one way to avoid rivalry, it comes with the dangerous cost of blindness to the possibility that the the clergy might, in actuality, not be superior to the laity in every respect and in every circumstance. This certainly creates a barrier to emotional and spiritual intimacy between laity and clergy, thus further isolating clergy from their flocks and creating spiritually and emotionally unhealthy conditions for them. And, in light of the sex abuse scandal, the conditions for this form of non-rivalrous mimesis are probably no longer sufficiently widespread, anyway.

When priests or bishops visibly value their power in matters ecclesiastic, that too is an acquisitive gesture that is likely to provoke rivalry. And conversely, when laypeople visibly covet the power wielded by clergy. This illuminates a rhetorical eddy that often trammels the discussion of women’s ordination in the Catholic church: the women who desire to be ordained are accused of merely coveting the power of the clergy, and this is used to instantly dismiss their desire as a venal power grab rather than a true vocation. It’s usually accompanied by language about how the priesthood is a ministry of service, and if they really understood this they wouldn’t want to be ordained, and nobody has the right to be ordained anyway, but it always seems to go to the issue of power first.

What complicates this discussion is that, of course, power *is* an issue when considering the structural characteristics of the church. If all ecclesial decision makers are men, and some issues affect men differently from women, and no women have the ability to participate in the decision making process, then that is a very troubling situation; and as long as only clergy may be ecclesial decision makers, then the only remedy is to include women as clergy.

An alternative might be to allow laypeople to participate in the ecclesial decisionmaking process; but as long as the church is plagued with clericalism, then no layperson’s opinion will have as much weight as any cleric’s opinion, and so again, no women’s voices are involved in equal weight.

Some ecclesial traditions exercise a communion-level polity (decision making structure) that includes both a “house of clergy” and a “house of laypeople.” I believe both the Anglicans and the Orthodox do something like this in their general assemblies / ecumenical councils, though I don’t know whether the body of laypeople have voting rights in the Orthodox tradition.

But the real, true heart of the problem lies in the desires of the clergy, and the structural patterns of desire that are naturally produced by how the purpose of the clergy is conceived. If the clergy are oriented towards correctness of doctrine, or conservation of tradition, or constituting the church (as per Ratzinger’s “ecclesiological primer”), or preventing scandal, or efficiently managing the institutional church, or anything other than the wellbeing of each member of their flock, then the individual members of the clergy will naturally tend to desire and value those things, which will naturally tend to provoke rivalry with the laity as described above.

Whereas, if the clergy are oriented towards the wellbeing of each member of their flock — which is traditional language for the good mimesis in which what we desire is the wellbeing of the other, then the institution of the ordained clergy becomes a mimetic structure of blessing, creative and life giving, fruitful of peace and unity rather than violence and scapegoating.

The laity, too, must desire the wellbeing of the clergy, in order to avoid setting off mimetic rivalry in return. But in this particular issue, I think the desires of the clergy are prior to the desires of the laity, because they are more immediately influenced by the theological and ecclesial structure of the clergy.

This adds a dimension of theological concern to the priest shortage in the Catholic church and other Christian traditions in which only (some of) the clergy can celebrate the eucharist. In such circumstances, everyone involved — the priests themselves, the bishops who assign them, and the laity who depend on their unique sacramental ability — can hardly help but perceive the priesthood as ordered towards the celebration of the eucharist, rather than towards the wellbeing of their flock.

It is interesting to notice here that the question of ministry has been a significant stumbling block in the modern ecumenical movement. The ministry section of the BEM document was lengthier, took longer, and achieved less consensus than the sections on baptism and eucharist. Questions concerning the ordination of women and of homosexual persons whether celibate or in committed relationships create interdenominational tensions in the midst of previously harmonious relations and productive dialogues. This suggests that, as one would expect, the relationship between clergy and laity is fraught with mimetic rivalry in all traditions, although the particular manifestations of this rivalry will vary.

…To Be Continued: I’m still thinking!

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