Clericalism and the Doctrine of Scandal

The doctrine of scandal in the Catholic church is based on the scriptural injunction ((Romans 14:13ff, for example) to avoid doing anything that would shake the faith of others, particularly those whose faith is less mature.

In practice, this has been commonly interpreted as a justification for covering up the sins of clergy, specifically including the sin of sexual abuse of children. The rationale has been that if the laity knew that a priest (or a bishop! Or a cardinal!) had done such a sinful thing, our faith would be shaken and we might even leave the Church: thus endangering our salvation, according to the pious; or taking our donations with us, according to the cynical. It was better, reasoned the clerics, to protect the faith of their flock by keeping those misdeeds secret, protecting the reputation of the church. And so these incidents were not reported to secular authorities, and victims were required to sign non-disclosure agreements, and offending priests were re-assigned to another parish where no one would know what had happened.

I think we can all agree that the result of this policy was disastrous. (And certainly, one important lesson to take from this story is that you should always be suspicious when the thing you propose to do for the benefit of others just happens to coincide with your own best interests.) But what I want to do here is dive into the relationship between the doctrine of scandal implemented in this way, and the structural sin of clericalism.

Implicit in this doctrine, if taken at face value, is the assumption that the faith of laypeople is weaker, and more easily shaken, than the faith of clergy.

This assumption is an outgrowth of clericalism, which perceives clergy as a class as holier, closer to God, stronger in faith, and wiser in judgment than laypeople as a class, purely by virtue of their clerical status. This goes hand in hand with the infantilization of the laity, whose role in parish governance is to be strictly consultative (Section 536.2 of canon law). The pre-Vatican 2 maxim that laity were to “pray, pay, and obey” is no longer universally recognizable as the Catholic lay experience, thanks to the Vatican 2 retrieval of the priesthood of all believers; but its ghost haunts our parishes in the tendency to assume that “Father knows best,” and to expect that if something needs to be done, Father will take care of it, or arrange for it to be taken care of.

The structure of clericalism, these tendencies affecting both laity and clergy, constitutes an occasion of sin for both classes. It tempts clergy to think too highly of themselves, and laity to think too little. It tempts clergy to take too much upon themselves, and laity to take too little. It tempts clergy to overstep moral authority, and laity to abdicate moral agency.

It successfully tempted hundreds of men — priests, bishops, and cardinals — to collusion and complicity in the sexual abuse of children and other vulnerable persons, such as seminarians. By their passive silence and their active coverup, these men participated in deeply wounding thousands of innocent victims: all on the grounds that the laity couldn’t handle the truth.

Coptic icon of Christ feeding the multitudes, with text on the bottom reading "You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free."

Gracious God, we pray for your holy catholic church.
Fill it with your truth;
Keep it in your peace.
Where it is corrupt, reform it.
Where it is in error, correct it.
Where it is right, defend it.
Where it is in want, provide for it.
Where it is divided, reunite it;
for the sake of your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ.


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2 Responses to Clericalism and the Doctrine of Scandal

  1. Thank you for this – thank you.

  2. Andrew says:

    Your description of the impact of clericalism on the laity prompts this thought – Admitting imperfection is a way of demonstrating faith in your audience, trusting them to recognize that an organization with an transparent self-correction system is less prone to catastrophic failure than one that hides its flaws. The fears that the clergy had – that the laity would lose faith in the clergy – demonstrate the clergy’s lack of faith in the laity.

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