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Stop Blaming the Bishops: the Dangers of the New Clericalism

By: Deacon Keith A. Fournier
© Third Millennium, LLC


"...For the Church does not propose economic and political systems or programs, nor does she show preference for one or the other, provided that human dignity is properly respected and promoted, and provided she herself is allowed the room she needs to exercise her ministry in the world. But the Church is an "expert in humanity" and this leads her necessarily to extend her religious mission to the various fields in which men and women expend their efforts in search of the always relative happiness which is possible in this world, in line with their dignity as persons...

The Church's social doctrine is not a "third way" between liberal capitalism and Marxist collectivism, nor even a possible alternative to other solutions less radically opposed to one another: rather, it constitutes a category of its own.... The teaching and spreading of her social doctrine are part of the Church's evangelizing mission. And since it is a doctrine aimed at guiding people's behavior, it consequently gives rise to a "commitment to justice", according to each individual's role, vocation and circumstances.

Pope John Paul II, On Social Concerns, Par. 41


The Premise

I will celebrate my fiftieth birthday very soon. For over thirty years I have tried to integrate my Catholic Christian faith in my daily life in the very real world. That very real world involves the realm of public policy and politics. Oh, believe me, I know how profoundly difficult this task truly is and I have the scars on my back, at least figuratively, to demonstrate that fact.

I have witnessed the unfortunate co-opting of wonderful phrases such as "the common good" and "authentic liberation" by the left. Along with the entire world, I welcomed the fall of that Wall in Berlin as a sign that any ideology that denies God cannot possibly serve man and woman, the family, society, authentic human development and the common good.

I have also experienced the rise and fall of the "religious right", one more mistaken effort at trying to respond to the prophetic call of the Gospel within a culture losing its moral compass. I have written extensively on the both the lessons to be learned from the fall of that movement and the mission that still remains for all Christians who understand that our social obligation is an integral part of the Christian mission in the world.

The short quotation from Pope John Paul II with which I begin this article uses a phrase that is found throughout the writings of the Fathers of the second Vatican Council in the Catholic Church and in the encyclicals, letters and exhortations of the occupants of Peters Chair for many, many years. The Church is "an expert in humanity." Why? Because - like the Lord whom she serves - the Church - and all of her members- walks the way of the person. That is the heart of the matter. Of course we are called "into the world", for God still loves the world and still sends His Son, through His Body on earth, into the world on mission.

No matter how difficult the road becomes, I will not cease from the effort to try to live, love and build social efforts informed by the treasury that is contained within the social teaching of the Catholic Church. This wonderful body of teaching on the person, the family, authentic social and economic justice and the common good is not simply for "religious people." It unpacks the principles that must become the building blocks of any truly just society, any society where men and women will find authentic human fulfillment.

This kind of society will make the human person the polestar of all public policy and recognize that the first human right is the right to life. It will be a society that acknowledges that marriage and family are the first vital cell of society and always serve the common good. This kind of society will truly care about the poor and the needy; and will work toward an economic order first at the service of the person, the family and the common good.

In short, the social teaching of the Catholic Church should inform all efforts toward authentic social justice and peace. Why? Because Catholic social teaching is not "religious" - at least in the sense that it is only for religious people. Rather, it contains the principles and wisdom needed in this desperate hour to build a more just society. This body of teaching called the "Social Teaching" is not true because it is Catholic; it is Catholic because it is true. In fact, it is the hope for this new millennium. Christians are called to rediscover this teaching as a treasure in a field and inform what the American Catholic Bishops recently called their "faithful citizenship" by it. This body of teaching needs to birth new social action and social justice movements.

These efforts will be neither "liberal" nor "conservative", nor "neo-conservative" or "neo-liberal" (which are both sides of the same coin). This kind of a movement, though aware of the practical realities of working within or alongside of political parties bearing names like "Democrat", "Republican"... will avoid being captive to any of them. This kind of social effort, and the political activity that flows from its broadly based social action, will proceed from a public philosophy dedicated to the person, the family, solidarity, subsidiarity, economic and social justice and authentic human freedom and human rights. It will take the principles offered in the social teaching of the Catholic Church and work them as leaven into the loaf of society. Those who have the jurisdiction and the vocation proper to this kind of work, that is the "lay faithful", must do this work. Truly understanding this last point is where I see the real problem and newest impediment to effective social action beginning to emerge.

The Problem

There appears to be arising within the realm of Catholics (and other Christians) a new "clericalism". Ironically a group within the lay faithful who may not even understand what they are doing is championing this new clericalism. Before explaining how I see this occurring, let me re-state the foundation. I hold an unwavering conviction that the faith must inform every part of my life and that I must live a unity of life; I also believe that that the great principles set forth in the social teaching of the Catholic Church are the path to a more human and truly just society. I am committed, for life, to an authentic effort at social involvement and social action. I understand the challenges and the frustration of this kind of activism. But I am concerned that a new problem on the horizon now threatens to impede progress. That is precisely why I am sounding the alarm on what I call a "new clericalism".

Allow me to explain.

I have lived at the intersection of faith and culture for decades, trying to effect social change. I did so first as a layman and, for the last eight years, as a member of the clergy, a Deacon. For my readers who come from other Christian traditions, deacons, at least in the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, are members of the Clergy. In short, I am a cleric. That change, received in the grace of the sacrament of orders, is, to use a philosophical and theological term, ontological. My ordination changed me. I know that change deeply within.

It also affected the way in which I have engaged the social mission since the imposition of the Bishops hands. Though Canon Law does not preclude Deacons from overt political participation, (as it does the next rank of orders, priests), it has changed the way I have come to understand the broader mission of the Church in the culture and my role in it. Deacons are, in a sense, an order of clergy in the midst of the world. We go, as I often say, from the altar to the world. We are ordained not unto the priesthood but "unto ministry." The lowest rank of the hierarchy, we are a bridge of sorts between the lay faithful and the clergy.

Most deacons are married and have children. Most of us also work "in the world" Yet, by virtue of our ordination we are to be configured to and model "Christ the Servant." There is associated with our clerical office a particular call to works of charity and social justice. In other words my ordained service, in the words of Pope John Paul II cited above " rise to a "commitment to justice", according to each individual's role, vocation and circumstances".

So it is with every member of the Clergy, including our beloved priests and Bishops.

Over the years that I have engaged in pro-life, pro-family, pro-freedom and pro-poor activism, I have always done so ecumenically. It was always hard for my Christian friends in other traditions to understand that, in attempting to enlist Catholics to joint efforts of activism, they needed to seek the lay leadership of the Catholic Church. The temptation and tendency of many well-intentioned evangelical activists that I worked alongside of was to "go for the collar." I found myself regularly explaining that in the Catholic tradition, even though priests were indeed called to teach and preach the full counsel of the Church, including her social teaching, they were, in the first instance, pastors of souls.

Now please do not get me wrong. I fully support the role of priests (and Bishops) in proclaiming the full truth about life, family, freedom and solidarity from the ambo (the pulpit); as well as their proper participation in society. However, they are precluded from running for political office in Canon Law precisely because the work of, what is often called in Church teaching, the "temporal order", is actually the proper domain, and in fact the mission-field, of the lay faithful. That's right! Politics and social action are especially the task, mission and turf of the lay faithful!

Here is where the problem has I am addressing has found new fertile ground in a growing "new clericalism." "Clericalism" is a term that is used to describe any improper emphasis on the role of the clergy - to the exclusion of other members of the faithful - from fruitful and effective ministry and service. Oh, I know there has been a long history of "anti-clericalism" and I denounce that error as well. After all, I am a member of the clergy. However, at least in the American experience, that is not the real problem I believe that we now face. Rather, the problem I see arising in the ranks of activists is the growing emphasis on blaming the clergy, and in particular the Bishops, for almost everything wrong with the contemporary social order!

The most recent example has been the so-called "communion controversy." I was an early voice speaking out on the obvious error demonstrated by a certain candidate for the Presidency whose public stands are unfaithful to the teaching of the very Church that he purports to be a member of. I wrote about the subject and even debated another Catholic on National Public Radio on this scandal. I share the deep concern for the continuing scandal caused by some Catholics in public life who are unfaithful to their Baptism and using their Church identification to win votes. The Canon Law is clear and the teaching of their Church is clear. They should not go forward to receive communion as long as they stay committed to their errant position.

However, the issue has taken a turn that disturbs me.

It may have started with a concern for authentic teaching concerning Catholics in public life. That is, of course, the proper domain of the Bishops. However, the Bishops have responded. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued its clear and authoritative document entitled "Doctrinal Note on some questions regarding The Participation of Catholics in Political Life". Various Bishops have written with great clarity on the subject. The Catholic Conference of Bishops in America has released several excellent instructions. In short, the Bishops are doing what they are ordained to do. They are instructing the faithful. Of course we all hope, and pray, they redouble their important teaching mission.

Now, some may argue that they have not acted strongly enough. Such a position is not inappropriate. However, the public clamor among some Catholics has now gone way beyond that. Let me give you a recent example of where I see the problem.

I received another E-Mail this morning from a very sincere lay Catholic who has "fought the good fight" for over eighty years. In his letter, responding to one of my recent columns, he told me that the "whole problem" (by which he referred to the communion controversy and the unfaithful witness of some Catholics in public life) was the fault of "weak Bishops".

No my friend, this kind of characterization of the problem my be the real problem.

And, this fine man is not the only one who has fallen prey to what I call the "Blame the Bishops" mentality. I ask my readers, how many E-Mails and solicitations have you received, (many asking for money) from Catholic (and other Christian) activists placing the "blame" for everything that is wrong with the Catholic witness in political America on "the Bishops."

Nonsense. I have had enough.

The whole thing is beginning to remind me of the encounter between David and the prophet Nathan in the Old Testament story recorded in the Second Book of Samuel. In that story, the King David, falls to sexual temptation and takes Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite, in an act of adultery. He then sends her husband to the front lines to be killed in order to cover up his infidelity. The prophet Nathan comes to David and presents a parable about a rich man and a poor man who were neighbors. When a hungry traveler visits the rich man, the rich man takes the poor man's only lamb and feeds the sojourner. When David heard the story he was outraged and said to the prophet Nathan, "The man who did this deserves to die." Nathan responded, "That man is you!"

Well, Catholics in public life have been unfaithful for years in the public square. We Catholics in America have allowed a dualism to take deep root in the practice of the faith. It has been referred to as "one of the greatest errors of our age" in many Church documents. It is also called the "separation between faith and life." A false, (in fact heretical) notion of a public/private dichotomy, a way of interpreting public behavior and the requirements of our faith that separates the objective truth revealed to us in both nature and revelation from our public behavior. The political is only one subset of this malady. Its only cure is, what pope John Paul II has termed a "new evangelization."

This error is not the 'fault" of the Bishops. In fact, to now blame the consequences of decades of this kind of error on the Bishops is not only counterproductive, but, if left unchecked, may divert any real efforts at effecting authentic change in the policy and political arena.

Whenever we hear the error "I will not allow my faith to affect my public life" spoken by Catholics in public life, perhaps we should turn the accusing finger upon ourselves. Why do I say that? Because we have left this error room to take ground when we who are Catholic (or any other Christian, other person of faith or other person of good will for that matter) have voted for these scoundrels or failed to unmask their sophistry.

"That man is you", echoes in our recent political history and the consequences of our own infidelity have now come to haunt not only us, but the next generation who are being killed in the first home of the whole human race, the once safe sanctuary of their mothers womb.


I certainly understand the frustration of my Catholic activist friend. He is not alone. It is awfully hard to look back on thirty years of my own activism and realize that the most fundamental human rights issue of our age, the right to life of every single human person, at every age and stage, has made little progress in the law. However, I wrote back to him with these few short words, which I now offer to all of my readers:

"I appreciate your heroic witness over all these years. However, not everything is the Bishops fault. It is the lay faithful who are called to the "temporal order" They have abdicated their proper role and need to be evangelized, catechized and mobilized. I think if half the energy focused on exposing the inconsistencies and, in a few instances cowardice, of the Bishops was spent on mobilizing a new and authentic Catholic Action movement, we would see the change we desperately need."

This latest round of what I have called in this article the "Blame the Bishops" mentality could be the beginning of a new clericalism and it must therefore be exposed and opposed. If blaming the Bishops for every unfaithful Catholic politician distracts the lay faithful, whose proper mission field is the public square, it threatens true progress in our work of authentic social justice. People like my older friend will fail to take up the mantle of citizen action and, instead, turn on the clergy.

We need a new Catholic Action, led by the lay faithful. That is what is most desperately needed right now. We need to take the crystal clear social teaching of our Church and build lay movements that not only understand it, but also offer it to all men and women as the path to authentic peace and human flourishing. Such a movement must resist the dangers of being co-opted by partisanship and political labeling.

We need, no our Nation and indeed the whole world needs, the lay members of Christ's faithful to stop blaming the Bishops, resist this new clericalism and get to work building a more human and just society, for all men and women. We need to recapture the lost ground and begin truly start serving the common good.


Rev. Mr. Keith Fournier is a married Roman Catholic Deacon of the Diocese of Richmond, Virginia and also serves the Melkite Greek Catholic Church with approval. He is a graduate of Franciscan University of Steubenville, The John Paul II Institute of the Lateran University and the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. Long active at the intersection of Faith and Culture as a human rights lawyer and public policy activist, Deacon Fournier is the founder and Thomas More fellow of the Common Good Movement and Common Good Alliance and the editor of Catholic Way


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