Skip to main content

Clericalism in the Catholic Church


Clericalism in the Catholic Church           Gerry OShea

Consider the following imaginary meeting arranged to discuss the demeaning treatment of women in the Catholic church. In attendance are five mothers from different ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds who meet just two requirements for inclusion: they must identify as Catholics and they must all have at least one daughter.

Also in the room, representing the church, are five members of the hierarchy. The gathering takes place in New York, so Cardinal Dolan has summoned other bishops with strong credentials in theology to make sure that the Vatican perspective is fully represented.

The women explain their grievances, focusing especially on the fact that, because of their sex, they are prohibited from any jurisdictional involvement in their church. They stress that there are no similar restrictions on them from assuming leadership roles in any other area of their lives.

 One of the prelates with a string of degrees from the prestigious Gregorian University in Rome opens the discussion by explaining that the Lord chose twelve males to lead his church and that is their core reason for keeping women away from any position of authority.

The first woman responded by suggesting that Christ, like all human beings, reflected the wisdom and tensions of his time. In that Middle Eastern culture, for instance, not only were women treated as inferiors but slavery was also accepted as normal. She completely rejected the idea that the appointment of twelve male apostles 2000 years ago should determine the ecclesiastical status of women today.

Another one of the five females addressed the group by apologizing about raising the sensitive matter of sexual abuse of children because she knew it was very embarrassing for the church leaders, especially with so many court cases pending. How, she asked, could any bishop anticipate respect when he failed to care for children in his diocese? How can any church leader escape criticism for moving predator priests from one parish to another?

Another woman, clearly irate at the horrible abuse inflicted on innocent minors, claimed that a group of mothers, housewives without degrees in theology or apologetics, would have dealt very differently with this problem. She requested that the bishops think of the sagacity of women in their own families when considering this insight.

One of the bishops admitted that this crisis was poorly handled and the Vatican has learned lessons. A colleague added that church leaders deal more maturely with sex abuse cases today, especially by involving the civil authorities.

Another bishop felt that there was a lack of perspective in the women’s criticism which is often shared by media outlets that always seem to work a grudge against the church. He asked where is the recognition of the fact that Catholic agencies run development programs for poor women all over the world. No other institution comes close to matching this commitment to the most vulnerable women.

The final woman speaker wondered how they explain the exodus from the church of over 750,000 members in America every year, many of whom change to various Protestant denominations that have no problem with women priests and bishops.

There were no raised voices or harsh language during the discussion; in fact, at the end, Cardinal Dolan talked about another meeting in a few months!

Pope Francis has many admirable qualities but decisive leadership is not one of them.  

At the Amazon Synod the members – all wearing Roman collars -  reacting to the dire scarcity of priests to provide the Eucharist for poor indigenous communities in that massive region, voted 128 to 41 in favor of ordaining viri probati, married men of good character, to meet these urgent pastoral needs. A similar clear synodal majority indicated that women should be ordained as deacons to provide the sacraments for the people.

Francis praised the clerics for their work and took these recommendations under advisement, putting any implementation on a long finger. In other words, he funked the challenge and left millions of poor members of his church without the sacraments.

The Spirit of Wisdom, a spirit of positive thinking and enlightened ideas, has changed attitudes to women completely, mainly because they became far more assertive, and today we see nothing extraordinary about top female leaders in business and government. There is a real prospect for a woman being elected president of the United States in the foreseeable future.

However, the Vatican hasn’t changed, especially in its pronouncements in the area of sexuality. Against the overwhelming scientific evidence, they argue that homosexual love is unnatural and therefore morally wrong. Following this unenlightened logic, they rule out even blessing a gay marriage union.

The official teaching of the Catholic Church forbids the use of condoms or the contraceptive pill even by married couples. This moral reasoning, based on medieval thinking about the human body, has led many young people to depart for other religions or none. About 40% of people born Catholics have left their family church. It is estimated that 16% of Americans identify themselves as former members of the Roman religion.

The Second Vatican Council in the 1960’s was the last universal Council of the Catholic Church. That renowned assembly was called by Pope John XX111, by far the most distinguished and perceptive church leader in modern times. He instructed the assembled bishops and experts to open the windows and let the enlightened truths of modernity influence their deliberations.

The Council highlighted the pivotal importance and authority of what they called “the people of God” which implicitly limited the status of those already making all the decisions. Understandably, the powerful prelates did not appreciate this democratization of their accrued power, so they made sure that it didn’t happen. Lay people have no more say in their church now than they had in the 1950’s.

The Council pointed out that confining the inspiration of the Spirit to the clergy breaches basic tenets of theology. Wisdom resides as surely with the farmer or housewife as with titled clerics. The Vatican cannot accept even minor limitations on its accumulated powers.

Dealing with the synodal process, Pope Francis, a man of compassion, has to sort out a Vatican conundrum: he knows that the church needs to change in dramatic ways, but the weight of institutional history prods him to hold firm to the old rationalizations.

Still, he said recently that he wants to hear from all people. We wish him well in pursuing that worthy goal. Clericalism in all its guises needs to be confronted if the church moves towards the spirit of the gospels.

If Cardinal Dolan calls another meeting to continue the dialogue with the five Catholic women with daughters, I will keep you informed!

Gerry OShea blogs at


Popular posts from this blog

    Unionist Isolation in Northern Ireland              Gerry OShea Joe Brolly, known as a fine footballer and lively commentator on big Gaelic matches on Irish television, writes a regular column in the Sunday Independent in Dublin. Recently, he penned an uncharacteristically bitter essay about the celebrations in Belfast following the victory of Glasgow Rangers in the Scottish Football League. Joe had no problem with fans celebrating the win, their first in ten years, but the carry-on by Rangers supporters in the Shankill Road area left him in a foul mood. The old gutter anti-Catholic tropes were heard throughout the crowd. Hurrah! Hurrah! We are the Billy Boys   --- Up tae yer knees in Finian blood.   Surrender or ye’ll die. He noted that the following day the police superintendent responsible for the area, Nigel Henry, expressed his “disappointment” about a large crowd partying in clear breach of the Covid restrictions on gatherings in the city. A few weeks previously Mar


Neoliberalism                Gerry OShea The story is told that shortly after the great trade union leader Mike Quill arrived in New York, he inquired about what kind of government existed in America. After someone gave him a brief explanation, he replied “well we are against the government anyway.” Mike had just come from a family that fought the British in the Irish War of Independence and that was equally hostile to the Free State Government which took over in Dublin in 1922, four years before he left for the United states from his home in Kilgarvan, County Kerry. President Reagan’s oft-quoted statement that “the most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I am here to help” always evokes   loud applause from conservative audiences. His words encapsulate the belief that the less state involvement in all aspects of life the better. They always make one exception for military spending, and so they endorse the present defense budget in the U

Anger in America

  Anger in America                     Gerry OShea Rage is dominating the American body politic. The culture has become so toxic that we can no longer just agree to disagree.   In April of this year, reputable pollsters revealed that 70% of Republicans declared that the presidential election was stolen and Donald Trump should be re-installed in the White House. A September gauge of opinion showed that the figure of Republican disbelievers in the Biden presidency has grown to a whopping 78%. It is important to explain that there is not a scintilla of evidence supporting this erroneous contention. Mr. Trump’s lawyers’ claims of electoral impropriety were considered by close to sixty judges, some of whom were appointed by the former president, and none of them even allowed the case to be heard because no evidence of wrongdoing was presented in court. The Supreme Court with a strong influence of Trump appointees refused even to consider the case. The Department of Justice under Wil