Clericalism is one of those words tossed around in Church conversations but rarely defined - one of those words you could hear very often without being quite sure what it means.
Clericalism is a disordered attitude toward clergy, an excessive deference and an assumption of their moral superiority. This idea that a “Holy Man of God” knows best has led to the abuse of many as we always expect the clergy (and all religious, for that matter) to do what is right, holy and true. One may wonder how one navigates relationships in order to foster authentic connections and yet be true to oneself. There could be two approaches: one that deals with the issue at hand with extreme caution, keeping people at arm’s length and relating to others with fear.
Another might be more open to relating to co-workers and collaborators, expressing sympathy, encouragement and appreciation but avoiding any kind of physical demonstration of affection.
While some may argue that this behaviour may limit our expression and foster a very orchestrated reaction, I do believe the answer is in our ability to listen to what is being said, and the statements voiced by the many persons who have had the courage to say “me too”.
The starting point is to enter into a conversation about this attitude, in our workplaces and in our places of worship. This will enable us tap into feelings of individuals and allow for a healthy release of simmering frustrations, anger, fear or confusion.
The second is to address the elephant in the room: pornography.
From our politicians watching it in temples of democracy, to religious houses of formation where there is this struggle to cope with the growing menace, one needs to address this issue.
Viewing pornography affects the way we relate to women and children as it often objectifies them and while it may not always lead to sexual assault, it definitely leads to the attitude that women and children are commodities and therefore inferior. We need to address the issue, talk about it and find ways to overcome the problem.
Finally, we need to address the issue of Clericalism. Religious leaders are called to live a life that is a reflection of what they preach. It necessarily demands a higher code of moral conduct from those who, by choice, have taken up this way of living.
And they would need to be held accountable for any misdeeds both from a religious and civil perspective. This could only be possible when transparent and equal relationships exist between priests (and religious) and the majority of those who follow religious tradition. Such a community would be open and willing to learn from all its members, resulting in moral correction of priests by laypersons and not simply the correction of laity by priests.
Only a community of genuine human relationships and greater transparency will be able to spot and root out abusive behaviour. Where clericalism hides the true nature of the priest behind a veil of “pseudo-beatification”, we need to look realistically at the human beings in front of us and respond accordingly. Likewise, priests prone to clericalism need to renounce pride in favour of the humility that they are actually called to profess - they need to become more deeply human, in order to be more deeply holy.
(The author is a priest and spokesperson of the Archdiocese of Bombay)