During the early centuries of Christianity, Christ’s followers met – often secretly – to honor his memory by community prayer including the sharing of bread in remembrance of the importance of togetherness in the Passover meal at the Last Supper.
They met in each others’ homes for their prayer services just as Amish worshippers do in their communities today. They had no priests, again replicated in Amish services in our time where leaders are chosen by the community and given no perks.
In fact most historians contend that Christ had no plans to start a new religion. He was critical of the legalistic formalism that dominated the Jewish rabbinical establishment of his day, but he is best understood as a charismatic Jewish rabbi with an inspiring message.
The records show that these early Christian groups were egalitarian, with men and women chosen by their peers for leadership positions not only for their prayer and communion services but also in their charitable outreach to help poor and needy members of their developing community.
Then in the early 4th century the Roman Emperor Constantine allowed Christians to assemble without any hassle and to worship freely. The Emperor himself asked to be baptized on his deathbed after years preparing as a catechumen. He made Christianity respectable, giving it the Roman stamp of approval.
For the first time a clear pecking order was established as the hierarchical structures and trappings of the Roman Empire were transferred to the growing Christian church. For example, a diocese, a Roman administrative unit, was transmuted to a basic governing part of the church; a basilica, the Emperor’s majestic hall, became an important place of worship for the members of a burgeoning religion.
The church moved away from its original emphasis on the equality of all members by assigning authority based on offices held in the community. In the new hierarchical structures decision-making was vested in priests and bishops. With the gradual growth over centuries in the prestige of the papacy, a hundred and fifty years ago Pius 1X brought the acquisition of power to a new and dubious level by claiming infallibility when pronouncing on faith and morals.
Over the years this hierarchical system led to the development of a powerful church organization that did outstanding work with people of all ages in every part of the globe. The Catholic Church is the largest nongovernmental organization in the world, providing food for the hungry and medical care and education for millions who would be cast aside without the services of the heroic Sisters, Brothers and priests who stood with them, opening the door to a chance for a better life.
But there was a serious downside to the growth of the church as a major center of political power, influencing and participating in wars, a long way from a universal religion of peace and goodwill. The church was an important player in religious battles in Europe and in leading crusades to make the cross dominant in Jerusalem. The institution forgot its humble founding principles and responded to political developments with generals and armies similar to other European powers.
Women and married men were excluded from any position of church authority which was vested entirely with a male celibate clergy. They continued to dress in gowns and top hats and other similar gaudy apparel, symbols of importance back in the days of the Roman Empire and still setting the church leadership class apart from the hoi polloi in the pews.
Augustine, a reformed libertine, who lived in the same century as Constantine, promulgated a poorly-researched theory that the so-called original sin was a sexual act initiated by Eve. She was responsible in John Milton’s later words in Paradise Lost “for all our woes with loss of Eden.” This baseless Augustinian rationalization combined with the deplorable misogyny in all the major cultures of that time led to a negative and unhealthy attitude to sexual behavior and especially to the subsidiary role assigned to women in the church.
That situation has not changed. When Pope Francis convened an important international synod last February to make recommendations on how best to deal with the ongoing crisis related to sexual abuse by clergy, he invited a few hundred aging church leaders – all male – to the Vatican to deliberate on these crucial matters.
From a church with over a billion members not even one woman or young person voted on the final recommendations. Hardly an adequate response in 2019 to dealing with the biggest crisis in the church since the Reformation 500 years ago.
The Second Vatican Council convened by the last great pope, John XX111, attempted to deal with the clericalist culture by stressing that all church leaders at every level are meant to be servants of the people and certainly not lording it over them. The Council pronounced that the church should always be seen as consisting of its full membership, the people of God, with the mysterious Spirit inspiring lay and cleric alike, without regard to human pecking order. Surely Beginners’ Theology 101!
Unfortunately, after the Council ended in 1965 the caste system re-asserted itself. There was little change in the blatant misogyny, the cult of secrecy within the clerical club and the institution-wide sexual repression.
Starting about 50 years ago, the pandemic of sexual abuse by many priests and Brothers and some nuns was gradually revealed in all its enormity. People were shocked that widespread maltreatment of children by men wearing Roman collars and by women displaying crucifixes was not only tolerated by church authorities, but these predators, instead of being dismissed or reported to the civic authorities, often were just transferred to a different parish where they inevitably found new victims.
Pope Benedict pointed the finger of blame for the sex abuse crisis at the new liberal ideas about sexuality that gained provenance in the 1960’s. Other conservative clerics blamed the Western culture sympathetic to the gay lifestyle as the culprit.
Most commentators agreed that clericalism, which encourages people to view priests and other church dignitaries as different and exempt from the rules and consequences that apply to everyone else, is the core problem leading directly to the deep crisis.
Commenting on a White Paper titled “Confronting the Systemic Dysfunction of Clericalism” prepared by the Association of Catholic Priests in the United States, Cardinal Cupich from Chicago described the damning research findings as “a catalogue of horrors, chronicling imperial pronouncements, putdowns, claims of privilege, entitlements and exemptions from accountability .”
The pope and the cardinals, bishops and priests still speak for the church on all matters of religion or morality. The hopes of many progressive theologians during Vatican Two and since that the life experiences and spiritual insights of “ordinary” people would be valued and incorporated into church thinking has not happened.
Despite all the heartbreak caused by clericalism, the congregation in the pews is still not heeded. Sadly, the traditional establishment built around an elite clerical class continues to call the shots in the Catholic Church.