Categorised | Columns

Clericalism versus religion

I GAVE a presentation a couple of weeks ago on some of the problems associated with so-called Islamic finance and its roots in the shariah. After the session, a professor of political science said to me: “It’s such an insoluble problem. I don’t know how Islam can resolve the issues and difficulties in its law and practice. At least the Catholic church has a clear structure of authority so that decisions can be made that are binding on everyone.”

He clearly regarded the hierarchical structure in the Catholic church, with its pope, bishops, and priests ruling the church from above, as a positive element in its governance and decision-making.

The problem with hierarchical structures is that the people at the top begin to see themselves as superior in some way to those below. We have this phenomenon in civil society. The people we elect to Parliament to serve us in government are mysteriously transformed into Datuks and Tuns, who go about in Mercedes Benzes and always seem to end up wealthier than the rakyat. The convention of calling the workers in government offices “civil servants” seems to many of us, given the usual state of the “service”, to be an abuse of language.

The Catholic clergy are prone to fall into the sin of clericalism, that is, regarding themselves as special and superior members of a class within the church.  


Servants and masters

One of the traditional titles of the Pope is servus servorum dei, the servant of the servants of God. This should be a title that all Catholic priests embrace as a reminder of our true calling, to be of service to God’s people. One would be forgiven, however, for thinking that the servants have in fact become the masters. Priests become members of a class within the church with access to certain powers and knowledge not given to other members of the church.

Like the ministers in government we get special titles: “Father”, “Monsignor”, “Your Lordship”, “Your Eminence” (and sometimes in Malaysia even “Datuk” and “Tan Sri”). We have special garments that we wear at ceremonies, and there is even a daily “uniform”, often called “clerical dress”, that sets us apart from others.

Clericalism is not a phenomenon purely promoted by priests themselves. There is a culture within the church of automatically deferring to priests and putting us on a pedestal. The maxim that people should have to earn respect never seems to apply to members of the clergy (or, for that matter, to government ministers, judges, and royalty). We get told over and over again by people in our parishes: “Oh Father, you have given up so much for God.”

Emblem of the Papacy (Public domain)
Once this is repeated to us often enough, we can develop a sense of entitlement. Catholics spoil their priests. Parishioners in the airline industry upgrade us on aircraft to business or first-class seats. We are taken to dinner in the best restaurants. We soon expect to have the best of everything.


That sense of entitlement leads us to believe that we can behave in any way we like. I have heard bishops blaming the phenomenon of sexual abuse of children by Catholic clergy on the greater degree of sexual permissiveness in the world today. This is errant nonsense. The majority of the cases that have come to light seem to have happened 30 to 40 years ago, or even further back in time, as can be seen from the ages of the perpetrators who have been brought to book.

I believe that clericalism, coupled with the kind of arrested sexual development that can occur when you deny your basic sexual identity, can be found to be at the root of much of the terrible abuse that has occurred. The automatic trust and respect given to priests by their people also meant that parents unquestioningly and recklessly trusted them with their children.

Clericalism, like any caste system, also seeks to protect its own, and to preserve its privileged position. Bishops regularly moved priests who were sexual abusers from one place to another, and kept their crimes secret, on the grounds that they were protecting the reputation of the church and the image of the priesthood. Those priests went on to abuse children over and over again in each new location.

Gender bias

The male clergy jealously guards its caste privileges against inroads by women, denying that they can be priests on the grounds that a priest must be in persona Christi, mirroring Jesus Christ and standing in his place. Since Jesus was a man, only men are deemed capable of fulfilling this office.

How far are we supposed to push this? Must all priests then be circumcised, as Jesus was, and from Palestine, as he was? What about length of hair? Height? It is a ludicrous piece of reasoning that has resulted in men having all the key positions of authority, and women being relegated to the role of workers and worshippers, but never decision-makers.

I once was told by a priest who had previously worked in a bank that, just as bank employees who take a pay cheque from the bank should never publicly criticise its management, priests should never criticise any aspect of the church and its teachings. It is an unfortunate and dangerous analogy (especially given the state of the world’s banking system today).

The church is not a perfect institution: it is always on a journey towards the truth, finite humanity struggling to discover the ways of an infinite God. And it is, like all human institutions, semper reformanda, always reforming itself.

(© The Walt Disney Company)
Of mice and men

It is perhaps then not such a bad thing that Sunni Islam, at least, does not have the kind of hierarchical structure of authority that has bred the sin of clericalism in the Catholic church. Otherwise the opinions of the ulama would have a weight that would bring Islam into disrepute.

It must be a relief to all Muslims that someone like the Saudi Sheikh Muhammad al-Munajid has no authority to speak for Muslims everywhere. Last month, in a religious affairs programme on al-Majd TV, the sheikh said that mice were instruments of Satan, and he condemned the positive depiction of mice in popular culture as seen in the Tom and Jerry cartoons and the character of Mickey Mouse. He proceeded to declare that Mickey Mouse should be killed.

It may be problematic for even the most ardent of Sheikh Muhammad’s followers to kill a fictional and animated character. However, no such difficulties lie in the way of those who would wish to accord authority to the opinions of the chief justice of Saudi Arabia’s highest court, who recently declared that the owners of television stations that broadcast “immoral” programmes should be killed.

When Sheikh Saleh al-Luhaidan’s remarks were condemned by other Saudi clerics, he went on television to say that he had not meant to encourage murder. The station owners, he clarified, should be brought to trial and sentenced to death, after which they could be legally killed. So that’s all right then. 

Aloysious Mowe, SJ, was born after Merdeka and considers himself Malaysian by birthright and not by anyone’s concession. The last time he checked his passport, it says he was born in Malaysia, not Tanah Melayu.

Post to Twitter Post to Google Buzz Post to Delicious Post to Digg Post to Facebook Post to StumbleUpon

7 Responses to “Clericalism versus religion”

  1. Simon Soon says:

    “The male clergy jealously guards its caste privileges against inroads by women, denying that they can be priests on the grounds that a priest must be in persona Christi, mirroring Jesus Christ and standing in his place. Since Jesus was a man, only men are deemed capable of fulfilling this office.

    How far are we supposed to push this?”

    I was wondering, as a Jesuit, how far do you think we are supposed to push this? Do you really doubt the validity of in persona Christi?

  2. Darren says:

    I can see your point on the hierarchical structure and some of the unavoidable weaknesses after taking into consideration that we are all human to begin with. Your take on the female thingy I’m not too sure. However I hope you might expand a little more on that and also on the receiving of the eucharist on the hand. Thanks for your frank take on the topic you put forward. I hope you have more to come.

  3. kanchil tua says:

    What plagues me is that “religion” through the centuries has not had much effect on negative human traits like envy, deceit, dishonesty, lust etc.

    In fact my immediate relationships with people of “religion” is that many are not better, morally or otherwise, than the “non-religious”. Religion has become a “club” with its usual cliques and prejudices. Right and wrong depend on your religious leanings.

    Those without religion? I think they are better people because they make an attempt to be “good” unlike their “religious” brethren who assume they are good, and can do anything they like because whatever they do, Christ has guaranteed them a place in heaven and on top of that, all their sins will be forgiven. This is the message I get every time I attend a “religious” gathering to convince people like me to be a Christian.

    Perhaps readers should read the book “God is not great” and give their opinions here. In addition you should read “War of the WORLD”. Then you can see why humans throughout the centuries have been killing other, egged on by religion or because of religion.

  4. kraznyoctbyar says:

    An excellent article, sir. Thank you. Keep it up.

  5. Wilfred Atin says:

    “..a priest must be in persona Christi..”

    I think you need to do more research on the theological understanding of “persona Christi”.

  6. dakunfrancis says:

    “The male clergy jealously guards its caste privileges against inroads by women, denying that they can be priests on the grounds that a priest must be in persona Christi, mirroring Jesus Christ and standing in his place. Since Jesus was a man, only men are deemed capable of fulfilling this office.

    “-Only men are deemed capable of fullfilling this office-“?

    A real theologian must know why women are not capable of fulfilling that office.

  7. RainMan says:

    “The church is not a perfect institution: it is … semper reformanda, always reforming itself.”

    I suppose this, and only this, is our hope of salvation.

    It seems to me that neither the hierarchical structure of the Church nor the (for want of a better term) multi-pronged leadership of Sunni Islam has provided God with a sufficiently clear channel of instruction to the sons of Adam.

    Won’t it be just the richest of jokes if, at the end of time, we find that God really meant Her message for the daughters of Eve all the while.

Most Read (Past 3 Months)

Most Comments (Past 3 Months)

  • None found




  • The Nut Graph


Switch to our mobile site