The Next Reformation?

Healthy clericalism recognizes the dignity of the sacerdotal office

Historical caricatures to the contrary, Martin Luther did not, at least initially, intend for the Protestant Revolution to happen.  Even a cursory glance at his 95 Theses shows them to be far from revolutionary (assuming papal authority, validity of indulgences, etc.) and more like propositions for debate.  The debate however soon took on a life of its own and Luther lost all control of the situation.  How this happened is complicated but there is one overarching contributing factor that serves as a lesson for all of us—Luther’s pride.  While his initial propositions were written in Latin and intended for theologians and scholars, his responses to his critics were written in the vernacular.  In the dawning of the age of the printing press this meant that everyone, not just scholars and theologians, could read his beef with the Church.  If you could read and lived in Germany then you picked a side.  And the enemies of the Church, specifically the humanists and power hungry secular princes saw an opportunity to ally themselves with him.  Five hundred years later we are still suffering from the aftershocks of Luther’s ecclesial earthquake.

Luther, of course, was not wrong in his condemnation of the abuses of the Church in his day.  His concerns were legitimate.  But how he chose to handle it made all the difference.  When he met with opposition within the Church he curried favor with the court of public opinion.  Put this way, it is hard not to see certain parallels to our own corrupt age when we find widespread abuse and a Church greatly in need of a reformation.  But reformation always carries with it the temptation to revolution, so that if we do not learn from Luther’s mistakes we may repeat them with more disastrous consequences.

The “viral” capacity of the printing press made Luther’s attack much easier, but this is nothing compared to the power of social media today.  One blog post can reach millions of readers in minutes.  It seems that this is forgotten as the campaign against Church abuses is fought, not within Catholic circles but anywhere pixels are to be found.  There is very little discretion exercised, especially if we factor in the “Luther effect.”

Let me articulate what I am not saying so as to avoid any confusion.  I am not saying that there should be no criticism or even condemnation of scandalous behavior.  The sins of commission and omission that those within the hierarchy committed cannot be met with further silence, especially from the laity.  Nor can they be swept under the rug.  But how the silence is broken matters just as much as that it is broken.

At the heart of the culture of abuse is an exaggerated clericalism.  Not just clericalism, but an exaggerated clericalism.  If we do not admit that there is such a thing as healthy clericalism then anti-clericalism becomes the antidote and the enemies of the Church are only too willing to jump into the fracas.  But a healthy clericalism recognizes the great dignity of the sacerdotal office.  It esteems the office before the man, but this does not mean it esteems the man.

It is an exaggerated clericalism because it allowed silence in the face of grave evil to persist, and because the men who did these horrible things did not see the dignity of their office.  If they did then they would never have done such things or kept silent while others abused their office.  This is why the solution cannot be to publish letters from lay people to their bishops or to “flame” prelates by laundry listing the episcopal sins.  That is sensationalism and catering to the court of public opinion.  Why the need to tell the world what the Church’s dirty laundry smells like to you?  Isn’t it better to write to your bishop in private or at least wait to see if he will respond before making the letter public?  Ultimately the question we all must ask is whether it is fomenting the spirit of revolution or fostering a spirit of reformation?

If the offenders abused not just people but the office itself, how are we any different when we abuse the office by addressing them like they are social media pariahs?  If the office means nothing as to how we treat them, then how can we expect the next holder of the office to receive any honor?  The rest of the world, including many of the faithful, see what we say and become masters of suspicion.  All bishops and priests, many of whom are holy and faithful members of the Church, are lumped in with the others.  Suspicion then feeds the anti-clerical spirit further.

Perhaps we should look to a different reformer than Luther for our model.  St. Catherine of Siena is known best for confronting the Pope face to face and calling him to reformation.  But she is also known for her Dialogue in which the Father reveals to her just how to handle clerical scandals.  Before all else He reminds her:

“If you should ask me why it is my will that the sins of the clergy should not lessen your reverence for them, this is how I would answer you: Because the reverence you pay to them is not actually paid to them but to me, in virtue of the blood I have entrusted to their ministry. If this were not so, you should pay them as much reverence as anyone else and no more. It is this ministry of theirs that dictates that you should reverence them and come to them, not for what they are in themselves but for the power I have entrusted to them.”

It was this reverence that made her successful in her vocation to reform the Church.  And it was Luther’s great disrespect for the clerical state that led him to revolt.  The Church needs saints, not revolutionaries — which will you be?

Rob holds an MA in Theology from Holy Apostles College and Seminary, with a concentration in moral theology. He has a passion for spreading the joy of the Catholic Faith through teaching and writing.

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