Home Commentary Clericalism in church and schools

Clericalism in church and schools

A synodal church (and school) is one whose leaders are visionary and creative, collegial and collaborative.

But in the Salubong document (Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines Report to the Asian Synod), the majority of the comments are on areas of leadership and authority: (1) priests are “authoritative and powerful”; (2) some have attitude problems; (3) they scold people in public and do character assassination in the pulpit; (4) others are involved in abuse scandals.

The problem is not only personal but structural. Pope Francis calls it “clericalism”. It is a sense of entitlement to “clerics as clerics”. To illustrate, I heard one young priest tell his parishioners: “I am the parish priest here. So, I should be obeyed.”

It is quite difficult for me to talk about this because I am a cleric myself. So whatever I say here, I will be the first to be affected.

But I would like to speak heartily to my brother priests here. I think it is about time that we priests need to acknowledge the very precarious situation we are in.

We find ourselves in a location of power — not only material power but also cultural and spiritual power. Many people think that if they oppose us, even if we are wrong, they will suffer.

It is about time for us priests to realize that if we do not handle this power responsibly if we do not let go of some of this power and share it with the laity, ‘we priests will be the first to suffer.’

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I am thinking of the stewards of the vineyard who rejected the servants of the landlord. The gospel ended with the landlord saying: “I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that will produce its fruit” (Mt. 21: 33-43).

Clericalism is also not just about the proverbial “bad apples in the basket”. It is also about the structure of the basket itself. We know that clericalism is also present among the laity.

There are lay people who are more clerical than clerics, or more Catholic than the pope. Clericalism is about intoxication with power among the priests, religious and lay.

It is a situation where we enclose ourselves with power, where we are not in touch with people, where we no longer listen to their questions, especially the more difficult ones.

Where do we see clericalism in our schools? I do not want to generalize but here is one of the complaints of our rank and file: those who are on top of the administration ladder are most often cranky.

Pope Francis has a word for it: “theatrical severity”, a way of “treating our inferiors with rigor, brusqueness, and arrogance.” As individuals, administrators are in fact kind and sympathetic human beings. But when we begin to wear that hat, something changes.

One employee said: they will become like tigers. I was asking if maybe there was something wrong with that hat.

The power differential is so large that authorities feel they have the tacit privilege to be rude and rigid in the name of duty.

The problem is not only attitudinal but structural. I am an administrator myself, and it might be good to do an honest examination of conscience.

One of my favorite writers is the French philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas. He talks about putting ‘a pebble in your shoes.’ The word ‘scruple’ actually means ‘pebble in the shoe.’

Levinas says: ‘Be scrupulous. Put a pebble in your shoes.’ With the pebble, you cannot remain standing but are moved or prodded to take the next step. Moreover, the pebble puts your every step into question. It leads you to ask: Is this the right step? Am I not stepping on others’ shoes?

Sociology calls it ‘reflexivity.’ Theology calls it ‘humility,’ and in our context, ‘administrative humility.’ It is the sense of openness and willingness to be put into question — as teachers, as administrators, as educators.

Another face of clericalism in our schools is what I call the ‘tyranny of experts.’ There are academics, teachers, and professors who have been chasing titles their whole lives. They love to flaunt their MAs, PhDs, and STDs next to their names. Some among us are offended if we do not address them as ‘Doctors.’ Some have initials even longer than their names; to the point they won’t fit on a tombstone.

Beyond attitudes and personalities, the problem is, in fact, structural. Educational institutions encourage them to earn these degrees. Those who have those initials are culturally, professionally, and, of course, financially rewarded.

Then these ‘experts’ begin to rule the knowledge production process. These so-called ‘doctors’ become authorities of knowledge beyond question. What they say is considered the ‘truth,’ even if it is no different from what the taxi driver already said on your way to school.

On a deeper structural level, education becomes a competition of ‘ranks and brands’ dependent on the number of PhDs and Masters, Scopus publications and citations, accreditations, and international ranking.

I am not against these instruments of professional enhancement and quality assessment. I think we owe our students the best that should come from us in terms of teaching, curriculum, facilities, services, or whatever.

What I am against is making ranking and accreditation the ‘be-all and end-all’ of our educational existence. What I am against is spending fortunes and sleepless nights to the point of exhaustion to package our schools and make them beautiful on paper but not in reality.

All these are no different from donning ourselves with medieval clerical garbs and feudal regalia to flaunt our authority, but in reality, the simple among us know that the ’emperor has no clothes.’

[Excerpt of my conference at the CEAP National Convention, October 19, 2023, at the Waterfront Hotel, Cebu City]

Father Daniel Franklin Pilario, C.M., is a theologian, professor, and pastor of an urban poor community on the outskirts of the Philippine capital. He is also Vincentian Chair for Social Justice at St. John’s University in New York. The opinions and views expressed in this article are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of LiCAS News or its publishers.

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