One key concept in the letter that is extremely pertinent to papal thinking, but which has probably been overlooked by much of the [religiously challenged] secular press is the Pope's rejection of clericalism. When the parish priest read out the papal statement at mass this week I was delighted to hear the world's top Christian cleric damning clericalism and citing it as part of the abuse crisis, for it was one of the issues that began to concern me when I was at theological college, when I realized that some clerics were deeply into power and saw the laity and the public in general as there to be ordered around. I did not like it and have always disapproved of the use of religion or the church as a means of gaining status and power.
So what is clericalism? It is an "us and them" mentality in which the clerics regard themselves as a privileged elite. This elite demand subservience from the laity, exercise power over them and often reap the ensuing economic rewards. This power is religious in nature, but can become tied into political structures, and the blend between religious and political power is potentially toxic and destructive. We have seen the damage that has been done to the Irish church by its grave mistake of accepting De Valera's poisoned chalice of a role in the state. Clerics and politicians in cahoots with each other in comfortable networks of cronyism and mutual self-interest! Not good, destructive, and the consequences for state and church have been disastrous. Established churches are particularly vulnerable to this kind of unholy alliance, and they are places where abuse can thrive.
George Bernard Shaw once said that professions are a conspiracy against the public. I am not a great fan of Shaw, but he may have stumbled upon a significant truth, at least where some people are concerned. The clerical life, the religious ministry, must exist as a mean of service, but in the case of those infected by clericalism it takes the form of a commitment to a self-interest group in which members look after each other. We saw this in the way in which clerics covered up the abuse perpetrated by other clerics, looking after their pals while the abuse of vulnerable laity went unchecked.
Pope Francis is fiercely critical. "...When we have replace...silence..ignore...reduce the People of God to small elites we are creating communities, projects, theological approaches, spiritualities and structures without roots, without memories, without faces, without bodies and ultimately without lives." He proceeds to say that clericalism is a nullification of the baptismal grace that the Holy Spirit has placed in the soul. By this he means that by presenting themselves as the elite of Christians they are belittling the Christianity of the lay folk and ultimately laying the ground for abuse to take place. By undermining clericalism the Pope is hacking away at the rationale that underpins the networks in which abuse thrives. I regard this authoritative letter as making a long-term contribution to the Catholic theology of ministry.