In the latest round of anarchy among Catholics in northern Europe, a group of Belgian Catholics have proposed that the true solution to clericalism—the idea that clerics have some kind of automatic spiritual superiority over the laity which requires unquestioning loyalty—is getting rid of clerics altogether.
I brushed off my college French to look at the pamphlet. While one might expect to find a kind of secular derision of the Church, the text quotes extensively from the Second Vatican Council and other sources. Its principal argument seems to center on the idea of the Church itself as the “sacrament of salvation.” It sees the developments in sacramental theology since the 12th century as secondary and ultimately unhelpful.
I don’t know the motives of these people, and I suppose we ought to assume that they love Jesus and his Church. The proposals might be “progressive,” but at heart they also reflect a kind of naïve primitivism. They think all would be well if we could just go back to some idyllic time before Constantine when Christianity was purer and simpler. This is hardly a new idea; whole Protestant traditions are based on it. But it has remained somewhat in vogue among Catholics of a certain generation formed in the 1960s and 70s.
The actual texts of Vatican II can speak for themselves, but the so-called “spirit” of the council, exemplified by the liturgical, moral, and aesthetic wreckage of the following decades, drinks deep in this false dichotomy between past and present. Like the Protestantism I grew up with, many of these supposedly forward-thinking Catholics took for granted the idea of rupture—the idea that Catholicism as it developed in the Middle Ages was somehow different in character from what went before.
There’s an irony here in “progressive” theology’s pining nostalgia for a fantasy version of the distant past. Maybe the extreme “progressive” and “traditionalist” parties in the Church aren’t quite as different as we might imagine. The error of both is the inability to live in the present.
Not unlike many calls for the ordination of women, this call to abolish the clergy is really itself a deep-rooted clericalism: it assumes that the laity cannot be important unless they can do the exact same things as the priests. But, as many a social justice meme will remind you, equality doesn’t just mean everybody is exactly the same. Getting rid of clerics to get rid of clericalism would be about as effective, and as coherent, as trying to get rid of racism by trying to make everybody white.