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A Vatican-inspired theological revolution


I’m not telling you anything new when I say that one of most toxic problems facing Catholicism is clericalism. By ‘clericalism’ I mean the tendency to place priests on a pedestal, to accept their pronouncements as gospel, encouraging them to feel, as Pope Francis says, ‘superior to lay people.’

It begins in seminary training when candidates start to see themselves as joining a unique male, celibate, secretive caste enjoying privilege and power, set apart from ordinary humanity by ordination. Clericalism is at the root of sexual abuse when inadequate, immature men feel they can use children to satisfy their warped sexual impulses. It is a way of life far removed from Jesus, ‘the man who had nowhere to lay his head’ (Matthew 8:20). It’s also very different to Pope Francis’ call to priests to experience ‘the smell of the sheep.’

But in his recent (March 19, 2022) Apostolic Constitution entitled Praedicate evangelium (PE), ‘Preach the Gospel’, Pope Francis dealt clericalism a major blow. This is the final document in a long-planned reform of the Roman Curia, the Vatican bureaucracy.

The cardinals who elected him in 2013 asked Francis to restructure the curia following several scandals under Benedict XVI and John Paul II. PE is the result. The practical detail is not important; my personal view is that no matter what the structure, the curia is a creature of the 16th century and is irreformable.

But there was a basic principle laid down in PE that is profoundly important with far-reaching consequences for the whole church. This principle states that any baptised Catholic ‘can preside over a dicastery,’ that is run a Vatican department. Previously only ordained clerics could do this because ordination was the absolute precondition for exercising ‘ordinary jurisdiction’ or church governance.

Explaining the change canon lawyer, Father (now Cardinal) Gianfranco Ghirlando, SJ said unequivocally ‘that the power of governance in the church does not come from ordination, but from one’s mission’ (my emphasis).


'It is a decisive, even revolutionary theological shift because it re-roots ministry in the mission to which all are called by baptism.'


Yes, but so what? Well, as sometimes happens, profound, long-term change follows a seemingly minor shift of emphasis. Essentially, Ghirlando is saying, reflecting Francis, that you don’t have to be ordained a priest to exercise the power of governance in the church. And by ‘governance’ Ghirlando means the administrative authority that comes with a call from the church to carry out a specific ‘mission’.

Now that’s a profound transposition for a church that has been fixated on clerical power for centuries. What PE does is shift the focus away from ordination to restore the absolute centrality of baptism. All Catholics can now share in church governance by the very fact of their baptism. The people of God already share in the common priesthood of those baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection. The distinction between the ordained and the baptised is one of function, not of essence.

The 20th century theologian who restored the role of laypeople was Yves Congar, OP (1904-1995). His theology broke down the separation between the spiritual and secular world, a separation that long bedevilled Catholicism. Reflecting Congar, the Vatican II Decree on the Laity is clear that the church lives in the world to bring it to Christ, not into some separate spiritual sphere. Congar wrote that the church is challenged ‘by the world to re-join it, in order to speak validly of Jesus Christ.’ This is literally the Catholic ‘mission statement’, the reason for the church’s existence. Historian Edmund Campion says that Catholics were persuaded by Congar that ‘all of us were responsible for what the church did … that waiting to be told what to do was foolish …that there was work for us … as servants of the world which had its own destiny in God’s plan’ (Then and Now, 2021).

However, PE takes a step beyond the mission of all the baptised. While still using the word, PE is actually taking about a specific kind of mission. It’s saying that any baptised person can be called to governance in the church. This is a call to a more focused mission, that of leadership

Distinguished Australian theologian, John N. Collins, is helpful here. He has conclusively shown that in the New Testament the Greek word diakonia, which we translate as ‘ministry’, refers explicitly to a public role of leadership in the church’s mission, which is recognised by the community (Diakonia. Re-interpreting the Ancient Sources, 1990). So, leaders in Catholic schools, hospitals, aged care, social services or, in the terms of PE, a Vatican dicastery, are called to ministerial leadership. Other staff are invited to share in the mission of proclaiming Christ in the world, or participating in and supporting the ethos of the organisation.

While PR is right when it re-situates mission in baptism, it would have been much clearer if it had picked up John Collins’ re-interpretation of diakonia, ministry, because that is what it is really referring to when it talks about ‘presiding over a dicastery.’

In the Australian context I would argue that the women and men exercising leadership in a specific work of the church are truly ministers. In a Catholic school, for example, the principal and the RE co-ordinator are the ministerial leaders of the school community, modelling and engendering the mission of proclaiming Christ and the Catholic tradition.

In hospitals and aged care facilities the leadership ministry is more complex with their disparate medical, nursing and domestic staff, visiting doctors and specialists, and volunteers. Most Catholic hospitals are now part of larger organisations such as Mercy Health, St Vincent’s Health Australia, or Calvary Health Care, with an overall coordinating body, Canberra-based Catholic Health Australia (CHA). CHA focuses its ministerial emphasis on the ‘wholistic healing ministry’ of Jesus, meaning that he cured and integrated the whole person, not just the physical illness or disease.

In conclusion, there’s no doubt that PE is a revolutionary, if understated document. It would have been clearer if it had picked up Collins’ re-interpretation of ministry as leadership because that’s what its talking about. But it is a decisive, even revolutionary theological shift because it re-roots ministry in the mission to which all are called by baptism.





Paul Collins is the author of 15 books, several of which focus on church governance and Australian Catholicism.

Main Image: Rome, a nun in St Peter's Square. (Getty Images)

Topic tags: Paul Collins, Pope Francis, Plenary Council 2020, Catholic Church, Apostolic Constitution



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Existing comments

This change is more than a minor shift of emphasis since women are well represented among the baptised and already in positions of leadership in schools, hospitals, aged care homes and lay ministry. Now they are moving into leadership in the form of governance of the Church. Such a profound change will benefit the very necessary job of turning around of the ship.

Pam | 28 June 2022  

A brilliant and thoroughly incisive article, Paul but I am unsure whether many reading it will truly understand your message. As you say, the entire Vatican administration is incredibly old-fashioned and contorted and very difficult for even a Pope to change in one go. Cardinal Pell's attempt to reform the Vatican finances were not met with general approval amongst the curia and anyone intent on continuing in that vein, clerical or lay, will be met with resistance. The 21st Century faces the Church with tremendous challenges and these are out there in the real world. As I believe the late Metropolitan Anthony Bloom once wrote, Christ came not to found an institution, but to save the world. The Church exists for a purpose. Sometimes the sheer grandeur of the ancient buildings and the pomp and ceremony seem to ignore that. Clericalism is, I think, a mistaken identification with pomp and glory and was outdated in the post-WW 2 era, when it was at its height. The administration of the Church does need reform and Pope Francis has taken a dynamic step there.

Edward Fido | 29 June 2022  

Departments which have a remote relationship to theology and doctrine can be farmed off to lay people in the way that the Apostles farmed off administration to the deacons but the function of preaching the truth (which requires being involved in spending effort and time to know how to know what is true) belongs to the personnel of the cloth (especially priests who have, unlike any other Catholic, the proxy ability to consecrate and forgive) who are trained for that very purpose.

If equality is being sought, nuns can serve as diplomats, and possibly as the heads of some theologically-oriented departments, as well as priests. A nun with the right qualifications can certainly head a Church university or teaching institution. And certainly a secular department of the Church such as its bank.

The agenda to sideline priests leads to a laicised, congregational form of Church which fails to resemble the model of authority of Priest calling priests to be trustees of his legacy, a legacy which requires shepherds who can heal by forgiving and feeding through visible signs of grace, unlike in the congregational protestant forms of church where there is no proof of being forgiven or being fed.

roy chen yee | 29 June 2022  
Show Responses

Women already hold significant positions within the Catholic Church in the areas you identify, but those who drive the "equality" agenda regard as acceptable nothing short of ordained female priesthood and hierarchical advancement.
I would hope the Australian bishops in their discernment of PC proposals will maintain the Apostolic tradition that characterizes Catholic understanding of the ordained priesthood as distinct from protestant ecclesiological conceptions and forms of ministry.

John RD | 05 July 2022  

Yet more emphasis on and priority awarded to structural change. While " . . . any baptized person can be called to governance in the church", most lay people are likely to find that call impracticable, especially given family responsibilities.

John RD | 29 June 2022  

Some experts doubt that “Clericalism is at the root of sexual abuse” in the Church. Psychiatrist Rick Fitzgibbons wrote: “In an effort to deny the role of homosexuality in the sexual abuse crisis, clericalism and availability (the John Jay Report) have been incorrectly identified as major causes. There is no psychological relationship between clericalism, availability and the sexual abuse of youth. Both these terms manifest an attempt to cover-up the true origins of the abuse crisis.”

The John Jay Report found 81% of alleged victims were males. The Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report identified homosexual predation in 73% of the cases.

Michael Rose has written about “progressive” US seminaries screening out applicants who were loyal to Church teachings or who did not conform to the prevalent homosexual sub-culture. One professor at an East Coast seminary, Dr Angela Sutcliffe, described the atmosphere concerning homosexuality as “borderline militant.” (“Goodbye, Good Men”)

One form of clericalism seldom discussed is the assumption that laypeople are incapable of understanding and living up to the high demands of Church teachings. The implication that God’s grace is insufficient to overcome their human frailty is not only heretical, but it also devalues the dignity of laypeople.

Ross Howard | 30 June 2022  

Clericalism stems from the seminary where priests and religious are inculcated with the notion of being set apart and "special" as they are an educated caste and implicit in their training is that the laws of the land don't apply to them.
There is also the belief among the hierarchy that Canon law is more important than civil or criminal law and they use it as justification for the right to commit abuse.
The culture of cover ups by Bishops (a worldwide Catholic phenomenon) is a mistaken belief that forgiveness is more important than retribution or dismissal if one of their number crosses the line.
Sipe in the USA says that more than 50% of religious break their vows of celibacy and lead active sex lives in contradiction to their vows. Only 20% of those who break their vows leave the church because a comfortable living is more important than living a lie.

Because here in Australia in the past we have been cursed with imported Irish priests and brothers the places where abuse has flourished are same sex boarding schools and orphanages. Now the mix has changed with many more Indian priests flocking here and believe me in India the culture of abuse of children and sex trafficking is far far worse than Australia.
So if women had equal rights to ordination and both sexes who have chosen the religious vocation could marry as well then we wouldn't have all these male elitist hierarchical arbitrarily imposed problems.

Francis Armstrong | 01 July 2022  

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