Saturday, July 31, 2010

"Not Products of Divine Revelation But of Human Invention "

Tom Doyle on clericalism and its trappings.

Catholic priest Tom Doyle recently shared his thoughts on the history and dysfunctional nature of clericalism, i.e., "the belief that clerics (deacons, priests and bishops) are superior to lay persons and are rightfully entitled to deference, unquestioned respect and exemption from many of the obligations born by most lay people." His comments were first published on the website of Richard Sipe. Following are excerpts.


The Church is a visible institution. The Church teaches as official dogma that the Church as we know it, that is, a hierarchical structure that is totally run by celibate male clerics (mostly bishops), was instituted by Jesus Himself. The Church teaches that the pope is the representative (Vicar) of Christ on earth. It teaches that Christ founded His church and left it in the control of the twelve apostles and explicitly willed that these apostles pass this power down to their successors. Consequently the official teaching is that the visible church is run by men who have been explicitly chosen by the Supreme Being. Furthermore the Church teaches that priests are fundamentally different than other humans. They are, in the words of John Paul II, uniquely configured to Christ. Catholics are taught to believe that priests are special. They represent Jesus Christ. They have very special spiritual powers. Their intercession is essential for anyone who wishes to make it to heaven in the next life.

This teaching is the foundation for the clerical culture that runs the Church. Clericalism is the belief that clerics (deacons, priests and bishops) are superior to lay persons and are rightfully entitled to deference, unquestioned respect and exemption from many of the obligations born by most lay people. This clerical world is the home of the men who make up the Church power structure. The Church teaches that this structure is the church. To be a Catholic, one must believe totally in the teachings about the nature of the church strictures and the sacredness of the Church’s clerical ministers.

If all of these teachings were true, would there be a need for all of the secrecy? If these teachings were true, especially about the “Christ-like” nature of priests and bishops, would there be such widespread corruption, dishonesty and abuse found among clerics at every level?

If all of these things were true! The problem is that there is no authentic historical evidence that any of it is true. The various titles, roles and offices attributed to popes, bishops and priests are not products of divine revelation but of human invention, often as a response and reaction to serious external threats to the power and wealth of the clerical aristocracy. For example, and it’s a good example, Papal Infallibility was literally invented by Pope Pius IX and forced through the First Vatican Council . . . for political reasons. The pope’s kingdom, the Papal States, was threatened with dissolution by the Italian social upheaval at the time. Likewise the title “Vicar of Christ” was part of a conscious program of a medieval pope to fortify papal power. This title has had a long and complex and by no means consistent history. It was not applied to the Papacy until the 13th century when Pope Innocent III took it to enhance his overall program of actively concentrating just about all power in the Church in the papacy.

Consequently this massive institution seeks above all to preserve itself. Sexual abuse of children or anyone by members of the sacred elite is potentially disastrous for the image, credibility and hence the power of the Church. The bishops really believe that they are essential to the existence of the Church. Therefore protecting the hierarchy is essential and believed to be God’s will. The popes and the bishops did not have to conspire to keep sexual abuse by clergy buried as deeply as possible. The secretive response is in the blood of the bishops. It is rooted in the fundamental urge to survive. Disruption and disintegration of the monarchical structures of the Church means the end of the system of power and control as we know it. This poses an unthinkable threat to the clergy and to the clerical world. The threat is personal because this world, this monarchical institution, this magical theological support system is the past, present and future of the bishops. It is their source of identity. To change or destroy it is a threat to the very being of the clerics who feed off of it.

To read Thomas Doyle's commentary in its entirety, click here.


  1. 8-19-10 "Not Products of Divine Revelation But of Human Invention "
    Your title reminds me of Thomas Sheehan’s article. In “Revolution in the Church” (The New York Review of Books June 14, 1984) he speaks to the Catholic argument from revelation which seems to shut down either by begging the question, (meaning, the infallible interpreters of revelation must first interpret revelation as constituting them to be infallible) or by taking refuge in a resemblance to Protestantism that places believers as dependent on their personal experience of God’s revelation. If one follows the second way, the same circularity of revelation and faith repeats itself: God’s revelation of himself is what brings faith about; yet only from within faith can the believer know that there has been revelation and what has been revealed.

  2. 8-22-10 I have to respond again to Fr. Tom Doyle’s essay because I think that he’s getting at the heart of some of 21st century Catholicism’s problems. It surely is an excellent start.
    Esteemed progressive Catholics, we have to go back to the beginning. If we do that, I think ‘reform’ will become further ‘progression’ and progression will metamorphose like a pupae or a tadpole. An evolution is occurring. I think that we are in transition from an Axial Age religion to a post-Axial Age faith phenomenon. Tom Doyle speaks to some of the inventions in history.
    But we need scientific biblical-historical scholarship like the kind Pope Pius XII promulgated because we need to get to the very early issues, as fundamental as the incarnation and resurrection beliefs. While talking about scientific scholarship we also need to move to the relevant sciences for a twenty-first century faith. This identifies our belief as a post-Axial Age faith not an Axial Age religion. This will become more apparent as we study the issues. I think the evolution is as dramatic an evolution as an ancient polytheistic system being superseded by a monotheistic system.
    We also need philosophical reasoning (epistemology) to get to belief, justification and knowledge issues. And we need other philosophical reasoning such as critical thinking skills and logic. Catholicism is beset with assumptions that must be challenged. The synod of the baptized is coming up. But a conference even more basic is needed in the future for an authentic transformation that is as radical as is required for the evolution that is at stake.