Carbon Monoxide Clericalism

Invisible, odorless, and deadly, carbon monoxide clericalism is less a power-trip than a survival mechanism that proves counter-productive. Simply describing it is the first step toward prevention or cure. Then let us all pray for a serious intervention of the Holy Spirit, for without the reform of the priesthood, it is difficult, if not impossible, to renew the Church.

Different manifestations of clericalism have appeared in the course of Church history, and we may have personally experienced various forms in parish settings. It has often been said, in the pre-Vatican II mind-set, that the “Church” meant priests and nuns, while the laity were considered second-class citizens. The ordained enjoyed an ontological superiority by our very identity, and a moral superiority through celibacy and a daily familiarity with holy things. The documents of Vatican II corrected this tendency and struck an admirable balance in the explanation that the ministerial priesthood differs in kind, not only in degree, from the priesthood of the laity) thus acknowledging an ontological distinction (while at the same time insisting that the ministerial priesthood is not a self-promoting caste, but exists to serve the priesthood of the baptized). With a little wisdom, we can appreciate that the simultaneous promotion of the laity and the priesthood, properly understood, enhances the holiness of the Church and advances our mission in the world. Accordingly, carbon monoxide clericalism is a deadly disease that priests and laity must fight together.

I never dreamed that I myself could be living and moving in this atmosphere, and breathing in its spirit. How would I describe this clericalism? Yes, it is invisible, odorless and deadly, but what does that mean exactly? It is the spirit of the world that diminishes our humanity and slowly enslaves us, turning bishops into bureaucrats, priests into functionaries, and parishes into businesses. It stands in stark contrast to the example of Jesus, and our common call to share in the life and love of the Trinity. It is the spirituality of the self-made man: a self-contained, self-sufficient and isolated individual. “Carbon monoxide” may be an apt metaphor because this kind of poisoning—whether literal or spiritual—usually occurs in private, in enclosed spaces, an image of the isolated soul.

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No priests were trained to live this way, as seminaries strive to inculcate the opposite spirit. I found seminary to be a positive, life-giving model of fraternity in community. I enjoyed my time there, but with the understanding that after ordination in my average-sized diocese, I would spend a few years as an associate, then be named a pastor, most likely living alone. But it was the hope, prayer, and expectation of myself and my diocesan brothers that the strong fraternal bonds we formed in seminary would continue in the diocese. Although we might live alone in our own rectory, emotionally and spiritually, we would still receive support and enjoy a sense of belonging, brotherhood, and shared mission. Unfortunately, our monthly fraternal gatherings petered out after a few years. One by one, priests started dropping off the radar, slowly sinking out of sight, their heads submerged under the turbulent waters of the overwhelming demands of their own parish. Unless a priest has a strong inner resolve and determination to swim against the current, it seems almost inevitable that he will drift away into isolation.

The Church is only beginning to form new structures to counter-act the extreme individuality and isolation of Western culture. The lack of fraternal support among priests is a reflection of the moral disintegration and disarray of our society; it is understandable but nonetheless tragic that the Church has succumbed to the spirit of the world in this way, impoverishing the humanity of priests and weakening our witness to the Gospel.

Let us not forget that Jesus himself chose to live and minister with twelve other men, and when he commissioned apostles to proclaim the Kingdom, he sent them out not as lone rangers, but two by two, walking side by side through the villages of Galilee. This does not mean that every priest must join a religious order, but that priesthood by its very nature demands not only intimacy with Christ but also communion and fraternity with other priests.

The Church at the highest levels is aware of the need for more priestly fraternity and communion, as witnessed for instance in last year’s Ratio Fundamentalis from the Congregation of the Clergy. The authors acknowledge, for instance, that personal and community accompaniment are essential aspects of human formation for priests, and express the hope that some sort of “accompaniment” will continue in the life of diocesan clergy.

Our Trinitarian God intends for the Church to be a family, the sacrament of the unity and salvation of the human race, and the priests-fathers of this family must be brothers to one another. If priests manifest little or no interest in spending time with our brother-priests, how effective is our witness and preaching to the lay people on the supremacy of love in the life of a disciple of Jesus? Furthermore, it is also well known that such isolation can contribute to self-destructive tendencies such as alcoholism, pornography, masturbation and other addictions.

Here is not the place to offer a detailed solution to a complex spiritual problem, but it would be extremely helpful if the whole Church—bishops, priests and lay people—would begin to openly discuss this form of clericalism, and offer diocesan priests practical means of support to live a healthier lifestyle.

Ultimately, a spiritual problem demands a spiritual solution. We are dealing with a spiritual stronghold that resists a frontal attack. In my first years of priesthood, I was well-intentioned and high-minded, energetic and idealistic, but also stubborn and independent. Would angry accusations and denunciations have helped convert me? Probably not. In practical terms, an isolated priest caught up in any kind of clericalism first needs a refuge in at least one secure friendship, in which he can open up and be himself without fear of judgment. Hopefully he will then listen to good advice.

But radical personal change is the work of grace, and authentic conversions are gained through suffering love, not driven by the threat of punishment. St. Luke testifies that repentance was one of the immediate fruits of the Crucifixion: the crowds who witnessed the death of Christ returned home “beating their breasts.” And St. John alludes to the redemptive sorrows of our Lady, standing at the foot of the Cross, interceding for the Church. In the divine economy, miraculous transformations only occur through prayer and suffering, in the spirit of love. The quiet work and hidden grace of personal prayer, united above all to the sacrifice of the Mass and the petitions of the Rosary, has power to move mountains, and to heal the deep roots of fear and pride that sustain the stronghold of carbon monoxide clericalism.

There are good reasons for the whole Church to pray and work toward building healthier presbyterates. For the Year for Priests in 2009, Pope Benedict issued a letter that I believe was prophetic but under-appreciated. He wrote that “the ordained ministry has a radical ‘communitarian form’ and can be exercised only in the communion of priests with their bishop. This communion … needs to be translated into various concrete expressions of an effective and affective priestly fraternity. Only thus will priests be able to live fully the gift of celibacy and build thriving Christian communities in which the miracles which accompanied the first preaching of the Gospel can be repeated.” What an astonishing statement! Yet I do not recall much commentary or response. If the pope was proposing an outline of how the miracles of the Acts of the Apostles might be repeated in our times, surely we should stand up and take notice!

In Pope John Paul II’s post-synodal exhortation, Pastores Dabo Vobis, he reminds us that human formation is the basis of all priestly formation. He writes, “of special importance is the capacity to relate to others. This is truly fundamental for a person who is called to be responsible for a community and to be a ‘man of communion’ … people today are often trapped in situations of standardization and loneliness … and they become even more appreciative of the value of communion. Today this is one of the most eloquent signs and one of the most effective ways of transmitting the Gospel message.”

I would like to offer one brief practical example of how fraternity and communion among priests might open the door to the Holy Spirit working new miracles. On a recent diocesan retreat for priests in Ogdensburg, NY, our youthful auxiliary bishop introduced a novelty: after his morning conference in the chapel, we priests were invited to pray over one another, ministering to each other. We had to take a risk and share our vulnerability, asking for prayer in an area of weakness, exposing our need for healing. As priests laid hands on their brothers’ arm or shoulder and prayed aloud, expressing fraternal charity in words and deeds, I realized I was experiencing a concrete instance of effective and affective priestly fraternity! What happened? Like a gentle dewfall, the Advocate and Consoler descended. The same Holy Spirit that flowed more freely among us could potentially overflow to people in our parishes….

Jesus the Divine Son of God, our supreme model of manhood and priesthood, was certainly not a self-made man nor an isolated individual. He was rather a  “man of the Trinity,” a man of communion, out of whom living waters flowed, divine power that healed everyone who touched him. In the Old Testament, many holy men modeled this communion with God and his people—Abraham our father in faith, Moses who spoke with God face to face, David a man after God’s own heart.

In the New Testament, what miraculous graces flowed out from saints such as Peter and Paul! When handkerchiefs that had touched Paul’s skin were brought to the sick, “their diseases left them, and the evil spirits came out of them.” In the presence of Peter, “they even carried out the sick into the streets, and laid them on cots and mats, in order that Peter’s shadow might fall on some of them as he came by.” Consider also the prophetic leaders the Holy Spirit has raised up to lead the Church in these troubled times. Each priest is called to a man of the Trinity, a man of communion. Then the Church can be renewed, and the miracles that accompanied the first preaching of the Gospel can be repeated in our times.


  • Fr. Tim McCauley

    Fr. Tim McCauley is a priest of the Archdiocese of Ottawa. He was received into the Catholic Church in Brooklyn, NY in 1995, and ordained in 2002. He has served in several parishes, as well as vocation director and chaplain at Carleton University. He is currently a priest in residence at St. George’s Parish in Ottawa.

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