Pope Francis Condemns 'Clericalism' in Sex Abuse Letter, Echoing the Protestant Reformation

On Monday, Pope Francis released a letter responding to the massive sexual assault crisis involving 1,000 victims and 300 priests in the Roman Catholic Church in Pennsylvania. Francis condemned "clericalism," called the entire Catholic Church to fasting and prayer, and presented the scandal in terms of God's judgment on an unfaithful church. In doing so, he may have inadvertently opened up the debate on clericalism that inspired the Protestant Reformation.

"The heart-wrenching pain of these victims, which cries out to heaven, was long ignored, kept quiet or silenced," Francis wrote in a letter published Monday. "But their outcry was more powerful than all the measures meant to silence it, or sought even to resolve it by decisions that increased its gravity by falling into complicity.  The Lord heard that cry and once again showed us on which side he stands."

The pope quoted the Virgin Mary's song in Luke 1 — known as the "Magnificat." "For the Lord remembers the promise he made to our fathers: 'he has scattered the proud in their conceit; he has cast down the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty,'" Francis quoted from Luke 1:53-54. "We feel shame when we realize that our style of life has denied, and continues to deny, the words we recite."

The pope's decision to quote this part of the Magnificat proved quite significant, as the Catholic Church so often identifies with the Virgin Mary and looks up to her (some would say it verges on worshiping her). For the leader of the Roman Catholic Church to quote the Magnificat as a condemnation of the church's sins is quite significant, and suggests a fitting contrition following such a devastating scandal. It may also open the church up to complaints that it has lost its way.

Pope Francis also quoted Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (who would become Pope Benedict XVI days later) from Good Friday 2005. "How much filth there is in the Church, and even among those who, in the priesthood, ought to belong entirely to [Christ]! How much pride, how much self-complacency! Christ's betrayal by his disciples, their unworthy reception of his body and blood, is certainly the greatest suffering endured by the Redeemer; it pierces his heart. We can only call to him from the depths of our hearts: Kyrie eleison — Lord, save us!"

The pope's letter also urged the Catholic Church to act against such abuse. He called on the faithful to "condemn whatever endangers the integrity of any person," and to "fight all forms of corruption, especially spiritual corruption."

"Saint Paul's exhortation to suffer with those who suffer is the best antidote against all our attempts to repeat the words of Cain: 'Am I my brother's keeper?'" Francis wrote. In this, he compared the sexual assault scandal to the very first murder recorded in the Bible.

Calling the Catholic Church to repentance, Pope Francis added, "I invite the entire holy faithful People of God to a penitential exercise of prayer and fasting, following the Lord's command. This can awaken our conscience and arouse our solidarity and commitment to a culture of care that says 'never again' to every form of abuse."

Besides this, he also expressed support for "the effort and work being carried out in various parts of the world to come up with the necessary means to ensure the safety and protection of the integrity of children and vulnerable adults, as well as implementing zero tolerance and ways of making all those who perpetrate or cover up these crimes accountable" (emphasis added).

"We have delayed in applying these actions and sanctions that are so necessary, yet I am confident that they will help to guarantee a greater culture of care in the present and future," Francis wrote.

The pope also inveighed against clericalism, the idea that consecrated priests and bishops are immune from scrutiny. Francis warned against "a peculiar way of understanding the Church's authority, one common in many communities where sexual abuse and the abuse of power and conscience have occurred."

"Such is the case with clericalism, an approach that 'not only nullifies the character of Christians, but also tends to diminish and undervalue the baptismal grace that the Holy Spirit has placed in the heart of our people,'" Francis wrote, quoting a March 2016 letter of his, "The Hour of the Laity Has Come."

In that letter, Francis praised the Catholic Church in Latin America as an example of how to reject clericalism. The pope emphasized that "a father cannot conceive of himself without his children," adding, "The same goes for us, we are pastors." He insisted that "Lay people are part of the faithful Holy People of God and thus are the protagonists of the Church and of the world; we are called to serve them, not to be served by them."

This mindset of service is central to following the example of Jesus Christ, who "came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Matthew 20:28). Francis warned that clericalism is the opposite of this service mentality.

"Clericalism ... gradually extinguishes the prophetic flame to which the entire Church is called to bear witness in the heart of her peoples," Francis wrote in the 2016 letter. "Clericalism forgets that the visibility and sacramentality of the Church belong to all the People of God (cf. Lumen Gentium, nn. 9-14), not only to the few chosen and enlightened."

In his letter on Monday, Francis echoed these warnings against clericalism, connecting it directly to the sexual abuse scandal.

"Clericalism, whether fostered by priests themselves or by lay persons, leads to an excision in the ecclesial body that supports and helps to perpetuate many of the evils that we are condemning today.  To say 'no' to abuse is to say an emphatic 'no' to all forms of clericalism," the pope wrote.

Many Protestants might object that clericalism is at the center of Roman Catholic theology — the idea that ordinary Christians cannot rightly understand the Bible without the interpretation of the Catholic hierarchy. The Protestant Reformation was based on the idea that all Christians can and should read the Bible for themselves. With these rightful attacks against clericalism, Pope Francis may be opening himself up to the classic Protestant critique.

Catholics would likely respond by saying that this form of clericalism that Francis condemns has nothing to do with the actual position of priests and bishops as interpreters of God's Word, but with the condition of their hearts. Clericalism is the prideful notion that the laity exist to serve the clergy, not the other way around. But the Protestant Reformation is one of the strongest rejections of clericalism, even if Catholics would say it went too far. (Indeed, the Roman Catholic Church went through key reforms after the Protestant Reformation.)

Whatever the results of Francis' powerful denunciation of clericalism, he concluded with a call to repentance for the entire Catholic Church after this most recent and devastating scandal. "It is essential that we, as a Church, be able to acknowledge and condemn, with sorrow and shame, the atrocities perpetrated by consecrated persons, clerics, and all those entrusted with the mission of watching over and caring for those most vulnerable," he wrote. "Let us beg forgiveness for our own sins and the sins of others."

"An awareness of sin helps us to acknowledge the errors, the crimes and the wounds caused in the past and allows us, in the present, to be more open and committed along a journey of renewed conversion," the pope concluded.

Indeed, all Christians should be committed to renewed conversion, as the process of following Jesus Christ involves constant failure and repentance.