What explains the ongoing Roman Catholic decline in Europe and the Americas?

A Catholic renaissance in theology, liturgical understanding, art and social thought in the West had flowered in John XXIII’s Second Vatican Council. After centuries of post-Reformation reaction, pastoral concerns would take the fore. The People of God would engage the world. The world cheered.

That great promise quickly faded. Paul VI’s 1968 rejection of his commission’s recommendation to end the birth control prohibition dismissed reason and collegiality and dodged a major pastoral challenge. Vatican curial power remained unbroken. Tens of thousands of priests and religious abandoned their posts, not to be replaced. The election of John Paul II quickly signaled a determined retreat in fear from change.

The church’s increasing disarray since is blamed on that retreat, secularism, the ’60s, priest shortages, weak family life, preoccupation with sexual issues, the priest abuse scandal, and a failed celibate patriarchal culture. Although clericalism has long plagued the church, especially in Ireland and here, it is rarely mentioned. It should be.

As the Rev. John Celichowski, provincial minister of the Capuchin St. Joseph Province, observed recently, clericalism takes root in the isolated preparation for the priesthood which occasions a sense of superiority; a notion that priests are inevitable paragons of truth, and an illusion of immunity from accountability.

Respect for priests and church authority have made American laity highly susceptible to clericalism’s sway. But the now best-educated laity in church history is increasingly disinclined to accept “Father said” or arbitrary orders in lieu of persuasion.

Reviewing post-Vatican II history, clericalism seems omnipresent. Fear of compromising church authority by abandoning the birth control prohibition blocked change, but that explanation could not be voiced. Having been told that Catholic philosophical and theological society memberships found the prohibition indefensible, I looked for solid argument in Humanae Vitae. Arriving at the last paragraph, I had found none.

John Paul II’s and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s condemnation of Leonardo Boff’s book on an alternative church structure of community and equality (being realized in Latin American base communities), which Ratzinger had praised in dissertation form but now viewed “from a different perspective,” led to Rome’s ill-informed and disastrous hostility to liberation theology. The spring of the preferential option for the poor fast turned to winter and storefront Protestant churches multiplied.

Few are persuaded by Rome’s response to those born gay: “Sorry.” Portland Bishop Richard Malone’s campaign against same-sex marriage, denying to homosexuals civil rights he does not object to granting divorcees, appealing to fear of homosexuality being taught, and resorting to bullying, reflects this undue righteousness.

Misplaced righteousness leads to removal of bishops and superiors without any transparent process and invites dismissal of outspoken laity as “uncatholic” or “divisive” — without substantiation or explanation. Lay concerns may be ignored.

Celichowski calls on committed laity to push back against clericalism and to demand accountability. Pushing back against clerical power is, of course, not easy, especially when many fellow Catholics, weaned on it, confuse its demands with being faithful. Unfortunately, many Catholics, feeling unwanted, just go.