The Cambridge Dictionary defines “dressing down” as “an act of speaking angrily to someone because they have done something wrong.” On 24 October 2020, when Zambia was celebrating its anniversary of independence from the United Kingdom 56 years ago, I had my dressing down comeuppance from no less than a Prince of the Catholic Church, a Zambian Catholic bishop. It needs to be said that this is no random and nondescript bishop but a former student of mine, a former priest-colleague and a friend for whom I have a lot of esteem. Privately, I have even expressed the opinion that he may be the next cardinal of Zambia before he retires as bishop at the age of 75. At 51 years going 52, he is one of the youngest Catholic bishops. For this reason, this is somewhat heart-wrenching. I just hope the clues I have shared do not “out” him as I still harbour a lot of respect for him as a friend and for the dignity of his office, despite the 12-year gap in age. I am reliving this comeuppance 48 hours later, not as a form of sadomasochistic self-flagellation but to try and get some catharsis after observing whether or not the outrage occasioned by my irritant of lay person behaviour was universally shared. A part of me was even hoping, bizarrely that the bishop’s Facebook account was hacked by some malicious ultra-right Catholic impersonating him and putting me in my place. Alas, this was not the case. The dressing down came from his own episcopal hands as a text message I sent and the reply telephone call confirmed. We spoke for 30 minutes to the effect that the Facebook post was a reflection of the consensus of the Zambia Conference of Bishops. When I was lecturing at St Mary’s University in London, I invited him to come for a visit to explore collaborative provision with the Zambia Catholic University. When he returned home to present the case of my returning to Zambia as Vice Chancellor, the proposal was thrown out with the contempt it deserved. My reputation or better notoriety had preceded me. The episcopal dressing down comeuppance was the culmination of the bad blood between me and the conference of bishops. In this article, I examine and try to explain this uneasy symbiosis as a manifestation of clericalism in the Catholic Church. If not addressed, it is likely to fester like a cancerous diabetic wound and leave the Catholic Church globally and in Zambia locally in the Stone Age. At the moment, there is insufficient lay theological literacy to give clericalism the boot for the foreseeable future.
Anatomy of an Episcopal Dressing Down
On 22 October 2020, I posted what I describe below as the error of my recent ways. At the time of writing, there have been 39 comments responding to my Facebook post. Most of the comments were complementary. “Well articulated! Always proud to read your insightful writings!” said the first one. “May I share this Tarcisius? Facebook doesn’t seem to give me that option so I would at least like to copy and paste it, with your permission” said my UK friend Jeremy Marks. There was more than a hint of sarcasm from my friend Monica Woodall, “Angels on the point of a pin springs to mind” (Facebook post, 22 October 2020). Chikonde Kasonde response was affirming, “I am afraid, you must have read my mind, though for lack of professional terminology, I fall short of yours, as I remain your student and a professor like you in the making” (Facebook post, 23 October 2020). Eugenio Cardinale Mwila’s comment was interesting as I suspect this may have been mistakenly the source of the bishop’s comment, “In your first posting on this issue you nearly misdirected some of your followers but you were corrected in good time” (Facebook post, 24 October 2020). But his “correction” was a response to an earlier post, “This is likely to be a bombshell whatever side of the divide you are on but here is a CBS announcement of the papal bombshell. I am interested to hear from friends. Unfortunately, the movie “Francesco” where the Pope expresses his view to accept same-sex civil unions is not available on open forum. You might want to throw in Amoris Laetitiae (par 250‒251) into the fray for good measure” (Facebook Post, 22 October 2020).
Presumably, this was the correction: “Devoid of any magisterial weight because of context and occasion of such declarations, unfortunately private opinions have a way of seemingly endless repudiation of Church teaching tradition and Scripture even when made by a person holding the office and ministry of Supreme Pontiff and Successor of Peter especially when the same opinions are deliberately overstretched by the quest for confirmation biases of the gay and liberal agenda who affectionately assign Papa Francesco as a progressive which he might be to some stretch” (Facebook Post, 23 October 2020). I read this correction differently from the bishop who chided me. I thought it was a response to the Media frenzy occasioned by the Pope’s alleged endorsement of same-sex civil unions unleashed by Media reports on 22 October 2020 such as CBS News to which I had posted a link in my Facebook post.i My initial reaction to this news was that something must have been lost in translation and that we were being given the unedited interview as the same CBS News bore me out two days later.ii
In the middle of the Facebook “intercourse” as my friend would say, tongue-in-cheek, was the dressing down to which I responded. My immediate response to the episcopal dressing down was, “Thanks bishop. I resist responding publicly but have instead sent you a private message [via Messenger ]. I do not think it is proper for me to trade arguments on such a forum with any of my bishops” (Facebook post, 24 October 2020). I think this was the proper way to deal with it. I reserved the responses to the bishop’s dressing down via Messenger, away from the prying and voyeuristic eyes of Facebook. The bishop did to respond to them but as I have noted above, we have had a 30-minute clearing of the air as I was getting out of a taxi on my way to give a lecture on “On Defining Religion and Religious Language.” This was terra firma in comparison to the entente cordiale I just had with a prince of the Catholic Church. Whatever it achieved, it confirmed one thing for me: why clericalism is still the bête noire in the Catholic Church. I suspect that this reflection is not likely to endear me to my local episcopal conference. Let me now present verbatim posts below which are in italics, preceded by an epexegetically crafted note.
The Error of My Recent Ways
The following is a verbatim record of my Facebook post which generated the episcopal dressing down. I admit that the remark about “serial heterosexual fornicators” receiving “holy communion while living with a partner with whom they are not legally or sacramentally married in Church” could have set him off. I quickly took note of that and corrected the copy submitted to GRIN academic publishing as follows: “Technically, gay couples would not be considered sacramentally or canonically married in the eyes of the Church. Critics of the Pope would consider this a canonical own goal. They would argue, misguidedly I think, that it gives licence to serial heterosexual fornicators to receive holy communion while living with a partner with whom they are not legally or sacramentally married in Church. They could easily argue for all we know that they are living as brother and sister or simply sharing rent as platonic flatmates.” But now here is the text that set off the bishop-lay person theological ding-dong.
Yes and no, there has been both a change and also no change in the Catholic Church’s approach to homosexuality and same-sex civil unions. There have been no changes on the moral, doctrinal, sacramental or canonical fronts. Marriage is still between a man and a woman — between Adam and Eve. But there is definite change on the pastoral front, at least in the eyes of Pope Francis. In keeping with his signature tune of compassion, gay people need to be treated with dignity as daughters and sons of God. As to whether they can have full access to the full plethora of sacramental and para-liturgical services available to every Christian remains to be spelt out such as when a gay couple adopts a child or one of them sires a child using a surrogate womb, whether they would be allowed to have their child baptised. As for Holy communion, this is going to be tricky. Technically, gay couples would not be considered sacramentally or canonically married in the eyes of the Church. This is a canonical own goal. It allows serial heterosexual fornicators to receive holy communion while living with a partner with whom they are not legally or sacramentally married in Church. They could easily argue for all we know that they are living as brother and sister or simply sharing rent as platonic flatmates. I do not see the Catholic Church levelling the playing field and putting sacramental heterosexual marriage on a par with civil unions or same-sex partnerships for reasons I have argued above, including the possible deposing of whichever Pope would countenance such a seismic change. We may have to wait for a ruling on that at the second coming by which time it will be too late to make any difference [ Facebook post, 22 October 2020].
The Episcopal Dressing Down
Now, here is the dressing down in full. The only thing that sounded familiar was the way the bishop addressed me deferentially. The rest came across as rude, especially the remark, “When are you going to crunch, swallow it and settle nicely in your new way of life? Could you also write about the good things that the Church does and has also done to you?” It just did not sound like the bishop I knew who, presumably has my contact numbers in his mobile phone. The metaphor “When are you going to crunch” sounded pedestrian, if not vulgar and un-episcopal, if as I understand the verb “crunch” meant “to crush hard or brittle foodstuff with the teeth, making a loud but muffled grinding sound” in reference to my “new way of life.”
Greetings to you. I have failed to resist commenting slightly on your posting. You seem to have a bone to chew with the Church. When are you going to crunch, swallow it and settle nicely in your new way of life? Could you also write about the good things that the Church does and has also done to you? In your first posting on this issue you nearly misdirected some of your followers but you were corrected in good time. The Pope has not drifted in any way on this issue but has only re-echoed his pastoral approach of sympathy to homosexuals and not to homosexuality. Let me quote you as written in the above text, “It allows serial [fornicators] to receive holy communion.” Are you sure the Church allows them or they allow themselves to do that in the Church? It’s not my intention to stop you from commenting on a number of issues concerning the Church. However, knowing you as someone who has formed many people in the Church and now teaches in other institutions of higher learning, a bit of restraint may be required of you so as not to distract the differently abled intellectuals who may not be as highly gifted as you are. Just my humble opinion [ Facebook post, 24 October 2020].
Response to the Dressing Down
I was glad that the bishop was quick to remind me that “It’s not my intention to stop you from commenting on a number of issues concerning the Church.” In fact, he could not stop me even if he wanted to or tried. He was offering me what was not in his gift either to give or refuse. In my defence, I am a fan of Pope Francis and I am prepared to defend him to the hilt but if there are aspects such as clericalism that need critiquing, not even the Pope is going to stop me, especially that on this musical score the Pope and I are singing from the same hymn sheet.
Thanks for your response to my posts. Because of my respect for you and your office I would prefer to be carpeted more privately. It is a pity what I posted was an abstract from a longer piece in which I defend the Pope. The bit about serial fornicators was an imaginary response of critics of the Pope rather than my view or criticism and I am happy to revisit this to clarify this in my longer piece. I am somewhat disappointed at the tone of “You seem to have a bone to chew with the Church. When are you going to crunch, swallow it and settle nicely in your new way of life?” The insinuation being that I have not settled in my new way of life which is now 22 years and counting. I regret any insinuation that I have a bone to pick with the Church. In fact, I spent the whole of yesterday putting out the fires of those who were intimating that the Pope had changed his mind. I am a great follower of Francis and would defend him to the hilt. On writing nice things, I have just finished a book on “Fratelli Tutti.” I have to be honest the words about having a bone to chew hurt me deeply. I thought we had a rapport where you could have tried to ascertain the intent of my post before the public dressing down, which I hasten to add is your prerogative. Further to my earlier message. I reproduce the introduction to the longer piece I mention. iii “This short article expands and justifies my view that the Pope does not say anything new nor has he re-written Catholic moral and sacramental theology on homosexuality and same-sex partnerships. I ask two questions: Does the Pope’s endorsement of same-sex unions signify a change in the Catholic Church’s teaching on marriage and homosexuality? What has Pope Francis said about same-sex unions in the past? Surprisingly, the answers to both questions are fairly straightforward. Marriage is still a covenant between a man and a woman — a relationship which is open to the generation of new life. Same sex partnerships or unions cannot be put in the same basket” [ Facebook Messenger, 24 October 2020].
What has Clericalism got to do with All this?
The short answer is, everything. The above exchange between a prince of the Church and an errant ex-priest now prying his trade as a lay theologian or masquerading as one masks a bigger problem: clericalism. Having resigned from the ministerial priesthood since 7 May 1997 after a 14-year career as a man of the cloth, I have effectively lost my place at the high table of ecclesiastical leadership. To be fair to the hierarchy, even as a priest I was considered a loose cannon. I recently asked my local bishop to provide a foreword and an Imprimatur for my forthcoming publication, A House among Houses: The Catholic Parish in a Century of Change. I have met my local ordinary twice and emailed him twice with the full manuscripts in the last three months. Let’s just say the omens are not good as my entente cordiale with the prince of the Catholic Church confirmed.
Using the above exchange, I now address clericalism in the Catholic Church. Just so that we are on the same page, what is clericalism and why is it such a bête noire ? I think Russell Shaw answers both questions adequately. “By ‘clericalism’ I mean an elitist mindset, together with structures and patterns of behaviour corresponding to it, which takes it for granted that clerics — in the Catholic context, mainly bishops and priests — are intrinsically superior to the other members of the Church and deserve automatic deference. Passivity and dependency are the laity’s lot. By no means is clericalism confined to clerics themselves. The clericalist mindset is widely shared by the Catholic lay people.”iv
I think this elitist mindset must go back at least as far back as patriarchal religion, when men appropriated the original worship of earth mother goddess. The ensuing specialisation in the cult by men began to be used as an instrument of power. This could easily have taken place already some two thousand years before the birth of Jesus Christ. In an earlier article showing the link between clericalism and the sex abuse scandal, Russell Shaw was right to opine that “Clericalism in the Catholic Church is something like the pattern in the wallpaper: it’s been there so long you don’t see it anymore. That may be why, amid all the demands for change in response to the scandal of clergy sex abuse, more has not been heard about clericalism and the need to get rid of it once and for all. Yet clericalism and the clericalist culture are at the heart of this noxious episode.”v
I am interested in the above quotation from the clericalism angle but I do take the point that “when sex abuse occurs in a clericalist context, the situation takes on a distinctively clericalist coloration that makes matters worse.”vi In Africa, rather than child sex abuse, our Achilles Heel is sexual abuse of women, including nuns being forced to abort, for instance. As for the silent children of such abuse, we are not even prepared to talk about them, even when the Congregation for the Clergy have acknowledged this problem. It is a Pandora’s Box best left hermetically sealed. Jesus Christ found and fought such religious clericalism. He was realistic enough that he was not going to dismantle it in one day and counselled his followers to do what the religious leaders say rather than follow what they do.
i CBS News, 22 October 2020, “Pope Francis endorses same-sex civil unions for the first time as Pontiff,” https://www.cbsnews.com/news/pope-francis-endorses-same-sex-civil-unions/, accessed on 22.10.2020
ii Anna Matranga, 24 October 2020, “The intrigue behind Pope Francis’ ‘bombshell’ comments on same-sex civil unions,” CBS News, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/pope-francis-same-sex-civil-unions-interview-bombshell-comments/, accessed on 26.10.2020
iii Academic article, “Pope Francis on Convivencia Civil and a Movie called Francesco: Is there a Change in Catholic Church Teaching on Same-Sex Unions?” The article has been submitted to the German publisher, GRIN Academic publishing on 25.10.2020
iv Russell Shaw (2008), Nothing to hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church, San Francisco CA: St Ignatius Press, page 15
v Russell Shaw, 3 June 2002, “Clericalism and the Sex Abuse Scandal,” America the Jesuit Review, https://www.americamagazine.org/issue/375/article/clericalism-and-sex-abuse-scandal, accessed on 13.07.2020
- Quote paper
- Dr Tarcisius Mukuka (Author), 2020, Anatomy of an Episcopal Dressing Down and Clericalism. A Prince of the Catholic Church and an Ecclesial Irritant, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/948402