Clericalism will undo the Catholic Church

A lavish lifestyle that included over $2 million in travel expenses for chartered jets and luxury hotels. An average monthly alcohol expenditure of nearly $1,000. Funds in excess of $4 million to refurbish an executive mansion. Purchases exceeding $60,000 from Ann Hand — a D.C. jewelry boutique specializing in patriotic items like gold and silver sapphire eagles.

These and other tawdry details flow from a recent report about the Most Reverend Michael J. Bransfield, the former Catholic bishop of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, W.Va. The report was submitted to the Vatican by Baltimore's Archbishop William Lori.

Yet more bad news for the American Catholic hierarchy. Another steaming pile of scandal that will dominate the agenda of the bishops’ June meeting in Baltimore this week. Yet another direct assault on the sensibilities and strained loyalty of the Catholic faithful.

At least this latest round of unseemly news about a member of the exclusive club known as the American bishops was able to steer clear of the specter of sexual impropriety, right?

Well, no, not exactly.

Bishop Bransfield, the report alleges, had a rather pronounced penchant for sexually harassing young Catholic priests and seminarians. The good news is that none of them were minors. Thank God for small favors. We've reached the point at which "routine" sexual harassment — if there even is such a thing — is a relief when it comes to news stories about the leadership of the Catholic Church. It is difficult to imagine the bar getting any lower. But, of course, it will.

Until and unless the church addresses the root cause of its institutional dysfunction, the downward spiral will continue. And that root cause is evident for all to see: clericalism.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary definition of clericalism says it all — "a policy of maintaining or increasing the power of religious hierarchy." In the Catholic Church, clericalism has reached its perfect apogee.

Tracing the arc of the religious career of Michael J. Bransfield is a textbook example of clericalism at its worst. Over the course of his tenure as the Catholic bishop of West Virginia, among the poorest states in the nation, Mr. Bransfield disbursed gifts amounting to $350,000 in cash to powerful cardinals and bishops including Archbishop Lori of Baltimore, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York; Cardinal Raymond Burke of the Vatican; and disgraced Cardinals Bernard Law, who was forced to resign as Boston’s archbishop in 2002 for his role in covering up child abuse by priests there (he died in 2017), and Theodore McCarrick , who resigned last year amid allegations he sexually abused children and adults over decades.

As clerical power has congealed over the centuries into a small group of elderly, celibate, mostly white men, its corrosive and corrupting influence has brought Catholicism to its current crisis. And clericalism continues to interfere with and undermine the core mission with which the church has been entrusted — to proclaim the gospel message of Christ Jesus. Clericalism and the gospel message are absolutely antithetical. There are no two ways about it.

Only God, it appears, can save the church from itself.

Let us pray that She will do so — and quickly.

Stephen J. Stahley (sjs51philly@gmail.com) is a resigned, married Catholic priest and former member of the Missionary Servants of the Most Holy Trinity of Silver Spring, Md.

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