Clericalism and theology of freedom

Leaving space for the conscience of the faithful, without trying to replace it, and at the same time helping them in the formation of their conscience, is an exciting and possible task.

Ángel Rodríguez Luño -January 9, 2019-Reading time: 10 minutes

This reflection stems from Pope Francis' criticism of clericalism, a vitiated mentality and attitude that is the cause of many evils. Francis has referred to this deformed mentality on various occasions and in different contexts, some of them very sad, such as that of the Letter to the People of God August 20, 2018.

We will not deal here with these problems, nor will we attempt an exegesis of the Pope's words. These were only the occasion to reflect on a broader problem of which clericalism is only a part. In my opinion, the deepest root of clericalism - and of other phenomena related or similar to it - is the misunderstanding of the value of freedom or, perhaps, the subordination of its value to others that seem more important or more urgent, such as, for example, security and equality. The phenomenon does not occur only, and perhaps not even primarily, in the ecclesiastical sphere, but has multiple manifestations in the civil sphere.

Freedom is a reality that is difficult to grasp and has many mysterious aspects. Two questions of fundamental importance are particularly complex: the freedom of creation and the creation of freedom; that is, that God's creative act is entirely free and that it is possible to create true freedom. Here I will deal only with the second question.

God created human beings free
It is not easy to understand how God can create authentic freedom. The Church has taught this tirelessly. Thus, for example, the Constitution Gaudium et spes, of the Second Vatican Council, affirms that "True freedom is an eminent sign of the divine image in man. God has willed to leave man in the hands of his own decision so that he may spontaneously seek his Creator and, freely adhering to him, attain full and blessed perfection." (n. 17)

However, many think that, framed within the general plans of divine providence and government, very little really depends on human freedom. After all, as they say, God is capable of writing straight with crooked lines. That is, even if men do wrong, God is able to put everything right and the result is good. On the other hand, from the theoretical point of view, it is not easy to conceive as definitive a power of choice and action that is caused or given by another.

The debates on divine contest and predestination, as well as the famous controversy of auxiliisare a sufficient example. From a different philosophical perspective, the same difficulty made Kant think that human autonomy is incompatible with any kind of presence of God and his law in human moral behavior. In my opinion, the Christian theology of creation should lead one to see things differently.

In creating man and woman in his image and likeness, God fulfilled his plan to place before them true partners, capable of sharing in the goodness and fullness of God. For this to happen, they had to be truly free, that is, able to recognize and autonomously affirm the good because it is good (which inevitably entails the possibility of denying the good and affirming the evil). To obey necessarily and with complete exactitude the cosmic laws that manifest the greatness and power of God there are already the stars of heaven; only with freedom appear the divine image and likeness, whose value is far superior to that of the forces of the universe.

Indeed, man's free adherence to God is worth more than the starry sky. So much so that God prefers to accept the risk of man's misuse of freedom rather than to deprive him of it. Certainly, the suppression of freedom would avoid the possibility of evil (and, with it, all suffering); however, it would also make impossible the most valuable good, the only one that truly reflects divine goodness.

That is why God assumes human freedom with all its risks. The wisdom literature of the Old Testament expressed this beautifully: "It was he who at first made man, and left him in the hands of his own free will. If thou wilt, thou shalt keep the commandments, that thou mayest remain faithful to his good pleasure. He hath set before thee fire and water, whither thou wilt thou mayest put thine hand. Before men is life and death, whichever each one prefers, it will be given to him." (Sirach 15:14-17). Man is free to prefer life or death, but whichever he prefers will be given to him.

Free, with all the consequences

Because God creates true freedom and assumes its risks, it is not clear that he wanted to give man a safety net - like the one that protects the tightrope walkers in the circus - to neutralize the serious consequences of its possible misuse. It is true that God takes care of us through his providence, but he does so by granting us an active participation in it. With our intelligence we are able to know better and better the reality in which we live and to distinguish what is good for us from what is bad for us. To freedom is united the capacity and the obligation for each one to provide for himself, and our provision is respected.

To be more precise - and with regard above all to moral guilt and not so much to the penalties that have their origin in it - the mercy of God has given us a certain safety net: Redemption. In fact, the very painful way in which it was carried out, through the blood of Christ (cf. Ephesians 1:7-8), makes it clear that it is not simply a "clean slate". On the contrary, the Creator takes man's freedom radically seriously. It is not a game, and therefore God does not prevent the unfolding of the consequences of our actions in their connection with those of others and with the laws that govern the material world, the psychic and moral equilibrium, and the social and economic order. It is true that the benevolence and grace of God help us, but they presuppose the free human decision to cooperate with them. As we read in the Letter to the Romans: "All things work together for good to those who love God." (Romans 8:28).

However difficult it may be to understand from a theoretical point of view, human freedom represents a truly absolute point, framed in a relative context and dependent on God. It is due to my freedom that some things do not exist that could have existed if I had made another decision. And to my freedom it is also due that there are some things that might not have existed if my decision had been different.

Nor can man's natural sociability serve as an alibi for obscuring the value of freedom. Human society is a society of beings free. With regard to solidarity, the theology of creation emphasizes that all people are equal before God. They are equally his children, and therefore brothers and sisters to one another. Particularly in the New Testament, solidarity is reinforced and surpassed by charity, which constitutes the core of Christ's moral message. However, two observations must be made to show that the interpretation of solidarity and charity cannot be to the detriment of freedom and responsibility, which entails the obligation to provide for oneself unless circumstances such as illness, old age, etc. prevent it. The first is that charity towards those in need cannot be understood as a license for some to live voluntarily at the expense of others. St. Paul says this in no uncertain terms: "For even when we were with you we gave you this rule: if anyone is unwilling to work, let him not eat. [...] We command and exhort you in the Lord Jesus Christ to eat your own bread by laboring quietly." (2 Thessalonians 3:10,12).

The second is that Christian charity presupposes Christ's teaching on the distinction between the political order and the religious order: give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's (cf. Matthew 22:21). A fusion in this area would prevent the existence of charity which, by its very essence, is a free act. The parable of the rich man Epulon and the poor man Lazarus contains a harsh condemnation of those who make a selfish and unscrupulous use of their goods, failing to fulfill their grave obligation to help those in need. However, it does not say - nor does it suggest - that the coercive force of the State should be used to deprive the fortunate of their goods, so that the public authority can then redistribute them. Christ teaches, in short, that we should be willing to voluntarily help those in need. In no passage of the New Testament is the violent suppression of legitimate liberty authorized in the name of solidarity or charity.


Thus we come to the question that opened these pages. The dictionary of the Royal Spanish Academy has three meanings of the word "clericalism": 1) excessive influence of the clergy in political affairs; 2) excessive intervention of the clergy in the life of the Church, which impedes the exercise of the rights of the other members of the people of God; 3) marked affection and submission to the clergy and their directives. These meanings give a sufficient idea of the phenomenon, but they would need updating. It does not seem that today the clergy can have an excessive influence on political affairs. It does not even want to, among other things because these matters have assumed a complexity that is too great and too heavy for those who are not politicians by profession.

More significant, however, is the word with which clerical intervention is qualified: it is a question of "excessive" interventions. And excess is not essentially a question of quantity or breadth, but of direction. Clericalism is excessive because it is illiberal: it invades and overrides the legitimate freedom of other persons or institutions, in the civil or ecclesiastical sphere. Thus, instead of making possible the exercise of personal freedom, it tries to direct it in an almost forced way towards what is considered -perhaps for good reasons- better, truer and more desirable. This is why I said at the beginning that, in my opinion, clericalism presupposes a deficient understanding of the theology of freedom (of its value in the eyes of God), and consequently of the theology of creation.

If I must be fair, I must make it clear that in my more than 40 years of priesthood I have rarely seen the clerical mentality among priests who, because of their pastoral assignments, are in close contact with the faithful. It is easier to find it among those who, for one reason or another, live among books or papers, and have little occasion to appreciate the human competence and Christian wisdom often displayed by the lay faithful. I will now refer to a few aspects of clericalism; a complete treatment of the subject would require, as is logical, much more space.

Some expressions of clericalism

The first expression, which has already appeared in these pages, is the scant valuation of human freedom. It may be considered a good, a gift of God, but it is certainly not the most important. In its relationship to the good, freedom contains a paradox: without good, freedom is empty or even harmful; without freedom, no good is possible. human. The clerical mentality always tips the balance in favor of the good, and in extreme cases is willing to sacrifice freedom on the altar of the good. In this way it seems to forget that God's logic is different, for He did not want to suppress our freedom in order to avoid its misuse. There is a tendency to see freedom as a problem, when in fact it is the presupposition that makes it possible to resolve any conflict well.

The underestimation of freedom is followed by an underestimation of sin. And this is not because of a belief in divine compassion (which, thank God, is very great, and to which the writer of these pages is committed), but because we do not realize that God's respect for us does not allow him to treat us like unconscious children. If this were so, men would offend, kill, destroy... but then the Father would come to repair what was destroyed, and the game would end well for all, both for the victims and for the criminals. The New Testament does not allow us to think like this. It is enough to read the passage of chapter 25 of St. Matthew about the final judgment. Precisely because he created us really God treats us neither as children nor as irresponsible puppets. The attitude that we criticize has nothing to do with the "spiritual childhood path". of which saints such as Thérèse of Lisieux and Josemaría Escrivá speak, and which is placed in the very different context of spiritual theology. This "way" has nothing to do with softness or superficial irresponsibility, and is perfectly compatible-as the lives of these two saints demonstrate-with a radical affirmation of human freedom.

Third, the undervaluation of freedom also occurs in the civil sphere. For some, citizens would be incapable paupers to whom the state should provide universal protection, as broad as possible, without even asking them if they need or want it. With such protection, it is apparently given free of charge but in reality it has very high costs, both economic and, above all, anthropological. The omnipresent and invasive State is described by Tocqueville as "An immense and tutelary power that is responsible only to ensure the enjoyment of citizens and to watch over their fate. Absolute, meticulous, regular, careful and benign, it would resemble the paternal power, if its aim were to prepare men for manhood; but, on the contrary, it seeks only to fix them irrevocably in childhood and wants citizens to enjoy themselves, provided that they think only of enjoying themselves [...]. In this way, it makes every day less useful and rarer the use of free will, encloses the action of liberty in a narrower space, and gradually takes away from every citizen even the use of himself." (Democracy in America, III, IV, 6). This is not an image of the past. Even today it is very common for parties to try to achieve their own political ideals by trampling on the freedom of those who think differently, and sometimes they even want to eliminate them. Respect for the freedom of the political adversary is a precious stone that we rarely find in today's world.

My last point concerns the idea that, by virtue of our good intentions, God will stop the consequences of the natural processes that we freely set in motion. It is as if charity could spare us the knowledge of the laws and wills of created things - and, in particular, of human society - to which the Second Vatican Council referred with the expression "the laws and wills of nature". "just autonomy of earthly realities". According to Gaudium et spes: "By the very nature of creation, all things are endowed with consistency, truth and goodness of their own and their own regulated order, which man must respect with the recognition of the particular methodology of each science or art." (n. 36). The clerical mentality, on the other hand, speaks of earthly things without knowing well their genesis, their consistency and their development; it applies to these realities principles that correspond to other spheres of reality and, thus, proposes measures that end up producing the opposite of what was intended. An example of the latter can be seen when one moves from the religious plane to the political plane - and from the latter to the former - with astonishing ease. Political or economic problems are attempted to be solved without taking into account basic principles of political or economic reality, thus violating the reality of things.

Added to this is the tendency to explain everything only for their ultimate causes. If we open a book on universal history, we will see that there have been numerous wars. By affirming that all of them have their cause in human malice or in original sin, we say something true, but that, by explaining everything, ends up explaining nothing (at least, if we are interested in understanding what happened and in preventing future conflicts). For a similar reason, a language made up of words of vague meaning is used, as for example "human dignity", that establish empty consensuses. To continue with the example of dignity, it is the case that everyone defends it, but the different subjects (or groups) do so in order to defend behaviors that are contradictory to each other. In this way, a nominal agreement on dignity can be reached, but it is ultimately a false consensus among people who, in reality, agree on almost nothing. The result is that, in the end, public discourse is reduced to pure rhetoric.

I have only wanted to point out some of the consequences of clericalism. Enough to understand that a serious reflection on these problems is necessary. This will be for the good of all, and first and foremost for the Church. Indeed, the vindication of freedom, in which the image of God in man is reflected, can only mean a boost for the People of God and for all of us who are part of it. Fortunately, there is now a set of circumstances that allow us to hope that such a reflection will take place.

The authorÁngel Rodríguez Luño 

Professor of Fundamental Moral Theology
Pontifical University of the Holy Cross (Rome)

In collaboration with
Do you want independent, truthful and relevant news?

Dear reader, Omnes reports with rigor and depth on religious news. We do a research work that allows the reader to acquire criteria on the events and stories that happen in the Catholic sphere and the Church. We have star signatures and correspondents in Rome who help us to make the background information stand out from the media noise, with ideological distance and independence.

We need you to face the new challenges of a changing media landscape and a reality that demands reflection, we need your support.

In collaboration with
More on Omnes
La Brújula Newsletter Leave us your email and receive every week the latest news curated with a catholic point of view.