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'Clericalism' spells disaster in China

Many criticisms, posted as internet analysis, point to corruption, hunger for power

A mass of priestly ordination in northern China A mass of priestly ordination in northern China
  • Father Paulus Gan, Shijiazhuang
  • China
  • October 18, 2011
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As more Church scandals and challenges surface, an atmosphere of criticism and self-examination has taken shape within the Church in China.

Many Church websites and a few Catholic newspapers have dispensed with traditional messages of evangelism and spirituality and have instead focused on disunity and conflict within communities to help the Church confront hardships and resolve them.

It is not difficult to see that many such criticisms, often posted as internet comments or analysis pieces, point to corruption, vulgar manners, a hunger for power and even sexual scandal (as yet unverified) among some clergy.

As a Catholic priest, I feel ashamed about these examples of bad behavior, either read about in the media or witnessed personally in the clergy around me.

In particular, I feel sorry for laypeople who have devoted themselves to the service of God and the Church, and who give generously of their time and work for the clergy.

I have reflected deeply on these matters, and I am left with the question: What has happened to the clergy in China?

The same question came to me while studying theology abroad as news broke of widespread sexual abuse among the clergy in Europe and the United States. But I did not know then that I would confront similar examples of misconduct at home.

But as the Chinese expression weiji connotes, wherever there is crisis, there are opportunities.

American Jesuit Fr George Wilson captured the essence of the problem in a book called Clericalism: The Death of Priesthood, which was written in response to the many cases of alleged sexual abuse by priests in the US.

Wilson analyzed the causes and effects of clerical corruption and identified the emergence of a “clerical culture” that misrepresented and even altered the fundamental meaning of the priesthood.

By this process, Wilson explained, the clerics ascribe to themselves powers and honors they were never intended to possess, thereby depriving the faithful of a common priesthood and transforming the “ministerial or hierarchical priesthood” (Lumen Gentium 10) into something to be flaunted and misused. The result, inevitably, is hypocrisy, corruption, power-grabbing and a widening gap between the faithful and their clerical leaders.

In China, this phenomenon is fostered by the mentality of patriarchy and class differentiation inherent in Chinese society. Division and dysfunction within local Church communities further reinforces these problems.

We cannot help but say that the first step towards reconciliation and renewal is to remove the conditions by which clericalism manifests in order to establish a healthy, egalitarian and loving environment within the Church.

To this end, the clergy and laity must each be made aware of the dangers of clericalism and its devastating effects on the Church. Rather, clergy and laity must work together to create a Gospel-oriented Church.

It is the responsibility of the whole Church not to idolize anyone or cover up evidence of wrongdoing out of deference to identity or position.

Meanwhile, everyone in the Church must strive to correct wrong ideas formulated through a misunderstanding of the nature and purpose of the priesthood. We must hope and pray that, by making good use of the gifts given to each of us by the same Spirit, we will let the identity and role of “priest, king, and prophet” commonly held through the function of baptism.

Should we do so, then the days of blue skies and white clouds for the Church in China will not be too far away.

Father Paulus Gan is the pen-name of a priest who comes from a traditional Catholic family in northern China. He was ordained abroad in 2006, the same year he completed his study in Mission Theology and Church History. He is a commentator of Hebei Faith Press.

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