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A reflection on clerical dominance in Indonesia

The modern Church seems to have lost the very important dimensions of spirituality and sacredness

A reflection on clerical dominance in Indonesia

The prayer park grave of Divine Word missionary Father Hendricus Coenradus Beeker in the village of Lerek on Lembata island. The Dutch priest was murdered in 1956. (Photo: UCA News)

I grew up in a Catholic village in an eastern Indonesian island called Lembata. The village is a part of Kalikasa Parish. Kalikasa is the name of a village that became the parish center, about 6 kilometers from my village of Lewokukung. The parish comprised several villages, and there were no roads for bikes or motorbikes, let alone cars. There were only small dirt paths to be travelled on foot or on horse.

Due to poor road conditions and the number of villages in a parish back then, our parish priest of American origin, Father Eugene Schmitz SVD, could only visit each village once every three months for Mass. When the priest visited villages, all villagers were very excited. They really looked forward to the visit. There was a feeling of something sacred about the presence of our beloved parish priest, Pater Schmitz, as we called him.

Usually three sacraments were served during each of his visits — reconciliation, Eucharist and baptism. It was indeed a sacramental visit, a sign of the divine presence. The priest always came on a horse carrying the host (bread) and liturgical wine for the Mass. For Christmas and Easter, everyone from all the villages in the parish gathered at one village for celebrations. It was one of the best times I had in my childhood, gathering in one village for Christmas and Easter every year.

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Similar challenges were also encountered by other parish priests in most, if not all, mountainous parishes throughout Indonesia. Father John Prior SVD, for instance, experienced similar obstacles during his dozens of years missioning in a remote parish in central Flores. A journey from one village to a neighboring village could take hours due to road conditions and means of transport, which was usually a horse.

After his parish missionary work, Pater John, as he was called, then had his next appointment as an academic at the Catholic Institute of Philosophy in Ledalero, Maumere, Flores, where he has been teaching social theology. I was fortunate to be his student first in Ledalero in the late 1980s, then again in Melbourne when he became a visiting lecturer at the University of Divinity, previously Melbourne College of Divinity (Yarra theological campus), in the early 1990s.

When a priest could not be expected to be doing everything everywhere, due to road conditions and the many villages to visit by one priest alone, the ministry tasks of the Church had to be shared among laypeople. The spirit of “lay Church,” instead of “clerical Church,” grew and became stronger in difficult situations such as during those days.

Everyday church life back then clearly did not rely on one person, the parish priest. The roles were distributed more evenly

All church affairs including liturgies on Sundays and feast days were left to the laypeople to conduct, usually by primary school teachers and a handful of selected other people. The liturgy of word was celebrated more than the Eucharist due to the mentioned obstacles.

Everyday church life back then clearly did not rely on one person, the parish priest. The roles were distributed more evenly. Even lay Catholics seemed to have more responsibility in the life of the Church. That was back then. What about now?

Now, the road conditions are much better and accessible by motorbikes or cars. People hardly walk anymore; horses are rarely seen on roads. People can go from one village to another more frequently and quickly. Parish priests can be seen visiting villages more often for Mass. The liturgy of word is not celebrated as much as in the past. The presence of a priest in villages is more frequent and noticeable.

Does this mean that the priests are now becoming more dominant in the life of the community of the faithful? It isn’t surprising to observe that the Catholic clergy in Indonesia have been playing a dominant role in the lives of the local Church. However, some are unsure whether the clerical dominance, closely associated with a patriarchal mindset, in Indonesia might be starting to wane.

The noun "dominance" refers to power and influence over others. The adjective "dominant" (predominant, paramount, preponderant) means superior to all others in terms of influence or importance. It applies to something that is uppermost, ruling or controlling. Thus, a dominant person refers to a person who is in a position of power or who is exhibiting powerful or controlling tendencies.

French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002) has been widely regarded as a scholar with interests in the dynamics of power in society, particularly in the diverse and subtle ways in which power is transferred or distributed. For him, power distribution is an important way to maintain social order within and across generations.  

Clerical dominance means priests are in a position of power and influence or exhibit powerful or influential tendencies. They can be dominant, and they have exercised their power effectively, at least in Indonesia, partly because of the higher education and knowledge in philosophy, theology and biblical study they have compared to the lay Catholic majority.

These fields of study remain fundamental to the Church and are dominated by clergy. This “knowledge/power” relationship is in line with the theory of the French postmodernist Paul-Michel Foucault (1926-84). In this sense, clergy have the superior intellectual power, placing them in the position of superiority and the lay community in the subordinate position.

Maybe like some other places in Asia, Indonesian clergy are thus not only religiously but also socially very dominant. This social dominance, through the lens of Bourdieu, may create an unequal distribution of power, both actually and symbolically, as often seen in the mechanism of legitimation. Clergy have the right to enforce obedience from the community individually and communally, and this obedience not only reflects but also strengthens the legitimacy of clergy dominance.

There have been many cases that seem to suggest that clergy dominance has failed to protect vulnerable victims

One way of observing the phenomenon of clergy dominance in Indonesia is through the way the local church hierarchy handles problems such as clerical sexual abuse and corruption within the Church. There have been many cases that seem to suggest that clergy dominance has failed to protect vulnerable victims, which means that the victims continue to suffer in silence.

The position of clergy is sacramentally dominant, and their dominance will continue through to the future, if the theology of priesthood and church laws concerning the sacramental roles of clergy do not change.

Whereas in the past, when a priest was only occasionally in the village, and therefore had power as a more sacred figure, now with the frequent or continuous presence of priests in communities, the dominance is more secular. This secular dominance means they are more influential over the daily lives and choices of parishioners, including practical politics and policies.

Looking back to the past and observing the present, I would say that whether or not a priest is physically present in a community, their role remains dominant in the life of the local Church. Sociologically, the problem with clerical over-dominance is that the Church becomes too masculine and patriarchal, devaluing the important roles of women and other genders in the life of the local Church. The sacramentally male-dominated Church has created a gender power imbalance between men and women then and now and may continue through to the future if the courage needed for change is lacking.

My memory of local church life back then remains vivid, and my sense of sacredness of the past does not fade away. The modern lifestyle of the Church today characterized by secularity seems to have lost the very important dimensions of religion — spirituality and sacredness. 

Justin Wejak studied philosophy in Indonesia, theology and anthropology in Australia and currently teaches at the University of Melbourne. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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