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Commentary » International

What Pope Francis and Groucho Marx had in common

Pope refuses to be a member of clericalism 'club'

What Pope Francis and Groucho Marx had in common
Fr Michael Kelly, Bangkok International

June 9, 2014

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I would venture to say that Pope Francis and the comic genius Groucho Marx could agree on one of Groucho's famous one liners: "I would never join a club that would have me as a member." Though the pope may never have heard the line, he would know what Groucho meant.

Groucho's humor had an instinctive suspicion of any establishment. Perhaps because he is the son of Italian migrants in Argentina, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, felt what it was like to be outside the establishment of his native land.

Whether he did or didn't feel an outsider in Argentina, he brings all the marks of an outsider to his life in the Vatican - from being shocked by the papal apartments where he was expected but declined to live, to dispensing with the formality that goes with the papacy, conceived as a role and status in line with that of European monarchs.

Since arriving at the Vatican, Pope Francis has never missed an opportunity to emphasize that office in the Church is not designed for the enjoyment and enhancement of the office holder but so that better and more universal service may be offered to the people the office holder is to serve.

In doing away with a great deal of the Vatican's pomp and ceremony, Pope Francis also has abolished some titles in the Vatican such as monsignor. That title, of course, is the tip of the iceberg.

The ecclesiastical titles - Eminence, Excellency, My Lord, Your Grace and related aristocratic appellations - are an invention in the Italian states of the 17th century when the Church sought to match the self-aggrandizing aristocracy, who used such terms to inflate their significance. Princes, dukes, counts and countesses all started referring to each other - and insisting everyone else referred to them - with ever more florid and self-enhancing references. The Church followed suit. 

Pope Francis has sought to eliminate this culture of self-promotion and entitlement by attacking it at its source.

His denunciations of clericalism are frequent, heartfelt and blunt. He describes it as a disease that consumes and kills the Gospel.

What is it? At one level it is the disease at work in any bureaucracy or organization anywhere in the world. Careerists set a target for themselves - some desired promotion or title and the associated privileges. They do anything to climb the ladder and get the prize. They remain silent in the face of hypocrisy, injustice, even crimes. And they do so to secure for themselves where they are with a view to where they might go.

They maintain relentless and unswerving loyalty to whomever they must to secure where they are. They pay obeisance to "makers" and "patrons" so that they can continue to enjoy preferment.

There is an even more sinister side to clericalism than these obviously odious features. What clericalism also is about is protecting priests, at any level of the hierarchy and at all costs.

And too many priests presume it. It is why some can be authoritarian and overbearing, exploitative of the good will of lay people and religious (especially nuns), prone to financial improprieties, be dismissive of criticism or enagage in sexually inappropriate, sometimes criminal behavior.

Why? Because they know there is very little accountability in the clerical system and bishops and religious superiors will ignore, cover up or contest legitimate complaints. What is the motivation of Church authorities? It is an ingrained belief that investigating complaints and finding against a cleric will create scandal, disharmony and conflict.

Unfortunately, this attitude and behavioral pattern goes as high as the pope. In 1922, Pope Pius XI secretly decreed that any charges against a priest for molesting a child was to be handled internally in the Church and under a rule of secrecy, the breaking of which meant excommunication.

Before 1922, if a priest was discovered to be molesting children, he was defrocked and handed over to civil authorities for trial.

After 1922, and as required by all popes since then, all handling of clerics accused of child sexual abuse was to be handled in the Church's courts and as a Pontifical Secret - the strictest kind in the Church. That secrecy was so strict that the existence of the decree itself was a pontifical secret, known only to bishops who literally had to keep the decree itself and any related cases in a separate safe to which only he and his vicar-general had the key.

Any breech of the secrecy about the existence or associated procedures entailed excommunication, which only the pope could revoke.

The law - spelled out in the motu proprio Crimen Solicitationis - was promulgated in secret in 1922 and reconfirmed by St John XXIII in 1962. The substance of the previous ordinances were issued under another form, with minor modifications but still subject to the absolute conditions punishable by excommunication of “Pontifical Secrecy”,  by St John Paul II in 1992. Again in 2010, this directive was further slightly modified by Benedict XVI but with the same “secrecy” provisions that foster cover-ups applying.

The law remains in force today and the whole sorry story of how the popes since 1922 have provided one of the strongest reinforcements of clericalism remains unchanged. By not involving civil authorities, Church leadership at the highest level substituted a fig leaf of legal accountability for evildoers and reinforced the "special" character of the clergy as one that was beyond the law.

How clericalism worked in this way is spelled out in meticulous detail by Kieran Tapsel in his new book, Potiphar's Wife: The Vatican's Secret and Child Sexual Abuse published in late May.

Francis is the third pope in recent times to ask for help in reforming the office of the Bishop of Rome, following Paul VI and John Paul II.

He has a perfect opportunity in his own hands right now to start the process and take a significant step to demolishing the culture of clericalism he laments by canceling the pontifical secret for child sexual abuse.

Jesuit Fr Michael Kelly is executive director of

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