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Clericalism Hurts Lay People

It was a tense situation.

It could have been any church group, but all members of this group were active church members. They were very upset.

A center of hospitality did not have a person immediately available to answer a question about accepting a battered woman in a dangerous situation, so the church group had to send this woman back to her situation. This was mind boggling! We were completely blown away.

Here was a church group, getting paid with church money, involved in helping people because of biblical beliefs–and there was no one in the whole group that could or would take this woman to their house for an hour or even overnight, or even let the woman stay at their church or in the office or anywhere near a bathroom or in a motel until some group could respond.

Their response was the learned, rote response of agencies: “We don’t do this kind of thing,” or, “We are not allowed to do this kind of thing,” or, “We are not allowed to work after 5:00 p.m.”

But who, in God’s name, said that you can’t do that kind of thing? Did Jesus say that? Does the Bible say that?

Reverse Clericalism

“But you can’t expect us to be like ministers or priests or nuns or saints or Mother Teresa or Jane Addams or Albert Schweitzer–we are not into ministry.”

“All the power is with the clerics and religious, therefore we do not have the right to be committed as Christians, to serve the poor. We do not have the freedom to go the extra mile. We are lay people.”

Isn’t this a strange form of reverse clericalism–we can’t do this because we are not officially ministers or Sisters or saints, nor are we celibates?

Isn’t there also something here about protecting ourselves, our schedules, our private life styles, and our privilege against those who have so little or who are in so much pain? Isn’t there something here about protecting our right to be comfortable? But how can we live out our Christian commitment and still survive as whole people? How can we find ourselves in implementing the Gospel paradox?

Love vs. Power

People who work for the church or synagogue in social services or who operate Catholic Worker Houses or who are attorneys or teachers or physicians or nurses or anyone else who helps people may want to identify with agencies and institutions and their rigidly defined ways of helping people. This often means controlling people or other groups, rather than serving people.

The real danger of lay people who want to be involved in serving the poor is their possible derailment by the accoutrements of professionalism as they seek to unify the two paths of Gospel service and that of being a real professional.

The biblical response will be different. It is not that of professionalism.

If our faith is the basis of what we are doing, if it undergirds and underwrites what we are doing, then we have to face the issues of love, service and power (or power vs. control) in a much more profound way than that of a social worker or an attorney or a Catholic Worker. One can teach some of these areas without a profound value base, but you can’t do the work without the values struggle.

Love, in the biblical definition (John 15:21), is to keep Jesus’ words–it is not a warm feeling or “do-goodism”. To love is to keep his words about service to the very least of all, about going the extra mile, about giving our coat as well if someone asks for our cloak, about turning the other cheek, about loving our enemies, about not judging others, about seeking so that one can find, and especially about doing the will of his Father in heaven.

Christians want to serve, but some sort of power is necessary to be effective. What is real power? What is the power of the Gospel? How can it be a partner of love?

St. Luke describes the gift of God’s very self, the Holy Spirit, as a gift of “power.” “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you.” (Acts 1:8, 10:38, Luke 1:35, 24:49).

Jesus named control and domination as the false forms of power: “Among pagans it is the kings who lord it over them… This must not happen with you!” (Luke 22:25-26)

And so what is power? Clearly, it is not position or status in society or distancing ourselves from the pain of poverty. Once you have enjoyed real power, the power of the Gospel, mere control is a counterfeit and a nuisance.

The challenge is how to use power for good and power with real love for the good of the least ones whom the Lord commends to us. On the Last Day we will be judged on love and power (Matthew 25:31ff).

Professional vs. Professionalism

There is some similarity between being professional and real power and professionalism and control.

There is very serious confusion between professional and professionalism–and unfortunately, professionalism often wins.

The ersatz of being professional is professionalism. Professionalism is the blood sucker of the helping services.

Professionalism is like an octopus that strangles good services from whatever angle they are viewed.

Professionalism means control–it means controlling our own life, but especially means controlling the life of the poor we work with so they don’t interfere with our comfortable life style–the rules, Sir! or Ma’am!

The ugly head of professionalism emerges with its emphasis on appearances. It means a nice building–the edifice complex. If you have a nice building, you will more than likely get better funding.

Dr. Portia Bell Hume, Director of the Center for Training in Community Psychiatry in California, insisted that her training school take place in some rented rooms behind a small dry goods store near the University of California at Berkeley to give emphasis to the fact that the services provided are much more important than the building.

Professionalism means emphasis on clothes (Clothes do make the man or woman?) on furniture, plaques on the wall, carpet, receptionists, secretaries, titles, etc.

Professionalism means the more advanced we become, and the more we are paid, the more we are separated from the poor we are meant to serve–leaving the service of the poor to the less trained or the less efficient.

Professionalism means rules, rules and more rules to eliminate problem cases and danger of working after hours: “We are not allowed to do this!” “We don’t do that!” Who said obedience was not popular?

Professionalism means words–new words like I & R (Information & Referral) and Networking, which often means many people giving out phone numbers and fewer doing direct service. Instead of hiring a new person each year and paying them $20,000 to give out Casa Juan Diego’s phone number, why not invest these monies in service programs or housing?

Professionalism means never allowing anyone insurance coverage for providing transportation of a poor person to the hospital or wherever: “We are not allowed!”

Professionalism means total burnout. Not too long ago a social worker who worked a forty hour week–well, maybe a 30 hour week with breaks and lunch hours–complained bitterly that they were totally burned out.

What is burnout on a 30-hour week?


Professional means looking first at the needs of people and not first at the needs of the agency or the needs of the social worker. (Agency people need protection and have rights, but do not exist to get a major chunk of welfare funds meant for the poor. Maybe Milton Friedman’s negative income tax would be better for the poor rather than a costly welfare system).

Professional means competency, proper training and recognizing need.

Professional means not meeting our needs through the people.

A recent publication says that rules should exist for those in need, not the social worker’s needs or the attorney’s needs or the teacher’s needs or the doctor’s needs. When the rules are there to protect us (the workers), then we have made a mistake. That is what agencies tend to do. Agency rules generally are to protect the staff. That means the people become the enemy–interfering with agency rules.

Some Catholic Worker houses struggle with the same issues. Some use the tactic of agencies or professionalism by accepting a very limited number of people or closing down when the spirit moves them. And, of course, there are times when this may be necessary. But where can we find models of keeping Jesus’ words, his commandments, so that we may be counted among those who love Him as he asks of us in the Gospel of John? Where can we find models for radical Christian service?

Personalism Vs. Professionalism

How different the personalism of Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day is from professionalism! They believed in the personalist revolution, the revolution of the Second Coming, the revolution that began with the subject and not the object.

In William Miller’s book, Dorothy Day; A Biography (Harper and Row, 1982, p. 244-245), Maurin’s philosophy, implemented by Dorothy Day and a generation or two of Catholic Workers, is spelled out, as he repeatedly emphasized as he went about teaching: “‘Be what you want the other fellow to be,’ he kept saying, ‘Don’t criticize what is not being done. See what there is to do, fit yourself to do it, then do it. Find the work you can perform, fit yourself to perform it, and then do it.'” Other sayings he used many times was: “Everyone taking less, so that
others can have more… Each being the servent of all, each taking the last place.”

Catholic Workers try to respond to the mandates of the Gospel personally instead of leaving the practical living of Jesus’ words to someone else.

Dorothy Day emphasized that we should not turn first to the state: “Only when all other means had failed, when one’s own resources, the parish resources, the Church resources had failed, was one to turn to the state. The parish, the union, the group were to combine for mutual aid and the functioning of these smaller bodies would be more efficient than the cumbersome machinery of city or state.”

Peter Maurin believed also that Christians should live with the poor, living a life of voluntary poverty and asceticism. He could not envision being truly religious and not embracing poverty.

But it is not always easy to be creative enough to cut through institutionalism or our own unwillingness to be open in order to respond as a personalist.

Legalism, Institutionalism and Power

Can we allow ourselves to be co-opted into a style of legalism, institutionalism and power systems? It is often not easy to discern that this is happening, or has happened to us as individuals or groups or communities committed to service.

As Church and as individuals and communities, we have the constant challenge to take out a lot of middle management and structures in order to try to respond as Jesus did. Again, institutions may be good, institutionalism is not. We have to be able to risk making our own life choices and our everyday decisions, on what we believe, which is what Jesus believes.

The Whole Church is Important

Instead of using the church leadership as a whipping boy (person) by blaming all evils on the hierarchy (Why doesn’t the Church do this? Why doesn’t the Church do that? When in reality we should ask: Why don’t I do this, or that?) we should realize the full nature of the Church. The full Church is not just the leaders; it is all of us. We must not allow the Christian role of so many to be narrowly limited by a false clericalism. We must invoke the values of both the Gospel and the Church.

Many church people have been in the forefront of opting for the poor and bringing the love and power of the Gospel. We think people are looking in the wrong places for solutions. We know we cannot find the answers in agency models or in liberal politics or in conservative politics.

It is by entering into the Gospels and following the Nazarene who spoke with the creativity of the parables and the paradoxes of the Sermon on the Mount that we can meet the challenges of love and service.

Leap of Faith

Catholics and some Protestants find it easy to believe that Jesus is present in the Eucharist.

Now we need a way to make it easy for people to believe that Jesus is present in our neighbor. True, it is a different kind of presence, but it is, nonetheless, an important symbolic concept.

If those who embrace the teaching of the true presence in the Eucharist can also embrace the teaching about seeing Jesus in others we have the beginning of a profound faith.

Go, Sell!

Jesus said, “Go, sell what you have and give it to the poor,” but he didn’t mean that we should sell everything all at once, only little by little to prepare for the Second Coming (Catholics are good at this kind of face-saving distinction).

But Jesus does expect us to start somewhere if we are going to maintain at least a semblance of integrity. We have to make the leap of faith in some form–and it will be a series of existential jumps rather than one big existential leap.

Like any investment we will reap what we sow (or sometimes another will later reap what we have sown), but in the world of existential “faith leaps” the rewards are immeasurable. Let us begin!

We have models to inspire us–St. Francis of Assisi, Dorothy Day, Peter Maurin, Mother Teresa and many others. We need to move with this inspiration to find new ways in our contemporary world to form our own models for bringing the message of the Gospel to ourselves and others.

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XIV, No. 1, January 1994.