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Clergy and Authoritarianism 

By Fr. Abraham Orapankal

Attitudes toward the American clergy is mixed. Some just “can’t stand” their pastors and criticize them constantly. Others feel “a reverential fear” and they are willing to blindly obey the pastors, no matter what. Hence the question: Is our Clergy a help or hindrance to Faith?

Faith in religion is obviously declining. The latest confirmation comes from Odin College professor Allen Downey’s analysis of General Social Survey data provided by the National Opinion Research Center. But it is obvious from constantly declining church attendance in all the Christian denominations.

In this scenario, it is important to know the attitude of the public in general toward clergy. A new study by the Barna Group on this issue is titled “The Credibility Crisis of Today’s Pastors.” Barna declared in a summary report: “The good news: Most people don’t dislike pastors. The bad news: They just don’t really care about pastors either!”

Wade Burleson, an influential Baptist pastor and author from Oklahoma, wrote: “The church of Jesus Christ in the 21st century is losing its power because of an infatuation with authority. It is authoritarianism, not legalism, that has become the biggest challenge Christians face.”

Authoritarianism is totally contrary to the mind of Jesus who rejected it by declaring “It shall not be so among you” (Mark 10:43). “The greatest among you shall be your servant” (Matthew 23:11). According to Wade Burleson, there are 10 indicators to know if a church leadership has become authoritarian: (http://www.wadeburleson.org/2012/01/our-problem-is-authoritarianism-and-not.html)

(1). There is never any freedom to question the leader.
(2). The leader often makes claims of having special insights from God, insights that the laity are unable to possess.
(3). Disagreement with the leader is deemed a sign of the devil’s influence in one’s life.
(4). Events are designed to bring attention and praise to the leader rather than equipping others to do the work of the ministry.
(5). Any concept of equality is immediately labeled rebellion or the end result of a “liberal” denial of the Bible.
(6) Authoritarian leaders are only comfortable around like-minded leaders; thus, there is an unoffical ‘speaking tour’ where only imperial, authoritarian leaders share the platform with each other.
(7). The measure of success becomes the number of people who follow the leader.
(8). If a person leaves the community or church, the problem is always in the person who leaves, not the leadership.
(9). Leaders who wrongly perceive themselves as those “with authority” insulate their lives by demanding absolute loyalty through giving large financial benefits to their closest ‘advisors.’
(10). The ultimate end of this kind of Christian leadership is always more; more money, more power, more followers, more publicity, more, more, more.

Being a Catholic priest, I must say that this description from a Baptist Pastor is applicable also to the Catholic leadership of today. There is widespread dissatisfaction in the way the clergy operates without taking the laity into confidence. When decisions are imposed on entire communities without consulting with the very people who are affected, tensions rise and faith itself is shaken. Clerical authoritarianism has repelled many people away from the Church.

Pope Francis has understood this crisis and he has repeatedly advised, chastised and challenged the priests and bishops of the Church to follow the example of Jesus Christ the good shepherd (John 10:11-18) who came to save the lost. Jesus taught the true meaning of authority: “the son of man came to serve and not to be served” (Matthew 20:28). Addressing thousands of priests last year, Pope Francis said:
• “Priest is anointed for his people, not to choose his own projects but to be close to the real men and women whom God has entrusted to him.”
• “He is not a boss to be feared by his flock, but a shepherd who walks alongside them and calls them by name. He wants to gather the sheep that are not yet of his fold.”
• “He is not an accountant of the Spirit, but a Good Samaritan who seeks out those in need. For the flock he is a shepherd, not an inspector, and he devotes himself to the mission not fifty or sixty percent, but with all he has.”
• “Harshness is foreign to him, because he is a shepherd after the meek heart of God. Not only does he keep his doors open, but he also goes to seek out those who no longer wish to enter them.”

Is this a mere wishful thinking from the Pope? It can be a reality. The priest who takes these words of the supreme head of the Church will help the people in their faith journey to God. Thank God for those priests who are true witnesses of Jesus Christ in their pastoral life as they bring their people closer to God and to each other.

But those priests who ignore these and continue to be authoritarian in their lording over people will cause stumbling blocks for the faith of the people they are called to serve. The crisis of declining faith and declining church attendance will worsen as many more people will be leaving the church with the chorus, “I can’t stand the pastor!”

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