Tablet - May 2012


I was with a young ordinand shortly before his ordination. He was naturally excited at the approach of this milestone in his life. He was fairly well-adjusted as the trouble he had with his seminary authorities suggested. He described how some other students were preparing for their big day.

 Several, months before, had gone on spending sprees to buy clerical shirts and collars and other accoutrements of the clerical state. These items were, I thought a little weirdly, stacked up in a prominent place in their room where they could be easily seen and handled.

Having no interest in that kind of clerical identity- and having learned long ago that the ‘habit does not make the monk’ -I found this curious. Clericalism is an excessive attachment to the outward forms and privileges of this state of life. Like perfectionism, its close ally, it seems to me a kind of virus. I don’t mean that the priest or monk or nun should hide their  way of being in the Lord’s Body; but because you have this status doesn’t seem to me to be  a reason for flaunting it. Nor should it become an enclave of identity, an ivory tower, against the world.

I realise I approach this sensitive subject as a monk first, then as a priest. Basil Hume – a monk and cardinal – once described the relationship between the two very well when he was performing the priestly ordination of a monk.  After saying the obvious things about the dignity and responsibility of the priesthood, he slipped in, almost as an afterthought and (I sensed) off his script: ‘Of course your ordination today diminishes your monastic vocation though it does give you great new ways to serve the brethren.’ It felt like an enlightened moment of humility and realism.

The church is beautifully composed of a rainbow of vocational forms. The sense that the cleric or monk is inherently superior to the marital or any lay state is fading fast, though it once ruled. As in a Celtic monastery where different ways of life, of seeking God, could be combined in a single community, from the hermit to the family, so in the church as a whole they complement and correct each other. Significantly, it was monks who developed the most dignified theology of marriage in the Medieval Church at a time when it was seen by many as a lower path to follow Christ.

The recent debacle over the Vatican’s criticism of the women religious of the United States is widely felt to emerge from a clericalism that has lost this sense of humility and proportion. It is most evident in the unloving tone that ignores the amazing fidelity and self-sacrifice of this group of American Catholic women over many generations. American nuns can be radical and outspoken. Like Americans generally they can act unilaterally and be intemperate of speech compared with other cultures because if they feel in the right they just go for it. This can no doubt be irritating for those who see their role as holding the church-line against the flood of relativism and secularism. But that’s community for you. Religious are not clerics, especially women Religious.

Religious life is a form of the discomfiting order of prophets that wander around in the Old Testament. They troubled priests and kings. But they had the mark of God on them. “I will raise up for them a prophet from among their own people… I will put my words in (their) mouth… Anyone who does not heed the words that the prophet shall speak in my name I myself will hold accountable. (Deut 18:18ff).

Yes, prophecy is a matter of discernment. But clerics should be wary of hearing only the negative in the prophet’s utterances and over-reacting with force. Even when the tone is harsh or the theology unorthodox the spirit of wisdom and love can be trying to get in between the clerical cracks.

These are not crazy, dangerous or disruptive women. They are deeply loved and respected by Catholics and non-believers alike. One of my dearest friends was an American nun, educated and wise, who held strong, prophetic views. She told me once how she had spent years teaching elementary school. Her order worked for the bishop for next to nothing. And because it had no money for accommodation, she and many of her sisters had to set up their beds to sleep in the classrooms at night. Those who speak prophetic words from such a history deserve to be listened to even - or especially - if what they say is irritating.


Laurence Freeman OSB

The World Community for Christian Meditation, of which Laurence Freeman OSB is director, has recently opened a new outreach program – “Meditatio” (