A booklet arguing that “to abolish clericalism, we must abolish the clergy” has ignited controversy among Belgium’s Catholics.
The almost 60-page text, entitled “Restore the Church to the People of God: To put an end to clericalism,” was written by nine people associated with the Diocese of Liège, drawing criticism from the local bishop.
The authors, who include two priests, wrote: “From our point of view, it is a false idea to think of ordaining women and/or married men. This idea is based on the need to have a clergy at all costs, even if it means changing the rules of access to the sacred. But this idea will in no way bring new life to the communities and to the Church. We are still in blind clericalism.”
“It is necessary to overturn this organization and these centuries-old practices to recover a community dynamic closer to the spirit of Jesus Christ.”
They added: “A well-known canonist in our diocese said that separating governance and priesthood is nonsense... We affirm the opposite: it would be a service to the Church. We even think that, in order to abolish clericalism, we must abolish the clergy.”
The booklet also criticized what it called the “eucharistic-centric” focus of the contemporary Church.
“However, the center of the Christian life is not the Eucharist, but baptism! We dare to affirm this since we are taking this statement from the mouth of Pope Francis,” the authors said, without offering a citation.
“In the beginning, ministries were services rendered to the community. The one who served came from his community and was delegated for his task. Very quickly the Church wanted to organize and direct these delegations … Today, it is time to dare to secularize the ministries and to give the initiative back to the communities. The theology of the sacraments deserves to be revisited!”
Lay Catholics in Liège organized an online petition against the booklet that has so far gained more than 1,700 supporters.
The petition, launched Feb. 15, said that the booklet was “not representative of all the baptized of our diocese.”
“Pointing out the clericalism of some priests (described as a generality), the avowed desire of these nine authors is to give the laity the equal mission of dispensing the sacraments,” the petition’s authors wrote.
“Between historical errors and blatant theological shortcuts, the authors seem to encourage the Protestant model. They dream of a Church that would abandon its doctrine in favor of an adaptation to the ideas and mores of our time.”
On Feb. 17, Liège Bishop Jean-Pierre Delville issued a critical response to the booklet.
“These words are felt to be unjust and unfair by many priests, deacons, and lay Christians,” he wrote. “I perceive them as totally false when I think of the amount of dedication that I have seen in the priests and other pastoral actors of our diocese during the almost 10 years of my episcopate.”
“Without denying the scandal of the abuses committed by some, the pastoral shortcomings of others, and the limits of human nature, I am happy to see how much priests and deacons, religious men and women, lay Christians, women and men, are committed to the service of the Church. I thank them for supporting each other in the mission.”
The bishop added: “Anchored in the Word of God and carried by the tradition of the faith, the Diocese of Liège is open to theological reflection and open debate. The initial questions posed by the authors are very pertinent, but the answers are ill-educated.”
“I regret the caricatured character of this booklet, but even more so, the fact that the reflection presented in the booklet challenges the position of the Second Vatican Council and condemns 2,000 years of Christian life.”
“To avoid clericalism, the Diocese of Liège has resolutely committed itself to the synodal process requested by Pope Francis and is pursuing it assiduously by preparing a diocesan pastoral council.”
In common with other Belgian dioceses, Liège has seen a sharp decline in the number of priests since 1950, when it had 2,520. According to the diocese, there were just 342 priests in 2017, serving 730,000 Catholics.
The Sacrament of Holy Orders is one of the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church. The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines it as “the sacrament through which the mission entrusted by Christ to his apostles continues to be exercised in the Church until the end of time.”
Vatican II’s document on the priesthood, Presbyterorum ordinis, said that “no Christian community … is built up unless it has its basis and center in the celebration of the most Holy Eucharist.”