What do we make of 19th century clericalism? It is still with us in neo-conservative and Tradistani circles, but not in the mainstream. In previous times, the Church did not distinguish so much between the priest and the laity as much as she did between monks and everyone else. The parish priest was a familiar individual who dressed much like a common person, except perhaps for a cross and, of course, the noticeable tonsure. Deacons were often city or diocesan administrators. Bishops were accorded the same dignities as other persons of esteem in a given land. In France, much like a noble or the king himself, a bishop was called monseigneur. In England a bishop was called "your grace," as were the kings before Henry VIII discovered his supposed Roman lineage to justify his separation from the Church and styled himself "your majesty." Parish priests in England were called "sir." In France they were called "monsieur le cure," literally "mister priest." High ranking priests in the Curia were, and still are, called monsignor, "my lord." Monastic priests received the unique title of "father" and wore their habits as part of their religious order, not in virtue of their ordination. All this changed around the time of Pio Nono.
Pope Pius encouraged secular priests to wear the cassock, formerly the undergarment of choir dress, as every day clothing where the circumstances permitted it; I recall hearing of one English priest who wore his cassock in London and rejoiced that he was dispelling the people's invincible ignorance. Anti-clericalism during the French Revolution and 1848 revolutions turned the old social order and the priest's place in it upside down. Wearing the cassock and taking the esteemed title "father" put the priest on a higher religious pedestal than he previously held, compensating for his absence on the social pedestal. Devotional literature began to emphasize the priest's place as alter Christus more than previous writings and made his work during the Mass the sole component of the liturgy. In growing areas, such as the United States, priests did not wear the cassock in public, but they did gain a remarkable foothold over parishioners. "Father knows best" applied as much to one's parson as to one's progenitor. His judgments on entertainment, music, and politics were final.
|Monsieur le apostat Hans Kung|
Then, of course, that pedestal crumbled in the 1950s and 1960s. Some efforts, the worker-priest movement specifically, had the noble goal of re-assimilating the priest into normal life, but failed in their coalition with liberalism. The "Spirit of Vatican II" and the loose, communitarian rubrics of the Pauline liturgy were the anti-thesis of Pian clericalism, but not its cure. Some priests and theologians—from the parish priest to Hans Kung—insisted that the priest is an assembly's president, but not in possession of any unique spirit in the Church which enables him to celebrate the Sacraments. I knew one priest who was driven from a church merely for telling his congregation that "I am necessary" for Mass!
The old clericalism survives in neo-conservative and traditionalist settings, usually in "reform of the reform" type parishes and in traditionalist fraternities. I have not seen this problem among diocesan clergy who celebrate the old rite, but my experience is also limited. In America, telling women what to wear with drive half of them out of the Church and make the other half trust the priest more than their own husbands. Wearing a cassock on the streets of Houston, aside from giving its wearer heatstroke, will raise eyebrows, but people may not associate it with the priesthood as readily as they once did. By contrast, in Istanbul only the Patriarch of "Constantinople" and, when he visits, the Pope are allowed to wear clerical dress in public, although the rule was loosely enforced until the last ten or fifteen years.
On the whole, I would have opposed clericalistic measures during Pio Nono's time, but cannot fault people for continuing them today. With low religious practice, the priest has little place in the spiritual world of the populace, as little a place as he has in the social order. Even seemingly modest things, like wearing the cassock on Church grounds or only the priest or deacon administering Communion, can tell the faithful that the priesthood—not the priest—is something important. In other countries, like France, the non-integrist clergy have shown precious little interest in clericalism. Perhaps the restoration of clerical distinction will come from the monasteries. Monasticism thrives no where in the world like it does in France. Regardless, we will not be returning to either the 19th or 12th centuries, at least not yet....