Friday, July 29, 2005

The Priest and the Clerical Code of Conduct

Some days ago a Philippine daily came out with a banner story regarding the CBCP president’s begging off to the invitation to act as a member of the proposed Truth Commission to look into the “Garci Case”. Citizens, many of them, reacted to that act as lack of concern or pure snobbery, for they sincerely believe that the bishop’s presence would add ready credibility to the investigating group. Very flattering no doubt this invitation. But the CBCP president nonetheless refused because he has to follow a clerical code of conduct which guides the action of any cleric, he be a bishop or a mere deacon. Within this code is the following provision: “Clerics are forbidden to assume public office whenever it means sharing in the exercise of civil power” (c. 285, §3).

What then is a clerical code of conduct? Is this code a natural derivative from his status as ordained minister and therefore demanded by certain reality that already exists in him? Or, is it a mere creation of law, arbitrarily demanding from its minister a life-style and mode of conduct that would sharply differentiate a cleric from the common mass of humanity, the laity?

The Sacred Ordination and the Canonical Status of the Ordained

The ontological reality effected by the Sacrament of holy orders to the priest is a spiritual identity which configures his person to Christ, the Head of the Church. But being a spiritual identity it would be of no use to the Christian Community and to world as a whole if it is not translated into flesh and blood relationships and concrete actions. Hence, the Church down the centuries has established the canonical norms that would attempt to bring the spiritual entity and power of the ordained minister to the ready availability of the world, particularly, the members of the Church. Called also as the juridical state of the clergy, this set of norms comes out as obligations and rights of the clergy, intended that they are to externally project the life of the clerics to the community according to the ideal envisioned by the Church’s theology and canon law.

Clerical state therefore is a legal status of a baptized person who receives the sacred orders. Attached to this standing are neatly defined juridical rules that mark the one ordained as cleric. It is however not identical to the sacred orders, no matter their close relationship. While sacred order refers to an ontological reality received by the baptized at ordination, the status of the cleric is the juridical translation of this ontological reality of the cleric, determining not only his role as an alter Christus but also the unique manner and proper decorum of conducting himself in the Christian Community and in civil society. This identity of the cleric sets him apart from the rest of the faithful, defines his specific mission as well as the roles and functions proper to him.

The juridical status of the cleric is therefore not an arbitrary creation of the law. It is based on the reality that transforms the baptized into an ordained minister of the Church. This is effected by sacred ordination. Through this sacramental act the baptized person’s life is transformed, incorporated that he is to Christ, the Head.

The Cleric and the Laity

The divine vocation to a clerical life as well as the subsequent sacramental ordination that indelibly seals him towards a total dedication in the fulfillment of sacred functions sets the clergy essentially apart from the rest of the faithful. This is the constant teaching of the Church, to wit: there is an essential difference, not only of degree, between the ministerial priesthood and the common priesthood of the faithful. With this doctrinal statement issue forth some pertinent questions. Should this ordination of her priests necessarily demands a life-style that is distinct from the lay? Does the theological and canonical elements of the ordo clericorum require the setting up of a status clericorum which sharply defines juridical rules and modalities that define and safeguard the identity of the cleric? Should the deportment of the cleric necessarily differ from that of the lay faithful?

Pre-Vatican Juridical Status of Clerics

Some years back the Church and her ordained ministers were severely criticized because of the discriminatory portrayal of the roles and functions of the clergy that make up his clerical status. The priests were placed in so high a pedestal in the life of the Church that they are set not only apart from but over and above the lay people. Gradually, elitism has crept in, its ugly implication negatively influencing the life of some priests and eroding the organizational set-up of the institutional Church. Clericalism was born. In a nutshell, it emphasized the distinction and essential differences between the clergy and the laity. This distinction gradually received legal form and recognition by the privileges and immunities granted to the clergy. This mentality was based on the claim that the clergy are superior to the laity, for the reason that they are rulers over spiritual things and spiritual things are higher than temporal things. Subsequent legislations, however, have dismantled many of the immunities and privileges granted to the clerics. Still, traces of them remained. In the 1917 Code of Canon Law, for example, the privilegium fori, wherein a cleric is exempted from being brought to civil courts on all cases without the express permission of the bishop (cf. c. 120) was still existent. Or, the so-called privilegium competentis according to which the clerics who were forced by the court to pay the creditors their debts should be allowed to retain what was necessary for his decent sustenance, with the obligation to repay them as soon as possible, could be invoked (cf. c. 122). Again, the 1917 Code held that the faithful owe reverence to the clergy in so harsh a way that if one who inflicts physical injury to cleric commits a sacrilege. Called the privilegium canonis, it is contained in canon 119.

Clericalism carries with it the evil of engendering, perhaps unwittingly, an elitist mindset within the ranks of the clergy that eventually evolve into a way of life that is discriminatory and exclusive. Members of the clerical state are being endowed with more and more privileges, favors and exemptions. In time the clergy call the shot in the management of almost all the affairs of the Church, sometimes encroaching into the sphere that belongs by right to the laity.

Vatican II Concept of Clerical Status

The theology and ecclesiology of Vatican II had tried to change all that. It starts by setting up the basic doctrine which states: all persons who belong to the church have a common fundamental legal status, because they all share one and the same basic theological condition and belong to the same primary common category. Fr. Alvaro del Portillo puts it more graphically when he said: “All the faithful, from the Pope to the child who has just been baptized, share one and the same vocation, the same faith, the same Spirit, the same grace. They are all in need of appropriate sacramental and spiritual aids; they must all live a full Christian life, following the same evangelical teachings; they must all lead a basic personal life of piety – that of children of God, brothers and disciples of Christ – which is obligatory for them before and above any specific distinctions which may arise from their different functions within the Church” (Faithful and the Laity in the Church, Ecclesia Press, 1972, p. 19)

But the vestiges of clericalism and its ill effects to the Church cannot easily be eradicated. Old habits, as they say, are hard to eradicate. Needless to say, within our institutional Church are still observed some clerical acts and behaviors that discriminate the lay faithful. Suffice to note how the priests guide our people in the spiritual life. They tend to form them into little clerics or religious which, to the mind of the Council, is unfair. The opposite swing of the pendulum is also observed. There are many who believe that since the clergy and the rest of the lay faithful are radically and fundamentally equal in dignity and in mission, the priests, so they contend, should live a life that is totally similar to the lay faithful. There is no need anymore of defining a special status for the priests, of spelling out a life that is exclusively clerical.

1983 Code on the Clerical Status

The 1983 Code however is not less emphatic in its insistence regarding the juridical status of the clerics. This status is acquired through the ordination. Canon 1008 states: “ By divine institution some among Christ’s faithful are, through the sacrament of order, marked with an indelible character and are thus constituted sacred ministers; thereby they are consecrated and deputed so that, each according to his own grade, they fulfill, in the person of Christ the Head, the offices of teaching, sanctifying and ruling, and so they nourish the people of God.” To empower these ordained ministers to act and function as genuine ministers of the altar, the Church came out with sets of norms that constitute the juridical status of the sacred ministers (cf. Canons 273-269).

Nature of the Clerical Status

Hence, the sacrament of sacred orders makes a sacred minister; the Church law enacts a complex of norms that defines the proper conduct of a sacred minister. The sacrament of orders endows spiritual powers to the sacred minister to carry out within the Community the office of priest, servant-leader, and teacher; the Church discipline comes out with norms of how he should licitly and validly fulfill this mission to the Community. The sacrament of order transforms a mere human being into a man of God; the law sets down obligations, rights, suggestions and even prohibitions in order that this man of God appears before the People of God and before civil society as a man that bears the mark of the divine.

The norms dealing with the juridical status of clerics have therefore the purpose of reflecting and canonically protecting the identity of clerics and give them the space to perform properly their ministry, the office received from Holy Orders.

Characteristics of the Clerical Status

1. It is not temporary. Furthermore, it should be noted that the Sacrament of sacred orders imprints an indelible character in the sacred minister, making this configuration with Christ as something perpetual. Herein follows the nature of the juridical status of the clerics: it too is not ad tempus. Henceforth, as a result of valid ordination the life of the sacred minister will be regulated by this set of special norms, determining his way of life, the obliging him to carry out the roles and the functions specifically laid down for him. These will apply through all his life, and even into retirement. Fr. Luis Navarro eloquently puts it this way: “From what has been said it can be concluded that the personal juridical status of clerics is with them always, day and night and wherever they are. Therefore it is not legitimate to consider that a cleric exercises his rights and fulfills the canonical norms only during the time in which he performs some ministry. This would reflect a functionalistic view of his identity and ministry” (“The Juridical Status of the Clergy”, Luis Navarro, Philippine Canonical Forum, CLSP, January-December 2001, vol. III, p. 43).

2. It is not optional. This juridical status of the clergy is not something optional. The norms are obligatory. After all it is established in close connection with the sacrament of holy orders, translating his sacramental identity into the area of his mission, wherein he has to function properly as demanded by law. Secondly, this sacramental reality has to influence, evolve and develop in his own personal life, his priestly decorum, his life-style, wherein he has to conduct himself properly before the Christian Community and to the world. The faithful has all the rights to see in their minister all the elements that make him genuine minister. Pope John Paul says it bluntly: “Thus, permanent formation is a requirement of the priest’s own faithfulness to his ministry, to his very being. It is love for Jesus Christ and fidelity to oneself. But it is also an act of love for the People of God, at whose service the priest is placed. Indeed, an act of true and proper justice. The priest owes it to God’s people, whose fundamental right to receive the word of God, the sacraments and the service of charity, the original and irreplaceable content of the priest’s own pastoral ministry, he is called to acknowledge and foster. Ongoing formation is necessary to ensure that the priest can properly respond to this right of the People of God” (Apost. Exhort. Pastores dabo vobis, n. 70).


For the priest therefore to be considered distinct from the lay faithful in his life-style and conduct is not at all intended to set up a new form of snobbery or elitism. It is the Church’s way of making her priest always and everywhere what he already is in the sacramental way: true and genuine minister of Christ.

Clerical Conduct

Clerical Conduct