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  • Sean O'Leary

Scientism or Clericalism?

The phrase ‘pick your poison’ represents a choice between two or more unpleasant options. In some places, poison is used as slang for alcoholic beverages in what may be a playful but somewhat stark reminder of the dangerous effects of excessive drinking. After all, the word intoxicate comes from the Latin root ‘toxicum’ meaning poison.


Of course, it is not just alcohol that can be intoxicating. The gradual decline in well-being brought about by alcoholism is akin to the decline in societal well-being supported by ideological toxins, such as scientism and clericalism. It may seem odd to compare these two ideologies, but they are more similar than we might think.


Scientism has infected much of public debate in the 21st Century by convincing many non-scientists that science is the only true path or at the very least, the optimal path to determining knowledge. In its most extreme form, this viewpoint undermines our understanding of reality, diminishes our understanding of science and marginalises ethics and religion as a legitimate path to knowledge and wisdom.


When we consider the nature of modern scientism and its opposition to belief in God, we discover that scientism is not at all concerned with objective science. Indeed, it has been corrupted by the ideological instinct to impose a truth claim upon reality, rather than to measure and interpret aspects of reality. Ardent believers in scientism have a strong but naive faith that science possesses or will possess all the answers that humans will ever need. This is blind faith and is nothing less than a fundamentalist ideology.


Clericalism has also infected much of public debate in the 21st Century, at least in the Western world in terms of the modern penchant for anti-clericalism. While anti-clericalism is popular in the modern world, we don’t often consider what clericalism is.


Pope Francis’ Address to the Synod Fathers at the opening of the 2018 Synod on ‘Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment’ gave the following definition: ‘Clericalism arises from an elitist and exclusivist vision of vocation, that interprets the ministry received as a power to be exercised rather than as a free and generous service to be given. This leads us to believe that we belong to a group that has all the answers and no longer needs to listen or learn anything. Clericalism is a perversion and is the root of many evils in the Church: we must humbly ask forgiveness for this and above all create the conditions so that it is not repeated’. At the root of clericalism, lies the strong but naive faith that the Church possesses all the answers that humans will ever need. This is blind faith and is nothing less than a fundamentalist ideology.


Where do we discover the answers to life’s big questions? Scientism or a Church influenced by clericalism? It’s time to ‘pick your poison’. If anything has the power to undermine science in the 21st Century, it is scientism. Similarly, if anything has the power to undermine the Church in today’s world, it is clericalism. Given the two toxic choices, is it any wonder that people fear making a commitment either way? In this scenario, both science and religion suffer, and the knowledge offered by both becomes lost in a heated but pointless debate.


Yet, we do have to make some sort of decision. Sadly, we can’t entirely avoid the effects of scientism nor the effects of clericalism in our world. But the negative effects of both toxins can be tempered when we become aware of their degrading influence. These two ideologies cannot mix. Yet, it doesn’t have to be a case of one or the other.


A balanced view of science and faith can play a vital role in our lives. We must have the courage to imagine and build a future where Christianity exists without clericalism and where science exists without scientism. It’s like the air we breathe. Any constituent of the air would be toxic to us in its pure form. Together, the constituents mixed in the right proportions gives us life-sustaining air. When we include science and faith on our journey towards wisdom, we discover a real path to genuine knowledge in the modern world. Therefore, an integrative vision of science and faith is essential in the 21st Century. This pathway speaks to me of redemption.



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