Pope Calls for Purging the Church of Clericalism Not Clerics

by Therese Ivers, JCL

At World Youth Day in Brazil, Pope Francis called for resistance to clericalism: “But I want you to make yourselves heard in your dioceses, I want the noise to go out, I want the Church to go out onto the streets, I want us to resist everything worldly, everything static, everything comfortable, everything to do with clericalism, everything that might make us closed in on ourselves.”  Francis’ exhortation to the young adults of the Church was not to get rid of clerics (anti-clericalism) but to get rid of the attitude and practices of clericalism, “the shadow side of the glory that is the Catholic priesthood” (Fr. John Neuhaus)

What exactly is this clericalism that our Holy Father wants gone?  Russell Shaw, in his erudite article discussing clericalism says this:  “It fosters an ecclesiastical caste system in which clerics comprise the dominant elite, with lay people serving as a passive, inert mass of spear-carriers tasked with receiving clerical tutelage and doing what they’re told. This upstairs-downstairs way of understanding relationships and roles in the Church extends even to the spiritual life: priests are called to be saints, lay people are called to satisfy the legalistic minimum of Christian life and scrape by into purgatory.”   A clericalist would say that a lay person exists to “pay, pray, and obey”.

At its heart, clericalism is the practice and attitudes of clerics who refuse to collaborate with the laity and consecrated persons in the collaborative manner indicated by numerous papal documents and instead take a heavy handed approach to governing their portion of the flock.  “Father knows best” could characterize clericalism.  Just saying this, however, doesn’t necessarily make what it can look like obvious to a devout Catholic.  For this reason, I will give examples of clericalist attitudes and practices.  For an indepth look at the evils of clericalism, Russell Shaw does have an excellent book on the subject,  To Hunt, To Shoot, To Entertain: Clericalism and the Catholic Laity. I haven’t read it, but I did read its “twin”, which was excellent on the difference between “ministry” and “apostolate”, which I highly recommend: Ministry or Apostolate?: What Should the Catholic Laity Be Doing?

Priests Know Best Attitude

The community was gathered for a time of fellowship and recreation.  One sister started to reflect aloud on the properties of risen bodies of the saved.  The superior quickly silenced her.  “This is only private speculation,” she warned, conveniently forgetting that both the New Testament and the Catechism of the Council of Trent covered the properties of risen bodies.  Months later, the same community was at retreat, furiously taking notes as the priest giving it shared his wisdom with the community.  He discoursed eloquently about “The Four Last Things” which is a staple for traditional retreats.
Spellbound, the sisters hung on his every word and were enthralled at his treatment of the topic of risen bodies. The community again gathered for discussion after the retreat.  Not a word was said about the retreat being unfit for religious ears because it was “only private speculation”.  Why not?  Because the sisters were habituated by clericalism to accept a priest’s word as final.  If a priest discussed the properties of risen bodies, he was right.  End of discussion.  If a sister brought up the subject, she was wrong because it was “pure speculation”.

I myself have experienced the insidious cancer called clericalism in my dealings with priests.  One episode stands out in my memory.  A small group of priests had come to my university to recruit for their community.  They made the audacious claim that priests “were the best educators” and that lay people could not teach as well as priests could.  Knowing that this was patently false, I alone dared to call them on this stance.  If they could not understand that priests are not primary educators (this belongs to parents) and that all others contribute to education, then they might be missing other important elements of our Faith.  As I conversed with them, I did discover other things which set off my warning bells and red flags.  They said things that made me quite sure they did not understand human nature and that things that they were involved with were going to explode as a result. Sure enough, years later, I was not surprised to hear that these men taught boys how to sleep in their birthday suit with them as a way of exercising “chastity”. I will not say more other than that these men were not only sued out of existence but the bishop shut them down for irregularities in other areas.


There is no doubt that priests are in the hierarchy and are blessed to act in persona Christi.  This is a very high honor.  However, the ordained priesthood is ordered to the service of the common priesthood of the faithful and not the other way around.  A priest has every right to ask that he be treated in a dignified manner.  But, sometimes this can get out of hand, especially when it is combined with actions that reek of clericalism.  One example of this is the double standard some clericalists employ when they demand that priests be addressed with their titles but refuse to use the titles of those whom they address.  If it is that important to be called “Father Smith”, then, please, dear Fr. Smith, try calling me “Miss Ivers”.  If you insist on being called “Your Reverence”, please likewise extend that courtesy to me and call me “Your Reverence” or that lady “Mrs. Olson”.  I am not stuffy.  In private, I do call some men who are ordained and who may even be bishops by their first name, if we are close friends or colleagues.  They do the same for me.

Shallow Collaboration

Parish or Diocesan councils are often a farce, put on to give the appearance of the bishop or priest as listening, but doing so with their minds pre-set as to what they are going to do anyway.  In his work on the vocation of the laity, Pope John Paul II wrote some interesting passages.  In one, he wrote:

[Furthermore the revised Code of Canon Law contains many provisions on the participation of women in the life and mission of the Church: they are provisions that must be more commonly known and, according to the diverse sensibilities of culture and opportuneness in a pastoral situation, be realized with greater timeliness and determination.  An example comes to mind in the participation of women on diocesan and parochial Pastoral Councils as well as Diocesan Synods and particular Councils.  In this regard the synod Fathers have written: “Without discrimination women should be participants in the life of the church, and also in consultation and the process of coming to decisions”.  And Again:  “Women, who already hold places of great importance in transmitting the faith and offering every kind of service in the life of the church, ought to be associated in the preparation of pastoral and missionary documents and ought to be recognized as cooperators in the mission of the church in the family, in professional life and in the civil community”.  (Christifideles  Laici, 51.)

Being “associated in the preparation of pastoral and missionary documents” surely does not mean only by way of being mere secretaries.  Yet, how many bishops take this to heart when they write their pastoral letters?  How many pastors (both bishops and priests) take the notion of having women or men for that matter involved in “consultation and the process of coming to decisions” seriously by word and deed?  Let’s look at the pompous clericalist idea expressed in opposition to St. John Newman cited by Dr. Jeff Mirus:  “What is the province of the laity? To hunt, to shoot, to entertain? These matters they understand, but to meddle with ecclesiastical matters they have no right at all, and this affair of Newman is a matter purely ecclesiastical…. Dr. Newman is the most dangerous man in England, and you will see that he will make use of the laity against your Grace.”  This diatribe originated from St. John Newman’s position that bishops ought to consult the laity before making critical decisions about those matters in which the laity have expertise, such as the organization and direction of schools.  A position, by the way, echoed in the Documents of Vatican II, and in the New Code of Canon Law.

Heavy Handed Top-Down Governance

When a bishop or a pastor routinely call people in to do certain tasks for the Church, making unilateral decisions all the time when they impact large numbers of people without consulting others (especially those whom they will affect), and in general stifle the laity’s role of evangelizing and spreading the Church because they have been conditioned to “obey” rather than to lead, this is a result of clericalism at its finest.  A symptom of this kind of clericalism is when people run to the priest for every little thing.  Instead of studying the catechism themselves, they go to the priest.  Instead of starting and running a soup kitchen, they feel a need to get their pastor’s approval.  Instead of gathering with some other parishioners and maybe non-Catholic neighbors for a bible study, they feel an intense need to get their pastor’s blessing first.  It’s not that a pastor shouldn’t be vigilant, but he shouldn’t be controlling to the point of stamping down legitimate expressions of the lay faithful’s mission to be evangelists because he fears human weakness and the occasional material heresy.

While I could go on and on with the evils of clericalism, I think these examples should be sufficient as a jumping board for further reflection.  Priests are at the service of the Church.  They are to help people grow in the Faith but are not supposed to be tyrants.  While the laity can never be independent of the need for the ministrations of the priest, particularly by way of Sacraments, the laity are expected to become mature Catholics.  Just as minors are expected to learn how to be adults, and the goal of parenthood is to wean the child from the parent, so too, must the goal of priests be to wean Catholics from being overly dependent upon them and learning how to live as Catholics who partake of the royal priesthood of Christ.  The crime of clericalism is that it disrespects the Catholic in the pews, treating them as minors, as people who passively “pray, pay, and obey”.

(c) 2013 by Therese Ivers, JCL.  All Rights Reserved.  This article may not be republished or reposted without written consent of the author.



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