A few years back, Russell Shaw wrote a terrific book called To Hunt, To Shoot, To Entertain: Clericalism and the Catholic Laity. It took its title from an amazing remark by a 19th-century English monsignor who loftily declared, “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.”

John Henry Cardinal Newman disagreed, pointing out that during the Arian crisis, it was the laity who kept the Faith while the majority of bishops vacillated, caved to heresy, or were silent during the 60 years of the crisis. That doesn’t mean that the Church operates on the principle vox populi, vox Dei. But it does mean that clericalism ought to be avoided.

Clericalism is basically the bad idea that only the ordained and religious are fully Catholic and that laypeople are more or less second-class. With that idea comes a host of other bad ideas, such as “Father is always right,” “Never disagree if a bishop does it,” and “Don’t question anything a priest or bishop does.”

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It’s this conception of the ordained office as a place of power that gave us the scandal of priestly abuse and episcopal cover-up of same. Priests like John Geoghan used their office to dominate and abuse kids. Bishops, many of them thorough-going clericalists as well, saw their office as a place of power and, when that power was threatened by the Heaven-heard cries of victims, attacked the victims and protected the power. And mysteriously, many parents, police, and prosecutors — laity all — let them because they somehow had become convinced that the mere fact of ordination trumped the natural law which says you should protect a child from a rapist and call the cops.

Americans are incorrigible about dividing everything up into “conservative” and “liberal” tribalisms. The standard media template of “Plucky Rebel Liberal Alliance v. Evil Conservative Hierarchical Empire” lends itself easily to such simplicities. Some would have us believe that “conservatives,” being “poor, uneducated and easily led,” are suckers for clericalism while “progressives” question authority and prize open discussion of the issues. And, admittedly, reputed conservatives, both lay and ordained, have done their part to sustain that template. One thinks, for instance, of the sensitive pastoral approach of the quite orthodox Archbishop Elden Curtiss to laypeople like Frank Ayers and Jeanne Bast, an 80-year-old mother of eleven and retired Catholic grade-school teacher from west Omaha, who wrote letters to the Omaha World-Herald regarding Curtiss’s decision to assign a priest who had viewed Internet child pornography to St. Gerald parish in Ralston, after publicly criticizing his decision to reassign a priest who had viewed Internet child pornography.

“You should be ashamed of yourself!” the archbishop wrote to Bast. Likewise, Ayers was informed by Curtiss that he was “a disgrace to the church.” For maximum humiliation, the letters were carbon copied to the writers’ pastors and both writers were commanded to say one “Hail Mary” prayer for him as penance. Unfortunately, for Archbishop Curtiss, he picked the moment when the priest abuse scandal was breaking all over the United States in the spring of 2002 to pursue this singularly ill-advised effort at shutting down perfectly legitimate lay input on the clergy’s catastrophic failure. When it comes to matters of the common good, lay people have more input to offer than pay, pray, and obey, and he ought really to have listened to these good people and not simply assumed that ordination conferred on him the right to tell people not to point out the bleedin’ obvious. Not surprisingly, such moments give many people the impression that “conservative company man” vs. “brave liberal reformer” explains everything.

An Equal-Opportunity Problem

Real life is nonetheless more complex than simple conservative-vs.-liberal cartoons. Clericalism cuts across such neat categories ruthlessly. Yes, it was a “conservative” cardinal who rightly resigned in Boston. But it was a “liberal” bishop in Phoenix who—two weeks after cutting a deal with the prosecution to avoid indictment on obstruction charges for protecting child-molesting priests—killed a man with his car and somehow got the impression that his first duty was to hide the evidence from the cops who were looking for him.

Clericalism, it turns out, is an equal-opportunity sin. It’s not reserved just to conservatives. Some of the most clerical people I know have been staunchly “progressive” dissenters and despisers of Church teaching who use their office to muzzle any attempt to question them when they “renovate” a Church, improve the liturgy into a festival of St. Narcissus, or transmute RCIA into a cell group for chanting slogans against the Magisterium on their favorite pelvic issues. Clericalist liberals routinely smear as “rigid” or “overly devotional” Catholics who take seriously the teaching of the Church. It is not unknown for progressive clericalists to publicly silence as “fundamentalist” those who have the effrontery to take St. Paul at something like his word concerning the incompatibility of homosexual practice with Christian morality. I have sat through RCIAs in which the director of religious education would simultaneously mock and sneer at Pope John Paul II’s teaching while ordering catechumens not to question his own dubious tendencies to downplay the miracles of Scripture. For such people, the watchword is “Question the Tradition, but don’t you dare question me!” {mospagebreak}

Similarly, don’t think for a moment that clericalism is exclusively the province of clerics. Laypeople can be some of the most clerical on earth. This is, as Shaw points out, one of the reasons for the alleged “crisis” over women and married priests. If you hold that only religious professionals (and for Catholics, that means priests) are “real Catholics,” then it naturally follows that no woman or married guy is a “real Catholic.”

The Feudal Lord of the Parish

How that plays out on the ground is familiar to anybody who has ever had to deal with the lay religious professional who has carved out his or her niche on the liturgy committee or the RCIA or the Whatnot Committee. Such people can be more territorial than high-strung little yip dogs and as contemptuous of the unwashed as the most ferocious Pharisee. If some impertinent person dares to wonder why there is sand in the holy water font for Lent or why the kneelers have been ripped out and the pews moved so close that it is physically impossible to kneel during the liturgy, they will receive a mixture of condescending explanation and impatient tongue-lashing for their sinister pre-Vatican II tendencies by the local Ubergruppenfuehrer for Liturgical Experimentation with an M.A. from Seattle U (“an institution in the Jesuit tradition”).

With sufficient applications of this sort of semi-academic clericalism, whole parishes can be remade into the image and likeness of the liturgist-who-wishes-s/he-ran-the-show and an entire culture of mutually back-slapping Vanguard of History types can be incubated for the future transformation of other parishes fiercely loyal to Vatican III. Such “Stockholm Syndrome” behavior is on full display among the extremely confused folk who run Voice of the Faithful, an organization that sprang up in response to the scandal. Run by well-meaning folk who were rightly outraged by the abuse of children, it almost immediately became a clearinghouse for all the usual dissents on all the usual pelvic issues—many of them championed by the very priests who were jailed for being too free with their own pelvic issues.

However, none of this need be the case. If you hold the Church’s actual teaching and recognize that the ordained office is but one of many offices (and not a more or less important office than the lay office) then there is no sense in talking about women being “excluded from ministry” just as there is no sense in complaining that men were “excluded from” the Virgin Birth. There is an ocean of ministry, and all the lay women and men in the world could labor their whole lives and not perform it all.

The error of clericalism (and its real desire) is not ministry, but power. Clericalists, both lay and ordained, see the priesthood as a place of power, and hunger for it. But Jesus saw the priesthood as a place of service. So does the Holy Church. That is why the sacrament of Holy Orders is described by the Catechism as a “sacrament at the service of communion.”

We laypeople are called to obey our bishops in matters of faith and morals. And we are called to honor our bishops as spiritual fathers. But we are not required to approve everything they do, especially when it contradicts the clear teaching of the Church. If a bishop, like former Bishop Anthony O’Connell of Palm Beach, specifically commands something clearly contrary to the teaching of the Holy Church, such as “Remove your pants and bend over,” our right and proper office as laity is to raise our voice and call the cops. Indeed, we laypeople must do it, because we are the cops, the investigators, the prosecutors, the jailers.

But mark that: We laypeople have to hold them to account in light of the Tradition, not in light of the tenets of the secular world, nor in light of what lawyers and psychologists say, nor in light of what the “Repeal Vatican II!” crowd says.

The way out of clericalism is more fidelity to the Holy Church, not less. This problem will be solved by returning to the Holy Gospel of Jesus Christ, pure and undefiled, and not by the myriad paths away from it proposed by Call to Action, or the Society of St. Pius X, or the New York Times editorial board.


  • Mark P. Shea

    Mark P. Shea is the author of Mary, Mother of the Son and other works. He was a senior editor at Catholic Exchange and is a former columnist for Crisis Magazine.

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