Getting Past Clericalism

At the altar, the priest presides. In the world, the laity preside. This is the basic principle that ought to govern all our thinking about the roles of the ordained and the laity in the mission of the Church.
Unfortunately, a huge number of Catholics don’t think this way, because clericalism continues to poison and distort the way we think. Paul tells us that Christ has given the Church different offices: "And his gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ" (Eph 4:11-12). Paul makes constant recourse to the analogy of the body and of different members performing their respective roles so as to strengthen the whole.
When we forget that wisdom, we get clericalism — the notion that the only real Catholic is an ordained Catholic — and the concomitant idea that the only way a layperson can find a vocation is to hurl the pews at the ambo and seize the Church "for his own." Hence, organizations like "We Are Church" with the sotto voce suggestion that "They" are not Church.
With that comes all sorts of mischief: a confusion between the sanctity of the priestly office and the sanctity of the person who holds it; a conviction that it’s all about power, not love and service; a notion that the only true forum for our gifts as laity is to somehow lug them into the liturgy; a demand for "equal access" to a sacrament that is a gift, not a civil right; and many other evils.
Many people have the mistaken notion that clericalism is a peculiarly "conservative" phenomenon and that, if you are what is known as a "liberal" Catholic, you are immune from the problem because you are "democratic." Yes, there have been conservative Catholics I’ve known whose first rule in life is to never think ill of a priest even when trouble is staring them in the face. But the notion that clericalism is strictly a defect of the Right Wing Authoritarian Personality, so beloved as a bogeyman by Call to Action types, is rubbish.
In my experience, it hasn’t been "blind obedience to Catholic authority" but blind obedience to a particular charismatic personality (who is often at odds with the authoritative teaching of the Church) that is the trouble. Typically, what I’ve seen have been Catholics who like Father Personality so much that they just can’t stand those killjoys who insist on pointing out that Father Personality is preaching rank heresy or living gross immorality (or both). I wish more Catholics were docile to genuine Catholic Authority. They might find the stones to appeal to it against the force of some charming pervert or heretic that they really like.
Indeed, some of the toughest and most dedicated real reformers in the Church that I’ve known — fearless moms who aren’t afraid to march into the bishop’s office and respectfully but firmly give him hell when he’s a doofus — have been conservative Catholics who are docile to true authority and therefore not craven before mere personalities. For "authority" is not, as most suppose, "raw power to dictate." It is related rather to "authorship": the right of the writer to say what his work means. The author of the Catholic Faith is Jesus Christ, and the teaching and tradition of the Church is the way we know what the Author has to say. Oddly, most lay Catholics aren’t interested in that. They’re interested in what Their Local Personality has to say.
Very often, that local personality is a clericalist. It may not be the priest. It may be the DRE who is embittered because he or she will never be ordained and so is determined to create a personal fiefdom right there in the parish. (Some of the most draconian, micromanaging tyrants I have ever known were DREs who simultaneously held the pope in utter contempt, claimed to champion "freedom of conscience," and yet ruled their own serfs and slaves in the parish with an iron fist of control more monarchical than anything Innocent III or Hildebrand ever dreamed of.)
Dittos, of course, with the experience of countless advocates of liturgical experimentation, women’s ordination, Voice of the Fuddled political enthusiasms, and so forth. They have deeply bought into the notion that the Church is all about power, that they must be the ones to control that power, and that power happens exclusively in the sanctuary. The notion that 99.9 percent of the Church is lay so that the work of the Church could be conducted in the world has not entered their heads. They want to preside at the altar because the altar is, they believe, the only legitimate place a Catholic can preside.
The way to heal this, I think, is for the Church to really take up the task of teaching an authentic Catholic understanding of the lay office as a real vocation. Sherry Weddell of the St. Catherine of Siena Institute points out that our present conception of vocation is pretty much limited to the ordained and religious life. That is, after all, what we mean by "prayer for vocations." She remarks that this is a "bonsai gardening" approach to vocation. We focus all our attention on the handful of guys out of each diocese who might be called to the priesthood, and we pay virtually no attention to the overwhelming number of Catholics who are called to be laypeople.
Called. We laity have a vocation. In fact, we have as many vocations as there are laypeople. We have a mission in the world, and we must be equipped to carry out that mission just as much as the priest or religious must be equipped to carry out his or her mission. Weddell suggests we treat the parish as a "house of lay formation," not so that we laypeople can storm the altar and do the work of the priest for him, but so that we can do our proper work of assisting as he presides in the sanctuary, and presiding as we take up our proper work in the world as lay apostles of Christ. Do that, and we end the bonsai-gardening approach and instead will take up the much more fruitful wildflower-gardening approach, where all vocations are nurtured — including priestly and religious vocations.
For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, "Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body," that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, "Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body," that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the organs in the body, each one of them, as he chose (1 Cor 12:14-18).
Time to get back to the biblical (and Catholic) approach.

Mark P. Shea is a senior editor at and a columnist for Visit his blog at


  • 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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