On Clericalism

Imagine a man who wakes up in the morning with a headache, fever, and chills. The symptoms persist and are there when he goes to bed that night. Next day, it’s the same thing again — headache, fever, chills. This continues day after day, week after week, over and over. Finally the poor man starts to think: “I guess this is how people always feel. I just have to live with it.”

The Catholic Church is something like that man. In the Church, the illness is called clericalism. We Catholics have suffered from it so long that most of us take it for granted. In fact, we’re clericalists ourselves. “That’s how it is,” we say. And our symptoms persist.

They look like this:

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

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A pastor lords it over his people, consulting no one and habitually making unilateral decisions. His people are a passive, dispirited lot, quick to complain and slow to cooperate.

A bishop routinely goes far beyond fundamental moral principles in talking about political issues. He advocates highly specific solutions to problems that admit of more than one legitimate view and makes no secret of his political partisanship.

A carefully planned, highly touted diocesan vocations recruitment program aimed at attracting men to the priesthood turns out a flop. Its planners scratch their heads and wonder what went wrong.

Clericalism is operative in all these cases and many others. After all this time, you’d think people would have caught on and taken remedial steps. But even now, many haven’t. “That’s how it is,” they say. And the symptoms persist.

But a cautionary note is in order upfront: There are real risks involved in criticizing clericalism.

One is the danger of giving aid and comfort to dissenters who want a revolution in the Church that will allow them to choose their own bishops and pastors and make other important decisions, up to and including decisions about doctrine. (If a teaching isn’t “received,” it’s said — that is, if people reject the teaching because it hampers their lifestyle or requires some sacrifice on their part — then the teaching must be wrong.)

The American theologian Paul Lakeland contends that the “existential predicament” of the laity in today’s Church is that “they are in chains.” Lakeland writes in the framework of liberation theology, and what he says about the laity is an exercise in appallingly bad taste inasmuch as it likens the irritation of middle-class American Catholics to the plight of some of the poorest and most oppressed people on earth.

There’s also a danger of devaluing priesthood and priests just when a clergy shortage leads some to look to supposed alternatives. A few months ago, the tiny Dutch province of the Dominicans issued a paper suggesting that in cases of need, a congregation could designate one of its lay members, man or woman as the case might be, to preside at the Eucharist.

The Dominican leadership in Rome moved to reprimand the Dutch. But this neo-congregationalism, which goes back to Rev. Edward Schillebeeckx, O.P., and before him to the Protestant Reformation, could attract followers. Not only does it supply an answer, albeit an illusory one, to the priest shortage, it also opens the door to women priests — or, more accurately, to women who want to act as if they were priests.

Against this background, those of us who speak of the evils of clericalism need to be careful not to undermine the dignity and sanctity of the ordained priesthood and obscure its radical, ontological difference from the baptismal priesthood of the faithful.

Clericalism, however, is not an affirmation of these sacred realities but a caricature. 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.

Even while absorbing these clericalist views, of course, the laity traditionally have entertained certain contrary perspectives. Think of the robust anticlericalism of Chaucer. Or consider a line in Edwin O’Connor’s splendid pre-Vatican II novel The Edge of Sadness. “Probably in no other walk of life [besides the priesthood],” the priest-narrator remarks, “is a young man so often and so humbly approached by his elders and asked for his advice. Which, by the way, is almost always received gratefully and forgotten promptly.”

So, where does Catholic clericalism come from?

At bottom, it comes from erroneous thinking about vocation. The fundamental, and profoundly mistaken, idea behind it does much to explain the apparent shortage of new vocations to the priesthood and religious life and the persistent failure of carefully planned programs to recruit them. (As I’ve remarked elsewhere, there’s no shortage of vocations in the Catholic Church. What we have today is a shortage of vocational discernment, with accompanying disastrous results. But that’s another story.)

The bad idea at the heart of clericalism equates “vocation” with “state in life.” A state in life is a large, overall framework of commitment within which different people choose to live their Christians lives. State in life is one meaning of “vocation,” but not the only one.

Starting from that mistake, bad thinking about vocation then makes the great leap of supposing that the only real vocation worthy of that name is the clerical state in life. Those whom God doesn’t call to be priests (or, by extension, religious) — the laity, that is — may have a vocation in some weak, analogical sense, but they don’t have the vocation that’s the gold standard for everything else — the vocation to be a priest. All other callings are evaluated by how well or poorly they approximate the clerical norm. {mospagebreak}

Many things could be said about this. The most important thing to say here is that this clericalist way of thinking overlooks the reality and relevance of unique personal vocation — the particular, essentially unrepeatable role in the carrying-out of his redemptive plan to which God calls each baptized person.

Like others before him (St. Francis de Sales and John Henry Newman, for instance), Pope John Paul II gave a compelling account of personal vocation. In fact, it was one of his central themes. “God calls . . . each one individually by name,” he wrote. “In this sense the Lord’s words, ‘You go into my vineyard too,’ directed to the Church as a whole, are specially addressed to each member individually” (Christifideles Laici, 28).

From the historian’s and sociologist’s perspectives, the origins of clericalism go back many centuries. It’s a fascinating story, but too long to retell here. For the moment it’s enough to say that during the last two centuries the realization grew among Catholic leaders that the Church was facing an unprecedented challenge in the post-revolutionary, anti-clerical secular democracies of Europe and the Americas. To cope with the problems arising from the sharply reduced access of clerics to cultural and political influence, the Church had to turn to the laity if it was to have any hope of playing a significant role beyond the sanctuary.

One product of this growing awareness — and an extremely important one — was Catholic Action. The movement emerged as a major force in world of Catholicism in the 1920s and 1930s. Pope Pius XI’s strong encouragement of it even earned him the title “Pope of Catholic Action.” Especially in parts of Western Europe and Latin America, Catholic Action did crucial work representing the views and interests of the Church in
secular society.

Catholic Action as such was never a political factor in the United States, where the Church instead exercised political influence through its working alliance with the Democratic Party. Over time, nevertheless, an extensive network of church-related groups organized on the Catholic Action model arose. They flourished until well into the middle years of the 20th century, when the confusion of the postconciliar era and the hostility of liberal Catholic intellectuals to what they liked to call “ghetto Catholicism” proved its undoing.

But Catholic Action was truly a great thing in its day. Here was recognition by the leaders of the Church that the laity had a critically important work to do in what was universally called “the apostolate” — the Church’s mission of making Christ present and active in the world. Still, there was a catch. Catholic Action was officially defined as the participation of the laity in the apostolate of the clerical hierarchy. There may have been exceptions here and there, but groups operating on the Catholic Action model were ultimately under clerical, hierarchical direction and control.

Here and there, farsighted individuals objected that this version of the laity’s place in the apostolate was too limited. In 1932, Msgr. Josemaria Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei, wrote:

We must reject the prejudice that ordinary faithful must limit themselves to helping the clergy in ecclesiastical apostolates. There is no reason why the apostolate of lay people should always be a simple participation in the hierarchical apostolate. They have a duty of doing apostolate, not because they receive a canonical mission, but because they are part of the Church. They carry out this mission through their professions or jobs, with their families, their colleagues, and their friends (quoted in John F. Coverdale’s Uncommon Faith, Scepter 2002).

Talk like that was radical at the time. Then the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) adopted it as its own.

In documents like the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, and the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, Apostolicam Actuositatem, the council taught that the call to lay people to participate in the mission of the Church does not come to them from bishops and priests; it comes directly from Christ, by reason of baptism and confirmation.

“The apostolate of the laity is a sharing in the salvific mission of the Church. Through Baptism and Confirmation all are appointed to this apostolate by the Lord himself” (Lumen Gentium, 33). And because lay people live and work in the world, their apostolate is naturally directed to, and carried on within, the structures and settings of the secular order — at work and school, in the neighborhood and at home, in all those places that the clergy can’t directly reach.

Now lay apostolate was seen to be something belonging to the laity as a matter of intrinsic right and duty as baptized members of the Church. And not only that — God’s call to sanctity was understood as being directed to all, lay women and men just as much as bishops, priests, and religious: “All Christians in any state or walk of life are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of love,” the council declared (Lumen Gentium, 40).

In the context of American Catholicism today, it’s a bit of a shock to realize that Vatican II, while strongly encouraging lay apostolate, had next to nothing to say about “lay ministries.” The big push for lay ministry only began after 1972, following the publication of Pope Paul VI’s Ministeria Quaedam. That document abolished the old “minor orders” and subdiaconate and assigned the functions of subdeacons to the new lay ministries of lector and acolyte; it also invited other forms of lay ministry.

Since then, the lay ministry boom has been propelled by theologians and lay bureaucrats in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and diocesan chancery offices. It has the support of well-meaning bishops and pastors who apparently believe that letting lay people do some things that only clerics previously could do advances the cause of the laity in the Church.

There are two kinds of lay ministers. In the United States, the first — and far and away the larger — group is made up of hundreds of thousands of lay volunteers who do things like distributing Communion and reading at Mass in parishes and other church settings. The second, much smaller group (30,000 or so) is made up “lay ecclesial ministers,” overwhelmingly women, who hold salaried jobs as pastoral associates, directors of religious education, and the like — again, mostly in parishes.

For the most part, lay ministers of both kinds are generous people serving the Church well. All the same, John Paul II, in his landmark 1989 document Christifideles Laici, found cause for concern in this development. One problem, he said, was “a too-indiscriminate use of the word ‘ministry’” — a common foible today, when just about every function and job in a typical parish gets called a ministry. Another was “a ‘clericalization’ of the lay faithful and the risk of creating . . . an ecclesial structure of parallel service to that founded on the Sacrament of Orders” (Christifideles Laici, 51).

Good grief — what’s “an ecclesial structure of parallel service to that founded on the Sacrament of Orders”? The outlines of such a creature are clearly visible in the Dutch Dominicans’ proposal, noted above, to have congregations designate lay people as presiders at Mass in a pinch. Does that sound far out? The fact that no one in your parish is pushing that particular idea right now doesn’t mean no one ever will. Just give it time.

As for John Paul II’s “‘clericalization’ of the lay faithful,” that problem is summed up in something a lay woman wrote describing her experience speaking to an audience of Catholic women like herself. She was trying to explain the Schoenstatt movement, a lay apostolic group emphasizing holiness in everyday life. Here’s how it went.

As an opening exercise I asked the women to write on one side of the paper basically all the things they do in the course of a day or two. Then I asked them to write on the other side all the things they do in the same time frame which they considered holy. Without exception, two types of lists were composed: the one with all those mundane daily chores and the other with lots of things all associated with “ministry” activities . . . . No one in the group simply put an arrow pointing to the daily activities . . . .

If nothing else, I wanted the women to take away from the lecture a sense of the dignity and mission we know is ours: the realization that the daily list of their activities is all holy when done as faithful Christians; that not just receiving the sacraments but to be a sacrament is our call and opportunity.

That’s a beautiful idea. But clericalist conditioning makes it a hard sell to get lay Catholics to link up everyday things with the holy. Instead clericalism widens the gap between faith and life that Vatican II deplored.

Not only that, one-dimensional emphasis in official Church circles on “lay ministry” is at the expense of time and energy that might better have been spent forming people for lay apostolate. Lately, the U.S. bishops’ conference has concentrated on setting norms for training people preparing to work for the Church as lay ecclesial ministers. Considering the important role these people often have in liturgy, catechesis, and other areas of Church life, their training certainly merits attention. But not at the cost of ignoring the formation of lay people for apostolate in the world. Yet that’s exactly what happens — and has been happening for a long time.

Finally, unpleasant though it is, it’s necessary to face up to the link between clericalism and the scandal of clergy sex abuse. Clericalism plainly doesn’t cause sex abuse, any more than sex abuse causes clericalism. But the two things fit together hand in glove. Secrecy explains why.

Speaking of the us-and-them mentality to which institutional secrecy gives rise, ethicist Sissela Bok writes:

Long-term group practices of secrecy . . . are especially likely to breed corruption.

Every aspect of the shared predicament influences the secret practice over time: in particular the impediments to reasoning and to choice, and the limitations on sympathy and on regard for human beings. The tendency to view the world in terms of insiders and outsiders can then build up a momentum that it would lack if it were short-lived and immediately accountable (Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life, Random House Vintage Books, 1999).

Disregard for the welfare of outsiders and excessive concern for insiders go far to explain the cover-up of clergy sex abuse by Church authorities. The National Review Board established to monitor the bishops’ implementation of their sex abuse policy makes that point.

Clerical culture and a misplaced sense of loyalty made some priests look the other way . . . . Clericalism also contributed to a culture of secrecy. In many instances, Church leaders valued confidentiality and a priest’s right to privacy above the prevention of further harm to victims . . . . [C]hurch leaders kept information from parishioners and other dioceses that should have been provided to them. Some also pressured victims not to inform the authorities or the public of abuse (Causes and Context of the Sexual Abuse Crisis, 2004). 


Clericalism harms the Church in many ways, both large and small. The elimination of clericalist habits of thinking and acting from Catholic life is long overdue. In very many places, though, it has yet to begin. Remember that sick man I mentioned earlier: It’s high time he recognized that he’s sick and did something constructive about it.


  • Russell Shaw

    Russell Shaw is the author of Catholic Laity in the Mission of the Church (Requiem Press), Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press), and other works.

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