On Reverse Clericalism


A few days ago, Russell Shaw offered a thoughtful look at some of the causes, manifestations, and effects of what has been known as “clericalism“: a spiritual and ecclesiastical “caste system” in which the few elite clergy are presumed to enjoy a native superiority — in authority and due respect, in level of and potential for sanctity, in overall closeness to God’s bosom — than the masses of lowly laity.

Shaw noted — quite rightly, I think — that one negative effect of clericalism has been the widespread error that the priestly vocation is the “gold standard,” consequently dooming the laity to second-rate states of life. (It’s true that there’s a long tradition in the Church suggesting that those who follow the evangelical counsels — poverty, chastity, and obedience — to the letter are in fact choosing an objectively “better portion,” but that’s not saying quite the same thing; and besides, most priests don’t take all those vows anyway.)
But the examples of clericalism that Shaw offers — mostly variants on priests and bishops acting autocratically — do not, I think, reflect the form of clericalism that’s most evident today; the form, moreover, that follows most directly from the clericalist idea that the lay vocation is a pale compromise for those who don’t have what it takes to take Holy Orders. In blog posts past, and informally for years, I’ve called this form reverse clericalism, because it’s clericalism that manifests itself in actions and circumstances that are putatively anti-clericalist.
For indeed, as I commented briefly on Shaw’s column, on the (admittedly limited) level of anecdote and observation, I don’t see much evidence of the old-school clericalism Shaw describes. Bishops don’t hold out their rings for kissing. Many priests wear civvies when off church property, or ask you to drop the “Father” when addressing them outside the sacristy. They subordinate themselves to mission statements and lay committees, sit alone while lay extraordinary ministers serve up the Eucharist, change liturgical prayers and blessings from the singular to the plural (“wash us of our iniquities”) or the second person to the first (“may almighty God bless us“), and in a hundred ways big and small strive keenly to position themselves not as a lord over their people or a spiritual master (as the old-time clericalist would), but as a friend, peer, and fellow sinner — one of the boys, save the collar.
Shaw also mentions institutional corruption as an effect of clericalism, and I can’t argue there. But it’s not a corruption that comes from bishops’ and priests’ overplaying the sacrosanctity that ordination earned them, even if it relies on the laity’s remnants of respect for it in order to succeed. I don’t see clericalists making themselves little emperors of their domains — living in palaces, drinking from golden goblets, barking orders to underlings, and reveling in pleasures of the flesh — out of sacerdotal hubris. No, their clericalism is something meaner: found in cronyism and petty power plays, maneuvering and word-parsing with teams of lawyers, untoward delight in the grinding wheels of bureaucracy; and in little compulsive acts, such as ordering the pastoral center to be repainted, as one bishop I know did, just a lighter shade of gray (while blithely reassigning priests with perverse sexual appetites).
Today’s clericalists aren’t little emperors; they’re middle managers. They don’t have too much pride in the sacredness of their vocation; they have too little.
Indeed, the root of this kind of clericalism may be the same as the root of the ostensibly anti-clericalist attitudes of some clergy: a crisis of confidence (which may be itself a crisis of faith) in the ineffable wonder, power, and glory of the priesthood.
Not long ago, Catholic World News blogger Diogenes remarked on a comment made in reference to Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson (yes, that one), viz., that he “knows his sheep and accepts them as equals.” This was meant as a compliment, yet, said Diogenes, to “call a man a pastor is to assert a ‘species gap’ between him and his flock” — a condition that only makes sense in light of a strong belief in the efficacy of the Sacrament of Holy Orders; a belief that thereby a man is changed so as to belong to “a supernaturally different order.” Thus the pastor who makes himself another sheep, or treats the flock like a hundred fluffy white little pastors, does not perform his office well.
Now, leaving aside the true point that belonging to such an order is not strictly inconsonant with being an “equal” to someone else, or certainly with being a sacrificial servant (isn’t that what a pastor is, after all? Surely the sheep benefit more from their association than he does) to the species in his care, we can appreciate this point, and grasp its connection to our subject. For who is more likely to behave like our modern clericalist: the priest who humbly sees himself as part of a supernaturally different order, with all the magnificence and responsibility native to it, or the priest who has been trained to blur the difference, and thus diminish the senses of magnificence and responsibility? Which is likelier to be less the alter Christus and more the middle manager? Needless to say, I’d wager the latter.
We now return to reverse clericalism, and quite naturally so, for it is the flip side of our sheepified pastor. The laity, caught up in the egalitarian spirit, and perhaps moved by vestigial beliefs that inside the priestly goose hides a mother lode of golden spiritual eggs, reciprocates by making itself more clergy-like. Layfolk don albs and ring the altar at the elevation (sometimes, in a once-popular practice that hasn’t been fully suppressed, holding Hosts in their hands). They mimic the priest’s liturgical gestures and postures, and co-opt his duties; they mouth the per ipsum and extend their arms as co-blessers during baptisms. They make participation in “ministry” an Eighth Precept — as an RCIA team I once belonged to did, spending one session on the Eucharist but three on lay ministry.
I think it’s also likely that the laity’s obsession with “conscience” and casual acceptance of the principle of private judgment are corollaries. If copying clerics makes us higher-grade Catholics, then so must mimicking the Magisterium.
A couple of ironies here, by way of conclusion. The first is that in one very licit sense, the laity should strive to imitate the clergy. Hans Urs von Balthasar, in The Christian State of Life, exhorts those of us in the lay state to seek to follow the evangelical counsels, but in spirit: aiming for an interior poverty, chastity, and obedience that does not conflict with, but rather supports and perfects, our vocation in the world. Now, our parish priests and bishops may be “in the world” as we are, but surely we can also try to imitate in spirit (without in any way rupturing the differences between us and them) the special virtues and conditions of their state: their self-sacrifice, their dedication to regular prayer, their tireless engagement in corporal works of mercy. We can let ourselves be edified by the distinctiveness of their calling, and allow that understanding to inform the way we view our own more mundane-seeming vocations.
But in targeting primarily the exterior trappings of clerical activity, reverse clericalists pass up the interior benefits of clerical contemplation.
The other irony is, of course, that reverse clericalism begins life as anti-clericalism. Priests who — even when moved by the most earnest of motives — downplay their membership in a supernaturally different order so as not to encourage clericalism of one sort only enable another. Laymen who play priest, storming the sanctuary to dismantle clericalism’s foundation, only buttress it.
As Shaw quite rightly concludes without calling it by that name, this kind of reverse clericalism keeps the laity from ever fulfilling Vatican II’s promise for them, by “making it a hard sell to get lay Catholics to link up everyday things with the holy.” But this isn’t happening because clerics hold up their vocation so high in the tree that the laity unduly venerate it (and despise their own in contrast). Rather, I think it’s because they have placed the priesthood on too low a branch, where any child can reach for its fruits.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

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This is the second installment in a multi-part, multi-week series on the issue of clericalism in the Catholic Church. The project will conclude with an online symposium, including dozens of prominent Catholics from various perspectives, offering their own analysis and solutions.



  • Todd M. Aglialoro

    Todd M. Aglialoro is the acquisitions editor for Catholic Answers.

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