Priest Worship: An Obstacle to Catholic Belief and Practice

The Church in the United States is entering a profound crisis. The decline in the number of priests, now rapidly accelerating, obliges American clergy and laity alike to engage in a searching re-evaluation of their respective roles and their mutual relationship.

In principle, that is as it should be. Indeed, it’s long overdue. Although it would be foolhardy to predict the outcome of this crisis, it may be that the Church in the United States will serve as a laboratory for the Church universal in confronting and solving the problem of clericalism, much as it did on the issue of church-state relations before the Second Vatican Council and its Declaration on Religious Liberty.

For that to happen, though, the problem must be acknowledged and examined dispassionately, without rancor or defensiveness.

It is difficult to begin an article on clericalism without writing, “Some of my best friends are priests.” So they are. I hope they understand that what follows is not an attack on them or their priesthood but an attempt to call attention to ways of thinking and behaving which, I suspect, do as much harm to priests as they do to lay people.

The harm takes many forms.

Clericalism discourages lay people from taking seriously their responsibility for the Church’s mission. In fact its thrust is to deny that the laity have any such responsibility. As a result, evangelization suffers. So does the whole effort to influence the structures of secular society on behalf of Christian principles. Thus a large part of the program of Vatican II remains not only unaccomplished but for the most part unattempted.

Clericalism adds to the confusion about lay and clerical roles which, among other things, is a factor in the morale problems of priests. In doing so, it contributes to the “vocations crisis”—that is, to the shortage of new priestly vocations and also to the apparent failure of many lay people not only to discern their vocations but even to think seriously about them. It is a factor in inappropriate political activism on the part of some clerics. It even plays a little-noticed, but not necessarily unimportant, role in the controversy over women’s ordination.

Most serious of all, clericalism discourages lay people from trying to cultivate a spirituality which rises above a fairly low level of fervor and intensity. The clerical mentality regards the committed pursuit of sanctity as the concern of priests and religious. As far as the laity are concerned, Vatican II’s universal call to holiness goes largely unheard. Minimalistic religious practice and legalistic morality are all that’s asked of lay people and all that many ask of themselves.

These are sweeping generalizations. They are not true of all priests and all lay people. There are, and always have been, significant exceptions. But the exceptions are just that—exceptions. They will remain so wherever the clerical mentality prevails. Why that is so will soon become apparent.

First, however, it’s necessary to define clericalism. Here is a working definition: Catholic clericalism is the attitude which supposes that the priesthood and religious life provide the normative model for everybody in the Church. I realize that this is only one strand in an extremely complex phenomenon and that other aspects of clericalism are equally, and arguably even more, serious in their consequences. Clericalism understood as clerical elitism is, however, the aspect of the problem which I am discussing here.

Clericalism is not a habit of mind confined to clergy: lay people share it too. Clericalized religious often hold that priesthood is the normative model for all Christians, while the fundamental assumption among clericalized lay people is that, whatever the differences may be among various priestly and religious ways of life, priests and religious have all chosen a way of life which is unconditionally the “better part” while lay people have chosen the worse.

In short, this way of thinking judges every other state in life and vocation by how well, or poorly, it approximates the clerical model. That accounts for one commonly held view of the lay state: It is a fallback position for Catholics who don’t have the courage or the charity to become priests and nuns. Lay people themselves are judged, and many times judge themselves, to be good or bad, praiseworthy or not, depending on how well or how badly they mirror the clerical ideal.

Although people today do not generally put it that bluntly, there was a time not so long ago when they did. “What is the province of the laity?” demanded Monsignor George Talbot in response to Newman’s article On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine. “To hunt, to shoot, to entertain.” Making allowances for the fact that this presumably was intended as a bon mot, the remark deserves to be taken seriously as a symptom, of the clerical mentality pure and unadulterated.

The persistence of clericalism is no one’s conscious fault. It is part of the religious culture which most Catholics have imbibed from infancy on and which they take for granted as part of the natural order of things. It is found among both conservatives and liberals. Indeed, the emergence of liberal Catholics quite as clerical-minded as Monsignor Talbot has been among the most striking phenomena of the postconciliar years.

Clericalism should not be confused with the view that the priesthood and the religious life—especially the latter—do, in a certain respect, constitute a higher way, a more perfect state of life, than the lay state. This is an extremely important insight, not least because it sheds light on where and how clericalism goes wrong.

In what sense are the priesthood and religious life “higher” and “more perfect”? Precisely in the sense that life lived according to the evangelical counsels—poverty, chastity, and obedience—points to the presence among us of the kingdom of God. As Vatican II says, it “reveals more clearly to all believers the heavenly goods which are already present in this age, witnessing to the new and eternal life which we have acquired through the redemptive work of Christ and preluding our future resurrection and the glory of the heavenly kingdom” (Lumen Gentium, 44).

But this way of life is not everyone’s vocation. It is not what God has in mind for us all. As a matter of fact, it is not even what God has in mind for diocesan (non-religious) priests. While this way of life is normative for those who are called to it, it is not the appropriate model for those who aren’t. As far as lay people are concerned, it is simply not their vocation.

What follows from that? Observe that just here is where the clerical mentality goes wrong.

A radically impoverished idea of vocation underlies clericalism. The idea is that priests and religious have vocations, but lay people do not. This is clear from the way Catholics are accustomed to use the word vocation. The current shortage of new candidates for the priesthood and religious life is “the vocations crisis.” Efforts to recruit candidates are “vocations programs.” Church personnel responsible for this work are “vocations directors.” The message of these usages and others like them is that a vocation is a calling to the priesthood or religious life.

What about lay people? It is said that they have jobs, marriages, commitments, and relationships of various kinds. Perhaps they even have an ecclesial role. But they don’t have vocations.

This is not the teaching of the Catholic Church. In many places Vatican II applies the word vocation to the laity and their way of life. Lay people, it says, “by baptism are incorporated into Christ, are placed in the People of God, and in their own way share the priestly, prophetic, and kingly office of Christ” (Lumen Gentium, 31). The laity have a vocation. It is the vocation to be laity, “and to the best of their ability carry on the mission of the whole Christian people in the Church and in the world,” Lumen Gentium continues.

Pope John Paul II repeats and expands on the Council’s teaching. In his recent apostolic exhortation on the laity, he writes: “The participation of the lay faithful in the threefold mission of Christ as priest, prophet, and king finds its source in the anointing of baptism, its further development in confirmation, and its realization and dynamic sustenance in the Holy Eucharist” (Christifideles Laici, 15). He also stresses the crucial notion of personal vocation: “It is a participation given to each member of the lay faithful individually, inasmuch as each is one of the many who form the one body of the Lord.” Further:

Being “members” of the Church takes nothing away from the fact that each Christian as an individual is “unique and unrepeatable.” On the contrary, this belonging guarantees and fosters the profound sense of that uniqueness and unrepeatability, insofar as these very qualities are the source of variety and richness for the whole Church. Therefore, God calls the individual in Jesus Christ, each one personally by name. In this sense, the Lord’s words “You go into my vineyard too,” directed to the Church as a whole, come specially addressed to each member individually [Christifideles Laici, 281.]

Tiresome as it can be, this citing of official texts is important to make the point that the idea that lay people have vocations—the common Christian vocation shared by every baptized person, the vocation proper to the laity, and the unique personal vocation peculiar to each individual—is not a hobbyhorse for malcontents. It is the teaching and the faith of the Church.

The clerical mentality misses that point. To be sure, few people today would explicitly deny the lay vocation, but clericalism accomplishes the same thing by ignoring it. Even when it pays lip service to the lay vocation, the clerical mentality dismisses it in practice. In this view, after all, is not a real “vocation” a calling to the clerical or religious life? People who do not have this calling must have inferior vocations. The laity are members of the Church, certainly, but their membership, when all is said and done, doesn’t count for much.

The results of this way of thinking are disastrous. I sketched out three above. Let’s examine them more closely.

1. Clericalism discourages lay people from taking seriously their responsibility for the Church’s mission.

What is this responsibility? Its traditional name is apostolate. Vatican II expresses it this way:

In the Church there is diversity of ministry but unity of mission. To the apostles and their successors Christ has entrusted the office of teaching, sanctifying, and governing in His name and by His power. But the laity are made to share in the priestly, prophetical, and kingly office of Christ; they have therefore, in the Church and in the world, their own assignment in the mission of the whole People of God. In the concrete, their apostolate is exercised when they work at the evangelization and sanctification of men; it is exercised too when they endeavor to have the Gospel permeate and improve the temporal order, going about it in a way that bears clear witness to Christ and helps forward the salvation of men. The characteristic of the lay state being a life led in the midst of the world and of secular affairs, laymen are called by God to make of their apostolate, through the vigor of their Christian spirit, a leaven in the world [Apostolicam Actuositatem, 31.]

This and passages like it represent an enormous advance over the model of the lay role embodied in Catholic Action, defined as the participation of the laity in the apostolate of the hierarchy. To be sure, Catholic Action itself represented significant progress and spawned a number of important lay movements in its day. But it left lay people tied to clerical apron strings and did not acknowledge the necessary and appropriate autonomy of the laity in their own particular sphere of the apostolate. So, for example, it was natural for Pope Pius XI in his encyclical on communism (1937) to describe “the militant leaders of Catholic Action” as “an invaluable aid to the priest.”

We have not returned to the Catholic Action model in the years since Vatican II, but neither, it seems, have we been especially successful in realizing the Council’s idea of lay apostolate:

For guidance and spiritual strength let the laity turn to the clergy; but let them realize that their pastors will not always be so expert as to have a ready answer to every problem (even every grave problem) that arises; this is not the ‘role of the clergy: it is rather up to the laymen to shoulder their responsibilities under the guidance of Christian wisdom and with eager attention to the teaching authority of the Church [Gaudium et Spes, 43].

This vision of well-formed Catholic lay people autonomously active as a leaven in the world remains largely a dream.

Thus opinion polls consistently show that very large numbers of lay Catholics in the United States and other countries dissent from the Church’s moral teaching on many issues. And, dissent aside, lay apathy is widespread. “Religion isn’t carried into one’s life,” observes a lay person quoted in a recent study of parish life in England and Wales. “Religion consists of going to church.” At heart that is the same attitude one encounters, though more dramatically, in Catholic politicians who support the “pro-choice” line on abortion.

In such cases, it seems, secular culture has been more successful in evangelizing Catholics on behalf of its worldview than they have been in evangelizing secular culture. The persistence of the clerical mentality is not the only reason for this, but its cramped understanding of how lay people fit into the mission of the Church plays a part by abetting that divorce between religion and life which Vatican II decried: “One of the gravest errors of our time is the dichotomy between the faith which many profess and the practice of their daily lives” (Gaudium et Spes, 43).

2. Clericalism contributes to confusion about lay and clerical roles and to the many bad results which that confusion has for both priests and lay people.

A typical recent account describes a “progressive” parish this way: “Liturgies are planned by a liturgy committee under a lay chairperson. The laity arrange rotas of welcoming stewards and also devise the bidding prayers. The justice and peace group plan special themes for First Friday Masses…. The ‘people of God’ run the show, working in harmony with the parish priest, whose role is no longer autocratic but that of a facilitator.”

The intent here is obviously to express approval, yet this model of an up-to-date parish is more than a little troubling when it is viewed in the context of clericalism. No one wants pastors to be autocratic, nor can one doubt the good will of lay people who devise “bidding prayers” and serve as “welcoming stewards.” Up to a point, these are appropriate lay activities.

But only up to a point. For one thing, it’s fair to ask whether this is really so different from the situation in the past, when active parishioners were considered to be those who served as ushers and choir members, who ran the bingo and bazaars. But that aside, the involvement of lay people in activities like these, when pushed too far, raises two serious problems. One problem concerns the clericalizing of the laity: i.e., the idea that lay people are doing their job when they do specifically religious things. The other problem has less to do with what is happening in a parish like this than with what one suspects is often not happening, i.e., the formation of the laity for their apostolate in the world. In fostering a kind of new clericalism on the part of well-disposed lay people, the emphasis on lay involvement in the Church—which has been a major theme in “progressive” Catholic circles since the Council—hinders lay involvement in the evangelization of secular culture.

The message of the new clericalism is that “good,” “active” Catholics are those who serve on parish councils and liturgy committees, act as lectors, distribute Communion at Mass, and in other ways participate in ecclesial “ministries.” It is not an argument against lay ministries as such to point out that this way of thinking can deaden appreciation of the lay mission in and to the world.

It may also deaden appreciation for priestly ministry. Is the role of “facilitator” really one which will attract any reasonably intelligent and energetic man to the priesthood today? To the extent this vision reduces the work of a priest to that of a kind of parish functionary—convening committee meetings, participating in discussion groups, carrying out the “people’s” will—it’s more likely to drive qualified candidates away.

Paradoxically, however, to the extent this new clericalism encourages lay people to focus their religious energies on acting more like priests, it also paves the way for inappropriate activism by priests in politics. Clerics, one might say, rush in to fill the vacuum of authentically Christian political action created by the absence of well-formed, committed lay people.

Whether or not the U.S. bishops, for example, have fallen into this trap in their various statements on political and economic questions is arguable. Nevertheless, the frequency and specificity of their pronouncements does reflect, among other things, a tacit assumption that clerics must speak for the Church on secular affairs in the absence of an effective lay voice. In some ways the present situation is not all that different from the one described by Yves Congar nearly four decades ago—”A direct regulation of temporal things by religious interests… is one of the essential aspects of clericalism”—except that today fewer laity seem to pay attention to what their clerical spokesmen say.

As I suggested earlier, clericalism also helps foster agitation for women’s ordination to the priesthood. It stands to reason that it should. For if the clerical model is truly normative for everyone—if it embodies the ideal way of life to which every Catholic should aspire—women have good reason to consider their exclusion from the priesthood an unjust, gender-based act of discrimination. (In which case I would venture the modest prediction that the controversy over women’s ordination will not be settled until we have once and for all disposed of clericalism.)

3. Clericalism discourages lay people from trying to cultivate a spirituality which rises above a fairly low level of fervor and intensity.

In regard to morality, for example, clericalism is part of the explanation for the legalistic mentality of pastors and confessors who see themselves as the administrators of a moral code, with authority to dispense from its norms when they prove difficult for the faithful, rather than as stewards of moral truth and faithful guides to upright living.

In the present as well as in the past, this deadening legalism has lent significant encouragement to the view that Christian life is essentially an exercise in avoiding mortal sin and doing the minimum required to get oneself into heaven. Hence the present emphasis on “pastoral solutions” to problems ranging from contraception and homosexuality to divorce and remarriage—”solutions” which obscure the reality that authentic moral norms are moral truth and that Christian morality consists essentially in the effort to learn and live by what is true, as Jesus reveals it and the Church teaches it.

The problem goes deeper than that, however, for the same mentality exerts a stifling effect on the interior life and the quest for holiness on the part of lay people. In a theological textbook widely used before Vatican II one finds this statement: “Clerics are bound to lead a holier life than lay people, both interiorly and exteriorly.” One could hardly object to a proposal for a kind of pious competition between clerics and laity as to who will lead holier lives, but to say flatly “Clerics are bound…” is a mind-boggling assertion. However it might affect priests, it can only persuade lay people that, in the spiritual life as in everything else their religion takes seriously, they are bound to be second-best.

Deeply ingrained, this way of thinking persists. In a recent review in the London Tablet one finds the religious affairs correspondent of the London Times disparaging lay groups which encourage people to aspire to sanctity (“high pressure and rarified religiosity… salvation by the fast lane”). Better for the laity, he writes, to “travel without the heavenly overdrive on full power every minute of every day.” Leaving aside the glitzy rhetoric, this constitutes a rationale for mediocrity as the appropriate model for lay spirituality.

Needless to say, it is not what the Second Vatican Council has in mind.

It is therefore quite clear that all Christians in any state or walk of life are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of love…. The forms and tasks of life are many but holiness is one…. Accordingly all Christians, in the conditions, duties, and circumstances of their life and through all these, will sanctify themselves more and more if they receive all things with faith from the hand of the heavenly Father and cooperate with the divine will, thus showing forth in that temporal service the love with which God has loved the world [Lumen Gentium, 39-41].

Vatican II intended its universal call to holiness to be taken seriously. Clericalism doesn’t do that. I have no doubt that heaven is peopled by countless millions of lay saints, and that most achieved beatitude not despite the Church but largely because of it—its sacramental life and preaching of the Word. But clericalism was no help to this great lay endeavor. It was, and remains, a serious obstacle.

What is to be done? The clerical mentality is an attitude, a mindset, a way of thinking (which, of course, readily gives rise to corresponding ways of acting). As such, it is not susceptible to change by changing policies and structures. And, as far as that goes, the necessary policies—the body of teaching, that is—are largely in place already, thanks to the Council, to recent popes, and to many other individuals and groups.

What is necessary now, it seems, is to bring the fact of clericalism into the light of day, to reflect on it and on the harm it has done and goes on doing to the Church, and to trust that, confronted in this way, clericalism will self-destruct as its contradictions and its pernicious consequences become apparent to all.

The problem will not be solved if the solution which is attempted to the growing shortage of clergy amounts simply to thrusting lay people into quasi-clerical roles (“ministries”) as substitutes for priests. Perhaps some steps along those lines will be required on a stopgap basis, but this strategy does nothing to confront, and may even confirm, the clerical mentality.

Yet the crisis of clericalism which is now commencing in the Church in the United States does offer a unique opportunity for a process of truly constructive change to occur, and for this to happen in a spirit of charity and mutual respect befitting the lay and clerical members of the People of God. The key to it lies in recapturing an authentic sense of vocation. That is something which all Catholics, regardless of state in life, ought ardently to desire.


  • 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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