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How can the Church overcome clericalism?

Russell Shaw - published on 01/15/13

The problem of clericalism may seem simple, but a real solution is more complicated

Although the problem of clericalism has a solution that at first glance might seem to be fairly simple, putting the solution into practice is something else. Clericalism is deeply embedded in the Catholic psyche – in how we see ourselves and others and our roles in the Church – and has been taken for granted for so long that many people assume it’s part of the natural order of things: this is just how the Church is, like it or not, and there isn’t much anyone can, or possibly should, do about it.

Nevertheless, clericalism does a great deal of harm and is well worth overcoming. To do that, we need to start by understanding what it is. The word "clericalism" has been used in different contexts over the Church’s history; in Europe, clericalism for a long time has been the name for interference by clerics in secular politics. It’s hardly surprising that such influence should sometimes have occurred, given the many centuries in which Church and State were more or less fused, thus inviting frequent power struggles between religious and secular rulers (popes and emperors, kings and bishops, and so on down the line), with each side accusing the other of overstepping the line, and each very likely right. Lay investiture – lay bigwigs appointing bishops and pastors – was a centuries-long example of abuse on the side of the secular power.

Today, clerical interference in politics is hardly a problem in Europe, the United States, or most other places. The real problem instead is the ongoing secularist campaign to drive religion out of the public square, while forcing religious people to submit to and cooperate with laws and regulations that violate their religious and moral convictions. Legalized abortion, same-sex marriage, and the HHS mandate are current instances of that problem.

Meanwhile, however, clericalism of a somewhat different sort remains a problem existing among Catholics and within the Church, visible in relationships between clergy and laity as well as in ecclesiastical institutions and processes. In general terms, it’s an attitude, a state of mind that takes the clerical vocation and state in life to be both superior to and normative for all other Christian vocations and states. Clerics (primarily bishops and priests, and to a lesser extent deacons) are the active, dominant element in the Church. It’s they who (by nature, as it were) make the decisions, give the orders, and exercise command. In this scheme of things, the role of the laity is to receive the orders and, if they’re faithful members of the Church, do as they’re told.

Of course, there’s a certain truth in all this. The Church is hierarchically structured, after all, with diverse offices, functions, and tasks. Not everyone has the same job everyone else has – there are leaders and those who are led. The situation is beautifully expressed in St. Paul’s inspired vision of the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ.

But clericalism is an abuse that distorts and misrepresents this ideal of complementarity by reducing it to a caricature: clerics are bosses, lay people get bossed. This is hardly encouragement for the laity to assume their God-given roles in the apostolate (the Church’s mission of preaching Christ’s good news to the world). Moreover, it’s in direct conflict with the teaching of Vatican Council II (in the dogmatic constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, and the decree on the apostolate of the laity, Apostolicam Actuositatem) as well as the 1983 Code of Canon Law, which reflects that teaching.

People wondering how serious an abuse clericalism really is should study and interiorize this crucial body of doctrine. The heart of the teaching is formulated like this in Canon 208: "In virtue of their rebirth in Christ there exists among all the Christian faithful [that is to say, among clerics and laity alike –

christifideles] a true equality with regard to dignity and the activity whereby all cooperate in the building up of the Body of Christ in accord with each one’s own condition and function."

Other sections of the Code affirm various duties and rights of the laity including engaging in evangelization. Canon 212 says the faithful are "bound by Christian obedience" to follow the teaching and decisions of bishops and free to make their needs and wishes known to the pastors of the Church; according to their qualifications and consistent with "the integrity of faith and morals" and respect for the pastors, this canon adds, lay people possess a right "and even a duty" to share their view of the good of the Church with its leaders and with other  members of the faithful.

So what should be done about clericalism? In looking for answers, we have to set aside the idea that the clergy-laity distinction says everything that needs saying about the fundamental structure of the Church. True, from a certain point of view, the Church is divided into clerics and lay people. That’s how Christ wanted it. But this division isn’t the be-all and end-all of ecclesiology. More basic than any division is the undivided state of the Christian community, the community of the christifideles. In ecclesial terms, this is the condition of the Church considered as communion – a community of persons in union with God and one another, within which relationships are best understood on the model of the Trinity itself.

Without falling prey to the confusions present in some neo-congregationalist thinking about ministry, it’s imperative that the radical oneness and equality of all members of the Church, arising from baptism, receive renewed emphasis today. That the Church is hierarchically structured and divided into clergy and laity should not obscure the no less real unity and equality of all the christifideles.

It’s on this basis that clerics and lay people can discern and live out their own proper vocations and apostolates and ministries in ways that are genuinely complementary and mutually supportive. When they do, it becomes clear that the complementarity and interdependence of laity and clergy aren’t just sociological conveniences but essential elements of the faith community. As the International Theological Commission (an advisory body attached to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) says: "The people cannot exercise their ministry without  [a] priestly minister, but, similarly, the latter – bishop or priest – cannot fulfill his priestly office without the people, for he exists only in the priestly community. ‘No Church without bishop and no bishop without Church,’ said St. Cyprian."

Implicit in this way of thinking is an understanding of  "vocation" that sees it as embracing three realities: first, the baptismal vocation – the calling all Christians have to love and serve God and neighbor and do their share in the work of the Church; second, state in life – the clerical state, consecrated life, marriage, the single lay state in the world – which provides a stable framework for living out the baptismal vocation and which is the way "vocation" is commonly used today; and third, personal vocation. This third meaning of vocation has been around for a long time, but it is only recently – and with a large assist from Pope Bl. John Paul II – that it has come into its own.

Personal vocation is the unique, essentially unrepeatable role God intends each one of us to have in his providential, redemptive plan. It consists, in the words of the epistle to the Ephesians–of the particular set of "good works, which God prepared beforehand" for each to perform in the course of his or her life (Eph 2.10). Every baptized person, man or woman, clergy or lay, has one. In

Christifideles Laici (The Lay Members of Christ’s Faithful People), the  Magna Charta for the laity that he published in 1989, Bl. John Paul II says this about it:

  • "God calls me and sends me forth as a laborer in his vineyard. He calls me and sends me forth to work for the coming of his Kingdom in history. This personal vocation and mission defines the dignity and the responsibility of each member of the lay faithful and makes up the focal point of the whole work of formation, whose purpose is the joyous and grateful recognition of this dignity and the faithful and generous living-out of this responsibility" (Christifideles Laici, 58).

The fundamental error of clericalism is to suppose that the clerical vocation sets the standard of excellence, the norm, for everyone. But, as practical matter, it’s personal vocation that sets the standard and establishes the norm of fidelity to God’s will for each of us. John Paul II says: "From eternity God has thought of us and has loved us as unique individuals. Every one of us he called by name." For some, that involves the priesthood; for others, it’s a calling to the life of a lay person living by gospel values in middle of the world. Hearing and heeding God’s call is what counts, and this is how the Church will overcome clericalism in the end.

Today, the idea of personal vocation is spreading among Catholics. Even so, clericalism will not give up so easily. So here’s a practical suggestion. Next time your pastor preaches a homily on vocation that refers only to the priesthood and religious life, greet him with a smile after Mass, thank him, and then say something like this: "Father, I’m always glad to pray for more priests and religious. God knows, we need them. But next time it comes up, would you mind also telling us to pray that all of us – including the laity – will discern, accept, and live out our personal vocations? It would help."

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