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How can the Church overcome clericalism?

Russell Shaw - published on 01/15/13 - updated on 06/08/17

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 –

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