Aleteia logoAleteia logo
Aleteia
Tuesday 18 May |
Saint of the Day: St. John I
home iconNews
line break icon

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 –

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
Tags:
Vocations
Support Aleteia!

If you’re reading this article, it’s thanks to the generosity of people like you, who have made Aleteia possible.

Here are some numbers:

  • 20 million users around the world read Aleteia.org every month
  • Aleteia is published every day in seven languages: English, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Polish, and Slovenian
  • Each month, readers view more than 50 million pages
  • Nearly 4 million people follow Aleteia on social media
  • Each month, we publish 2,450 articles and around 40 videos
  • We have 60 full time staff and approximately 400 collaborators (writers, translators, photographers, etc.)

As you can imagine, these numbers represent a lot of work. We need you.

Support Aleteia with as little as $1. It only takes a minute. Thank you!

Daily prayer
And today we celebrate...




Top 10
1
SAINT MATTHIAS
Philip Kosloski
Why Matthias was chosen to replace Judas as an apostle
2
ascension AND ASSUMPTION
Philip Kosloski
Ascension vs. assumption: What is the difference?
3
ascension of Jesus
Philip Kosloski
Was Mary present at the ascension of Jesus?
4
BENOIT JOSEPH LABRE
Larry Peterson
Benedict XVI called him “one of the most unusual saintsR...
5
KNEELING
Philip Kosloski
How to pray the Divine Praises
6
I.Media for Aleteia
These 30 shrines will lead the Rosary Relay for end of the pandem...
7
Eric Clapton, Luciano Pavarotti, East London Gospel Choir
J-P Mauro
Hear Clapton and Pavarotti sing a prayer to the “Holy Mothe...
See More
Newsletter
Get Aleteia delivered to your inbox. Subscribe here.