What is Clericalism?

(This is Neil.) Let me first congratulate Todd and his family for completing their move to Iowa. I trust that Todd will post soon enough about hearing whispers while walking through a cornfield.


We often talk about “clericalism” on this blog. Here I’d like to ask: What do we mean when we speak of “clericalism”? I suspect that we’ll find that “clericalism” is an unexpectedly – and perhaps hopelessly – complicated word. Even assuming that we are speaking with some degree of precision, “clericalism” seems to have various possible meanings:


First, clericalism might refer to a clerical contempt for laypeople whose lives seem to be spiritually undemanding, or, in the case of “nominal” Catholics, possibly unintelligible and even parasitic. Fr Paul Stanosz has written that the priestly training in nine seminaries that he studied “tended to impart a ‘clerical difference,’ a sense of specialness that led the seminarians to see themselves as not only separate but also superior to laypeople” (“Seminarians Today,” Commonweal 8/12/05). And see here for a brief but memorable report of two seminarians from different institutions referring to “lay trash.” This clericalism may or may not be distinguishable from the sort of contempt that a frustrated professor might have towards her more mediocre students or that an artist might have towards a general public seemingly indifferent to cultural values.


Second, clericalism can refer to certain forms of narcissism or immaturity that seem to flourish in the clerical state. Rod Dreher once corresponded with a former priest who warned of the consequences of constantly being reminded by parishioners of “everything you’ve given up for us” and internalizing a dangerous sense of entitlement. (Stanosz notes that today’s priests are “celebrities,” at least in a certain subculture.) And, sadly, we are all aware of the consequences of arrested sexual development.


Finally, clericalism can refer to a clerical “culture of secrecy” in which misbehavior or illegal activities are tacitly encouraged – or at least widespread – to the point where any priest who would consider becoming a critic or whistle-blower risks self-destruction. Thus, exposure is a remote possibility. As A. Richard Sipe writes, “Where is a priest who wants to stay in his ministry to go with complaints of sexual harassment from his boss—a bishop or cardinal? To go outside the clerical system will make him a pariah or destroy his ministry altogether. Within the system there is no recourse.”


I don’t wish to deny that these forms of clericalism have existed, quite possibly still exist, and are worth rationally discussing. But I don’t want to do that right here. Instead, I want to talk about another form of clericalism – a theological error that can afflict both the clergy and laypeople. I will draw on an early article by the philosopher Charles Taylor that first appeared in the Downside Review in 1960 (“Clericalism”). This form of clericalism begins with a liturgical problem.


Taylor writes, “In [the] reduction of the laity to passive bystanders where they should be active participants, we have what might be called the paradigm manifestation of clericalism.” We hasten to define “active participation”: not merely a generic “doing things” or paying attention, but being conscious that one is “offering the Immaculate Victim, not only through the hands of the priest, but also with him” (Sacrosanctum Concilium 48). (See my post here.) When this role of the laity is obscured, it becomes a collection of accidental fragments. And Sunday Mass “often becomes a place where people assemble, paradoxically enough, for private devotions.” The laity ceases to be a people with a collective role.


Obviously, then, we have a situation in which there is a very large gap between the clergy, whose role is emphasized, and the laity, which retains no real collective role. This corresponds to a very large gap between the church and the world. Taylor notes that the laity is supposed to be “the link between the Church and the world.” (At the Liturgy, this presumably would happen through the offering up of praise, laypeople presenting the bread and wine, and the voicing of petitions.) But the laity simply cannot serve as a link between church and world if it is not a people, but merely a collection of anonymous individuals who cultivate hidden private devotions during the Mass. The church consequently finds itself estranged from the world.


There are two possible results of this estrangement. Both are unhappy. The church might simply ignore the world, protesting against only the most horrendous injustices and demanding only what is necessary to maintain church buildings and instruct the faithful. Taylor finds this problematic. Is there no theological significance to a “growth in culture, civilization and productive potential”? Can we really say that “there is no striving in created things themselves towards that unity and completeness which can in the final analysis only be given by God”? On the other hand, the church might adopt a theocratic position. After all, if the world doesn’t really matter, why should we give space for the ambiguities of “human development” or “human freedom”? Furthermore, if the world has no real importance, is there any point to “secular” history and recalcitrant nature, or can they be bent, here and now, to the will of God?


These two results might seem extreme. But, Taylor says, we can see the church moving from non-intervention to minor forms of theocratic interference and back again. This movement retains a consistency in seeing little importance in the non-ecclesial, temporal world. Thus, Taylor writes in 1960, the church doesn’t seem to care enough to speak out clearly on the use of nuclear weapons. But the church has opposed even sensible land reform policies that would have come at its expense, because it hasn’t been able to acknowledge the importance of any sort of non-ecclesial, “secular” purpose for the land.


Besides all this, there is another danger from clericalism. If the world only matters as a backdrop for ecclesial activities, the laity’s vocation of offering “all that man will have realized” to God is relatively unimportant. “Thus, the role of the laity is seen as the negative one of not infringing a certain law.” Some laymen and laywomen might truly be exceptional, “but there is no sense that this is the normal vocation of the laity.” To the clericalist, there is only one task in the world – to expand the church, but this is accomplished through a division of labor. “The layman saves himself, the priest saves others as well,” meaning that the priest will always overshadow the layman.


But why has clericalism come to pass? In a word: defensiveness. The Catholic Church reacted against Conciliar and Gallican protests against the hierarchical nature of the church. And, of course, it reacted against the Reformation, defending the hierarchy. The Counter-Reformation defense could be anti-humanist: “For the Jesuits were, and are, great educators, but at the same time their attempt to do the ends of God with the means of man betrays a certain lack of respect for these means …” And, so, the church survived, but at the cost of alienation from society and appearing to preach the impossibility or at least irrelevance of “human betterment.”


What was (and is) to be done? We should return to where we began and the liturgical problem. The worshipping community is not merely the priest and accidental spectators: it is one community, offering the “Immaculate Victim.” The laity, to put it simply, must not fade from view.


Your turn: What do we mean when we speak of clericalism?

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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14 Responses to What is Clericalism?

  1. Chase says:

    Thank you for your excellent assessment of this complicated but timely issue. I greatly appreciate the common sense view with which this blog looks at the Church. Thank you and keep it coming!

  2. Jimmy Mac says:

    This is one of the most succinct definitions of clericalism that I have ever read, and I continue to support what is being said:

    The problem of clericalism is composed of several problems. It is the problem of a caste that arrogates to itself undue authority, that makes unwarranted claims to wisdom, even to having a monopoly on understanding the mind of God. The consequence is the great weakening of the Church by denigrating or excluding the many gifts of the Spirit present in the people who are the Church. The problem of clericalism arises when “the church” acts in indifference, or even contempt, toward the people who are the Church.

    Richard J. Neuhaus, “Rwlifion & Society Report”, June 1989.

    (Of course, now that he has “poped”, I wonder if he still stands by this definition.)

  3. Wendelin says:

    Echoing Chase and Jimmy…thank you! This is such a difficult issue where I live and I see it on multiple levels: Call it traditionalism/orthodoxy/conservatism etc., many groups in my community and diocese go to great lengths to make choices in accord with the “true” Will of Christ and His Church. This is great but I often worry. It often seems that this quest ends with people referring straightaway and definitively to a priest: “Father knows best.” Priests deserve respect insofar as their office is concerned but they are still humans- and fallible. For me this truly hits home when clergy members begin to pontificate on matters outside their academic credentials. No one is ever obligated to give free advice, and silence costs nothing. Yet, as an emerging professional church musician I have many friends and colleagues who often feel frustrated if not downright angry about encounters where they were humiliated or belittled by their pastors/employers. One gets the sense that in a bind, it may be tempting to a priest to remind his lay subordinates that they are dispensable. However, this attitude of “irrelevance” has caused untold harm. I believe there is a simple solution: forthright honesty and humility- from all parties. A Gospel driven paradigm like this may cool the flames fired by these clerical conflicts.

  4. Charles in CenCA says:

    Alex, I’ll take Pastors and Vicars for $500, please! Damn, the Daily Double comes up:-(
    Neil, your third to fifth paragraphs’ descriptives are as apt as I’ve ever read. to “Superior….secretive….contemptuous….narcissitic…et al” one could add “insulated…detached…self-serving…conflicted.” And while I type these adjectives I’m thinking of priests whom I regard as “normative, even well-meaning” within the mileau of the modern priesthood.
    Now, I don’t want the casual reader to think that I have contempt, myself, for most or all clerics; far from it. But the Christlike visage factor, to me, appears with much more frequency with clerics who are on “mission” from Asia, Oceania and Africa than those who’ve been raised and formulated in the USA and Mexico. (Can’t speak for Canadians! Never had any in my parish or diocese to my direct knowledge.)
    Wendelein, as a nearly 40 year DM veteran of many rectories and many pastors/vicars, I am encouraged that you subscribe to the policy or responding to clerical crap with “forthright honesty and humility.” It is THE ONLY WAY to respond. Transparency is needed now more than ever to witness to the Gospel paradigm you cite. Otherwise, we can expect the feudal mentality of clericalism to get much, much worse.

  5. Neil says:

    I’m grateful to all of you for your generous responses (and the introduction to your very interesting blogs).

    I agree that, as Charles says, some clericalism comes from narcissism. But I wonder if the testimony of our musicians tends to suggest a theological and liturgical origin for clericalism, as well. If we reduce the significance of the liturgy to the priest’s consecration and distribution of an unquestionably valid sacrament, don’t we make church musicians “dispensable”?

    Regarding Fr Neuhaus, interested readers can find his latest writing on clericalism here. I think that he would still stand by the definition that Jimmy Mac quotes. I think that there is much to like in Neuhaus’ writings on clericalism, but still a bit to be desired.

    Neuhaus writes, “There is no institutional fix for the perennial problem of clericalism. The answer is daily conversion by priests and bishops to our servant Lord.” This is somewhat vague, but the problems of narcissism and contempt do require conversion. How could it be otherwise?

    However, I see three problems. First, Neuhaus reduces the problem of clericalism to individual behavior. He does not consider structural sin. Are there structures that tend to influence good people to adopt clericalism? (Note Fr Stanosz’s study of seminaries.)

    Second, Neuhaus does not consider theological sources of clericalism. As the earlier part of this comment suggests, I think that there is a theological root that manifests itself in liturgy. If we deny “active participation,” so that the presence of the laity at the liturgy is accidental, we limit real theological significance to clerics, don’t we?

    Third – and I do want to be sensitive here – Neuhaus doesn’t reflect on, say, his own (and others’) support of the late Fr Macial Maciel. I hope that I’m not being an ass here, but it really does seem to be relevant. This sort of thing doesn’t seem to be an isolated case. Why did some bishops, competent in other ways, support obviously problematic priests – like Geoghan – in the first place? Why did a respected priest-psychologist denounce news organizations reporting the sex abuse scandal as “doing the work of Satan” and “spreading lies” to harm the church? More recently, why did some prelates oppose Pope Benedict’s meeting with victims in the United States? There does seem to be a problem with objectivity – even for intelligent and otherwise admirable people – when thinking about priests.

    Thanks again. Must run. I look forward to reading more comments.


  6. Todd says:

    I also want to thank Neil for this brilliant offering.

    Regarding “problems” with Newhaus, let me suggest he does not seem to see the institutional church as a locus for “structural sin.”

    Conservative and traditionalist Catholics certainly do recognize structural sin. At the very least, they mimic the understanding of it in their condemnation of the “Culture of Death.”

    Perhaps this blindness is another aspect of clericalism: raising not individual clerics onto inappropriate pedestals, but the sub-culture of priests as a whole.

    Curious, really, as lay people are ordinarily defined by three sacraments no less efficacious than the holy orders of the clergy.

  7. Jimmy Mac says:

    I obviously kept my Jack Armstrong secret decoder ring turned off and I hereby translate “Rwlifion” to be “Religion”.

    Mea culpa.

  8. Brendan Kelleher SVD says:

    A quick link to put a face on the leadership of just one religious community.
    Our top leadership is voted on every six years, at provincial and local level every three years;few serve more than two terms of office. Then back to the ranks. Such regular changeovers don’t seem to cause a major hiatus because one and all know that the people we work with and for are more important than who sits in the rector’s or the provincial’s office.
    When you work in Africa, Asia, Polynesia and across Central and Southern America side by side with the people, dressing down is as common as dressing up. Both the people you work with and the fact that any post that places you in a position of authority or leadership is for a limited time frame, helps keep things in perspective.
    Though priest from the SVD and other religious communities are sometimes called to the episcopacy, returning for visits to ones home community soon brings you back down to the ground. For the one in ten who might call you “My Lord”, the rest will call you by your name. If I was to call our SVD bishop here in Japan by his formal title, or anything but his usual name he’d probably suspect that I was looking for a favour. Thankfully we’ve been friends and colleagues since he was a seminarian so formality is never the order of the day.
    Just one question to finish off, I wonder whether insistence on formality is a mask for insecurity.

  9. Neil says:

    Thanks again to everyone who has commented on my humble post.

    Regarding Fr Kelleher’s question about an “insistence on formality,” it certainly could be a “mask for insecurity.” Or, even worse, it could reflect what we might call “supernaturalism” – a belief that religious position (confirmed by the use of religious clothing and language) somehow automatically renders one immune from the ambiguities and social and psychological pressures of ordinary life.

    But sometimes formality, I think, can be a good thing. It can serve to remind both the bishop and community that authority really does exist, and the bishop isn’t meant to merely reflect an existing consensus or the conclusions of experts. Furthermore, it can serve to remind the bishop that he should try to transcend the limitations of his own experience and immediate desires.

    So, I don’t know, formality might be a good or bad thing depending on the context. But, then again, I don’t really know any bishops. Given the size of dioceses, I doubt that I ever will.

    Thanks again.


  10. Speaking-Up says:

    Fr. John Celichowski of Detroit described clericalism as a “form of elitism” that is “reinforced by the distinctive education and formation, dress and titles that priests and religious receive.” “Elitism” he said, “can lead to a distorted sense of entitlement, the assumption that one is not bound by the rules that govern everyone else, and that other people (even the vulnerable) exist to serve one’s own needs.” It is only through examination of this fundamental issue and the abuse of power it generates, he said, that we can make sense of the crisis. He called for “strong and committed laity to push back” against clericalism and to demand accountability.”

    The Elitist Roman Empire became the Holy Roman Empire but the military tactics remained the same. I will liken the Roman ‘testudo formation’ (the tortoise) to the Clericalism / Elitism of the Roman Catholic Church.

    The hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church have been using the ‘testudo-style formation’ which make them virtually invulnerable to attack, while they hide behind their shields of secrecy, silence, hypocrasy, cruelty and abuse of power.

    The tortoise was one of the prime examples of Roman ingenuity at warfare. When deployed in such a way, the legionaries became virtually invulnerable to arrows or objects dropped from defensive walls. The tortoise was an essentially defensive formation by which the legionaries would hold their shields overhead, except for the front rows, thereby creating a kind of shell-like armour shielding them against missiles from the front or above.
    Extract from: http://www.roman-empire.net/army

    In the testudo formation, the men would deploy very densely and position their shields at the sides (rather than by the grip behind the umbo). The first row of men, possibly excluding the men on the flanks, would hold their shields from about the height of their shins to their eyes, so as to cover the formation’s front. The shields would be held in such a way that they presented a shieldwall to all sides. The men in the back ranks would place their shields over their heads to protect the formation from above, balancing the shields on their helmets, overlapping them. If necessary, the legionaries on the sides and rear of the formation could stand sideways or backwards with shields held as the front rows, so as to protect the formation’s sides and rear. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Testudo_formation

    Does any of this sound familiar? Did the Roman Empire really collapse or did it just switch names? Photos of Roman military strategies can be obtained over the Internet.

  11. david evans says:

    The problem is that in spite of admonition of proactive participation by the laity as described in 1 Cor. 14:26, the laity has been relegated for centuries to a passive responsive role even in the very best of any active participation liturgy. The paradigm, no matter how much adjusting, is fundamentally against the laity having proactive hence directive participation. Which also translates to the laity only having passive responses in relation to affecting the world.

  12. A good start in the discussion of clericalism – I was happy to find this blog. However – the main reason we have clericalism today is largely overlooked like an elephant in the church – too big to see.

    Clericalism is what allows otherwise opposed prelates on the right and left within the church, to distract from, and cover up for, rampant criminal activity and child abuse, as in any broken system cult of man.

    As long as laypeople allow themselves to be manipulated into choosing either “side” of a false dichotomy – liberalism vs modernism – no child will be safe in the confessional and bishops will continue to “ordain” even though they have lost powers of office – through connection to pederasty, one of the few offenses that automatically nullifies those powers.

    The problem is the worst in traditional orders where we have the likes of “orthodox” Bishop Schneider going around saying the “Reign of Christ the King” is to oppose “anti clericalism” as if those who are anti clerical are the heretics. He blames their own twisted, ritualistic, elitist esotericism on anti corruption agents like the masons.

    Good distraction techniques to seduce the well intended, but uneducated devout.

  13. Mario VistaNow says:

    This hyperbola word of Clericalism seems like a word brought forth by Satan. There is nothing wrong having a profound formal orthodox knowledge of the things of God. Not stubbornness or arrogance. and if liberal or middle of the road to cut no slack on living the Gospel of Jesus

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