Is Our Pope Anticlerical?

FrancisIs Pope Francis our first anticlerical pope? Technically speaking, he isn’t–his two predecessors also were more or less critical of clericalism–but he is well on his way to being the most outspoken one.

Consider a widely circulated quote from a 2011 interview he gave while he was still Cardinal Bergoglio of Buenos Aires. In case you haven’t seen it or have forgotten it, the key passage goes like this:

“As I have said before, there is a problem: the temptation to clericalism. We priests tend to clericalize the laity. We do not realize it, but it is as if we infect them with our own thing. And the laity–not all but many–ask us on their knees to clericalize them, because it is more comfortable to be an altar boy than the protagonist of a lay path….

“The layman is a layman and has to live as a layman with the strength of his baptism, which enables him to be a leaven of the love of God in society…not from his pulpit but from his everyday life. And the priest–let the priest carry the cross of the priest, since God gave him a broad enough shoulder for this.”

These are strong, bracing words. But besides the words, Francis’s manner and lifestyle–unpretentious, simple, direct–constitute a kind of living repudiation of certain clericalist conventions. (Lest there be any doubt–many other good priests also speak and live this way.)

The essence of clericalism in the sense in which Pope Francis (and I) use the word is a way of thinking that takes for granted that the clerical vocation and state in life are both superior to and normative for all other Christian vocations and states. From this point of view it follows that clerics are the active agents in the Church–the ones who make the decisions, give the orders, exercise command. The laity’s role is to listen and do as they’re told.

Many lay people appear still to think this way at least as much as, and probably more than, their priests do. That’s true even (or perhaps especially) of those who rebel against it and drop out of the Church. Deeply rooted and pervasive, it’s an abuse that replaces the idea of a Church whose fundamentally equal members have diverse offices and roles with a caricature: clerics are bosses, lay people get bossed.

America isn’t the only place it exists. In a talk recently in New York, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin said “strong remnants of inherited clericalism” continue to plague the Church in Ireland. “The days of the dominant or at times domineering role of clergy within what people call the ‘institutional Church’ have changed, but part of the culture still remains,” he said.

So how to proceed from here? Pope Benedict XVI more than once suggested an important dimension of what needs to be done in floating the idea of  “co-responsibility.”

In a message to a meeting last August, he explained: “Co-responsibility demands a change in mindset especially concerning the role of lay people in the Church. They should not be regarded as ‘collaborators’ of the clergy but, rather, as people who are really ‘co-responsible’ for the Church’s being and acting.”

Here’s a thought. Reforming the central administrative machinery of the Church stands high on Pope Francis’s agenda. Mightn’t finding ways for lay people to have a stronger presence and voice in what happens in Rome be part of it? That could be an idea whose time has come.


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Russell Shaw


Russell Shaw is a freelance writer from Washington, D.C. You can email him at

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  • Deacon David

    Excellent Article Mr. Shaw! In this Year of Faith when we are encouraged to re-visit the documents of the Second Vatican Council, it is important to recall the vocation the faithful are called to live in the Council’s ‘Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity.’ The laity are called to christianize their environments by bringing Christ to the marketplace of the world; to bring the Eucharist as walking tabernacles from the Missa to the ends of the earth. “The individual apostolate, flowing generously from its source in a truly Christian life, is the origin and condition of the whole lay apostolate, even of the organized type, and it admits of no substitute” ( ch16). Pope Francis is expressing the heart of Vatican II in all he is doing; restoring the spirit of collegiality in the hierarchy through the establishment of cardinal advisors from all over the world, and now empowering the laity to live out the charater of their Baptism as expressed by Vatican II. We are anxiously awaiting his first encyclical. Francis, rebuild my Church!

  • Fr.Duffy Fighting 69th

    I’ll believe it when I see it. If the type of young priests the seminaries are churning out is any sort of litmus, then clericalism is alive and well, in America at least. And as far as Francis reforming the basic bureaucratic structure inside the Vatican. If he lived to be 300 years old he still wouldn’t make a dent in it – clericalism is an entrenched, multi-generational, masonic-supported phenomena. The type of cleansing the institutional church needs can only come from the Second Coming.

  • pnyikos

    On one front, there is improvement. When I was in Catholic school in the 1950’s and early 1960’s, “vocation” was always understood to mean “priestly vocation” or “vocation to become a religious Brother or Sister.” This was only slightly diluted by the turn of the millennium, but now I am seeing a major change. Our bishop, in his after-Mass talk at Confirmations, puts at least as much stress on the vocation to the married life as on these other vocations.

    The Church still has a long way to go before it gives the vocation to the married life the support it needs and deserves, but I do have some hope for the long run.

  • CDville

    Even with a master’s degree in English, I don’t think I really understand what people mean when they speak of clericalism. Is it the idea that the priest is practically infallible, even in administrative duties, because of his ordination, so he is the only one to be administrator? Is it the idea that the non-ordained, especially women, are forever second class citizens in the kingdom of God, even if they are administrators in the church? Does it have nothing to do with administration? Where can I find a clear definition?
    Ignoring the term, I see in my parish two priests so overwhelmed with administrative duties, they have little time for confession and other sacraments. I think we need more lay people in administrative roles so the priests have time to do what only they can do.

  • Deacon David

    You are absolutely correct in your assessment. In fact the Pope recently told newly ordained priests that they were not to become administrative functionaries. The laity certainly can and should step in. Please also do not forget that Vatican II restored the order of the Permanent Diaconate, In many situations (except confession, anointing of the sick and confecting the Eucharist at Mass) the deacon can and should step in to assist. He was assigned to either a parish or diocesan ministry by the Bishop to perform a needed role. After 50 years, it seems too many dioceses are still not fully utilizing this resource. The various reasons for this are for another discussion.

  • Fratello

    Remember, Francis can only do so much. As people ‘co-responsible’ for the Church, our prayers are important in this quest. By the way, the Pope has made it clear that the coming encyclical, which he has described as ‘very powerful’ would bear the marks of Benedict XVI. God bless.

  • N

    One thing that troubles me a bit here is that it aims to talk about the ‘fault’ of priests
    being ‘bosses’ and the lay people being ‘bossed around.’ But I’ve noticed quite the opposite being the case. There are so many puffed up laypeople flexing their muscles in the parish and calling themselves ‘minister of this’ and ‘minister of that’ that often the priest becomes either a wet dishrag, totally cowed by ‘the parish committee’ or the priest has to battle to get any kind of respect, being as much as told, ‘I’m in charge here’ by various lay people.

    For example, an ‘extraordinary minister of the Eucharist’ arriving in the sacristy and informing the new priest, ‘I’m the Eucharistic minister for this Mass’ and being quite angry and offended when the priest said, ‘No, I am. We don’t need an extraordinary minister at this Mass; the ordinary one will do, and that is the priest.’ Or the lay people who ‘go about their business’ completely ignoring the priest (I’m speaking of a new priest who has taken over a parish) and doing everything but saying outright, ‘We’re in control here; you are superfluous.’ Everything in their manner said, ‘Stand aside; we’ve got it covered.’

    I know of a priest berated in the sacristy after Mass by a parishioner who demanded to know where HE got the right to change the Mass times, and who did he think he was, anyway? The priest held his temper admirably, but eventually she got so rude and abusive that he told her to leave the sacristy. I was stunned by the lack of respect from this parishioner.

    Then there are the people who go to the priest gushing about how grateful they are for him and how they’re ready to do anything the priest might need. But when they are asked to do something that they think is ‘beneath’ them, the excuses start. i work with priests; I have a number of close friends who are priests. I both hear the stories and see this stuff first-hand.

    If you are a married person with children, before you think about throwing your weight around in the parish and letting the priest know what you think of his role and his job rating, stop and consider how you’d feel if someone took over your child-rearing and criticized, second-guessed or argued with every decision you make about the rearing of your children. That’s what some lay people do to priests – the knife cuts both ways.

    The lay people – and the priest in charge – have got to know where the buck stops: with the priest. After all, it is the PRIEST, not the lay ‘committee’ or the self-styled lay ‘minister of basketball’, or ‘minister of parish room allocations’, etc. who will stand before God and be judged as shepherd of the flock, just as surely as parents will have to answer for how they raised their children, and spouses will have to answer for how well they lived out their marriage vows.

    Like another commenter, I’m puzzled by the term ‘clericalism’, because it seems to suggest that priests should be less responsible. I think priests should be fully responsible – God will hold them to account, after all – but that doesn’t mean being authoritarian. It means being authoritative, and having their authority respected by the lay people.

    Maybe we need to balance this issue by addressing the anti-clericalism that can be seen in many parishes when the lay people take over and the priest either gives up or is constantly frustrated and hindered in his work.

    Sometimes we lay people lay a heavy cross on our priests by our attitude toward ‘helping’ them by being more involved. Lay people need to examine their consciences and make sure that their ‘help’ is not an ego trip. Alas, what I’ve seen in some parishes is the latter, not humble service. And I know good and faithful priests who truly suffer in their vocations as pastors because of the ingratitude and disrespect of their parishioners and the bossiness and controlling behavior of their parish committee members, who fight the priest every inch of the way and make his every decision into a power struggle.

    One commenter has got it right: lay people should be more than willing to set aside some time to do the non-priestly tasks so the priest is free to do what only priests can do. After all, priests lay down their entire lives in service to us; we should be ashamed if we’re not willing to lay down a few hours per week in service to them. But we must do it with humility – and sometimes, that may mean just ‘doing what Father says’ as well as we can, trusting that Father knows a lot more about running a parish than we do (and even if he doesn’t, remembering that it’s Father who answers to God, not us, for how he leads the flock).

    Personally, I don’t see a whole lot wrong with an attitude of obedience to my parish priest when I volunteer to help him. Obedience is the short-cut to humility, and that’s something that priests, religious AND lay people have to learn.