Overcoming Clericalism

Generally speaking, when one thinks of clericalism (i.e., the notion that the sacrament of Holy Orders confer, not only a priestly charism, but infinite wisdom, unchallenged authority, and limitless power on the recipient) this is normally thought of in our culture as an affliction of “conservatives”. They are, after all, the ones constantly being diagnosed as “Authoritarian Personalities”. When you watch movies about the Church (especially anything made in the past thirty years) it is axiomatic that the Crusty Old Priest rules with an iron fist and a booming “Because I say so!” over timid sheep who are unable to think for themselves while the Hip Young Priest (or nun) is invariably the person who is there to, ‘ow you say?, “Shake things up” and instruct that flock that They Are Church Too. Clearly, clericalism is solely the affliction of the old and orthodox, while heterodoxy promises liberation from All That. That’s the standard narrative of the Pepsi Generation and we Boomers are sticking to it.

Still and all, it might be a good thing to revisit such standardized mythology now and then, if for no other reason than to discover that it is rubbish. For, in fact, clericalism is not a feature of orthodoxy (though it might well be a flaw of some who are orthodox). Nor is freedom of thought and conscience always cherished by those who fancy themselves liberators. It turns out that the lust for unwarranted power and unquestioned obedience is something to which all humans can fall prey.

Take women’s ordination. What drives the push for women’s ordination is the thoroughly clericalist notion that the only real Catholic is an ordained Catholic. Since women cannot be ordained, it therefore follows (in the mind of the clericalist) that women can never be fully a part of the life of the Church. Coupled with that is the clericalist confusion of the priestly office with the Throne of Power. Again and again, the rhetoric of women’s ordination gives away the game when advocates say, “Men have the power in the Church and women deserve to have power too.” In other words, it’s all about Power. The whole thing is cast in civil rights narrative which makes clear that ordination is thought to confer a superior dignity upon the priest than is available to the layperson.

But the real picture is as Augustine put it centuries ago: “I am a Christian with you. I am a priest for you.” The office of the priest does not indicate superior dignity or superior sanctity. Nor does the lay office deprive one of anything, because the priesthood (and, indeed, the lay office) are both gifts given by God and undeserved by us.

The way to healing the crippling disease of clericalism is to recover the Church’s understanding of our dignity as fully Catholic laypeople. This means not only understanding the ordained office and what it does and does not confer, but also understanding our dignity as baptized laypeople and our own absolutely vital place in the Church and, most especially, in the world. At the altar, the priest rightly presides. His proper sphere is the sanctuary and the rightly ordered worship of the Church. But in the world (that is, the 99.99999% of human life that happens outside the sanctuary), we laypeople preside. It is time we stopped fighting over the tiny amount of real estate that is not given to us by God and focused our energies on our monumental task of bringing the gospel to people no priest, bishop or Pope will ever meet—the people we see every day.

Mark Shea


Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog and regularly blogs for National Catholic Register. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.

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  • Cooky642

    This is exactly why I am a Third Order/Secular member of my Order. I wasn’t called to the First Order (priesthood), which is obvious in my being a female. Neither was I called to the Second Order (vowed Religious), whether enclosed or open. What I WAS called to do is take Christ and our faith into the everyday world: shopping, getting gas, mailing a letter….even to someone at Church who drags in looking like they’ve lost their last friend! And, just when I question whether I’m any good at what I’m trying to do, I get an “attagirl” from God. Once, a neighbor I never talked to knocked on my door one Monday afternoon. When I answered, she said, “I didn’t see you go out to Church yesterday and thought I ought to come see if you were all right”! Thanks, Lord!

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  • sasjubsa

    In both this article and his last article on clericalism, Shea has made some errors in his thinking and his comments. I honestly think people should exercise serious caution in assenting to Shea’s opinions. It is true that, at certain points in the Church’s history, clericalism has been a problem; So also has anti-clericalism. From the spirit and tone of Shea’s article, it seems clear these opinions are generated from something other than an authentic presentation of the Church’s ecclesiology and the spirit of authentic discipleship.

  • sasjubsa — nothing like vagueness and innuendo to clich a criticism, hey?

  • Excellent article. Cf. Shea’s “Overcoming Clericalism” of July 14.

  • Please disregard my previous comment. I meant to reference Shea’s article, “Clericalism,” of July 7th.

  • sranne

    I found this post through a link at Googling God (“Is Clericalism Alive” by Bob Sheppard). I agree with both of you that clericalism is a real scourge, one that finds different forms of expression, but is still an abuse of the priest’s position precisely because clericalism is an abuse that takes the form of power. And really messes things up ecclesiologically in so doing!
    So I really can’t agree with Sheppard, who continues the conversation in terms of power. Shea has got it 100% right on this issue: people have gotten so hung up on the “power” question that ordination is seen as a human right, and an upside-down view of the Church is perpetuated by the most unlikely types! The mission of the laity to leaven the world with the Gospel is compromised, because our most theologically talented laity seem to be channeled into Church structures instead of dispersed into a culture which is starving for crumbs of the Gospel.
    I just read this description of the mission of the laity today, and it rings so true: “The issue is the Church in the world, not a radiating of the Church’s holiness into the profane world, but the leavening of the world from within in order to make visible God’s glory which still shines in the world.”*
    The fixation with the altar is a distraction from the real work of the Church, where the priesthood is meant to be a servant of the laity.

    *(Henrici, “A sketch of Balthasar’s life” from a long-ago article in Communio)

  • sranne:
    I really don’t understand your term, “fixation with the altar.”

  • aquinas29

    The answers to the dangers of clericalism, or the abuses of the laity groups, is this: Are you in communion with the Magisterium? Yes or no will do. As soon as they start dithering, you know what the answer is.

  • encaminado

    “The office of the priest does not indicate superior dignity or superior sanctity.”

    This is a very important point. Priest worship is one of the errors that has led us to where we are now. After all that has gone on, some have still not caught on to the fact that priests are fallible, sinful, human beings. They are not above the law, be it ecclesiastical or civil. Also, though they are called to sanctity, like the rest of us, their ordination does not make them automatically thus.

    Our local parrishes need to introduce the notion of accountability… not just for the priests but laity as well… we should all be chipping in and disposing ourselves for the building up of the kingdom… and we are not… No more “royal priesthood” for the ordained… we are all priests, prophets and kings with the same dignity and the same objective… lets all just get to work together.