The Trouble with Clericalism

shutterstock_113754442“The pope is the successor of Peter. The bishops are the successors of the college of the apostles. The priests share in that to a limited degree. And that’s my summary of ecclesiology.”

That’s funny–as it happens, it’s my summary of clericalism.

The words just quoted don’t come out of the Dark Ages–I heard them spoken just a short time back.  I won’t name the speaker–he was talking more or less spontaneously and, with more time to prepare, might have given a better account of himself. Besides, the view expressed is probably widely shared among both clerics and lay people even today. The roots of clericalism do indeed go very deep.

Even as a thumbnail account of the Church, though, the remark is atrocious. In leaving out most members of the Church, it reminds me of Cardinal Newman’s response to a bishop who spoke slightingly of the laity: “The Church would look foolish without them.” Something like a football team with only coaches and no players, I suppose.

Clericalism has been in decline for years. Pope Francis and his predecessors have repeatedly rejected it, and that’s a good sign. But clericalist attitudes and assumptions remain embedded in the minds of many Catholics and, though probably unrecognized, go on doing great harm.

The harm is of several kinds. By far the worst occurs on the spiritual level, where relatively little is either asked or expected of lay people beyond  a legalistic mediocrity–spiritual excellence is equated with keeping rules (go to church, say some prayers once in a while, avoid the grosser kinds of sin). The idea that, as Vatican Council II taught, the laity are called to be saints quite as much as the clergy and religious simply doesn’t enter this clericalist picture. It’s a miracle of grace that so many achieve holiness just the same.

Clericalist thinking also contributes to the passivity and non-involvement of many lay people. Ultimately, it’s a major contributing factor in the disastrous split between faith and life that Vatican II so forcefully condemned.

That membership in the Church in itself carries with it the right and the duty to participate in the redemptive work of the Church–including the work of evangelization–fails to penetrate the clericalist mentality. If it’s all up to the clerics, a clericalized lay person reasons, then leave the heavy lifting to them. (Meanwhile, another sort of clericalized layman likes to play at being a priest himself.)

At the deepest level, the damage done by clericalism is the injury inflicted upon the self- understanding of the Church. Perhaps it didn’t matter so much in earlier times, when an institutional-hierarchical model of the Church suited the institutional-hierarchical structuring of society. But times have changed. Like it or not, some version of egalitarianism is today generally accepted as the norm. Whether it is realized in practice is another question, but virtually universal lip service is paid to the ideal of universal equality. If the Church doesn’t to measure up, it’s in for trouble.

Fortunately, the Church has within it the resources required to respond to this challenge. For not only is hierarchical structure part of its essential constitution, so is its nature as a “communio”–a community of faith. The project of working out a balance between the two things that suits contemporary attitudes and needs has been ongoing for years. Once it happens (and faith moves me to believe that some day it will), that will be the death knell of clericalism. Good riddance.

Russell Shaw


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

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  • Nicola M. Costello

    Mr. Shaw, you offer an anonymous quote and a 2nd hand reference to a friend of Cardinal Newman as evidence of clericalism being rampant today? I suggest supporting your contention with better examples that show clericalism is the epidemic you point it out to be. Historically, anti-clericalism is just as big a problem as clericalism.

  • Catriona M Mac Kirnan

    I wouldn’t have thought of calling the symptoms you describe in the modern laity a form of clericalism, but you are quite right. I am a convert to the Church from an Evangelical Protestant background. I was and am consistently horrified when my questions about personal holiness, keeping one’s life pure for the Lord, etc., are greeted with remarks such as “Oh, that’s for priests and religious.”

  • Gail Finke

    I’m afraid I don’t understand your point. The first paragraph, which you say is your definition of clericalism, happens to be true. The problem is emphasis: the relative passivity of people who want to leave everything to “them” (the clergy) and, paradoxically, the drive on the part of others to transform themselves into a sort of alternate clergy. The refusal to understand and embrace the dignity of the laity is a real problem, both for individual laity and for the Church as a whole. IMHO It comes in part from the current American propensity to look for experts to do things, and in part because the laity is split into camps and has no clear leadership (when half the Catholics vote one way and half the other on major moral issues, it’s obvious that there is no shared understanding of what is demanded of us as followers of Christ). But in the USA at least, most of the energy and vitality of the church is found among the laity. Most of the the evangelization (Catholic media is a prime example) comes from the laity. Most of the institutes and programs and events and music and art and school teaching and support of all kinds for the Church comes from the laity. Clerics and laity alike are foolish to ignore that. Over the centuries, renewal has often come from religious life. In our day, it’s coming from the laity and most people don’t even see it. It might as well be invisible. If this renewal effort isn’t to fail, it needs to be embraced by the clergy — because it’s largely not an anti-clerical movement, but one that WANTS to support and be embraced by the clergy. Clericalism, like all extremes, is always a danger; I just don’t see any widespread clericalism in the United States right now.

  • chaco

    This has me thinking about Mt. 11: 25; “Although you have hidden these things from the wise & learned you have revealed them to the childlike.” It seems that St. Augustine’s experience applies here; He knew the scriptures well before The Holy Spirit revealed their Truth to his Heart. This suggests 2 kinds of knowledge; that of the intellect & that of the Heart. It would seem that having both simultaneously would be the ideal but it’s also obvious that they can work independantly of each other ie; Those battling an addiction who deny the truth of their dilema with intellectual rationalizing. [ I recall a papal quote; ‘We are in a constant battle with the mind.” ] I heard that the main function of the Pope/ Hierarchy is to preserve Church Tradition. Chesterton said that ignoring tradition is like denying certain groups the right to vote – The thoughts/ beliefs of the departed should count for something. With all this & Mt. 11: 25 in mind, it seems that holiness can ebb & flow between the less articulate laity & the more learned clergy. My 6 yr. old’s faith once put my superior intellect to shame; While listening to Crosby ,Stills, Nash & Young ; “C’mon people now- smile on your brother – everybody get together – try to love one another…” I asked my son; “Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone could love each other like brothers & sisters in God’s family ?” he looked at me with seemingly Divine Wisdom and said; “One of these days Dad.”

  • noelfitz

    This is a brilliant article. Russell understands the Church and its history brilliantly.

    My spiritual director is a memnber of Opus Dei and he interprets ‘clericalism’ in a slightly different way. He considers priests should do priests’ work and lay folk theirs. This may mean, I think, the lay folk not being involved in the church. There are nuances.

  • noelfitz

    Rereading this discussion I am reminded of ‘vox populi vox dei’ The voice of the laity is the voice of God.

  • victor

    Excellent article .

  • Pope Francis, last summer, in an address to Latin American bishops, listed three “temptations” for them to consider and overcome in their churches:
    1. Making the Gospel message an ideology,
    2. Functionalism,
    3. Clericalism.

    It is hard to imagine any awakened Catholic not seeing these very dangerous characteristics very present in the U.S. Church – each is deadly to the Gospel, to our mission, to our entire life in Christ. And therefore the three make of the Church a very poor contributor for good, in and to the world: the world, to whom the Church is sent with life and light, is left to die in its sin by such a disabled messenger.

    I wrote an article for Catholic Exchange a few months ago on this: “Three Temptations to Spiritual Immaturity” – the link to it is here:

  • rakeys

    I am confused. Mr Shaw you give a definition of clericalism which obviously is intended to identify the role of the clerics or the church. You then somehow expand it to be a definition of the church itself, which it is not. Yes there are clerics in the church, just as there are coaches in football. Just as coaches design and call the plays in football, the players carry it out. In the Church Jesus gave the authority to the clerics, and it is the laity who carry out his message.
    I don’t know what world you live in, but in my parish and every parish i have lived in it is the laity that performs most of the tasks in the parish. The priest gives guidance.
    But it is the laity that teach in the schools, teach PSR, teach RCIA, and teach confirmation class and sacramental preparation, The laity are the Youth leaders. It is the laity that give our Christ Renews his Parish retreats which revitalizes our parishioners. The priest says Mass and hears confession on the retreat. It is also the laity which organizes the food drives, rummage sales, organizes the people who do adoration.The laity are the Knights of Columbus, the School borrd , the Parish Council.
    We have over 75 different parish organizations. The priest is a member of only a couple of them.
    Pope Paul Vi in the 60’s called the laity to evangelization. Our priest are continually calling the parishioners to renew their faith and to be holy. The idea that only priests are holy is foreign to me. I know of at least 50 people in our parish who are more holy than our 2 priests, and I consider both our priests to be holy people.But the holiness of some of our laity just blows me away and challenges me to be holy.
    Unfortunately, clericalism is a word thrown around by people who want to be involved inmaking the moral and doctrinal decisions in our church. But you can see what happens in some Protestant churches when moral decision are put up to a vote of the people. gay marriage, divorce, abortion , contraception etc
    The message of Jesus is very clear in the gospels, I know what He calls me to do. The teachings of the church and our clerics does not prevent me from being a holy person and follow Jesus. On the contrary they give me guidance. We are called to be servants.Jesus told me so. There are many saints who are not clerics. Each of us is called to be a disciple of Jesus . Each of us must make our own response to His call.

  • Hello Mr. Rakeys. Maybe the author will respond and clarify for you, but are you confusing his “summary” of clericalism for a definition? The reason that the opening quote is a summary of clericalism is because it is given as a summary of ecclesiology. But the Church is more than merely the clerics in her! The Church includes all the faithful, clergy and laity.

    The ending “ism” as in “clericalism” often connotes an aberration – as “feminism” is an aberration of the feminine, an abnormal separation and elevation of women over men. As “racism” is an aberration of some particular race, an abnormal separation and elevation of that race above the others. So also “clericalism” falsely elevates clerics in the Church so as to “be” the Church (as the “summary” at the top of the article illustrates).

    Jesus came to serve, not to be served. Clerics are called to serve, not to be served. They are to pastor, to feed and to tend the sheep. The pope is servant of the servants of God! Jesus taught:
    Mt 28:25 But Jesus summoned them and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and the great ones make their authority over them felt.
    26 But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant;
    27 whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave.
    28 Just so, the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

    A “clericalist” disdains the role of “servant.” He is “the boss.” This is why clerical”ism” is so antithetical to the good of the Church. We need holy clerics as we need a holy laity, to fully be Church.

  • Paul Worthington

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  • Paul Worthington

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    I Love Someone – End Domestic Violence.


    The laity have always been called to be saints. That said, the very BEST way to do as much is to focus on one’s own duty. Be it that of a priest or that of being a faithful lay person who should tend to the sanctification of themselves first, their family, and their social circle to the best of their ability. Not squabble over the fairness of one having one job while another has a different job.

    That said, clericalism to me is when priests and religious break down the Faith and/or the teachings of the Church to such indecipherable obscurity or often do not even preach the fullness of Faith for fear that the poor, ignorant lay folk either won’t ‘get it’ or ‘abide by it.’ (That’s a negation of duty.) As if avowed religious are the only ones capable of understanding sacrifice, prayer, penance, or the following of a rule, etc.

    Trying to suit ‘contemporary attitudes’ is very much an obstacle to the transmission of Faith as contemporary attitudes revolve around ‘what I think and feel’ not what is or what is necessary. Just pick up a newspaper.

    The writer also states: “… whether it is realized in practice is another question, but virtually universal lip service is paid to the ideal of universal equality. If the Church doesn’t to measure up, it’s in for trouble.”

    I’d respond, no, the Church is in trouble if She deviates from that which transmits the Faith even if She must preach to the fish like St. Anthony of Padua because people refuse to listen. Because the Church, being the Spouse of Christ, is accountable to Him, not to the children who would have her pander to their unending demands to have it their way. To think otherwise, to me, renders the Church an institution based on democracy and founded by human precept instead of that which is founded upon, which is Christ who does not change or cater.


    Very misguided concepts coming out of modern thought, Catriona. Not Truth. You might like ‘Introduction to the Devout Life’ by St. Francis de Sales. Good, solid spiritual guidance on how to sanctify yourself in the world.

    God bless you in your pursuit of holiness (He apparently already is and very much so). You will be rewarded for your strivings, especially when those who should have helped you proved to be an obstacle. But the lives of the saints are rife with those – fellow Catholics, superiors, friends and relations – tried to dismiss the call to holiness and or demur from the help they should have given!