On Clericalism

Imagine a man who wakes up in the morning with a headache, fever, and chills. The symptoms persist and are there when he goes to bed that night. Next day, it’s the same thing again — headache, fever, chills. This continues day after day, week after week, over and over. Finally the poor man starts to think: “I guess this is how people always feel. I just have to live with it.”
The Catholic Church is something like that man. In the Church, the illness is called clericalism. We Catholics have suffered from it so long that most of us take it for granted. In fact, we’re clericalists ourselves. “That’s how it is,” we say. And our symptoms persist.
They look like this:
  • A pastor lords it over his people, consulting no one and habitually making unilateral decisions. His people are a passive, dispirited lot, quick to complain and slow to cooperate.
  • A bishop routinely goes far beyond fundamental moral principles in talking about political issues. He advocates highly specific solutions to problems that admit of more than one legitimate view and makes no secret of his political partisanship.
  • A carefully planned, highly touted diocesan vocations recruitment program aimed at attracting men to the priesthood turns out a flop. Its planners scratch their heads and wonder what went wrong.
Clericalism is operative in all these cases and many others. After all this time, you’d think people would have caught on and taken remedial steps. But even now, many haven’t. “That’s how it is,” they say. And the symptoms persist.
But a cautionary note is in order upfront: There are real risks involved in criticizing clericalism.
One is the danger of giving aid and comfort to dissenters who want a revolution in the Church that will allow them to choose their own bishops and pastors and make other important decisions, up to and including decisions about doctrine. (If a teaching isn’t “received,” it’s said — that is, if people reject the teaching because it hampers their lifestyle or requires some sacrifice on their part — then the teaching must be wrong.)
The American theologian Paul Lakeland contends that the “existential predicament” of the laity in today’s Church is that “they are in chains.” Lakeland writes in the framework of liberation theology, and what he says about the laity is an exercise in appallingly bad taste inasmuch as it likens the irritation of middle-class American Catholics to the plight of some of the poorest and most oppressed people on earth.
There’s also a danger of devaluing priesthood and priests just when a clergy shortage leads some to look to supposed alternatives. A few months ago, the tiny Dutch province of the Dominicans issued a paper suggesting that in cases of need, a congregation could designate one of its lay members, man or woman as the case might be, to preside at the Eucharist.
The Dominican leadership in Rome moved to reprimand the Dutch. But this neo-congregationalism, which goes back to Rev. Edward Schillebeeckx, O.P., and before him to the Protestant Reformation, could attract followers. Not only does it supply an answer, albeit an illusory one, to the priest shortage, it also opens the door to women priests — or, more accurately, to women who want to act as if they were priests.
Against this background, those of us who speak of the evils of clericalism need to be careful not to undermine the dignity and sanctity of the ordained priesthood and obscure its radical, ontological difference from the baptismal priesthood of the faithful.
Clericalism, however, is not an affirmation of these sacred realities but a caricature. It fosters an ecclesiastical caste system in which clerics comprise the dominant elite, with lay people serving as a passive, inert mass of spear-carriers tasked with receiving clerical tutelage and doing what they’re told. This upstairs-downstairs way of understanding relationships and roles in the Church extends even to the spiritual life: priests are called to be saints, lay people are called to satisfy the legalistic minimum of Christian life and scrape by into purgatory.
Even while absorbing these clericalist views, of course, the laity traditionally have entertained certain contrary perspectives. Think of the robust anticlericalism of Chaucer. Or consider a line in Edwin O’Connor’s splendid pre-Vatican II novel The Edge of Sadness. “Probably in no other walk of life [besides the priesthood],” the priest-narrator remarks, “is a young man so often and so humbly approached by his elders and asked for his advice. Which, by the way, is almost always received gratefully and forgotten promptly.”

So, where does Catholic clericalism
come from?
At bottom, it comes from erroneous thinking about vocation. The fundamental, and profoundly mistaken, idea behind it does much to explain the apparent shortage of new vocations to the priesthood and religious life and the persistent failure of carefully planned programs to recruit them. (As I’ve remarked elsewhere, there’s no shortage of vocations in the Catholic Church. What we have today is a shortage of vocational discernment, with accompanying disastrous results. But that’s another story.)
The bad idea at the heart of clericalism equates “vocation” with “state in life.” A state in life is a large, overall framework of commitment within which different people choose to live their Christians lives. State in life is one meaning of “vocation,” but not the only one.
Starting from that mistake, bad thinking about vocation then makes the great leap of supposing that the only real vocation worthy of that name is the clerical state in life. Those whom God doesn’t call to be priests (or, by extension, religious) — the laity, that is — may have a vocation in some weak, analogical sense, but they don’t have the vocation that’s the gold standard for everything else — the vocation to be a priest. All other callings are evaluated by how well or poorly they approximate the clerical norm. {mospagebreak}
Many things could be said about this. The most important thing to say here is that this clericalist way of thinking overlooks the reality and relevance of unique personal vocation — the particular, essentially unrepeatable role in the carrying-out of his redemptive plan to which God calls each baptized person.
Like others before him (St. Francis de Sales and John Henry Newman, for instance), Pope John Paul II gave a compelling account of personal vocation. In fact, it was one of his central themes. “God calls . . . each one individually by name,” he wrote. “In this sense the Lord’s words, ‘You go into my vineyard too,’ directed to the Church as a whole, are specially addressed to each member individually” (Christifideles Laici, 28).
From the historian’s and sociologist’s perspectives, the origins of clericalism go back many centuries. It’s a fascinating story, but too long to retell here. For the moment it’s enough to say that during the last two centuries the realization grew among Catholic leaders that the Church was facing an unprecedented challenge in the post-revolutionary, anti-clerical secular democracies of Europe and the Americas. To cope with the problems arising from the sharply reduced access of clerics to cultural and political influence, the Church had to turn to the laity if it was to have any hope of playing a significant role beyond the sanctuary.
One product of this growing awareness — and an extremely important one — was Catholic Action. The movement emerged as a major force in world of Catholicism in the 1920s and 1930s. Pope Pius XI’s strong encouragement of it even earned him the title “Pope of Catholic Action.” Especially in parts of Western Europe and Latin America, Catholic Action did crucial work representing the views and interests of the Church in
secular society.
Catholic Action as such was never a political factor in the United States, where the Church instead exercised political influence through its working alliance with the Democratic Party. Over time, nevertheless, an extensive network of church-related groups organized on the Catholic Action model arose. They flourished until well into the middle years of the 20th century, when the confusion of the postconciliar era and the hostility of liberal Catholic intellectuals to what they liked to call “ghetto Catholicism” proved its undoing.
But Catholic Action was truly a great thing in its day. Here was recognition by the leaders of the Church that the laity had a critically important work to do in what was universally called “the apostolate” — the Church’s mission of making Christ present and active in the world. Still, there was a catch. Catholic Action was officially defined as the participation of the laity in the apostolate of the clerical hierarchy. There may have been exceptions here and there, but groups operating on the Catholic Action model were ultimately under clerical, hierarchical direction and control.
Here and there, farsighted individuals objected that this version of the laity’s place in the apostolate was too limited. In 1932, Msgr. Josemaria Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei, wrote:
We must reject the prejudice that ordinary faithful must limit themselves to helping the clergy in ecclesiastical apostolates. There is no reason why the apostolate of lay people should always be a simple participation in the hierarchical apostolate. They have a duty of doing apostolate, not because they receive a canonical mission, but because they are part of the Church. They carry out this mission through their professions or jobs, with their families, their colleagues, and their friends (quoted in John F. Coverdale’s Uncommon Faith, Scepter 2002).
Talk like that was radical at the time. Then the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) adopted it as its own.
In documents like the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, and the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, Apostolicam Actuositatem, the council taught that the call to lay people to participate in the mission of the Church does not come to them from bishops and priests; it comes directly from Christ, by reason of baptism and confirmation.
“The apostolate of the laity is a sharing in the salvific mission of the Church. Through Baptism and Confirmation all are appointed to this apostolate by the Lord himself” (Lumen Gentium, 33). And because lay people live and work in the world, their apostolate is naturally directed to, and carried on within, the structures and settings of the secular order — at work and school, in the neighborhood and at home, in all those places that the clergy can’t directly reach.
Now lay apostolate was seen to be something belonging to the laity as a matter of intrinsic right and duty as baptized members of the Church. And not only that — God’s call to sanctity was understood as being directed to all, lay women and men just as much as bishops, priests, and religious: “All Christians in any state or walk of life are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of love,” the council declared (Lumen Gentium, 40).
In the context of American Catholicism today, it’s a bit of a shock to realize that Vatican II, while strongly encouraging lay apostolate, had next to nothing to say about “lay ministries.” The big push for lay ministry only began after 1972, following the publication of Pope Paul VI’s Ministeria Quaedam. That document abolished the old “minor orders” and subdiaconate and assigned the functions of subdeacons to the new lay ministries of lector and acolyte; it also invited other forms of lay ministry.
Since then, the lay ministry boom has been propelled by theologians and lay bureaucrats in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and diocesan chancery offices. It has the support of well-meaning bishops and pastors who apparently believe that letting lay people do some things that only clerics previously could do advances the cause of the laity in the Church.
There are two kinds of lay ministers. In the United States, the first — and far and away the larger — group is made up of hundreds of thousands of lay volunteers who do things like distributing Communion and reading at Mass in parishes and other church settings. The second, much smaller group (30,000 or so) is made up “lay ecclesial ministers,” overwhelmingly women, who hold salaried jobs as pastoral associates, directors of religious education, and the like — again, mostly in parishes.
For the most part, lay ministers of both kinds are generous people serving the Church well. All the same, John Paul II, in his landmark 1989 document Christifideles Laici, found cause for concern in this development. One problem, he said, was “a too-indiscriminate use of the word ‘ministry'” — a common foible today, when just about every function and job in a typical parish gets called a ministry. Another was “a ‘clericalization’ of the lay faithful and the risk of creating . . . an ecclesial structure of parallel service to that founded on the Sacrament of Orders” (Christifideles Laici, 51).
Good grief — what’s “an ecclesial structure of parallel service to that founded on the Sacrament of Orders”? The outlines of such a creature are clearly visible in the Dutch Dominicans’ proposal, noted above, to have congregations designate lay people as presiders at Mass in a pinch. Does that sound far out? The fact that no one in your parish is pushing that particular idea right now doesn’t mean no one ever will. Just give it time.
As for John Paul II’s “‘clericalization’ of the lay faithful,” that problem is summed up in something a lay woman wrote describing her experience speaking to an audience of Catholic women like herself. She was trying to explain the Schoenstatt movement, a lay apostolic group emphasizing holiness in everyday life. Here’s how it went.
As an opening exercise I asked the women to write on one side of the paper basically all the things they do in the course of a day or two. Then I asked them to write on the other side all the things they do in the same time frame which they considered holy. Without exception, two types of lists were composed: the one with all those mundane daily chores and the other with lots of things all associated with “ministry” activities . . . . No one in the group simply put an arrow pointing to the daily activities . . . .
If nothing else, I wanted the women to take away from the lecture a sense of the dignity and mission we know is ours: the realization that the daily list of their activities is all holy when done as faithful Christians; that not just receiving the sacraments but to be a sacrament is our call and opportunity.
That’s a beautiful idea. But clericalist conditioning makes it a hard sell to get lay Catholics to link up everyday things with the holy. Instead clericalism widens the gap between faith and life that Vatican II deplored.
Not only that, one-dimensional emphasis in official Church circles on “lay ministry” is at the expense of time and energy that might better have been spent forming people for lay apostolate. Lately, the U.S. bishops’ conference has concentrated on setting norms for training people preparing to work for the Church as lay ecclesial ministers. Considering the important role these people often have in liturgy, catechesis, and other areas of Church life, their training certainly merits attention. But not at the cost of ignoring the formation of lay people for apostolate in the world. Yet that’s exactly what happens — and has been happening for a long time.

Finally, unpleasant though it is, it’s necessary to face up to the link between clericalism and the scandal of clergy sex abuse. Clericalism plainly doesn’t cause sex abuse, any more than sex abuse causes clericalism. But the two things fit together hand in glove. Secrecy explains why.
Speaking of the us-and-them mentality to which institutional secrecy gives rise, ethicist Sissela Bok writes:
Long-term group practices of secrecy . . . are especially likely to breed corruption.
Every aspect of the shared predicament influences the secret practice over time: in particular the impediments to reasoning and to choice, and the limitations on sympathy and on regard for human beings. The tendency to view the world in terms of insiders and outsiders can then build up a momentum that it would lack if it were short-lived and immediately accountable (Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life, Random House Vintage Books, 1999).
Disregard for the welfare of outsiders and excessive concern for insiders go far to explain the cover-up of clergy sex abuse by Church authorities. The National Review Board established to monitor the bishops’ implementation of their sex abuse policy makes that point.
Clerical culture and a misplaced sense of loyalty made some priests look the other way . . . . Clericalism also contributed to a culture of secrecy. In many instances, Church leaders valued confidentiality and a priest’s right to privacy above the prevention of further harm to victims . . . . [C]hurch leaders kept information from parishioners and other dioceses that should have been provided to them. Some also pressured victims not to inform the authorities or the public of abuse (Causes and Context of the Sexual Abuse Crisis, 2004). 


Clericalism harms the Church in many ways, both large and small. The elimination of clericalist habits of thinking and acting from Catholic life is long overdue. In very many places, though, it has yet to begin. Remember that sick man I mentioned earlier: It’s high time he recognized that he’s sick and did something constructive about it.

Russell Shaw


Russell Shaw is the author of Catholic Laity in the Mission of the Church (Requiem Press), Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press), and other works.

  • David W.

    I think in the face of rampant heterodoxy in the US and elsewhere lines between lay and clerical roles need to be more clearly (and in many instances sharply) defined. I’m all for Lay groups and Piety, but it can quickly become a “Trojan Horse” for those who want to Protestantize the Church…as you pointed out. I don’t advocate a complete return to the so called “good old days” because there were real problems back then. Lay people NEED to take more responsibility for their Faith and be more involved in it. Its no longer enough to rattle off the Baltimore Catechism. But, the specialness and uniqueness of the Priesthood and Episcopate MUST be preserved. The Church is a divine institution, and while those in its offices are human The Church itself was founded by God.

  • Fr. Joseph

    The sex-abuse scandal is not the first time clericalism has manifested itself in indifference to the welfare of children–an endemic failure of clerics to see themselves as true Fathers whose children are being destroyed.

    The pro-life movement is a movement founded, funded, and staffed by lay people. And the laity have been the source of every creative and innovative idea that has been carried into practice by the pro-life movement.

    Yet, over the years, countless statements and strategic moves by bishops have demonstrated that those bishops could not conceive of the pro-life movement as other than a collection of lay people whose job was to carry out plans made by bishops, support legislation devised by bishops, to use rhetoric devised by bishops (and hired P.R. consultants). Every few years, the bishops unveiled, with considerable fanfare, the new slogan, like “Life: The Natural Choice.” (Did that soda-pop slogan REALLY tell society what it needs to hear? Pro-abortion Catholics in public office? Anyone?)

    When lay people, after years of reflection, publishing, argument, and strategizing, developed the Rescue Movement, the most frequent, and the loudest, response heard from bishops was to distance themselves, and in some cases, to condemn outright, and repeatedly. The place where the movement grew the largest in its early days–St. Louis–was also the place where the bishop was most aggressive against it, by repeated televised and written condemnations. In every one of his pronouncements, this bishop contradicted various Catholic teachings–such as the Church’s teaching regarding obedience/disobedience to unjust law.

  • Fr. Joseph

    It was rare to encounter a bishop who did not dismiss the Rescue Movement by words to this effect: This is not OUR approach. OUR approach is education, etc. I.e., “we,” the hierarchy, are in charge of the pro-life movement.

    After a decade of pleading, after about 60,000 arrests, not a single bishop in the United States ever wrote a pastoral letter instructing the police that to open the blocked doors of an abortion clinic so that the clinic could kill people was proximate material (and thus formal) cooperation in homicide. This, despite the fact that removing an obstacle that is preventing a homicide, in both Catholic moral theology and our civil law, makes one guilty of homicide.

    The moral issue was elementary and manifest, and the laity were on the front lines: One group of laity (the police) were, through blind obedience to authority (condemned in all centuries of Catholicism), THWARTING THE LIFE-SAVING ACTIVITY OF ANOTHER GROUP OF LAY PEOPLE. In more than ten years, not one pastoral letter, hardly more than two or three informal words of support, precisely one bishop arrested–the Most Rev. Austin Vaughan, Auxiliary Bishop of New York.

    During the short life of the Rescue Movement, Cardinal Bernardin proclaimed the “Seamless Garment,” which (to mix metaphors) was a dagger plunged into the back of the pro-life movement. Utterly beyond counting are the times that a Catholic, in print or in conversation, has used “the Seamless Garment” as justification for voting pro-abortion. This episcopal “gift” to the Church has served no other purpose. During the short life of the Rescue Movement, the U.S. bishops devoted several years to producing the “Peace Pastoral” and the “Economics Pastoral.” And, we now know, ignoring, even abetting, the defilement, even death, of OTHER children and young people.

  • Deal Hudson

    Shaw has done a masterful job of summarizing a complicated reality, and Fr. Joseph is right to point out its impact on the pro-life movement. I want point out one wrinkle in the story that Fr. Joseph may recall. The National Right to Life was originally organized by the pro-life office of the United States Catholic Conference, but was handed over to the laity to run as an independent organization. My view, as I argue in my book, Onward Christian Soldiers, is that there was a dramatic turn to the left at the Conference just after Roe v. Wade and the McGovern campaign (’72-’73). The Conference jettisoned NRTL in part because they didn’t want it, and because some wanted it to survive and thrive, which it has.

  • Janice

    is the notion on the part of many of the laity, particularly those involved “professionally” in evangelization, that they are virtually independent contractors and that the “world” is theirs to evangelize, while the clergy should remain in the sacristy. It’s no wonder that this perceived dichotomy has only increased at the behest of lay evangelizers. It is difficult to see one’s daily life as holy when it is divorced from the worship which informs such holiness. It is also odd that such lay evangelizers would want to see themselves in contradistinction from the clergy anyway, since we are supposed to be involved in a common effort.

    In contrast, I merely point to Italy, where Cardinals Ruini and Bagnasco show the fallacy of this kind of thinking, by showing the influence of two strong thinkers who have had great influence on the political fortunes of Italy and, at the same, have begun to reverse the fortunes of the Catholic losses in Italy by fostering evangelization.

  • Todd

    An excellent essay. I might have a small quibble or two on the real impetus behind the parish pastor hiring lay people in the 70’s and 80’s: it was the departing religious sisters and the growing paucity of young priests to serve as associates that led many places to the pragmatic solution.

    “Not only that, one-dimensional emphasis in official Church circles on ‘lay ministry’ is at the expense of time and energy that might better have been spent forming people for lay apostolate.”


    I paid for my own schooling in the Diocese of Rochester. Very little time and energy was thrown in my direction from the official Church, certainly not in liturgy and music. In my current diocese, the lay apostolate efforts were ended, to be replaced by education courses.

    I do agree that some, but not all, parishes and dioceses don’t place enough emphasis on the formation for the lay apostolate. Just check Confirmation catechetical materials.

    For a point of reference, also check the backgrounds of your favorite lay ecclesial ministers. You’ll find most of us well formed in the lay apostoalte for years before we began serving the Church.

    On the point of lay ministry, I’m afraid John Paul II’s Christifideles Laici is less landmark than signpost for clergy worried about the erosion of clericalism, but lacking the tools or know-how to do anything about it.

  • Loyolalaw98

    Fascinating piece, with one glaring omission. The forces of “reform,” not the letter but the spirit of Vatican II, used the overwhelming respect for the clergy – in it’s most onerous form called clericalism – to foist liturgical changes on the laity they would have never otherwise considered.

    An old priest friend of mine, now dead, who was an instructor at a major west coast seminary used to fulminate at how these “reformers” used blatant clericalism to supposedly combat hidden clericalism.

    Being a Church historian he likened it to the French Revolution, where unspeakable attrocities were perpetrated against the French people to liberate them.

    The “mind control” in you modern liberal catholic parish goes far beyond any pre-conciliar clericalism, but ah now the laity also have their fingerprints on the stilleto! This makes it OK?

  • tom

    It always concerns me when an issue is presented as something to be solved. Shaw’s image of the sick man, as clear and expressive as it is, does not serve this particular issue well. Clericalism will always be with us. It can never be “solved.”

    Trying to “solve” it can only feed the frenzy of anti-clericalism. It is better to identify its characteristics and seek to lessen them, in a word, contain them.

  • Todd M. Aglialoro

    I wonder if it’s a generational thing, or a product of living in a part of the country where the scandals have made the priesthood a derisive punchline rather than an object of respect, but what I witness today is not the kind of old-school clericalism Shaw leads off with, but quite the opposite: a clergy recoiling in seeming horror from even the suggestion of clericalism.

    Priests who want to be called by their first names (“no ‘Father,’ please”) outside of church, who tweak the liturgy to bring laypersons into the sanctuary and grant them quasi-clerical roles, who strive in casual conversation to demonstrate that they can be just as “normal” — even if it means base, trivial, worldly — as layfolk. My own pastor is very fond of ending Mass by saying “May almighty God bless “us,” rather than “you.” Heaven forbid he claim to have a special power to deliver God’s blessing; that would be “clericalist.”

    I don’t see any ring-kissing going on with bishops either; but I see plenty of attempts to de-mystify their status as successors of the apostles, and to show the flock that their pastor is really more like another sheep.

    Conversely, I find “reverse clericalism” to be quite healthy: a laity that thinks its path to sanctity is to ape priestly postures and roles. The more like a priest I am — the more I wave my hands and wear robes and stand near the altar and run ministries — the holier I must be.

    So I see a great merging underway: clergy and laity both angling themselves in the other’s direction. Which can’t be good.

  • Margo

    Out of curiosity, does anyone here know of places (parishes or lay movements) where any sector of the laity are being taught about discernment and spiritual direction (or: being taught to discern and to work with a spritual director)? (Besides seminaries, I mean.)

    This seems like a good tool for helping lay folk realize that they are called by God.

    But where is it being done?

  • Josh Miller

    Mr Shaw writes: The big push for lay ministry only began after 1972, following the publication of Pope Paul VI’s Ministeria Quaedam. That document abolished the old “minor orders” and subdiaconate and assigned the functions of subdeacons to the new lay ministries of lector and acolyte; it also invited other forms of lay ministry.

    Well, kind of. QM didn’t really institute any “new” ministries, since Acolyte and Reader were already there. It simply did away with those minor orders no longer necessary, incorporating the elements of the subdiaconate into the two roles.

    But in order to be an Acolyte/Reader under QM, there are a number of qualifications. First, you need to be a male. Second, you need to petition your bishop. Third, you need to be formally instituted. The only instituted Acolytes/Readers I have ever met are or were seminarians at one point or another.

    Those instituted are charged to grow in their respective ministries, either to the Eucharist and altar, or to Sacred Scripture. Practically speaking, an instituted Acolyte is granted a distinctive kind of permission to purify vessels and assist the priest with distribution of Holy Communion, the former ending for the laity at large due to Rome’s revocation of the U.S. indult.

    Perhaps QM‘s greatest contribution was to state that institution isn’t ordination, opening the door for the laity to assist at liturgy. A good thing, in my opinion, but to label these “lay ministries” in the most general sense is a bit misleading.

    Thus, perhaps it’s more accurate to state that there are three types of lay ministers.

    A minor gripe, I know. Great article.

  • Michael Healy, Jr.

    Todd M. Aglialoro wrote: Conversely, I find “reverse clericalism” to be quite healthy: a laity that thinks its path to sanctity is to ape priestly postures and roles. The more like a priest I am — the more I wave my hands and wear robes and stand near the altar and run ministries — the holier I must be.

    So I see a great merging underway: clergy and laity both angling themselves in the other’s direction. Which can’t be good.

    I agree. Not clericalism, but “reverse clericalism” is what afflicts the Church today.

    Indeed, what other than reverse clericalism could be motivating those who demand female ordination?

  • Zoe

    Clericalism is alive and well, so is “reverse clericalism.” It just depends where you are and who it is.

  • Gail

    I am a woman who is (or was — I ran out of money)in a lay ecclesial ministry program in an Ohio seminary. My classes had many men in them, but the majority of the men were/are preparing for the permanent diaconate, so the number of men in the program for itself was much smaller than the number of women. Our program is offered both at the master’s level and the certificate level, and though I understand it was once pretty liberal, it is theologically orthodox.

    This is an excellent article, but I’d like to offer some additional information. The number of women in these programs and jobs, I think, is so high for two reasons. First, women in our country are the most well-educated and professionally trained women in the world. We expect to have such educational opportunities and jobs. And second, because women work for lower pay.

    Many women are in the program I attended because they want to change careers and do something more meaningful than their original jobs, and many women will work for parishes that pay very little. The men I met (not the ones planning to continue their jobs while being deacons) were going to take large pay cuts if they were employed by parishes. They had generally already raised families and had few financial obligations. But most of the women were expecting to earn a second income, and so many of them were also younger.

    The article mentioned 30,000 people being trained as lay ecclesial ministers. Are 30,000 men being trained as priests? People are needed to do these jobs. One priest simply cannot run an entire parish (or more than one parish!) on his own. The students in my program were preparing to be music directors, hospital or nursing home chaplains, DREs, finance directors — all sorts of jobs. I think the church SHOULD train them in the Catholic faith, especially considering how bad formation has been over the past few decades.

    There is potential for abuse in this, but also potential for great benefit IF training is done well and people do not expect to have a quasi-clerical role. I may never finish my program, but it was one of the best experiences of my life. However before I started I hesitated for several months because I didn’t want to get into something that would make me sound as if I wanted to be a “junior priest.”

    I want the seminaries to fill up with men again, and I think training people for lay apostolates is a fantastic idea. But the need for people to take on these jobs is very real, as is the need to make sure the people who represent and work for parishes know what being Catholic is all about.

    Now, I do think many people are attracted to lay ecclesial ministries because they have thwarted vocations to religious life. But that’s another story.

  • Fr. Denis Lemieux

    Margo – have you ever looked into the Madonna House Apostolate in Canada? We’re small, and a bit off the beaten track, but this is precisely what we are about – forming lay people through spiritual direction and our community life to take on their baptismal vocation to become saints. Our website is madonnahouse.org.

  • john m haynes

    This article was suggested to me by a very fine Catholic lady. I am Catholic. but the article and the comments were way too “inside” for me and I have studied and taught philosophy on and off for years. So just a brief comment. The real issue in Catholicism, in many ways, is sex, as I have explained on my blog. From sex thoughts to abortion the Church has almost no credibility. (BTW I notice discussion of “life” issues, as you call them, are not allowed here.)

    The difference between clergy and laity is as follows. Clergy: must be celibate, must not have sex thoughts. Laity: may have sex thoughts and action under the rules laid down by the celibate clergy. No matter how “spun”, see Theology of the Body,this is the central issue. No wonder almost all, if not all, polls show Catholics do not agree with the Church. To me this says something.

  • Margo

    John, I think you might have been misinformed.

    The *real* issue in Catholicism is union with God. That’s what everything He gave us is aiming at. **Everything.**

    Now: if you factor in the situation that a wholllllle lotta people think very highly of sex and don’t like what the Church truly teaches about it, you get a lot of people talking about same. But sex is a temporal thing. A gift from God, yes. But a gift for our time on earth, all the same.

    Since the Church is both holy and inclusive of those with fallen natures, you may have confused “a wholllle lotta people” with “Catholicism,” or with “what the Church actually teaches.”

    But unless you’re speaking symbolically (and there’s a whole lot that could be — has been — truthfully said about the symbolism of sex/sexuality re Catholicism), it doesn’t square with what the Church teaches about Herself to claim that ‘Catholicism is, in many ways, about sex.’

  • Margo

    Father Lemieux,

    I’ve heard of Madonna House, but haven’t looked into it. Thank you so much for your response to my question — I’ll look into it!

  • John Haynes

    The catechism is quite clear. Sex is inferior to virginity and celibacy. Are there any positions of authority held by non-celibates. Jack

  • tom Faranda

    Fr Joseph –
    Bishop Austin Vaughn was not the only Bishop arrested in Operation Rescue. The late Bishop George Lynch was arrested on several occasions in the NY area. My wife went to jail with him in Valhalla, NY (uhhh, he in the men’s section, she in the women’s!). In one instance Bishop Lynch was arrested in Dobbs Ferry with now-Father Fidelis Moscinski, CFR to challenge the FACE legislation, and in fact they were found “not guilty” – to the outrage of the pro-abortion people. Judge basically said it was a matter of conscience!
    Margo –
    the NY Archdiocese offers a very good spriitual direction course, open to laypersons. My wife and I took it – it takes two years.

  • tom faranda

    John, I missed that part in the catechism where it says it’s “…clear. Sex is inferior to virginity and celibacy.” Help me out by posting where it says that.

    Also, there are many, many “positions of authority” in Catholic institutions held by “non-celibates.”

  • Margo

    “I don’t think that word thinks what you think it means.” — Inigo Montoya, in “Princess Bride”

    1. You say that the catechism (you mean the Catechism of the Catholic Church, right?) is clear on this point: sex is inferior to virginity and celibacy. I’m not sure how you understand the Catechism. Are you thinking that it’s saying “Everyone who is married is inferior to everyone who is a virgin or celibate.” ? Would you mind clarifying for me what you think the Catechism is saying?

    2. There are as many positions of authority as there are Christians — and celibacy has nothing to do with this. I ought to ask how you are defining ‘authority;’ in what realm? Authority to effect…what, exactly? What I mean by ‘authority’ is ‘using one’s influence in the service of the truth and of the human person, to effect obedience to and greater union with God’ and the realm I mean is the Kingdom of God — inside what is commonly known as the Church, as well as outside of it, in the world.

    To put it more plainly, all the baptized have the authority to carry out Christ’s saving mission; they are authorized by Him to tell others about Him, His love, His life, His words, His teachings. According to the charisms each baptized person has been given, they also have His authority to exercise those — to cooperate with the Holy Spirit.

    What this means is that they have the authority to be agents / vessels of the most influential Power in the universe….the transforming love of God, in whatever way/mode He chooses to pour His love through them to others.

    This power goes beyond the confines of this world; it can change a person so as to affect where he spends eternity. Talk about influence!

    I guess it depends on how you define ‘authority.’ If you mean ‘the ability to make my will done in X situation,’ that’s a sight different than defining authority as ‘using influence/power in the service of the truth and of the human person.’

    How much does it really matter who calls the shots here on earth? We’ve all had bad managers, or been in spots where someone else was calling the shots and doing a lousy job of it, right? I’m not saying that’s an easy place to be! But in all of those situations, there is a way to respond to God that can bring us closer to Him. And since the whole point is union with God, we don’t really lose in those tough situations…IF we do our best to cooperate with / respond to Him. Even if we don’t, but later repent of not doing so.

  • Margo

    …Okay: of course, I meant “I do not think that word means what you think it means.” —

  • john m haynes

    I respect all who post here, but I hope a bit more subtlety could be found in their reading of the catholic catechism. The position of the Church is quite clear: Celibacy for the sake of the Church is clearly prefered over the marriage state. Marriage is good, celibacy is better.

    Quoting from the Essential Catholic Catechism,praised by Cardinal Schoborn:” Those whom God calls to consecrated celibacy and virginity abstain totally from sexual activity for the sake of the Kingdom of God.

    “A man and a woman united in marriage live conjual chastity by expressing their complete giving of self to each other…” You must read read this in its obvious meaning. The priest gives himself totally to the kingdom of God; the married couple give themselves to each other.

    Another example: “All the ordained members of the Latin Church….are normally chosen from among men of faith, who live a celibate life and who intend to remain celibate for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Called to consecrate themselves with undivided heart to the Lord and to the affairs of the affairs of the Lord, they give themselves entirely to God and to man.” Where does it say married people can “give themselves entirely to God?”

    What authority, you ask. Are not all the doctrines of the church, the magisterium, the ‘discipline’ of the Church decided only by celibates? The church has the authority of transsubstaniation, the power to for give sins, the power to sanctify marriage, the powere to cut one off from God etc. But these powers are given only to Celibate men. (Incidentally. also the powere to refuse the body and blood of Chirst to elected officials and to judges if they do not follow the Church’s teaching.

    And, of course, the perpetual virginity of Mary. Why must the integrity of her virginity be such a central belief? Would she be demeaned if she had had sexual relations. Obviously the Church says so.

    Of course, married people can be “saintly.” But it is much easier for celibates to be thus. They are specially called by God. Our married people called to marry? How many married people have been declared saints compared to celibates?

    I could go on e.g. JP2 elevations of nuns over married women.

    Having friends and relatives in the cleryy of many churches, as a whole I see no more dedication to God in non-catholic clergy than in priests. Do the commenters above see such difference? Is it based on any empirical evidence.

    Is the priest at the Altar, all things being equal, more holy than the laity? I believe the Church says, in most cases, clearly yes. If not why must all priest be celibate, if it does not give them a step up on ‘holiness.’? Jack

  • john m haynes

    BTW, I notice a person on your site cannot go to mine. Is this just a mistake or deliberately done by your site? Jack

  • Brian Saint-Paul

    john m haynes wrote: BTW, I notice a person on your site cannot go to mine. Is this just a mistake or deliberately done by your site? Jack

    Hi Jack,

    There was an error in the URL to your site — that’s why it didn’t click through. I’ve fixed it and it should work now. Let me know if you have any other problems.

    And thanks for the post!

  • Judith Anderson

    “Servant of the servants of God.”
    With these words the Church’s top cleric reminds us that we are all called to humble service. When that spirit is lost or forgotten, egos rule – priestly, religious or lay – and humanity suffers.

    A thoughtful piece, Mr. Shaw. Thank you.

  • Nathan Cushman

    john m haynes wrote:
    “A man and a woman united in marriage live conjual chastity by expressing their complete giving of self to each other…” You must read read this in its obvious meaning. The priest gives himself totally to the kingdom of God; the married couple give themselves to each other.

    Maybe your problem is with the Bible, not with the Catholic Church. I’m pretty sure that the idea that a married man divides himself between God and his family is directly from the New Testament. Maybe you have a problem with St. Paul’s authority? With the authority of the scriptures?

    I know that the New Testament does not say “Priests must be celibate” or anything of the sort. But the quotations you are citing are still just paraphrases of the scriptures.

    I would say that sex can be a problem for the church, but it is more a problem for the world. I could see how a celibate man might have trouble understanding sex. But doesn’t an alcoholic usually perceive alcohol in a far more skewed way than a man who has never had a drink?

  • john m haynes

    Nathan, I have problems with “proof texts”. But does not the Church say celibacy as a requirement is only a matter of “discipline”, not of doctrine. Is a priest defying God by not multiplying and filling the earth.(Is it Genesis).Were God’s commandments to slaughter thousands to be taken literally?

    Yes I do have a problem with pulling one sentence from a new testament writer and assuming it is absolutely determinative. Frankly, I thought a glory of the Church was that it did not take passages out of context and make them the will of God?

    No doubt you believe the world was created in six days. Jack