Ending Clericalism: An Inside Catholic Symposium

Is clericalism still a problem in the Catholic Church, and if so, what do we do about it? We put that question to prominent Catholics of diverse backgrounds and perspectives. Here are their answers.

Today, Inside Catholic concludes its multi-part, multi-week examination of clericalism in the Catholic Church. These items have already appeared:
Our final entry in the series is a symposium, involving prominent Catholics from diverse backgrounds and viewpoints. We asked each the following question: Is clericalism a problem in the Catholic Church today? And if so, what does it look like, and how do we deal with it?
Here are their answers. Please add your own thoughts to the Comments section at the conclusion of the symposium.
♦ ♦ ♦
The very term "clericalism" has different meanings. When I was ordained — nearly 40 years ago — clericalism referred to a certain attitude of privilege among priests. At its worst, clericalism connoted a separatist and elitist attitude on the part of some priests. There was often a sense of being above the law that obliged the laity. It has been argued — rightly, in my opinion — that this kind of clericalism contributed to what Cardinal George and Pope Benedict XVI (in his address to bishops in Washington, D.C.) called the "mishandling" of the sexual abuse crisis in the United States.

As I hear the term "clericalism" bandied about today, it seems still to be a most pejorative term, but now descriptive of younger (for the most part) priests who try to express and live their priestly identity. Those priests who ask to be called "Father," who regularly wear clerical attire, who appreciate the difference between the priesthood of the ordained and the common priesthood of all the baptized, and who embrace and teach fully the Catholic Faith are often branded by my generation as being guilty of "clericalism."

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily

As to the former sense of the term, it seems to me that this has abated somewhat over the previous decades. Does it still exist? Yes. And where it does it is to be decried. As to the latter sense of the term, I have the greatest admiration for those priests who are called "clerical" for the reasons noted. Many of them wear the accusation as a badge of honor.

The Most Rev. Michael Sheridan is bishop of Colorado Springs, Colorado.
I suspect, in some circles, there is still an excessive "clerical control" exercised over matters that do not require the exercise of Holy Orders. There is, in the ideal world, the proper use of consultative bodies in the Church — finance councils, parish pastoral councils, liturgy committees — but the proper balance between an appropriate style of shared responsibility and avoiding the total abdication of pastoral responsibility is not easily attained or maintained.
The Most Rev. Robert Vasa is bishop of Baker, Oregon.
If clericalism means that lay Catholics are expected to be faithful to the traditional teachings of Jesus Christ, than we shouldn’t have any problem at all if these important matters are debated and decided in the public square. Information and guidance from the clergy on issues like the sanctity of life and the stability of children in the home are vital to the family and our nation.
If clericalism means increasing or maintaining the power of the religious hierarchy, then yes, lay Catholics have every reason to be concerned.
Catholics themselves can best determine what is best for their country, faith, and family, with the aforementioned information and guidance from the clergy, which unfortunately is seldom given.
Ray Flynn is the former Democratic Mayor of Boston, U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican, author, and media commentator.
Jesus chose twelve ordinary men to do the extraordinary work of building and defending His church on earth. Their success, with Christ’s embrace, was breathtaking. Within a few centuries, the Christian Faith dominated the known world.

But Jesus also chose Judas to be one of His first disciples. Judas — selfish, sinful, and manipulative — was Christ’s warning that some of His human pillars would be a crumbling mixture of dust and sand: weak, defective, and incapable of supporting the weight of His divine ministry.

The lesson for today is the lesson of the last 2,000 years. If the selection and training process for priests is anything less than orthodox, with acceptance of anything less than humility, energy, and holiness, the Church will be administered by weeds, and Christ’s garden will strangle and die.

Frank Keating is the former Republican governor of Oklahoma.
Clericalism, like all expressions of elitism, is partly a function of office and partly a function of the person who occupies it. To think it will ever vanish is absurd, but it is just as nonsensical to maintain that clericalism is just as prominent in the post-scandal church as it was before. No, there has been a chastening, and that is all for the good.
The problem will continue until and unless the requisites for appointing bishops are altered. The men who become the best bishops have spent years with the common folk, either working in the armed services, running a parish or school, etc. In other words, grooming is key, and that is why any priest who has spent an inordinate amount of time getting degrees is not the kind of person who will be able to resist the lure of clericalism that a bishop’s office holds.
Bill Donohue is the president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights.
Is Clericalism alive in the Catholic Church in the United States?

Of course it is, and will probably be so until the Lord’s second coming. The reason is very simple: We Catholics believe that every priest is an alter Christus, and even St. Bernard of Clairvaux said that if he met a priest and the Virgin Mary on the road, he would first show his respects to the priest. No wonder rank-and-file Catholics tend to be especially respectful, even submissive to priests. It takes a lot of prudence for lay people not to be overly deferential, and it takes a lot of humility for priests not to overuse their influence. Thus, since all of us are sinners, some type of clericalism will remain until the end of time.

There are, of course, several kinds of clericalism. The most benign is represented by, let’s say, the Catholic mom who thinks that only a priest can solve her children’s problems, ruling out any other religious, consecrated, or married Catholic. This is a kind of clericalism that is real, quite widespread, and rather innocuous.

But the worst kind of clericalism wears the disguise of promoting "the spirit of the Second Vatican Council," "empowering" the laity — especially women — and sees achieving priestly status as the ultimate goal in Catholic life. This extreme form of clericalism is represented by women — usually dissenting nuns — seeking the "right" of priestly ordination, or women "concelebrating" Mass (at least during the Liturgy of Word, with alb and stole) and can be seen in Europe and in some places in the United States.

More palatable, but still falling within the gambit of this same extreme clericalism, are those who focus all their efforts on Catholics "holding bishops and priests accountable," implicitly proposing themselves as self-appointed members of a lay board that, in the end, exposes their aspirations to become a caste of "super-priests" above the priests.

There’s nothing wrong with holding Church authorities accountable for what they do. It is indeed a service included in every lay person’s "job description." But lay people obsessed with controlling bishops and priests, and even replacing them in the government of the Church, are simply closing the door to the myriad duties Catholic lay men and women have as a consequence of their baptism. Ironically, they end up failing to fulfill other Christian imperatives, like bringing the gospel to the public square.

In this time of crisis for the Church, in which a consensus has emerged — even among bishops — that the successors of the apostles acted irresponsibly and poorly in handling the sex-abuse scandals, it is hard to sell the idea that the focus of lay people should be on our duties, not theirs.

This doesn’t mean turning a blind eye or renouncing our call to serve the Church by assisting the bishops in doing a better job. But the ultimate cure for clericalism is, without doubt, having lay people working hard on their personal holiness, so they can become living Christs, effective evangelizers, and powerful sources of renewal within the Church.

Alejandro Bermudez is the director of the
Catholic News Agency.
As long as there’s a clergy, there will be clericalism. This is not an argument against the clergy. Every occupation — and, yes, every calling — has its besetting sin. There will always be accountants who cook the books and lawyers who chase ambulances. Lots of writers drink too much, most procrastinate, and all write. But we will always need priests and accountants.
It may seem like a strange time to be talking about clericalism. In the wake of the sex-abuse scandals and a spate of bestselling books that accuse religion of stupidity and cruelty, anti-clericalism would seem to be the more serious problem. People who despise religion tend to harbor a special suspicion of priests, who are, from the militant atheist’s point of view, the most contagious victims of a crippling social illness.
But anti-clericalism doesn’t justify clericalism any more than clericalism justifies anti-clericalism. Many Catholics are afraid to talk about the problem of clericalism because they know that anyone who questions any part of the current style or structure of church governance is likely to be accused of heresy. It does no good to remind clericalists that the Church’s methods of governance have changed many times over the centuries and may change again; their disregard for history bolsters their attachment to the status quo. It should not be necessary to point out that not everyone who proposes a greater role for the laity in the Church’s administration is trying to replace or diminish the sacramental role of the priesthood. That it is necessary is itself proof that clericalism persists.
Both clericalism and anti-clericalism are preoccupied with questions of power, treating the Church more like a territory to be defended or taken than a community of faith. Finally, though, it is the clericalist style, not any institutional structure, that does the most damage to the reputation of priests. It is always a scandal when a priest regards himself as a professional Catholic whose job is to manage and instruct the amateurs in the pews. Good priests know this. They know they are not always smarter or holier than the people they serve. For them, the principle of ex opere operato is not an excuse for mediocrity, but a reminder that their vocation is not about personal superiority. They have things to teach their lay brethren, and they have things to learn from them. The holiness of priests, like any holiness, must include humility.
Matthew Boudway is the associate editor of Commonweal.
Clericalism is certainly still a problem in the Church in the United States, although — as Russell Shaw and Mark Shea have both so ably pointed out — it often takes a form that confounds expectations. The imperious cleric with disdain for the laity might still be among us, but just as problematic are the laity who see the ordained state as the gold standard of the baptismal call and act accordingly.
But "what can we do about it?" That’s a tall order — to do something about clericalism! I think a thorough discussion of the issue would involve a couple of factors I’ve not seen much of so far: the views of clerics themselves, and a Protestant viewpoint. Very often our discussions of clericalism conflate with discussions of mandatory celibacy, but I’d be interested to know how Christian bodies with married clergy — particularly those of a liturgical bent — experience clericalism. I’ve not heard much of that incorporated into our Catholic discussions, and I think it would help a great deal to hear more.
But for the average layperson, busy with life in the world, I think the first step to doing something "about" clericalism is to meditate on the way we view and treat the ordained. Lay complicity in a type of clericalism that ends up being damaging to the Body of Christ takes many forms. It can involve not holding clergy accountable; engaging in blind trust; being hesitant to involve them in the normal constructive, critical, evaluative discussions we have no hesitation in holding with other adults; infantalizing them; expecting them to be Jesus Christ when, of course, they are not, holding them up to impossible ideals . . .
Too often the laity place clergy in a vise made up of pity on one side and a pedestal on the other, neither of which most of them appreciate, and neither of which help us work together, honestly and charitably as parts of this Body of Christ.
Amy Welborn is a popular Catholic author and speaker who blogs at amywelborn.wordpress.com.
Like the Church itself, the human characteristics of Catholicism evolve. The Church that yesterday reacted both to fideism and to reason as an enemy of faith today is the bulwark of reason against anti-reason. The Church that zealously evangelized now leads other faiths against relativism, immorality, and the enemies of all religion.

In America today, clericalism has also transformed itself as a new challenge to Catholics whose faith leads them unavoidably to action. Relying on their primacy before the altar, bishops and priests have for too long delayed the work of the laity in the democratic life of the United States and in defending the great institutions of the Church in America.

America is a missionary land, again in part because our bishops and priests have waited too long to act and stunted the zeal of the laity to action. With few exceptions, our bishops have for too long rewarded and encouraged only the support of the rich, and failed to encourage the work of other faithful Catholics in America. By their delays, the Church has lost our colleges and universities. Were it not for their negligence in the face of widespread child molestation, the bishops’ neglect of their duties over these institutions of the Church in America, upon which Archbishop John Carroll put his hopes for our faith, would be our greatest scandal.

Clericalism in America today is a threat not only to our Church as it once was, but to the contribution of our Faith to the American project upon which all the world now relies.

Manuel Miranda is former counsel to former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, and founder and chairman of the Third Branch Conference, a coalition of grassroots organizations following judicial issues.
Yes, Virginia, there is clericalism.
Every time you meet somebody afflicted by a confusion between the sanctity of the priestly office and the sanctity of the person who holds it; a conviction that the priesthood is all about power, not love and service; the notion that the only true forum for our gifts as laity is to somehow lug them into the liturgy; a demand for "equal access" to a sacrament that is a gift, not a civil right –you are meeting a clericalist.
You meet it not just in the old lady who believes in the infallibility of God, the priest, and doctor (not necessarily in that order), but in the Call to Action geezer or the Voice of the Fuddled "reformer" who can conceive of no other way to "keep the Faith and change the Church" than for the laity to hurl their pews at the altar and seize the Church "for our own." In all this, the assumption is simply that the only real Catholic is an ordained Catholic, and the lay person "counts" only insofar as he has access to the ordained office.
What we can do about this is somewhat analogous to what the Treasury Department does about counterfeits. They don’t train their agents to study every possible permutation of a phony bill; they teach them what a real bill looks like. In the same way, I think railing against clericalism is mostly going to be fruitless. The reason so many people are clericalists is because they don’t grasp the dignity of the lay office. They waste huge amounts of time wishing they were what they are not, because they believe it’s the only way to be "truly" Catholic. If you tell them, "Stop trying to be the priest," all you will succeed in doing is persuading them that the Power Elite are trying to bar them from access to The Power, and that you are one of their dupes or stooges.
But if you help people learn the enormous gift, mission, and call of the laity, they stand a chance of realizing that the lay office in the Church is a real office with its own dignity and its own set of wildly diverse charisms that are absolutely vital to the work of the Church in the world. They will see that they are every bit as called and gifted to preside in the world as the priest is to preside at the altar. They will see, in short, that we are members of one Body and are all drinking of the same Spirit for the building up of the Body of Christ.
Clericalism, though real, is not the main problem, but a symptom. The main problem is that we laity do not know that we are called to be lay apostles in the world, living out the work of love that we have been called and gifted to accomplish, and which no priest, bishop, or pope could possibly accomplish. We hang around the sanctuary because we do not know that the last words of the Mass are "Go. You are sent!" The job of the ordained is to equip us, so that we can do our vital and unique work in the world.
Mark P. Shea is a senior editor at www.CatholicExchange.com and a columnist for InsideCatholic.com. Visit his blog at www.markshea.blogspot.com.
The problem of clericalism was dealt with, theoretically, in the Second Vatican Council’s documents on the apostolate of the laity and on the Church in the modern world. There, more clearly than ever before, the teaching Church spelled out the distinctive charisms of the lay state and how these differ from those of the clergy and religious.
But very few people get it. Not priests. Not lay people. Not sympathetic non-Catholics. We all tend to retain the preconciliar habit of looking upon the Church as the property of the bishops or of their franchisees, the local priests. Not so, says the Holy Spirit, through the Fathers of the Council. By our baptism, we are all members of the Body of Christ, and those of us who are lay members of Christ’s faithful have the responsibility to transform the world. This is no light task and no mere afterthought. We lay Catholics have the great privilege and high adventure of being Christ’s presence in the world.
The reason for the perdurance of "clericalism" is that we lay Catholics do not sufficiently appreciate what a high and challenging vocation it is that we have been called to. Oh, our priests and bishops also have a calling that is worthy of great respect. But they don’t get to change the world. They have the humbler, if more difficult, task of making us holy. Our task is "to penetrate the world with a Christian spirit" and to "see that the eternal law is inscribed in the laws of the earthly city" (Gaudium et Spes). Thus, the vocation of the laity is expressly political but is not only political. It is we who have the duty to make of our families schools of sanctity; to carry out works of mercy so that the spirit of Christ permeates society; to see that God is honored in our workplaces both by what we do and how we do it. We have to fill the world with the presence of God, because only we lay people are in the world on its own terms.
It would be grand if the world could know the Church through some of the wonderful priests who minister to us. But the world does not see Father Joe Baker or Father Ron Potts; it just sees "priest," and takes their virtues for granted and holds their failings mercilessly against the whole Church. For the world, "priest" is merely a role, not a reality.
We are the reality through whom the world gets to know what a Catholic is. The people who know me know the Faith through me and judge it accordingly. If they like what they see, they think more highly of Catholicism, and if not, not. This means I have a responsibility to be a good ambassador for Christ in the world — and not only to non-Catholics. Everyone I meet, and everyone you meet, will judge the credibility of our Faith by our behavior, our authenticity. We are witnesses who ceaselessly give testimony through our lives. And this is one more reason to hate my sins and my propensity to sin — because in addition to separating me from God and deforming me in to a mockery of the saint I was created to be, they throw a stumbling block in the way of the innocent.
In short, we lay Catholics matter. The salvation of the world is in our hands.
But most of us, it must sadly be confessed, are the lumpenproletariat of the Body of Christ — with the accent on lump. When St. Paul wrote his famous analogy to the body in First Corinthians, he reminded us that one is the hand and another the foot, one the eye and another the ear. This is the locus classicum on the diversity of ministries, but if he were writing today, Paul would have to describe most of us as fat cells. The ultimate reason for this is original sin, but the proximate reason is clericalism — the impression that priests are the only members of the Church who count. The very point that Paul was making in that passage is that we all count and we count in different ways, according to our station in life and our natural gifts.
The reason why so many of the laity are just a lump of fat is that they don’t realize what a heroic mission they have been called to by their baptism. It is baptism, not ordination, that makes us members of "a royal priesthood, a holy nation." But what if that vast "pray, pay, and obey" Catholic proletariat were to become conscious of the implications of their baptism? What if the fat were to turn to muscle? What, then, could we not achieve for the Kingdom?
And that is where the priests come in. It is their job to build us up, to be our coaches, and help us grow in faith and sanctity. Dom Chautard, in his great work The Soul of the Apostolate, noted that where there are saintly priests, there are good people; and where there are good priests, there are mediocre people; and where there are mediocre priests, there are bad people. We don’t, on average, rise above the level of our spiritual guides, which is perhaps the best reason why we need to pray for our priests.
We need, above all, to pray for the spiritual welfare of our priests. We need holy priests because without them, we will be mediocre Catholics or worse. The devil knows this, which is why he keeps every priest under constant spiritual assault. Every time a priest falls, not only in spectacular ways but simply in such minor faults as discourtesy, Satan uses that as an occasion to give the weak another excuse to turn their backs on God. And the earthly enemies of the Church, from Elizabeth of England to the jihadists of Iraq, also understand: no priests, no Church. Our priests need our prayers, even the best of them. And the worst of them will become better if we pray that they open themselves to the grace they received in ordination.
Prayer for our priests may, in fact, be the ultimate solution to the problem of clericalism. A holy priest, after all, is too busy carrying out his priestly ministry to get involved in the business that properly belongs to the laity. And it takes holy priests to transform a lay proletariat into soldiers of Christ winning the world for our King.
Michael Schwartz is chief of staff for Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK).
My first thought was to respond affirmatively. Decades after Vatican II, there still seems to be little public enthusiasm among many priests and bishops for what may be the most exciting signs of the renewal of Catholic life in America: the faithful, mostly lay apostolates like non-parochial Catholic schools, the newest Catholic colleges, faithful communications apostolates like EWTN and InsideCatholic.com, evangelization programs like FOCUS and the Envoy Institute, and much more.

But clericalism implies more than a lack of attention to lay activity — especially when the dearth of vocations and the sex-abuse lawsuits require priests and bishops to remain intensely focused on the immediate needs of parishes and dioceses. I think of clericalism as excessive pride in the office of priest or bishop, which leads to the abuse of clerical authority and betrayal of the laity’s trust. By that definition, clericalism is dying. An increasingly secular culture discourages respect for both the vocation of the priesthood and for the individuals who choose it. The sex-abuse scandals added a popular excuse for this disrespect, and even have fed suspicion about priests’ sexuality. Faithful Catholics in recent decades have learned to "shop" for orthodox Catholic priests, wary of dissent and disrespect for the Eucharist. Amid this suspicion and distrust from the laity, our priests and bishops seem to have few opportunities for old-style clericalism, even if they are so inclined.

What we need today is more respect and enthusiasm for the priesthood. I can think of wonderful examples, like Rev. Benedict Groeschel and Rev. C. John McCloskey and Rev. John Harvey — none of whom could be accused of clericalism, but each with the moral authority and widespread respect that every priest should have. That respect comes from the laity when they share priests’ fidelity, courage, and love for the truth.

Patrick J. Reilly is president of the Cardinal Newman Society.

Clericalism is still a problem within the Catholic Church in the United States. Regrettably, it is a far more pernicious version than the avuncular elitism that some clergy donned like robes when ordained in the 1940s.
Faithful Catholics who comment on The Situation in The Church earnestly desire to write of a healed and forward-facing church. But healing does not occur over a bed of deceit. The image of clericalism today is the mandatory "Protecting God’s Children" program foisted on Catholic laity and their children — a program designed as a public-relations fig leaf to protect bishops.
Every school or parish volunteer is dragged through an unsettling vetting process and subjected to a voyeuristic account of predators at work. Why? In the abuse scandal, how many "parent volunteers" were charged with abuse? Worse, can Catholic eight-year-olds be held responsible for their own safety simply because they too have been subjected to graphic texts and role-playing? What child can outwit or outmaneuver an adult in a position of authority? These mandated programs are meant to confect a sugary edifice of an imaginary church where All Is Now Well.
Our children were not abused because schools lacked sex-education videos. Catholic children were abused because of the protective circle of contemporary clericalism. Clericalism will be checked when bishops and priests remember that they will be accountable as "servant shepherds" when they appear at St. Peter’s Gate.
Mary Jo Anderson is a contributing correspondent for www.WorldNetDaily.com and a columnist for InsideCatholic.com. She blogs at properlyscared.wordpress.com.
In its profound and positive teaching on the role of the laity, the Second Vatican Council was nonetheless careful to distinguish between the ministerial priesthood (the clergy) and the common priesthood of all the faithful (the laity). Both priesthoods share in the one priesthood of Christ, but only the ministerial priesthood confers the office of offering sacrifice on behalf of the believing community, the Church, in the person of Jesus Christ, the high priest.
One of the biggest obstacles to properly understanding the priestly role of the laity is the recurring error of clericalism. In a nutshell, clericalism is a view that exaggerates the role of the clergy to the detriment of the laity. In times past, this error would manifest itself in the attitude that we should leave all the "Church stuff" to Father. The laity seemingly didn’t have much to do besides show up for Mass on Sunday and put a donation in the collection plate.

Today, clericalism often manifests itself in a radically different way, through what is sometimes called the clericalization of the laity, which involves lay people’s aspiring to roles normally reserved to priests in order to feel as though they’re an important part of the Church. This mindset is seen in the proliferation of liturgical ministers, but perhaps most clearly in the demand for the ordination of women, married men, and openly homosexual men. Of course, as demonstrated in the playing out of the clergy sex-abuse crisis in recent years, there is also a fair amount of anti-clericalism, marked by increased clamoring in some dissident quarters for a more democratic and less hierarchical Church. Ironically, both clericalism and anti-clericalism tend to blur the distinction between priest and laity.

Yet the Church teaches that the laity exercises its priesthood not by becoming more like clergy, but rather by being faithful to our vocation as lay Catholics. We often hear the expression in Catholic circles to "offer it up," but do we achieve that in any aspect of our life that we unite with Christ’s sacrifice to Our Heavenly Father? St. Paul teaches us to present our bodies as "a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God" (Rom 12:1).

Each day my family prays the Morning Offering, which begins, "O Jesus . . . I offer you my prayers, works, joys, and sufferings of this day . . . ." Clericalism becomes less of an issue when we understand our baptismal priesthood as a call to holiness, and ordained priesthood as a call to sacrificial service that cannot be reduced to mere function, "career," or power.
Leon Suprenant is the former president of Catholics United for the Faith, and has contributed to numerous books on Catholic theology and evangelization.
Clericalism is alive and well; it is just not the clericalism we knew of old. The classical definition of clericalism involved the notion that ordained clergy were uniquely competent to perform certain administrative or governing functions by virtue of some explicitly stated argument in principle. The argument may have drawn from an expansive reading of canon law, an assumption that the hieratic character of the priesthood must naturally imply secular authority, or simply the maxim that "Father" knows best.
Today’s clericalism doesn’t proclaim itself or openly seek justification in principle. One has to detect it instead by applying the same public-choice analysis to Church bureaucracy that would apply to any other large organization. Public-choice theory tells us that, all too often, bureaucracies confuse their own existence, smooth internal functioning, and continuous expansion of bureaucratic turf with the mission they were intended to serve. Bureaucrats won’t say their mission and their organization’s comfortable well-being are the same — they may not even think so — but often they act that way.
The shortage of vocations and the increasingly complex, technical nature of today’s society means that Father simply can’t do it all anymore. So in place of formal clericalism we see new theories of governance arising, based on credentials and incumbency. One might consider it a new and expanded form of clerisy. The ordained minister can dismiss the faithful who protest his clown liturgy, not because he is a priest, but because he went to liturgy school and they did not. The member of a distinctly unreformed, 1970s-vintage community of Franciscans can feel competent to express his curious political views frequently in homilies when he visits my parish because — and the one I have in mind said this often — "I have two M.A.s."
And, of course, it is not just the priests who have M.A.s. There are parish administrators , Masters of Religious Education, and others who make up the new credentialed elite. Most of them are quite good people who exemplify a healthy and appropriate role for the laity in today’s Church. There is truly a place for a priesthood of the laity in a flourishing church community.
But too many of these M.A.s come from supposedly Catholic institutions of higher learning who want the authority that comes with learning but not the discipline that comes with faithfulness to Catholic doctrine. It is often remarked that younger priests and younger faculty members at younger institutions are often more orthodox in their outlook than the incumbents who control key positions in prestigious but aging academic faculties or chancery offices that have been devastated by scandal.
The world of Catholic non-profit institutions deserves a look as well. Non-profits serve many valuable roles; but the closer non-profits are to a guaranteed source of funding, whether from a diocese or government grants, the more often they are dominated by long-term incumbents who don’t enjoy the diversity of career options available to those of us in the business world, but who frankly also don’t face the same accountability for performance, either. There is considerable deadwood in the institutional Catholic non-profit world, with just the tiniest visible traces of rot here and there.
So what’s the answer? We start with charity and fidelity to Christ and the institutional Church. It is no shame to admit that Church-affiliated bureaucracies and professional interest groups follow the same patterns of rent-seeking political and economic behavior one sees in the rest of human society. Transparency, disclosure, and the communications media serving an educated, interested public serve as a partial check on interest groups and institutional inertia in secular society.
The same should be true of communications media serving an active, educated lay community in Catholic society as well. It is fortunate that on this site we have recently had discussions of the role that, in faithfulness and charity, Catholic journalism can play in holding Catholic leaders, including Church hierarchy, accountable for good stewardship of the institutions they manage and for the diligent care and feeding of their flock.
The United States has been blessed in that generations of scrappy immigrants have taken seriously the injunction to "make new all things in Christ" by building their own parishes, schools, social security ministries, and religious communities. The competition and energy from these new entrants has helped keep the older ones honest, attentive, and on the ball. Older religious orders are in decline; but new ones, though small, show a spark of hope.
Bureaucracy and formal credentials are part of the world we live in. In the context of appropriate checks and balances, they can do wonderful things. But to function properly, the new clerisy must be held accountable to people and the Faith it serves. That’s a tall order for Catholic blogs, Catholic media, Catholic journalists, scrappy startup Catholic research institutes, and the independent Catholic scholars they support.
James P. Lucier Jr. owns and manages a scrappy small business.
While I have no doubt that in some places the old-fashioned "my-way-or-the-highway" autocratic clericalism still exists, I have found that what is far more prevalent is the confusion of vocations and roles described by Mark Shea and others here at Inside Catholic. It seems to me that many people in the pews have thoroughly internalized the widespread (and inaccurate) post-Vatican II notion that the Church isdemocratic now, and the laity should "have a say" in all matters of church life.
Now, of course, there is an element of truth to this: We priests are not only encouraged, but in many cases are required, to consult with laypeople regarding the areas of their proper competence. And that is a good thing. For example, I have a finance committee at my parish, made up of business people, engineers, accountants, etc. I solicit and value their expertise regarding the management of the temporal affairs of the parish. I would, quite literally, be at a loss without them.
But what happens when the business owner demands to have a say in whom the pastor hires as DRE? Or the accountant or lawyer in the parish demands to have a say in how the liturgy is celebrated? Especially when that demand is based on little more than personal preference and is at odds with liturgical norms and mind of the Church? One priest I know, when attempting to correct such an erring parishioner, was actually asked, indignantly, "Who are you to tell me I’m wrong?" If such a priest isn’t asked that question explicitly, it will very likely be implicit in the challenger’s attitude.
Of course, the layperson that demands to dictate the manner of liturgical celebration is just as wrong as I would be if I attempted to dictate how parish investment income should be tabulated on our balance sheet. Both of these abuses involve those with legitimate authority in one sphere attempting to usurp authority in another sphere, not properly theirs. And whether it’s priests or laypeople doing it, it’s destructive.
The solution to this problem lies in a concept central to the proper understanding of the priesthood: spiritual fatherhood. This concept is mentioned in a number of Church documents dealing with the priesthood and priestly formation, but most lay Catholics are unfamiliar with it. Spiritual fatherhood is at the heart of the patristic understanding of the priesthood, but post-Vatican II priestly formation largely lost sight of it. Only in the last decade or so has there been an effort to recover this central spiritual reality of the priesthood.
Good fathers don’t lord their authority over their children. Good fathers respect and treasure the gifts and abilities of their children, and they foster those gifts and abilities, encouraging their children to make full use of them. On the other hand, children formed by good fathers value the guidance they receive, because they know it is given with loving authority.
Want to make clericalism go away? Form our priests as spiritual fathers, and form our laity to both understand and appreciate their priests as such, and to understand their own proper gifts and vocation.
Rev. Robert Johansen is a priest of the diocese of Kalamazoo, Michigan, and blogs at thrownback.blogspot.com.


Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on

Editor's picks

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

We must raise $60,000 to fund our work and continue offering the most incisive commentary in the culture wars.

Will you please donate $25, $50, $100, $250, $500, or more today?

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Share to...