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Our Anticlerical Pope

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Russell Shaw is a freelance writer from Washington, D.C.


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  • Sending lay people to Rome isn’t what co-responsibility is about. The ordained govern the institutional church while the baptized laity govern in their spheres in the secular world – in families, neighborhoods, workplaces, and civil government. The important thing is for lay people to understand that they have a proper mission, and it is to the whole world, remaking it and putting a human face, the face of Christ, on all of Creation. The Lord’s famous line to Mary in the Passion of the Christ – “See Mother, I make all things new” – depends essentially on the vocation of lay people. Lay people possess a dignity that is complementary to the dignity of the ordained, and completely different in orientation.

  • goral

    Clericalism for the sake and benefit of Mother Church is no vice. We had strong clericalism in the 50’s and 60’s and the Church was vibrant. The laity was not dissuaded from participating in the life of the Church. On the contrary, all the lay Societies and clubs within the church were very prolific and vocations were strong. So far, anti-clericalism and lay people being involved in Liturgies and music and Eucharistic ministers and such has had the opposite effect.

    In a word, our churches are in shambles. Strong clerics like our last two popes,
    got us through the storm, which is still raging.

  • CDville

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

    • Tomas Tesla

      It seems to me that you understand very well what clericalism means: “the idea that the priest is practically infallible”. If you want to help him taking over administrative tasks you should make yourself available. On the other hand, if you want to help in the day-to-day parish administration because you could never hack it in the real world and you need to feel important: you are WRONG! In the US there is a strong tendency to let a group of bossy women run the show in the parish. That goes hand on hand with clericalism. In parish after parish we see those women, mostly incompetent nosy people with nothing to do and very little formation in the faith. They gravitate around the priest like small planets in effect separating him from the rest of the faithful. They are the “Father cannot see you now. Can I help you with something?” crowd. Enough of that. Priest have to learn to be less effeminate and truly take care of the flock balancing spiritual and administrative tasks in a sensible manner. IF some woman feels like a second class citizen because she is not allowed to meddle in parish affairs, she should look at the example of Mary who got to the top position in the Church–first in the org chart after her Son–through motherhood, prayer, and perfect self sacrifice. Stop seeing parish work as a privilege of the few: it is not. All parish work is nothing but a splinter of the Cross. We have to work in our ecclesia to call others to the blessings of the Gospel of Jesus Christ NOT to climb the social ladder or to get self-aggrandized. Every soul in the Kingdom of God is a unique first-class citizen. There is no class struggle to get recognized in our Christian society since we are called to humility in service to others and–in the words of an apostle of Christ–we are to consider ourselves servants merely fulfilling their duty. Priests and bishops (and archbishops, cardinals, etc.) are forbidden expressly to “lord over the flock” and have been ordered to lay down their lives for the flock. The flock is important, the priest is only important in the measure of his service and sacrifice. He chose to be first and so he must be the last and less important amongst us. That by royal decree of our Lord and King.

      • CDville

        Thank you, I thought that was what it meant, but I was looking for some sort of confirmation of my inference. And oh, yes, I have seen those busybodies. (In my parish, they even tell the priests what to preach so the large donors are not offended. Our newest priest gave excellent homilies until they convinced him to tone it down.) I think, though, that a large parish with huge budgets should have an administrator with some business background, maybe even an MBA, to manage the facilities and the mountains of paperwork under the authority of the pastor, as in Acts 6.

  • Carlos Caso-Rosendi

    Clericalism is a vice, always. Let there be no doubt. The clericalism of the 50’s and 60’s was the environment where monsters like John Geoghan and Marcial Maciel thrived. A priest is a MAN on a mission, as much in need of redemption as laymen are. He is in persona Christi when administering certain Sacraments but he is not a demi-god or a mini-pope. I have seen enough of this priest worshiping around and I do not like it. It ruins the life of the priest and also of those who see him as something he is not. Strong, orthodox loyal priests, respected by their flock are to be praised, supported, and respected but not in the way of clericalism. They can do wrong and often they equivocate. I say this and I have plenty of friends who are men of the cloth. Here is one example: during a homily a priest, a friend, said something that was incorrect. Not a big deal, he was not preaching heresy. I asked him about it and someone a few steps away overheard it. Father was actually grateful that I pointed at that small error and even made a little joke about it. That person overhearing later chastised me (or rather tried to chastise me) because in her view I was contradicting a priest who was much better formed in the faith than I was. That attitude of “Father can do or say nothing wrong” is truly destructive and dangerous because it places a priest in a pedestal where he does not belong. From there the only way he can go is down. And down our priests have gone from that pedestal of the 50’s and 60’s. People like Hans Küng and Karl Rahner, among many, are the casualties brought about by clericalism. Clericalism is a temptation and it does not come from God. It is a form of soft idolatry and it should be always condemned.