Michael Pakaluk, a Visiting Scholar in Philosophy at Harvard University, writes the following:

Clericalism and the Scandal

‘Clericalism’ is the view that the Catholic Church is the same as its bishops, priests, and religious. Clericalism magnifies the importance of the hierarchy, but denies the importance of the laity. The laity are mere appendages; they are involved in the ‘world’, which makes them secular, not in religious matters, where God’s work is done. Thus they cannot and need not strive to be saints. And they need not be held to the same standard as priests and religious.

Some signs that you have a clerical outlook: You speak about what’s happening ‘in the Church’, and you mean what’s happening among priests and religious. You think that for a Catholic layperson to ‘become involved’, is for him to get involved in internal Church matters. You think that Vatican II’s emphasis on the laity means that the laity should now do things that only priests did in the past, like distribute communion and serve on Church committees. You think that the laity will finally get the recognition they deserve only when they are playing a visible role in running the Church.

Now Clericalism is utterly false, and every Catholic needs to reject it. Vatican II was about the rejection of Clericalism, and that Council will not be implemented until we root out all vestiges of Clericalism.

What did Vatican II teach, in contrast? Vatican II stressed the fundamental equality of all Catholics, deriving from their baptism. In baptism, every Catholic becomes identified with Christ. To be baptized, by definition, is to have the vocation to be ‘another Christ’. Every Catholic shares in Christ’s ‘three fold’ role as priest, prophet, and king. We are called to ‘take up the cross daily’, and to follow Christ, aiming ‘to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect.’

Vatican II spoke of ‘the people of God’ and the ‘priesthood of all believers’ precisely to stress this fundamental equality of all Catholics, more fundamental than the distinction between hierarchy and laity. Christ instituted that distinction as a means of helping all of his disciples follow Him more closely. The hierarchy exists in order to help the laity do their job well.

But what is the job of the laity? It is to sanctify worldly realities, ordering all things to God. Just as the work of the bishop is accomplished in the chancery and with his priests; and the work of the priest is done in the parish and through the sacraments; so the work of a layperson is to be found in his family, the workplace, his community, and his culture. By how he acts there a Catholic layperson stands or falls; by this he will be judged.

When I, a father of a large family and working professional, come before the judgment seat of God, I will not be asked-I am convinced-whether I was a good Eucharistic minister or gave the bishops good advice. I will be asked whether I treated my wife with exemplary love each day; whether I spent lots of time with my children; whether I took proper care that they received a good education in the faith; whether I set an example of prayer for my family. Did I strive each day to give myself entirely to God? Did I learn the Catholic faith well and apply its teachings in daily life? Did I follow God’s will in all of my actions, rejecting everything opposed to His will? Did my professional work testify to Him? Did I contribute my share in seeing that the ‘culture of life’ rather than the ‘culture of death’ prevailed in my community and society, through its laws and political leaders? Did I try to reform my surroundings in light of Catholic principles, not content merely to succeed as regards the status quo?

That is the work of the laity. If done well, with prayer and mortification and frequent recourse to the sacraments, it leads to holiness, which is our goal and the reason we exist.

Now suppose we do firmly reject Clericalism. Then the problem of ‘scandal in the Church’ appears much broader. For as priests need to be evaluated relative to their calling, so should the laity be evaluated relative to theirs. There is ‘scandal in the Church’ when the laity fail visibly to act as they should, as much as when priests do. To deny this is to identify the Church with priests and religious, which is Clericalism.

But how exactly have the laity fared? The ‘divorce’, abortion, and adultery rates among Catholics, for instance, are hardly different from those of the general public. What is the trauma of abortion on human lives and souls? What lasting damage to young persons is caused by divorce? How many Catholic laypersons enjoy pornography, or television shows not different from soft-porn? Some of our ‘Catholic’ politicians are among the worst proponents of the culture of death. What signals the greater irresponsibility: repeatedly assigning an abusive priest to parish work, or repeatedly giving pro-abortion politicians care over our laws and communities, by re-electing them?

The point is not to shift the blame or make further accusations. The point is to invite self-reflection. “Take the log out of your own eye first, and then maybe you’ll see clearly enough to remove the splinter from your brother’s eye.” Unfortunately, there is a log in the eye of the Catholic laity. And Clericalism keeps us from taking it out.


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