Complicity in Clericalism

Are priests too consumed with their own power, prestige and importance?

Deacon Kandra gathers the differing views on clericalism that are generating discussion on his blog here. The talk got started with an article by a Franciscan friar called Fr Horan Lead Us Not Into Clericalism which made some snippy remarks about the breed of younger priests who seem overly concerned with fancy vestments and all the trappings of traditionalist religion. Fr John Trigilio gives a robust reply–re published at Deacon Kandra’s blog–stating that there are plenty of liberal clergy who have also fallen into the temptation of clericalism.

He makes the point that narcissism and megalomania are no respecters of churchmanship.

I’d like to weigh in and make another point. Instead of blaming the clergy completely let’s lay some of the blame for clericalism at the feet of the laity. Why is there no criticism of the often infantile relationship between the laity and their priests? Too often the laity fall into two extremes in their relationship with the clergy–both of them immature.

On the one hand is the fawning, “Ohhh Fawther!” type of groveling before the priest. The lay person puts the priest on a false pedestal and honors him too much–never criticizing and never questioning. They collude with the clericalist priest and together they create a false god out of the priest. The fact that we call our priests “Father” doesn’t help. While I value the tradition, I also see that it subconsciously tends to put the laity into a subjugated set of people with immature relationships. Rather than an adult to adult relationship with the priest we get a child-adult relationship. It’s not healthy and it contributes to the tendency towards clericalism in the clergy.

The other reaction among the laity is another form of immaturity which reminds me of seventh grade girls. When the clergy come around the laity are all smiles and courtesy, then when his back is turned they start up the gossip, the griping and the complaining. They never have the guts or maturity to actually come and talk with the priest. They don’t have the guts to speak to him adult to adult and express their views and criticisms. Instead, like little middle school girls nattering about how nasty their parents and teachers are,  they get together in a little gossipy huddle and snip and grumble and complain. This second response also contributes to clericalism because the laity perpetrate the idea that the priest is the great Father figure–the authority figure who is there mostly to rebel against in the most petty and immature way.

It leads to clericalism because it isolates the priest, re-inforces his absolute authority (because the laity don’t have the guts to interact with that authority in a mature and co operative way) and leads to division and strife in the church.

This is why I am in favor of active and involved parish committees–where the clergy and laity can get together to listen to one another and work together as a team and as the body of Christ for the furtherance of the gospel. This leads to a further grumble about the laity. Too many of them don’t WANT to be involved in helping to run the parish. They want to sit back and let Father do everything. Join the finance committee? No thanks. Join the parish council? Too busy. Join the choir? Not me. Volunteer and get involved? Not my cup of tea.  Consequently Father does end up doing everything and takes charge and thus the lukewarmness and complacency of the people contributes to the problem of clericalism.

More on this topic here in an article entitled Father Knows Best.

About Fr. Dwight Longenecker
  • diane

    Exactly right, but I don’t really think calling our priests “Father” is the culprit. Whatever the title, the immature will always react in an immature way.

  • Khaden

    It seems to me that Dan Horan is calling all clergy, including himself, to deeper reflection on inner attitudes and intentions. Longenecker, like many other responders to the article, miss the main point, and in the above response Longenecker has the temerity to scapegoat parishioners, as though clergy have little or no freewill to respond more responsibly or maturely to those who fawn over “Fawther.” Get real. Yes, I concede that attitudes of superiority cross ideological lines, but let’s not respond immediately to this issue by scapegoating. Let’s look at the beam in our own eyes before pointing at the splinter in the others.

  • Julie

    Thank you so much for saying this. As a parish Music Director and also layperson involved in parish committees, I see the fallout from the layperson’s unwillingness and/or timidity about being completely honest with priests. They seem to prefer to smile and say yes and withdraw, rather than be truthful. Conversely, I know very few priests who really welcome differences of opinion. They say they want our honesty, but their reaction to it is usually such that anyone who does speak up is politely ignored or avoided. A drastic change is needed in our relationships.

  • Jenne

    Thank you Fawthe! But I agree with Julie. We need a drastic change. I think we need constantly ask the Holy Spirit for help and see what is the Lord asking. Many times we only see what we are comfortable seeing and are afraid of the uncomfortable, unsettling action of the Spirit. We are afraid of the mistake or we want a perfection. First and always, personal renewal. Then act. If a priest is stubborn so be it. The laity can’t always expect the priest to be perfect but we can pray, be further converted, beg Our dear Lord to be made more present and fast.

    If a lay person has not experienced the fruits of prayer and fasting for a stubborn priest then you haven’t lived!

    I imagine if a priest hasn’t risked their own lives for their flock then they haven’t lived.

    All these aberrations that block true Christian relationships fall away and get mended in authentically seeking His will. There is no mistaking a joyful Christian for a nice easy going fun loving person. These are two different things.

  • RightInCali

    Having tried to to approach priests as ordinary people, with the respect of colleagues-not-buddies, most don’t respond at all well. One even gave me a lecture about priests being a different (implied: superior) order of humanity because St. Paul adjures them to be “a people apart.”

    I blame the institutional Church. Seminarians go to seminary, which we have all been conditioned to believe is a veeeery special place for veeeeery special people.

    Oh yeah? What’s so special about it? Unique, yes: seminarians wear special clothes, get isolated from everyday life, and get filled up with “I am a Priest!” propaganda. An acquaintance in his 30s went to seminary, and transformed from good guy to an increasingly supercilious, self-absorbed navel gazer.

    Solution: abolish traditional seminaries, and don’t ordain anyone under 30. Priests would come to the priesthood with a worldly profession and earning a living in in the cold world, outside the “you’re special” dynamic of seminaries and rectories. Treat the priesthood as what it really is: just another career — because it is. If all vocations come from God, then the priesthood is not superior and priests no more special than anyone else. And anyone who disagrees is saying that priests are superior human beings, why would such a superior calling be visited on lesser beings?

  • Brian Mershon

    Clericalism is enabled by the USCCB, bishops, priests and deacons who promote false versions of the Gospel by weighing in with their full authority as if they are experts on things unassociated with Faith and morals. The USCCB and individual bishops do this when they advocate for allowing all illegal immigrants to become legal with legal positivism (as if THAT is authentic Catholic teaching) or when they write on topics outside their expertise rather than sticking with teaching Catholic doctrine. The more priests, deacons and bishops use the internet and other media to give their personal opinions on issue–and the laity willing accept them simply because of their orders within the Church–the more clericalism will be fostered.

  • Andrew

    Blaming clericalism on the laity seems like a bizarre thing to do. Father, I do not think your points are well made at all. And I would further venture to say that many lay people do not get involved in a parish specifically because so many Priests act with a clericalist mind set. Very hard to influence them in anything, as another commenter mentioned. This has been my experience.

    • http://rosarynovice.stblogs.com/ Augustine

      Mind you, Fr. D did not blame all forms of clericalism on the laity, but just that form particular to us: adulation and idolization.

      I myself have witnessed the very same situations that Fr. D described, as if priests could do no wrong, rudeness dismissed as rightful anger, disobedience or heresy accepted because of priest charming, etc.

      It’s actually always been so. Even Sts. John and James and their mother tried Our Lord to assume a clerical attitude. Of course, it didn’t work and that was before Pentecost, but just to resume in the next generation of bishops and presbyters and deacons to this day, until He comes again.

  • Lucy

    Oh Father, you’re saying a lot of people are very immature and priests are among them – and it’s mostly their fault. You’re so brilliant. I’ll bet he tells himself that everyday.

  • tj.nelson

    Wow! Blaming the laity.

    I’m so surprised at you. You just don’t see yourself as part of the problem as you flit about in your cape and cassock and silly hat, yet you have the audacity to blame clericalism on the laity.
    Just one more reason I avoid socializing with priests.

    • FW Ken

      Actually. Father Longenecker is correct, silly hat or not. It’s all of us.

    • Rebecca Duncan

      Do you really need to bring in cheap shots about how he dresses? Jeez. Maybe one more reason to avoid socializing with you, if anything.
      As for the blame the laity…I agree, it’s weird. This whole post is weirdly defensive and…kind of creepy in its tone, especially about calling priests Father. Who has a problem with that besides weird fundamentalist protestants? Very strange.

  • Nicholas Haggin

    For those who think Fr. Longnecker is blaming everything on a supine laity while absolving himself and his brother priests of guilt, re-read the first four paragraphs. Deacon Kandra’s post addresses the clerical side of the problem, but if the laity don’t play along clericalism can’t exist. Someone needs to say that, so Fr. Longnecker is saying it, and I think he is right to do so. His work completes rather than contradicts and should be read synthetically with the rest.

  • http://rosarynovice.stblogs.com/ Augustine

    And just today I was inflicted with ad lib words inserted or changed here and there during the mass. I don’t know why some priests do this; maybe they want to imprint a personal trait on the liturgy or to make it like an informal chat. Regardless, even for a priest who gave a good homily, it reeks of clericalism.

  • milksteak

    Well do you blame the sheep for wandering or the shepard for a job poorly done……… do sheep have authority ….so they so the leasind. blah blah blah …. gimme a brake padre

  • Kelly Reineke

    As a way of encouraging vocations in my home I try to avoid running down the priest. If God can put up with my mediocrity then I can deal with the mediocrity of His ministers.

    I once had an acquaintance of a couple who were buddies with the priest until he required their daughter to go through confirmation class like everyone else.

    They were distraught that he wouldn’t make an exception for her. (They wanted an exception out of contempt for her peers).

    I felt bad for the priest. I’d have felt used if that happened to me.


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