The Antidote to Clericalism

The Antidote to Clericalism February 11, 2019

If the problem is clericalism, what is the solution? It is axiomatic that vices cannot simply be eliminated—they have to be replaced with something better, or else they will just come back, often in a form that is even worse. (Cf. Mt. 12:44-45) So it is a bit worrisome that when Pope Francis frequently mentions the problem of clericalism, he doesn’t mention what will replace it. He is far from alone.

Altar of the Chair at St Peter’s Basilica / Image from The Pontifical North American College

Clericalism is the view that the knowledge, the action, the holiness of the Church resides primarily among the clergy. We laity are always sheep following the clerical shepherds. We are always children obeying the Fathers. Our role is to pray, pay, and obey.

This position of authority is often abused by the clergy. Not always or even usually in the form of sexual abuse or other direct abuse of parishioners, though certainly, no matter how rare, this is evil and extremely destructive to the whole Church. More often, the power simply goes to their heads. They act as an entitled class, expecting a comfortable life, control over whomever and whatever they choose in the life of the parish, seeking promotion and titles, etc. They see no need to listen to or learn from their parishioners. They take advantage of the complete lack of structural accountability to parishioners to do as they wish instead of being servants of all. But this is a misunderstanding of authority, as the Synod on Youth document explained. “In its etymological meaning, auctoritas indicates the capacity to cause to grow; it does not express the idea of a directive power, but of a real generative force.”

Many proposals recently aimed at counteracting clericalism have focused on surrendering trappings of clerical privilege, and/or creating structures of accountability to selected members of the laity. Others simply propose listening and “holiness” from priests. But none of these truly change the basic dynamic of clergy being the prime movers of the Church, and the laity being receivers. We hope that what we receive from the clergy will improve, but there is virtually nothing we can do about it if that doesn’t happen. The clergy are supposed to sweep out the bad, but what is going to invigorate the life of this newly austere Church? What will keep spirits even more antithetical to the Gospel from moving in?

As meeting after meeting, and scandal after scandal, pass by with precious little evidence of the clergy moving in the right direction, more and more people are despairing and leaving regular communion with the Catholic Church behind. They feel like renters with a negligent landlord; at some point staying becomes too painful and the cost of leaving a premises over which one has no ownership seems more bearable. Neither does putting the Church under new management, such as boards made up primarily of “well respected” lay people, guarantee any improvement. These chosen few may turn out to be even more controlling and self-serving than the clergy.

No, if clergy are going to return to the servanthood to which they are called, all the laity, not just a few selected by the Bishop, must take “ownership” of the life of the Church. We must claim it for ourselves, not wait for the hierarchy to gift it to us. In claiming ownership, we must also take responsibility for promoting the knowledge, action, and holiness of the whole Body of Christ.

I firmly believe that the only way to drive out clericalism is to replace it with the authority of the Holy Spirit, present and active among a myriad of diverse members of the Body of Christ. Lay leadership must consist not of favorites of the clergy, but members of the Church who have moved beyond spiritual milk and attained to the full stature of their calling. (Cf. Eph. 4:13)

This is not primarily a negative engagement, such as demanding justice for sexual abuse victims, as important as this is. The Holy Spirit alive in the laity must be a source of teaching, of social action, and of helping each other become more spiritually whole. And the persons who do these things must claim their baptismal right to utilize their charismatic gifts, rather than waiting on the clergy to commission them.

This, of course, assumes that members of the laity are able to discern their charismatic gifts first. Sadly, but unsurprisingly, few members of the clergy or even religious education directors have put much effort into teaching this to their flocks. We really must take it upon ourselves to self-educate and disciple each other in the ways of opening our hearts to the movements of the Holy Spirit.

Just as there are many charisms of the Holy Spirit, there are many different means for learning to discern and follow the guidance of the Spirit. In coming posts, I intend to survey a number of different spiritual exercises that can aid in this quest, including:

While no one spiritual path is best for everyone, I do encourage everyone to explore practices outside their comfort zone. You may be surprised by the Spirit in the process! Or if you have found other means profitable in developing discernment of the Spirit, you are invited to share in the comments, and I may research more and share in a future Beyond All Telling post.

Let us take inspiration and challenge from these words from the Letter to the Hebrews:

Although you should be teachers by this time, you need to have someone teach you again the basic elements of the utterances of God. You need milk, [and] not solid food. Everyone who lives on milk lacks experience of the word of righteousness, for he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those whose faculties are trained by practice to discern good and evil.

Therefore, let us leave behind the basic teaching about Christ and advance to maturity, without laying the foundation all over again: repentance from dead works and faith in God, instruction about baptisms and laying on of hands, resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment. And we shall do this, if only God permits.

For it is impossible in the case of those who have once been enlightened and tasted the heavenly gift and shared in the Holy Spirit and tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to bring them to repentance again, since they are recrucifying the Son of God for themselves and holding him up to contempt.

Ground that has absorbed the rain falling upon it repeatedly and brings forth crops useful to those for whom it is cultivated receives a blessing from God. But if it produces thorns and thistles, it is rejected; it will soon be cursed and finally burned.

-Heb 5:12-6:8

And let us pray unceasingly together: “Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit and they shall be created. And You shall renew the face of the earth.”

""Is the Bible “Clear”?"Certainly. Here is one example of a clear concise passage from the ..."

The Bible: Insipid, Inspired, or Inspiring?
"I’ve always been very intrigued by the Jewish concept of the sexual ‘marriage debt’ as ..."

Betrothed to God at a Price
"Your article is excellent and demonstrates your ability to be a voice for truth. This ..."

Betrothed to God at a Price
"If a person, don't we worship or pray to or praise him/her? But to do ..."

The Third Person of the Trinity ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!


TRENDING AT PATHEOS Catholic
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Thomas DiMattia

    Either by sheer accident or by the grace of God, Lillian”s conclusion has actually been concluded as well from some if our leading theologians, that the age after The Frist Day of Pentecost began the Age of the Hol Spirit.

    Naturally though there will be a reaction by some of a fear of “give them an inch, they’ll take a mile”.

    Maybe a good first step is the “CALLED AND GIFTED” seminars that help develop an individuals talent towards ministry.

    Another would be for lay to individually focus on ONE issue they would like to tackle, since each one is more involved than they probably realize, so having a knowledge of all is nice but you may not contribute much then.
    For instance, a difficult one to me would be how clericalism plays out in the Sacred Liturgy, where a new pastor comes in and changes things either without explanation, or a very weak one.
    To me in this case the focus could be on this question:
    “Is the Sacred Liturgy done primarily FOR the people, or primarily done WITH the people?”
    For me personally, an answer would be that the more a pastor’s actions move toward the idea of the Sacred Liturgy being done FOR the people, the more he tends to distance himself from the laity, with a possible preference towards a pre-Vatican Council II way of thinking.

    There’s a lot more that could be said on this, but at least I think the question I give should help in discern what us really going on beneath the surface.

  • ve6

    Is clericalism the same as homosexuality?

  • Commentariat

    ve6 has gone and done it. Pretty soon he will be quoting the John Jay report that 80% of the abuse victims are post pubescent males, that the problem is pederasty, not pedophilia, that there is a homosexual network among clerics in the Church that does indeed lead to clericalism of a kind that fosters and protects pederasty and power. We can’t go there because Lillian’s sensibilities will be offended. It’s fine if the offenders are heterosexual males, but to actually identify the true source of the problem within the Church? Why, Lillian isn’t interested in that any more than her blogging partner is. So, c’mon ve6, be a good spirit of Vatican II kinda guy and straighten up and fly right, OK?

  • Commentariat

    Belgian Catholic sex abuse study finds 76% of priests’ victims were male

    Belgian Catholic Bishops, Belgium, Catholic, Godfried Danneels, Homosexuality, Sex Abuse, Sex Abuse Crisis In Catholic Church

    February 13, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) – Under the leadership of Cardinal Jozef de Kesel of Brussels, the Catholic Church in Belgium just published a report on sex abuse similar to one recently released in Germany. The report found that in more than 1,000 cases, 76 percent of the abuse victims were male.

    Katholisch.de, the news website of the German Bishops’ Conference, reports that the Belgian Bishops’ Conference has published a 400-page report in the wake of several abuse scandals in recent years. A diocesan network for abuse victims issued this report under the leadership of retired psychology professor Manu Keirse (Leuven).

    When presenting this abuse report, Cardinal de Kesel said that hundreds of sex abuse victims “finally had in the past years the courage to speak about it [the abuse].” De Kesel suggested it is now important to recognize the suffering of the victims, their helplessness toward their abusers, and their forced silence.

    As Professor Keirse says in the preface of the report: “Sexual abuse or abusive conduct is not an illness, it is a delict, an abuse of power.”

    The report says that since 2010 more than 1,054 abuse victims went to the Church’s centers for sex abuse victims. From 426 cases that were reported to certain of these centers, 92 percent go back 28 years and more. Seventy-three percent of the victims were between 10 and 18 years old when they were assaulted. The majority of the clerical sex abuse cases took place either in Catholic schools or in rectories, the report states.

    Most importantly, this Belgian abuse report confirms the findings of other similar studies. As Katholisch.de says: “Three out of four victims were male (76%).”

    This finding is significant, inasmuch as it once more points to the link between homosexuality and clerical sex abuse, an aspect that is highly denied by many leading Church figures. Only recently, Father Hans Zollner, S.J. – one of the four men called by Pope Francis to prepare the upcoming Vatican sex abuse summit – stated that “the real problem with sexual abuse is not the sexual orientation, but abuse of power.” Among others, Cardinal Gerhard Müller and Cardinal Brandmüller both pointed to this link and endorsed a petition that has been organized by the Swiss Catholic organization Pro Ecclesia and by LifeSiteNews in order to stop homosexual networks in the Catholic Church. So far, the petition, which will be presented to the participants of the upcoming summit, has found the support of 11,000 signatories.

    The Belgian Bishops’ Conference has already set up a foundation called Dignity in order to pay some form of financial restitution to the abuse victims. Between 2012 and 2017, this foundation paid out 4.48 million euro, with sums between 5,000 and 25,000 euro going to individual abuse victims.

    Cardinal de Kezel said he hopes the upcoming summit will come up with a “coherent policy for the entire Catholic Church” concerning this problem.

    For him, the abuse crisis has not been resolved by simply publishing this report. “Trust is a permanent job,” the last sentence in the report issued by the Belgian bishops says.

    One of the most prominent sex abuse scandals in the last years in Belgium relates to the former President of the Belgian Bishops’ Conference and member of the so-called Sankt Gallen Group, Cardinal Godfried Danneels. As LifeSiteNews reported in 2010, recordings that then had been passed on to the public revealed that Cardinal Danneels had urged a victim not to reveal 13 years of sexual abuse at the hands of the cardinal’s friend and colleague, Bishop Roger Vangheluwe, the retired bishop of Bruges. The abuse victim was the nephew of Bishop Vangheluwe. Danneels suggested in the recording of the conversation with the victim that the case be kept confidential and that the abuser bishop may retire peacefully.

    It was Cardinal Danneels who, in 2015, openly spoke about the existence of a group of progressive cardinals and bishops who wished for a progressive pope after the death of Pope John Paul II. It was also Danneels who had the honor of standing next to Pope Francis right after his papal election in 2013.

  • Roger Morris

    The solution to clericalism is secularism.

  • Joe Long

    I was a Catholic parish priest, ordained in 1979 and laicised in 1995. For many years I argued that the ordinary ministries of the Church were “open” to all by reason of their baptism. There was no need for any form of commissioning and the only thing necessary for admission to these ministries was personal discernment. This along with other issues brought me into conflict with my Bishop and hence my moving out of ordained ministry. Lillian is I believe on the right track. I would like to add that the pain of our current situation has to be acknowledged and embraced by all of us – we cannot just blame “them” for we are all a part of the problem. In order to go through the pain to a real transformation we each can use and encourage the use in our communities of Mindful Self-compassion

  • mad2002mad

    Believe an approach to reform the Church is:

    1. End celibacy or make it optional; 2. Married priests; 3. Women priests; 4. Lay councils in every diocese/parish to select bishops/pastors and participate in governance

    While these steps won’t solve every issue we face, it at least gives the laity a role and gives us greater ownership of our faith. We certainly aren’t going to change all the doctrine, but we’re going to have a clergy that understands it serves the laity and Body of Christ and not the other way round. We need more of a partnership between clergy and laity.

  • Commentariat

    “…Clericalism—the evil misuse of the respect those in Holy Orders rightly enjoy because of their sacred office—facilitates abuse; it doesn’t cause it. Like the charge of abuse, the “clericalism” trope has been weaponized by the Church’s enemies…” – George Weigel, First Things, 20 March 2019