Clericalism: bad and good

At The Catholic Thing there is a post today by Fr. Mark Pilon about clericalism.

I am for clericalism.  That is to say, I am for good, beneficial clericalism.  I am against bad clericalism.   Both Pilon and I make distinctions.  Here is the beginning of his piece.  I’ll add my own views below.

My emphases and comments:

Fr. Mark Pilon: To suggest that a Catholic is not bound by the Church’s teaching because he can’t understand it insults the believer’s dignity.

The pejorative notion of clericalism has a number of different meanings. For many Protestants and secularists, this term simply means that the clergy have, and exercise, too much authority in the Catholic Church. Just how that’s their business is a mystery, unless they assume that the Church is somehow subject to their ideas and should conform to them. [Do I hear an “Amen!”?]

For Catholics, clericalism usually refers to a kind of dominance of laity by clergy outside of their rightful spiritual authority. Pope Francis often speaks of this form of clericalism, in the way that clergy behave either in their regular daily pastoral work or in the political sphere.

St. Jose Maria Escrivá, the founder of Opus Dei, identified another kind of clericalism in those who try to turn the laity into pseudo-clerics – and identify the truly “committed” layperson as someone who directly serves the Church, rather than someone who is immersed as a Christian in social and political life.

But there is yet another form of clericalism that seems just as widespread today. [NB] This is the clericalism that assumes that many of the laity are simply incapable of really understanding the Church’s teachings or are incapable living up to them when the demands are high. This is the kind of subtle but deadly clericalism Pope Paul VI hinted at in Humanae vitae.  [This may also be at the core of Chapter 8 of Amoris laetitia. In AL ch. 8 there seems to be a presumption that people cannot live up to the moral standards which the sacrament of matrimony implies.  Matrimony is, as Christ Himself teaches and as the Church has always held, indissoluble. If someone civilly divorces and then takes up with someone else, cannot separate from that person for some good reason, but still want to return to the sacraments, then the only path forward is to live in continence with that partner as “brother and sister”.  However, Amoris and many who interpret Amoris in a liberal way assume that the moral requirements matrimony are too hard for people to live.  Therefore, they look for ways around the commitment to continence and still give access to the sacraments.]


To fulfill a difficult moral law always involves a struggle – for some people, a very great struggle. But the believing Christian will not lightly absolve himself from responsibility for personal failure at the expense of denying the power of God’s grace. And the assumption by some clergy and theologians that most laity are simply incapable of either understanding the truth of certain moral laws or of fulfilling them is not exactly a way of recognizing or promoting the dignity of laypeople. [Exactly.]


This is a good distinction.  Some clerics assume that lay people are not able to live according to the demands of Christian morality.  They set lower and lower bars in the name of “compassion” or “mercy”.  This is, in effect, terribly condescending.

I’ll add another kind of clericalism, related to something that Pilon mentioned, pandemic among the liberal Left.  Especially in liturgical contexts – which have a knock on effect in every other aspect of the Church’s activity –  libs blur the distinction between lay and cleric and say, “I’ll let you do something I am supposed to do.”  The subtle message: “You are not good enough with your baptismal dignity: I have to raise you up.” This condescending liberal arrogance is a terrible form of clericalism. Want to see true clericalism?  Scratch a liberal and see what happens.

On the other hand, there is a sound, healthy “clericalism” which consists in a clear sense of priestly identity that sets the priest apart from the people on account of his ministry at the altar.  There should be a clerical culture in the Church, among clerics, who need to support each other.  This doesn’t mean that clerics must exclude lay people from every facet of their lives.  It does mean, however, that priests must withdraw from lay people on occasion, into their own company (even with steak dinners, good wine and cigars).  Clericalism, in a healthy sense, is concerned with the identity and holiness of the priest.


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  1. Pigeon says:

    If you want to know the sins of liberals, just look at what they accuse of conservatives.

  2. Tryin says:

    For those who think “many of the laity are simply incapable of really understanding the Church’s teachings or are incapable living up to them when the demands are high” how long will it be before the clergy are likewise excused? If adultery can be acceptable for the laity under exigent circumstances, why not for the clergy? Are they less frail, less human? Kind of pharisaical to so claim, no?

  3. MattH says:

    People often accuse conservatives and traditionalists of clericalism. It is true that we tend to have high view of the priesthood, but I think that’s primarily because we believe the Sacraments really are what the Church says they are – so we value those things that only priests can do: absolve sins, anoint the sick, and provide the Eucharist.

    Yet when it comes to the things that don’t actually require a priest, it seems as though it is exactly the attempts at modernization and democratization that have reduced roles for laymen. For example, elimination of things like the Noble Guard, the Prince Assistants to the Throne, and the Grand Master of the Sacred Apostolic Hospice from the papal entourage, or for one specific example: the doors of the conclave used to be sealed by a layman, the hereditary Marshal of the Church. Now, it is done by a priest, the Master of the Papal Liturgical Celebrations. In an attempt to avoid having those duties dominated by traditional nobility, they instead ended up with more administrative and ceremonial tasks being done by priests.

  4. Bthompson says:

    Another dimension of bad clericalism I have noticed is a presumption that the laity are incapable understanding things that “experts” (usually clericalized laity) know. Thus, this idea says, liturgies and the teachings of the Church need to be “brought down” to the “everyman’s level” rather than treating our people as if they are at least average intelligence and can intuit the meaning of symbols or at least appreciate a symbol or tradition a brief explanation.

    I noticed this especially throughout our calendar when particular traditions or options pop up, and I get resistance from staff or even other clergy claiming that a (convieniently) prohibitive amount catechesis would be necessary in order to do this or that ritual or blessing or tradition or something (A great example of this, by the by, is the various wildly opposed reactions to Cardinal Sarah’s words about liturgical orientation).

  5. Ann Malley says:

    This brand of “clericalism” is nothing more than the old system of Jews and Gentiles wherein the Gentiles were treated like sub humans who were somehow incapable of keeping the law. It is a grotesque class system imposed by those who could remain the intellectual (spiritual) elites, reaping the benefits of the masses (their money, their labor, etc) while doing nothing more than farming them like animals.

    It’s that old Star Trek episode where the elites lived in the clouds in the clean city where intellectual pursuits were the norm and the poor, supposedly grunty troglodytes mined the earth below, destined for perpetual servitude because they didn’t have the intellectual capacity – poor fellows – to advance.

    The story unfolds to reveal that the dust from mining affected the brain and chemically kept these so called mental deficients mentally deficient.

    The same can be said of those who fancy themselves teachers, philosophers, academics and “clerics” who, rather than teach, elevate, welcome into the fullness of the truth that will set all free, prefer to relegate their flock to being animals that must be given leeway to sin because – well – they can’t themselves.

    It’s disgusting. It’s lazy. It’s transparent.

    This nauseating pretense that the poor ignorant masses cannot help but grunt and behave like animals and thus “mercifully” we should let them is the antithesis of the gospel.

  6. scotus says:

    Another example of this condescending attitude towards the laity is to be found in certain circles of Biblical scholars. Such is their self-esteem that they cannot envisage how the ‘ordinary’ laity can possibly understand the Bible without their highfalutin insights gained from textual criticism, etc, etc. Unless you are highly educated in Near Eastern languages and cultures and the different genres used in the Bible there’s just no way us ‘lesser’ beings can make any sense out of the Bible. So we need them to tell us what it means.

  7. Ann Malley says:

    …This condescending attitude is rampant. It is also why parents are perpetually treated to the slap down of supposedly not being capable of rearing/teaching their own children. The “professionals” must be consulted. The “professionals” whose true motivation is often just to get federal funding for their school and thus their paycheck and take umbrage at those parents who know, quite rightly, that they are fully capable of teaching their own children.

    Virginia is currently proposing a law that would require schools to notify parents of the introduction of sexually explicit material in the classroom. The Left’s objection is that “Conservatives” are trying to control the minds of the young. But isn’t that the issue all around? A fight for control.

    Isn’t controlling the minds of the flock the issue surrounding clericalism? Convince the flock that some mystical magic happens when one is ordained that suddenly renders the collar wearer superior in ALL matters so as to lobotomize the flock? Either to get them to defer to the collar wearer in all matters, even those over which they exercise legitimate authority.

    Or to convince the flock that they must abandon the lesser, insignificant realm of doing their duty (which is highly pleasing to God) and scrabble for clerical status themselves. (The battle of the sexes could be similarly understood. Pretend that womanhood is inferior and you have the abandonment of balance, the inflation that all that is male is where its at and women begin hating on being women. Leaving off proper order to chase falsehood.)

    Sorry for the bitterness, but I once had a priest tell me that if I wanted to set a truly good example for my children I should become a Eucharistic Minister. Alarm bells went off. Why? Because the premise that a wife and mother should take on the role of the priest to set a “good” example not only deprived the priest of the joy of doing his own job, but it negated the role of wife/mother which, in itself, is very pleasing to God. It was nonsense.

  8. benedetta says:

    I think that you are correct Father Z that people can live basic morality. Even with the times such as they are. I do not agree that it is too tall an order to expect from laity or clergy for that matter who marinate in the very same times. I have an elderly saintly grandmother who received less than an 8th grade education and in a country with a different language than her native one and she is one of the holiest most moral people I have ever known. Certainly in these times of progress and literacy it is not too much to hope for. Lately, among other things, I have been reading St. Augustine. As well, St. John Chrysostom on marriage and family life. Though cultural trends change and technology progresses and flows and wars happen and ideas come and go, the human heart seems to have stayed remarkably the same.

  9. KT127 says:

    In my experience, this is one of the biggest hurdles to both staying in the Catholic Church and helping other’s explore the possibility of joining the Church. Most people have had the experience in school of a teacher who treated the class with contempt and used their experience/education to lord it over their students. Those teachers were often universally hated, even by the “smart” kids who were left alone.Why do priest, church administrators or anyone else think the laity do not have some level of solidarity?

    It is an attitude that pushes a lot of wonderful people away from the Church. It is really hard to get them to accept “We have the fullness of the faith, you just have to push past the jerks even though they appear to be running the Church.” In this, our critics are correct, it is not hard to find a contemptuous attitude towards the laity.

  10. thomas jd says:

    Clericalism is defined as a state of affairs in which there is an unnecessary or overly exaggerated importance attributed to clergy, in such a way that the laity relate to them as subjects to be ruled rather than a people to be lovingly pastored. Basically, a clericalist ideology is one that places too much emphasis on the clergy or attributes undue importance to their actions. It is a defect of the virtue of temperance by excess as applied to the government of the Church. Pope Benedict XVI

  11. LDP says:

    You write: ‘libs blur the distinction between lay and cleric and say, “I’ll let you do something I am supposed to do.”’

    One particular annoyance of mine: the practice, perfectly legitimate though it may be, of the priest sitting behind (Versus Populum) the altar – yes, sitting!!! – whilst a layman (or woman) reads most of the scripture readings, and the bidding prayers. It makes the priest look much like a spare part, to be frank. Personally I would rather see the priest do all the readings, have the chair – now redundant – removed from behind the altar and have the tabernacle put there in its place for good measure. What a nuisance it is to genuflect towards the tabernacle at the side, only to awkwardly ignore the central altar. It’s all really rather backwards as far as I’m concerned. In any case, that’s only my opinion, and from a person relatively new to the Church at that. I certainly don’t mean to blame our priest in any way though, he’s very good in fact, no doubt just trying to play the hand he’s been dealt as best he can.

  12. Bthompson says:

    It also just occurred to me that all those “Restore the Strengths of Your Amazing Dynamic Parish (TM)” fads are very often built upon a foundation of the above condescending lay-clericalist attitudes.
    Those books and programs sometimes have a few good points, but they inevitably tend to devolve into “be a evangelical Megachurch,” with all the oversimplification of the faith and tendency toward religious entertainment which that entails.

  13. murtheol says:

    Most of what is said about lay people by priests and educated people is true. They are not competent in even basic theology, not because they are incapable, but because they are UNABLE due to very poor, longstanding, catechical education. I see no promise of improvement in the long-term.

  14. un-ionized says:

    KT, it is very hard. I am trying to convince a friend to come into the Church but I have to tell him to go through RCIA at my old parish which is so toxic in its favoritism and patronage system that he wouldn’t be able to stay there.

  15. Marc M says:

    “This is the clericalism that assumes that many of the laity are simply incapable of really understanding the Church’s teachings or are incapable living up to them when the demands are high.”

    Wasn’t one of the pillars of Vatican II the universal call to holiness? In response to a growing sense of exactly this kind of clericalism? Liberals… lib… LIBERALS HATE VATICAN II!!!

  16. People who have given themselves over to immorality would rather try to make others adopt, condone or at least tolerate their aberration than try to straighten themselves up. So is there the slightest possibility that the clerics who assume laymen cannot live up to standards of Christian morality have themselves given up on living up to those same standards?

  17. un-ionized says:

    Miss Anita, Yes. And there are also those who hold the lay people to much higher standards than they are willing to meet themselves.

  18. paladin says:

    Bthompson wrote:

    It also just occurred to me that all those “Restore the Strengths of Your Amazing Dynamic Parish (TM)” fads are very often built upon a foundation of the above condescending lay-clericalist attitudes.

    Ugh… you’re not kidding! Our entire diocese has just jumped on their latest bandwagon in that respect. Has anyone else heard of and/or run into the program called “Alpha”?

  19. cl00bie says:

    This attitude trivializes God’s commandments (not “suggestions” if we’re able to do them), and minimizes God’s freely bestowed grace.

  20. un-ionized says:

    paladin, the Alpha Course is problematic, even in its Catholic form. There has been much written on why this is so, I won’t repeat. It assumes the people in the course are not Catholic but part of the way through there is a Communion service, what to do? The Catholic version was supposed to correct this but often Catholic parishes use the Protestant Alpha Course without realizing it.

  21. joekstl says:

    Dear SCOTUS: I think you’re overly critical in the manner of biblical reading. Sometimes direction is appropriate. Free interpretation can lead to rigid fundamentalism. There was a time when our Magisterium prevented vernacular versions of the Scriptures for fear that laity would misinterpret them.

    I am now starting my fifth year of bible study in our parish with the Johannine corpus of the New Testament. All the participants over the years appreciate the opportunity to pray and discuss our Sacred Revelation with some expert guidance.

  22. un-ionized says:

    scotus, I have encountered the very thing that you describe from Catholic priests who have embraced the worst of modern Protestant Biblical scholarship (so-called). What a mess.

  23. joekstl says:

    I wish your friend could participate in our Parish’s RCIA program. We provide a welcoming Catholic community grounded in the Creed and the Gospel message of Jesus. I have worked in the program for years and had the pleasure of witnessing the baptism of the third child of my first catechumen recently.

  24. joekstl says:

    Perhaps you can clarify whom you include under the label “the worst of modern Protestant Biblical scholarship.”


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