Overcoming Clericalism

Generally speaking, when one thinks of clericalism (i.e., the notion that the sacrament of Holy Orders confer, not only a priestly charism, but infinite wisdom, unchallenged authority, and limitless power on the recipient) this is normally thought of in our culture as an affliction of “conservatives”. They are, after all, the ones constantly being diagnosed as “Authoritarian Personalities”. When you watch movies about the Church (especially anything made in the past thirty years) it is axiomatic that the Crusty Old Priest rules with an iron fist and a booming “Because I say so!” over timid sheep who are unable to think for themselves while the Hip Young Priest (or nun) is invariably the person who is there to, ‘ow you say?, “Shake things up” and instruct that flock that They Are Church Too. Clearly, clericalism is solely the affliction of the old and orthodox, while heterodoxy promises liberation from All That. That’s the standard narrative of the Pepsi Generation and we Boomers are sticking to it.

Still and all, it might be a good thing to revisit such standardized mythology now and then, if for no other reason than to discover that it is rubbish. For, in fact, clericalism is not a feature of orthodoxy (though it might well be a flaw of some who are orthodox). Nor is freedom of thought and conscience always cherished by those who fancy themselves liberators. It turns out that the lust for unwarranted power and unquestioned obedience is something to which all humans can fall prey.

Take women’s ordination. What drives the push for women’s ordination is the thoroughly clericalist notion that the only real Catholic is an ordained Catholic. Since women cannot be ordained, it therefore follows (in the mind of the clericalist) that women can never be fully a part of the life of the Church. Coupled with that is the clericalist confusion of the priestly office with the Throne of Power. Again and again, the rhetoric of women’s ordination gives away the game when advocates say, “Men have the power in the Church and women deserve to have power too.” In other words, it’s all about Power. The whole thing is cast in civil rights narrative which makes clear that ordination is thought to confer a superior dignity upon the priest than is available to the layperson.

But the real picture is as Augustine put it centuries ago: “I am a Christian with you. I am a priest for you.” The office of the priest does not indicate superior dignity or superior sanctity. Nor does the lay office deprive one of anything, because the priesthood (and, indeed, the lay office) are both gifts given by God and undeserved by us.

The way to healing the crippling disease of clericalism is to recover the Church’s understanding of our dignity as fully Catholic laypeople. This means not only understanding the ordained office and what it does and does not confer, but also understanding our dignity as baptized laypeople and our own absolutely vital place in the Church and, most especially, in the world. At the altar, the priest rightly presides. His proper sphere is the sanctuary and the rightly ordered worship of the Church. But in the world (that is, the 99.99999% of human life that happens outside the sanctuary), we laypeople preside. It is time we stopped fighting over the tiny amount of real estate that is not given to us by God and focused our energies on our monumental task of bringing the gospel to people no priest, bishop or Pope will ever meet—the people we see every day.


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