The Church’s Sin of Clericalism

On several occasions, Pope Francis has commented that at the root of our church’s many problems is clericalism.  Clericalism is a disordered attitude of superiority toward the ordained which becomes manifest in arrogance, expectations of privilege, and abuse of power.  Catholics around the globe increasingly understand what the Holy Father means.

Earlier this year, Richard R. Gaillardetz, an American theologian who specializes in ecclesiology, wrote an article entitled “Challenging Clericalism.”  Ecclesiology is the study of church: its policies, structures, rituals, etc.  In the article, he suggests a continuum that exists from sinful clericalism to clericalism to clergy-hood to the priesthood of the ordained to the priesthood of the baptized.  What Pope Francis and many of our church leaders abhor is sinful clericalism, the unhealthiest and most damaging version of ordained ministry.  Those who succumb to this affliction—clergy and laity alike—get caught in a culture that enables abuse and promotes cronyism; and they turn away from God.  In fact, they replace God with a false sense of church that is self-promotional, self-protectionist, and self-referential.  As Pope Francis has noted at various times, clericalism is a horrible perversion of what church should be.

Clergy-hood moves us in a positive direction away from clericalism.  It contends that holy orders brings about an ontological change in the ordained person that gives him a different status within the community of faith.  Gaillardetz states what we all know: that the problems in the church are systemic.  The sexual abuse of children, like the abuses in the Vatican banking system and abuses of power by some bishops, are manifestations of a bigger problem.  That bigger problem includes other issues, including the church’s treatment of women, the manner in which some clergy acquire and exercise power, and the reality that with titles comes entitlement.  Whereas clergy-hood differentiates various roles within the church for which we were commissioned, clericalism ranks some roles as being more important than others.

When the emphasis gets put on priesthood, either of the ordained or all the baptized, we focus on the fact that priests were ordained not to be served but to serve, to walk with people of the community to which they are assigned.  As Francis offers, they are shepherds that are close to their sheep—they listen, learn, and lead because they love.  Gaillardetz suggests that the remedy to the church’s clerical quagmire is ecclesial conversion that impacts both roots and branches (seminary formation, selection of bishops, recruiting non-ordained people to leadership positions to which they are qualified by skill-set and by baptism…).  The only way to reform a sinful clerical culture is to imitate Christ, the Good Shepherd, and the relational aspects of His ministry and mission; in this way, priests become one with their people, much as Jesus became one with those He encountered.  We can reform the disorder of sinful clericalism by helping move the needle on the continuum toward priesthood that imitates Jesus.

Parishioners throughout our Kansas City metro area, from Prairie Village to mid-town and Belton to the northland, are eager to make it happen.  Perhaps our generation of Catholics, through the leadership of Francis and some grass-roots efforts at parishes, is the one that can finally rid the church of this destructive clerical dysfunction and restore it in God’s grace.