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Clericalism in the Catholic Church


Clericalism in the Catholic Church              Gerry OShea

The heart of the clericalist problem in the Catholic Church revolves around gauging who is important in the organization. Who exercises control? Who makes the big decisions? Who is consulted about the major conundrums the church faces?

 Will the pope and his senior bureaucrats lay down the law, or will the Vatican find meaningful ways to dig deeper into the wisdom of the wider international membership?

Clericalism aptly describes the current system, which is being challenged in the ongoing synod where questions are being asked about the appropriateness of the old hierarchical methods of managing the institution. This involves a major effort led by Pope Francis, confronting the deeply embedded clergy-dominated power structure in the church.  

 The Vatican leads a top-down system of control in which uniformity and obedience are traditionally seen as the highest values, almost equated with virtuous behavior. Since the Council of Trent in the 1600s, every seminarian’s education was grounded in the core ecclesiastical principle, emphasized in Latin: “Roma locuta est; causa finita est.” When Rome speaks on any issue of doctrine or morality, the case is closed.

Some leaders of other Christian denominations regret that they have no final arbiter to decide on controversial matters. Instead, Bishop A in one diocese pronounces on some knotty moral issue but then has to deal with public disagreement from leaders in sister churches, resulting in confusion in the pews about what the people should believe.

Dissenters from Catholic teaching on important matters sometimes end up as schismatics who join breakaway churches or form a start-up group preaching new perspectives on some perennial questions. There are over 34,000 Christian denominations worldwide, not including the 16% of American followers of Christ who do not identify with any formal group.

The Roman Catholic Church in America suffers from serious membership leakage, many because they can’t accept doctrinal or moral pronouncements from the Vatican. About 28.9 million people in the United States who were baptized and raised Catholic no longer identify with the church of their youth. This is the equivalent of losing around 900,000 a year from their books. This number is slightly surpassed by the big influx of new members, mostly emigrants from Central and South America.

Pope Francis has made confronting clericalism a central theme of his pontificate. He has spoken harshly about the “c” word, condemning it as representing a disordered attitude towards the clergy. It involves the laity showing obeisance to the men wearing Roman collars. In Pope Francis’ condemnatory words, “Clerics feel they are superior, and many are disconnected from the people.”

The pope elaborates by preaching that this disorder can be fostered by priests themselves or sometimes by the lay people they are meant to serve. It is clearly manifested among a majority of the laity operating from the belief that in all religious and ethical matters, “Father knows best.”

People with power in all parts of society find ways to rationalize their own importance. The attitude of subservience to priests and bishops was fostered in the clerical culture that prevailed in most parishes when churches were packed every weekend. The priest was accorded credibility on or off the pulpit by an imaginary indelible mark, a mystical stamp, conferred at ordination.

Around the 10th century the custom of stipends for Masses arose, strengthening the clerical grip on dispensing heavenly favors. With this, the spiritual value of women’s prayers was greatly diminished because they were excluded from ordination.

 The message was clear, heaven responded with more alacrity to male mass sayers than even to nuns’ devout intercessions. Not surprisingly, women’s abbeys and nunneries had a few lean centuries.

Writing about this idea that grace is dispensed primarily in response to priestly prayers, the noted Catholic commentator, Phyllis Zagano, opined recently that most priests today do not subscribe to this bunkum theology, but, she adds that thousands still cling to the discredited traditional belief that a priest saying mass has a special higher access to divine generosity.

During the Covid crisis, which is still lingering, the pope pointed out that people should postpone the sacrament of confession which has resulted in less use of the sacrament. Prior to the Council of Trent, confessions were heard on occasions by women deacons and abbesses in local areas. The Council changed all of that and reserved this power for priests approved by the local bishop and that is still the governing regulation. No women need apply!

Shakespeare’s Polonius advises his son Laertes as he prepares to leave Denmark for France that he needs to dress stylishly but not gaudily because he should remember that “the apparel oft proclaims the man.” This rather shallow dictum is certainly not found anywhere in the New Testament where Christ “had not a place to lay his head,” and there is no evidence of any kind of a dress code for his apostles.

By comparison, the Catholic hierarchy amounts to a tailor’s delight. Catering for the humble parish priest to the array of pompous cardinals and archbishops provides a lucrative challenge for the stitchers, especially in Rome, where it is a profitable and prestigious business for a few families.

 They need material of many colors, each one indicating the ecclesiastical power of the wearer – red, white, purple capes and cloaks conveying to all the status of the man involved. Shoes and birettas also count as part of this symbolic cornucopia which points to where the wearer stands in the ecclesiastical pecking order.

Pope Francis is determined to end the old model of clerical domination of the church. “We can only carry out our priestly ministry well if we are part of the people --- this preserves and sustains us in our work. There is a risk of growing apart, detaching ourselves, working as an aristocrat who ends up becoming neurotic.”

Recent studies of seminarians and young priests in America suggest that most of them prefer the old job description, larded with deference and obeisance.

Gerry OShea blogs at


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