Bishop Zinkula on Clericalism

Writing on current difficulties in the Catholic Church in The Catholic Messenger, Bishop Thomas Zinkula of Davenport, Iowa addresses clericalism. Bishop Zinkula was appointed by Pope Francis in April, 2017.

So, what is clericalism? Clericalism is an exaggeration of the role of the clergy to the detriment of the laity. In a culture of clericalism, clerics are put on a pedestal and the laity are overly deferential and submissive to them. Pope Francis notes that clericalism is not only fostered by priests, but also reinforced by lay people.

Please allow me to define who I am talking about. Technically, a “cleric” is someone who is ordained: a bishop, priest or deacon. But, sad to say, “clericalism” may also affect those preparing for ordained ministry as well as those serving as lay ministers.

Perhaps a few examples of clericalism would be of assistance:

  1. Coddling seminarians and telling them how special they are.
  2. Insisting that priests or deacons go to the front of the line at meals and wakes because they are more important and busier than everyone else.
  3. People telling me, when I am pondering an issue, “Whatever you want, Bishop.”

The issue here is privilege. Which can lead to a sense of entitlement, superiority and exclusion. Which can lead to a mindset that the rules don’t apply to me. This, in turn, can lead to an abuse of privilege and power, which tragically includes the sexual abuse of minors. …

In order to overcome clericalism, we need to reclaim the common priesthood of the faithful. As St. Paul tells us (1 Cor 12:12-31), together we make up the body of Christ — each with our particular vocation, each necessary for the healthy working of the body. We should not equate distinct roles with differences in worth, dignity or holiness.

As Pope Francis advocates, let’s work together to create a new culture and renew the Church. … Together, as clergy and laity, we are preparing to exercise our common baptismal mission to share the joy of the Gospel with others as disciples of Christ.



  1. It is really excellent to read this, and all credit to Bishop Zinkula for articulating it so clearly.

    However, I think the definition of clericalism is wider still. It certainly includes the “club” ethos, even the “boys’ club”, that is prevalent from the moment one enters the seminary. Some would say that a penchant for living the good life is part of it, too. In a diocese not far from me there is a group of priests who are known as “the G&T set” because of this….

  2. I am also grateful for the bishop’s words, particularly on the priesthood of all the faithful (a month or so before Reformation Sunday).

    “We should not equate distinct roles with differences in worth, dignity or holiness.”

    Likewise, we should not make the clerical state the sole basis for the difference in authority given by canon law. As the bishop points out, the sexual abuse is an abuse of privilege and power. It is a subset, as horrific as it is. Dealing with the subset does not deal with the larger systemic problem. May this be the beginning a process leading us toward authentic, concrete, and lasting changes in the responsibility/authority and accountability structure of the ecclesia.

  3. Thank you, Bishop. Having recently resigned my position due to the ill effects of clericalism, any light we can shine on this difficult to pin down subject is helpful.

  4. This is all well and good but is there also the experience that clerics put themselves on that pedestal. The wisdom of having a cleric tell what clericalism is may be thoughtful reading but when bishops cut to the front of the line or coddle their own seminarians or use the rules to control laity, that is what I suspect clericalism is. Have a lay person tell us what clericalism is and the truth for most Catholics might lay there.

    The clericalism that allowed the Church to think that hiding abuse to protect the institution would be OK is what is driving the anger in today’s Catholic conversation. The “common baptismal mission” is only shared today with the permission of the lead cleric. Clericalism is not only lay people giving their good seats to the priest at the parish pot luck, it is an exercise of power that pushes a cleric to the top of the pile and when that power is perceived to be slipping or challenged, is met with the force of withheld salvation.

    Meanwhile…”Here you go Archbishop, you can have my seat.”

  5. I taught for several years at a Catholic elementary school; the watchword was “Check with Father.” Father was the school principal. To be fair, he did try to delegate, but especially the religious staff members did not co-operate with that.
    It is up to the clergy to make clear that they are moving back from their position of privilege, and to state which lay people will be responsible for what tasks/decisions etc. Those lay people need to be prepared for taking on roles that may be unfamiliar to them, too. Many (men and women) have responsibilities in their work lives similar to those they can undertake in church circles, but may not have had the door opened for them to do so. e.g. Does a cleric always need to say grace at a parish supper? I think that those parishes that have had to do without a resident priest have experience in this field that they could share.

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