Challenging Clericalism

by Richard R. Gaillardetz

The time has come us to begin the difficult but necessary process of purging our church of a deeply embedded clerical culture, one that, according to Pope Francis, lies at the heart of our current church crisis.[1] This clericalism has certainly contributed to the scandal of clerical sexual abuse, but its negative impact goes far beyond that. It is evident in the unjust treatment of church employees, the reluctance of bishops and pastors to consult the faithful on substantive matters, a deep resistance to criticism, and a failure to invite women in any numbers into decision-making positions in the church.

Considering Clericalism as a “Culture”

In September, 2018, Bishop Vincent Long of Parramatta, Australia offered a provocative set of reflections to two different gatherings of diocesan priests in Australia and New Zealand.[2]  Bishop Long warned against imagining clericalism simply as an attitude manifested by certain individuals. Rather, he insisted, “it is a question of clericalism inherent in the very culture of the Church.” What we discover there is “an exalted and elitist club that protects the interests and privileges [of] its members.” In consideration of the marks of a clerical culture we can draw on the penetrating analyses of the Jesuit sociologist and theologian, George Wilson. “Cultures,” in the sense in which Wilson uses the term, include “very concrete patterns of behavior and ways of thinking” that precisely in their ordinariness, operate at a largely unconscious or unexamined level.[3] “Our cultural heritage tells us what to value, how to behave, and to whom we should listen and attend.”[4] Within that culture, our basic values, attitudes, presuppositions and actions may seem entirely ordinary and comprehensible; they are legitimated by the mere fact that they are shared by others within the culture. In contrast, to those who do not live in that culture, those same actions may seem deeply troubling and even offensive. Now, when we apply this to what we mean by a “clerical culture” we are describing a set of “values, attitudes, presuppositions and actions” about which many clergy may be largely unaware, particularly to the extent that they are surrounded by those who share that culture. This clerical culture is not limited to the clergy themselves. To the extent that the laity share the same cultural presuppositions as the clergy they too participate in and help sustain that culture, rendering invisible many of its problematic features.

From “Clergification” to “Clericalization/Clericalism”

Wilson’s background in organizational development helps us understand that the problem does not lie with the existence of a discrete group of persons identified as “clergy” in the church. He points out that the term “clergy” is really more a sociological category than a theological one:

The identification of a particular group of people as clergy is part of the differentiating process of organizational development in any society.  From an initial “amoebic” or undifferentiated state, groups transform themselves into one of increased complexity and stratification.[5]

In any organization as vast and differentiated as the Catholic Church, it is hard to imagine there not being some kind of “clergy.” In the sociological sense, this category would not necessarily be limited to the ordained but could include any and all in the church who possessed specialized knowledge and professional competencies valued by the community. Wilson argues that we must distinguish, therefore, between a necessary and often pastorally helpful clergification that comes with any large-scale organization, and the more problematic and insidious clericalization that Bishop Long has in mind when he denounces a “culture of clerical hegemony.” It is natural that within a large organization, the status of any kind of “clergy” would be marked out by standards for admittance, titles, specialized training, and even distinctive garb. Similar “clergifying” processes are evident in many spheres of public life (one thinks of the academic garb that we in the professoriate wear during commencement ceremonies and which is worn more regularly in many British universities). These distinguishing features often have a legitimate role in identifying a particular group within a larger community. In the life of the church this natural clergification only devolves into clericalism when ordinary distinctions are hardened into a caste-like separation marked by exclusivity, deference, power and privilege vis-à-vis the lay faithful.

What are some indications of this shift from clergification to clericalization? First, we can see the rise of clericalism in the way in which ministers’ vigorous insistence on a distinctive clerical identity obscures their solidarity with the whole people of God. This obsession with a distinct clerical identity is, in turn, often grounded in a problematic theology of Holy Orders. That theology assumes that ordination confers, in a quasi-magical fashion, ministerial competency the ordinand did not possess prior to ordination. To be sure, ordination sacramentally mediates grace that can build on and perfect natural gifts and abilities, but it does not transform someone who can’t preach into the next Fulton Sheen! This reductive theology of Holy Orders relies on an exaggerated, atomistic and hyper-interiorized account of the ontological change effected at ordination. Such reductive theologies suggest the ordinand is “zapped” with new powers (e.g., the power to confect and absolve) stripped of any substantive ecclesial reference. Such a theology presumes a very privatized notion of priestly vocation. It moves too easily from a sense of God’s call to the individual’s acceptance of that call, overlooking entirely the necessary mediating role of the church as the context in which that call is discerned, assessed and cultivated.

Second, few things are more indicative of the devolution from clergification to clericalism than a sense of the ordained believing they are exempt from critique by those who don’t belong to the guild. Unfortunately, calls for ecclesial accountability on the part of the ordained minister are often dismissed as an unacceptable “protestantizing” of ordained ministry. The canonist John Beal highlights the limits of ecclesial accountability in current church discipline:

Since all lines of accountability point upward in canon law, only hierarchical superiors are competent to judge whether their subordinates have adequately fulfilled the obligations of their offices or abused their powers. Bishops, pastors, and other officeholders are accountable for their stewardship to those who appointed them, not to those they serve. The faithful may express disgruntlement about the shoddy performance, nonfeasance, and malfeasance of their pastors and even bishops to their hierarchical superiors, but superiors are free to give these complaints as much or as little weight as their discretion dictates when deciding whether to retain, remove, or discipline their subordinates.[6]

This lack of accountability before God’s people further reinforces a clerical culture.

A third sign that a healthy clergification has been reduced to clericalism is evident in the determination of the clergy to protect the good reputation of their guild at all costs. This, I think we can all agree, is a big part of what got us into our current mess. Finally, while clergification acknowledges distinct roles and ministries within the life of the church, clericalism re-employs these distinctions to justify hierarchical superiority and the exercise of dominating power, what Terence Nichols refers to as “command hierarchy.”[7]

So it is this clerical culture – a culture marked by the hardening of boundaries between the clerical guild and the whole people of God, a culture sustained by an emphasis on the exclusive competencies and powers they employ, a culture justified by reductive and hyper-individualistic theologies of ontological change, a culture that is sustained by distinctive garb, lofty titles and habits of deference – it is this deeply embedded clerical culture that must be excised from the ecclesial body if the church is to be restored to health.

A Way Forward?

In its Decree on Ecumenism the council insisted that “every renewal of church essentially consists in an increase of fidelity to her own calling” (UR 6). The authentic renewal of the church will require us, including the clergy, to become more faithful to its deepest identity as a pilgrim church and priestly people.

From “Clergyhood” to “Priesthood”

We have seen that sociological understandings of “clergy” can be helpful, but a necessary antidote to the scourge of clericalism lies in the recovery of a properly theological understanding of Christian priesthood. Wilson puts it nicely: “clergyhood involves playing a role expected by society; it is a state. Priesting is a way of living, a life.”[8] The biblical testimony is crucial. At no point in the New Testament are ministers referred to as priests. In the Letter to the Hebrews, Christ is identified as our one high priest, the unique priest who shatters all accepted notions of priesthood. In 2 Peter the priestly category is applied to all God’s people. One of the most important and frequently overlooked contributions of the teaching of the Second Vatican Council was its recovery of this biblical insight that all the baptized were called to be priestly; all were called to make of their very lives an offering to God. Indeed, one can discern in the teaching of the council a kind of order to our understanding of the priesthood (see LG 10). First, there is the one priesthood of Christ, second there is the priesthood of all believers, and third there is the ministerial or ordained priesthood which exists to serve the priesthood of all believers. The council’s teaching invited, but did not itself develop, a theology of the ministerial priesthood grounded in the more basic priesthood of all believers.

What we need, in short, is the development of a much healthier theology of priesthood. Such a theology would draw on the missiological understanding of the church as a sacrament before the world of God’s saving love, a theological insight that lies at the heart of Vatican II’s teaching and which Pope Francis has so effectively retrieved. A missiological ecclesiology has no room for an inward-looking account of priestly ministry, one preoccupied with one’s distinctive status within the church. Rather, a theology of priesthood within a mission-focused ecclesiology will attend to the ways in which the ministerial priesthood exists to empower God’s people for mission in the world. This missiological ecclesiology acknowledges the distinctive role of the ordained in the life of the church and remains open to the traditional assertion that ordination effects an ontological change in the ordinand, but it insists that this change be understood relationally. The priest is not transformed by way of the transmittal of special powers; he is ontologically changed by being drawn into a new relationship with Christ and his church sent in mission before the world. The empowerment that ordination effects does not precede but rather follows the ordinand’s sacramental configuration in service of Christ and his missionary disciples. This is why the council decided not to make use of the static notion of the priest as an alter Christus, “another Christ.” Rather, it employed more dynamic and relational language, noting that the priest is ordained in persona Christi capitis, in “the person of Christ, the head.” By baptism, of course, all of us are called to live in persona Christi; the priest is ordained into a distinctive relationship to Christ’s body, the church. It is a relationship of “headship,” not conceived hierarchically but according to a leadership of service. The priest is “head” as Christ is “head,” not as one to be served but as one called to serve; not as one who should be bowed to and whose feet should be washed, but as one who washes the feet of others. Here we find a genuine ministerial distinction within Christ’s body that must never devolve into a clerical separation from God’s people. This renewed theology of priesthood should provide the basis for a fundamental reexamination of the current processes for calling forth and forming future priests. 

Reconsidering Our Practice for Recruiting Candidates for the Priesthood

A two-year seminar sponsored by Boston College and dedicated to considering the challenges facing the diocesan priesthood today has made a helpful contribution to our topic in a recently published statement titled, “To Serve the People of God: Renewing the Conversation on Priesthood and Ministry.”[9] This statement drew on both the teaching of the council and Pope Francis’ reception of the council’s teaching. One of the principal conclusions of the seminar was that the church must engage in an unflinching examination of its current practice of recruiting candidates for priestly formation. The current priest shortage has put tremendous pressure on vocation directors and bishops to accept candidates who may not be well suited to priestly ministry. Given these pressures, it is all the more important that we reassess our traditional criteria for suitability to priestly ministry. For example, while discerning holiness in a candidate remains important, an authentic holiness will not be manifested in “forms of piety that tend toward a disembodied ‘perfection’ or neglect engagement with the world in which the Holy Spirit is at work.”[10] Consideration of suitable candidates must also attend carefully to questions of healthy human formation and seek evidence of authentic affective maturity. It has now become painfully clear that the lack of psycho-sexual maturity and the attendant tendencies toward sexual repression and/or self-deception helped create conditions ripe for inappropriate clerical sexual behavior. Given the cultural tendency to pathologize celibacy, we must emphasize that it is psycho-sexual immaturity that lies at the heart of clerical sexual abuse, not one’s status as celibate or married. Studies of those who sexually abuse children make it clear that celibates are no more likely to abuse children than are married people. 

Given the need for clergy who are eager collaborators in ministry, we must also seek out candidates acknowledged for their ability to relate well with a variety of women and men as equal partners in the church’s mission. It will be particularly important to encourage candidates who delight in identifying and supporting the gifts of others. To be blunt, our current system is often better equipped to identify impediments to ordination, rather than to recognize and cultivate authentic charisms for pastoral leadership.

Reconsidering the Current Context and Processes for Priestly Formation

The seminar also called for a reconsideration of the way in which we form candidates for priestly ordination. We must have the courage to consider whether the current seminary structure offers the most appropriate context for preparing priests to participate fully in the church’s mission to be a “leaven in the world” (GS 40). If the ministerial priesthood exists to empower all God’s people for their missionary task, then surely it makes no sense to prepare diocesan priests in a quasi-monastic seclusion, separated from worldly realities and concerns. In too many seminary settings, the entire life of the seminarian is marked by insularity. The seminar noted that “[t]he enclosed settings of the seminary, often insulated from the everyday world of families, budgeting, commuting, and even grocery shopping and laundry, can isolate seminarians.”[11]

It is shocking to consider how little of the structure and context of priestly formation has changed since the establishment of our current seminary system at the sixteenth century Council of Trent. Discerning the needs of the church today and being cognizant of the ways in which our current seminary structure may be supporting today’s clerical culture, we should question many of the current formation practices that maintain a climate of clerical isolation. At minimum, seminarians should pursue their academic studies at universities and theological centers where they would be accompanied by lay men and women as students and where they would be taught by a diversity of professors, lay and ordained. There is no good reason why seminary formators and spiritual directors could not include lay men and women. A more provocative proposal, but one with considerable merit (this is my own proposal and not one proposed by the BC seminar), would be to do away entirely with the practice of seminarians residing in enclosed seminaries altogether in favor of their being housed in parish rectories where their formation would transpire under dedicated pastoral mentorship and in ministerial contexts much closer to those in which they will live for the majority of their priestly careers.

If our church is to address the pervasive influence of a clerical culture on our church today, it will require nothing less than a sustained ecclesial conversion. Such a conversion will need to look at our operative theologies of ministry and church leadership and the various structures and policies that support it. It will also require lay faithful prepared to enter into our own examination of conscience, mindful of the ways in which we too have been complicit in the maintenance of the rampant clericalism in our church. None of us is exempt from the call to conversion demanded by authentic Christian discipleship. We should all attend to the wise counsel of Pope Francis who in his recent apostolic exhortation on the call to holiness, Gaudete et exsultate, wrote:

Yet let us allow the Lord to rouse us from our torpor, to free us from our inertia. Let us rethink our usual way of doing things; let us open our eyes and ears, and above all our hearts, so as not to be complacent about things as they are but unsettled by the living and effective word of the risen Lord (GE 137).

1 Pope Francis, “Letter to the People of God,” (2018), accessed on-line here.
2 Bishop Vincent Long van Nguyen OFM conv., “Being a Priest in an Unprecedented Time of Change,” delivered September 11 & 13, 2018. Accessed on-line here.
3 George B. Wilson SJ, Clericalism: The Death of Priesthood (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2010), 3.
4 Ibid., 5.
5 Ibid., 10.
6 John P. Beal, “Something There Is that Doesn’t Love a Law: Canon Law and Its Discontents,” in The Crisis of Authority in Catholic Modernity, ed. Michael J. Lacey and Francis Oakley (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 150.
7 Terence Nichols, That All May Be One: Hierarchy and Participation in the Church (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1997). Nichols argues instead for a model of authority that he refers to as “participative hierarchy.”
8 Wilson, 43.
9 Boston College Priesthood Seminar, “To Serve the People of God: Renewing the Conversation on Priesthood and Ministry,” Origins 48:31 (December 27, 2018): 484-93.
10 Ibid.
11 Ibid., 490.

Richard R. Gaillardetz is the Joseph Professor of Catholic Systematic Theology at Boston College.


  1. Excellent article. As I seem to recall, after Vatican 2, into the late ‘70’s and early ‘80’s, training for the priesthood was evolving somewhat in the manner the author describes. But then it all began going back to the older models. I think some religious orders do a bit better job of both selection and screening. There is certainly a lot of work to be done. I agree wholeheartedly that the laity hage played a supporting role. Francis says some priests “put curlers in the sheep” and there are certainly sheep that bask in the attention.

  2. Formation in rectories!

    Too many rectories are creepy places with staff who try to make up for their lack of notable success in the secular world by “closeness” to the priest

    Our Church needs to get over the idea that being religious equates to being good, that wearing holy clothes equates to holiness

    Some real humility and authenticity would also go a long way as well

  3. Where would those who are the victims of clericalism stand in order to make the case for changing the canons which gives to the ordained nearly plenary power of governance? For the last three or more years, I have initiated with staff and parish leaders a process to change the culture of the parish that would impel us to move from maintenance to mission. Well, I’m still “in charge” because nearly everyone is so affected by clericalism that they don’t seem to be able to conceive an alternative way of governing the church without the bishops and priests being “in charge”. I have been hesitant to encourage them to take a firmer stand in making known what they believe the church needs to make such a shift because I’m 77 and likely to be succeeded by a younger priest who may not think “being in charge” is a problem.

    1. As a lay person working in the church for thirty years, I firmly agree with you Fr. Jack! The clericalism has spread to the lay workers in their perception of the priest and also in how they interact with the parishioners. We have failed to think outside of this clerical box even at the local level. Meanwhile our people continue to fall away at rapid rates. We as workers in the Church need to open ourselves to working and operating as Jesus did as the humble servant. And yes, it feels like free-falling many a day, however, this is what our faith requires of us. Thank you for your work. Perhaps the seeds you are laying at 77 will be the factor that leads us out of bondage.

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