Click here to advertise on CatholicCulture.org

Clericalism

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Feb 01, 2012

I read through Russell Shaw’s book on clericalism last night. I had missed it the first time around, when it was published by Ignatius Press in 1993. Now it is out in a new printing from Wipf and Stock Publishers in Oregon. The full title is To Hunt, to Shoot, to Entertain: Clericalism and the Catholic Laity. Shaw, a widely published author and professor who worked for some years as the Secretary for Public Affairs at the USCCB, is in an outstanding position to know the lay of this land.

The title of the book is taken from one of the more famous clericalist outbursts of the 19th century, furiously written by Msgr. George Talbot to Archbishop Henry Manning when John Henry Newman drew his wrath. Newman had the temerity to suggest that the bishops ought to consult the laity before making critical decisions about those matters in which the laity have expertise, such as the organization and direction of schools. Protesting to Manning, Talbot ranted:

What is the province of the laity? To hunt, to shoot, to entertain? These matters they understand, but to meddle with ecclesiastical matters they have no right at all, and this affair of Newman is a matter purely ecclesiastical…. Dr. Newman is the most dangerous man in England, and you will see that he will make use of the laity against your Grace.

Well, at least Talbot was right about one thing: It is highly probable that Newman was the most dangerous man in England—to those who opposed the Church.

The Clericalist Thesis

In any case, the point of Shaw’s book is an important one. Many an effort of the Catholic laity to find their true identity as members of the Church has been marred by clericalism or the reaction against it. On the one hand, the laity have often been cast in a passive role, merely awaiting the directions of their clerical betters. On the other hand, as the culture has reacted against clericalism, the laity have too often fallen into a sort of democratized laziness, taking no kind of direction from anyone, including spiritual direction. And on the third hand (for we are ever plagued in serious discussions by an insufficiency of hands), too often a sort of compromise has been effected by which lay persons are turned into “clerics lite” by expressing their vocations purely through various “ministries”, typically within church buildings.

Shaw is also right to point clearly to the twin concepts of vocation and communion as keys to the remedy. We must all learn to see our roles in the Church not in terms of power but in terms of God’s call, by which He provides different roles to all the faithful in Christ, who are equal sons and daughters of the Father. And these vocations must be lived within the larger communion of the Church as a whole, as a service to the body of Christ, in all dimensions, both sacred and secular. Not the least part of this vision is that Christians in general are not called to flee the world (making the laity all but irrelevant) but to transform and renew it, making all things new in Christ.

In explaining the nature and mission of the laity, the author correctly emphasizes the importance of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), the revised Code of Canon Law (1983), the 1987 Synod of Bishops (which was devoted to the laity), and the resulting Apostolic Exhortation by John Paul II in 1988, On the Laity (Christifideles Laici). These marked seminal moments in the Magisterial development of a deeper and richer teaching on the role of the laity.

All of this is good, even very good, and there is considerable wisdom to be gained from reading about it.

The Mother of All Sin?

And yet on another level the book is vaguely troubling, not in any way which offends against faith, but perhaps in a way which offends against judiciousness. To illustrate the importance of his topic, Russell Shaw both retells the history of the Church and analyzes nearly all the problems of the present moment in terms of clericalism and the various forms of unhelpful reactions against clericalism. If pressed the author would deny the implication, but the reader nonetheless comes away with the distinct impression that if only all the members of the Church throughout history had gotten the issue of clericalism right, everything else would have fallen into place. Clericalism thus becomes the mother of all sin. Nearly everything is traced to or exacerbated by either the clerical disdain for the role of the laity or the lusting of the laity for empowerment in the Church, which they too often perceive to be rooted in clerical power.

That a failure to understand and live both the priestly and the lay vocations makes nearly all problems worse can hardly be disputed. That this failure can always be attributed to some form of clericalism, however insidious or inverted, is far less likely, and in fact certainly wrong. And that all the problems of the Church would be eliminated if only everyone understood his or her vocation properly is to wish away the unfortunate tendency of the human person to be very weak in implementing even those things he sufficiently understands.

We should also stress in this context that the impressive twentieth-century expansion of Magisterial instruction on the laity does not for a moment indicate that Christians in earlier periods had no inkling of these truths. Typically, in fact, Church teaching follows a different trajectory, increasing in clarity only as key concepts are lost or disputed. It seems certain that 19th century Catholicism was weak in this aspect of the Faith, just as our own time is weak in others. But there is no doctrine to develop if previous ages generally do not possess the fundamental Christian insights on which a fresh articulation can be based.

Again, I am morally certain Shaw would deny that he intended his thesis to be read quite so extensively, and perhaps this is why I suggested above that “on another level the book is vaguely troubling”, for I do not wish to claim that it is precisely wrong. Suffice it to say that it is fortunate that the author does such a good job of parsing vocational issues in the chapter near the end of the book entitled “From Power to Vocation”. For were the doctrinal content of the book less clear, one might argue that the work as a whole suffers from attempting to prove considerably too much.

There is, then, on the edges of Shaw’s book, always this risk: The author who attempts to prove too much proves nothing. If clericalism is at the root of all the Church’s problems, then clericalism becomes just another name for sin. At that point, it is far wiser and more to the point to insist that a wide variety of sins create problems between and among priests and laymen in the pursuit of their respective vocations. Moreover, the sins and deficiencies of one will always affect the other, for priests and laity are inseparably joined as complementary members of the Body of Christ.

Who Should Read

This caveat aside, I believe many Catholic readers (or at least studious Catholic readers, for the book, while fairly short, is neither breezy nor light) would benefit significantly from To Hunt, to Shoot, to Entertain. Surely anyone interested in the evolution of the Church’s understanding of the laity or the true mission of the laity in the world would have much to learn here, even if only to figure out once and for all why the laity should not be content to play the title role, leaving religion to the experts, no matter how deliciously tempting the prospect. Our beloved Church, I am sure, will always be home to many lay people—indeed, to many people of every vocation and state in life—who do not know, and do not really want to know, all that they are called to be.

But what of the Catholics who typically frequent CatholicCulture.org? Here I think the book is not so necessary. A great many of us learned the role of the laity the hard way, when the faith and courage of so many bishops, priests and religious collapsed as culture secularized rapidly starting in the 1960s. First we found ourselves left alone to defend the faith, and to do that we had to learn it better. Second, we began paying close attention to Rome because we often couldn’t trust sources closer to home. Third, we began the long fight against a rapidly growing secularism—both in the Church and in every aspect of the larger culture.

To justify our embrace of all that was thrust upon us, we had to learn very carefully what it was the laity were called to be and do. Had we not learned that, we would have been tempted—like the Modernists—to destroy the Church while pretending to save her. And so we learned to love and support all priests and bishops, while cherishing and even depending heavily upon those who—in very difficult times—kept the faith, prized the sacraments, and prevented us from falling into the worst of the errors to which we all are undoubtedly prone.

Not everyone who frequents this web site has gone through this full process, but I would say that the very nature of our work here attracts those who have imbibed a thorough understanding either of what it means to be a Catholic layman, or of what it means to be a priestly shepherd in a Church which, by design, is populated mostly by laymen. Moreover, all but the youngest of us will have been strongly influenced by the Pope who offered the greatest insight into the lay vocation, John Paul II.

It is, after all, those lay persons who are still inactive in any sort of authentic Catholic mission who have the greater need. So the question remains as to whether our users need Russell Shaw’s generally fine book. And the answer is this: Only if you are just beginning to think about these things, or you want to systematize your understanding, or you want to judge for yourself how far this thesis can reasonably be pushed.

An appeal from our founder, Dr. Jeffrey Mirus:

Dear reader: If you found the information on this page helpful in your pursuit of a better Catholic life, please support our work with a donation. Your donation will help us reach seven million Truth-seeking readers worldwide this year. Thank you!

Our Fall Campaign
Progress toward our year-end goal ($26,316 to go):
$150,000.00 $123,683.96
18% 82%
Sound Off! CatholicCulture.org supporters weigh in.

All comments are moderated. To lighten our editing burden, only current donors are allowed to Sound Off. If you are a donor, log in to see the comment form; otherwise please support our work, and Sound Off!

Show 3 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: FredC - Feb. 05, 2012 10:14 AM ET USA

    The Legion of Mary was founded in 1921 and Opus Dei, in 1928, both long before Vatican II. Both had an impact on Vatican II, coming with entirely different approaches to evangelization by the laity. Surely more of today's laity should be involved. Apologetics should once again be taught, including from the pulpit. Almost every Gospel passage can be greatly elucidated by contrast with non-Catholic teachings.

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Feb. 04, 2012 2:40 PM ET USA

    I think the "problem" is dealt with well in a recent reading at Mass where the Lord calls Samuel for the first time. At first, Samuel thinks he is being called by Eli the priest. Three times he (Samuel) goes obediently to Eli to see what he wants. But Eli, finally discerning it is God Himself who is calling the boy tells him what to do, and by graciously stepping aside, clears the way for one of the greatest prophets in Israel.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Feb. 02, 2012 10:06 PM ET USA

    Good review. The concluding paragraphs are especially insightful and spot on.

Fall 2014 Campaign
Subscribe for free
Shop Amazon
Click here to advertise on CatholicCulture.org

Recent Catholic Commentary

Denial of Service Attack: Success! 12 hours ago
Federal debt as a social-justice concern 15 hours ago
Another side of Francis: US-Cuba role shows Pope's diplomatic muscle December 18
Silly season: a Christmas approaches, a scholar questions whether Jesus ever existed December 18
The intrinsic immorality of torture: still not convinced? December 18

Top Catholic News

Most Important Stories of the Last 30 Days
Pope Francis: Europe seems 'elderly and haggard' CWN - November 25
Pope Francis, Ecumenical Patriarch sign joint declaration, lament persecution of Christians CWN - December 1
Consistory for new cardinals scheduled for February CWN - December 11
Vatican report on US women religious calls for further self-assessment CWN - December 16
Pope brokered deal to open US-Cuba ties CWN - December 17