Countercultural Catholic, chapter 8: Habits of Clericalism

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Jan 06, 2014

In June 2013, Pope Francis said that he longed for a Church “without a life of its own.” He explained that curious remark by saying that ideally the Church should live only the life of Christ. The Church, he said, should be “the mysterium lunae which has light from her Bridegroom and diminishes herself so that He may grow.”

This is an abbreviated version of a chapter in Countercultural Catholic, my forthcoming book on building a Catholic culture in a post-Christian world. Comments are welcome!


To attain that ideal, the Holy Father continued, the members of the Church must subordinate their own wishes to the will of Christ, and adopt the attitude of St. John the Baptist: “He must increase, but I must decrease.” (Jn 3:30)

Just a few days later, in an address to Latin American bishops, Pope Francis used similar language as he explained what happens when Church officials take the opposite attitude:

The Church then claims to have a light of her own, and she stops being that mysterium lunae of which the Church Fathers spoke. She becomes increasingly self-referential and loses her need to be missionary. From an institution she becomes an enterprise. She stops being a bride and ends up being an administrator; from being a servant, she becomes an inspector.

The attitude that the Pope describes here is clericalism: the perverse tendency to use the Church, to profit from the Church, to satisfy one’s own goals by means of the Church, rather than to serve the Church. Clericalism is born of the temptation to see the Church as an organization rather than an organism, and to believe that the needs of the Church are identical with the needs (or wishes) of those who work for the Church.

The disease of clericalism—or spiritual worldliness, if you prefer—manifests itself in a variety of different ways. The secular world looks upon the Church as an organization, and nothing more; even faithful Catholics may occasionally catch themselves thinking along the same lines. The tendency to think of the Church as a large multinational organization, with headquarters in Rome and branch offices in the world’s dioceses, creeps constantly into discussions of Catholicism. The perception of the Church as a multinational corporation, with bishops (and ultimately the Pope) wielding executive control, encourages secular critics to argue that the hierarchy should tailor dogmas to match popular styles. Even the notion that doctrines should be established by public opinion reflects the clericalist mentality. It derives from the assumption that the Church is our possession, operating under our guidance.

The truth, which bears constant repetition, is that the Church belongs to Christ, and is guided by the Holy Spirit. Bishops are not executives for a corporate enterprise; they are fathers to a large spiritual family. The Roman Pontiff himself does not have the authority to alter the teachings of the Church.

When bishops fall into the error of thinking of themselves as branch managers of an international enterprise, they soon develop unhealthy habits. They look to the national bishops’ conference for guidance on important issues, rather than taking initiative themselves—and thereby reinforce the mistaken public perception that the episcopal conference has more authority than the individual bishop. They pass off responsibility for unpopular Church teachings, saying that they are following the policies set by the Vatican, rather than taking their proper responsibility as teachers and explaining those teachings. When he says that he is looking forward to the decentralization of Church leadership, Pope Francis surely means that he hopes to root out these errors and make bishops clearly responsible for teaching, preaching, and setting policies in their own dioceses.

Priests who regard themselves as the proprietors of the Church may be tempted to “give away” the moral teachings of Catholicism. If he thinks of himself as the sole arbiter of what constitutes the true faith, a priest may tell his parishioners that they need not worry about belief in the Real Presence, or about a divorce and remarriage, or about a bit of false testimony in a court case. If the pastor operates on the belief that he “owns” the Church, he can make his own rules. If he makes his own rules, his parishioners will be all the more likely to lapse into the same error, believing that they can be justified by the unilateral decision of their priest rather than by the universal sacrifice of Christ.

The remedy for clericalism, as Pope Francis never tires of reminding us, is a clear recognition that the Church belongs to Christ. The life of the Church is the life of Christ, and any other signs of institutional life must be viewed with suspicion. Bishops and priests, religious and laity, are not working for themselves, nor serving any merely human institution; we are working for Christ.

Devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus arose in the late 17th century, especially in France, partially in response to the undue rigors of Jansenism that afflicted the Church there. Stern Jansenist priests sometimes refused to administer the last rites to parishioners they deemed unworthy. Notice the influence of clericalism: these heartless priests had decided that they could judge souls, and they would determine which members of the faithful qualified for God’s mercy. Today an opposite force is at work. Some priests tell the children of dying elderly parishioners that it is not important to arrange for their final confession and final absolution, because their parents are good people, assured of salvation. Although the reasoning is quite different, the result is the same: a denial of access to the sacraments. The fundamental motivation is the same, too: the priest’s certainty that he can set the rules—that his own personal judgment counts for more than the wisdom of the Church and the grace of the sacraments. The clericalism of the Jansenists is long gone, but the clericalism of the indifferentists has taken its place.

Previous: 7. Ritual Purity

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

Sound Off! 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 4 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Jim.K - Jan. 14, 2014 1:32 PM ET USA

    How does one judge if he is a victim of clericalism and not simply becoming his own judge? We all went through this after VII. When our liberal priests told us something "new" and "strange" we were directed to recognize his authority and "pray, pay and obey." Those who didn't were either "priest shoppers" or "traditionalists" and made outcasts by these same priests/pastors. Many who obeyed lost their Faith and their children's Faith. Please develop this theme in greater depth in view of today.

  • Posted by: fenton1015153 - Jan. 07, 2014 6:52 AM ET USA

    How do we not have clericalism in our church? Priests and bishops are the gate keepers of the church's riches. Who presides over priests and bishops in these matters? Ultimately God will decide. Is that the reason why people drift away from the church? Because they have experienced clericalism at its worst and take their case to the supreme? I am not implying they are right or wrong in doing so. All I can say is thank God that He is the judge not man!

  • Posted by: koinonia - Jan. 06, 2014 5:35 PM ET USA

    When the dust of history settles the enduring image is that of the Incarnate Word exsanguinated and broken on the cross. The darkness of sin is overwhelmed by the Light of the world; death is overcome by transcendant life. But there was a price- an infinite, incredible price that is the greatest of mysteries. Christ founded his Church as the vehicle for the salvation he merited by his death and resurrection. This is not the priority for too many clerics; this is the essence of their vocations.

  • Posted by: jg23753479 - Jan. 06, 2014 11:25 AM ET USA

    It would be interesting to see weaved into this chapter a discussion of Rome's attitude toward the Church in Germany under the Nazis. It has been said that Pius XII refused to issue an unambiguous condemnation of the policies of Hitler's government, one of the worst in human history, because he feared what the Nazis might do to the Church in retaliation. Wasn't that a clear case of being more solicitous about the welfare of the organization than about the proclamation of truth?