Alexis de Tocqueville, Subsidiarity, and Clericalism

by Fr. Charles Klamut


In this essay, Fr. Klamut discusses the Catholic social teaching of subsidiarity relating it to the writing of Alexis de Tocqueville and applying it to the life of a Catholic parish.

Larger Work

Homiletic & Pastoral Review

Publisher & Date

Ignatius Press, October 29, 2018

One of my proudest accomplishments in college was reading Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville’s 1830s masterpiece on what really made “democracy” work here, after so many near-misses or never-starts in history. The book was assigned as part of an upper-level humanities class on Catholicism and American culture. I’m not sure I would have had the confidence to tackle it, but for an inspiring professor who convinced me I could. More on him later.

A main thesis was that the success of the American experiment was due to the unique entity of the township. Comprised of roughly two to three thousand people, the township promoted the strength of free peoples through decentralized local communities where the habits and practices of self-governing people could mature.

Briefly (and for the purposes of the argument that follows), Tocqueville called the New England township a “primary school” that put that local freedom, “that rare and fragile thing,” within the people’s reach, taught them to appreciate its peaceful enjoyment, accustomed them to make use of it. (63) It fostered a sense of loyalty, responsibility and ownership. “The New Englander is attached to his township not so much because he was born here as because he sees the township as a free, strong corporation of which he is a part and which is worth the trouble of trying to direct.” (68)

The township was thus a training ground for mature and healthy citizenship, of a type that Tocqueville did not see in Europe. “In making municipalities strong and independent, they (European governments) fear sharing their social power and exposing the state to risks of anarchy. However, if you take power and independence from a municipality, you may have docile subjects but you will not have citizens.” (69)

Anyway, the last thing I remember Professor James Gaston (we affectionately just called him “Gaston”) telling me as I graduated and moved onto the seminary was something unexpected, and it went something like this:

“Klamut, if you go and become a priest, PLEASE remember Tocqueville. A parish is a society, and the same rules apply. Remember that it’s all about those townships. The people need intermediary organizations to grow and be engaged. Hold on loosely, and then let ’em go.”

I’m not sure these words meant much to me at the time. But, two decades later, they’ve taken on prophetic significance. I now realize that Gaston was trying to inoculate me against clericalism and admonish me to cherish that precious pearl of Catholic social teaching, the principle of subsidiarity.


According to the Compendium of Social Doctrine of the Church, subsidiarity is one of the four “pillars” of the Catholic Church’s official social doctrine, along with human dignity, the common good, and solidarity.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church offers the following description: “Subsidiarity stresses non- interference of higher levels of governance with respect to lower levels, except when strictly necessary.” (CCC, 1883)

The Compendium states: “Subsidiarity involves the primacy of the intermediary bodies formed at local and grassroots levels. It encourages individual initiative, freedom and responsibility. Its opposites include paternalism and abuses by higher powers tending toward centralization, bureaucracy and welfare-state dis-empowerment.” (#187)

In his 2009 encyclical Charity in Truth, Pope Benedict said, in summary, that subsidiarity manifests charity and contributes to people’s emancipation by fostering freedom and participation. It promotes the assumption of responsibility and respects personal dignity by recognizing each person as a subject who is always capable of giving something to others. It considers reciprocity as the heart of what it means to be human and is an antidote against welfare-style thinking. (See #57.)

I have long known about subsidiarity and, as a Catholic, recognized its truth and importance. However, I always considered it a principle for the political and economic sphere. It wasn’t until fairly recently that subsidiarity took new meaning for me. “Remember Tocqueville,” said Gaston; “a parish is a society, and the same rules apply.”

In what ways might — or should — a Catholic community — such as, say, a parish — resemble a “township?” To what degree should Catholic life in general, and parish life in particular, embody subsidiarity? Might such questions offer new ways of thinking about how to foster more engaging, mature Catholic communities at the local level?

I would like to propose that we begin taking a more intentional look at such questions. I would also like to suggest that the local church take a serious look at how well we are practicing what we preach . . . regarding subsidiarity. A Catholic friend of mine, a former seminarian who is now a successful attorney, once quipped: “Subsidiarity . . . now that’s a good idea. The Catholic Church should try it.” While a tad snarky, his words hit home.

I am proposing we (particularly pastors and those in local parish leadership) retrieve the principle of subsidiarity from our three-credit college Catholic Social Teaching notebooks and begin applying it more intentionally as a guiding principle in our leadership. Subsidiarity should not just be a sought-after goal in our society; it should also be employed to help parishes foster and encourage authentic freedom and maturity. Subsidiarity ought to be the principle operating system of a healthy parish.

Subsidiarity as a Remedy for Clericalism

In my experience of almost twenty years as a priest and almost ten as a pastor, the chief obstacle to Tocquevilles’s vision of subsidiarity-driven parishes would have to be an entrenched clericalism. Although seldom intentional, clericalistic attitudes seem deeply embedded in Church culture, and we have to take account of them and understand them in order to fully appreciate subsidiarity as the antidote.

Webster’s offers the following definition of clericalism: “a policy of maintaining or increasing the power of a religious hierarchy.”

I’m not sure this captures all the nuances, but it’s a good start. The definition posits, not a complementarity, but rather an implicit dialectic, an either–or between hierarchy and laity: for if hierarchy are engaging in policies of maintaining or increasing power, these are presumably over and against the other side of the binary, the laity.

For some people, “clericalism” may evoke colorful images of bloated prelates in big black cars, dressed to the nines in fancy cuff links and shiny shoes, reveling in exalted titles, and generally acting like big shots entitled to honor and esteem from servile sheep. It may even call to mind the dreadful “pray, pay, obey” mantra sometimes described by older Catholics as part of their unfortunate Catholic experience.

But these caricatures, exceptional cases notwithstanding, are not the real issue today.

In an interview given before his election as pope, Jorge Bergoglio spoke of the temptation to clericalism in his characteristically colorful way: “We priests tend to clericalize the laity. We do not realize it, but it is as if we infect them with our own thing. And the laity — not all but many — ask us on their knees to clericalize them, because it is more comfortable to be an altar boy than the protagonist of a lay path. We must not enter into that trap, it is a sinful complicity.” (30Days)

In the same interview, Bergoglio went on to speak of his admiration of the Christian communities in Japan that remained without priests for more than two hundred years. When at last missionary priests returned, they found that “the faith had remained intact through the gifts of grace that had gladdened the life of a laity who had received only baptism and had also lived their apostolic mission in virtue of baptism alone.”

Drawing on Pope Francis’s critique of clericalism, Fr. James Mallon in his helpful book Divine Renovation describes clericalism as the attitude that “for the average Catholic, holiness and mission is not their job. It is the priest or nun who can be holy and evangelize. Ordinary Catholics just do not do these things; they are fundamentally unable to do these things.” Clericalism is “the appropriation of what is proper to the baptized by the clerical caste. . . . Since all the baptized are called to be missionary disciples, clericalism is ultimately a suppression of the baptismal identity.”

A parsing through all of Francis’s many criticisms of clericalism exceeds the scope of this article, but among its bitter fruits he cites are: “sinful complicity” between priest and laity; limiting evangelical boldness; hindering mission; extinguishing the prophetic flame; diminishing and undervaluing baptismal grace; and discouraging the rise of lay protagonists.

In addition, Francis (and many others) have recently cited the influence of clericalism as a major contributing factor to the sexual-abuse scandals the Church is currently facing. In his letter to the faithful regarding the abuse scandals this past summer, Francis wrote: “Clericalism, whether fostered by priests themselves or by lay persons, leads to an excision in the ecclesial body that supports and helps to perpetuate many of the evils that we are condemning today. To say ‘no’ to abuse is to say an emphatic ‘no’ to all forms of clericalism.” Far from an academic observation, we now see with alarming clarity another of clericalism’s insidious fruits: Church cultures in which the priesthood is automatically associated with holiness has led to shocking abuses of power and a grave lack of accountability, cultures where predator priests manipulated and abused with impunity.

Decades before Francis, Pope John Paul II described the lay faithful’s life and mission as “the call to growth and a continual process of maturation, of always bearing much fruit . . . a continual process in the individual of maturation in faith and a likening to Christ, according to the will of the Father, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.” (CL #59)

The focus on maturity helps us begin to reframe the question of the role of the laity in more helpful terms than the usual power-sharing paradigms which only take us back to “clericalizing” the laity, as if the “power” of the clerical state is where the only real dignity and action are. This is the “clericalization” of the laity, so often invoked in the name of Vatican II, of which Pope Francis is so critical.

A simple reading of just two paragraphs from Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium (36 and 37) reveals that the laity, far from being relegated to some second-class role, are the real protagonists of evangelization. Partnering with the shepherds of the Church, the laity are the ones who penetrate spheres of influence to which the clergy have no access. The clergy are to serve, feed, nourish, and equip the laity so they can fulfill their mission to the world.

Subsidiarity and Clericalism

So, to return to the principle of subsidiarity . . .

Although the word is not used in the context of the topics at hand, perhaps it is time to change that. Church teaching insists that “subsidiarity stresses non-interference of higher levels of governance with respect to lower levels, except when strictly necessary.” (CCC, 1883) And that “subsidiarity involves the primacy of the intermediary bodies formed at local and grassroots levels. It encourages individual initiative, freedom, and responsibility.” And that “subsidiarity manifests charity and contributes to people’s emancipation by fostering freedom and participation. It promotes the assumption of responsibility and respects personal dignity.”

When viewed in light of these descriptions, the problem of clericalism emerges for what it really is: a violation of subsidiarity as it pertains to the spiritual life of the faithful. Inasmuch as parishes are societies, the principles of the Church’s social doctrine should apply, no?

If the fruit of subsidiarity entails the flourishing of intermediary bodies; individual initiative, freedom, and responsibility; and emancipation through freedom and responsibility-taking; then it would seem Catholic parishes and other communities can only benefit from such fruits.

Inasmuch as the clergy are caught up (often unwittingly) in “policies of maintaining or increasing the power of a religious hierarchy,” they are violating subsidiarity and contributing to an unbiblical, power- focused paternalism that thwarts responsibility-taking and leads to an unhealthy dynamic akin to co- dependency and — dare we say — a sort of Christianized welfare state. This is hardly Tocqueville’s township; more importantly, it is hardly the mission of the Church as seen in the Gospels and Acts and the lives of the saints, and promoted by Vatican II and recent popes. The aim of any type of “leadership” in a Christian context is a role of service that aids in advancing maturity that equips a “going forth” in mission, much as Jesus exhibited with his disciples.


Gaston was not a favorite of everyone. His effectiveness was not necessarily in his lecturing. Some students complained because he did not serve up spoon-fed lectures of pithy sound-bite eloquence. No, Gaston challenged us. He wanted us to dig in, to wrestle with texts, to finally make up our own minds. He lit the learning fire in us so that we became protagonists in our own education. Those who simply wanted to know what would be on the test went home disappointed. I can’t help but wonder if the same dynamic plays out in parishes. How often do pastors truly challenge the laity to step into their roles as mature missionary disciples? And if not, why not?

It makes me wonder: what kind of pastor am I? Have I honored Gaston’s legacy and parting challenge? Am I “remembering Tocqueville”? Am I promoting a true subsidiarity capable of awakening the spiritual principle and enkindling a desire in people to take mature responsibility as they grow into missionary disciples? Is my pastoral service growing protagonists equipped to fulfill their vocation in their secular field of mission influence? Or am I recruiting more “altar boys” to join me in the sanctuary as the world starves for lack of laborers for the harvest?

According to Tocqueville, the chief unit for a flourishing America was the healthy township. Analogously, if the chief unit for a flourishing Church is the healthy parish, what might a practiced and embodied subsidiarity look like at this level, and how might we more effectively promote it?

Imagine parishes fostering “a sense of loyalty, responsibility, and ownership,” where people prized their membership in “a free, strong corporation of which (they are) a part and which is worth the trouble of trying to direct.” Parishes where members see themselves, not as once-a-week consumers of a specialized religious product served up by professionals, but as missionary disciples fully committed to their God, their neighborhood, and each other. Imagine a parish full of creative and energetic interactions between people so filled with zeal for the world’s evangelization and the renewal of all things in Christ that it became the training ground for the habits, practices, and competencies as healthy for the universal Church as the township was for a healthy nation.

Such parishes exist and, thankfully, seem to be on the rise. They are under the authorized care of a pastor, to be sure. But the pastor’s “hierarchical” role, understood clearly as a role of service, is employed only to assist, nourish, and equip the laity to BE laity; that is, mature and intentional disciples advancing the Kingdom of God by going forth and sanctifying the world from within it.

For my part, I’m still learning how to be a kind of pastor that might contribute toward such a vision. But thanks to what Gaston and the Church taught me about subsidiarity, I have a clear view of the destination. With subsidiarity as the goal, maturity can only increase and clericalism decrease. And with that, we will see the Kingdom of God advance.

Fr. Charles Klamut is a priest for the Diocese of Peoria ordained in 1999. He has served as high school and college chaplain as well as pastor. He is currently pastor of St. Ambrose in Milan, IL, and St. Patrick in Andalusia, IL.

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