Clericalism: Problems Past, Present, and Future

I am a permanent deacon, married and with children; at the same time, I am ministering in my parish. When I was first ordained, I used to joke that I “had a foot in both camps,” as I seemed to be both laity and ordained. But in reality, we are all, whether lay or ordained, in the same camp, worshipping and working together as one people pursuing salvation. However, in the 35 years (!) since I graduated from college seminary, I have traveled through several different dioceses and a host of parishes and I am noticing a disturbing trend — a new rise in “clericalism.” I, of course, am not the only one to remark on this, Pope Francis has repeatedly spoken about it, calling it a “really awful thing; it is a new edition of [an] ancient evil” (homily in Casa Santa Marta, December 13, 2016).

So, what is clericalism, how did it arise, what dangers does it present, and what makes today’s clericalism a “new edition?”

Bishop Thomas Zinkula offered a simple definition of clericalism in an article in The Catholic Messenger: “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.”1 (I would be remiss if I did not also point out that he includes bishops and deacons as clerics in this definition.)

He goes on to note that, as Pope Francis points out, “clericalism is not only fostered by priests, but also reinforced by lay people.” In addition, Zinkula says that clericalism may also affect “those preparing for ordained ministry as well as those serving as lay ministers.” Father Donald Cozzens of John Carroll University describes clericalism as “an attitude found in many clergy who put their status as priests and bishops above their status as baptized disciples of Jesus Christ. In doing so, a sense of privilege and entitlement emerges in their individual and collective psyche. This, in turn, breeds a corps of ecclesiastical elites who think they’re unlike the rest of the faithful.”2

So, where what are the seeds of clericalism in our Church today? To answer that, we have to dive way back in Church history. In his book, Clericalism: The Death of the Priesthood, Fr. George Wilson first notes that there is a distinction between the terms priest and clergy, the former being a religious term “pointing us to . . . the sacred dimension of life, to the holy,” and the latter “a sociological term that names the fact that society recognizes a certain segment of its members as having recognizable features that distinguish them from the rest of society” 3

In the era of the New Testament, the entire believing community was considered the holy priesthood by means of baptism. The community was comprised of individuals with various charisms that ministered to one another and to the surrounding world. There was no hierarchical structure as it exists in the Church today. Certainly, there were individuals (stemming from the apostles) who acted as overseers in the community. Fr. Michael Papesh, in his book Clerical Culture: Contradiction and Transformation, describes how these overseers (precursors to modern bishops) had around them a group of helpers called presbyters. He notes that these presbyters “have status because they are senior in the faith and regarded as holy people,” and that their role “is less an office within the community than a status received because of the style of their life.”4 These elders mostly advised the overseer, adjudicated some community matters, and formed the body of candidates from which the overseer was chosen.

The Church grew rapidly over the next few centuries, especially after becoming the Roman Empire’s state religion in the fourth century. As the overseers became bishops, they appropriated some of the responsibilities and trappings of the crumbling Roman civil service. From the imperial offices they held, they adopted distinctive forms of clothing, such as the stole, that were marks of their office. They also began to send the presbyters out from the cities to the rapidly growing church in the countryside to be their delegates and to function as the presiders at the Eucharist, since the bishops were unable to do this for their entire flocks.

This is the beginning of a movement toward a cultic priesthood, set apart from the common priesthood of the people. In addition, with the rapid growth of the church, the Eucharist moves from a meal-like setting in house-churches to a more ritualized form in the basilicas that the Roman government gifted to the Church. As Papesh notes, “the liturgy in the basilicas, which naturally emphasizes the ministry of the clergy in the apse (sanctuary), increases the distance between clerics and laity to such an extent that, by the fifth century, clerics are viewed essentially in their cultic role.”5

As the Church moved into the Middle Ages, this distance is increased. As the Church priesthood retained the use of Latin at liturgy, the congregation spoke the local vernacular and become further separated from comprehending the Mass. As society became stratified into layers of hierarchy (kings, nobles, knights, peasants), the Church mirrored this trend (pope, bishops/abbots, priests, laity) — especially since many of the bishops were, at the same time, powerful secular lords. As Christ became associated more with Christ the King, or the stern Judge (often depicted as such on medieval cathedral tympanums) far above them, the laity look to intermediaries — Mary and the saints, whose cults mushroom during this period.

As noted by Papesh, “priesthood comes to be defined almost exclusively in terms of hierarchical power: the sacramental power to offer the sacrifice of the Mass and absolve sins and the jurisdictional power to assume responsibility over a benefice. . . [t]he priesthood of the ordained becomes an active priesthood of status and office connected to the Eucharist, not a priesthood of service connected with a particular community of faith.”6 With these changes, “Mass becomes more and more distant from the people, to the point that the priest is viewed as the only essential participant . . .”7 Indeed, “the laity are no longer understood to minister. Rather they are ministered unto by the ordained. The language of worship and theology, therefore, as well as the responsibility for Christian service, all regress farther and farther from the laity . . .”8

At the time of the Reformation, the Church reacted through the Council of Trent by clarifying Church doctrines and passing some reforms. But the theology of the Council is centered on the Mass as sacrifice, and thus the priest’s role as cultic minister is reinforced. “Insistence on the performance of correct rituals leads to relatively mechanical celebration together with the tendency to objectify sacraments.”9 The role of the laity is even further removed as the role of the priest becomes paramount.

Vatican II, however, called for a re-investigation of the concept of priesthood, and looked to the early Church and the idea of a common priesthood. Instead of focusing almost exclusively on the Eucharist as the defining element of priesthood like Trent, according to Richard Gaillardetz in a National Catholic Reporter article, the Council focused on the mission of the Church, “and stressed the priority of Christian baptism and affirmed our primary identity as Christi fideles, the Christian Faithful”10

This shift in the recognition of priesthood also shifts the focus of the ordained. Since all the baptized are called to a priestly ministry, the role of the ordained is to foster and support the laity in their ministry to the world. There is a shift of emphasis away from the cultic toward the pastoral. Instead of the medieval man set apart from the people, Pope Francis notes that a priest should be a servant-pastor placed in the center of the community. This role as servant-leader was widely embraced by priests according to research by James Davidson and Dean Hoge detailed in their article “Mind the Gap: The Return of the Lay-Clerical Divide.” They note that a priest of the immediate post-Vatican II era would regard himself “as a spiritual leader who works collaboratively with laypeople . . .”11 This viewpoint, by and large, has been embraced by the laity as they rediscover their own call to the common priesthood and active participation in the life of the Church.

But as can been seen in the subtitle of Davidson and Hoge’s article, in the recent past there has been a noticeable and alarming uptick in the clericalization of the priesthood. Among the signs, Gaillardetz notes that many people expressed to him a “frustration with the youngest generation of priests, too many of whom seem more interested in birettas, cassocks and clerical prerogatives than with humble service to God’s people” and that they are “hurt by pastors who see the gifts of the laity as a threat to clerical control.”12

This is closely mirrored in the experience of Fr. Daniel Horan when he says that people have complained to him about the “unapproachable or pretentious character of so many of the newly ordained. They appear to be more concerned about titles, clerical attire, fancy vestments, distance between themselves and parishioners, and they focus more on what makes them distinctive than on their vocation to wash the feet of others (Jn. 13:14–17), to lead with humility and to show the compassionate face of God to all”13

This re-emergence of clericalism is disturbing, but not surprising to Davidson and Hoge, who point out that while after Vatican II priests and laity were relatively united in their vision of priest as servant-leader in collaborative ministry with other members of the Body of Christ, this shared perception did not last. They note that Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, as well as some other church officials, “expressed their preference for a more traditional model of lay-clergy relationship, one that emphasizes the difference in authority between the ordained and the nonordained. As a result, greater numbers of men who agree with this view have entered seminaries and have been ordained.”

At the same time, the authors point out that Catholic laity in the United States are “increasingly committed to a more active role in the church.” The researchers, writing in 2007, noted that in the coming years this disjunct between laity and the newly ordained would lead to difficulties in Catholic parishes due to the differences between “young adult laypeople who expect the clergy to welcome their participation, and young priests who believe the responsibility for parish decisions is theirs.”14 In my experience, this prediction has come to pass, although I would not limit those laity expressing their displeasure to the young adult demographic.

Obviously, clericalism is not new — it has existed in the Church since the first distinctions between an ordained clergy and the laity evolved. And certainly, not all (or even most) clergy are affected by clericalism. But the dangers of clericalism are real, even in small doses. It has been noted as a major factor in cases in the clerical sex-abuse scandal. It can be detrimental to the laity’s mission to spread the Gospel as members of the common priesthood, either through the priest’s lack of promotion of the laity’s mission or the laity’s acquiescence to the idea of “let Father do it.” It makes it difficult for clergy to connect meaningfully with their flock, which Fr. Cozzens notes may be the most damaging of clericalism’s effects.15 It also fosters a distance between people and their experience of God in the sacraments, especially at Mass.

This latter point is often reinforced by physical barriers and rituals. At one church I visited, the pastor (without consulting anyone) re-installed the altar railing, much to the consternation of most of the congregation. This creates not only a physical barrier, but a psychological one as well, creating a separation between the laity in the congregation and the priest and Eucharist at the altar. The argument that this is done for reverence rings hollow when looking at the house-church liturgies of the early Church. In addition, excessive ceremony can create a distance as well. As Wilson notes, as “the clergyhood of the ordained descends into clericalization, there is an increase of formal rituals. . . The more high ceremonial there is, the greater the risk of the ordained being experienced not as servants but as on a different plane, cut off from the body of priests [laity] they are called to serve” (Interjection of “laity” mine).16

So, if clericalism is a re-emerging problem, what can be done? First, we must recognize that is an issue for the entire Church, ordained and laity. It is a problem that must be solved together so that both groups can carry out their mission to promote God’s kingdom. The first step to solving the problem is to recognize, embrace and promote our common identity through baptism. As Wilson points out, our identity “centers on our baptism and our sharing in a common priesthood. These concepts will remain attractive but empty words, however, unless we work at the difficult personal discipline involved in changing deep-seated images and attitudes that perpetuate first- and second-class citizenship in the church.”17 If we can prayerfully recognize our common purpose in spreading the Gospel and recognize our equal partnership in the Church’s work, that will go a long way to eradicating clericalization.

But we must also recognize that, for us as human beings, this won’t be easy. On the one hand, many of the ordained will not want to relinquish the prerogatives that come with a clericalized clergy: the prestige, the perks, the authority, a certain type of power and position. On the other hand, the laity will have to shoulder more work and responsibility that they often now relinquish to the clergy. To expect a more active participation in the life of the Church requires time and effort. It also requires that the laity speak up and make their voices heard: “the laity have the right and duty to express their opinions in the ordering of the Church”18(emphasis mine) — not always easy in a Church that has, for a portion of its history, muted the voice of “the common folk.”

Many members of the Church’s hierarchy have recently joined Pope Francis’ criticism of clericalism and the need to eliminate its presence from the Church. In a December 2017 article in the National Catholic Reporter, Bishop Vincent Long Van Nguyen noted the need for the Church to do away with the pyramid model of the church which he feels “promotes the superiority of the ordained and the excessive role of the clergy at the expense of the nonordained.” He goes on to say that we should have “the courage to die to the old ways of being church that no longer convey effectively the message of the Gospel to the culture in which we live.”19

In his article from the July 10, 2019 Chicago Catholic, Cardinal Cupich said in relation to clericalism that “while elitism is not peculiar to the church, when it infects the priesthood there are unique consequences that injure the life of the ecclesial community, given how it undermines the very core of the Gospel and the meaning of baptism.”20 And as Bishop Zinkula says in his previously cited article, “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.”

  1. Bishop Thomas Zinkula, “Bishop Addresses Issue of Clericalism.” The Catholic Messenger,
  2. Donald Cozzens, “Don’t Put Priests on a Pedestal,” US Catholic: October 2015, 33–35.
  3. George B. Wilson, Clericalism: The Death of the Priesthood (Collegeville, MN. Liturgical Press, 2008), xv.
  4. Michael L. Papesh, Clerical Culture: Contradiction and Transformation. (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2004), 24.
  5. Papesh, Clerical Culture, 26.
  6. Papesh, 36.
  7. Papesh, 30.
  8. Papesh, 37.
  9. Papesh, 41.
  10. Richard Gaillardetz, “We Have the Pillars, But the Buildings are Still Unfinished,” National Catholic Reporter, October 11, 2012, p. 49.
  11.  James D. Davidson and Dean R. Hoge, “Mind the Gap: The Return of the Lay-Clerical Divide,” Commonweal, Nov. 23, 2007, p. 18.
  12. Gaillardetz, “We Have the Pillars, But the Buildings are Still Unfinished,” 48.
  13. Daniel P. Horan, “Lead Us Not Into Clericalism,” America, October 21, 2013, p. 33.
  14. Davidson and Hoge, “Mind the Gap,” 19.
  15. Cozzens, “Don’t Put Priests on a Pedestal,” 34.
  16. Wilson, Clericalism: The Death of the Priesthood, 55.
  17. Wilson, 107.
  18. Papesh, Clerical Culture, 44.
  19. Peter Feuerherd, “Australian Bishop Urges End to Clericalism,” National Catholic Reporter, Dec. 15–28, 2017, p. 9.
  20. Cardinal Blasé Cupich, “Clericalism: An Infection That Can Be Cured,” Chicago Catholic,
Jerome Buhman About Jerome Buhman

Jerome Buhman is a permanent deacon in the Diocese of Madison, WI, serving at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish. He has a BA in Philosophy and MAs in History of Science and Library and Information Studies. Besides working full time at the parish in sacramental preparation and RCIA, he is a husband and father of two.


  1. Avatar Sergio A. Prado Flores says:

    ROME, september the 10th
    Dear friends
    We pray for many people of some States of your country that were devasted by Hurricane Ida. In this context of great climate crisis, I’ve read an article of Brad Plumer sent me by mail where he assets that: “The climate disasters have been relentless this summer. Hurricane Ida took down the power grid in New Orleans, where more than 300,000 households remain without electricity as of Wednesday. A few days later, Ida dumped 7 inches of rain on New York City, drowning people in their basements and paralyzing the subways. Deadly heat waves scorched the Pacific Northwest, a massive wildfire spurred residents to evacuate South Lake Tahoe and flash floods devastated Tennessee.”
    On the same issue, another recent ECUMENICAL JOINT MESSAGE FOR THE PROTECTION OF CREATION has been published that urges us to convert from our consumism way of life to a new and more sustainable style of production and consuming of the necessary goods and services, and so on…
    “Today, we are paying the price. The extreme weather and natural disasters of recent months reveal afresh to us with great force and at great human cost that climate change is not only a future challenge, but an immediate and urgent matter of survival. Widespread floods, fires and droughts threaten entire continents. Sea levels rise, forcing whole communities to relocate; cyclones devastate entire regions, ruining lives and livelihoods. Water has become scarce and food supplies insecure, causing conflict and displacement for millions of people. We have already seen this in places where people rely on small scale agricultural holdings. Today we see it in more industrialised countries where even sophisticated infrastructure cannot completely prevent extraordinary destruction. Tomorrow could be worse….”
    Certainly clericalism is a very great challenge but the current emergency of the clmatic disaster ask us to act all of us more united and more effective:
    “This is the first time that the three of us feel compelled to address together the urgency of environmental sustainability, its impact on persistent poverty, and the importance of global cooperation. Together, on behalf of our communities, we appeal to the heart and mind of every Christian, every believer and every person of good will. We pray for our leaders who will gather in Glasgow to decide the future of our planet and its people. Again, we recall Scripture: ‘choose life, so that you and your children may live’ (Dt 30:19). Choosing life means making sacrifices and exercising self-restraint. All of us—whoever and wherever we are—can play a part in changing our collective response to the unprecedented threat of climate change and environmental degradation.
    Caring for God’s creation is a spiritual commission requiring a response of commitment. This is a critical moment. Our children’s future and the future of our common home depend on it.”

    God bless you and our whole world that is crying BECAUSE it needs to be more cared before other worst environment disasters will arrive…

  2. Avatar Tom McGuire says:

    This article is needed. I confirm from my own experience all that you said about clericalism in the Catholic Church. Great damage to the mission of evangelization has been done; to be faithful to the mission will require great metanoia on the part of us all.

    Pope Francis is calling us to become a synodal Church. I believe this is a way to move beyond clericalism. He wrote in the Preparatory Document for the 16th Ordinary General Asssembly of the Synod of Bishops issued yesterday, September 9, 2021: “The Pastors, established by God as ‘authentic guardians, interpreters and witnesses of the faith of the whole Church’ should not be afraid to listen to the Flock entrusted to them. The consultation of the People of God does not imply the assumption within the Church of the dynamics of democracy based on the principle of majority, because there is, at the basis of participation in every synodal process, a shared passion for the common mission of evangelization and not the representation of conflicting interests.”

    The mission is what we all must be about. Jesus in the gospel clearly points out the problem of religious leaders who want to stand apart from the common people as a means to achieve prestige and power.

  3. One of the best succinct discussions of clericalism I have read. I was glad to see that he referenced George Wilson.s Clericalism among others.
    I serve as a deacon in Honduras and see many similar problems. Most notably, in my experience, is the way that many lay people treat the priest, looking up to them with adulation. But I wonder if some of this is similar to the way that pastors were looked up to in the immigrant parishes in the US, where the pastor was one of the few with an education and was expected to be able to do and to solve everything.
    Thanks for a great article.

  4. Avatar Deacon Roger Filips says:

    Clericalism did not cause the sexual abuse problems. They were caused by ordaining homosexual men and others who lost their sense of the sacred and saw themselves as social workers entitled to a little R&R on their time off.. The sexual abuse crises causes clericalism because when a group of priests or bishops share in a secret that they all have to keep, they are a very tight, secret-keeping club.

    • Agree! This article by Deacon Jerome Buhman is very misleading. It does not represent the teaching of the Church with regard to the ordained priesthood.

    • Avatar Karen Congeni says:

      I agree with you, Deacon Roger Filips. A priest quoted in this article once visited Saint Hilary Parish in Fairlawn, OH, and he spoke in support of a female priesthood. In my experience, the word “clericalism” is used by the left to label those in the Church who support faithful, orthodox teachings. A quote in the article says “Clericalism is an exaggeration of the role of the clergy to the detriment of the laity.” There is nothing exaggerated about the role of the clergy, or detrimental to the laity, when a priest or bishop supports Truth. This requires faithfulness and courage in the face of much opposition, often from their own peers. But these faithful ones are heroic in the eyes of so many of the laity who continue to seek truth and aren’t interested in the reinventing of the Catholic Church. Rather, we want to learn and live the teachings of the Deposit of Faith that have been passed down for two thousand years since the beginning of the Church.

  5. Avatar Maggie Shea says:

    Good piece on history. Less so on evaluation of current. The newly ordained are caught up in today’s popular trend. . But the special role of the priest, clericalism if you will, is real. We will not have Jesus with us until the end of time without it. Give priests a break. They’re only human…in persona christi.

  6. Avatar Katherine Weber says:

    I’m a Catholic woman of the royal priesthood (or layperson, as per Lumen Gentium) who loves my Faith, and like JPII and Benedict, I try to uphold the beauty and rich truth found in the documents of Vatican II. Please note however, that these documents do not include arbitrary opinions which attempt to causally link clericalism with our meaningful liturgical history, including ceremony, communion rails and symbolic attire.
    Clericalism is real of course, and needs to be addressed with fraternal correction when we see it, for and by all the baptized. Egoism will obviously always be with us, and we fallen humans use virtually any means available to enable it. Should we then destroy all these means? For example, the complimentary differences we the baptized embody are real, good and true, a means to holiness in our various states of life. Should we attempt to pretend these divinely instituted, permanent differences away, since they are a means to egoism, in this case clericalism?
    Let’s get specific, and apply these differences to the liturgy. Clerics and laypeople are equal in baptism and we are all servants; to Christ, to each other. We are equal but of course we are different- the priest’s sacramental character, indelibly printed on his soul at ordination, is different than ours (as is a deacon’s, if I recall correctly); during Mass, he alone is configured to be our mediator with Christ, Who alone is the High Priest and Victim. The clergy’s servanthood is actualized by participating in the Mass accordingly, (which brings us GOD in the sacraments), and teaching the truth of it through his attire, reverence and homilies. We laypeople have the sacramental character of the royal priesthood indelibly marked upon our souls, and during Mass we receive fruits of the Mass and applied graces merited by Jesus on the cross as we are disposed to receive them. This happens within the context of the Mass as sacrifice, and clergy do the “common folk” real harm to pretend otherwise. The great good for our world, ourselves and loved ones via the applied graces in the Mass, which Jesus has merited for us on the cross, needs to be taught, not minimized, if the clergy’s goal is to equalize and empower the royal priesthood. I have experienced too many simplistic, undereducated, well-meaning clerics, who do not like blood and remain pastorally concerned that their flock will not find the word “sacrifice” a palatable one. They consequently dumb down the infinite power of the holy Mass to one big happy picnic. Many laypeople now expect the Mass to be entertaining, and if the priest isn’t funny or (fill in the blank) enough, we move on. The royal priesthood are now ignorant of basically every aspect of what we do (and why) in the Divine Liturgy. How can we possibly participate in a meaningful way? Do not condescend, educate! Please- assume that we have the ability to use the freedom Christ won for us to wrestle with the truth and make decisions, whether we decide to remain in the Church or leave. It is our decision to make. It is the truth which sets us free, not our attempts to keep people in the building at all costs. All the baptized are capable of more. All the baptized are created for more.
    Which brings us to another aspect of true servanthood- knowing the truth. When a cleric is theologically bereft, some of their flock knows this already, and all of their flock suffers. This lack is understandable. Many seminaries do not have stellar formation, memory retention varies, and theology is a vast subject. Clerics are probably doing way too much on a daily basis, some of which needs to be delegated. Laypeople need to help the priest assess and fill those needs as part of their complimentary servanthood. I would exhort our brothers in this theological situation to exercise their pastoral servanthood with humility and study the teachings, in solidarity with solid clerics and appropriate laypeople. Ongoing education seems practical and necessary.
    Another observation. Perhaps the priest cited in your article should have consulted his parishioners before installing the altar rail, perhaps not- the altar rail beautifully solves the equality issue for those of us in the royal priesthood who wish to receive Jesus on our knees, by mouth and not hand, but are judged for doing so- including judgement by priests and deacons. We all receive equally when we receive by the rail, which means less focus on us, and more focus on reverencing the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of our good Jesus. If equality is your goal, the communion rail is a beautiful answer. Instead, I read that the rail poses a “psychological barrier.” I question whether you sir, my brother in Christ, are qualified to issue such a statement. What then of the sanctuary? The altar? (…especially if the , priest is facing us on the opposite side of it, a known error in the world of communication.)
    Now I’m going to say something which might divide us, but I trust you all to wrestle with it. If we truly seek to eradicate clericalism, we need to seriously study a very common form of it- the Cult of Cleric Personality. When the priest faces his people for the entirety of the Mass, our focus becomes the priest’s face, the priest’s voice, the priest’s activity, the priest’s idiosyncrasies. Our responses seem directed to the priest, instead of God. This all promotes exclusivity. Further, it seems that facing his flock puts pressure on the priest to represent the face of God- to to be found pleasing, loving, accessible, etc. to those faces he is bound to observe (and be tempted to interact with), rather than being allowed to focus on his true servanthood, as mediator for us in the Mass. I also wonder if seeing all those faces, loved as they are, is distracting. Can a priest feel responsible for everybody’s Mass experience? I don’t know. I do know that facing east together manifests the truth of the liturgy, visually and behaviorally; the baptized are one people, journeying in the same direction- towards Christ, together. It will take time and reeducation, but we are capable of it. The easy route is to stay status quo and continue to enable a kind of forced clericalism which is unfair to all the baptized.
    “The most pastoral thing is to tell the truth,” says Paul VI. Clericalism is real and needs to be addressed by all the baptized, for all the baptized. Fraternal correction is one method to do so, requiring humility, courage and charity, among all of us as equals. It would be a poverty, however, to correlate clericalism with the physical and visual richness cultivated for millennia in the Church, especially as regards our sacraments and the Divine Liturgy. I pray our clerics do not make the mistake of attempting to strip the Mass of its sacrificial nature, in which Jesus’ total gift of self saturates suffering with love and meaning. Please do not attempt to rob your flock of the ritualistic beauty which helps us image the invisible reality taking place in our presence, and please fight the temptation to turn an infinite act of God into a finite version of what you, our clerics, think love should look like.

    • Avatar Roger Filips says:

      Well said.

    • Katherine, I agree 100%. Our youth is hungering for the richness of the sacrificial nature of the Mass. Many of our Latin Masses are filled with young people. Likewise our young priests in our Diocese, even in their cassocks, are fostering vocations and are “available” as true Servants of God to assist the needs of the lay any way they can.

      • Avatar Katherine Weber says:

        Hi Debbie,

        Yes! Last I read, youngish males are especially drawn to the Latin Mass, and I wonder if this is due to the liturgical beauty of the new Mass being undermined on many levels by a misunderstanding of the Liturgical documents directed towards it.

        On a personal level, years ago I witnessed one diocesan priest wear a cassock to an event full of priests wearing their collars, black pants and shirt; it was all good, but I wondered,
        “why the cassock?” Actually, that may have been the first time I saw a priest wearing a cassock. I observed him closely; he exuded quiet joy and compassion. When the event was over he rode off in his Harley parked in the back. I did not return to the Church for another year or two, but my journey began that day.

        Thinking about it right now, this experience wasn’t just about the cassock, or the cool bike- it is likely about the importance of making the invisible, visible. The visible things drew me to a visible man living the gospel, which drew me to Christ (invisible) in His Church (visible).

        I think it was Aquinas who stated that for human beings, the intellect comes through the senses, and we know our world is currently fixated on the visible. Thoughtfully “branding” ourselves, true to who we are and what we believe, seems to me essential.

    • Very beautifully stated. I agree on your observations about how the Mass is celebrated, and the reverence at Mass. My observations are that many of the young priests, no matter how they choose to dress, are very pastoral. I think trying to blame clericalism for the abuse crisis is absurd, we know what created the clerical abuse crisis, and to try and ignore that is sticking one’s head in the sand.

      • Avatar Katherine Weber says:

        Deacon John,
        Thank you, that response took a long time to compose. I thank the author of the article for his time and work, and for the opportunity to dialogue.

        Re: clericalism and abuse, I am a bit confused- do you see clericalism playing a role at all?

    • Thank you, Katherine. Excellent response to this article.

    • Avatar Deacon G Gaines says:

      As a now bi-ritual deacon Roman (NO and Latin mass) & Eastern Rite, I’ve experienced numerous clerical perspectives in the past 21 years. I view the younger priest today recognizing the need to return to a more sacred celebration of the mass, period. Now we are experiencing the beginning of schism in the church like it or not. The recent pronouncements from Rome on the Latin mass and getting ‘the jab’, are not sitting well.
      Bishop against bishop, (Vigano VS Francis) laity against Rome, prophecy being fulfilled? Clericalism is the least of our problems as I see it.
      Politics and Catholic politicians especially have created such a fervor of the church must go along to get along, it depressing. Church hierarchy seems to agree, with none other than the astounding claim; you can’t weaponize the Eucharist against pro-abortion politicians! What? This issue alone is enough fodder to fuel an all out spiritual insurrection like never before. Not to mention the abuse issue. How much more can we expect Heaven to endure before the cup of divine justice erupts? You decide!

  7. Regarding the widely misquoted phrase about the ordained being “in persona Christi” [in the person of Christ].

    The misquote is so frequent and consistent that we rarely or never hear and see the correct quote.

    The correct quote is “in persona Christi CAPITIS” [in the person of Christ the Head].

    EVERY baptized person is “in persona Christi”— or, as St. Paul himself seems to have coined and says throughout the New Testament, IN CHRIST.

    Christ commanded the apostles to baptize people IN the name of the FATHER and of the SON and of the HOLY SPIRIT.

    Those of the baptized who are ordained as priests are, in the first sentence of number 1548 in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “in persona Christi CAPITIS” [in the person of Christ the HEAD]:
    “In the ecclesial service of the ordained minister, it is Christ himself who is present to his Church as Head of his Body, Shepherd of his flock, high priest of the redemptive sacrifice, Teacher of Truth. This is what the Church means by saying that the priest, by virtue of the sacrament of Holy Orders, acts in persona Christi Capitis.”

    Despite the Christian dignity and mission of the baptized and of the ordained, every Christian is free and able to CONTRADICT Christ and act as if OUTSIDE Christ, even if we are baptized “in Christ” or ordained “in the person of Christ the Head.”

  8. One of the most obvious displays of contemporary clericalism is the call for women to be made priests. As if they are “lesser” in dignity without being ordained.

    • Avatar Katherine Weber says:

      MD, very interesting point. My first response was to think, right, the bigger picture is the inherent, God-given dignity of all human beings, and our recognition of the created reality (and need) of our fe/male complementarity- but is this condescending, falsely feminist understanding of priesthood=higher dignity, a form of clericalism or of something else?

      The author cites this definition: “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.” This definition seems too subjective and broad to be helpful. For example, how are “exaggeration,” “role,” and “detriment” defined? Much less, “put on a pedestal,” “overly deferential,” and “submissive”? Further, is clericalism therefore an attitude, a felt response, a culture (all highly subjective)…? Does it originate in the clergy themselves? There is much evidence from daily life which suggests that the laity encourage the above definition of clericalism far more than the clergy do.

      Conversely, Hardon, in the Modern Catholic Dictionary, defines clericalism as “the advocacy of exaggerated claims on the part of the clergy, especially in matters that belong to the jurisdiction of the state” and goes on to say it is commonly used as a reproach regarding the role of religious influence in the state. These strike me as very different definitions.

      Do alternate definitions of clericalism need to be explored? Hang on, isn’t the point of a definition to mean something specific? At any rate, I appreciated your observation.

  9. Avatar Barbara Giordano says:

    I must say I agree with the comments above. I also lived and worked in Honduras and other Latin countries where there was another type of respect for the priests who traveled long distances to celebrate the Eucharist. Like the early Christian Community, yes we all have our gifts and our roles in the Church. However we must remember that without the Eucharist, we are just one of the 40,000 break-aways. The Eucharist defines us as Universally offering the Word that became Bread, and lives among us.

  10. Avatar Fr. Eric Sternberg says:

    On Altar Rails
    I am a priest and the pastor of a parish in the Diocese of Madison – the same Diocese as Deacon Jerome Buhman. I have also installed an altar rail, though it was not a “re-install” as the church was newly constructed.

    I am not sure if I am the church about which Deacon Jerome is talking but I did find his comment linking altar rails to clericalism to be thought-provoking.

    When preparing the installation of the altar rail I had meetings with the Pastoral Council and the Finance Council for over a year. I also preached sermons on this topic for six months (not every Sunday but most) and communicated it through the usual means. I found that many people came to speak with me and they also spoke with members of the Pastoral and Finance Councils and approval came from from those Councils for the altar rail project.

    Did everyone like the rail? Surely not. But is it something that the majority of the congregation didn’t want? Surely not.

    I find the notion that the altar rail is something that “separates” to be a strange one as people are actually physically closer to the sanctuary when receiving Holy Communion than before. The altar rail is made of the same material and designed to look like the altar and create a deeper closeness in that way. Frankly the history stated in the article is rather narrow as there are a number of excavated house churches from the first century that have rails which divide where the altar was from where the lay faithful were.

    My point is that linking clericalism to things like cassocks or altar rails is more than a bit narrow-minded. I have a suspicion we could find people who report instances of clericalism when they encountered priests who never wear the cassock, rarely wear clerics and have taken altar rails out of churches and/or love to talk negatively about those who have altar rails.

    Are there people out there who think I’m the best, friendliest, most approachable priest in the world? Probably yes. Are there people out there who think I’m the worst, most arrogant, most aloof priest in the world? Probably, yes. Do I have people who have left my parish to go to another one? Yes. Do I have people who left their parish to come to mine? Yes.

    Perhaps all the clericalism talk that is linked to things like cassocks and altar rails and so forth is really about something else.

    In the end, this is truth: Jesus Christ came to save sinners, of whom I am the first; or maybe the second after Saint Paul. I wonder how many people in Corinth thought Saint Paul suffered from clericalism.

  11. Avatar Katherine Weber says:

    Fr. Eric, I’m queuing up with you and Saint Paul and all our fam; you two might be first but I’m right behind you, a sinner in love with Jesus, trying to keep it real and true, whatever comes. Dialogue a great means toward this unitive end.

    What a relevant response, even if yours is not the parish to which Deacon Jerome was referring. Detailing your parish discernment process (in this case, communion rail) is helpful and important for all of our Catholic family, as we wrestle with:

    1. What divine worship has looked like, should look like… and WHY! Specifically, I mean. We already know that liturgical hardware directly affects and guides our software (I think that was Aquinas ;).

    2. How Clergy and Laity make decisions together. I wonder what a priest does when his flock disagrees entirely? Maybe we table that question for now, unless someone wants to tackle it.

    Process? You all must have stay(ed) in prayer, observed, questioned, and did your theologically sound homework. This is key. How? Sources, consults, information ruled out etc.- can you and/or someone from your committee share your theological sources? We can all learn from it, whatever our pastoral issues going forward. OK, then you prepared and ultimately empowered your parish. Was this process based upon a pre-existing model? Are you tired of my questions yet?

    Looks like some serious, communal trust in Jesus. Way to lead…to Him!

  12. Avatar Rev. John Thieryoung says:

    “In the era of the New Testament, the entire believing community was considered the holy priesthood by means of baptism. The community was comprised of individuals with various charisms that ministered to one another and to the surrounding world. There was no hierarchical structure as it exists in the Church today.” I stopped reading after this howler. Please read St. Ignatius of Antioch, an Apostolic Father, who assumes an hierarchical structure of Bishop, Presbyter/Priest, Deacon at the end of the First Century, all of whom are centered around the celebration of the Eucharist. Of course there is clericalism, we’re all sinners, and the Apostles argued among themselves as to who was the greatest even on the night Jesus was betrayed (LK 22:24). We must continue to strive to be servants to each other.

  13. I m sad to say this article made me sick to my stomach coming so close to the effort to squelch the celebration of the Traditional Latin Mass and all related to it. It also shows me how very little is understood about the heartfelt reason people are drawn to it. Young people. Young families. Young men who want to be formed and ordained as priests to celebrate the holy and reverent celebration. It has nothing to do with prestige or wanting to be seen as separate from the people they serve. How very wrong and misinformed the writer of this article is. It is so sad to see how slowly and insidiously the erosion is happening in the Church by those who want to make it in their image instead of the image of Jesus. And people, because of the teachings, confusion and downright perversion of the formation of past priests from which arose all the scandals, aren’t informed enough to see the difference. Like lemmings they just go along. Sad. I see this article as just prepping the people.

    There is clericalism in the Church but it didn’t happen because the Mass was celebrated in Latin. It happened because some tried to erase all the beautiful prayers, devotions, customs, teachings, reverence and focus on what is holy, true and good and they made it all common, usual, everyday, nothing special. That is why priests and laity lost our way. Not because of clericalism. This is being used to push us further away from what is holy.

  14. Avatar Rev. Daniel Hesko says:

    As a priest of 40 years and a busy pastor in my old age, I’ve seen so called clericalism. I choose to call it entitlement. I’ve seen it among very conservative clergy and I’ve seen it among very radical and liberal clergy. The root of it is, as all problems, spiritual. I’ve seen its ugly head in my own life. This is why the priest must always be on a spiritual journey, recognizing that he will stand before the judgment seat of Christ. I must often remind my self of the motto St Bernard had painted on the wall of his cell, ‘Bernardus cur hic?’ Bernard why are you here?
    Is a priest here to serve himself or the people entrusted to his care?
    When we leave the faithful behind to pursue our own agenda, that clericalism. Liberal, conservative or in-between, Prelate or humble curate, deacon or paid full time woman or man.

  15. This article is very misleading. The most important thing a priest can do is to administer the Sacraments and to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. That is why he is ordained and receives the Sacrament of Holy Orders from his bishop. I am a lay person. I cannot act in persona Christi as the priest does. I can do other things as a lay person to bring Christ to others by my good works and prayers. Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI got it right.

  16. Avatar Dcn. Vic Taylor says:

    Please read Dialogues of St. Catherine of Sienna to appreciate the Father’s view of clergy – even horribly corrupt ones. As to young seminarians being impressed by the attire – would I criticize a young soldier looking at his uniform for the first time? A fireman putting on his gear for the first time? Time will demand very great sacrifices from these young men. Pray that they receive the Grace to respond as the Father wills.

  17. I’m a layman in the spiritual direction ministry and I also do street evangelization, usually on my own, or with my wife. It’s very difficult to get other people involved because of the pyramidal structure of the church mentioned, where the laity rely on the clergy and engage in parish volunteerism (another dreaded “ism”) where they feel safe close to the clergy. In this sense, clericalism has had a devastating effect on the missionary impetus of the Church (In truth the parish is on the other side of the church walls where the lost sheep are waiting to see a face). The laity in volunteerism have often badly discerned and don’t have the charism to build up the church in the area they have volunteered in. It’s a perpetuating cycle of unhealthy deference and privilege. What is deeply needed, and seems to be strikingly absent in clerical circles is a formation in spiritual fatherhood. The term “father” for a priest should not be a title of honor but a term of endearment. The laity also are negligent in their responsibility here to form priests in this way by offering their support, honesty, and charitable correction also when needed. The priests on the other hand, as good fathers, need to send the laity out as the main missionary impetus of the Church.

  18. Avatar Giovanni Serafino says:

    As the deacon mentioned, he certainly has one foot in the lay world and the other in the clerical world. As a cleric he has few of the traditional duties and responsibilities of an ordained cleric in the Latin Rite including celibacy. I wonder how many “permanent” deacons there would be if they had to observe perpetual celibacy, wear clerical dress, live in a rectory and live on the salaries of most parochial vicars? Under the present Code of Canon Law liturgically lay people can do pretty much anything a permanent deacon can do. This includes , with the permission of the local Ordinary, witnessing marriages and performing baptisms. So why ordain “”permanent’ deacons with feet in both worlds? Perhaps a lay run church would solve the problem of “clericalism” The “ permanent“ deacons would then be able to keep both feet in the lay world where perhaps they really belong. Lastly, I find the Holy Father’s concern about “ clericalism” rather odd, since he has been the most dictatorial and clerical pope since the Borgias!

  19. Avatar Paul Michaels says:

    So the biggest problem in the church today is young priests who wear funny old style hats and cassocks, that is what I am taking away from this article. The idea that people are looking up to these young priests as “supermen” is laughable.

    Fr Daniel Horan does not like these men because they don’t embrace his political and philosophical causes. They are a threat to what he teaches and as such he diminishes them by calling out their “clericalism”. Same holds for Blaze Cupich, this man is an unabashed progressive and once again anyone not willing to follow his lead is guilty of “clericalism”.

  20. Avatar Paul Ruggieri says:

    That article merely looks at exteriors and does not interview the newly ordained, veteran priests, or laity. If he did, he might have a different interpretation. He would see some clericalism but mostly he would see love. Love for the Eucharist and love for the Priest!

  21. Even the things of God an be an obstacle to God to quote St John of the Cross. I suggest that the best antidote to clericalism and to counter the ugly divisions and infighting in the Church which are threatening a schism is to look outward beyond the walls of the “Parish”. Clericalism or any kind of ism that puts the things of God before God comes from looking inward, keeping the center of gravity firmly on the self about which we expect others to orbit. “Out there”‘ we rediscover that there are 25 different rites in the Catholic Church, of which the Roman rite is one. We also discover other Christians as brothers and sisters of the same Father, and though the Catholic faith is the head with the deposit of faith intact, God forbid we would be triumphalist. We are amputees as long as our brothers and sisters are separated. They have much they can teach us. The Catholic Church does not have hard 4 square boundaries, God is the Father of all and Mary the mother of all. Who appointed any one of us to police the Church? Jesus commissioned us to be witnesses. He did not ask us to defend the faith and dig trenches to hold on to what we believe we have, burying the one talent in the ground. If we become the disciples we are called to be I dare say the signs and wonders that would follow would heal any of the divisions and makes us one body again. I sometimes wonder do we really trust in the words of Our Lord that the gates of Hell will not prevail. What would the Church look like if everyone trusted in that promise from the heart without reserve??

  22. Avatar Tom McGuire says:

    We need to listen to each other. That is hard. These are some comments of Pope Francis said when he met with Jesuits in Slovakia. Is it possible for all of us to respond in charity entering into real dialogue?

    Pope Francis:
    “There are also clerics who make nasty comments about me. I sometimes lose patience, especially when they make judgments without entering into a real dialogue.”
    Commenting on his decision to issue “Traditionis Custodes,” restricting the celebration of the Tridentine Latin Mass and liturgy, Pope Francis said, “I hope that with the decision to stop [allowing priests to automatically opt in to celebrating] the ancient rite we can return to the true intentions of Benedict XVI and John Paul II,” who hoped to maintain church unity and heal schisms by approving celebrations of the pre-Vatican II Mass.
    Pope Francis reiterated that his decision was “the result of a consultation with all the bishops of the world made last year,” which, he said in a note accompanying the decision, showed him that the opportunity to celebrate the Tridentine Mass, intended to foster unity, was instead “exploited” to increase divisions in the church.
    Speaking to the Slovak Jesuits, the pope said, “From now on those who want to celebrate with the vetus ordo [the old form of the Mass] must ask permission from Rome as is done with biritualism,” that is, permission to celebrate in two different rites, like the Byzantine and Roman rite.
    “There are young people who after a month of ordination go to the bishop to ask for [permission to celebrate the Tridentine Mass],” the pope continued. “This is a phenomenon that indicates that we are going backward.”

  23. Avatar Douglas Dulli says:

    Many thanks to Deacon Jerome for this insightful and much needed article. I have increasing concerns about the coincidence of this clericalism and a movement that seems especially prevalent in many newly ordained priests to emphasize traditions and mores of the pre-Vatican II Church. Far from promoting the loving spirit of Christ and Christianity, their message seems to be one of “anti-evangelization” in which the non-clerics are exhorted to silently serve the Church – or find another church.

  24. Avatar Lawrence Cornelious Murphy says:

    Anything man has touched on earth he’s corrupted through the abuse with his brief and temporary power, including in the church! We’re only human and that’s why I didn’t jump at the chance for priesthood or deaconship when asked because I wasn’t worthy! That’s a problem with the selection of Popes that were only Italian and the wealthy and influential as some really didn’t want to be priests but only did it for their family’s princess prestige!

  25. You completely lost me when you went to Gaillardetz and Horan for “evidence” that faithful Catholics lament a rise in clericalism among young priests. Those are not credible sources in my opinion. They represent the radical progressive wing of the Church and are certainly not representative.

  26. Probably the best picture of clericalism ever painted is the photo that HPR found to put on my essay on the subject “Clericalism” published here a few years ago: The Church has “progressed” quite a bit, in troubling ways, it grieves me to say, in those few years. Yet at the same time, the Lord has seen fit to raise up beautiful, strong, faithful – even prophetic – voices among clergy and laity, voices calling for profound and heroic fidelity to the Holy Catholic Church. God’s ways are mysterious, and good.
    I have come to believe that the way out of clericalism is to trust it entirely to God, and our part is simple: pray. The power of holiness, present and growing in the hearts of faithful ordinary believers, is supernatural – a work of God – quiet, certain, invincible.

  27. Avatar Michael Walsh says:

    The greatest danger of clericalism today is not reflected in an altar rail. The altar rail does not separate the priest from the laity. It sets off the altar as a place where a sacred action is performed. It concerns the dignity of the sacred and the otherness of God and not an enhancement of the personality or status of the priest.

    The great danger of clericalism is the magnification of the clergy as agents of political ideology. The clergy takes on a gnostic aspect when they are presented as agents of secularized ideology. They become elite gnostic speculators as they espouse rigid political ideology. This is an invasion into the role of the laity and a reduction of the priests supernatural function.