In his “Letter to the People of God,” from August 18, 2018, Pope Francis stated:
It is impossible to think of a conversion of our activity as a Church that does not include the active participation of all the members of God’s People. … Such is the case with clericalism, an approach that “not only nullifies the character of Christians, but also tends to diminish and undervalue the baptismal grace that the Holy Spirit has placed in the heart of our people.” 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. “
What is clericalism and how is it such a danger in our Church?
There are many definitions of clericalism and yet they all come back to a basic reality. Clericalism is a culture and expectation that ordained ministers are better than and should rule over everyone else among the People of God. As Pope Francis said, this diminishes and undervalues the baptismal grace of our people. In doing so, it also downplays the equal dignity of every human being made in the image and likeness of God.
Clericalism leads to many dangers in the Church and in the lives of all people, clergy and laity.
One of the most glaring examples is the sexual abuse by clergy and the cover up by bishops for so long. Young victims were led to believe that whatever father did was good, even sinful sexual activity with them. Added to this was the behavior of bishops who for too long felt the need to protect themselves, their priests and the institution of the hierarchy and hence covered up the abuse and kept silent.
Lay members of the Church can also foster clericalism by supporting priests and bishops even when they ought to be questioning them. Parents who refused to listen to their children when they were told that “father touched me in my private parts” and told their children not to talk that way about father. Thankfully, as a Church we are learning that we all have dignity and rights. Clergy have their roles and lay men and women have theirs and we need to work together to promote the dignity of all and the common good of the Church and society.