Portraits of Clericalism

Many people have claimed that “clericalism” was in large part responsible for the Church’s sexual scandals. Perhaps. But it’s not clear that all the people who make this claim mean the same thing.  For some, “clericalism” is whenever a priest tells you what the Church teaches on an unpopular moral issue – say, for example, when a priest says, “If you’re using contraceptives, that’s not right.” Or, “You should go to confession more often.”

This is what a priest is supposed to do.  So what is clericalism?  Perhaps a few examples are in order.  Let’s call them “portraits of clericalism.”

A friend reports that when he was a novice in a religious order, he could walk into any parish in the city and teach religious education classes. After he left the order, every Director of Religious Education to whom he applied insisted that he first attend their several-week-long training session for prospective teachers. Schools required him to have state licensing.  The “perks” that came with being a cleric had disappeared, and he was now “just” a layman. He realized, with some consternation, that they hadn’t wanted him; they wanted someone in a religious habit.

A friend struggling to make ends meet and study in Rome reports how the seminarians at the North American College would brag about their travels to various places throughout Europe.  They always had a place to stay and no trouble getting money to come and go. Usually, their meals and laundry were all taken care of, and they never had to go shopping, except for snacks and espresso.  Life is much easier when your daily necessities are supplied.

Lay professors in Catholic college and universities, especially those founded by religious orders, are often in an odd situation.  Some lay professors at Catholic institutions hate the Catholic Church and so oppose hiring any members of the founding religious order. But the more orthodox members of the faculty generally favor greater participation by qualified members of the founding religious order.

And yet, there is often a twofold irony involved.  The first is that the members of the founding order often side with the anti-Catholic faction over their more orthodox peers, believing that there is nothing worse than being allied with people that might be characterized as “conservative Catholics.”

The second irony is that these undesirable “conservative Catholics” often have gone out of their way to give an affirmative action “leg up” to help the semi-qualified members of the founding religious order get positions at the institution, only to find themselves treated with contempt thereafter.  Members of founding religious orders rarely have the same teaching responsibilities or the same tenure requirements.  And yet, when leadership opportunities open up, the clerics are usually appointed, regardless of their qualifications.

And then, as the members of the founding religious order with dubious qualifications, spotty publication records, and mediocre teaching evaluations move up the institutional hierarchy – chairing departments, heading up committees, occupying the office of dean or president – they continue to wonder why they are resented, even when they use these positions of power and authority to undermine the Catholic character of their institutions.


Lay graduate students rarely get job interviews without a finished dissertation, and even if they do, it is always nerve-wracking since an actual job offer is a long shot. Clerics are often assured of a regular position somewhere in their diocese or among the institutions run by the religious order. They can be assured of a job even though, during their graduate studies, they rarely had to prepare their own meals, pay for their own medical care, service their own cars, stay up all night with sick children, or make multiple trips to schools, stores, and doctors.

I know of a Catholic institution at which the dedicated Catholic faculty are determined not to have a priest as their president because the tenure of the last priest who occupied the position was so ruinous.  When a priest becomes president of a Catholic university, and the dedicated Catholics start fleeing the place in droves, you know there is a problem.  To many board members and alumni, “priest” means “Catholic.”  Too many faculty members have found, however, that “priest” means a problem.

The problems of abuse in the Church weren’t merely “sexual.”  They were manifestations of power and privilege as much as they were of unmastered lust.

Father orders the sacristy stripped of its statues and re-painted, and Father gets what he wants. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal dictates certain words and certain procedures be used at Mass, but Father wants things his way.  The community has a Director of Religious Education they’re happy with, but Father wants someone less “dogmatic,” so that person has to go.

The Church says certain acts are immoral, but Father thinks he has the same authority over the Church’s moral teachings as he did over the re-design of the church building and the church school. Priests in a highly sexualized society who habitually think of themselves as above the law and bound only minimally to the Church’s moral teachings are driving fast on a winding mountain road, having torn off the guardrails.

Clericalism is arrogance. It says “I am here not to understand this community and serve it, but to take control, get people’s minds right, and make it over in my image.” Clericalism is when religion is about what Father says, not what the Church teaches.

Priests have a special charism to serve others by standing in persona Christi. There is nothing about this charism that means they will able to make sound financial decisions, run a school or parish board, or sadly, given the current state of seminary studies, even teach religious education classes.  Some priests can do these things superbly, some cannot. One must discern.

Clericalism is strangely akin to racism. The difference is that with clericalism, you judge the person by his collar rather than his color.


*Image: The Patriotic De-Fattening Machine by an anonymous cartoonist, c. 1790 [Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris]

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.