Yes Virginia, There is Clericalism

Every time you meet somebody afflicted by a confusion between the sanctity of the priestly office and the sanctity of the person who holds it; or a conviction that the priesthood is all about power, not love and service; or the notion that the only true forum for our gifts as laity is to somehow lug them into the liturgy; or a demand for “equal access” to a sacrament which is a gift, not a civil right, you are meeting a clericalist. You meet it, not just in the old lady who believe in the infallibility of God, the priest and doctor (not necessarily in that order), but in the Call to Action geezer or the Voice of the Fuddled “reformer” who can conceive of no other way to “keep the Faith and change the Church” than for the laity to hurl their pews at the altar and seize the Church “for our own”. In all this, the assumption is simply that the only real Catholic is an ordained Catholic and the lay person “counts” only insofar as he has access to the ordained office.

What we can do about this is somewhat analogous to what the Treasury department does about counterfeits. They don’t train their agents to study every possible permutation of a phony bill. They teach them what a real bill looks like. In the same way, I think railing against clericalism is mostly going to be fruitless. The reason so many people are clericalists is because they don’t grasp the dignity of the lay office. So they waste huge amounts of time wishing they were what they are not because they believe it’s the only way to be “truly” Catholic. If you tell them “Stop trying to be the priest” all you will succeed in doing is persuading them that the Power Elite are trying to bar them from access to The Power and that you are one of their dupes or stooges.

But if you help people learn the enormous gift, mission and call of the laity, they stand a chance of realizing that the lay office in the Church is a real office with its own dignity and its own set of wildly diverse charisms that are absolutely vital to the work of the Church in the world. They will see that they are every bit as called and gifted to preside in the world as the priest is to preside at the altar. They will see, in short, that we are member of one Body and are all drinking of the same Spirit for the building up of the Body of Christ.

Clericalism, though real, is not the main problem, but a symptom. The main problem is that we laity do not know that we are called to be lay apostles in the world, living out the work of love which we have been called and gifted to accomplish, and which no priest, bishop, or Pope could possibly accomplish. We hang around the sanctuary, because we do not know that the last words of the Mass are “Go. You are sent!” The job of the ordained is to equip us, so that we can do our vital and unique work in the world.

Copyright 2008 - Mark P. Shea