May 6, 2016


Pope writes against clericalism

Pope Francis is probably the most outspoken pope on the evils of clericalism, although the Church has condemned this temptation at least since the Second Vatican Council, and other popes have spoken out against it.

Clericalism is “a way of thinking that the clerical vocation and state in life are both superior to and normative for all other Christian vocations and states. From this point of view, it follows that clerics are the active agents in the Church—the ones who make the decisions, give the orders, exercise command. The laity’s role is to listen and do as they’re told.”

The quotation above is from Russell Shaw, who has written extensively against clericalism in numerous articles and in his book To Hunt, to Shoot, to Entertain: Clericalism and the Catholic Laity.

Pope Francis’ latest denunciation of clericalism is in a letter to Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops and president of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America. The pope told the cardinal that, in lay Catholics’ work for the good of society and for justice, “it is not the pastor who must tell the layperson what to do and say. He already knows this, and better than we do.”

The role of clerics, he said, is to “stand alongside our people, accompany them in their search and stimulate their imagination in responding to current problems.” And he emphasized, “We are called to serve them, not use them.”

As we said, Pope Francis is not the first member of the magisterium to make those points. The Second Vatican Council’s “Decree on the Apostolate of Lay People,” the 1983 revision of the Code of Canon Law, the 1987 Synod of Bishops on the role of the laity, and St. John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation “On the Vocation and the Mission of the Lay Faithful in the Church and in the World” all emphasized that the proper vocation for the laity is in the secular world—in our homes, neighborhoods, cities and countries.

All of these teachings built upon the writings on the importance of the laity to the mission of the Church from St. Francis de Sales in the early 17th century to St. Josemaria Escriva in the decades before Vatican II.

The problem is that we laity, not the clergy, are usually the ones most prone to clericalism. That was understandable a century ago when most members of the laity were poorly educated and when there were numerous priests, who were educated, in our parishes. But those days are long gone.

Yet we still often wait for those in the clerical state to provide our leadership. Except in ecclesiastical matters, that’s not the way it should work.

Yes, we members of the laity have our own vocations. How well are we carrying them out?

Some are doing extremely well. We’re thinking about the staffs in our Catholic schools, perhaps the best example of how things have changed during the past 60 years. These are people carrying out their lay vocations.

So are those involved in all the agencies that are part of Catholic Charities, the hundreds of volunteers in the St. Vincent de Paul Society, the Beggars for the Poor, and other Catholic groups who serve the poor, the homeless and the sick in central and southern Indiana.

But these are still groups that have a connection with the Catholic Church. We’d like to think that every lay person realizes that he or she has a vocation. As the pope has said, the fundamental consecration of all Christians occurs at baptism and is what unites all Christians in the call to holiness and witness.

In this election year, that means Catholic politicians, too. Politics should mean the process of making decisions for the benefit of all people. Those involved in doing that are carrying out a noble vocation. They should, of course, do this while adhering to the teachings of the Church and to a well-formed conscience.

And, more broadly, we hope that all lay Catholics apply their faith more directly and consciously to their work and lives in the world. They can be strengthened in this by the ministry of the clergy. But they can have an effect on the broader community in ways that go beyond the reach of our priests.

About that strange title of Russell Shaw’s book in the third paragraph. It came from a letter from Msgr. George Talbot to Archbishop Henry Manning in England in the 19th century. Talbot was complaining about Blessed John Henry Newman’s suggestion that the clergy consult the laity before making decisions on matters about which lay people have expertise. Talbot wrote, “What is the province of the laity? To hunt, to shoot, to entertain? These matters they understand, but to muddle with ecclesiastical matters they have no right at all.”

That was 19th-century thinking. Things have changed since then.

—John F. Fink

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