I have heard the word clericalism used recently and I’m not sure I understand exactly what that term means, can you help me to understand it?
A simple definition from the Oxford dictionary of the word clericalism is the “misuse or overextension of the clergy’s authority.” This definition is bit vague so in order to answer your question, let me break down the definition and give you some examples. The easiest place to start is to define the clergy as one who is ordained. In the Catholic Church, there are three levels of ordination, first, the ordination to the diaconate, whether that be a permanent deacon or a transitional deacon. Second, there is the ordination to the priesthood and, third, there is the ordination to the episcopacy — that is one being ordained as a bishop. One who becomes a cardinal or even the pope is not ordained to that position, but is rather chosen or honored with that title. Cardinals and the pope are bishops.
The next part of the definition to look at is authority; every person ordained is given some sense of authority or power that comes with that position. Deacons, priests and bishops are given the authority to baptize, to preach, to do many of the works of God that clergy are called to do. This authority often makes the ordained an effective minister, but with that authority comes responsibility. That is where the first part of the definition comes into play. Clericalism is the misuse or overextension of authority. The clergy who falls into the trap of clericalism thinks he is entitled and should be treated with special privileges. There is often the notion of superiority. What that clergy has forgotten is the teaching of Jesus that the first shall be last and the last shall be first.
Bishop Thomas Zinkula of Davenport, Iowa, wrote an article in The Catholic Messenger where he spoke about clericalism and he gave three examples. 1. Coddling seminarians and telling them how special they are. 2. Insisting that priests or deacons go the front of the line at meals and wakes because they are more important and busier than everyone else. 3. People telling the bishop when pondering an issue, “Whatever you want, Bishop.” These sound like innocent things, but they reinforce a belief that the clergy are above the laity, which is actually just the opposite of the truth in that the clergy are ordained to serve the People of God.
The notion of clericalism is not simply an issue for the clergy to handle, the laity also have a role to play. Priests and deacons and bishops should not be held up on a pedestal by the laity. Yes, it is important to respect your clergy, but you need to also remember that they are human beings who have been ordained to be of service. Both the laity and the clergy must work together to bring about the mission of the Church, a sense of collegiality can go a long way. In the end, when it comes to clericalism, there is probably a lesson to be learned by all of us, the ordained and the laity. Jesus calls each of us to a life of humility and service.
-Fr. Jerry Herda