The solution to clericalism is not simply to have more laity involved inside the Church walls


In a meeting with Italian Catholic media last week, His Holiness took up a theme he obviously considers important considering how often he returns to it: the power of the lay vocation and the urgency that it not be thwarted by clericalism. Repeating a favorite line, he complained that priests constantly try to clericalize the laity, and “the laity beg on their knees to be clericalized,” because it’s easier to stake out turf in parish ministries than it is to engage the world.

Everyone nods when the Pope denounces clericalism, but I think few understand him. No matter how often he points the laity outward towards their fellow men, well-meaning Catholics point them back again towards the internal life of the Church.

Last Fall, for example, a young monk at America magazine chided his fellow priests for clericalism and got his own back from a host of interlocutors. None of them actually addressed the tendency of priests to think all Catholic life takes place within parish boundaries, though. They were discussing rigidity, not clericalism.

Or take this Vatican Radio report attempting to elucidate the Pope’s remarks on clericalism in Evangelii Gaudium. Their expert gets off to a good start:

“Of course, we need to build community and to be nourished by the Lord’s presence in the Eucharist and in the presence of our brothers and sisters in community… but we can’t stop there,” she said. “There’s always…. a call to go out and to share the Good News with those around us. We really need to… re-capture that missionary spirit.”

That indeed seems to describe what the Pope means. In Evangelii Gaudium #102 he tries to correct what he sees as the misdirection of lay energies:

Even if many are now involved in the lay ministries, this involvement is not reflected in a greater penetration of Christian values in the social, political and economic sectors. It often remains tied to tasks within the Church, without a real commitment to applying the Gospel to the transformation of society. The formation of the laity and the evangelization of professional and intellectual life represent a significant pastoral challenge.

A reporter once asked Cardinal Bergoglio about Argentina’s Catholic majority. Bergoglio responded that if there actually were a majority of Catholics, the country wouldn’t be so corrupt. See what he’s getting at? The lay vocation is not aimed at the inner life of the Church; it’s aimed at transforming the secular world from within.

Unfortunately after this promising start, the piece defaults to precisely the clericalism the Pope is trying to uproot. We’re told first that “lay people can bring professional skills to parishes, to dioceses and even to the Roman Curia,” and then that “the responsibility in a way falls on Church leaders. Are you, Church leaders, willing to invite lay people to be involved?”

Sorry, wrong!  Believe me, I’m not denigrating parish service (I teach RCIA!). Dynamic collaboration between pastors and parishioners is necessary if the parish is to thrive and reach out into surrounding neighborhoods as it should. All due respect for the canonists and consultors who help bishops exercise their teaching office. But to turn everyone into a volunteer is to lack imagination. It’s also to abandon a darkening world to itself.

A decade ago, a human rights lawyer who has championed the cause of persecuted Christians around the world came back to the Church. When she approached her pastor about getting more involved, his response was to cajole her into spending less time on her own apostolate and instead dedicate her free time to pro-bono work for the parish. He simply had no eyes to see the unique service she was already rendering the Church by defending some of its most vulnerable members.

That is clericalism, and without using the word, my friend knew it. She told the leader of our Bible study, “I love that you don’t ask me what I can do for you; you help me do what God has asked of me.”  At its best, that’s what a healthy parish ought to do: not siphon every energy back into parish life, but form Christians capable of going back to their barrios or hospitals or homes or Congressional offices and apply the Gospel there.

I think a form of clericalism is responsible for some misunderstanding between Pope Francis and some of his natural allies. Read the Pope’s criticisms of the contemporary Church and think “all Catholics, including me” rather than “clergy,” and see if most of the difficulties don’t resolve.

We need a Copernican revolution in Church thinking, perhaps. Laity can bring their professional skills to the parish and chancery, yes. What’s infinitely more important is that they bring their Christianity to their professions.

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of


About Author

Rebecca Ryskind Teti lives in Hyattsville, MD with her husband, four kids and a misbehaving beagle. She is Director of Women’s Programs at Our Lady of Bethesda Retreat Center, a frequent speaker on prayer, spirituality and the intersection of faith and culture, and web editor for

Leave A Reply