Calling for an end to lay clericalism

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by Russell Shaw

The Edge of Sadness, the elegiac successor to his wildly successful novelThe Last Hurrah, Edwin O’Connor places these words about the priesthood and lay clericalism in the mouth of the story’s priest-narrator: “Probably in no other walk of life is a young man so often and so humbly approached by his elders and asked for his advice. Which, by the way, is almost always received gratefully and forgotten promptly.”

Much has changed in Catholicism since 1961, when The Edge of Sadness was published, but the ambivalent clericalism of the Catholic laity persists, albeit in altered forms. Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Buenos Aires captured one expression of it in an interview not long before he became known to the world as Pope Francis: “We priests tend to clericalize the laity. We do not realize it, but it is as if we infect them with our own thing. And the laity—not all of them but many—ask us on their knees to clericalize them, because it is more comfortable to be an altar boy than the protagonist of a lay path.”

But, someone might ask, what’s so bad about being an altar server? The future pope gave this answer: “The layman is a layman and has to live as a layman with the strength of his baptism, which enables him to be a leaven of the love of God in society…not from his pulpit but from his everyday life.”

Contrast that with the praises sung today—from pulpits, pastoral letters and Catholic media—to the excellence of lay ministries, as well as the customary silence regarding the apostolic role of Catholic lay people in the world.

The emergence of lay ecclesial ministries has been an important development in Catholicism over the last 40 years. It has brought fresh vitality to many parishes and made a significant contribution to pastoral work. The problem is not lay ministry as such but the clericalization of the laity and the neglect of formation for the lay apostolate in the world that have accompanied its rise. Now, barring a sudden change, Pope Francis’ vision of a missionary church engaged in outreach to the world is at risk of being a dead letter for American Catholicism. If that happens, the clericalism of the Catholic laity will deserve a large share of the blame.

Father Knows Best?

The sources of lay clericalism are of two kinds: historical-sociological and theological-pastoral. It is a holdover from the time when the priest was the best educated Catholic in the village (or the old neighborhood, in the days of immigrant Catholicism). The U.S. bishops’ struggle with lay trusteeism during the 19th century heightened the lay-clerical divide. The result was a state of clerical ascendancy and superficial lay subservience like that reflected in the passage from The Edge of Sadness: Father knows best, so let’s ask him—and then do pretty much as we like.

The theological-pastoral source of lay clericalism was and still is a defective understanding of vocation premised on the universally normative character of the clerical state. In this way of thinking, other states and modes of being a member of the church are rated by how closely they approximate the state of clerics. The central importance of personal vocation is overlooked, so that to say, as St. John Paul II did, that personal vocation “defines the dignity and the responsibility” of lay women and men (“Christifideles Laici,” No. 58) is taken simply as rhetoric. What counts is participation in some form of ministry that brings a lay person within the penumbra of the clerical state.

The harm done by lay clericalism is also of two principal kinds.

First, it impoverishes the church’s mission in the world. Lay people imbued with a clericalist spirit are tempted to suppose they are doing all that can reasonably be asked of them by taking part in parish-centered ministries. Preaching and catechesis often reinforce this attitude.

In such circumstances, the idea of giving witness to Gospel values in everyday life—on the job, in the neighborhood, in social contacts and at home—does not register very strongly. These are often good, decent people leading good, decent lives, but the notion that they have been called to be lay apostles in the secular order—an ideal that at least received lip service in the days when Catholic Action was in vogue—seldom occurs to them.

More than that, however, the mentality of lay clericalism also assumes a two-tiered spirituality, to the disadvantage of lay people. There is a high spirituality associated with the clerical state (whether particular clergymen pursue it or not is another question) and then there is the minimalistic, legalistic spirituality thought to be appropriate for the laity.

Forms of spirituality do indeed differ according to state in life and vocation; but in the end there is only one sanctity, as the Second Vatican Council made clear: “All Christians in any state or walk of life are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of love” (“Dogmatic Constitution on the Church,” No. 40). At the same time, of course, “by reason of their special vocation it belongs to the laity to seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and directing them according to God’s will” (No. 31).

Against this background, Pope Francis’ call for a missionary church should be seen as an antidote to lay clericalism. In the first chapter of his apostolic exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel,” which lays out the program of this pontificate, under the heading “A Church Which Goes Forth” Francis writes: “All of us are called to take part in this new missionary ‘going forth.’ Each Christian and every community must discern the path that the Lord points out, but all of us are asked to obey his call to go forth from our own comfort zone in order to reach all the ‘peripheries’ in need of the light of the Gospel” (No. 20).

That includes the laity. “All the baptized, whatever their position in the church or their level of instruction in the faith, are agents of evangelization.” A plan of action intended only for church professionals is not sufficient. “The new evangelization calls for personal involvement on the part of each of the baptized” (No. 120).

Nor is ecclesial lay ministry the answer. Francis writes: “Even if many are now involved in 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” (No. 102).

The Job of Lay Catholics

In what areas are the efforts of the laity to apply the Gospel to the transformation of society especially needed today? In “Christifideles Laici” St. John Paul II identified these eight: promoting the dignity of the person, fostering respect for the right to life, defending freedom of conscience and religious freedom, protecting and encouraging marriage and family life, engaging in works of charity, participating in public life, placing the individual at the center of socioeconomic life and the evangelization of culture.

It is not the church’s job to tell lay Catholics exactly how to apply the Gospel in any of these contexts—how Catholic doctors should practice medicine, Catholic lawyers should practice law, Catholic politicians should do politics, Catholic writers should write and so on. The church’s responsibility is to form them to shoulder the task according to their own well-formed judgment.

In part, this formation is a work of instruction; and today, it seems, many lay Catholics are dismayingly uninstructed in the faith. Not long ago, chatting with a small group of intelligent, serious-minded lay people about the social teaching of the church, I mentioned the universal destination of goods as a central principle of this body of doctrine. The reaction was blank disbelief: Surely the Catholic Church never said anything like that? If this incident was typical—and unfortunately I suspect it was—there is an enormous amount of instruction to be done.

In part, too, this is a work of vocational discernment. Clericalist thinking supposes “discernment” to be something done only by the comparatively small number of people who at any particular time are engaged in making up their minds about whether to be clerics and religious. From the perspective of personal vocation, however, continuing discernment of God’s will, not only in large matters but ordinary ones, is a lifelong need for all the baptized, laypeople as much as members of the clergy and religious. This is hardly a new thought. It is very much in the spirit of what Jean Pierre de Caussade, S.J., called the “sacrament of the present moment” and Cardinal John Henry Newman’s insight that “we are not called once only, but many times, all through our life Christ is calling us.” Yet in how many parishes do parishioners receive regular encouragement and guidance for day-by-day discernment of what God is calling them to do?

Finally, it is good to recall something another writer named O’Connor—Flannery O’Connor—said when asked in a letter from Sister Mariella Gable why she wrote about Protestants rather than her fellow Catholics. O’Connor’s response, dated May 4, 1963, reads, in part:

To a lot of Protestants I know, monks and nuns are fanatics, none greater. And to a lot of the monks and nuns I know, my Protestant prophets are fanatics. For my part, I think the only difference between them is that if you are a Catholic and have this intensity of belief you join the convent and are heard from no more; whereas if you are a Protestant and have it, there is no convent for you to join and you go about in the world, getting into all sorts of trouble and drawing the wrath of people who don’t believe in anything much at all down on your head.

No longer is it the case that Catholics who “join the convent” are necessarily “heard from no more.” But the fundamental point still stands: The assumptions underlying the clericalism of the laity prevent them from undertaking the work of evangelization. As Flannery O’Connor might say, we need well formed Catholic lay women and men who are ready and willing to go about the world getting into trouble and drawing down “the wrath of people who don’t believe in anything much at all.” And as Pope Francis keeps telling us, it is time to set aside lay clericalism and get on with the job.

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