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Clericalism and Laicism

by David Oatney on August 16, 2013

popefrancisSince the beginning of his pontificate, we have seen and heard Pope Francis denounce the evils of clericalism, or the idea that because clergy are part of the clerical state that they ought to be entitled to an exaggerated deference to which their flocks, as fellow Christians, would not be entitled. At its worst, clericalism can lead to a separation between the clergy and the people of God that is both unhealthy and unholy, and Pope Francis, when he was in Brazil for World Youth Day, repeatedly warned his hearers against its dangers.

Francis has good reason to be leery of a spirit of clericalism, because it is historically rampant in Latin America from whence he comes. Reactions against clerical excesses in Latin American countries have historically been a part of the impetus for Marxist or pseudo-Marxist regimes in places ranging from Cuba to Venezuela to Argentina, so the Pope can speak from some experience, and many of these regimes have been no friend of the Church. Some Latin American governments have persecuted the Church with no small amount of severity. Many people in the Church, and even in the secular media, are also right to point out that a spirit of clericalism may have greatly exaggerated or increased the scale of the sex abuse scandal from which the Church is, by God’s grace, recovering. Pope Francis isn’t the first Pope to warn of the dangers of clericalism, he is following in the footsteps of Blessed John Paul II in that regard.

Just as clericalism and the elitist attitudes which can sometimes surround it cancassock pose a danger to the Church because the clergy can become distant and aloof from the People of God, the opposite problem, laicism, can lead to a diminishing of the place of the Sacrament of Holy Orders in the life of the Church by creating an atmosphere of very little distinction between clergy, especially priests, and the rest of the flock, or even the secular world. Laicism is also unhealthy, because it diminishes the place of Holy Orders in the life of the Church. The distinction between the clergy and the laity (I prefer the term that our Associate Director of Deacons, Deacon Jim Lawson, has used-the People of God) is not one where one group simply has authority over the other, but where the clergy serve the People of God. This distinction is also one that is sacramental in nature, since not everyone is called to receive the Sacrament of Holy Orders, just as not everyone is called to receive the Sacrament of Matrimony.

To illustrate a clear (and extreme) example of what is meant when I speak of laicism in an ecclesiastical sense, we can see prime examples of it within the ecclesial communities of many of our separated brethren in our part of the country, particularly in independent self-governing churches and small Protestant denominations. In many ecclesial communities that tend to be more fundamentalist in nature or which teach or preach a theology or exegesis which leans in the direction of a more fundamentalist bent, it is often the case that any man who says that he has a “call to preach” is then prayed over by others in the congregation that are seen to be leaders, and sometimes by all of the people. Hands might be laid on this person, and they may be declared to be “ordained” because one or two men who are ministers in the community are present at this praying.

How much formation a man (or, depending on the kind of ecclesial community, it might be a woman, Joyce Meyer might be the most prominent example of a woman evangelical minister who is or was once a leader in a congregation) has is entirely up to that ecclesial community. In no small amount of cases, that person has little of what we as Catholics, or even many Protestants, might consider spiritual or academic formation at all, while some other congregations might send a man to a bible college or seminary. Usually, little distinction at all is made between this minister and the people that he (or she) is supposed to serve, usually to the detriment of the ministry and the minister in question. This is because in many of these more independent ecclesial communities, a board of trustees or board of “deacons” is who the pastor has to answer to, rather than to a bishop. What that means is that if the pastor says something on any given Sunday that makes people uncomfortable or that the congregation collectively decides that they don’t like, there is really nothing to stop them from removing a minister. Communities such as this make no real distinction between the people in the pew and those ordained to bring the Gospel to them.

chrismWhile respecting many of our brothers and sisters in Christ who govern their ecclesial communities in this way, there is a reason why we, as Catholics, have a very clear distinction between the clergy-those ordained-and those who are not. Holy Orders, or ordination, is a Sacrament precisely because that sacred mystery sets a man apart in a special way to preach the Gospel and (in the case of a priest or bishop) to bring us Jesus in the Eucharist. A priest is not likely to be removed from his position for preaching the fullness of the Catholic faith, nor would a deacon likely be, provided he preached with the pastor’s knowledge and the bishop’s assent.

The distinction between the clergy and the rest of the People of God should not be viewed, either by the clergy or the people, as one of aloofness or separation from them or from society. Such an attitude is exactly what Pope Francis is going to great lengths to condemn. However, neither should the distinction be minimalized, because it is a sacramental one. In this way, the deacon plays an important role. He has received the Sacrament of Holy Orders just as the priest and the bishop have, but his role places him with “a foot in both worlds,” because he often has responsibilities other than ecclesiastical work, so he serves as an example of someone who should be living the graces of the Sacrament of Holy Orders in the wider world. It has been said by some that the diaconate acts as a guard against an excessively clerical mentality within the Church. The diaconate also might serve as an equal guard against excessive laicism, since one of those ordained people might be our neighbor or our co-worker, bringing the Gospel to us outside of the parish building.

In truth, there is a fine line between clericalism and laicism and the Church is tasked with walking that line. Maintaining the integrity of the Sacrament of Holy Orders while insuring that those gifted to receive that Sacrament (for all is Gift) do not become distant or alienated from the People of God who they serve seems to be what Pope Francis is ultimately striving for. He wants to remind the clergy that they are called to live simply and with humility, and the laity (the People of God) that holiness is for them, not just for those fellows who wear a collar.

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