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Updated: Nov 20, 2021

The word clericalism is ubiquitous in print and media coverage of the sexual crisis gripping the Catholic Church. And the connotation is usually negative.

Specifically, clericalism refers to a deep-seated Roman Catholic culture of deference to the clergy. This culture of deference, over time, has elevated the clergy to a status significantly superior to the laity. It confers on the clergy an aura of implied power and authority, which has had harmful effects.

On April 24, 2016, speaking at the Youths Jubilee, Pope Francis openly acknowledged the dangers of clericalism: “Clericalism nullifies the personality of Christians” and it also leads “to the functionalization of the laity, treating them like errand boys or girls.”

Pope Francis conceded the causal connection between clericalism and the sexual abuse of children and vulnerable adults. The connection is irrefutable in the face of evidence that many Bishops:

  • rejected transparency

  • repeatedly ignored complaints from victims

  • shielded perpetrators and their protectors

  • repeatedly transferred pedophiles from one unknowing parish and school community to the next

  • orchestrated cover-ups in the interest of avoiding scandal

  • withheld or destroyed incriminating document

To say “no” to abuse is to say an emphatic “no” to all forms of clericalism. (Pope Francis, Letter to the People of God, August 20, 2018, Vatican City)

However, the evils of clericalism are not confined to sexual abuse of children and vulnerable adults, although the tragic consequences in that context are unparalleled. To fully comprehend clericalism, one must consider its insidious impacts on innocent abuse victims, on the laity, and on dedicated religious women and men whose vocations have been unfairly denigrated.

The corollary to the superiority of clergy clericalism, is the assumed inferiority of the laity. The clergy’s disproportionate power and authority necessarily erodes the power and authority of the laity. This is particularly the case with lay women and others who are among the ranks of the disenfranchised.

The New Testament does not contemplate the current man-made hierarchical structure that has cost the Church so dearly. Jesus calls us each by name and exhorts us all: clergy, laity, men, women, and children, to share the good news. We are each of us equal in the eyes of our God. We are each of us called to treat the other as equally entitled to respect and dignity. And Jesus’s words make clear that we are equally called to participate in building the body of Christ on earth.

Change will require the clergy to embrace a new and profound humility. But the laity are also charged with their own transformation to be adult in church leadership roles. We have been complacent. No longer can the laity be lulled or coerced into submission. The laity must instead engage as active and equal participants in church governance.

The laity bears some measure of blame for the abdication of its responsibility for the Church. If the laity resumes the role as it has always been intended, the scourge of clericalism will be remedied and authentic reform and renewal can flourish.

The Truth and Reconciliation process provides an opportunity for a revitalized laity to lead a damaged Church to reform and renewal.

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