Lets end Clericalism in the Church : Donald Cozzens

Clergy caught up in clericalism are incapable of seeing that it freezes their humanity—their ability to simply connect on a human level with the various sorts of God’s holy people.
By Father Donald Cozzens, a writer in residence at John Carroll University, where he teaches in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies. His most recent books are Notes from the Underground: The Spiritual Journal of a Secular Priest (Orbis) and Master of Ceremonies (ACTA), a novel.
Finally, there appears an issue that our divided church can agree on. Catholics of all stripes—conservatives and liberals and in-betweens—are declaring a pox on clericalism. From Pope Francis to the back pew widow, from seminary rectors to lay ecclesial ministers, it’s agreed that clericalism is crippling the pastoral mission of the church. At the same time it is strengthening the secularists’ claim that Catholic clergy are nothing more than papal agents bent on enforcing rigid moral controls which smother our human instinct for pleasure and freedom. So let’s end clericalism in the church.
Yes, of course, let’s end clericalism. It’s just plain right to heed the growing consensus that clericalism must go. But something tells me, “not so fast.” This cancer crippling the Catholic world—from local communities to Vatican offices—is so deeply embedded in our past and present church fabric that a careful pre-surgery examination is called for. So, pull on your surgical gloves and join me in the pre-op room.
We know clericalism when we encounter it, whether on the parish level or in the media’s caricaturist portrayal of priests and bishops. But although we know clericalism when we see it, it’s not so easy to define it.
Here’s how I see it: Clericalism is an attitude found in many (but not all) clergy who have put their status as priests and bishops above their status as baptized disciples of Jesus Christ. In doing so, a sense of privilege and entitlement emerges in their individual and collective psyches. This, in turn, breeds a corps of ecclesiastical elites who think they’re not like other men.
Clergy caught up in this kind of purple-hewed seduction are incapable of seeing that it freezes their humanity—their ability to simply connect on a human level with the various sorts of God’s holy people. Of all the sour fruits of clericalism, this inability to connect with others might be the most damaging. When the ordained come across as somehow superior to their parishioners and people they encounter, the playing field is tilted. This kind of disconnect can be fatal to a priest’s efforts to build a sense of community in his parish.
It’s often difficult for parishioners to feel comfortable with a clerical priest. They simple don’t find “Father” approachable. The same can be said of bishops who are all too comfortable thinking of themselves as princes by divine selection. They connect neither with their priests nor with the people they’re meant to shepherd. And you won’t find the smell of the sheep on them.
Often that’s exactly what clergy caught up in clericalism want: They believe a certain distance from the non-ordained is fitting and right. Of course, priests need not be chummy with their parishioners, and the pastor-parishioner relationship requires maturity and prudence on the part of the ordained. Most pastors are all too aware of the smothering demands of some of their flock. Without question, they need to safeguard their privacy and find time when they are, so to speak, “off the clock.” But clericalism by its nature exaggerates this need. Without fail, it breeds artificiality and superficiality between pastors and parishioners. Though often unnamed, something real is missing.
Clerical priests and bishops (and yes, clerical deacons) come to see their power to confer sacraments, to preach, and to teach and administer as the bedrock of their identity. When this happens, they lose sight of the truth that the church’s power is ultimately the power of the Holy Spirit. Without words, they seem to say “We are clergy… and you’re not.”
Years ago, when I served as my diocese’s vicar for priests, I spoke with a highly placed lay diocesan official who related his fear that he was being co-opted by the system—that he was becoming “clerical.” I told him not to worry. The very fact that he sensed the danger was his deliverance. We agreed that a number of his lay colleagues apparently didn’t see the danger. These lay chancery workers thought of themselves as insiders. And in a real sense they were. And like many of their ordained colleagues, their first loyalty was now to the church as institution rather than to the gospel and to the faithful they served. So the cancer of clericalism, in its broadest sense, is not restricted to deacons, priests, and bishops.
Clerical culture, it should be clear, is the breeding ground for the disease of clericalism. The two, however, are distinct. We must understand this before any attempts to surgically excise the cancer of clericalism. Most professionals, skilled workers, and artisans develop a culture, a pattern of behavior and language and image that shape the identity of those who belong. Such cultures can foster a healthy esprit de corp. So clerical culture itself isn’t the culprit here. Priests regularly speak of the “brotherhood of the ordained.” They share a similar seminary training. They understand the joys and sorrows of parish ministry, the freedom and loneliness of celibacy, and the frightening responsibility of preaching God’s word. But a healthy clerical culture fosters a spirit of humility and gratitude in the hearts of deacons, priests, and bishops. It leads a priest to say to himself, “By the grace of God I’m a priest. But I’m first a baptized disciple in need of ministry myself, in need of mercy and the fellowship of lay men and women.” However, a clerical culture that exaggerates the role and scope of the ordained minister in the life of the church becomes fertile soil for the cancer of clericalism.
So, what can we do to end clericalism? The following steps should excise the disease, or at least put clericalism into remission:
Bishops, priests, and deacons are called by the gospel—and by Pope Francis—to see discipleship and service as foundational to ordained ministry. Baptism confers all the dignity they need. Many clergy get this. Many still do not. So let our seminaries teach candidates for the priesthood that baptismal discipleship rooted in prayer is the foundation of priestly ministry.
Some clergy insist on being addressed with their title, Father or Monsignor. And some prelates insist on their courtly honorifics, Excellency or Eminence. Titles have their place, but we shouldn’t insist on them. We might smile at a lay person who insists on being called Mister, Doctor, Professor or Judge. Calling a physician Doctor is appropriate in the consulting room or hospital, and addressing a pastor as Father is likewise appropriate in parish settings. But most people wince when an individual insists on always being addressed by his or her title.
Mandated celibacy needs to be revisited. It’s true that we find clericalism in the married clergy of Eastern rite Catholic and Orthodox churches. But the inherent burdens of celibacy lead some clergy to a sense of entitlement and privilege, hallmarks of clericalism.
But, some will argue, isn’t the critique of clericalism an attack on the priesthood? The logic behind this question goes something like this: It’s difficult to exaggerate the dignity and spiritual power of the priesthood. Think of how many, if not most, of the laity perceive the priest primarily in terms of offering Mass and forgiving sins. So great a vocation, it’s concluded, requires that a priest be someone “set apart.” And with being set apart comes responsibility and privilege. In other words, this line of thinking accepts as natural a certain clericalism in Catholic priests because they belong to a kind of noble spiritual class. And while nobility has its obligations, it also has its perks.
But Pope Francis has answered this way of thinking by saying the priest is not so much a man set apart as a servant-pastor placed in the center of the community. The pope believes a priest and bishop should have a missionary heart, the antithesis of a clerical heart. In “The Joy of the Gospel,” Francis writes that “a missionary heart never closes itself off, never retreats into its own security, never opts for rigidity and defensiveness. It realizes that it has to grow in its own understanding of the gospel and in discerning the paths of the Spirit, and so it always does what good it can, even if in the process, its shoes get soiled by the mud of the street.”
So, yes, let’s end clericalism and follow the example of our non-clerical pope. He keeps reminding his bishops, priests, and deacons that they are trail guides for a pilgrim people. They are ministers of mercy—with muddy shoes.

Similar Posts


  1. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a priest, religious sister or brother pushing a trolley around a supermarket, they gotta eat. Have I just not been observant enough or is there another reason?

  2. Thank you for a refreshing article Donald Cozzens. I stumbled on this website while preparing my homily. You see I used to be a roman catholic priest, but I left: I was no longer called to celibacy, and feared I was moving further away from the gospel, in favour of a privileged life and sense of entitlement, after all, “look at how much I had given up” I would tell myself. As an Anglican priest, I find people treat me as an equal, more so. They take on true leadership roles in the parish and thank God, no one calls me Father: they call me by my baptismal name, the name God knows me by: “Daniel”. And that’s fine by me.

  3. Donald Cozzens has been one of the most lucid commentators and observers of the dreadful state of our Church in recent times.
    His last book, “Notes from the underground …….” was gloomy, as many of us were, as it was written pre March 13th 2013 — in other words, pre-Francis.
    The other two of his books that I have read are masterpieces: “Freeing Celibacy” and especially, ” The Changing Face of the Priesthood”.
    However, while his article above is definitely “refreshing” as Daniel@2 says, it would be hard to beat the late Fr. Joe McGuane’s critique of clericalism in his 2008 Furrow article, “The Professional Cleric” which was put up on this site shortly after Fr. Joe’s tragic death in Dec.2013, at the suggestion of Seán O’Conall, if I remember correctly. Would it be possible to post it on this site again for those who missed last time?
    I don’t know if the ACP and ACI are planning a big Regency meeting this year. However, if they are, then Fr. Donald Cozzens would be an excellent choice of speaker. Just a thought.

  4. Nine years ago I was Editor of my parish newsletter. On the front page of each issue I had a side panel with the names of the parish clergy listed with contact details etc., under the holding title: At Your Service.
    Then the new broom swept into office; the newly appointed P P sent one of his chaplains to me – an unwilling messenger – with the instruction that I was to remove the tag, At Your Service. He added the comment – “We are not waiters!..”

  5. t.s.
    I have frequently met members of the clergy,nuns, etc shopping in various supermarkets over the years. Nuns nowadays mostly don’t wear habits and many of the clergy when off duty dress informally.

  6. Kevin Walters says:

    Paddy Ferry @3
    Fr. Joe’s tragic death in Dec.2013, at the suggestion of Seán O’Conall, if I remember correctly. Would it be possible to post it on this site again for those who missed last time?.
    Paddy, the Article can be found with the link below
    kevin your brother
    In Christ

  7. I agree with this article. However, we could acknowledge those religious that are shepherds and carry the smell of the sheep just the way Pope Francis wants it. The question then is, what do we have most of clerics or shepherds? From my experience I have seen mostly shepherds in my church.

  8. Chris (England) says:

    I have known some genuine servant shepherds over the years, but also quite a few career clerics who spent their time trying to demonstrate how diffferent they were from the “2nd class laity”. It worries me greatly that many of those ordained as priests, in recent years, fit in the latter category. It appears that some bishops are all to happy to have priests who fit the old mould,say the black and do the red” and do not challenge anything within the system or think of working for positive change in the Church. Some would describe many of those “youngish” priests as being “so heavenly minded as to be of no earthly use” but I don’t think this is being fair on heaven. I just hope that Francis will be given the time and the energy to break up the destructive cleric caste and replace it with a model of genuine service of the people.

  9. Joe O'Leary says:

    Unreadable CAPTCHA Code (could someone please fix this confusing item).
    Here goes again: Let’s get rid of the word “clericalism” — it has become a stereotype to tar all clerics with, blinding people to their human and gospel virtues — a nasty replacement for the old Sagart arún stereotype.

  10. As long as there is a Church organization and the professionalization of Church ministry, there also will exist clerical arrogance somewhere and in some way. Ending clericalism is a lofty ideal, but hardly realistic. It does need to be addressed however, as clericalism, is particularly harmful, if it blocks the Lord’s Way and Will.

  11. Fr Ronan Kilgannon says:

    I have been a priest for 45 years and I am not sure of the label “clericalism”.
    Most priests I have known and worked with have been admirable if sometime a little eccentric human beings. I have met arrogant clergy but then I have met arrogant laymen and women too. And with due respect to the Pope, I’ve met a few haughty Jesuits. I very much doubt the laity would tolerate a pompous priest today – if that is what clericalism is about. Almost everyone is mobile and can travel to another parish, and they do. Priests have very varied personalities, so some will appeal to some people, others to others. Fr Cozzens writes well and tries to be balanced. But from my experience – working throughout Australia and New Zealand – I have encountered very little of “the cancer” he describes. is there some saying about building up a straw man in order to pull him down?

  12. #10 ‘Let’s get rid of the word “clericalism”’
    #12 ‘(Is the term ‘clericalism’) building up a straw man to pull him down?’
    In this diocese I know of a parent currently grappling with the rebellion of a teenager who will not go to Mass – on the well-argued grounds that Mass-going is capitulation to senseless brain-washing. As if to prove his point, half-a-century after Vatican II (e.g. Lumen Gentium #37) his parents still have no diocesan forum to take this issue to.
    Meanwhile we are supposedly four years into a ten-year programme to reform the catechetical system of the Irish church by giving parishes – and parents especially – greater responsibility for the formation of their own children. However, there is absolutely no sign that this programme has the attention or interest of diocesan clergy. A query sent by me to the diocesan catechetical office on this issue many months ago has received no reply.
    If the authors of #10 and #12 cannot recognise the phenomenon usually called ‘clericalism,’ can they give me an alternative name for whatever force still resists the irrefutable need to assemble the remaining Catholics of this diocese – as a matter of urgency – before our churches empty completely? What is it that still denies us the basic familial necessity of regular, frank, vocal communion – a structure to prove that our clergy do truly believe in the equal dignity of all of the baptised?
    ‘Elephant’ may well be the worst possible name for the largest surviving earth quadruped – but must we all then agree that this animal does not exist?

Join the Discussion

Keep the following in mind when writing a comment

  • Your comment must include your full name, and email. (email will not be published). You may be contacted by email, and it is possible you might be requested to supply your postal address to verify your identity.
  • Be respectful. Do not attack the writer. Take on the idea, not the messenger. Comments containing vulgarities, personalised insults, slanders or accusations shall be deleted.
  • Keep to the point. Deliberate digressions don't aid the discussion.
  • Including multiple links or coding in your comment will increase the chances of it being automati cally marked as spam.
  • Posts that are merely links to other sites or lengthy quotes may not be published.
  • Brevity. Like homilies keep you comments as short as possible; continued repetitions of a point over various threads will not be published.
  • The decision to publish or not publish a comment is made by the site editor. It will not be possible to reply individually to those whose comments are not published.