How do you recognize clericalism?

B. C. Catholic [Archdiocese of Vancouver, British Columbia]

July 7, 2021


In November of 2019, the Report on Clerical Sexual Abuse made 31 recommendations for preventing and investigating sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Vancouver. In particular, recommendation #25 called for “…the immediate establishment of a leadership team comprised of lay, religious and clergy to prayerfully explore the development of an Archdiocese-wide plan” to combat “the inherent evil of clericalism” within both the laity and clergy of the Archdiocese.

This recommendation requires the development of “…a strategy for developing and maintaining a Church which more fully reflects the spirit of Vatican II (Lumen gentium and Apostolicam actuositatem, for example)” as individuals, communities, and as an institution.

Archbishop J. Michael Miller, CSB, created a committee to study the problem of clericalism. The new committee’s task is to study this recommendation and propose practical measures to reduce clericalism in our archdiocese. The committee includes lay, religious, and clergy. This membership includes two members of the Case Review Committee that made the original recommendation.

To ensure that it has clear focus, the committee has come up with a working definition of clericalism:

Clericalism isa misplacement of responsibility with little or no accountability of the ordained ministers and lay faithful in the people God. This leads the faithful and ordained clergy to expect that ordained ministers are better than and should rule over everyone else among the People of God which further leads to abuses of power and hinders the universal call to holiness and the mission of evangelization.

The committee plans to make practical suggestions that will help our local church establish right relationship between the clergy and laity so that we can all better work together to build God’s Kingdom. In doing so, we must retain what is positive in the exercise of the priestly vocation and its relationship with the laity while working against attitudes and practices that have led to, among other things, abuse.

Our entire community, the laity and clergy, need to understand that we are all part of the problem – and therefore are all part of the solution. On the one hand, some pastors try to reserve all decisions on all matters to themselves, and, on the other hand, too often the lay faithful let their pastor make all the decisions.  Neither is healthy for the life of the Church. Priests should understand that their desire to serve does not mean doing everything, that one of the primary responsibilities of leadership is to find, encourage and develop leaders within the parish community. Likewise, the laity cannot avoid the responsibilities proper to their own vocation as baptized Christians.  

We recognize that in life, achieving “balance” is fundamental. There have been times in the Church’s history where the relationship between the clergy and the laity has become totally unbalanced. We need to recognize that to a significant degree the Church’s problems – abuse and other scandals – are a consequence of that imbalance and that it is “our” problem as a church, not simply a problem for the clergy to solve – an attitude which embeds clericalist attitudes even further. 

Pope Francis has called for a Church-wide adoption of solidarity from top to bottom – papacy to parish, bishop to parishioner, including all clerics in-between. In his August 2018 “Letter to the People of God,” Pope Francis defines solidarity as the antithesis of clericalism: “If, in the past, the response was one of omission, today we want solidarity, in the deepest, most challenging sense, to become our way of forging present and future history….Consequently, the only way we have to respond to this evil [of clericalism] that has darkened so many lives is to experience it as a task regarding all of us as the People of God.”

The committee is working to find practical, measurable, and meaningful ways of putting the Pope’s words into practice throughout the Archdiocese. Together we will seek to bring balance, solidarity, and joy to the life of our Church remembering that we have all been called to holiness as members baptized into the priesthood of Christ.

This article was submitted by the Archdiocese of Vancouver’s clericalism committee.