by Russell Pollitt SJ

In a letter, addressed to the Pontifical Commission for Latin America, Pope Francis strongly condemned the culture of clericalism amongst priests in the Catholic Church. He called it “one of the greatest deformations” that must be confronted, saying that it helps “diminish and undervalue” the contributions made by lay people.

The Pope said that lay people have the right to make decisions in their lives, that the Holy Spirit is working in them, and that the Spirit “is not only the ‘property’ of the ecclesial hierarchy.” Pope Francis says that a pastor is “a pastor of the people, and serves the people from amongst them.”

Clericalism nullifies the personality of Christians and leads to a functionalisation of the lay faithful “treating them as ‘errand boys [or girls]’,” Francis says.

He then continues to remind clergy that we all made entrance into the Church through baptism. “The first and fundamental consecration sinks its roots in our baptism. No one is baptised a priest or bishop. They baptised us as lay people and it is the indelible sign that no one can ever wipe away,” the Pope writes.

Francis goes on to denounce the thinking which suggests that those who work for the church are, somehow, more committed to their faith, than those who don’t. This, he says, neglects the believer “that many times has their hope burned away in the daily fight to live the faith.”

The Pope writes that “It is illogical, and even impossible, to think that we as pastors should have the monopoly on solutions for the many challenges that modern life presents to us. On the contrary, we must remain at the side of our people, accompanying them in their work and stimulating that capable imagination of responding to current problems.”

“We are called to serve them, not them serve us,” the Pope writes. “I remember the expression ‘It is the hour of the laity,’ but it seems the clock has stopped.”

Although this letter was written to the Latin Americans, it does not mean that clericalism is only a problem there. It is a worldwide problem. We too, in Southern Africa, need to confront this “deformation.” Clericalism is alive and well – explicitly but also in subtler and more manipulative ways. A distraught parishioner recently told me the story of a priest who shouted and screamed at catechists because they were not doing things his way. The same priest then told one of the confirmands in the parish, publicly, that they were ‘stupid’ when they attempted to answer a question. When challenged, later, he reportedly said “I am the priest here, I know what is best!”

Sometimes lay people too can, perhaps subconsciously, encourage clericalism when they don’t claim their rightful place. Sometimes lay people put clergy on pedestals and never dare to challenge them, or they treat them as a different ‘honoured’ class – especially if they are wearing a clerical collar.

When clergy get things wrong they should be put under the same scrutiny/censorship as lay people. Father does not always know best, priests make mistakes and sometimes are wrong. #ClericalismMustFall