Order of Friars Minor Franciscans of Canada

Clericalism or Clerical Duties: What Is the Difference?

Clericalism or Clerical Duties: What Is the Difference?


By far the best retreat of our Franciscan fraternity was several years ago, and it was also the most unusual retreat. Sister Nuala Kenny was our retreat preacher, and the topic was sexual abuse perpetrated by members of the clergy. You can imagine my trepidation! Somehow, Sr. Nuala succeeded in taking away my fear of this scandal and its consequences so that we could learn from it. It also made me think about clericalism.

But what distinguishes clericalism from the proper exercise of clerical duties? It is not enough to say that clericalism is abuse of power. What is power’s proper use? Sometimes, the charge of clericalism is used as nothing but an insult, like Marxist revolutionaries might call you a bourgeois for being insufficiently committed to their revolutionary ways. But what is clericalism?  Sr. Nuala’s example was from her own line of work as a medical doctor. Clericalism, Sr. Nuala explained to us, is like a doctor who makes decisions about a patient, without any regard to what the family and other caregivers might know about the patient, just because she is the doctor and the others are not.

Finally, I understood. Clericalism is not a problem limited to the clergy, but it is problem faced by all professionals on whose expertise our lives depend. Professionals who fall into this trap mistake their part for the whole. MDs have professional knowledge, and their advice and understanding is to be trusted, but it is meant to be applied in a larger context. This context does not change what the MD knows—the options to treat a certain type of cancer has very little to do with the patient’s circumstances in life—but it allows for better judgement calls when quality of life during and after treatment are the overriding issues. The doctor’s authority and responsibility are real, but they only make sense in a larger context and never in isolation. Medical care is about care of a person, not about a technical fix for a technical problem.

I always knew this—I was a PhD in medical research, not an MD in medical care, and I understood the difference in duties—but I had never applied this to my understanding of ministry. Clericalism in the Church happens when the work traditionally done by the clergy is mistaken for all there is in the life of the Christian faithful. Christian faith recognizes that there is a separation between the secular and the religious, or the domain of worldly authority and the domain of priestly service. They are quite different, but they are not independent of each other, and Christian life is in both domains. The Christian cleric’s work has its effects also in the secular domain, which is outside the Church. The Church is in the world even though not of the world. And clerics have knowledge and authority, but this knowledge and authority is of pastoral use only when it is felt in the secular domain, rather than remaining confined to the clerical Church. Christian priestly ministry is directed towards both God and God’s people who live in the world. When clerics fail to hold both duties in perfect balance, then there is clericalism.

It may surprise, but the most progressive forms of Christianity are just as prone to clericalism as the worst errors of the traditionalists. When the Christian minister identifies fully with the social worker, then the danger of this profession’s clericalism lurks, which is to believe that social science is the sole arbiter of what is true and right.

The work of Christian clerics is part of the larger view of human life in both the religious and the secular domain. When this is understood, then all bodies of specialized knowledge are in their proper context, whether it is the specialized knowledge of priests or medical doctors or social workers. Then, clericalism is avoided, clerical duties can be exercised without fear of abusing them, and the work of God is done among his people, both in the secular and in the religious domain.