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Clericalism is the application of the formal, church-based leadership or opinion of ordained clergy in matters of either the church or broader political and sociocultural aspects.

Definitions, descriptions

See also: Catholic laity § Clericalism, and Theology of Pope Francis § Clericalism

Merriam Webster defines clericalism as "a policy of maintaining or increasing the power of a religious hierarchy".[1] Pope Francis in his address to the Synod Fathers at Synod2018 described clericalism thusly:

Clericalism arises from an elitist and exclusivist vision of vocation, that interprets the ministry received as a power to be exercised rather than as a free and generous service to be given. This leads us to believe that we belong to a group that has all the answers and no longer needs to listen or learn anything. Clericalism is a perversion and is the root of many evils in the Church: we must humbly ask forgiveness for this and above all create the conditions so that it is not repeated.[2]

According to Toronto priest Fr. Thomas Rosica, Pope Francis uses "clericalism" to mean a kind of "ecclesiastical narcissism," as well as a "club mentality and a corrupt system of cronyism."[3]

Clericalism is often used to pejoratively denote ecclesiolatry, that is excessive devotion to the institutional aspects of an organized religion, usually over and against the religion's own beliefs or faith. This means that all issues, even those that may be beyond the religion's jurisdiction, must be addressed by either clergy or their supporters. Clericalism is also used to describe the cronyism and cloistered political environment of hierarchical religions, usually Christian denominational hierarchy, and mainly in reference to the Roman Catholic Church.[4]

Anthony Pogorelc writes that clericalism is a social phenomenon and product of organizational development in which elites/officials exercise domination over the subordinate members and structures in religious institutions.[5]

Earlier uses

In earlier times clericalism referred to the application of church-based theory or thought to secular issues. This was not necessarily referring to a lack of separation of church and state—which is not truly involving of clericalism—but to inward looking and cloistered church leadership which answered only to itself, or who involved themselves in matters beyond the internal concerns of their church.

Outside Catholicism

Outside of Catholicism, clericalism is used to denote the divisions between ordained clergy and lay leaders in some Christian denominations. Outside of Christianity, clericalism is not restricted to the ordained (e.g., priests, ministers), as it occurs in purely secular guilds, such as academia, the legal and medical establishments, and the public-safety clergy, i.e., the police and military.[6]


Journalist and former priest James Carroll, argues that the original Christians had no priests and argues that the essence of clericalism lies "not in the Gospels but in the attitudes and organizational charts of the late Roman empire", which "converted to Christianity under the Emperor Constantine" in the forth century CE.[7]

19th century French statesman Léon Gambetta declared "clericalism is the enemy", in the belief that "freedom from ecclesial power" was "the principal objective in the battle for public freedom."[8]

Clericalism and canon law

In his 1520 Treatise on the New Testament, Martin Luther (1483–1546) argued that clerical arrogance towards the lay and antagonism towards other religious orders (he didn't use the word clericalism) was a result of "the laws", i.e. canon law:[9]

Yea, the priests and the monks are deadly enemies, wrangling about their self-conceived ways and methods like fools and madmen, not only to the hindrance, but to the very destruction of Christian love and unity. Each one clings to his sect and despises the others; and they regard the lay-men as though they were not Christians. This lamentable condition is only a result of the laws.


Sex abuse by clergy

ln recent years the scandal of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy and its coverup has been explained by clericalism – i.e. by the division of ordained church leaders from lay followers, were the leaders create an exclusive society unto themselves.

James Carroll gives as an example of the clericalist privileging of the priesthood in current Catholicism the fact that "Church law provides for the excommunication of any woman who attempts to say Mass, but mandates no such penalty for a pedophile priest".[7] Carroll argues that clericalism – with its "cult of secrecy, its theological misogyny, and its hierarchical power" – is "the root of Roman Catholic dysfunction".[7]

Clerical narcissism

Two observers, a Catholic deacon (Doug McManaman)[10] and a scholar at a Catholic university (Paul C. Vitz),[11] argue that the Catholic priesthood suffers from clerical narcissism among some of its priests. In 2007, Mary Gail Frawley-O'Dea wrote,[12]

For the priest who is vulnerable to clericalist narcissism, and to the bishop embedded in it, the interpretation of ontological change that posits an actual merger with the being of Jesus Christ at the moment of ordination can support a belief that clergy are called by God to be inherently superior to other human beings.

One schismatic Traditionalist Catholicism group, Novus Ordo Watch (which claims that with the Second Vatican Council the Roman Catholic Church ceased to be truly Roman Catholic and became a "Neo-Modernist sect"), defends the power of the clergy, (though it doesn't use the term clericalism). It contradicts James Carroll on the institution of the clergy not being found in the Gospels, quoting the Catholic Encyclopedia as saying,

That the distinction between clergy and laity was recognized in New Testament times is plain from St. Paul’s statement that the bishops have been placed by the Holy Ghost to rule the Church (Acts 20:28), for the right to rule implies a correlative obligation to obey.[13]


Further information: Anti-clericalism

Opposition to religious authority, typically in social or political matters, and especially opposing the influence of Roman Catholicism, appeared in Catholic Europe throughout the 19th century, in various forms, and later in Canada, Cuba, and Latin America. According to the Pew Research Center several post-communist states are current practitioners of political anti-clericalism, including Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Vietnam, China and North Korea.[14]

Organization and hierarchy of church organizations

Much debate over clericalism appears to dwell on whether the high clergy should have as much control over church offices and functions as they do, and whether the hierarchical and authoritarian nature of the traditional Catholic systems of promotion for clergy is effective in contemporary society. Again, while the Catholic Church is most commonly at the center of issues germane to clericalism, it is not the only denomination or religion in which charges of clericalism have been brought forth by those who feel the clergy has too much influence or should be reformed. Therefore, the debate over clericalism and anti-clericalism is often really a debate over how and by whom a religious organization (denomination) should be led and directed.

In political history of various countries, distinctive radicalized forms of nationalistic clericalism or clerical nationalism (clero-nationalism or clerico-nationalism) were emerging on the far-right of the political spectrum, specially during the interwar period in the first half of 20th century.[15]

In literature

Clericalism was a significant theme in the 16th century Spanish novella The Life of Lazarillo de Tormes and of His Fortunes and Adversities.

See also


  1. ^ "Dictionary". Merriam Webster. Retrieved 21 December 2022.
  2. ^ Pope Francis’ Address to the Synod Fathers at Opening of Synod2018 on Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment
  3. ^ "Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation". Salt and Light. Retrieved 2019-11-08.
  4. ^ RAZU, JOHN MOHAN. "Church and power". academia. Retrieved 21 December 2022.
  5. ^ Pogorelc, Anthony J. Clericalism. Encyclopedia of Political Thought, edited by Michael Gibbons. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2015.
  6. ^ George B. Wilson, S.J. Clericalism: The Death of Priesthood. 2008. Liturgical Press, Collegeville MN USA
  7. ^ a b c Carroll, James (June 2019). "ABOLISH THE PRIESTHOOD". The Atlantic. Retrieved 14 December 2022.
  8. ^ "Toward better understanding of power in the Church – La Croix International". 2 January 2019. Retrieved 2019-11-08.
  9. ^ Works of Martin Luther: With Introductions and Notes, Volume 1, p. 295, 19115 Holman edition
  10. ^ A Few Thoughts on Narcissism in the Priesthood by Doug McManaman
  11. ^ Messing with the Mass: The problem of priestly narcissism today by Paul C. Vitz
  12. ^ Perversion of Power: Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church by Mary Gail Frawley-O'Dea, 2007
  13. ^ del Sarto, Francis (21 November 2018). "Bergoglio and Anti-Clericalism". Norvus Ordo Watch. Retrieved 21 December 2022.
  14. ^ Mitchell, Travis (3 Oct 2017). "Many Countries Favor Specific Religions". Pew Research Center's Religion & Public Life Project. Retrieved 1 Nov 2021.
  15. ^ Matthew Feldman; Marius Turda; Tudor Georgescu (31 October 2013). Clerical Fascism in Interwar Europe. Routledge. pp. 227–. ISBN 978-1-317-96899-3.