Community versus Clericalism

The end of clericalism

by Phyllis Zagano – Opinion – NCR (National Catholic Recorder –

A man in Arlington, Virginia, sits by himself inside St. Ann Church March 20 during the coronavirus pandemic. (CNS/Arlington Herald/Ann M. Augherton)

As the human race joins the rest of the planet in a struggle for survival, the church is also trying to find its footing.



For too long — say, 800 to 1,000 years — the sacramental life of the church has been under priestly lock and key. Around the 10th century, the custom of stipends for Masses arose. Suddenly, the spiritual value of men’s prayers gained over the spiritual value of women’s prayers and women’s abbeys and monasteries failed one after another.

Coincidentally, the cursus honorum (“course of honor”) ended the diaconate as a permanent vocation. Unless one was destined for priesthood, he could not be ordained as deacon. Very few men became “permanent” deacons and women deacons — even abbesses — were no longer ordained.

Which brings us back to clericalism, the attitude that grace is dispensed to the people of God only by a cleric, preferably a priest. Thousands of priests are not like that. But thousands are.

Pope Francis alluded to the problem in a recent homily. Eucharistic celebrations on television and radio, he said, create a “gnostic familiarity,” but not community. Virtual celebrations provide some spiritual nourishment, but they are not “church.” As Francis said, church means coming together to share the bread.

The deeper problem with electronic Eucharists is they reduce prayer to priestly performance. What is the difference between today and the 1950s, when the priest with his back to the congregation, mumbled on and on in Latin at “his Mass”?

What does participation in the Mass mean? Some folks have taken to bringing their own bread and wine to the TV room, or even performing do-it-yourself liturgies without a broadcasting priest. Are these intended to do as the church does? Does either create the communion of church?

Then, there are other sacraments to think about. Drive-by confessions are an interesting innovation, but sacramental anointing of the thousands of dying COVID-19 patients is practically impossible. Marriages can be contracted without a priest, but far be it from chanceries to let that canon out of the book.

Here we go, one by one.

Confession. Recently, the pope pointed out that reconciliation can be postponed until the proper form is possible. Despite historical documentation of confessing to laymen (notably on the battlefield), to abbesses and deacon-abbesses (within their territories), and to deacons, the canons of the 16th-century Council of Trent reserved sacramental reconciliation to priests granted juridical faculties from their bishops, and that has not changed.

Anointing. The sacrament of the sick, once occasionally administered by laypersons and often by women deacons (to other women), is now restricted to priests. Confession occurs (if requested) prior to anointing, but only a priest, sometimes using an “instrument” to apply the oils, can anoint. Why can Canon 1000.2 not include a nurse or doctor as an “instrument”? The bishop of Springfield, Massachusetts, thought so, but the Curia quickly slammed that window down.

Marriage. Canon 1116 stipulates that if a proper minister (read: cleric) is not available in the foreseeable future, then two witnesses and the couple’s consent create a valid marriage. Bishops in mission territories often grant faculties for witnessing marriage, and for solemnly baptizing, to lay ecclesial ministers (recall, 60% of Amazon parishes are managed by women), but the legal process can be cumbersome. Could the pandemic remind the church that couples administer this sacrament to each other?


A homeless woman in Birmingham, Alabama, waits in line as food and clothes are distributed April 18. (CNS/Reuters/Carlos Barria)

So where is “church” in all this?

We are clearly all in this together and we hunger for grace. We need community, we need blessing, we need charity.

Community is where we find it. No longer the Friday fish fry, it is the Thursday afternoon Zoom with college friends. It is folks on the supermarket line. It is the garbage collectors honking and waving.

Blessings come extra-ecclesial. They come from the school crossing guard, now directing traffic at the testing-site, who says, “God bless you, honey, good luck.” They come when the landlord forgives a month’s rent. They come when the market owner slips a pound cake in the bag, on the house.

And charity is all around us. Yes, we learn about it on television and Facebook, but who cannot appreciate the nurse traveling hundreds of miles to give another nurse a break? What about the restaurant owner who packs lunches for the homeless? Try counting the soup kitchens and food banks that work, day after day after day because it is the Christian, or Jewish, or Muslim thing to do.

The pope is correct. Electronic liturgies do not bring us spiritually together. We are still detached, together but not together. The community, he said, is a sacrament. It is the community that brings intimacy with Christ, that brings intimacy with the holy faithful people of God. It is community we need.

Difficult as it is, I rather think we are getting there.

[Phyllis Zagano is senior research associate-in-residence at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York. She will speak Oct. 3 at the Voice of the Faithful Conference “Visions of a Just Church” in Newton, Massachusetts, and Oct. 4 at St. Ignatius Church, Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts. Her books include Women Deacons: Past, Present, Future (in Spanish as Mujeres Diaconos: Pasaso, Presente, Futuro), published in France and Canada as Des femmes diacres and in Portugal as Mulheres diáconos: Passado, presente, futuro. Study Guides are available for free download at Her most recent book is Women: Icons of Christ.]


Noting that the NCR is a Roman Catholic publication coming from the USA, one needs to understand the provenance of this particular article, written by a Catholic theologian, who also happens to be a woman, and therefore particularly interested in trying to alert the Catholic Church to its responsibility to offer ministry to, and through, ALL of its members – not just the male members of its Ordained priesthood.

Pope Francis – as this article confirms – has recently warned his Church against what he is pleased to define as ‘ Clericalism’ the system whereby the male hierarchy arrogates to itself the total responsibility for the organization, operation, and administration of the official sacramental life of the Church – to the degree where only single males are canonically able to source the instruments involved in the ministry of the Church. This dominance by the male of the species over all aspects of ministry – that was not a determining feature in the Early Church – is being questioned by competent women, both in the Church and outside of its immediate influence, so that this article by a respected woman theologian in the Roman Catholic Church draws attention to how the current COVID 19 situation is already affecting male priestly dominance, or what the Pope himself calls ‘Clericalism’.

This is one aspect of my own Anglican Church, in Aotearoa/New Zealand and most other Provincial Churches of our denomination, where both women and married men may be ordained deacon and priest, that ought to overcome the ‘dead hand’ of male clerical absolutism that has gradually grown up in the traditional Roman Catholic Church.

However, the subject of ‘Clericalism’, relating as it does in essence to the control of the clergy over the laity of the Church, can still be a problem where, for instance, female clergy may feel they must replicate the control exercised in the Church by their male counterparts – in order to retain the tradition that has grown up within our Church of inherited clerical dominance. What needs to be understood by clergy – whether female or male, is that we are only a part of the Church. The term ‘Body of Christ’ refers to the total membership of the Church which includes all the Baptized.

As an Anglo-Catholic priest, brought up in the tradition where priests were given the title of ‘Father’, I have to realize that this does not give me the privilege of pre-eminence over any other members of the Body. What it does do, is give me a specific responsibility to  actively encourage and nurture – to the best of my ability – the gifts and ministries of those for whom the Church has made me a beneficent pastor and benevolent teacher. Clergy are meant to be enablers, not sole administrators of the community into which they find themselves called. As, in a religious Community of Women, the leader is called ‘Mother’, so in the Catholic tradition, the male leader of the community (parish) may be called ‘Father’ – not to dominate and subdue his parishioners, but to lovingly provide those enablement gifts that render a parish capable of nurturing one another and equipping each other for the ministry of Christ to the world of which we are all part.

Sometimes, clergy can be idolized to the point where a congregation can become over-dependent on his/her direction and management of Christian mission. This imbalance can rob the laity of their rightful responsibility as disciples of Christ. It does us all good to remember that Christian Ministry is from The Body of Christ – all of us, not just the ordained clergy. We Anglicans think we have this matter under control. However, there are still provinces of the worldwide Anglican Communion, mainly in the Third World, where early, paternalistic, missionary influences are still part of the local establishment, and where Bishops can act like little popes, thus robbing their clergy and dioceses of their proper membership responsibilities of witnessing to the world as loving, mature ‘thinking’ Anglicans.

Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand

About kiwianglo

Retired Anglican priest, living in Christchurch, New Zealand. Ardent supporter of LGBT Community, and blogger on 'Thinking Anglicans UK' site. Theology: liberal, Anglo-Catholic & traditional. regarding each person as a unique expression of Christ, and therefore lovable.
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