Clericalism by Any Other Name…

Just because one leaves the Catholic Church to become a priest elsewhere doesn’t mean one has escaped the dangers of clericalism. In fact, some of those I have known to take the collar elsewhere have been the most guilty of behaviors consistent with clericalism.


            a policy of maintaining or increasing the power of a religious hierarchy.

a disordered attitude toward clergy, an excessive deference and an assumption of their

moral superiority

Throughout my life I have felt the call to serve humanity on behalf of the mission of Love. In the Catholic tradition in which I was raised women had two options: become a nun or a lay minister. I chose the latter. After leaving the Catholic Church, priesthood became an option to explore if I was willing to join a different denomination.

Three times I entered discernment into the priesthood through three different denominations. One I chose not to explore further because their theology of sacrament didn’t match my own. The other two, in theory, shared my theology, but in the end, it was clericalism that turned me away.

Clericalism, as I have personally experienced it is a priest (of any gender) who acts as if they are better than, separate from, or in a position of power over those to whom they are called to serve. Clericalism is anything that deems a priest special and better simply by virtue of being a priest.

Fr. David Doyle, my twelfth grade religion teacher, for example, dared to proclaim his ability to go immediately to heaven after he died NO MATTER his state of sinfulness. Even if he had murdered someone he got to go to heaven before us simply by virtue of his ordination.  At least, this is what he claimed. I told him he was wrong.

Some of the behaviors and examples of clericalism are obvious: hierarchical and patriarchal behaviors and attitudes, believing they are God, thinking the rules don’t apply to them, lacking accountability and/or anyone to hold them accountable, hypocrisy, etc.

Others are more subtle: adoration of the collar and priestly vestments, treating women clergy as subservient, giving women clergy lesser positions or less desirable assignments, preaching collaboration while acting autocratically.

In my mind when one is called to serve it is as an equal. I am no different than the people who I am called to serve. I recoil from anything that would seek to set me apart or marks me as different. It is for this reason that even when discerning priesthood, I had no plans to wear a collar, or put on vestments. Jesus didn’t wear vestments. He dressed as the people he served. So when those with whom I was discerning priesthood spoke of their adoration of the collar and “what happens” when they don priestly vestments, I listened more closely! When the man who was discerning priesthood with me and who had invited me to start a community with him made important community decisions behind my back and when I called him out for it and he responded with “why are you always picking on me?” (ie….why are you always holding me accountable), then I got the Fuck out!

Later, I discerned with another denomination. When the Bishop of this denomination denied the fact of declining enrollment and said there was no need to explore alternatives, I had deep questions. When the priest with whom I was discerning priesthood spoke of how I would be working FOR HIM I stopped in my tracks.  Later when I learned that the women deacons in this denomination ARE NOT PAID for the work they do even though they were doing EVERYTHING for the priest and even stood in for HIM when he was out of town, I ran!

After these and many other examples of clericalism in the priesthood I left that discernment behind. True priesthood, after all, has nothing to do with a collar, or vestments, or a perceived position of power. True priesthood doesn’t require that some other man place his hands on your head giving you “the power” to be a source of love in the world. True priesthood is part of our very nature when we seek to be a source of love in the world and to serve the betterment of our world through the sharing of our own unique gifts.

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