Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Clericalism and Laity-ism: Twin Evils in Our Church

No gift of the Spirit trumps the radical equality
of baptism, writes Brian J. Willette.

Laity-ism (a new word) is the conscious or unconscious belief that the Church is primarily the domain of the ordained—the clergy. Those who hold this belief see decision-making in the Church as properly belonging to priests and bishops, especially the bishop of Rome, the Pope and his Curia. If the non-ordained, the laity, have any role in decision-making in the Church, it must be granted to them by the clergy, and it can only be advisory. And this advisory role can be revoked at any time for any reason by the clergy.

The adherers to this belief hold that the division between the clergy (the ordained) and the laity (those who are only baptized) was instituted by Jesus. They further hold that this division is based on an ontological difference—a difference in being, a difference in nature—between the ordained and the non-ordained. Those holding the belief in this ontological division believe that there should be two classes of people in the church—a higher class, the clergy, and a lower class, the laity.

Although laity-ism didn’t cause clericalism, laity-ism enables clericalism.

Clericalism is the belief and/or attitude that holds the ordained, the clergy, are ontological different from and superior to the laity. Clericalism defines the Church primarily as the realm of the clergy and relegates the laity to a second class status—dutiful members, who are to pray, pay and obey. Clericalism assigns decision-making in the Church to the clergy, especially in the hierarchy. It also gives them a privileged status—akin to untouchable royalty. It raises them above most measures of accountability and provides them the cover of secrecy.

These twin evils are an affront to Jesus’ Good News.

Both clericalism and laity-ism directly assault baptism’s radical equality in Christ. Simply put, clericalism and laity-ism eviscerate baptism’s inherent equality.

Many biblical scholars and theologians challenge the belief that Jesus intended setting up two classes of citizens in the Church—with the clergy belonging to the first class and the laity belonging to the second class. They also challenge the conjecture that there is an ontological difference between the ordained and the baptized faithful.

It is true Jesus called some to special roles—special ministries—in the Church, but he called them to be servants, not lords.

Although all are equal in baptism, St. Paul clearly states, there are many and varied gifts of the Spirit. No gift of the Spirit trump’s the radical equality of baptism. No gift of the Spirit—even the gifts of preaching, sacramental ministry or governance—makes one ontologically different or superior. All gifts of the Spirit are given for the building up of God’s kingdom here on earth. All gifts should be recognized and shared in ways that respect the fundamental equality in baptism.

If our Church returns to Jesus’ core teachings and the early Church’s respect for the radical equality in baptism, both laity-ism and clericalism will be exorcised from the Church, the mystical body of Christ.

To eradicate these twin evils, the baptized faithful must take the lead. They have to challenge their “second class” status by embracing their equality and rights inherent in baptism. Then, led and empowered by the Christ Spirit, they need to embark on exercising their responsibilities as first class citizens in the Church.

History points out that those who deem themselves to be of the “higher class” are very reluctant to give up their privileges. Most tenaciously cling to their privileged status, especially when they believe their identity and worth come from their higher status. However, some—often a minority—in the “higher class” recognize the injustice inherent in their higher class status and willingly give up their ill founded privileges. Most often these people join the effort to end the divisive apartheid system based on radical inequality.

By the grace of God, not all bishops and priests have succumbed to the temptation of clericalism. Some continue to believe in baptism’s inherent equality and are faithful to Jesus’ example of servant leadership.

Clericalism will remain strong in our Church as long as the baptized faithful allow it, as long as the baptized faithful hold on to laity-ism. Only when they renounce laity-ism and embrace the fullness of their baptism, especially its radical equality, will clericalism with its destructive effects come to an end.

It is a true blessing that more and more laypeople, empowered by the Spirit, are embracing the fullness of baptism and are working to reform and renew our church.

Only when laity-ism and clericalism are eradicated will our Church be able to be all that it is called to be.

© 2007 and 2010, Brian Willette. Reprinted with permission.


  1. Thanks for this, Brian. The chasm between clerics and laity is wide and deep and has several levels. We might be able to establish some personal relationships, but a working relationship outside the parish--at the diocesan level--looks impossible. Anyone have any ideas about this?

  2. Comment from Chuck Pilon:
    Simple. Clear. Brilliant. Thanks, Brian.