Benedict XVI on "New Clericalism"


One of the supreme ironies of the modern crisis of Catholic identity is that the reforms of the post-Conciliar era have in many cases been followed by the very consequences the reforms hoped to avoid. Sacrosanctum Concilium envisioned a more active participation of the laity in the liturgy, and the results of the reforms have been more lay apathy. The affirmation of the role of religious in Lumen Gentium and the Church's call for religious to evangelize the world was met with an exodus of religious from their orders and a subsequent evangelization of the Church by the world. The Council's call for all Catholics to immerse themselves in Sacred Scripture led to a state of affairs in which Catholics are more ignorant of the Bible than ever and theologians openly deny the inspiration of the Scriptures or otherwise deny their traditional interpretations. Another very poignant example of this is in the question about clericalism before and after the Council.

Clericalism is defined as a state of affairs in which there is an unnecessary or overly exaggerated importance attributed to clergy, in such a way that the laity relate to them as subjects to be ruled rather than a people to be lovingly pastored. Basically, a clericalist ideology is one that places too much emphasis on the clergy or attributes undue importance to their actions. It is a defect of the virtue of temperance by excess as applied to the government of the Church.

During the reforms of the Conciliar period, many Catholic thinkers believed that the pre-Vatican II Church had been characterized by an excessive clericalization. There were many arguments offered in favor of this view: the priest was so well respected that they were often times feared rather than loved, the sacraments so revered that their power was almost magical, the stress on clerical obedience so emphatic that independent thought was stifled, and the hierarchy exercised so much power that the priesthood became in effect a boundary restricting the faithful's access to God rather than an intermediary who brought their petitions to God. Liturgical functions were said to be too clericalist as well; by restricting the active parts of the Mass to only the ordained or those in minor orders, the laity were "excluded" from participating in the worship of God.

There is no discussion of real or imagined clericalism in the Council documents, although remedying this presumed situation was certainly in the minds of many of the Council Fathers and periti. Many of the Vatican II reforms were initiated in the hopes of ending the clericalist monopoly on liturgy and worship and opening the liturgy up to the laity. While we know that most of the Council Fathers did not interpret the phrase "active participation" to mean everybody has to physically be doing something, post-Conciliar committees, commissions and liturgists took it to mean just that and sought to end "clericalism" by distributing liturgical functions among the laity, especially in replacing the functions of those with Minor Orders by lay persons.

Another example of this is the variety of "options" the post-Conciliar revisions of the rites made available to the priests. One purpose in promulgating these options was to make the priest and faithful less dependent on a rigid, inflexible rite and allow the priest more leeway for rites that reflect personal circumstances, specific conditions, etc. The effect of this would be that the awe and mystery that was previously vested in a single rite (of baptism, for example) would be broken up and distributed among many "options", so that there were more rites, more flexibility, and less "superstitious" attachment to a single rite.

Of course, the adoption of practices like communion in the hand, Mass versus populum and admission of females to serving at the altar all are meant to further break down the barrier between priest and people.

It certainly can and has been argued that these innovations have done more harm than good; and it is also seriously questionable whether the alleged state of clericalism actually existed before the Council. The critiques listed above are all very subjective. How can any measure whether or not priests were feared too much or not loved sufficiently? How can that be measured? Who can really tell whether people viewed the sacraments as magical or not, unless we were to drill them on sacramental theology? How do we know if people felt their thinking was stifled, or imagined the priesthood as a roadblock between themselves and God? These supposed indicators of clericalism are all terribly subjective and ultimately represent the opinions of those with a progressive agenda more than of the laity they were supposedly acting on behalf of.

As with the other issues mentioned above, the attempts of the post-Conciliar Church to be more inclusive of the laity and get away from clericalization actually had the opposite effect of promoting clericalism on a level unheard of before the Council. This irony was noted with great force by none other than Pope Benedict XVI himself, who prior to becoming pope, spoke of this problem in his writings. In Chapter III of Cardinal Ratzinger's pivotal work Spirit of the Liturgy, the Cardinal reflects on the manner in which attempts to escape clericalization by "opening up" the liturgy actually led to an "unprecedented clericalization" by crystallizing all focus on the person of the priest:

"In reality what happened was an unprecedented clericalization came on the scene. Now the priest - the "presider", as they now prefer to call him - becomes the real point of reference for the whole liturgy. Everything depends on him. We have to see him, to respond to him, to be involved in what he is doing. His creativity sustains the whole thing. Not surprisingly, people try to reduce this new created role by assigning all kinds of liturgical functions to different individuals and entrusting the "creative" planning of the liturgy to groups of people who like to, and are supposed to, "make a contribution of their own." Less and less is God in the picture.

The turning of the priest towards the people has turned the community into a self-enclosed circle. In its outward form, it not longer opens out on what lies ahead and above, but is locked into itself. The common turning towards the East was not a "celebration toward the wall"; it did not mean that the priest "had his back to the people"; the priest himself was not regarded as so important."


Benedict is absolutely correct. With the priest entrusted with a plethora of options for everything from the choice of music right on up to the Canon of the Mass, the entire worship experience of the faithful suddenly becomes absolutely contingent upon what options the priest chooses, and with what degree of rigor or laxity he will follow these options. The priest is now the crux of the Mass in a manner he never was prior to the reforms, where, as Benedict says, "the priest himself was not regarded as so important." By contrast, the priest is now pivotal; his personal preferences give form to the whole liturgy. This is the essence of clericalism - the person of the cleric as the focal point and centerpiece of the whole act of worship. As Benedict says, the post-Conciliar reforms meant to do away with clericalism have unwittingly ushered in an era of "unprecedented clericalization."


This has had a two-fold effect that is witnessed in progressive and conservative parishes: First, in progressive parishes, the liturgy has basically been remade in the image and likeness of the pastor. A true cult of personality emerges, with everything from the music, to the vestments, to the liturgical decorations in the Church, to the sorts of devotions practiced to the manner in which Mass itself is celebrated are dictated by the priest's whims and stamped with his personality, with the homily being the moment of apotheosis when the priest-celebrity can go on stage perform. In these parishes, everything is dictated by the priest's personal fancy and the faithful never experience authentic Catholicism except through the tye-dye colored prism the priest allows them to interact with it through.

But in case you think that this progressive clericalism does not have an effect in parishes labelled as "conservative", "orthodox" or "traditional", consider this: Because of the ubiquity of the sort of parishes mentioned above, it is very difficult to find a decent, faithful parish. Faithful, orthodox priests are few and far between in many dioceses, prompting people to sometimes drive for a long way to find a parish where the faith is practiced in relative orthodoxy. Thus, when the faithful do come across a solid priest in decent parish, they tend to latch on to him. Because they can trust him, sometimes they will follow him where he goes; if he gets transferred to another parish, they, too, will transfer to this parish. In essence, a cult of the priest as celebrity is fostered, although in a different way as in the progressive parish. Again, the priest qua priest becomes less important as the personal characteristics of the priest take on more prominence (good homiletics, promotes certain devotions, etc). This, too, is a slightly modified form of clericalism. In the former case, the priest sets himself apart by imprinting his own image on the liturgy; in the latter case, it is the orthodox priest's willingness to buck the trend by refusing to do this that likewise sets him apart. Again, everything hinges on the priest. And note, unlike the subjective nature of the pre-Vatican II theories about clericalism, this post-Vatican II clericalism is very objectively verifiable. All we have to do is go down to the local liberal parish and see the banners, tye-dye altar cloths and banal music to understand that the personal imprint of the priest on the liturgy is a very objective reality.

So we have two different aspects of this "cult of the priest"; in the former example of the progressive parish, the cult of the priest we have there is a flagrant example of progressive clericalism; in the cult of the priest in the conservative parish, the dynamic emerges in response to progressive clericalism, but both are products of the "unprecedented clericalization" that emerged in the wake of the post-Conciliar reforms, which were themselves meant to put an end to clericalism. What a strange world!

How could we wind up with such a bizarre state of affairs? There is one fairly straightforward explanation that has unfortunately not been part of the discussion. Perhaps the pre-Vatican II Church did not at all suffer from an excessive clericalization; perhaps the pre-Vatican II world suffered from an extreme secularization. Perhaps the darkness was so dense that the light seemed blinding and painful; perhaps in a world of egalitarianism, democracy and radical rationalism, the obedience and humble awe that the mysteries of the Faith inspired began to seem too otherworldly and unconventional. Perhaps certain people felt stifled in thought because their collective insanity was exposed for what it was and not accepted. In short, because the world had by and large abandoned God, it justified itself by accusing the Church of abandoning it. And the Church believed the lie.